Wednesday, April 1, 2009

'Lost': The Die Is Casteneda - Doc Jensen, EW

By Jeff Jensen

Is Young Ben dead? If he dies, how might Lost history be altered? If there are alterations, would they be substantial or not as significant as our hyperactive imaginations may think? Tonight's episode, ''****,'' offers the promise of answers. *****

While we wait for clarity, allow me to share this crazy, twisted thought that just entered my head: What if Young Ben neither lives nor dies in this episode but instead...falls into a coma? What if the rest of season 5 proceeds with the tension of knowing (and worrying) that should Ben die, history-negating paradox may occur? What if in the very last scene of the season, time-traveling Desmond, full of vengeance toward Ben for killing Penelope and Young Charlie, sneaks into Young Ben's hospital room, pulls the plug on Young Ben's life-support machine, and causes time to implode?

Sawyer: I thought you said this wouldn't happen!?
Faraday: I was wrong!
Desmond: See you in another life, bruthas!

What if the final season of Lost will tell the story of the all-new, all-different, Ben-free history of the castaways, which will include a moment where Jack and Sayid find ''one of them'' in Rousseau's nets, and when they go and investigate, they will find a guy that they don't recognize, a guy who will call himself ''Henry Gale,'' a guy who was always meant to be on the Island and rule the Others instead of Ben, a guy we know as...John Locke?

Like I said: crazy and twisted. Lost would never really do that. Right? But I do like my Coma Boy Ben conjecture, so I'm placing $10 with Milo, my local Lost bookie, on its accuracy.

"****": ON THE SET
As it happens, I visited the Oahu set of Lost back in January while they were shooting "****.'' Somehow, I escaped the experience without anyone letting anything slip about the Sayid-shooting-Young Ben thing or its outcome. But I did learn that *****

During my day on the Lost lot, I saw many things that were still mysteries to me, as at that point I had only seen the season premiere. Jughead sat on the grass, covered by a tarp. A Hydra Station outrigger was parked on a trailer. Inside a soundstage, I sat inside the fuselage of Ajira 316 to scribble some notes and lurked in the doorway of the Dharma security station in order to watch cast and crew film a scene on another set right next door. I saw Jack, Kate, Hurley, and Miles ponder time travel conundrums, and witnessed a spoiler-sensitive moment involving ****, the significance of which only now makes total sense to me.

Matthew Fox was in a good mood. The day before, his favorite NFL team, the Philadelphia Eagles, had beaten the New York Giants in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, earning them the right to...lose to the Arizona Cardinals the following week. (Glad I didn't visit then.) ''I feel very fortunate to be able to play someone like Jack Shephard,'' Fox told me. ''When we were shooting the pilot, I remember talking with Damon [Lost executive producer Damon Lindelof] about how we didn't want to make Jack the guy who was the 'knight in shining armor' or 'the classic hero.' It seemed like an antiquated, unrealistic version of heroism. We were really trying to look at a new way at looking at heroes.''

Fox describes Jack's journey on Lost like this: ''We set him up to be a hero in the eyes of people on the island — they needed that — but he really wasn't that, or he felt like he couldn't be that. And so we broke him down to where he was desperately trying to hold onto the idea that he can control his reality, that logic and reason and science are the real dictators of the world, not fate and magic. He then felt like his only way out was to take his own life. Failing that, he then moved to a place where he was finally forced to consider that he was probably wrong, that probably Locke was right, and probably the only way he can find any redemption or any salvation in this universe is to go back to the very place that he tried to leave and get back to whatever fated destiny that place has for him. Playing that has been a pretty extraordinary opportunity. A f---ing challenge the whole way through, but it's been really cool experience.''

I asked Fox to describe the state of Jack as we currently find him at this point of the season, and his answer speaks to the quiet, patient, humbled hero that has returned to the Island. ''Coming back to the Island, he gains strength just by being in its proximity,'' he explained. ''I've always believed part of what was destroying him was his actual lack of physical proximity to the Island. He is fated to do something on the Island, but in fighting to get away from that, the Island was destroying him from afar. Now, he's wide-eyed and alert and watching for his destiny. He doesn't have any idea how he's going to know it, or when he's going to know it. But when the moment comes, he will realize he's in the path of his own destiny. And when he's clicked into it, he can start taking action without over-dictating, without trying to control his reality, to just do what it is he's meant to do.''

Wow. How very Carlos Castaneda. Carlos Castaneda, you say? Yes: Carlos Castaneda, I say! My epic, consciousness-expanding explanation is to come, right after...

