Friday, May 26, 2006

Tell of the Storm-tossed Man, O Muse!

Caution: Spoilers Galore. If you haven't watched the season-ender of Lost yet and you care about such things, go read Bobby Lightfoot or something.

I was prepared to watch Wednesday night's season finale of Lost curled up on the sofa with nothing in my mind, a fine young V&T at my elbow and a seraphic smile playing about my lips. The themes that had led to my earlier feverish theorizing about Enlightenment philosophy, predestination and free will seemed to have been largely downplayed by the show's writers this season. There have certainly been hints that the theme isn't dead, but the general trend has been away from the whole Enlightenment gestalt while the Castaways struggle to figure out the Hatch and deal with the Others.

My cheerful obliviousness lasted until approximately 30 seconds into this season-ending episode, when our new friend Desmond is speaking, in a flashback, to a contemptuous prison guard who is giving him back his pre-imprisonment possessions. The guard hands him his precious copy of Dickens' Our Mutual Friend. Desmond explains that he's saving Dickens' last complete novel as the last book he will ever read, something he will consume on his deathbed. "Nice idea," spits the soldier, "As long as you know when you're going to die." As long, that is to say, as your death is predestined.

The soldier then pronounces Desmond's full name: "Lance Corporal Desmond David Hume."

Ding, ding, ding! I sat bolt upright, and began beating on my laptop's keyboard, conveniently handy, and didn't stop until the show was over. Thanks be to Vishnu for TiVo.


We now have three Enlightenment philosophes on the Island: Rousseau, the Noble Savage who lives by herself, refusing to join the castaways -- refusing, that is, to submit to her namesake's Social Contract; the by now painfully conflicted John Locke, who began by believing passionately in Calvinistic predestination but has fallen away from what he now believes to be a delusion; and now David Hume -- he of the Scottish Enlightenment, one of the founders of the modern Scientific Method. The historical David Hume, a hero to right-thinking people everywhere, was profoundly influenced by the empiricism of the historical John Locke, who died a few years before Hume was born. Hume also befriended, and then fell out with, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. From the Wikipedia article on the history of the Scientific Method:
[A]mong [Hume's] positions was that there is no logical necessity that the future should resemble the past, thus we are unable to justify inductive reasoning itself by appealing to its past success. Hume's arguments, of course, came on the heels of many, many centuries of excessive speculation upon excessive speculation not grounded in empirical observation and testing.
(The name Desmond, by the way, derives from the Irish: "Man of South Munster." While this is not particularly suggestive, reading it as a variant on the French du mond gives us "Man of the World," which is very evocative indeed: "Man of the World, David Hume.")

How does Hume's return to the Island play out in the season-ending episode?

Locke begins to act on his idée fixe that the "every-108-minutes" task is a lie, believing it now to be a Skinnerian psychological experiment on the Hatch-dwellers conducted by observers on another part of the Island. Remember, last season he was the Man of Faith against Jack's Man of Science. He has abandoned, it appears, his unreasoned belief that the events on the Island are predestined. But he has passed on the 108-minutes belief system to Mr. Eko, who now obsesses on it through a clearly religious filter. When Locke attempts to end the delusionary experiment, Eko strikes him across the face with the stick on which he has carved Bible verses, and expels him from the Hatch in what looks for all the world exactly like an excommunication.

The cast-out Locke, bereft of the grounding of his faith, is found weeping in the woods by Charlie, who facilitiates his reunion with Desmond David Hume.

Now, how have the Castaways been approaching the problem of their stranding? Has a single one of them attempted to apply to their situation cold, hard reasoning based on facts-as-they-are-known? Rather than think their way through their problem, they blunder about blindly from one disaster to the next. Have they tried to perform experiments to discern the exact nature of that electromagnetic whatever-the-hell-it-is behind that concrete wall in the Hatch? Have they attempted to use the principles of celestial navigation to fix their position in the world? Surely they have accurate watches that still function and that are still fixed to Sydney Time; has one of them thought to establish their longitude using one of these watches as a chronometer? Have they so much as followed the cables that link their computer to the other parts of the Island? Drawn a diagram of the pipes and electrical wiring in the Hatch to attempt to understand the Doomsday Machine it controls?

