Thursday, May 26, 2005

"Be You Angels?" "Nay, We Are But Men."

Contemplating their Preterition, the castaways await word from Gilligan and -- most of all -- The Skipper

I don't harbor much affection for geekazoid types who analyze Star Wars into the ground. You just want to smack 'em upside the head with a copy of anything by John Barth and tell 'em to quit wasting their goddamned education.

Which is why it embarrasses me a bit to announce that I have formulated a Grand Unified Theory to explain the ABC show Lost, which aired its season finale last night. I've poked around a bit on chat boards dedicated to the show (my selflessness knows no bounds -- whatta buncha maroons!) and nobody else seems to have picked up on my angle. Which means that either
  • I'm completely up a tree
  • Or I'm so freakin' sane that what I'm about to say will TOTALLY BLOW YOUR MIND.
The Grand Unified Theory of Lost first began to suggest itself back in Episode 16. A theme of the episode is predestination, which comes out most clearly in a flashback scene in a bar between Sawyer and Christian, Jack's father, an alcoholic defrocked surgeon. Christian (suggestive name, eh?) opines that some people are just meant to suffer. "That's why the Red Sox will never win the series," he says. When Sawyer asks him why he doesn't call his son and tell him he loves him, his answer is "Because I am weak."

Now, hearken back to your Protestant theology class. (You did study Protestant theology, didn't you? You're not allowed to bitch if you didn't.) Who was it who posited Predestination, the idea that God chooses some to be saved and some to be damned?

Why, that would be your John Calvin, of course.

In Calvinism, Election (predestination to Heaven) and Preterition are based on God's will. Not on your acts in this world, the depth of your faith, or how many times you prayed to Baby Jeebus last week. These decisions were made before you were ever born -- even before the world was created.

Calvinism, needless to say, is an appallingly heartless theology.

As Calvinists view themselves as the Elect (aber natürlich!), they feel themselves uniquely chosen by God to rule the world, to remake government in their own image. Theocrats. (Any of this starting to ring any bells?)

Since I had that insight in Episode 16, the show has felt like a refresher course in post-Reformation European philosophy, leading up to the Enlightenment -- I don't think it's at all an accident, for example, that two characters are named Locke and Rousseau.

So let's take a look at last night's season-ending cliffhanger with a Calvinist eye, shall we? (You're not gonna tell me you watched that miserable American Idol piece-a-shit, are you? Oh, I'm so disappointed in you!)

At the Black Rock, while Jack, Locke and Kate are inside fetching the dynamite, Arzt bitches at Hurley about the cliqueishness of the show's protagonists. He can't possibly be clearer: He's a minor character, plainly Preterite, complaining that the Elect have all the fun. What does Arzt do when he's not cast away on an island? He's a science teacher -- not only a disbeliever but a dithering, weak man. But when the dynamite appears he finds himself in his pedagogic element. He begins to rabbit on about the stuff and is just about to fill us in on Alfred Nobel when -- ka-flooey -- it begins to rain bits of Preterition all over the jungle.

I think we could have seen it coming, don't you? Some people are just meant to suffer.

(You know who were the televisual Kings of Preterition? Those red-shirted guys on the old Star Trek series. You go down to a planet's surface with Kirk and Spock wearing a red shirt, it's a stone guarantee you will not live to the first commercial break. Doomed, doomed, doomed. The funny part about old Arzt is that he knew he was Preterite. He shoulda saved his breath -- he shouldn't have been Arzt, oh god I crack me up.)

[Later addendum: It's just occurred to me that Arzt and Jack are mirror-images: Both are scientists and thus disbelievers in Predestination. Preterite Arzt falls victim to his carelessness with the dynamite, while Elect Jack subsequently takes up the dynamite-burden and completes the journey.]

As the show progresses, we see in a series of flashbacks how the Elect came to be on the plane that crashed. Not a single one of them was on that plane because he chose to be -- each one was Predestined in one way or another. The numbers in Hurley's magic series -- numbers that have brought nothing but appallingly bad luck to anyone who comes near him -- appear everywhere during the last half-hour of the show.

