Friday, September 18

Too Much Information 6: Gnarly Gnosticism and Mondo Manichaeism

"I remembered that I was a son of kings,
and my free soul longed for its natural state.
I remembered the pearl,
on account of which I was sent to Egypt.
Then I began charming it,
the formidable and hissing serpent.
I caused it to slumber and to fall asleep,
for my father's name I named over it,
and the name of our second in command (our double),
and of my mother, the queen of the East.
Then I snatched away the pearl,
and I turned to go back to my father's house.
And their filthy and unclean clothing,
I stripped off and left it in their country."

- "The Hymn of the Pearl," excerpted from The Acts of Thomas

If you're an obsessive Lost fan like yours truly then you'll recognize the name of Thomas the Apostle from the Season 5 episode "316" in which Ben discusses Caravaggio's painting "The Incredulity of Saint Thomas" with the show's resident physician/skeptic, Jack Shepard.

BEN: Thomas the Apostle. When Jesus wanted to return to Judea, knowing that he would probably be murdered there, Thomas said to the others, "Let us also go, that we might die with him." But Thomas was not remembered for this bravery. His claim to fame came later... when he refused to acknowledge the resurrection. He just couldn't wrap his mind around it. The story goes... that he needed to touch Jesus' wounds to be convinced.
JACK: So was he?
BEN: Of course he was. We're all convinced sooner or later, Jack.

Ben draws a nifty parallel between Thomas and both himself and Jack in that scene. Thomas had other claims to fame though - ones that Lost doesn't discuss as explicitly, but which may be pertinent to the show's larger themes/preoccupations/interests.

Thomas the Apostle was also known by two other names: Doubting Thomas and Didymus. Both Thomas and Didymus mean can be translated to mean 'twin,' and instances of twinning and/or mirroring are littered all over this show. The Acts of Thomas and The Gospel of Thomas, both apocryphal texts, are named after Senor Didymus, and are considered to be 'gnostic' gospels. In order to explain to my latest Wildly Nutty Theory I'm going to talk a bit about Gnostic and Manichaen beliefs. This might seem a little dry to some of you, but I'll ask you to bite the bullet, take your medicine, grin and bear it, or pick another applicable cliche while I take your hand and walk you through what I believe are some of the keys to discerning the nature of Jacob, the MiB, and the Island Itself.

"Let none read the gospel according to Thomas, for it is the work, not of one of the twelve apostles, but of one of Mani's three wicked disciples."
Cyril of Jerusalem, Cathechesis V (4th century)

Gnosticism and Manichaeism (Manichaeism being, depending on who you consult, either an 'offshoot' of Gnosticism or a similar system of belief that developed parallel to the Gnostic tradition, named after its apparent founder, Mani) were considered to be heretical by other Christians. Despite many similarities between, say, The Gospel of John and The Gospel of Thomas, neither The Gospel of Thomas nor The Acts of Thomas are included in what we consider today to be 'The Bible.' In fact, the Bible that you and I might refer to today looks very little like the sort of Bible that would have existed during Thomas' time. In that era, any Holy Books were not kept bound and ordered in a specific, chronological order, but rather stored as scrolls without the order imposed upon it by those who later assembled the Bible that we know today.

So why is that Thomas was deemed 'apocryphal,' while John was admitted into the rarified company of the King James version? Some claim that it's because of Thomas' cosmological worldview - a gnostic and/or Manichaen, dualistic worldview that more 'conservative' Christians found heretical:

For Thomas there are only two realms of existence: the material realm and the spiritual realm. The spiritual realm is a blissful reality of goodness, life, and light; it is the "Kingdom of the Father". The material realm is a reality of evil, death, and darkness...

While most people in this material world, according to this ancient belief, are lifeless, soulless beings (little more than animated corpses) created to serve the Lion and his rulers; a few people are actually spiritual beings in disguise. These chosen few — though clothed in a mortal body — are actually immortal pre-existent beings of light and "Children of the Living Father" who have become intoxicated and fallen asleep under the weight of the material world and its vices. These solitary elect, upon hearing the words of the Living Jesus, will then shake off their slumber and — upon the death of the material body — will return to the Kingdom of the Father.

