LOST Love: a pop culture love story in the 21st century

Everything happens for a reason.  Live together or dies alone.

Well… that was it.  Just finished watching the season six (and show) finale of LOST with my Labrador laying at my feet…

The summations of LOST are surely flooding the inboxes, FB status updates, and Tweets of many of your friends even as we speak.

LOST was a show that I came to late in the game.  I had recently moved back to the USA from Scotland when Oceanic 815 crash landed on that mysterious island for its pilot episode September 22, 2004.  My life was pretty crazy that fall – Diana was pregnant with Miriam, I was juggling a couple of jobs, a new mortgage, and trying to acculturate back into American life.  Having flown back and forth across the Atlantic more than a few times that year in the process of relocating to the states meant that a plane crash premise seemed a bit too close to home anyway.   When early adopters of the show tried to explain it to me, it seemed to defy a clear plot or even character explanation (“well… they are on this island… with a polar bear and some monster in the woods that you can’t see…”)  The comparisons to Gilligan’s Island for the emo set came to mind.  Then I finally succumbed and watched season 1 on DVD that summer.  As season 2 started up and we learned about the Hatch, the DHARMA initiative, the HANSO foundation and were introduced to new characters like Mr. Eko and Desmond Hume (my two favorite characters of the entire series) I was definitely hooked.  That said, I probably didn’t out myself as a LOST fan until season 3 kicked into gear.  Like a lot of what made LOST a great show, I had to embrace the mystery of it all and the fact that, in the end, whether I ever had all the answers wasn’t the point.  I was along for the ride come hell, high water, smoke monster or Others.

LOST was, plain and simple, a near perfect pop culture TV show and in that way came to demonstrate what life is about because pop culture, plain and simple, is about us.

It’s basic conceit was seen many times before: strangers thrown together by fate are forced to solve a supernatural puzzle.   Going back to the German romanticism of Goethe, Fichte  and Schilling through to recently cancelled attempts such as The NineHeroes,  and Flashforward – this premise is hardly unique.  As a prime time show on one of the big four networks, it had quite a battle against the cable, YouTube and Netflix world it found itself in.  Additionally, given that it couldn’t bring in audiences with overt sex and violence like HBO and Showtime, it actually had to be creative in ways the shock and awe ease of soft core porn and gratuitous bloodshed (read: Sex in the City, Sopranos, True Blood, Six Feet Under, Deadwood) never did.  Where cable shows I just referred to were quickly lauded for being ground breaking and transformational in the medium, I would love to see how they would fair if these shows had to keep people’s clothes on, offer the suggestion of dread rather than show extreme violence, and offer characters who live out of their hopes and losses and not merely their sex lives.  Just sayin’ … but I digress…

Slate – one of my fav online magazines – has been focusing its TV club to a ongoing discussion of season 6 and I have to agree with the summation that was offered by Chadwick Miflin:

I’ve written before that this show is as much about power as it is about free will. As the season ends, I’m realizing that on Lost they’re one and the same. Those who have power can exert their will on others, shaping their destinies… the show is all about God complexes. How we pursue our own and how we make sense of everybody else’s.

Too true.  As the final scene in the church panned on the stained glass window that literally framed all the major world religions, the one character that has always been at the foreground has been God.   Whether people will feel that the show ended on a note of supreme synchronism or Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” is a matter of opinion and ultimately not terribly interesting to many folks.  Yes, the notion of what/who is animating everything, holding the universe together, bringing all THIS (whatever THIS is – “there is no “now” here, Jack”) is certainly vital to what makes us human.  But that it is also a mystery that will always escape my full comprehension is fine for such a time as this.  The bigger question – and what LOST ultimately challenges us as fans to reckon with – is not what it ALL means, but what do the people and place you are right now mean to you.  For those who are ready to “move on”, they embrace being embraced by love that goes beyond them and choose life with others rather than trying to stand at objective distance as a spectator.  In the end, the choice is ours.

Ben on the bench – being forgiven and invited doesn’t mean we still don’t have a choice to make

One of the simplest and most iconic images I will take away from the finale is Ben just sitting on the park bench outside the church as someone completely forgiven.  As John walks away from his wheelchair with the words “I forgive you”, as Hugo reminds him that he “was a great number 2” and asks whether he is coming ‘inside’ to be with everyone, Ben chooses to remind on the outside – forgiven and invited through and through.  Salvation (“letting go” or “moving on” in LOST speak) is not only a matter of being forgiven and being invited… we have to accept the invitation.  If we are not ready, no one is going to force us into glory.  The choice – as millions of tent revivalists have told millions of gathered standing on sawdust under the canopy of canvas, fire and brimstone – is ultimately ours to make.

