by Pearson Moore
What is LOST?
Eight years after Flight 815 crashed on a remote, uncharted island, we have had plenty of time to devise an elevator pitch. “It’s about the survivors of an airplane crash given a chance to reorder their lives according to a new set of values,” we might tell our friends. Or, “It’s about simultaneous, multi-dimensional struggles between science and faith, destiny and free will, human desire and divine prerogative.” Perhaps we could defer to the showrunner, who devised a formulation that seems above reproach: “This show is about people who are metaphorically lost in their lives, who get on an airplane and crash on an island and become physically lost ... And once they are able to metaphorically find themselves in their lives again, they will be able to physically find themselves in the world again." (Damon Lindelof, IGN Interview, January 16, 2007)
But how do they “find themselves in their lives again”? What is the process? Which paths do the characters follow in their quest? What is the final outcome of their journey? Lindelof defined the odyssey’s origin, but what of the voyage itself? What are the lessons we glean from this six-year adventure?
I believe there is no elevator pitch sufficient to relay the essential truth of LOST. Neither is LOST a six-yea-long character study, nor an epic whose lessons are learned only in taking the journey. Millions of people loved the characters and traveled every step of the voyage—but missed entirely the meaning of the show. The ultimate value of LOST goes far beyond the journey itself, far beyond the characters, and far beyond any 50-word elevator pitch. It is possible to arrive at LOST’s meaning. It’s not easy, though. It’s never been easy—but then, it was never meant to be easy.
The Categories of Learned Ignorance
It is a single tale told in 121 chapters by three dozen narrators. The complexity of the story is almost beyond comprehension. A full recitation of The Odyssey, for example, performed in two one-hour sessions each day, can be completed in 11 days. A full viewing of LOST, on the other hand, not including commercial breaks, requires the investment of two hours each day for six and a half weeks. The Odyssey, the grand opus to which all epic tales are rightfully compared, is four times shorter than LOST.
The human mind naturally rebels at the thought that a single story should require the commitment of 89 hours of visual and auditory memory, and the processing of tens of thousands of elements into a coherent scheme, distilled into a few take-away ideas. Few among us have the capacity to store and make sense of such an overwhelming amount of material related to the solution of a single question. We desperately seek accommodation for the normal limits of human thought. Surely there is some reasonable way to simplify the story so we can make sense of its thesis and lessons?
We begin with a reduction of the problem to a single question or thesis statement. I offered such a statement in LOST Humanity:
We find ourselves not through abstract ideas, but in our deep connections with each other. Women and men must live and work together, both in harmony and in conflict, to preserve the personal and social connections that are the basis of human civilisation.
But the question does not contain within itself the answer. I fashioned a thesis statement that has all the appearances of being self-explanatory, but it is deceptive in its simplicity. In fact, the statement does not even begin to respond to the question.
It is at this point that literary analysis tries to remove the unbearable burden of complexity. All we have to do, the theorists tell us, is fit LOST into any of several pre-existing literary frameworks. In so doing, we can establish one-to-one correspondence between events and characters and their literary significance. Do the story elements indicate a reliance on modernist norms of expression? If not, perhaps we can make a case for fitting LOST into a postmodernist frame of reference. Doesn’t Jack Shephard’s character arc fit perfectly into at least one of the well-worn variants of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey? Going further, we should be able to squeeze LOST into a fantasy or science fiction sub-genre, and if so we can relate every single story element to known features of the literary form. Perhaps LOST is sociological slipstream apocalypse, or time travel cyberpunk?
This type of approach to fathoming the literary richness of LOST may yield great bounties of understanding, but it is more likely to arrive at the conclusion that LOST makes no sense, that it lacks internal consistency, that it violates too many storytelling paradigms without offering coherent alternatives. “A jumbled mess,” the scholars say, as they move on to more fruitful analyses of The Wire or The Sopranos or the corpus of Joss Whedon’s pop culture creations.
Analysing George R. R. Martin or Joss Whedon or Vince Gilligan can yield tremendous insight into the continuity of literary tradition, and I applaud those scholars who have made the effort to apply the full power of their analytical skill in unraveling and simplifying for us the complex realms these storytellers have created. But those who have given up on the Island created by Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof do so to their own detriment, and to the loss of storytelling in general.
The fact is, many experts and scholars have thrown in the towel. It is equally true, though, that a vocal minority of experts—and unscholarly hacks like me—have somehow managed to make sense of LOST and discover in its final execution an internally consistent and marvellously developed story worthy of standing next to—or in front of—any other great work of popular culture.
I believe making the effort to understand the rationale for scholarly discontent will help us in understanding the greater reality of LOST’s consistency as story. While I cannot ferret out every reason for giving short shrift to LOST, I can provide some insight as a fellow analyst. In my experience, one of the major sources of analytical impatience is over-reliance on categorisation as a tool of understanding. More often than not, pigeonholing presents the appearance of profound understanding, but is actually deficient in the kind of relational knowledge necessary to make sense of complexity.
