Immediately after its initial airing, audiences already regard The Constant among the greatest Lost episodes of all time. Although this overwhelmingly positive reaction might seem a bit extreme, there are many strong reasons to support such a claim: this episode not only presented a series of mind-blowing scenes one after another, but also built towards a climax that proved to be as emotionally touching as any other moment of the series. Perhaps the episode’s greatest strength, though, is the way in which it casts every other Lost episode, both past and future, in a completely different light.
To be fair, though, The Constant was not technically the first episode to bend our perception of chronology in this manner. Before Season Four sent younger Desmond's consciousness into his older body, the Season Three episode Flashes Before Your Eyes also sent Desmond's mind back into his past. A previous Luhks article on Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, published in the Forum section, addressed the mechanics of this type of apparent time travel:
Flashes Before Your Eyes will always be remembered as ‘the time travel episode.’ The standard interpretation of the episode says that, when Desmond turned the fail-safe key, he was transported back in time (until a hit from Jimmy Lennon’s cricket back sent him back to the jungle in the present). Upon further examination, the episode did not involve time-travel in the traditional, Back-to-the-Future sense. Physically, no matter was transferred into the past. There were not two Desmonds running around England, but only one body. Desmond himself did not travel back through time, but only part of him, his memories; some memories from 2004 transferred back to Desmond’s body from 1996. Desmond did not even become aware of those memories until he met Charlie on the street, which triggered a series of recollections. The entire ‘time-travel’ story ultimately amounts to a precognition story.
Episode 4.05 presented another instance in which Desmond's memories travel through time. One can choose to interpret the events of Flashes Before Your Eyes and The Constant in one of two fundamentally different ways. The first approach is to use the same notion of time travel used in most science fiction, and to accept that there are multiple timelines. From this perspective, the year 1996 originally played out much differently for Desmond than the way those two episodes portrayed it. Desmond originally broke off his relationship with Penny for different reasons, and he originally experienced an ordinary day in Royal Scots boot camp. The second approach is to say that there was always only one timeline, and there will always be one timeline. Everything that Desmond experienced in 1996 proceeded exactly as shown to the viewer onscreen. The Constant heavily favors the second interpretation of the story. If you can’t change the future, then it also stands to reason that you can’t change the past either. A character's consciousness might experience the different events in a nonlinear order, but the timeline itself cannot be corrupted.
This notion of course leads to a problematic paradox: if Desmond and Daniel knew exactly how future events would transpire, then they would have the power to change them. Daniel suggests as much, by noting: “Wouldn’t I remember meeting you?” Desmond’s response to him cuts like Occam’s razor, right to the simplest explanation: “Maybe you just forgot.” In both stories, imperfect memory offers a way to resolve the problem. Desmond experienced those events back in 1996, but accurate memories of those events were stored in 2004. Desmond has suffered head injuries, as well as exposure to powerful electromagnetism inside the Swan hatch, while Daniel ran his experiments repeatedly without protecting his head from radiation. When Desmond and Daniel crossed paths on the island in The Economist, neither one of them recognized the other, because both of them had forgotten their initial meeting. Perhaps the same forces that made this type of experience possible also limit memory to prevent a paradox.
Outside the confines of the episodes themselves, The Constant also offers the viewer two very provocative lenses for interpreting these bizarre events, through allusions the German mathematician Hermann Minkowski and the American author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Although Hermann Minkowski worked in the sciences and Vonnegut worked in the arts, neither one of these references proves more relevant than the other in the analysis of this episode. Amazingly, the most prominent works of these two vastly dissimilar figures express essentially the same concept.
The Constant references Hermann Minkowski in two different ways, through the story of new character George Minkowski, and by referring to Minkowski’s ideas more generally. As a colleague of Albert Einstein, Minkowski served as one of the pioneers in the concept of four-dimensional space-time. Daniel Faraday's journal includes diagrams of such Minkowski space-time. In the first and perhaps only on-screen appearance of George Minkowski (actor Fisher Stevens), the ill-fated communications officer actually experiences the four-dimensional existence that Hermann Minkowski first visualized. Among many of his other contributions to mathematics, Minkowski discovered that Einsten’s theory of special relativity could best be understood in four unified dimensions. Essentially, Minkowski realized that the mathematics of special relativity worked much more nicely if scientists treated time as just another dimension (with its own axis) not significantly different from any of the other three dimensions.