Some of these themes seem relevant to Lost. Certainly the two realms of the Island and the 'real world' echo the notion of the material world and the spiritual world. The Gnostic/Manichaen notion of the material world (the world of 'the body') being somehow 'corrupt' or imperfect finds a home in the way the castaways are depicted as having been brought low by the world around them, pre-Island. The idea of a 'slumbering elect' being awoken by the "Living Jesus" to return to the 'Kingdom of the Father' echoes in the wake of Jacob's appearances to the castaways, the ways in which he's shown to interact with each of them and the ways in which they've subsequently 'awoken' to the reality of their suffering and the longing to do something about it.

But there's more if we delve a little deeper in the Manichaen end of the pool:

In the beginning...the two "natures" or "substances", light and obscurity, good and evil, God and matter, coexisted, separated by a frontier. In the North reigned the Father of the South, the Prince of Darkness...

As we've seen, Jacob and his Others reside to the North on the Island. By contrast, the MiB/Smoke Monster makes his home in the South.

...the "disorderly motion" of matter drove the Prince of Darkness toward the upper frontier of his kingdom. Seeing the splendor of light, he is fired by the desire to conquer it. It is then that the Father decides that he will himself repulse the adversary.

The Adversary, of course, brings to mind God's companion in The Book of Job, a book of the Bible that Lost references near-explicitly in the opening scene of Season 5's finale, 'The Incident.' But the description above also neatly encapsulates the little we've seen of the conflict between Jacob and the MiB.

[The Father]...projects from himself, the Mother of Life, who...projects a new hypostasis, the Primordial Man...With his five sons, who are...his "soul" and "armor" made from five lights, the Primordial Man descends to the frontier. He challenges the darkness, but he is conquered, and his sons are devoured by the demons...

Here's where I stretch things a little, in order to make a larger connection: (1) The Mother of Life calls to mind the idea of fertility, the statue on the Island, the baby-making troubles therein. (2) This talk about the 'Father' projecting a Primordial Man to challenge the darkness, and that Man's conquering, echoes the journey of one John Locke, who was touched by Jacob, who was rumored to be some kind of Savior, and who was 'conquered' by the MiB. Locke's form has been assumed by the still-mysterious Island Adversary and his identity used to bring about the death of the 'Father.' Locke's 'sons,' the other castaways left alive at the end of Season 5, have been devoured by figurative demons, by ghosts of the past and an aching desire to wipe the slate completely clean.

This defeat marks the beginning of the cosmic "mixture", but at the same time it insures the final triumph of God. For obscurity (matter) now possesses a portion of light...and the Father, preparing its deliverance, at the same time arranges for his definitive victory against darkness.

In terms of Gnostic belief, it would seem as though the defeat of the 'Father' at the hand of the Prince of Darkness results in a mixing of black and white, of material and spiritual - a reunification of sorts. That kind of coexistence is echoed in the various Dharma sigils we've seen scattered throughout the show and specifically in the eyes of Locke during Claire's freaky-ass dream sequence from Season 1. It's worth noting that Mani's belief system was apparently influenced by Buddhism.

More specifically, as it might relate to Lost, the end of 'The Incident' suggested that Jacob's death was all part of the plan, so to speak. As the Darkness has devoured the light, it has ingested the light and made the light a part of it. A communion between the two dualistic halves would appear to be the answer for the conflict. And this is another echo of Lost's preoccupations - communication with 'The Other,' understanding between differing sides, reunification first through conflict and then eventual recognition that 'The Other' is simply a part of the Self. This brings us from Manichaeism to Gnosticism.

Where Manichaeism and Gnosticism can be said to split definitively is over this concept of clear-cut dualism. Manichaeism posits two co-equal forces, dark and light. We'll call this 'radical dualism'. Gnosticism, on the other hand, typically posits that all things are emanations from an Ultimate God, a kind of platonic ideal of divinity. We'll call this 'mitigated' dualism.

