What's In a Name?
The Cultural Identity of the Man in Black
by Pearson Moore
He had no name, no family, no history, no future. His people lived far away, across the sea. The one who professed love for him took away his job and gave it to his brother--and then she killed every one of his friends.
At forty-three he was trapped on an Island with the woman who killed his mother and the infantile mama's boy who doted on her. He shared nothing with his brother, not priorities or desires or diversions--not even hair colour. His thoughts lacked any point of reference other than his home, across the sea.
His situation was infinitely worse than this, however. We have heard his story before. We know him from the holy text of every ancient religion. Mary Shelley wrote about him, and Edward Everett Hale fifty years after her. We have heard his story before, but every aspect of him is new. He is the Man in Black, Cerberus, the Smoke Monster, but he is so much more. He's not so different from you and me. In fact, we understand him best by looking at ourselves.
That Which We Call a Rose
"I only picked one name."
Claudia was exhausted after delivering the first boy, Jacob. Delivering the second she was too tired to think of a name. The Protector scrambled to find a rock suitable for cracking a skull, not because she wished to deprive the woman of any contact with her babies, but because it was imperative that the second-born have no name.
From this early moment in the Protector's plan, she had already chosen the Boy in Black (BIB) as her successor. He was the second-born, the runt of the litter, the one normally disfavoured by society. She would raise him to be comfortable in taking control of any situation or person. No one would exercise control over the BIB; no one would even try to displace him from the exalted position of Protector. This was the Law of the Island.
He could have no name. The Protector herself had no name, and the Protector she replaced so many millennia before likewise carried no moniker. Her adopted second-born son, heir to the most powerful position in the world, could never be subject to anyone's call. If he had a name, people could invoke him, petition him to do their bidding. Such was his responsibility that any petition was out of the question. He would have a single function, expressed in his title: Protector. He would answer to no one.
Friends or even casual acquaintances may address us by our first names. But in a formal situation we are addressed by title and surname. "Pearson" becomes "Dr. Moore". The way in which we address someone is determined by relationship and context. For the Protector, there can be only one context, determined by the absolute requirement to protect the Light. For the Light is everything: "Life, death, rebirth. It's the source, the heart of the island." Likewise, there is only one relationship: We are all subordinate to the Protector.
But the prohibition against naming the Protector goes far beyond the normal constraints of relationship and context. To name something is to control it.
The ancient belief in the power conferred by the naming of things is featured in the opening pages of the Hebrew Bible. The first chapter of Genesis says, "God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over ... every living thing that moves upon the earth.'" (Gen 1:28, NRSV) Dominion was achieved in the second chapter, with the naming of the animals: "So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field ... and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name." (Gen. 2:20, NRSV) The Creator controls humankind, and therefore gave us names: woman and man. However, human beings control all the animals, and therefore we, not the Creator, named them.
In many aboriginal cultures one does not address a person by name. To do so is more than disrespectful; addressing a person by name indicates an attempt to gain spiritual power over the person. Even today in some major religions one does not presume to affix a name to the Creator of the world. For instance, the Tetragrammaton ( )--the four-letter (thus "tetra"-"gram") name of the Creator in the Hebrew Bible--is never intoned, at least in most Jewish tradition. Recent proclamations by Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant leaders have restricted or eliminated the now-declining tradition of transliterating the Tetragrammaton and providing an English pronunciation. Speaking the revealed name of the Creator from the Christian pulpit was a common weekly event not too long ago, but is becoming all but unthinkable in modern liturgical practice.
The custom of addressing certain high-ranking persons by title rather than by name is maintained even today. One does not address the President of the United States as "Mr. Obama" or even "President Obama". The correct form of address is "Mr. President". Likewise, one does not address Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Québec as "Cardinal Ouellet". The correct form of address is "Your Eminence" (or, in his native language, "Votre Éminence").
No power spiritual or temporal, physical or mystical, would gain ascendency over the Boy in Black. Such were the rules, rigorously enforced by the Protector. The Boy in Black would never, ever have a name.
By Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet
A person's name is the sweetest word that person can hear. Psychologists and human resource managers and professional interviewers know the best way to gain a person's confidence is to address her by name and to refer to her name in a complimentary manner. "Pleased to meet you, Susan. My brother named his daughter 'Susan'. It's a beautiful name." Susan has just made a friend for life, and the person addressing her in this way knows it.