“The views of space and time which I wish to lay before you have sprung from the soil of experimental physics, and therein lies their strength. They are radical. Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.” –Hermann Minkowski, 1908
To illustrate this idea, consider an example of three-dimensional space with which we are familiar. On December 24, 2004, a man in the Pacific Ocean makes a phone call to a woman on the other side of the globe, in England. Desmond on one end of the phone and Penny on the other end both occupy particular ‘events’ in space-time. Each of these two events have different sets of coordinates in three dimensional space, about as far apart as any two people on the planet could possibly be. Even though they occupy different coordinates in space, they share the same coordinates on the axis of time.
Also consider two different space-time events. Penny Widmore speaks to Desmond on the phone at 423 Cheyene Walk during 2004, and she also speaks to Desmond in person at the exact same location in 1996. These two events occupy the same coordinates in three-dimensional space, but their coordinates rest eight years apart along the axis of time. (I realize that I’m oversimplifying here by ignoring the movement of the earth, but let’s treat that location as the point of origin.)
According to Minkowski’s vision of the universe, the second example is directly analogous to the first example. Every event occupies a different location in space-time. When Penelope receives Desmond’s call in 2004, she is no further away from the Desmond in 2004 as from the Desmond in 1996. In Minkowski space-time, as well as in the narrative of Lost, all of these different events are 'occurring' simultaneously.
[As an important aside, this episode also illustrates the principle of relativity, a chief concern in the work of Einstein and Minkowski. Relativity discards Isaac Newton’s idea of absolute time, the notion that time always passes at a constant rate. In relativity, the only true constant is the speed of light (c). Depending on their rates of motion, two different observers may disagree in their measurements of the distance traveled and the time traveled by any beam of light. Thus, time will pass more slowly for an observer moving more closely to the speed of light. When the helicopter travels from the island to the Kahana freighter, over a few minutes of time on the helicopter, a day passes on the island. The event horizon of clouds surrounding the island obscured the sun and all other points of reference, and the helicopter seemingly became one with the electromagnetic storm. Sayid notes that: “We took off at dusk and landed in the middle of the day”. Relativity can explain the difference in two measurements of time, if the helicopter somehow traveled a much greater distance, and at a much greater velocity, than it appeared to travel. Charlie's question, "Guys, where are we?" now seems as significant as ever.
Many viewers have conjectured, and will continue to conjecture, that time itself somehow moves differently on the island than in the rest of the world. The Constant should put these theories on hold. The calendar on the Kahana freighter coincides with the amount of time that should have passed since the plane crash. Penelope’s reference to her three years of searching also coincides with the amount of time that should have elapsed since Desmond was lost at sea. The opening scene of this epsiode represents the first instance in which the camera shows a character's travel to or from the island. Neither Juliet nor Desmond was conscious during their 'intense' journeys to the island. Naomi described that land suddenly appeared 'out of nowhere' as she was searching over the middle of the ocean. Looking back at the Pilot episode, did a similar experience occur in the crash of Oceanic 815, a sudden jump through space, in which time advanced from evening to morning? In a previous discussion about relativity on the Forum, I also proposed the idea that Richard Alpert’s apparent lack of aging might be related to his travel on and off the island. Suppose that Richard Alpert has been moving back and forth from the island with great frequency, and each time he traveled at speeds approaching the speed of light. Whenever he made such a journey, days became mere minutes, and eventually decades of time became mere months.]
In addition to these applications of Minkowski's work in science, The Constant also pays homage to a work of art that served as one of its primary influences: Kurt Vonnegut’s classic 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five: or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death. Vonnegut's most famous work began as a commentary on the fire-bombing of the city of Dresden during World War II, an event that he himself witnessed firsthand. Instead of presenting a straight-forward antiwar novel, Vonnegut embraces topics as far-ranging as the origins of Christianity and the prospect of extra-terrestrial life. Slaughterhouse-Five centers around the character Billy Pilgrim, another soldier like Desmond, whose consciousness randomly jumps back and forth among all different time periods of his life. Much like Lost, Slaughterhouse-Five does not address time travel in the traditional sense, but, as Daniel explained, "only the mind, the consciousness" moves through time. Desmond encounters a fellow soldier named Billy in this episode, and, in a clever meta-joke, Billy treats Desmond's experience as insane even by his standards. Later, Daniel Faraday says that he will 'unstick Eloise in time,' which provides an echo to the famous opening lines of Vonnegut's novel.
