Special Report

Lost in Political Philosophy

The popular show drops plenty of clues but, can you trust them?

By 1.30.08

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ABC's TV series Lost, whose fourth season premieres tonight, has multileveled mysteries and a cruelly withholding storytelling style that inspires passionate love and passionate frustration.

The love comes from the show's fascinating and compelling adventure-intrigue-SF storytelling. The scenario: plane crashes on an uncharted island. Some passengers, most with a fair amount of dark intrigue in their past, survive and try to forge a workable civilization -- and to escape. Previous inhabitants of the Island bedevil them. Everything ensues.

The frustration comes from the fact that halfway through the show's entire six-season arc, the viewer can be certain of very little -- neither what lies ahead nor precisely what's already happened -- and certainly not the meaning of what's happened.

The search for meaning bedevils characters and viewers. No element of the show is as suggestive and aggravating as its heavy reliance on political philosopher references.

The show stars a John Locke, which initially just seemed a curiosity. But as the show progressed, we were introduced to a Danielle Rousseau, a Desmond David Hume, a Mikhail Bakunin, a Richard Alpert, and even an Edmund Burke.

But what does any of this mean?

IN THE CASE of Locke, obvious references and ironies abound. Like the philosopher, he stands for political and personal liberty within a civic context.

Locke "leads" generally through service to the commonwealth -- yet sometimes acts imperiously and dangerously, pursuing a personal vision of what is best for them all, in a disturbingly Filmerian manner.

He claims to be an empiricist -- a real "meat and potatoes" guy -- but comes to a seemingly mystical belief in the island's power. Complicating his role as the "man of faith" in the island is that his mysticism is based in his experience of healing from the island, and his personal encounter with the smoke monster -- so character and philosopher might be able to get along as fellow empiricists.

Most significantly Lockean is island John Locke's mantra: "Don't tell me what I can't do," the cry of the man who despises paternalism and unjust government. (In what is probably more an in-joke, Locke's evil father is "Anthony Cooper," after philosopher Locke's mentor, the first Earl of Shaftesbury.)

Lost fans love clues, and if Locke's name is one, it likely suggests that what Locke thinks he has empirical evidence for, he probably does.

DANIELLE ROUSSEAU'S link with her philosopher is obvious: she is the lone savage on the island, separated -- by choice -- from the human societies available to her. Her primary skills are sheer survival and the trapping and killing of animals and other humans.

Her personality is more stunted and weird than the apotheosis of human capabilities and sensibilities her namesake seems to promise from the "noble savage." Her being "Rousseau" is both obvious and ironic. If it's a clue, the viewer can wonder whether Danielle had her child taken from her, as she claims, or abandoned it, as the philosopher did with his five children.

The philosopher Mikhail Bakunin believed in a socialist anarchism, freely-organized worker federations controlling the social order. Lost's Mikhail Bakunin has an uncanny ability to survive fatal injuries, and is a brutal enforcer for his boss Ben (the sinister leader of the "Others").

If the name is anything more than the creators having fun, the clue may be that, as with Bakunin's rivalry with Karl Marx over taking over the existing state, the show's Bakunin might have a serious difference of opinion as to how their community should run with his "master" Ben.

The real Richard Alpert, former Harvard partner to Timothy Leary, represents using modern science to achieve religious transcendence, and later, renaming himself Baba Ram Dass, going straight for the religious transcendence.

The character Alpert is seemingly ageless. If his name is meaningful, it could relate to the apparently religious mission of his group -- the "Others" -- compared to the almost parodically scientistic pre-crash Dharma Initiative that they seem to have superseded.

ALL SUCH SPECULATION is hazardous, however, since Lost almost asks not to be trusted. It loves season openings and closers deliberately designed to confuse the viewer as to what he's seeing, where and when.

Lost's constant use of the number "23" indicates a love for the fiction of Robert Anton Wilson. The philosophical science fiction novelist celebrated "guerrilla ontology" -- wild techniques to make people question the nature of the reality they are perceiving.

Despite all the political philosopher namedrops, Lost doesn't show much of a functioning society, and definitive answers, both narrative and philosophical, continue to slip away. Ultimately, the show sells classic sociopolitical anxiety: the world is mysterious and strange, with inexplicable forces that might save your soul or might kill you, and you'll never know why; scientific planners and religious fanatics alike have complicated plans in which they use humans as pawns; the wealthy and powerful pursue secret agendas that may either save or destroy us.

By naming characters after philosophers, Lost reminds us that the conflicts of ideology, power, and social relationship are timeless, perhaps "eternally recurring" -- like character Desmond Hume's re-cycling through his own life, like the seeming series of "powers" rising and falling on the island (from the creators of the 4-toed statue to the Black Rock crew to the "Hostiles" to Dharma to the "Others" to...?).

With its echoes of everything from Homer's The Odyssey to O'Brien's Third Policeman, Lost's intricate webs of meaning and suggestion make it not only an exciting example of post-modern referential bricolage, but also the most significant pop adventure tale of our time.

Even in a "state of nature" on the island, its flashback-strewn storytelling reminds us that none of us have a Lockean "blank slate." Our past choices, failures, sins and obsessions will always shadow and influence our present. Built the heart of the viewer's relation to the show's mysteries is a faith that its writers, our "leaders" -- the gods of the fictional universe we are watching -- are careful, caring, omniscient and omnipotent, that not a plot thread or mysterious reference is dangled that they won't ravel together with care.

We may be saps to believe it -- but Lost fans know that attitude makes experiencing the show more delicious.

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About the Author

Brian Doherty is a senior editor at Reason magazine and author of This is Burning Man (Little, Brown).