Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Plato And Lost: FLG's Last Word On The Subject

I was walking the dog and the reason that I felt so angry about the Lost finale hit me like a ton of bricks. I actually feel much better about the whole thing now that I understand it. When Lost began I thought that a television show that names its characters Christian Shepard and John Locke must have something meaningful to say about good and evil and human nature at the core of the show. Then you add in the island and its mysteries, and I assumed it was an allegory or something. Who knew? Not me, but I was hooked. Then the hatch reminded me of Plato's allegory of the cave and my assumption felt justified. As the plot developed, I kept going under that assumption.

Megan McArdle represents, I think, most people who liked the last episode:
Megan McArdle:
Because Lost was good at character, we actually got attached to these people, and the last scene highlights how tragically brief their life was. Sure, they're all together, but most of them barely were in real life--and the contrast is all the more effective because in the end, we don't really understand what the purpose of all this was. If there was any at all.

And of course, that throws us also against the tragedy of our own lives. We are none of us immune, but we start life with the illusion of it--as Hazlitt said, "To be young is to be as one of the immortal gods". I'd say that we spend the rest of our lives fighting to maintain that illusion, in the face of a ruthless universe. It's little wonder that despite the show's many flaws, I spent the last fifteen minutes with my arms wrapped tightly around my fiance, and my tears flowing freely. But then, I'm a sentimentalist at heart.

And then yesterday I received a forwarded email that is supposedly from somebody who worked on the show:
Sideways world is where it gets really cool in terms of theology and metaphysical discussion (for me at least -- because I love history/religion theories and loved all the talks in the writer's room about it). Basically what the show is proposing is that we're all linked to certain people during our lives. Call them soulmates (though it's not exactly the best word). But these people we're linked to are with us duing "the most important moments of our lives" as Christian said. These are the people we move through the universe with from lifetime to lifetime. It's loosely based in Hinduisim with large doses of western religion thrown into the mix.


For those that wonder -- the original ending started the moment Jack walked into the church and touches the casket to Jack closing his eyes as the other plane flies away. That was always JJ's ending. And they kept it.

I guess I always expected something better than new age, Oprah-esque mumbo jumbo. And the execution of that final point was just hamhanded. They tacked on an entirely new storyline that felt disjointed and weird. But let's ignore that.

I've read a lot of philosophy and theology. I've read John Locke, David Hume, St. Augustine, Aquinas, etc. I expected far more from a show that had the audacity to chose some of these for the names of its characters. I expected good theology or philosophy from such a show. I wasn't looking for Truth or even something I agreed with philosophically or theologically. But something fascinating and nuanced. And then, on the walk today, I realized that Plato was correct in Book X of the Republic:
The best of us, as I conceive, when we listen to a passage of Homer, or one of the tragedians, in which he represents some pitiful hero who is drawling out his sorrows in a long oration, or weeping, and smiting his breast --the best of us, you know, delight in giving way to sympathy, and are in raptures at the excellence of the poet who stirs our feelings most.

The poets play on our emotions, but have no comprehension of Truth. They deal in illusion to create emotion. For me, that's the key. And it also explains Megan McArdle's story above. I was naive to expect something meaningful or even thoughtful from a TV show. And the more I think about it, the more I've read in philosophy and theology, the more juvenile various dramatic approaches to these subjects seem. Perhaps if I had watched Babylon 5 or Lost or one of these shows when I was a teenager, then I'd have marveled at the profundity of the message. And I remember having that feeling sometimes after watching movies back then. Now, it just pisses me off instead. But the realization of why I'm pissed off makes me feel much, much better.


william randolph brafford said...

"I expected good theology or philosophy from such a show."

Yeah, that was your mistake.

The HBO style may yet be capable of producing some meaningful long-form drama; The Wire is as close as TV's ever gotten to greatness. But network TV? Nah.

Despite all the pointless gesturing toward intellectual history, what really counts in the world of critic/fans was the implicit commentary on genre conventions. That is, what matters for a show's reputation in internet fandom is how it relates to other television shows. For example: BSG was popular in part because it was an anti-Star Trek. With LOST, there's no one single show it was defining itself against, but the references and comparisons that matter are to other television narratives, not to Plato.

FLG said...


If that's how TV writers see themselves, as being in some sort of dialectic or competition or something with other tv shows, then maybe I ought to just stop watching.

And now that I think about, I don't really watch that much. I like Burn Notice and True Blood, but as total escapism that I don't expect anything from. Lost was the only one that I expected more from. Same for Sopranos at the time, and I felt the ending was perfect. Confusing, but perfect.

william randolph brafford said...

Well, the head writer for the new BSG wrote for Star Trek, and in his podcasts he spent a lot of time talking about the things the format of Star Trek wouldn't let him do. I would guess that most TV writers have had to work their way up from bad/formulaic shows, and when they get a measure of creative freedom, they do all the things they could never do before. I'm not sure where all the LOST writers came from, but I'd guess they're mostly TV writers. They were very clever for TV writers, but ultimately that's what they were.

That's one reason The Wire was so different, by the way: their writers were a newspaper reporter, an ex-cop/ex-teacher, three novelists, and a few others. I don't think there were any lifelong TV writers in the bunch.

As for people who obsess about (or just write about) LOST on the internet, like Doc Jensen or Noel Murray or Alan Sepinwall, they're pretty immersed in pop culture and TV-reviewing.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.