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Friday, February 12, 2010


"We either live together or we die alone."-- Jack Shepherd, LOST

"Hell is other people."-- Sartre, NO EXIT.

There have been any number of literary attempts, from Sartre to Norman Spinrad, to construct fictive worlds where the ethos of determinism holds court, essentially abolishing the illusion of Judeo-Christian free will. Yet Sartre avers that an individual can still possess a sort of heroic will insofar as he can make his peace with the Sisyphean rock of a pitiless reality, and become reconciled, even "happy," on those terms.

I recognize the intellectual conviction behind these fictional worlds, but in the end they are no less the symbolic projections of what the authors wanted to believe than the Christian triumphalism of C.S. Lewis. Lewis would probably make Charles Reece's shit-list in that Lewis molded a fantasy-world where all conflicts are sorted out in a concluding "Manichean battle," from which the final book in the series, THE LAST BATTLE, takes its title. In Lewis "free will" *is* paramount, though it's the kind of will described in the old canard: "Perfect freedom is perfect service," e.g., do what's right in the first place and you and God will get along.

I bring in Lewis' orthodox-Christian vision of free will as a contrast to the one I theorize that the LOST producers will give their fans when the series ends. I haven't a clue as to what shape that vision will take: I only assert that I think that the show's constant iterations of determinism-- "Whatever happened, happened"-- are a setup for some sort of turnaround that will transcend doleful determinism.

But how to do that, without the kind of "cheat" that Reece and others started to suspect as soon as LOST's Season 5 revealed that the Island is inhabited by at least two superhuman beings? Given the existence of these "demigods" it's natural enough to suspect the old deus ex machina, though I'm guessing that the LOST producers aren't going to try anything as obvious as Lewis' Aslan.

So I suspect that if indeed free will transcends determinism in LOST, it will be a transcendence more figurative than literal-- or perhaps, to pilfer the terminology of Immaneul Kant, one of the few philosophers not (to my knowledge) referenced on the show-- more "a priori" than "a posteriori."

Kantian terms aside, how can transcendence, even a figurative one, be made to have a validity that does not cheat on or otherwise annul LOST's own ample testimony as to "pitiless reality?" The deaths of Boone, Shannon, Ana Lucia, Juliet and many others seem to this watcher as arbitrary and meaningless as anything in Sartre, for all that these cruel fates also reflect behind-the-scenes exigencies of plotting or even actor-availability.

So how might the LOST-makers do it? Could it be that some horror-film, released in 2008 and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, might suggest an example of such narrative transcendence?


Even when films are designed to be viewed first on the movie-theatre screens, I'm not sure that all of them are best seen that way, in contradiction to being viewed on the (relatively) small screen in one's home entertainment console.

I did see Shyamalan's first two major films, THE SIXTH SENSE and UNBREAKABLE, on bigscreen. I liked both, though I had some problems with the latter, but both worked well on the large movie-screen.

I didn't see THE VILLAGE or LADY IN THE WATER on the large screen, and didn't like either, so my opinion of Shyamalan in recent years has not been high. I've still never seen SIGNS and only in the last few months did I check out a DVD of 2008's THE HAPPENING out of mild curiosity. I had and have no memory of any favorable reviews and had the general impression that most audiences hated it.

I thought HAPPENING was Shyamalan's best film yet (except for that awful title). Possibly my seeing it at home freed me of the thrillseeking expectations shared by many theater-audiences, most of whom justifiably want a thrill-ride for their ten-dollar tickets. In any case, I enjoyed the fact that it treated a major catastrophe, full of action and human suffering (i.e., *pathos*) in a cerebral and philosophically provocative manner-- not unlike the teleseries LOST.

To be sure, there are ample differences between LOST and THE HAPPENING, apart from that of medium. LOST's "island survivors" catastrophe happens to an ensemble comprised of over a dozen central characters. In HAPPENING,a catastrophe befalls a vast section of the U.S.'s Northeastern Seaboard, not unlike the scenario in Spielberg's WAR OF THE WORLDS, but with something like human beings involved. However, HAPPENING focused only on two viewpoint characters, Elliot and Alma Moore, a young married couple played by Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel. Their status as the two central characters informs the film's outcome, which is the main point of my comparison.

Because I'm concerned here with the ending, I'll merely sketch the bulk of the film.

In brief, Shyamalan's movie gives viewers a world where Hobbes trumps Rousseau. The social contract that enables human beings to live peaceably in a society breaks down when a mysterious malady sweeps over the northeastern states, and those infected become exemplars of Hobbes' "war of all against all." Indeed, not only do the victims become aggressive enough to attack others flagrantly, they even "war" against themselves, committing suicide by leaping from buildings, crashing cars, and so on. The Moores are among the many people who flee the cities for the countryside, only to suspect that the source of the malady is Earth's plant-life, some of which has started to manufacture and spread toxins able to break down human volitional controls.

In some ways, HAPPENING shares elements of both horror and suspense films. The idea of city-dwellers thrown into a mammoth catastrophe evokes the suspense-oriented narrative of the disaster film, with a side-dish of terrorist-fantasy flavoring. However, the theory about the source of the malady is presented in so oblique a way that it partakes less of the well-defined threats of a suspense-film and becomes more of a *mysterium,* as seen in HAPPENING's nearest horrific genre-neighbor, George Romero's 1968 NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. There, too, humanity doesn't know what force has caused the dead to walk, and though the protagonists of HAPPENING make some correct conclusions about the airborne toxin, Shyamalan never allows the threat to become easily predictable.