My friend S. Brent Plate, a professor of religious studies at Hamilton College in New York, recently summed up the LOST phenomenon as the ‘ultimate reality show’ in that it doesn’t offer all the answers much like… well… life.  In a recent article in Religion Dispatches Plate sums up LOST this way:

Every time I have watched Lost over the past six seasons, John Donne’s seventeenth century refrain has echoed in my head: “No man is an island, entire of itself/ every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Simultaneously, the words of the great modern Catholic monk, Thomas Merton in No Man is an Island, reverberate: “We learn to live by living together with others, and by living like them.”

The island is not just a lost island, but a metaphor for human individuality, and ultimately of the bankruptcy of that mythology. There is no individual, says Donne and Merton, at least not one worth knowing.

In other words, the secret of Lost was already summed up in the mantra of the second season finale: “Live together, die alone.” Such a great contrast to the existentialist view of life that tells us we are born alone and die alone. Contrast Merton: “We learn to live by living together with others.” Even one of the main writers of Lost, Damon Lindelof, says “in order to redeem yourself, you can only do it through a community.” That is the secret that is revealed, unveiled. This is the apocalypse of the story.

In the end, it’s a love story…

Where do I place the center of the LOST universe?  I believe the simple genius of the show, what kept people coming back week after week and year after year, was that once you boiled down the six seasons, it was essentially a study in love: what it means to love well and see the world as one does who loves utterly and completely.

St. Augustine: The Patron Saint of LOST

If there was a patron saint for the LOST universe, it would be St. Augustine of Hippo.  Augustine argued that the universe is essentially a study in ordered and disordered love.  Ordered love is that which we live through redemption, grace and mercy.  It is the love of God in and through us.  It is the ability we have as created in the imago Dei (image of God) to love with reckless abandon.  To riff on Rick Warren, it is a purpose-drivenness to life.  In contrast, disordered love is that which is without concern for the other (or ‘Others’ in the LOST universe).  It is only concerned with our base nature and survival found in pragmatism and isolation from others.  Some would call this ‘sin’, ‘hell’ or even death.  How do we move from disordered to ordered love?  For Augustine it begins with illumination.  The world is a darkened place without light and in particular, the light provisioned by God’s illumination and enlightenment.  Where the manifold world religions and various Western philosophical traditions from Aristotle onward concur with the goal of humanity finding  enlightenment as vital, Augustine points to the illumination found in God as something of a different order than mere stoicism or right thinking.  For Augustine everything comes down to relationships.  God is first and foremost a relational reality and not merely an organizing principle.  Additionally, while God is primarily the basic support and underlying principle of our knowing activity for what is right and just in the world, God is not just what we long to see, but what powers the eye which sees.  So the light of God is not just ‘out there’, illuminating the order of being, as it is for Plato; it is also an ‘inner’ light. For Augustine, Alia est enim lux quae sentitur oculis; alia qua per oculos agitur et sentiatur (“There is one light which we perceive through the eye, another by which the eye itself is enabled to perceive”) This light is a “second light” to the light of God’s illumination so that soul is illuminated as bright as the external world: haec lux qua ista manifesta sunt, utique intus in anima est .   Similar to the light that is found on the island that is so pure and so perfect in all its truth  that Jacob guarded for so many centuries, it is this light that the world is known by and will continue to be known by unless it becomes disordered.

The importance of memories – flash backs, flash forwards, sideverses

Another legacy of LOST that ties to Augustine is the role that memories play in what it means to be human.  The show started after the dust of 9/11 and the Iraq War were settling around us and our cultural break with the 20th century brought with it some nostalgia.   For memory to be brought into embodied awareness in LOST (be it the sideverse, flashbacks for the viewer, what have you) memory must be formulated and awakened and is therefore perpetually engaged.  As seen particularly in season 6, the awakening of the true self means memories of lives we didn’t even know were latent and lost.   It is this in memoriam – memory as loss – that is core to Book X in Augustine’s autobiographical Confessions and constitutes the notion of nostalgia as the latent memory of the subject as a self overlaid by false images, or ‘false memory’ that distract the self from itself.  Nostalgia comes from the Greek roots νόστος nostos “returning home” and άλγος algos “pain”, to refer to the pain a subject feels because she wishes to return to her native land, and fears never to see it again.  Youth culture is framed by the perpetual state of nostaglia – triggering instant occasions for longing and loss without sufficient means to satiate this longing.  In this way nostalgia is akin to the notion of Sehnsucht found in German romanticism which the poet and essayist Matthew Arnold termed a “wistful, soft tearful longing” that is a deeper form of joy.  As the LOST sideverse characters slowly became aligned with the discord of their sideverse world due to the discord in the LOST island world, memories of how things were supposed to be came together and memory become a call to reality.  When all is said and done for Augustine, this nostaglia can either lead us into despair or redemption – because the longing for home will either call us to isolation or love ordered by finding ourselves with another.

