"Lost" In Translation: Of Mice and Smoke Monsters

 I don’t think he’s gonna pull through…

When I was in 4th grade the rock group Three Dog Night had this huge hit with “Black and White,” which found a maddeningly tuneful way to reduce the world’s racial/social conflicts, the very headwaters all the non-tea tax-caused wars in world history, into a child’s singalong:

The ink is black/the page is white/together we learn to read and write…

Even as a 10-year-old I could sense that this was far too simplistic an analysis; that it offered limp platitudes rather than tough moral choices; that it might inspire Paul McCartney, ten years hence, to rewrite it and score an even bigger hit out of the arguably more dreadful, “Ebony and Ivory.

Only what I didn’t foresee was that 20 years after that, “Lost” would take up the same issue (albeit not in racial terms) and present a far more complex and entirely compelling version of the age old manichean struggle: White v black; community v independence; fate v self-determination; good v evil.

No matter where you look, it’s the same story: Stark distinctions; impossible choices; because you can never really tell what is good and what is bad, and why certain acts that seem like unalloyed evil might, in fact, be truly just and even merciful.

So when Sawyer, in seemingly idle talk with the NotLocke/Smoke Monster/Man in Black during a jungle stroll starts musing on John Steinbeck’s “Of MIce and Men, sit up and take notice. And realize that what what you’re about to see in the cave they’re heading for tells you as much about “Lost”‘s core themes as it does about the relevance of the notorious numbers and a glimmer of a hint about why the Losties were ever drawn to the island, and then all but forced to remain there.

All from the Man in Black/Smokey perspective. Which, as it turns out, makes some sense.

Central plot reveals: 

Jacob, who long since won the role of Island caretaker/boss/spiritual headwaters, chose/nurtured each Lostie in their pre-island lives, somehow pushing/compelling them to the point where they would all be on that Oceanic #815.

Each number was a signifier for an individual Lostie. If they signified something more profound (a top forty?) we don’t know yet.

Argument for greater significance: Jacob was cultivating each Lostie as a potential substitute/replacement for him when he either retired, went on vacation, or got stabbed to death and then shoved into a campfire.

Someone brought an Iggy Pop record to the Island.

The non-island/alternative “Losties,” left to their own devices in the good old US of A, seem far more successful, less angry and (to coin a phrase) fucked up than their Island-bound alter-egos. Hurley is a successful businessman; Locke, albeit wheelchair bound, is in a warm relationship with Helen and, by the end of this episode, finding new meaning as a substitute (!!!!!) teacher; Ben, also a teacher, satisfies his bossy nature by kvetching about other teachers’ unwillingness to start a new pot of coffee even when they finish the old one; etc. etc.

The deep end analysis, from God to mice, comes in the jump….

But what does all of this mean in a larger, philosophical sense, which we can’t even pretend to ignore given how perpetually the “Lost” creators come back to the whole question of philosophy, literature and etc.

Community vs. individuality; fate vs. self-determination, and the elusive nature of both. Consider how Jacob represents the essence of community – the “either we live together or we die alone” ideal. To him the only thing that truly matters is the island, a kind of headwaters of communal life, which must be protected and perpetuated at all costs. The individual lives of the Losties mean nothing in comparison (consider that Jacob’s touch all but guaranteed lives of darkness and dysfunction for the Losties, often to the point of psychotic-caliber chilliness; e.g., he distracted Sayid at the precise moment his beloved Nadia was headed into the path of the truck that killed her.) The irony here is that by attempting to take control of their fates (Locke on his walkabout; Jack taking control of his father’s body; Clare’s attempt to remove her child from her life) the Losties were actually surrendering to their Jacob-ascribed fate.

Oh, but that’s the larger purpose, you say. That’s fate and meaning and a universe whose seemingly random events are actually part of a real and meaningful pattern described by a supreme being in front of whom we can only kneel. See also: world religion and/or Grateful Dead fans.

But what if the God in question – and his entire sense of meaning – is totally wack? This is where NotLocke/MiB/etc slaps all of us pretty hard in the kisser, as he tells Sawyer near the end of the hour:

“You’ve got three choices. You can do nothing and see how all this plays out, and possibly your name will get crossed out. (e.g., you’ll be killed). Second option: you can accept the job, become the new Jacob, and protect the island.”

Sawyer: “From what?”

Not Locke/MiB: “From nothing. That’s the joke. There’s nothing to protect it from. It’s just a damn island. It will be perfectly fine without jacob or you or anyone else whose lives he wasted. The third choice is that we just go. Get the hell off this island and keep going, and not look back.”

In other words: Die together or live apart.

