‘LOST’ and Found: Mystery Boxes and Pleasure Domes

[21 April 2014]

By Colin Dray

LOST arrived with the thunderous roar of exploding fuselage. It cut wildly through pop-culture stereotypes, and then left its fans lost and bewildered amidst the wreckage.

1. The End Is the Beginning Is the End

Recently, the producers, writers, and some of the principle actors of the television program LOST reunited at the Paley Centre to celebrate the series with fans, and to reflect upon the show’s legacy after ten years. At first, I was rather shocked to hear that it had been ten years since the show had ended. I felt my bones turning to brittle chalk. Ten years?! Had I really been hearing people seethe and writhe incessantly about how disappointing that finalé had been for a decade?

In many ways, LOST seems to actively mock believing in anything, even going so far as to prove everyone’s personal faith to be suspect.

Thankfully, it turned out that I was right to be surprised.  The conveners of the panel were in fact counting from the premiere date of the show, not the date it ended, so really it has only been off the air for approximately four years… Still, four years is a long time in the world of television entertainment – whole series have been birthed and died and faded into obscurity in that time (hey guys, remember Smash?  ...no?) – and yet somehow LOST remains at the forefront of many people’s minds whenever the words ‘television’, ‘hype’, and ‘failed to live up to’ are mentioned in the vicinity of one another. 

Only a few months ago the continued bad will toward the finalé of LOST seemingly chased one of the show’s creator, Damon Lindelof, off Twitter. Lindelof had just published a peculiarly confessional statement in The Hollywood Reporter, a piece originally intended to be a review of Breaking Bad’s celebrated finalé that instead morphed into a despairing but still defiant discussion of himself and his experiencewith the conclusion of LOST.  Within his essay he cited the vitriol still being directed his way from Twitter followers as being too insufferable to endure any more, and declared that he was now going to go silent about all things related to the LOST finalé (or rather go silent again, since he had already declared himself to be under a self-imposed media blackout for the entire year immediately after the finalé aired).  Also, appearances at the Paley Centre doesn’t count, apparently. 

I don’t meant to make light of Lindelof’s threat.  No doubt it has been a nightmare to see torrents of scathing disapproval from fans and critics lumped upon a work that – despite what any individual may think of it – he clearly poured years of his life and heart into producing.  And while I will have to show my hand a little and say that I was one of the viewers who felt disappointed by the conclusion he finally offered (something I have spoken of at greater length elsewhere), it is still absolutely absurd to me that anyone would berate an artist because they did not satisfy their personal expectations, or declare that they ‘owe’ them something simply because they were willing to watch their show (for free!).

Aside from being petulantly asinine, such vitriol halts any possibility of actually discussing what it was that the artist had intended in the first place. Fed up with the hatred, they shut down defensively rather than respond, and the result – as appears to be the case now with LOST – is a mystified portion of the fan base that has no context for their disillusionment, and who therefore have little empathy to spare, and a creator who is under the misapprehension that his audience merely wanted their fan-fiction transcribed as canon. 

Indeed, this disconnect is so apparent that, according to his discussion at the Paley Centre, Lindelof still believes the primary frustration fans had with the finalé is a misinterpretation that the island was purgatory all along.  And while I don’t doubt that he has heard far more complaints about his show than I, the question of whether or not they were ‘dead the whole time’ was never one of my principle concerns, and not one that I have often heard cited by others (however, I freely admit that I might be mistaken about this).

So although it will never be possible to bridge the divide between these disparate camps – the conclusion of LOST remains one of those divisive texts that inspires irreconcilable absolutes: beloved my some, despised by others, but shrugged off as an irrelevance by few – I thought it was worth exploring why in particular this finalé seemed to rankle people like few others.  After all, plenty of other television shows have gone out on a whimper rather than a bang.