If we do not hear our name intoned in friendship and respect, some other acknowledgment of who we are must take the place of verbal address. In this respect the BIB was more than fortunate. The person who raised him, the woman he knew as Mother, made him the centre of her life. His brother, Jacob, had second place in her heart, and everyone knew it, most of all the BIB. While Jacob performed chores around the cave, the BIB was out exploring, investigating, trying to make sense of the world. Whenever he had questions, Mother was there to answer them. She favoured him with time, affection, and every resource available to her. His domination of the world around him was confirmed in every action he took, even in the game of senet he played with his brother.
BOY IN BLACK: You can’t do that, Jacob.
JACOB: Why not?
BOY IN BLACK: Because it's against the rules.
JACOB: You made the rules.
BOY IN BLACK: I found it.
One day the BIB would make all the rules, and they would bind Jacob no less than anyone else. Everything was proceeding according to the Protector's plan, and everything was happening according to the BIB's pleasure.
Honour Thy Mother and Father
I am my daughter's father. I am my wife's husband. I am my father's son.
We establish our identity in any number of ways: Our name, the work we do, the place we inhabit. But probably the most important means by which we establish identity is through relationship. If I am not my son's father, my wife's husband, or my mother's son, who am I? If these relationships are taken away I have no means of orienting myself in this world. The mandate to "honour thy father and mother" is one of the greatest of the commandments because it is a directive aimed at establishing identity. This single commandment gives purpose, priority, and place to three living human beings: The daughter or son, the mother, and the father. To disrespect mother or father is to disrespect oneself, and to disrespect--even remove--one's place and priority in this world.
The BIB had abilities not shared with his brother. He saw dead people, something his brother would never be able to do. But more important to the story, he could converse with them. The woman in red was not only beautiful, she had the closest relationship with the BIB that one person can have with another: she was his mother.
Claudia's revelation destroyed the BIB's world. The woman he had loved as mother turned out to be a thoughtless, vile pretender, a murderer, a destroyer of anything of value or worth. By killing his mother, the BIB's Guardian was saying the mother had no worth, and therefore the BIB himself had no value.
The BIB had neither name nor relationship of any kind. He had no identity, and therefore he was nothing. He would have to find some other means of asserting his identity.
In the Roman village on the other side of the Island he found his identity. He was Roman, like them, a shipwreck survivor, like them. They were his people. He regained his identity. He belonged. For thirty years he enjoyed the reassurance of shared humanity. The people were "greedy, manipulative, untrustworthy, and selfish," but they were his people. Best of all, they were working together toward a great and worthy objective: Finding a way across the sea.
Things Under the Earth
"Socrates is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others."
This was the accusation leveled against the Sophist, Socrates, in 399 B.C. He was peering into matters not suited to philosophical exploration. The abode of "things under the earth and in heaven" was not to become the subject of human examination or feeble attempts at understanding. This was the abode of the gods, and of beings beyond our comprehension. Human beings did not belong in such places, for we had no right to meddle in the affairs of the gods. For his disobedience of this fundamental principle of Athenian law, Socrates was executed.
The mixture of water and Light under the earth was the Island's abode of supreme power. The Light was more powerful and more dangerous than even the Protector herself. The power and danger were so great that the Protector would allow not even the Man in Black to know its location. When they were yet boys she blindfolded them so they would not be able to figure out its place on the Island.
When the Protector found the Man in Black underground, with access to the Light, she was shocked. The Man in Black had no business underground, and certainly not anywhere near the light. While she was still trying to make sense of this revelation, the Man in Black told her the unthinkable: He and his Roman friends were figuring out how to manipulate the Light to do their bidding--to allow them passage across the sea. The Protector was beyond shocked and moved into the realm of pure anger. This meddling in the affairs of life and death and rebirth would have to end, immediately.
She said nothing to her adopted son, for there was no benefit in alerting him to her extreme displeasure. She pulled him in, as if to embrace him, and then launched her forehead toward his, knocking him out.