MiB/Smokey/NotLocke, in other words, is something of an existentialist. What matters is his own safety/comfort/imediate surroundings. Beyond that it’s all superstition and self-delusion. Consider NotLocke’s outrage at the mystery jungle boy (seemingly a vision of the yonger Jacob)’s assertion that he could NOT bring the rules: “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!” Sound familiar? And wasn’t it interesting to see how peaceful the alterna-Locke back in the USA appeared when he finally did resign himself to what he couldn’t do?

So maybe there’s a certain amount to be said to taking what you’ve been handed and finding a way to make the best of it. To understand that there is power in acceptance. That it can be pointless to struggle. That when the lynch mob is headed your way (ala Steinbeck) the only righteous thing you can do is shoot your best friend in the back of the head and get the hell out of Dodge.

"Lost in Translation": Season Premiere – Neither Here Nor There, But Sorta Both

Guess who’s coming to dinner! Now, guess who else is coming!

“I’m sorry you had to see me like that.”

Ah, it’s Locke, with his Colonel Kurtz head, his crinkle-eyed smile, his jungle-stained summer-wear. And now, his unsettling ability to become a (THE) smoke monster, complete with deadly coal-black smoke legs that can blast everyone and anything in sight into smithereens.

Who isn’t Locke at all, of course, but some other being entirely. Jacob’s evil brother? His rival? His Esau? Something has subsumed Locke — who is, to be fair, dead — and now it’s unclear who or why and who’s on his side, and what his side (his goal?) IS, exactly.

Welcome to the new, and final, season of “Lost.” And we’ll get to that in a moment, but not before we admit that this is not an unfamiliar story. No, it’s the essential story of mankind (womynkind, too), all of us splayed between the contradictary natures within our own divided souls. It’s hard to get truly lost these days, what with Mapquest and handheld GPS devices. Until you look inside yourself, of course, at which point the (moral) compass spins crazily and true north vanishes altogether. Gaze within and you’re thousands of miles away from any rescue party. No man is an island, John Donne said. If only because those internal islands are so full of monsters and spirits and unsettling memories and whispering voices that sometimes you want them to vanish altogether. Either that, or go back in time so you can un-do all the mistakes you made along the way.

For all you fans out there obsessing over the “Lost” mythology (including part of me, of course) let’s just put that down for a moment and realize that it’s THIS other story — the internal one; the psychological one; the overgrown wilds of the psyche one — that resides most closely to the heart of the series.

The rest of it, the wildly-imagined and crazy-baffling stuff, is the grooviest window dressing in the history of popular American entertainment. It’s the submarine; the Oceanic flight; the portal in the desert. But where you’re headed, really, is deep, deep inside.

Still, the storytelling/question-answering went on at warp speed, too. To wit:

1. Juliet-in-1977 did indeed set off the nuke-u-lar bomb intended to blow up the island’s gravitational core and thus make it impossible for Oceanic 815 to crash in 2004.

2. Which is why our next view of the gang on the original plane shows them clean, scrubbed and entirely airborne to L.A.. And yet still lost in the depths of their own pre-existing mistakes and anxieties. Also, they’re drawn together for reasons they don’t comprehend, though it appears that Jack (whose neck is still stained with Sayid-from-1977’s blood) feels some kind of connection. And is puzzled by it.

3. But guess what, the bomb only kind of worked. Or maybe it worked in an altogether unexpected way, because the islanders who were on the island at the time are ALSO still on the island. Though now it’s unclear WHEN they’re there, because all the island threads seem to be converging, no matter what year they were taking place in before.

4. The Locke who emerged from his own coffin last year is definitely not Locke. In fact, he’s NotLocke, who appears to be the black-shirted brother/twin/rival to the fair-skinned, white-shirted Jacob, who is/was the personifcation of the Island’s purest spirit, right up until NotLocke maneuevered Ben into stabbing Jacob in the heart and shoving him into a fire.

5. At least one Dharma skeleton wants you to know that it’s time to refresh your reading of Soren Kierkegaard.

So more struggles and more conflicts. Only now they seem even deeper and more irreconcilable than ever. Consider how the latest group of Others are pinned down in some kind of ancient temple, complete with hieroglyphics and magical springs and what seems to be the very heart of their faith/existence. Whose very existence, at this moment, is up for grabs.

Everything in sight is at odds with everything else: the divided souls (and now dueling existences) of the Oceanic Losties; the literally divergent bodies and souls; the endless, seemingly fruitless quest for some rock-solid logic and reason.

No answers, but hints everywhere. (the real) Locke in LAX, hearing that his new friend Dr. Jack, is trying to locate his father’s body: “How could they know where he is? They didn’t lose your father, they just lost his body.”

Or maybe this is the quote of the week, from the just-resurrected Sayid; “Oh my God. What happened?”