So in the end, LOST is simply the 4 minute pop song to slow dance to, a soap opera that is faintly familiar, a romantic comedy in the multiplex in junior high, the soaring final battle scene in the epic drama, the t-shirt you have had since college you can’t seem to get rid of, the child’s drawing on the refrigerator, the dog laying at your feet on the winter’s night, the park bench you visited over the years that marks all the moments at the crossroads prior to taking the road less traveled by.

Why you may ask?

Because LOST is a memory bound up in love and longing that signaled for millions of people that as ridiculous as life on the island was, the reality of the life we live day to day was just as insane and far-fetched if it was devoid of love.  It is the material thing that signals something beyond itself and triggers the deeper nostalgia for something more.  For without love and the eternal light by which to see, hear, touch and taste that love by, this life – whether in a flash back, flash forward, or alternate reality – would not be worth living whether we battled commuter traffic or a vengeful smoke monster, punched a time clock or punched in a sequence of numbers every 108 minutes.  For in the end, it is about Desmond finding Penny, about Charlie finding Claire, Jack and Christian embracing, Sun and Jin finding each other, and it is about living together in the light of love rather than dying alone.  Perhaps this is something Ben is still pondering on that bench.

In 1976 Paul McCartney and Wings mused on the lead single from the Wings at the Speed of Sound album about whether “people had enough of silly love songs?” The next line answers without irony (probably because we didn’t ‘do’ irony in the 70’s) “I look around me and I see it isn’t so/ oh no.” For six seasons LOST sang along with McCartney and so did we.  We haven’t had enough of silly love songs by any stretch of the imagination and I worry about the day that we do.  While Sir Paul says it in song, St. Paul certainly said it best in poetry (as testified by the number of weddings I have done where couples choose these words from 1 Cornithians 13) when he framed the nature of love in this way:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

8Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Part of me loves to think of St. Paul watching LOST and nodding with approval as the show wrapped up tonight.   Perhaps he popped in his favorite LOST themed mixtape tonight that has in addition to tunes by Driveshaft,  Mama Cass Elliott, Bob Marley and others played on the show, Captain and Tennille’s 1975 Neal Sedaka cover song, “Love Will Keep Us Together” which appeared in episode 13 of this final season (“Some Like it Hoth”) and thought “yup… that about sums it up.”   Whether the island moves or not, whether the smoke monster escapes or whether the stock market collapses, love will indeed keep us together and will help us to remember… and to let go… and to move on.

Live together or die alone.  Everything has its reason.  Indeed.

Time to take my Labrador outside before closing my eyes for bed… it has been a long day’s night…

goodnight Ben…hope you find what you are looking for

6 Comments

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  1. fantastic. although…it would have been cooler to cite Mark Kozelek’s wistful cover (with Red House Painters) of “Silly Love Songs” than to bring Wings into the discussion…although, on the other hand, I loved your subtle shift from Sir Paul to St. Paul…

  2. Jeff, I just read this and – at the risk of sounding like ‘that guy’ – I think you’re completely wrong and simply romanticizing into existence what you want to see. LOST was never a love story, or if it was it was a second-rate one that has about as much lasting value as the typical four-minute pop song.

    I mean, come on, the main characters’ experiences of love were about as generic as any romantic comedy. Sure they tugged the heartstrings, but most of them were never that well developed (although that accusation could be leveled against much of the show in the last couple seasons).

    The main themes of LOST were destiny vs free will and faith vs reason. Or at least that’s what the show claimed to be. They also claimed early on that it would be entirely plausible without resorting to any supernatural involvement, but we see how well that worked out.

    It’s a major network TV show, so they tried to pander to everyone. In the long run, that made the writing weaker. Then, to try and wrap things up, they went with the “love story” ending. That’s not genius, that’s just sloppy writing.

  3. Having said all that, I do want to be fair… there was much that I liked about LOST, and the fact that it was the only TV show I watched religiously every week (yes, every single episode!) indicates that it is head and shoulders above most television these days… I guess I just feel disappointed, like I had such high expectations that I was bound to be let down in the end.

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