Now, the 1968 NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is in essence an ironic horror-film, as is demonstrated by its black-humor conclusion. HAPPENING, however, is a dramatic horror. To build upon Sartre's aphorism, the constant breakdown of the social contract evinces just how hellish other people are to one another in the raw-- even in the case of some individuals not affected by the toxin! But in Shyamalan's film, other people are a hell one needs.

There's probably no way to describe the film's salvative turning-point (which is not precisely the ending, thanks to a coda) without it sounding sappy. Film has for over a century exploited the mythic image of reunited lovers as the image of transcendence, and countless bad "clinches" have given the essential archetype a bad rep.

Again, in brief: the turning-point comes when the Moores take refuge on an isolated farm. The owner of the farm is one of the latest victims of the spreading toxin, so Elliot and Alma, having become separated, each barricade themselves in separate buildings. However, this is clearly not a plan for long-term survival, and so, in a Sartreian embrace of their potential fate, the Moore both leave their hiding-places and embrace, ready to live and die together rather than living and dying alone.

But-- in a moment of figurative transcendence-- the Moores are spared, as the toxin abruptly ceases to have any further effects.

Understand: at no time does Shyamalan step outside the Cartesian box to suggest that the expression of love caused the plague to end. Within the diegetic narrative of the film proper, it's merely a coincidence, and Shyamalan makes this clear in the coda, where it's suggested that the toxin has stepped up for another whack at humanity. But in the extra-diegetic symbolism of the film, humanity is temporarily spared because the Moores come "un-moored" from their desire to protect their personal selves and to join as one, despite any fatal consequences.

To my mind, this figurative transcendence is not a "cheat" to anyone of the determinist party. It makes clear that the protagonists would seem to have "no exit" by any rational criteria, and yet the film gives them an exit through an exercise of free will that isn't indebted to the stoicism of Sisyphus and his rock.

In the conclusion of LOST, will there be a redeeming act of free will on the part of one or more LOST protagonists? I think that we have already seen a few. In Season 3 Desmond is tempted to a Faustian bargain by his psychic flashes. He comes to believe that if he lets Charlie die as seen in his vision, Desmond's beloved Penny will come to the island. Desmond comes very close to letting Charlie perish, but does save Charlie (just barely). Diegetically, it's seen that the figure Desmond thought would come to the island is not Penny, is someone else entirely-- but extra-diegetically, it's as if Desmond's breaking of the bargain cost him the chance to be with Penny again. Admittedly, since Desmond is reunited with Penny at the end of Season 4, it's something less than a supreme sacrifice, but Desmond doesn't know that in Season 3.

I'll close by clarifying that I'm no way implying that anything the LOST-makers do will be directly influenced by the works of Shyamalan. But I do think like-minded creators seek narrative answers in parallel ways, and that's what keeps me hoping that the conclusion of LOST will be at least as moving and satisfying as that of the Shyamalan film.

P.S. For some reason I can't remember if the Moore's little daughter is with them when they do the big climactic clinch. But whether she is or not, that detail doesn't change my interpretation of the figurative transcendence.


Charles Reece said...

I haven't finished reading your post, but a few things:

1. I quite enjoyed the little bit of Lewis that I've read, namely The Screwtape Letters and the first Narnia book (the latter I read as a youngin).

2. A freewill outcome would be a cheat not because of the Manichaeism, but because of the future-telling abilities displayed by many of the characters, and 'all roads to lead to one' sort of metaphysics of the show. Fate and freewill are incompatible. An infinite amount of possible worlds, however, might be able to offer an alternative. However, it's a bit late in the game, so it's going to be difficult for that not to feel like a cheat.

3. Christian freewill is an illusion based on the way they've defined their god: omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. That's why the theological determinists are more rationally consistent. Sartre actually was a philosophical libertarian, which is why I prefer his outlook.

Gene Phillips said...

1. By my citing of your "shit-list" I just meant that if you have a philosophical aversion to Manicheanism, you might not like the way the Narnian universe ends up. Unless you simply read it for pure expressive pleasure, that is.

2. I didn't say that the Manichaean opposition would be the source of any cheat; I said it would be a cheat to bring in a deus ex machina-- which, come to think of it, really doesn't apply so much to stories where the author has predicated the story on the activity of some god. So Euripides' ION is safe, but LOST wouldn't be if the show elected to have the newlyintroduced Jacob wave his hand and make everything all better. But I don't think the show will go that way. What we should see is an accounting that indicates the movements of the "demigods" from episode one on, to remove that "late in the game" feel.

The producers are still playing things a little cagey as to whether the future is as fixed as the experience of some individuals, such as Desmond, might indicate. I'm sure I've seen a recent quote where Cuse and Lindelof said they liked the idea of an unreliable narrator who told others the truth as he saw it, but didn't know that this was not the whole truth. Sounds like one way Desmond's experiences might be up for re-interpretation.

3. It's always arguable that Jehovah's omniscience as an Item of Faith-- and not just as a poetic exaltation of a deity, as "all-knowing" may be in the Bible-- is a later development that doesn't represent the original thought behind something like the Garden of Eden myth. I don't remember anything that expressly says in Genesis that God knows in advance that Adam and Eve will sin, though certainly centuries of Christian belief would aver that If He Was Omniscient He Must Have Known. Maybe the LOST guys will actually get closer to the original mythic core of Christian myth than a lot of later theorists did.

I mostly mentioned Sartre because he does seem to evince the kind of deterimistic conclusions I think LOST may try to avoid.