The X-Files, a show similarly obsessed with puzzles and mysteries and clandestine schemes, ended with a two-hour PowerPoint presentation that appeared to have been cobbled together by someone suffering a paranoid hallucinogenic reaction to their medication.  Rosanne went egomaniacally meta, informing its viewers that the entire reality of the show was merely a self-indulgent fantasy created by its star – a creative writing project to deal with her husband’s death (the one character and actor everyone unconditionally loved).  And ALF, cheery, snarky ALF, that playful, family-friendly romp, concluded with its titular alien scamp about to be shot in the head, transported to an undisclosed location, and dissected by government agents. 

So why, in this long tradition of small screen disappointment and woe, where satisfying conclusions are the exception not the rule, did LOST become such an iconic flashpoint?

2. The Chosen One

The first, most complimentary possibility, is that it is a testament to just how promising the idea of LOST originally was. Here, suddenly, with the thunderous roar of an exploding fuselage, was a show that cut through the traditional pop-cultural stereotypes and strict genres lines that risked stifling television entertainment. Sure, countless shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Prisoner had already proved those divisions arbitrary, but many of these were still considered niche programs, beloved by small, but steadily growing communities of fans. They were often shows that needed to be treasured, sheltered – occasionally rescued from cancellation.  Some, like Twin Peaks, had captured the public’s attention, but few seemed as immediate or undeniably a ratings sensation, acting as a lightning rod for cultural debate right from the off.

Part action flick, part sci-fi think-piece, part sombre character drama, it had time travel, ghosts, miracles, monsters, psychic powers, people with dark pasts. Like the random assortment of characters that boarded the flight that would dump them in this bewildering nether space – each bringing with them their own individual history and perspective – here was a plastic text that could theoretically go anywhere, do anything. 

It was structurally audacious, with the (admittedly occasionally tiresome) conceit of juxtaposing personal, character-study flashbacks against the present day of the island allowing each story’s individual themes to shine brighter with their reflected glow. The writers were afforded the freedom of scope in a rich tradition of anthology programs like Amazing Stories or Alfred Hitchcock Presents, while simultaneously benefitting from the enthralling through-line of the island that linked all these disparate strands together.

And it was gorgeous. Filmed in Hawaii, overstocked with photogenic faces that had real acting chops, with a budget for special effects and set design that seemed to dwarf the output of most networks, let alone singular series. Not to mention a wellspring of captivating characters, unique to mainstream television. Where else would a principle character on an American series be incapable of speaking English?  Where else would you see a drug addled British rock star mime eating peanut butter to cheer up a pregnant Australian? Where else would the most beloved character be an overweight, cheerful audience-cipher – not a leader, not a lover, but a background player whose warmth and generosity of spirit led him to be steadily pushed to the front of the fiction, and who would eventually inherit the narrative’s most important role of all?

Here at last was a landmark moment in which a program that would have traditionally been dismissed as ‘cult’ viewing was rewarded with mainstream recognition, able to break through the stuffy misconceptions that audiences often bring to genre fiction, and prove its medium’s worth. Thus, when the show’s popularity collapsed in upon itself, when it became, at least in the eyes of those not charmed by its resolution, ‘just another show’, the disappointment some fans felt was not merely the by-product of a story that had petered out, but shocking proof that this was not the televisual promised one, after all.

Some might argue that it was instead a product of the arguably disingenuous way in which the show was sold to its viewers outside of the narrative. They might cite the frequent interviews with the show’s creators and show runners, Lindeloff and Carlton Cuse, throughout its production, where they went out of their way to assure fans that a master plan had all been mapped out, and the truth would eventually be known.  The pair even appeared in several recap specials sprinkled throughout the seasons (actually just glorified clip shows with titles like ‘LOST: The Answers’ and ‘LOST: Destiny Calls’, but called ‘recaps’ to avoid the stigma), always playfully raising their eyebrows at the mention of revelations soon to come; and they were so confident in their storytelling that they tweaked the nose of The Sopranos for its controversial ending – promising more than once that ‘We will not be ending with a blackout’ and ‘We will not be cutting to black’ (despite eventually concluding with a character dying and fading to the ultimate blackout, both he and the audience still having learned little of their circumstance).

