Monday, November 23

TMI 9: How To Be Good

Goodwin: "Nathan was not a good person. That's why he wasn't on the list."

Ben: "You killed two of us -- good people who were leaving you alone."

Ethan: "We're good people, Claire. We're a good family."

Ben: "I was coming for you, John. You're one of the good ones."

Ben: "We're the good guys, Michael."

What does it mean to be 'good'? The typical dictionary contains dozens of different meanings for the word, which range from 'morally excellent' to 'socially proper' to 'healthful' to 'fresh in quality.'

The question of what it means to be 'good' becomes even more unclear in the context of Lost, where the word is used by the Others and their associates to describe themselves, those people on Jacob's list, and those people who are apparently unworthy of being on Jacob's list.

I believe that part of, if not all of, the answer to that question can be found in a book - a book that Lost has specifically referenced several times during the course of the show. If you're a close watcher of the show, or if you've read my column for the Season 2 finale, you know that the submarine dock - the dock that Michael and Walt leave the Island from - is named 'Pala Ferry.'

The name Pala comes from Aldous Huxley's novel "Island," of which I wrote:

Pala is the name of Aldous Huxley’s fictional Island Utopia. Huxley’s novel contains a great many connections to Lost. Namely:

Huxley’s Island’s primary religious practice is Mahayana Buddhism, a system of belief that melds eastern and western traditions in a way that’s not dissimilar to Dharma’s melding of science and faith, or to the way that various faiths have been seen expressed on Lost’s Island.

The people of Huxley’s Island practice ‘selective modernization,’ by embracing certain technological advances (like refrigeration) while rejecting more overt industrialization, not unlike the way that the Others choose to take over the Dharma barracks but resist Dharma’s ‘industrialization’ of the Island through their installation of multiple hatches. They also, like the Others and like Dharma, utilize drugs and ‘trance states’ to achieve faster learning and greater consciousness and focus on fertility.

Huxley’s novel gives us this provocative passage, which links together a bunch of stuff that we’ve been discussing this season, and which, I’d guess, comes close to what Lost is attempting to say about the idea of faith in general:

...."For faith is the empirically justified confidence in our capacity to know who in fact we are, to forget the belief-intoxicated Manichee in Good Being. Give us this day our daily Faith, but deliver us, dear God, from Belief.”

All of the above would seem to have thematic relevance to Lost, but the most interesting portion of Huxley's writing for our purposes today is his use of the word 'good,' as in 'Good Being.' Huxley's description of Good Being feels like a perfect description of the struggles that we've seen the castaways going through - a struggle that John Locke compared to the emergence of a moth from its cocoon:

Good Being is knowing who in fact we are; and in order to know who in fact we are, we must first know, moment by moment, who we think we are and what that bad habit of thought compels us to feel and do. A moment of clear and complete knowledge of what we think we are, but in fact are not, puts a stop, for the moment, to the Manichean** charade. If we renew, until they become a continuity, these moments of the knowledge of what we are not, we may find ourselves, all of a sudden, knowing who in fact we are.

Self-knowledge - the path to 'Good Being.' We've seen this illustrated in the way the flashbacks have shown us how the castaways have learned, or not learned, from their pasts. We've seen it in their efforts to grapple with the things they've done and the regrets they've harbored. By showing us a group of people dealing with their personal demons, Lost may be showing us the process of attempting 'Good Being,' a process of willfully and consciously coming to know who they think they are so that they might come to know who they truly are, or wish to be.

Locke's conscious choice to kill his father through a surrogate could be argued as a choice to start defining himself by destroying the man who has done the most external destruction to Locke's life. But in truth, Cooper isn't the one responsible for Locke's life at all - Locke is. It was Locke's choice to pursue the man who conned him, his choice not to let go; to keep holding on to something that was hurting him both figuratively and literally. The same is true of Sawyer. Sawyer made the choices that turned him into the con man he became. Cooper did something terrible to Sawyer's family - something that has caused our favorite smart-ass no end of personal pain - but it's very arguable that the person who has hurt Sawyer the most is Sawyer, and no one else.

All of this, none-too-coincidentally, does a fine job of echoing the ideas of self-definition and realization that Sartre explores in 'No Exit,' a play that's come up during the course of this Rewatch a number of times (see TMI 7: Sartre-speak, as well as the column for 'Three Minutes').

Killing Cooper won't automatically restore peace and balance to either Locke or Sawyer - anymore than killing Inez or Garcin would have given Estelle peace in 'No Exit,' but, if we follow the logic of 'Good Being,' doing so may allow them to take a clear look at who they truly are without being distracted by who they think they are. In effect, killing Cooper allows Sawyer and Locke to smash their darkest 'mirror' - the man that reflects the worst, most hated parts of themselves.

By confronting and murdering the man who he believes has made him who is he, Sawyer is forced to confront himself and what he thinks of himself - in other words, who he thinks he is (a bad man, one who's never done a good thing in his life thanks to the man who conned his mother). If I understand Huxley's reasoning, by eliminating him Sawyer can, potentially, discover who he really is - who he'd like to be. He can remove the roadblock that's kept him in a cycle of hate and self-loathing for most of his life. He can, if he chooses, start fresh - defining himself not by the Sartre-ian mirrors around him but by his own soul and mind.

By doing this, Sawyer can become a 'good' person, at least as the Others define the word.

That's my take, at any rate. What do you think?

**Notice, also, Huxley's reference to the 'Manichean Charade.' In one of the previous columns we talked a bit about Manichaesism and Gnosticism - two belief systems that may have something to do with Lost. That split between black and white, good and evil, has been dramatized many times on this show, all the way back to Locke's first conversation with Walt about backgammon ('two sides - one dark, one light').

Catch up on Too Much Information!

Too Much Information 8: The Question Jar
Too Much Information 7: Sartre-Speak

Too Much Information 6: Gnarly Gnosticism & Mondo Manichaeism
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

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