The Man Without a Village
The Protector killed every one of the Romans, destroyed their village, and filled in every mine they had dug. In less than a single afternoon she spent her fury and destroyed everything that had ever had meaning to the Man in Black.
A woman whose parents, husband, and children have all died has suffered bewildering loss. The deaths are disorienting because the individuals to whom she was connected established her place in the world. Many people, suffering such awful depths of loss never recover. Having lost their essential connections to the world, they become only fractions of the people they once were.
Most people who experience loss of even the closest relationships will eventually recover. They count on their other connections to reality to provide the foundation upon which they can re-build their lives. They belong to a synagogue or church, have membership in professional organisations, take night classes, or do volunteer work. The key concept in all of these connections is belonging. We find our place in this world, we establish our identity, by belonging.
With the burning of the village and the murder of every one of his friends, the Man in Black had no relationships, no friends, no social connections, nothing to which he might claim to belong.
The Man Without a Country
In the classic novel by Edward Everett Hale, Philip Nolan is a young U.S. Army lieutenant on trial for conspiring to treason with Aaron Burr (circa 1807). During the course of the trial he shouts, " Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!" The judges, all Revolutionary War veterans, decide to grant the man his wish. Rather than executing him, they sentence him to spend the remainder of his life aboard U.S. naval vessels, never again to set foot in the United States, the crews sworn to silence regarding any aspect of history or current events in their country.
Nolan spends the remainder of his life at sea and through a masterful narrative we experience the development of the saddest, most pitiful character in fiction. The man loves his country, of course. The conclusion of the novel depicts Nolan, hours from death in 1863. Displayed in his tiny room are a flag, a partial map of the United States, and other tidbits he acquired over the decades. The navy lieutenant who has been fighting for his release disobeys orders, enters Nolan's cabin, and spends the next several hours relating American history of the last sixty years.
The only fact the officer leaves out is that the country Nolan so deeply loves is now at war with itself. The Civil War has literally torn the country apart, and the officer cannot bear to tell the dying man anything about the destruction in his country.
I doubt most readers can finish this novel without shedding tears. Every one of us needs to belong. We understand the man's sadness but also his nobility in never giving up hope of seeing the land he loves.
The sadness of the Man in Black runs deeper than even Philip Nolan's. Nolan at least had memories of his country. The MIB knew only that his country was out there--across the sea; he had never seen his land. The long-promised inheritance of the Protector position had been given to Jacob. The Guardian destroyed every single contact he had. Even this was not enough for her, though. She took steps to ensure he would never leave the Island, would never once know his roots in Rome, far across the sea. She removed from him every shred of belonging.
The Man in Black was a man without a name, without mother or father or brother, without connection of any kind. He had no identity. He did not belong to anyone or anything.
Only a truly evil woman could commit the deeds the Guardian had performed. She had robbed the Man in Black of even the smallest morsel of identity, torn from him any sense of belonging.
The implement of death was the pugio the MIB carried. He and Jacob thought it had to be a pugio, but they learned soon enough--two thousand years later--that any knife whose metal was subject to electromagnetism would work. The knife had to be subject to a power greater than the Protector's. He struck from behind, before she could utter a word. If she had gotten a word out, she would have rendered the dagger useless--she would have named her attacker, and in the naming, she'd have controlled him.
Seconds before she died, the MIB posed the only question that had ever been on his mind.
MAN IN BLACK: Why wouldn't you let me leave, mother?
GUARDIAN: Because I...I love you.
She had a warped concept of love, but it was in keeping with the extreme negative bias she had toward people in general. Her legacy found expression in many ways.
Her philosophy of contempt for humanity was propagated directly in the thoughts and actions of the MIB. Her lack of compassion and warped values continued in Jacob, who spent most of his time conniving to bring hundreds of innocent people to the Island, only to have them die. As people died in horrible ways they certainly never would have chosen for themselves, Jacob was yet able to comfort himself with the thought that in forcing them to the Island he was somehow allowing them full expression of personal autonomy. Jacob's warped sense of things was similar to the Guardian's.
The Guardian's last two words expressed gratitude for the MIB's act. "Thank you," she said. He had released her from a life that had become a burden. With Jacob in control of the Source, she knew she could die a real death.