Exploring the mind-blowing collision of Lost and Carlos Castaneda

Pop quiz! Carlos Castaneda is:
A. A one-man codex that unlocks the secrets to Lost
B. The greatest literary red herring Lost has ever dropped into its clue-strewn matrix
C. A writer whose work is relevant to Lost in ways too subtle and sophisticated for Doc Jensen to recognize or appreciate

Chances are the answer is C (Milo's odds: 2-1), but this week, I am going to insist the answer is A...which in turn will also serve as compelling testimony for the subversive genius of option B.

Carlos Castaneda was introduced into Lost last week through Young Ben Linus, who served Sayid a paperback copy of the author's 1971 allegedly nonfiction work A Separate Reality with his chicken salad sandwich. ''I've read it twice,'' said the 12-year-old future psycho with the Harry Potter face. (Other books Ben has read twice in his lifetime: Philip K. Dick's novel Valis, thematically similar to A Separate Reality in many ways.) Wanna bet the Dharma Initiative's resident post-hippie mystic, Oldham, got Ben hooked on Castaneda? (Milo's odds: 5-2.) After all, A Separate Reality — the sequel to The Teachings of Don Juan — purports to be an account of Castaneda's continued tutelage under a Mexican shaman named Don Juan. It focuses on the practice of ''seeing,'' or the ability to look through the illusion of consensual reality and perceive and experience the spiritual infrastructure of the world and all living things...with the help of psychotropic drugs like peyote.

Castaneda's larger body of thought — revealed over the course of 11 increasingly weird books — argues that there is more to life than just a busy-busy struggle to survive, and that individuals have access to greater awareness, knowledge, and power than they allow themselves. People should strive to become ''warrior-travelers,'' and their heroic quest is to constantly unlearn and relearn ''the idea of ourselves'' and our conception of reality. Nobody on Lost embodies this better than John Locke, whose awkward ''Man of Faith'' evolution resembles Castaneda's trial-and-error vision of growth. Sayid's arc in ''He's Our You'' was a classic allegory for Castaneda conversion: A soul, trapped and stuck, defined by the personal baggage of his past and dehumanizing ''consensus reality'' of his society, who finds liberation by modulating the idea of himself — again courtesy of some really, really strong controlled substances.

Trippy stuff. But I could see how it might appeal to an alienated and abused young man like Young Ben Linus, full of yearning to transcend his mundane and miserable adolescence, gain mastery over circumstance, and transform his life into an exciting adventure. The Young Ben that we saw in ''He's Our You'' burned with adolescent rebellion and a very specific anger toward the dehumanizing, despairing lie of his wannabe utopian commune. In retrospect, turning one of Dharma's VW buses — a symbol of hippie-era idealism — into a Molotov cocktail on wheels struck me as a pretty clever act of protest.

Before we dig even deeper into Castaneda and excavate the ideas that will blow your mind with their Lost resonance, let's step back and consider Castaneda in the context of Big Ideas that Lost has thrown at us this season. Through Daniel Faraday, we got a strong dose of quantum physics. ''316'' gave us Christianity (and a wink at Christianity's heretical bad twin, Gnosticism) and an allusion to New Age mysticism. (See: the ''lines of energy'' map in the Lamp-Post, linking the Island to other hotspots of electromagnetic energy around the globe.) ''Namaste'' reminded us that the Dharma Initiative wrapped itself in Buddhism, Hinduism and Egyptian mythology. Now, we have Castaneda and his proto-Matrix philosophy, imported from Toltec mythology. The Western counter-culture of the early '70s was deeply interested in each of these bodies of thought. The New Age movement that emerged out of this era aspired to synthesize many of these strains of spirituality — along with some mystical interpretations of quantum physics — into a veritable Lost-esque super-string theory. Books like The Crack in the Cosmic Egg, The Dancing Wu Li Masters and many others (including Castaneda's entire oeuvre) brought this ambitious project into the mainstream. It was an endeavor deeply indebted to the Theosophists of the late 1800s. (Theosophy was a bid to blend ancient mythology, religious concepts, and new scientific thinking of the time, such as the newfangled electromagnetism of Lost-linked eggheads James Clerk Maxwell and Michael Faraday.) Theosophists dreamed of building ''a universal brotherhood of humanity'' and wanted to ''investigate the unexplained laws of nature and latent powers in man.''

FUN FACT! Lost has cited a number of writers who were deeply influenced by Theosophy, including Aldous Huxley (The Island), L. Frank Baum (The Wizard of Oz), and most recently, James Joyce (Ulysses).

Whew. Right? Bottom line: 1. Clearly, the so-called Me Decades in which Lost is currently parked was a boom time for alternative religion and new delivery systems of old-time spirituality; and 2. The aforementioned Big Ideas share one Very Big Idea in common, a serious interest in what happens to us after we kick the bucket.