The Insolubility of Decanol
You may wonder what decanol, a long-chain alcohol, has to do with the understanding of LOST. Bear with me, though. No training in chemistry is required!
Suppose I ask you to add 10 grams of decanol to one litre of water and stir it in until you have a homogeneous (single layer or phase) solution. You might protest that you have no training in chemistry, and you are therefore not qualified, but I will insist. The resourceful readers will immediately go to Google, or perhaps directly to Wikipedia. These enterprising individuals will learn very quickly that decanol is insoluble in water. “Hah!” they’ll say, reporting back to me. “Decanol is insoluble in water, therefore what you asked me to do is impossible.”
“No,” I’ll say, shaking my head. “1-Decanol can be solubilised into water, and under standard laboratory conditions. You don’t need to use elevated temperature or pressure, and you don’t need to add any liquid solvents or surfactants.”
The truly adventurous among you will do the necessary research. It won’t be easy, and you’ll run into one roadblock after another. But after several hours—or days or weeks—you’ll send me a litre of single-phase water solution containing exactly 10 grams of decanol.
The problem I pose is one that most Ph.D. chemists will be incapable of figuring out. It’s a simple problem, but it appears in every way to defy the laws of physics and chemistry. Yet it’s the kind of problem I have to solve every day as a go-to person in the sub-discipline of purification process design. I have to move beyond categories.
In the same way, those highly trained in the art of literary analysis have deep, expert-level knowledge of every category, sub-route, surface and crevice in every literary edifice ever created. That familiarity with literary structure, combined with the usual constraints on time and budget, will invariably conspire to convince the literary analyst that the Wikipedia level of understanding is as far as we can go in this case. Wikipedia says 1-decanol is insoluble in water, and that’s how it is. Wikipedia says LOST has no identifiable literary structure, and that’s how it is.
Now, it can be very useful indeed to apply a normally impossible set of conditions to address a greater problem. For instance, that solution of decanol in water might be used to extract high-value pharmaceutical drugs from a Bolivian vine. Since I know how to get decanol into water solution, and other chemists can’t, I can successfully complete that drug extraction while my competitors fail. Similarly, those who resist the temptation to categorise LOST, who move beyond existing categories, will be able to arrive at a fuller appreciation of the tremendous storytelling depths of LOST.
“But,” some of you protest, “Wikipedia says a water solution of decanol is impossible! Even if it’s not impossible, you’ve said it might take me days or weeks to figure it out. I don’t have that kind of time!” Well, that’s fine. You’re under no obligation to devote the time and resources required to solve the problem. And no one is telling you that you must enjoy LOST. But if you really wish to enjoy it, you’re going to have to invest some time.
The Uniqueness of LOST
I don’t imagine I made a lot of friends last year in New Orleans, when I stated at the LOST academic conference that LOST was not an example of postmodern storytelling. I will not go into the technical reasons for my position in this essay, but those who are interested will find several arguments regarding LOST’s literary categorisation between the covers of LOST Thought (http://www.amazon.com/LOST-Thought-Leading-Thinkers-Discuss/dp/0615603785/).
The crux of the argument against LOST’s standing as postmodern exemplar centres around the contention that LOST contains a core universal, or an idea that transcends the story itself. I believe LOST contains several such universals, and therefore that it cannot be considered to represent postmodern thought, since postmodernism posits a rejection of universals.
One of the interesting aspects of this argument is that it must contend with the fact that LOST very clearly uses postmodern elements as fundamental constituents of its structure. To the casual analyst, and even to the seasoned expert, LOST presents all the features one would expect in a postmodern literary work. But we need to move beyond categories and forms if we are going to secure true understanding.
If we can identify even one universal, we can claim lack of adherence to postmodern thought. Such a discovery would allow us to assign LOST to some other category of artistic thought, or to create a new category for the show. I believe future workers attempting to reconcile LOST with literary theory will indeed be forced to create a new category for the series. Time will tell!
In my analysis of LOST’s structure I focussed on the Cork Stone. Some may take issue with my reliance on inscriptions whose meaning could not have been known until after the series ended. Actually, my argument does not depend on the meaning of the inscriptions, as I will explain here.
Lostpedia provides translations for the four inscriptions on the Cork Stone (http://lostpedia.wikia.com/wiki/The_Heart_of_the_Island#Cork). Two lines are Egyptian hieroglyphs taken from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The two remaining lines are cuneiform quotations from the Enûma Eliš, the Babylonian story of creation. Even if we didn’t know the origin of the writing, though, careful observation would reveal the presence of two types of symbols—hieroglyphs and cuneiform symbols—which we would understand as representing two very different ancient cultures. Thus, even if we didn’t wish to analyse the ancient sayings, we could at least understand that something about the two types of writing was important to the core message of LOST.
But let’s go even further. Let’s assume that we couldn’t make out any of the inscription, that we couldn’t even tell that Egyptian hieroglyphs and Babylonian cuneiform symbols were present. In fact, let’s assume that all we could make out were a few words:
What truths can one distill from this, a simple list of ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper? Let’s take a closer look.
