Friday, February 5, 2010

"The same dead thing alive": Death, Time, And How I Came To Understand "Lost."

After spending time in the jungles of Vietnam [a place not unlike the stomping grounds of our favorite castaways], war correspondent Michael Herr wrote in his book Dispatches about the horrors he witnessed there, and in particular of a day when he saw the burned corpses of prisoners waste away in the rain. "It was on one of those days," Herr said, "that I realized that the only corpse I couldn't bear to look at would be the one I would never have to see."

Herr was blessed then that he was not John Locke - or perhaps we should say the New Locke - who not only marched past the corpse which was in his spitting image, but also spoke of the man whose body he now inhabited in the past tense. How then could there be two Lockes [or if we count the Locke who appears to still be in his wheelchair as another entity entirely, three Lockes]? If the only similarity between all the Lockes is that they merely look the same, can we then assume that ultimately, the body is inconsequential? In other words, as your mother would say, it’s what's inside that counts - the soul of a paraplegic, the soul of the man of faith, the soul of an evil smoke monster. But what then, to make of the fact that Jack had instructions to bring the dead body of Locke back to the island in the place of his father's corpse to recreate the circumstances of the original Oceanic Flight 815? Can one death be substituted for another? And what about Christian's body going missing? And most importantly, the big wrench in the whole situation: are these realities separate? Do they intermingle? Should one Locke even come to bear on the other? SO MANY QUESTIONS.

After Lost's mind melting 6th season premiere I was pondering all this, and like a bolt of lightning, an epiphany came to me. I was washing my hands, the water reminding me what implications Sayid's "baptism" in that Temple pool might have on his "rebirth" at the end of the episode. But this thought about rebirth suddenly reminded me of a paper I had written in my undergraduate days, about death and resurrection in Shakespeare's play Cymbeline, and Jacques Derrida's book The Gift Of Death. The trope of resurrection runs rampant in Cymbeline, just as it does in Lost - so why not use one to illuminate the other? [Or at least use that as a jumping off point anyway]

But of course the resurrection story is nearly as old as time - it reaches from Osiris in ancient Egypt through the Bible and everywhere beyond and in between- Cymbeline and Lost are merely two retellings. They are however two retellings that I think have a lot in common, but then, that's probably just my personal biases speaking. But I've happily let Lost boggle my mind for going on six seasons now, and this is the first time I've seen the whole mess with lucidity so I think it's worth a hashing out. Let's begin shall we?

And if you're going to talk about resurrection there is only one place to begin: with death. You can't have one without the other. And no one on Lost has died or should have died as many times as Locke - he was pushed out a window, crashed in a plane, and was strangled by Ben. But for all those times he's also been reborn, whether it was not allowing his injury to keep him from going on a "walkabout" in Australia, landing on the Island with control again of his legs, or appearing back on the Island seemingly alive. Locke has been through this cycle many times, but the most fascinating is the most recent - mainly because it’s also the most insane. How did Ben strangle Locke to death, yet there is a walking/talking New Locke on the Island? I don't necessarily know how - that is a mystery season 6 will hopefully reveal - but the resurrection allegory [with possibly sinister overtones] is quite clear.

The question then becomes which Locke is the real Locke, insomuch as we can believe anything in the Lost universe is actually "real" at all. Death has a way of stripping us of all pretense - it is hard to conceal who you really are when all the trappings of the material world are rendered meaningless. "Modern individualism, as it has developed since the Renaissance," Derrida writes in The Gift of Death, "concerns itself with the role that is played rather than with this unique person whose secret remains hidden under the social mask." These "social masks" take a variety of forms, but with death they become useless: a corpse doesn't need to lie about going to an Ivy League school to get a job, because well, a corpse doesn't need a job.

As such, death becomes a moment in which our true Selves are defined, as in Derrida's words, death truly is "less an imposition than a liberator." This is because of all things, no one can die our death for us; other people can do a lot of things for us, they can run to the store to buy us bread, they can pick our dog up from the vet, but they cannot die our death for us. More than anything else death is the one unavoidable moment we must undertake on our own, and therefore the moment in which we are most truly ourselves. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul wrote that "The world in its present form is passing away," and what's left is usually the truth: a major subplot of Cymbeline involves King Cymbeline’s daughter Imogen, who in typical Shakespearean fashion spends part of the play disguised as a boy to avoid some trial or another, and her alter ego Fidele is drugged and thought dead. After she is left for dead, Imogen awakes and returns to court free of pretense and as herself. She is in effect, reborn. Similarly, in that most well known of resurrection stories, after his Resurrection Jesus is revealed as divine, and in Lost’s version of this trope New John Locke can reveal himself evil smoke monster?