The Calvinist talk becomes overt nearer the climax, when Locke and Jack come to loggerheads: Locke tells Jack that the reason he believes the hatch in the jungle contains "hope" is that he believes in destiny. "I don't believe in destiny," Jack, the man of science and medicine, says. "Yes, you do," Locke replies. "You just don't know it yet." (You'll know it, Jack, he may as well have gone on, when we Elect are standing before God. Remember, in Calvinism you don't even have to believe in predestination; you're already in The Club no matter what.)

So what of young Walt, who is snatched by The Others (we think it's The Others)? Why are they so interested in him?

Remember that there's always been something fishy about Walt. Remember that odd things happen around young Walt. It appears that Walt can actually make weird things happen -- there seems to be a connection between the polar bear in his comic book and the polar bear on the island. He seems to be able to make birds crash into windows.

In a Calvinist world where everything is predestined, what does the ability to foresee events mean? Where would a boy with ESP stand with God if he can bend events to his will? Who's the only human (or half-human/half-god, depending on who you ask) who's ever been able to pull off that sort of trick?

Oh, one other thing.

Unitarian Universalism grew out of a reaction in Britain against the harshness and ugliness of Calvinism. And which British philosopher, himself a Unitarian, the founder of what John Stuart Mill would come to call empiricism, had a seminal influence on the American Unitarian church? Who advocated religious tolerance and the subjection of religious assertions to the cold light of reason? Whose philosophical contributions were as important as any in fomenting what we now fondly remember as The Enlightenment?

Why, that would be your John Locke, of course.


Linkmeister said...

Grins. That's as good an explanation as any that can be found at Television Without Pity.

Funny, I hadn't thought of the Locke/Rousseau connection. I bow to your erudition, sir.

bunny said...

Is this Enlightenment day or something? Why haven't I seen the memo on this?

I ask because the very next thing I read on the web after this story was Left2Right's post about the rejection of Calvinism leading to the American revolution.

Neddie said...

Bunny: EVERY day is Enlightenment Day here at By Neddie Jingo!

I think the Enlightenment is on people's minds because we have a large contingent of wackos and Yahoos running around telling big fat lying lies about the intellectual underpinnings of the American Revolution and the U.S. Constitution -- lies that are of the most urgent consequence. We need to call attention to these lies: If not us, then who?

Linkmeister: A low, sweeping bow with flourishes of my befeathered tricorn hat to you.

Mrs. Packer said...

Oww...Oww..Oww...Professor Uncle Neddie you're hurting this poor girl's head! And here I thought television was just a vast wasteland.

Hey, Gilligan wore a red shirt. Good thing he wasn't on Star Trek.

~Mrs. Packer

Vache Folle said...

Brilliant and elegant interpretation, Neddie!

As a recent convert to Calvinism (having been tormented by the Arminian heresy most of my life), I would like to point out that predestination and election can be a tremendous relief and comfort. No amount of human works or merit will bring salvation, and no amount of trying to believe will bring belief, as this is entirely involuntary. Moreover, grace is persistent and the elect cannot be unelected. I believe that I am the beneficiary of God's grace and I expect that this will be manifested through an inward transformation via the workings of the Holy Ghost. There is no particular incentive to moralize or to control others. (I could be wrong, of course, in which case I will be pretty disappointed on the "Great Gettin' Up Mornin'".)

The religious right in America is generally not Calvinist in orientation. These are Baptists and the like who believe that grace must be combined with an initial act of human will by the believer and that one can fall from grace. Accordingly, more attention is paid to sin and temptation, and there is a desire to create a world in which these are minimized. The non-Calvinists Christian must continually reaffirm his will to receive grace by being sinless and rooting out sin in others.

Kevin Wolf said...