The Cork Stone
We know that when Desmond removed the Cork Stone from its place in the centre pool of the Source, water stopped flowing into the Source and the water in the pool disappeared into the ground below. The friendly greenish-yellow light that had been present above the pool of water was replaced by dark, angry red light that seemed to suck all hope and cheer from anyone in the vicinity. In addition, we saw that the Island began to fall apart, with large chunks of the land mass literally falling into the ocean. Frequent earthquakes indicated it would not be long before the entire Island fell apart. The Man in Black, who had until that point been immune to bullets and buffets, became in all ways mortal, susceptible both to Jack’s fist and Kate’s rifle.
On the other hand, when the Cork Stone was replaced in the centre of the cave, water again flowed and pooled, the greenish-yellow light returned, and the Island stabilised. We were led to believe that the light and water of the Source ensured Hurley’s immortality and the Island’s continuity far into the future.
Thus, even if we believe the Cork Stone was inscribed with Lex Luthor’s “ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper,” we can put together a quite consistent scheme for Island behaviour. Absent the Cork Stone, the preternatural material under the cave projected destructive, incoherent red energy. When the destructive red energy was harnessed by the Cork Stone, it was channelled into coherent, constructive energy we understood as “life, death, and rebirth.” The fact that the heart of the Island was primal in origin—neither good nor evil—explained virtually every event witnessed and experienced by the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815.
It doesn’t do us any good to inquire about the substantive nature of the incoherent force under the cave. All we know is that the material—unharnessed—led to destruction. The Cork Stone allowed constructive coherence and it became the fundamental truth upon which every other truth associated with the Island was built.
We can posit a few of these truths based on events at the Source. Human intervention was necessary to right the wrongs that had been perpetrated when Jacob performed an illicit intervention in Source mechanics. By forcing his brother’s unconscious body into the Source, the normal coherence of the light/water mixture was disturbed, leading to the creation of a strange creature composed of an unhappy and unholy mixture of unharnessed human desire and unharnessed destructive energy. We knew that unhappy, unholy mixture as the Smoke Monster.
“There are no shortcuts, no do-overs. What happened, happened. Trust me, I know. All of this matters.” Jack’s intervention at the Source was necessary to correct Jacob’s error and to ensure the Island’s future stability.
Many other universals become apparent as we look at the greater narrative arc. The insufficiency of logic, for example, is intimately tied to Jack’s development from a strict proponent of science into the Island’s foremost Man of Faith. Other truths, such as the necessity of one-on-one personal opposition to human development, are necessary corollaries to the particular forms of disorientation and chaos we observed during our six years on the Island. LOST told us that human beings need each other not only as intimate “Constants” and as a means of satisfying psychological and social requirements, but as instigators of conflict. Conflict was portrayed as the precursor to real progress, in the development of individual characters and in the attainment of higher plateaux of understanding. Thus, the “Strange Attractors” I discussed in LOST Humanity were integral to every character and plot advancement we witnessed.
Hors de Categorie
The toughest climbs in any bicycle race are designated “Hors de categorie”—beyond categorisation. They’re so steep that assigning a level of difficulty makes no sense. Certainly we could go out and measure the climb. “The final three kilometres have an average incline of 19.5 %,” we could proclaim, in our perfectly logical way. But this says nothing to the riders. The reality for the bicycle riders transcends the narrow and sterile incompleteness of logic. The full reality of an “Hors de categorie” climb is pain. “Hors de categorie” tells the riders they are going to have to marshal every reserve of physical stamina, every gram of muscle, every source of psychological strength, to confront constant and building pain, unrelieved oxygen deprivation, and unyielding human limitation.
LOST is the toughest of literary creations. It is, in every way we might care to quantify, entirely Hors de categorie. That we cannot categorise LOST also means we are going to have to work hard—perhaps pushing beyond the normal limits of our understanding—to make sense of it. Quite likely, with some effort we could apply cold logic to various aspects of LOST, measuring this or that facet of the story against well known and well categorised quantities of drama and artistic expression. But this would not help those of us working hard to scale the steep, hors-de-categorie heights of this cultural marvel. The reality of LOST transcends the narrow and sterile incompleteness of logic.
If you have any hope of understanding LOST you’ve got to get in the saddle, lock your shoes into the pedals, pump with your legs and pull with your arms and breathe in and out, filling your lungs as deep and as fast as you can. Pump, pull, breathe, pump, pull, breathe. Again and again.
If you do this, at some point you will find yourself out of breath. But you will arrive at this state only because of the overwhelming complexity and awesome beauty of the work you are coming to appreciate. It is the most original work of fiction ever presented on television. As you ascend the dizzying heights, as you struggle to fill your lungs with oxygen and marvel at the beauty of the mountainside, you understand at a profound and personal level that LOST is breathtaking in its originality.
It’s not easy, making sense of LOST. It’s never been easy—but then, it was never meant to be easy. Enjoy the climb.
September 22, 2012
The 8th anniversary of our hors-de-categorie adventure