So then was this evil Man In Black/Smokie always a part of the Locke we knew, just not revealed? Or are they really two different entities? [I don't know, that's what Season 6 is for] But for the purposes of this discussion, it seems to make sense that the Man In Black aligned himself with John Locke for a particular reason and purpose- even if we don't necessarily know what they are just yet. But what about that corpse of Locke that Illana and company have been carrying about in a box? It was supposed to be a substitute for the corpse of Christian Shepherd on the Ajira flight - Jack even went so far as to put his father's shoes on it - but can one corpse even be substituted for another? Derrida seems to think not, he writes:

I can die for the other in a situation where my death gives him a little longer to live, I can save someone by throwing myself in the water or fire in order to temporarily snatch him from the jaws of death, I can give her my heart in the literal or figurative sense in order to assure her of a certain longevity. But I cannot die in her place. I cannot give my life in exchange for her death.

This all seems to make more sense with the revelation that Christian's body might not have been on the original Oceanic flight at all, meaning that Locke's body turned out to not be a substitute for anything. Instead, perhaps it is as Paul writes in First Corinthians, "If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual one." We have [at least] two bodies of Locke: the natural one being carried by Illana, but also the spiritual one, capable of transforming [Or as I’ll discuss later, perhaps the proper word to use here is “transfiguring”] into a smoke monster.

Indeed it seems that none of the castaways can be substituted - all the Oceanic 6 needs to be present on the Ajira flight for it to make it back to the Island. And in the 6th season premiere Juliet implores Sawyer to let her go because she "has to die someday," and it becomes clear that no matter how many times Sawyer drop kicks Jack to the face it will not bring her back. Conversely, Juliet claims she detonated the bomb because she wanted to essentially give Sawyer a new life off the Island, but if you cannot give a life in exchange for a death, it seems that the plan did not work and everyone is still stranded. Of course when Miles "spoke" to Juliet after her death he said her message was that "it worked," which seems to somehow be related to the weird "flashsideways" which were also occurring this episode. But then again, Juliet isn't so far present in this separate reality, lending credence to the idea again that at least in her case, death is not to be exchanged. Just as discussed earlier then, death is the moment of revelation of the true Self, it is as Heidegger wrote, "By its very essence, death is in every case mine, insofar as it 'is' at all." Death is able to create the Self in that one's death is one's own - no one can die for another, and all must die eventually. Or as Michael Herr duly noted, all corpses are the same except one: yours.

The wrinkle in this whole idea of course is that if death/resurrection creates the ultimate Self - and it does this for everyone - does one just become a Self amongst Selves? It’s the age old problem: if we all tell our kids they're special, does the fact that everyone is special make "special" less, well, special? If death takes away all our material distinctions revealing the true Self behind them in doing so it levels us as well; earthly titles and attachments are incapable of keeping us from death. In what is perhaps Cymbeline's most well known scene, Imogen's half brothers perform a funeral for her, even though she is disguised and they think she is the boy Fidele [Oh Shakespeare you crazy old fool. I love you.]. They sing a song for her, famously saying "Golden lads and girls all must/ as chimney sweepers, come to dust."

[Oh, for fun here is Loreena McKennitt's version of Shakespeare's song:]

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. This could also go a long way in explaining the seeming contradiction in the idea of multiple Lockes floating about the Island, in that it’s not a contradiction so much as in the end it doesn't matter at all. Death renders a body nothing more than a body, as "The scepter, learning, physic must/ All follow this and come to dust." As such death comes to both hero and villain, or as Shakespeare writes, "Thersites' body is as good as Ajax'/ when neither are alive." And for all intents and purposes, I don't really think Locke is "alive" right now, at least not in the traditional biological sense.