The answer, of course, is No. They have thrown in their lot with a clumsy, unelected leader, Jack, who appears to have forgotten anything he may once have known about the Scientific Method -- and when attacked by the Others, whose first thought is to raise an army to prepare for war against an unknowable enemy of indeterminate strength. (Golly, where have I heard that before?) Locke is acting on evidence gleaned from a mysterious map he briefly saw painted on a blast-door -- a map that, we now know, was placed there by people even more desperately deluded than he. Sayid gave up on Rousseau's tantalizingly substantial but slightly askew maps of the Island after a few minutes' consideration in the first season. Every one of them falls into the trap of "excessive speculation upon excessive speculation not grounded in empirical observation and testing."

And who is it, in the episode's final few minutes, who is finally able to act on actual, concrete evidence? Who does the hard brain-work, who slogs through a pile of computer logs, printed on endless reams of that antiquated printer-paper, and through inductive analysis of irrefutable, empirical data, actually solves the problem of the 108-minute task?

Desmond "Man of the World" David Hume.

Meanwhile, I was using the evidence of my senses to objectively conclude that Evangeline Lilly's pitties are as turkey as evarrr.

Desmond David Hume as Odysseus
  • The love of Hume's life is named Penelope. After he is separated from her, she is courted by other suitors, and appears in one scene to have made plans to marry one of them. However, in the last act, when Our Mutual Friend is finally opened, her note reads, "I will wait for you forever."

  • Hume sets off on an around-the-world sailing competition. His boat crashes on the Island, where he is drawn into a strange, three-year-long imprisonment in a deep hole that bears more than a passing resemblance to Hades.

  • The Penelope of the Odyssey spent three years, the same amount of time as Hume spent in the Hatch/Hades, fending off suitors by the trick of pretending to weave a burial shroud, promising she will choose a suitor after the shroud is finished. Each night she unweaves what she has woven during the day.

  • He escapes from the island and sails west for two and a half weeks, only to arrive where he started. If one sails west, and only west, and arrives back at one's starting point, one must have circumnavigated the globe, a twisted mirroring of Hume's original Odyssey -- "We're stuck in a bloody snow-globe," he slurs drunkenly to Jack. From the Wikipedia summary of of Book X of The Odyssey: "Next we met Aeolus, the Keeper of the Winds, who sent us on our way with a steady breeze. He'd given me a leather bag, which my crew mistook for booty. They opened it and released a hurricane that blew us back to where we'd started."

  • In the episode's coda, Penelope is summoned.
The story is far from over yet, but it might be rewarding to watch Lost with a copy of The Odyssey at hand. How much do you want to bet that that weird four-toed ruin of a statue turns out to have only one eye?


Linkmeister said...

Do we know any anatomical detail about Cyclops beyond his single eye?

Blue Wren said...

Well, jeez, Nedster! You've done it, now. I'm gonna hafta watch this durned TV show. ME, who swore off the tube once and for all when Babylon 5 went away.

And I'm NOT gonna watch it for Evangeline Lilly's turkey pitties, either.

I swear, you blaggard. You get me in SO much trouble!

Derryl Murphy said...

I had been bothered by Charlie's (and, frankly, everyone else's) lack of response at the end of the episode. Aside from Claire asking where John and Mr. Eko were, nobody seemed concerned about them, or about a Quarantine hatch plummeting out of the sky. Hell, Charlie gets asked, brushes it off, and then gets himself a little sugar.

But reading this, I have a couple thoughts: One, are the survivors pre-enlightenment, completely uncurious about just how the universe (the island) works, or; Two, are they Odysseus' crew, and that sound we heard at the end the equivalent of sirens, lulling them all?

I look forward to more analysis.


roxtar said...

I hear that the next American Idol will feature contestants named Karla Marx, Millie Friedman, Britney Keynes, and Lassie Faire.

I can't wait to hear Paula Abdul's thoughts on demand-pull inflation...