It’s been eight painful months, but finally “Lost” is back. After a catch-up clip show that was more “Melrose Place” than Lost Horizon, “Lost” premiered with no shortage of new questions and the starkest division yet between the man of reason, Jack, and the man of faith, Locke (See my colleague Chris Orr’s post about this on the Plank). But is this battle of conflicting philosophies an intentional foray into existential questions, or is “Lost” just another show trying to please all of the people all of the time? What I want to know after three years of ardent fandom is: Did creator J.J. Abrams construct a specific philosophical ontology for each character, or has “Lost” simply become a kind of intellectual scrap heap, with boundless references piling up so fast their meaning is moribund?
Like cramming fistfuls of metaphysical crayons back into their tiny box, the Island on “Lost” can barely contain all the colorful epistemologies in its midst. It is a big stew of Philosophy 101’s greatest hits: from Sartrean hell-is-other-people existentialism to Rousseauian empathy (“pitié”), Hobbesian brutality to Hume’s rationalism, from the cold calculus of Millsian utilitarianism and Darwinist survival-of-the-fittest to the reassurance of Aquinas’s God. You could drive yourself crazy thinking about characters with names like Hugo, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, and Burke, or wondering why so many seem to be bystanders in the backgrounds of one another’s lives—or, in one case, actually secretly related to each another. It’s like the Monty Python sketch, “International Philosophy,” in which Greek and German philosophers battle it out on the soccer field (Socrates’s winning goal is contested by Hegel as not being an “a priori reality”). Back on “Lost” Philosophy Island, the implications are just as absurd: After all, if everything is imbued with meaning, then how meaningful is any one thing?
Then there are all of the literary allusions. Ben Linus’s childhood pet is a white rabbit, a white rabbit later shows up to fool Sawyer into thinking his heart will explode, an episode is called “White Rabbit,” and the underwater station jamming signals to and from the Island is called the Looking Glass. Somewhere, Lewis Carroll is screaming, “Dude, enough already!” On top of all that, the show references The Heart of Darkness, Lord of the Flies, Catch-22, The Wizard of Oz, The Brothers Karamazov, Watership Down, A Wrinkle in Time, Carrie, and, of course, the Bible. What am I supposed to do with this? Start a book club? Does the Stephen King reference just point out the horror of the survivors’ situation, or is Other outlier Jacob’s telekinesis going to end in pig blood and a bad prom dress? Does A Wrinkle in Time give insight into the paradoxes of the Island, or is it a red herring? And, if there are red herrings, then why bother paying attention to anything?
And let’s not forget the religious symbolism: Charlie and Mr. Eko have religious visions in a landscape dotted with heroin-filled ceramic Virgin Marys, Desmond has a monastic past, Rose is always carrying on about prayer, and then there are the rampant iconographic imagery and the Dharma Initiative’s flakey Namaste spiritualism. Moreover, as we continue to fill out our course requirements, “Lost” is nothing if not an object lesson in politics: There is espionage, torture (eventually even the tortured get a chance to torture), conspiracy, splinter groups, native unrest, imperialism, colonization, voting blocs, Machiavellian manipulation, and a mass genocide for good measure. How quickly the state of nature becomes, well, a state.
But why stop there? If you’re looking for adventure, a little Tin Tin á l’Île de Mystère, then allow me to remind you of the four-toed statue, the tropical polar bears, the bouts of clairvoyance, and, oh yes, the smoke monster. And just when you think you know who the Others are (Dharma folks), it turns out the Others have their own Others—the eternally young other Others (apparently the Island’s original inhabitants). Meanwhile, our survivors’ would-be rescuers are not who they say they are (and in fact may be enemies of the other Others) and apparently will doom six of the survivors of Oceanic 815 to lives of addiction, mental hospitals, petty crime, and death. Honestly, in the time it takes to juggle all that, not to mention trying to figure out whether Girl Next Door Kate will go for the Good Doctor or the Bad Boy or if Juliet can convince Jack that he is her Romeo (or she is his Jill?), I could have learned Portuguese, basted a turkey, read Ulysses, downloaded the complete works of De La Soul, and redecorated my office as a mystical pillow room.
And, yet, back to “Lost” I go, ready to follow John Locke to the end of his sanity -- or, perhaps more like Jack, ready to jump on any plane that will get me back to the Island. Because, even if it is all some kind of metaphysical joke, I just gotta hear the punch line.
Sacha Zimmerman is the Special Online Projects Manager for The New Republic.
By Sacha Zimmerman