Likewise, when the castaways arrive on the Island many of their skills and social statuses from back in the "real world" are made moot and useless. Eventually, Sawyer the con man becomes a leader of the Dharma Initiative while Jack the doctor is forced to become a lowly janitor. And it’s not like Hurley's massive lottery winnings from back home ever did him any good against a smoke monster and polar bears. I don't really think being on the Island means you're dead, just figuratively dead to the outside world. I know the whole “The Island is purgatory! Or the Island is hell! Etc” interpretations are out there still even though the show’s producers have tried to discourage them, but hey, they’re out there. But still I think it’s a perspective worth noting, especially when you consider it in the context of this line of Shakespeare’s made pertinent to Jack, who thinks he can save everyone: "By med'cine life may be prolonged, yet death/ will seize the doctor too." Watch your back Jack!

So after all that rambling, suffice it to say that death as its represented in Lost can be distilled as this: it creates the Self as it destroys the Self, and in doing so essentially creates the ultimate paradox. The magic of the paradox is that each half negates the other, leaving us with essentially...nothing. But what is more impossible, more Other, than nothing? As Lear famously says, nothing can come of nothing, and the Other is that which is so different we cannot grasp it. And if we put our hands in front of us in the air and close them it becomes quite obvious that we literally cannot firmly grasp at "nothing." The supreme Other is clearly that which is divine, the possibility of the impossible [Like being able to actually grasp at nothing]. In being such a paradox then, death becomes a pathway to the divine. All this is just a stupidly convoluted and nonsensical way of saying what most people already believe: to get on the stairway to heaven, you have to die first.

This is perhaps a childish way to think about all this – but remember in the Harry Potter series how JK Rowling sets strict rules for magic in her world? One of them is that you just can’t create what you want out of thin air, you have to start with something first; you change a muffin into a steak, but you can’t just wave your wand and have a steak appear. Ostensibly this is so wizards don’t do things like running around creating all the money they want, and when they do it ends up disappearing or being cursed [Ahahahaha Fred and George]. Clearly, even if you’re a wizard nothing can come of nothing, but you can change something old into something new. Harry and crew spend years at Hogwarts practicing this, trying to change birds into teacups or whatever in Transfiguration class – a choice of words which I am sure was no accident on Rowling’s part.

In the Bible, Jesus' Resurrection is foreshadowed by the Transfiguration, when he led Peter, James and John to a mountain top and was transformed to something else entirely in front of their eyes. According to Matthew, "he was transformed before them; his face shone like the sun and

his clothes became white as light." Jesus warns his disciples to "not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead," because like Elijah, John the Baptist and the other prophets before him "they did not recognize him but did to him whatever they pleased. So also will the Son of Man suffer at their hands." Locke too is a prophet before his time that went unrecognized; he was ranting and raving about faith and miracles and the Island's healing powers long before Jack was ranting and raving about faith and destiny and nuclear bombs.

After the Resurrection Jesus finds himself similarly transformed; though he is supposedly himself, he often goes unrecognized by his followers. Most famous perhaps is the story of his appearance on the Road to Emmaus, as Luke writes about two disciples who on the day of the Resurrection were walking and talking and "Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him." John too, writes of Jesus' appearances after his Resurrection, such as when he appeared to a group of disciples out fishing. But, as John continues, "Jesus was standing on shore; but the disciples did not realize it was Jesus." Likewise, when Locke returns to the Island nearly everyone - Sun, Ben, Richard, etc - [rightly] expresses incredulity that the man before them is the Locke they knew.

A similar subplot courses through Cymbeline; after Imogen returns to her father’s court as herself instead of Fidele many do not recognize her in her new state. It is as though she too has undergone some sort of figurative transfiguration and is proclaimed by one of the lords as "The same dead thing alive." To be resurrected in effect then is to be the same...but also undeniably different. To be in other words, John Locke, but John Locke with some surprising new intentions, like leading an insurrection against Jacob.