Neddie, for the first time I'm unhappy that I don't watch LOST because I'm sure I can't appreciate your post. (Not watching is merely my acknowledgement that I will miss too many episodes to make it worth trying; it's not a judgement on the quality of the show.)

I will catch up by renting the DVDs and take the make up exam later, if that's okay with you, Prof.

Bobby Lightfoot said...

Wow. That's crazy. And it's pretty much too sewn up not to be true.

This is a very hopeful development.

XTCfan said...

Neddie, you're the only guy I know who can watch crappy network TV and come out of it with the generosity to ascribe a philosophical theory to its creators.

Me? I watched Team America: World Police last night, and laughed 'til I cried. The great thing about these guys is that they cut absolutely no one a break in their battle against extremism and their quest for a sane middle ground (and they do it in a way
that celebrates the adolescent in everyone ... if you've ever seen a puppet puking his guts out, you'll know what I mean).

Parker and Stone's philosophy is a simple one. When Gary, the Team America "lead actor," is called on the spot to explain the team's actions as they're trying to stop Kim Jong Il from detonating WMDs throughout the world while world leaders are diverted by Hollywood's best and brightest at a "peace conference" Kim's organized, he says:

"We're dicks! We’re reckless, arrogant, stupid dicks. And the Film Actors Guild [F.A.G.] are pussies. And Kim Jong Il is an asshole. Pussies don’t like dicks because pussies get fucked by dicks.

But dicks also fuck assholes. Assholes who just wanna shit on everything.

Pussies may think that they can deal with assholes their way, but the only thing that can fuck an asshole is a dick ... a dick with some balls. The problem with dicks is that sometimes they fuck too much, or fuck when it isn't appropriate, and it takes a pussy to show 'em that.

But sometimes pussies get so full of shit that they become assholes themselves -- because pussies are only an inch and a half away from assholes.

I don’t know much in this crazy, crazy world. But I do know that if you don't let us fuck this asshole, we're gonna have our dicks and our pussies all covered in shit."

Sounds reasonable to me, Horatio.

As for me, I'm still trying to figure out if I'm a dick or a pussy. And hoping I'm not too much of an asshole.

Bobby Lightfoot said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
bernard purdie said...

Oops! Called m'self Bobby Lightfoot by mistake!! Hee!


God ding it! you use yo' mouth prettier'n a ten dollar whore.

See, I always thought "Lost In Space" was a postmodern reevaluation of Descartianism, but who's gonna listen to my ass?

Except when I tol' George Martin to put my vocal through the leslie speaker on "Tomorrow Never Knows".

check it - here's a picture of me....oh, never mind.

res publica said...

That was the most entertaining bit of cultural commentary I've read in some time..fine work.

I must agree with Vache Folle, however, that most Evangelical Christians in America are most definitely *not* Calvinists. If anything, they are volunteerists in the extreme, with an astonishing faith in the power of human choice. "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?" Surely I'm not the only person who hears that question at least once a week?

That is, incidentally, why evangical wingnuttery is so pernicious. Calvinism created a suffocating anxiety that suffused the culture, and was therefore easy to refute, as the Unitarians discovered in their heyday. I think Universalism had a far different reliationship with predestination, since it's basically Calvinism with a positive attitute: "you're going to heaven whether you like it or not!" Of course, by the time the AUA and UCA merged ('67, I think?), both denominations had ranged so far afield of classical Christianity that the problem of predestination was no longer a live question for either of them, really.

Charles said...

Thanks to Neddie Jingo for visiting us at Mercury Rising!

And congratulations on accumulating a witty, erudite, full-snark band of posters.

I don't think belief in the doctrine of predestination falls cleanly along church lines. It's perhaps more of a class issue. Those who have made it in material terms seem to feel that their lofty social standing is a step on a steadily rising career path to a Grander Mansion in the Sky. In matters religious as in matters rental and utility, the poor rely on higher grace. The middle class know that you have to tell everyone you're sure that you're in the chips, while secretly agonizing over the bills and the checkbook at night.

And be sure to join the Unitarian Jihad!