Although Vonnegut is often characterized as an author of science-fiction, but his literature transcends the confines of the genre, and it appeals to a much wider audience. Vonnegut borrowed some conventions of the genre not due to his intrinsic interest in science, but from his desire to explore humanity. In Slaughterhouse-Five, for instance, Billy Pilgrim interacts with the Tralfamadorians, a race of advanced aliens. Through his contact with these aliens, Billy gains a unique perspective on time. Most readers will take these portions of the story with a post-modern grain of salt, as they should. Vonnegut was not interested literally in aliens any more than he was interested in actual time travel. Vonnegut (and Billy) himself witnessed massive extermination of human life at Dresden, and his soul needed to find a way respond to it. Vonnegut developed a coping mechanism to put that suffering in perspective, and an extra-terrestrial perspective on human life offered a poetic way to address his pain.
“The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever. When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in the particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is: So it goes." -- Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
The omniscient camera behind each episode of Lost shares this same perspective on time, as it carefully selects moments from different times to examine. Although this connection between Vonnegut and Lost is astounding, the comparison between Vonnegut and Minkowski is probably more amazing. While writing Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut reached essentially the same conclusions about space and time that Hermann Minkowski did in experimental physics, but for completely different reasons. Minkowski developed the idea to solve a problem of the mind, specifically the mathematics of special relativity. In his work, Vonnegut developed that same perspective, to deal with an emotional problem rather than a scientific one. Both Minkowski's head and Vonnegut's heart led these two vastly different men to the same endpoint. Those two forces might be much more similar to each other than they ever seem to be.
Most episodes of Lost explore the conflicts that speak to the very core issues of the human experience: good and evil, past and present, present and future, science and faith, fate and free will, life and death. Lost has the audacity to suggest that every one of these dichotomies might be a false one, and instead only a matter of perspective. Consider the title of the most recent episode. Daniel Faraday borrows the term ‘constant’ from the language of the mathematics: “All this … this is all variables. It’s a random scale. Every equation needs stability, something known.” As Daniel explains this concept to Desmond, he instantly interprets it on his own terms, in the language of the love: “This constant … can it be a person?” Only the combined efforts of Daniel’s head and Desmond’s heart (as well as Daniel’s heart and Desmond’s mind) could find salvation from this predicament. The unlucky lab rat Eloise lacked either one of these human characteristics, so she could not survive the journey. Our short-lived newcomer George Minkowski seemed to possess enough mental faculties to understand what was happening to him, but he could not find the emotional grounding necessary to get back to reality. The Constant not only appeals equally to the hearts and minds of its audience, but the story also suggests that those two forces (much like space and time) cannot exist independently from each other.
Flash forward to the year 2010. Lost has completed its initial six-season run on network television. Every one of the show’s mysteries has either been resolved, or has been left intentionally open for ongoing discussion. Anyone can now go back and re-watch the ultimate fates of the show’s characters via Blue-Ray discs on your High-Definition televisions. United States President Barack Obama has ended the occupation of Iraq. The Philadelphia Phillies have won the World Series in consecutive years. (Now that's what I call science fiction!) Two new films, which you have never even heard of yet, have won Oscars for Best Picture. Someone reading these words right now has conceived and delivered a new life into the world. A number of well-known and well-loved individuals have shuffled off their mortal coils along the way. Every person reading these words right now has undergone dynamic changes, in appearance and memory. The whole world, and everyone in it, has changed.
From a certain perspective, all of those things listed above have already happened (well, except for the part about the Phillies). For any person looking back from 2010, all of these events occurred in the past. To them, the events of 2010 are just as fixed as the events of 2004 or 1996 or 1845. Every moment in space and time on the show occupies a permanent position somewhere in its four-dimensional universe. Everyone knows that we cannot change the past. The Constant introduces a much more controversial concept into the mythology of Lost: “You can’t change the future,” either. The lives of Desmond, Penny, and all of the characters on Lost are just as permanent as those passengers of the Black Rock who perished centuries earlier. Everything that happens has already happened and always will happen. Is this idea merely a metaphor, a mathematical convention, or does it describe reality? Until our own minds become unstuck in time, none of us will know.