The challenge which clearly this New Locke faces is how then does one reenter the earthly world when the miracle of resurrection has already come? Much as Paul preaches, one must continue to live in this world, while being attuned to the next. Paul chastises the Corinthians by telling them that they must not behave in “an ordinary human way” – they must transcend the flesh. Resurrection is of course the ultimate transcendence and ultimate impossibility [To continue the lame comparisons, Rowling makes it abundantly clear that the other thing even magic cannot do it bring people back from the dead]. If we stick with the idea that the impossible is just another word for the divine, we can begin to see what Derrida means when he says that what matters is “the possibility of such an event but not the event itself.” Not to get all Don Draper quoting Sal Romano quoting Balzac, but that’s just Derrida’s fancy pants deconstructionist way of saying that “Our greatest fears lie in anticipation.” And based on all our 2012 fears, Y2K fears and the like we’re living in anticipation of one thing – the end. In religious terms, we’re living in messianic time, the remnant of time left over before the Resurrection repeats itself in the Second Coming.

In messianic time, time – at least how we generally think of it, chronologically – ceases to matter, as the Truth has already been discovered in the first Resurrection miracle, and as a consequence it is time collapsed in on itself, time that does not move in a strict linear fashion. Chronological time is for those who are still bound by the material world, who still live by the turning of the globe, the rising and setting of the sun; messianic time is time after resurrection has found a way to shatter such material boundaries. In his book The Time That Remains, Giorgio Agamben defines messianic time as “the time that time takes to come to an end.” That which occurs in the meantime – what Walter Benjamin called the Jetztzeit, or here-and-now - is actually in Agamben's words "a time within time." Agamben claims we only string time along chronologically because we need a neat way to represent it to ourselves, but in actuality time is more compressed, as things only make sense in the context of what has already already happened before. Benjamin explains it by saying the French Revolution only makes sense if we consider it an attempt to make a new Rome, or that a new fashion only makes sense because we know that compared to what fashion has already occurred it is "new."

It goes without saying that the idea of "a time within time" is paramount to Lost. We've seen many variations of it on the show, whether it be the sigh, now seemingly simple flashbacks of early seasons, to actual time travel, to now in the new season a "flashsideways." The idea of messianic time then is that time is like a coil or spring rolled tight, and as we watch it unravel behind us things begin to make sense, but because time is wound so tightly the past is always in present and vice versa. As Benjamin writes:

Are we not touched by the same breath of air which was among that which came before? is there not an echo of those who have been silenced in the voices to which we lend our ears today? have not the women, who we court, sisters who they do not recognize anymore? If so, then there is a secret protocol [Verabredung: also appointment] between the generations of the past and that of our own. For we have been expected upon this earth.

In this context all that time traveling that literally made some people’s brains bleed isn’t necessarily travel, because the past and present are sort of like matryoshka dolls, one nestled inside the other.

There is of course one moment that will crystallize all this murkiness – the repeat of the Resurrection, the return of the Messiah, the Last Judgment. Because if we want to quote Jacob, “It only ends once.” Think of it this way: When you read a book does the whole thing really make sense until you finish it? Or as Benjamin says, “Indeed, the past would fully befall only a resurrected humanity. Said another way: only for a resurrected humanity would its past, in each of its moments, be citable. Each of its lived moments becomes a citation a l'ordre du jour [order of the day] – whose day is precisely that of the Last Judgment.”

Until that time, moments just keep piling up, creating the mish-mash we think of as history. Once again, Benjamin has this to say:

There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and hiswings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair [verweilen: a reference to Goethe’s Faust], to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.

Of course, to complete Jacob’s now infamous line, “It only ends once, everything that comes before is just progress.” But his definition of progress seems to fit Benjamin’s – not a chain of events, but a single catastrophe, an ill fated loop our castaways are stuck in during which the Oceanic 815 crash seems to repeat and relive itself in numerous and uncounted ways.

A pretty obvious interpretation of the whole Jacob/Man In Black standoff is that they are about to engage in an epic battle of good vs. evil, like the one that is supposed to occur on the Judgment Day. So it would make sense if the point of Locke’s “resurrection” is that it really is a Second Coming of sorts, and that after this moment, in retrospect all the ridiculous time jumps we’ve endured will finally make sense. Though since New Locke admitted to being Smokie, for the time being it seems like he’s on the evil side of this rumble.

So all this stuff which sort of aligns Locke with Jesus is probably wrong, as he’s probably the devil. So ahahahahaha everything I just wrote is probably moot. Whatever.


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