As one travels further away from the Ultimate God, the fabric of being begins to degrade and break down. Think of this in terms of making photocopies. The original is clear, distinct. Any subsequent copy will be less clear and distinct. And copies of copies will degrade further and further, but each of those copies captures the essence of the original, no matter how degraded.

So, under a pure 'Gnostic' system of belief, there are no 'sides.' All things, even a 'false' god (or 'demiurge') comes from the original Source. In this system of belief, the 'Prince of Darkness' is a degraded copy of the 'True God," and has been viewed as an 'evil' god:

The demiurge as a tyrannical God having caused the imperfect material world and all of its suffering, is...not real but a construct or illusion of the human mind since no secondary creator God is necessary or of high importance as everything is eternal or emanated and can not be created or destroyed. The demiurge typically creates a group of co-actors named 'Archons', who preside over the material realm and, in some cases, present obstacles to the soul seeking ascent from it.

This again brings to mind the MiB/Smoke Monster, and more specifically the various 'ghostly' forms which the MiB has taken. His 'Archon' appearances in the forms of Yemi, Alex, Dave, etc. have emphasized to the castaways that they are not free, that their personal anchors of guilt and fear and shame will never leave them. The notion that 'the demiurge' is a construct of the human mind fits nicely in with the last episode we've rewatched, 'Dave,' where the title character was an apparent creation of Hurley's mind set on influencing Hurley with a solipsistic, selfish, 'evil' worldview. Under the view of 'mitigated dualism' the demiurge is not evil, simply flawed and unable to see or comprehend the full picture any more than you or I.

I'm going to suggest that this is the path Lost is taking. Rather than set up a fight between 'good' and 'evil,' the show is instead illustrating the struggle between 'free will'/progress and determinism/entropy. The MiB isn't a 'bad guy,' instead, the MiB is limited by the very flaws it's so good at perceiving and exploiting in others. It can't see past humankinds failings, or its own, and this is not a choice to be 'evil,' but rather the essential character of the entity. Jacob, by contrast, takes the longer view. He sees the potential in the freedom to choose, and while he recognizes the flaws in man and in the world, he doesn't see those flaws as permanent or insurmountable. Thus the line: "It only ends once. Everything that happens before that is just progress."

In the Rewatch column for “Dave” I suggested the idea that the Island is a kind of ‘dark god’ – a force that may not be entirely benevolent. Having plowed through all of this I'm inclined to change my mind. The more I consider all of this, the more I've begun to think that the MiB and Jacob are meant (metaphorically, in part) to represent two sides emanating from the Ultimate God described by the Gnostics.

In “Just Spitballin’” I suggested that the Island is analogous to Solaris, the incomprehensible, powerful planet imagined by Stanislaw Lem in his novel of the same name. I still believe this analogy is apt, and now I'm even more inclined to push it on all of you. If Jacob and the MiB represent emanations from an Ultimate Source, then that ultimate source is the Island.

In other words, metaphorically-speaking, the Island IS God. The God. The Ultimate, incomprehensible Deity. The Island is the Source. It is the well-spring of Creation. It is good and evil, black and white, 'right' and 'wrong,' progress and entropy. Like Solaris, like the Gnostic conception of God, it cannot be understood, it can only be encountered.

Catch up on Too Much Information!

Too Much Information 5: Mirrors & Delays
Too Much Information 4: Gods and Musicians - How The Mythologizing of The Beatles Helps Us Understand the Reality of the Dharma Initiative
Too Much Information 3: Loopholes and Prison-feet

Too Much Information 2: Who is the MiB?
Too Much Information: Stimulus/Response and Control Theory, or How I Learned To Start Behaving And Love Course Correction


  1. Wow! Your Too Much Information columns are always fantastic, thanks so much for taking the time to put them together.

    (Although this column was totally asking for an 'Everything that Rises Must Converge' reference').

  2. Thanks for taking the time to read them, Katie.

    I'm glad you dug this one and you're right - an Everything that rises must converge reference would be very appropriate. As we continue to move forward we'll revisit these ideas. I'll be sure to include it then!