A Fate Worse than Death
Jacob knew his brother could never die. But he knew of a punishment far worse than death.
GUARDIAN: Just promise me. no matter what you do, you won't ever go down there.
JACOB: Would I die?
GUARDIAN: It'd be worse than dying, Jacob...much worse.
The type of interaction we have with the Source depends on our state of being. "For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him." LOST teaches that we have value only to the extent that we cultivate relationships. In fact, the only way to "move on" from the sideways purgatory is with a Constant at one's side on entering the Church of the Holy Lamp Post.
The MIB had been stripped of almost everything: name, family, relationship, village, country. We might believe that he had in fact lost everything. Two things yet remained: His human body, and his status as a human being. When Jacob threw him into the cave at the centre of the Island, he lost those two remaining shreds of identity.
RICHARD: But if you are the black smoke...
MAN IN BLACK: You aren't the only one who's lost something, my friend. The Devil betrayed me. He took my body. My humanity.
The Source operates much like the basic input/output (BIOS) system in a computer. Whatever goes in comes out, but intensified. Jack went into the cave with faith, and came out with assurance of his faith. The MIB went into the cave with selfish intentions, and came out as an entity of pure selfishness, not connected to anything or anyone.
He was almost nothing. He had no identity of any kind. He was not even a man anymore. All that remained was desire. Above all else, he desired to belong. His single goal over two thousand years was to find his home across the sea where he would finally have a place in the world. His is almost certainly the saddest story in the six years of LOST.
SAWYER: What are you?
MIB: What I am is trapped. And I've been trapped for so long that I don't even remember what it feels like to be free. Maybe you can understand that. But before I was trapped, I was a man, James. Just like you.
SAWYER: I'm havin' a hard time believin' that...
MIB: You can believe whatever you want, that's the truth. I know what it's like to feel joy... to feel pain, anger, fear... to experience betrayal. I know what it's like to lose someone you love.
His words to Sawyer were not only true, but they were from a place that was once his heart. It was not the last time he would confess his feelings to those he sought to destroy.
MIB: I know what you're going through.
KATE: And how do you know that?
LOCKE: Because... my mother was crazy. Long time ago, before I... looked like this... I had a mother, just like everyone. She was a very disturbed woman. And, as a result of that, I had some growing pains. Problems that I'm still trying to work my way through. Problems that could have been avoided had things been different.
The MIB was LOST's antithesis. He was the worst-case opposite of everything required of us as humans. Stripped of every particle of humanity, he was pure desire, willing to sacrifice any number of people to satisfy his whim. Selfishness is a necessary constituent of our existence, but it is not properly an element of our humanity. We all must die, but we do not hold death to be one of the abiding principles or great expressions of our essential selves. When death becomes our focus, we become something less than human. In the same way, when selfish desire becomes the guiding principle in our lives, we can no longer claim to be fully human.
According to LOST, we express our humanity only to the extent that we cultivate and uphold the value of human interaction, friendship, trust, faith, and love.
Connections are essential to our identity as human beings. In valuing trust, faith, and love above all else, we learn to give up our selfish desires and see in others the full culmination of everything we wish to be. "You can't take it with you", but to move on past the sideways afterlife, we must have lived life in such a way that we cultivated enduring friendships and gave up selfish desires to serve the needs of others.
These are the teachings of LOST. Our identity is grounded in belonging. If we can't live together--that is, if we can't give up our morbid concentration on self--we're going to die alone. Jack (the personification of LOST's thesis) articulated this truth back in Season One. Everything we witnessed over the next six years was proof of Jack's prophetic wisdom.
The story of the MIB is sad. But even in his wretched, lonely journey, there was hope. At any moment he could have made a decision like Sawyer's or Ben's. Ben was not far from the MIB in the degree to which selfishness ruled his life. Yet under Ilana and then under Hurley he worked for the common good, and he was offered redemption after death.
The sight of his broken body was sad, but we did not mourn for him. He received his due. Halfway across the Island a noble soul, a man pure of heart also died, and the moment was sad. But we did not mourn for him, either. For we knew that Jack Shephard had a billion strong connections in this world and the next--the connections for which Jack willingly sacrificed his life. He also received his due. He belonged.
What's In a Name?