Which brings us back to Castaneda. According to the writer, the warrior-traveler seeking life-changing, mind-expanding enlightenment is sometimes aided — and sometimes menaced — in his or her quest by otherworldly or ''inorganic'' beings. Often times, they take forms chosen by the subconscious. Indeed, sometimes they are nothing but projections of our subconscious, but we don't recognize them as such. These entities stick to their own turf, but can quite easily pass through the ''band of energy'' that separates our respective dimensions to interact with human beings. Would-be warrior-travelers need to confront, engage, and master these entities in order to gain knowledge. Once mastered, these hostile entities are known by a new name: ''the Allies.'' These ''Allies'' don't mind too much being mastered by their human friends. Indeed, they often forge partnerships with them and are willing to submit to their leadership. APPLICATION TO LOST: The Hostiles/the Others = ''the Allies.'' Ben's visions of his mother in the jungle = Ally as ''subconscious projection.'' Sonic Fence = ''Band of Energy.'' (Remember what Richard told Horace? ''Your fence can't keep us out.'' An ''Ally'' can say the same thing.) The Others' leadership structure = the Ally/warrior-traveler partnership.

According to Castaneda, there is one particularly monstrous inorganic entity that can rarely, if ever, be tamed: a creature known as a ''mud shadow'' or ''flyer.'' Castaneda writes: ''The flyers are an essential part of the universe...and they must be taken as what they really are — awesome, monstrous. They are the means by which the universe tests us.'' APPLICATION TO LOST: Hellllo, Smokey.

Finally, there is this. And I love this part. Castaneda believed that the final stage — the ''definitive journey'' — of a warrior-traveler's life was to prepare himself for more adventures and greater work in the afterlife, or what he called ''the active side of eternity.'' This preparation required shoring up a very firm, very fixed sense of identity that can survive the brutal segue into What Lies Beyond and can thrive there. In order to accomplish this task, warrior-travelers have to do one thing before they die: produce their own super-duper, back-story-revealing flashback episode of Lost.

''I suggest that you gather a collection of the memorable events of your life.... Every warrior, as a matter of duty, collects an album that reveals the warrior's personality, an album that attests to the circumstances of his life. Above all, it is like an album of pictures made out of memories, the recollection of memorable events; memorable because they have a special significance in one's life. Put in it the complete account of various events that have had profound significance for you. Not every event has a profound significance for you. There are a few, however, that I would consider likely to have changed things for you, to have illuminated your path.... Such an album is an exercise in discipline and impartiality. Consider this album to be an act of war. As such, it has all the meaning in the world.''

The active side of infinity. That's a pretty cool way of thinking about the Island. A collection of memorable album that reveals the warrior's personality.... That's a pretty on-the-nose characterization of five seasons' worth of soul-baring, history-revealing, character-defining flashback storytelling. It also harkens back very specifically to the season 3 episode ''Greatest Hits,'' in which a death-bound Charlie, preparing for his own ''definitive journey,'' compiled a conceptual album of ''memorable events'' of ''profound significance'' that summarized his life — or, as Castaneda might argue, effectively defined the idea of Charlie that would progress into infinity.

Consider this album to be an act of war. And suddenly my Lost-soaked mind whooshes to what Charles Widmore told John Locke during his Jeremy Bentham digression. ''[T]here's a war coming, John. And if you're not back on the Island when that happens, the wrong side is going to win.''

Honestly, I'm not sure what Charlie Widmore's War is really going to be all about. You know me: I'm all for some cosmic clash between good and evil, à la The Stand, The Chronicles of Narnia, Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Matrix, and all the other fantasy pop classics that Lost uses as touchstones. And yet, I now wonder if Chuck was speaking of a more figurative kind of ''war.'' The boot camps that Ben, Widmore, and/or the Island have put the castaways through this season have been psychological and spiritual in nature. We've seen Jack morph from ''Man of Science'' to ''Man Willing To Be Open To Out-There Possibilities.'' We've seen Sawyer transition from selfish rogue to responsible leader. We've seen Sayid modulate his inner killer. We've seen Locke's destiny-starved sucker gain some wisdom. Everyone is changing their core idea; everyone is ''moving their island,'' if you will. (''I-land''?) And if we were to take this Castaneda all the way, you just have to wonder if the reason all these shifts are now happening is because these characters' ''definitive journey'' is at hand, a perilous passage as terrifying as war.

Put the final touches on those memory albums, castaways, because I think you're all about to die.

And then, I think they're all going to become born again, courtesy of time travel/time loop/Island resurrection magic. Who will awaken changed and improved by his or her past life? Who will awaken lost all over again? And which side in the great Widmore/Ben conflict benefits from changed souls — and which side doesn't? Season 6 will tell us...unless, of course, the preceding 1,700 words are just totally, wrong-headedly irrelevant. In which case, see Answer ''B.''

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