But it’s hard to blame them entirely for what are, for the most part, just misleading exaggerations. That was marketing hype. Showmanship. And while it’s certainly disconcerting to look back and see Cuse and Lindelof themselves promising truths that they later admitted never came (in an interview with The Verge in 2012 Lindelof stated that he regrets ever promising answers), these examples are just another unfortunate product of the uncomfortable blur between art and commerce. These men were writers, but throughout the series were tasked with acting as salesmen with a product to spruik. That probably doesn’t assuage that feeling of fraud those who felt duped still feel, but it is important to keep the context within which those statements were originally made in mind.

In any case, by the final season both men had backed away from these promises in their interviews, instead offering more generic truisms about the narrative being the journey, not the destination, and that because of the necessities of the story, some things would always remain unknown.

3. The Truth Isn’t Out There

Perhaps the most damning criticism is that the show itself had been obsessed – both in its text and subtext – with searching for answers that never arrive. Every character, across the span of the series, is depicted as being, on some level, fixated upon the same inquiries that the show’s viewers repeatedly were: ‘What is the island?’; ‘Why were these specific people all repeatedly drawn together?’; ‘What does any of this weird crap mean?’ Few, if any, of the primary conversations set in the present tense of the island – all punctuated with conveniently unfinished sentences and unanswered questions – were about anything except the giant mystery within which they were trapped; and yet after six years of struggle, many of those principle questions go completely unaddressed. 

The nature of the moving, shape-shifting, possibly sentient island upon which they are trapped is never resolved. It just is. Its innumerable magic powers simply hand-waved away. The psychic, spiritual and prophetic gifts of several of the ‘special’ characters within the show likewise go unexplained. They too just are. For a show that paid considerable lip-service throughout its run to scientific techno-babble and time-travel causality, it eventually reaches a point at which all questions can be answered only with a mysticism that wilfully transcends comprehension. The island has and always will be. Some people are ‘chosen’ just because. Stuff happens for reasons that will never make sense. Rather than provide answers that would please some and annoy others, the show just abandoned the notion of answers altogether.

Indeed, rather than resolving these questions, the show systematically went about proving the pursuit of truth a dead end, revealing itself to be designed around obfuscating or actively hindering any notion of ‘truth’ at every possible moment. None of the events detailed actually function as genuine ‘clues’ to anything. Mysterious numbers lead nowhere. Spatial distortions go unaddressed. Powers are arbitrary. Sure, you find out why a van is parked in the middle of a field, or why there’s a polar bear wandering free in a forest, but these are all ultimately just tangential diversions. The whole plot is a series of signifiers without anything to signify. 

In many ways it seems to actively mock believing in anything, even going so far as to prove everyone’s personal faiths to be suspect. Every character – from Jack, to Locke, to Ben, to the Dharma scientist guys, all the way back to Jacob himself – is shown to be misguided for seeking a knowledge that will never come, for believing that they could understand anything about their circumstance, or have any mastery over their own fate. 

Sure, you can believe that pumping numbers into an old Macintosh, or worshiping a spooky guy in an omnipresent cabin, or scribbling string theory equations into a notebook is achieving something – but those who try to find out what that ‘something’ is will only be frustrated, denied, and then slaughtered for their impertinence. If you want to be the master of your own fate, you meet unknowable forces that grind you up for your arrogance. If you want to give over in abject devotion to the omnipresent unknown, those inconceivable powers merely possess and destroy you.  Love capitalism? It becomes your undoing. Love knowledge for knowledge’s sake? You get a heaping lump of death and despair for your trouble, too. 

In a particularly dark twist, characters cannot even just agree to remain ignorant and leave the island, refusing to play along, because they will still be haunted endlessly and driven mad. Lindelof and Cuse created a universe in which it seemingly doesn’t matter what you believe in – you can’t even refuse to believe in anything – and you’ll always be doomed. For an audience that was fuelled by the same quest for revelation that had motivated the characters of the show, who had mourned when some of their beloved heroes had given their lives in direct pursuit of these truths, it risked being an anticlimax that rendered the entire narrative an exercise in futility. Not only were you, the viewer, not going to get answers, but you were a fool for thinking that you ever would in the first place.

In place of these quests for knowledge or personal enlightenment, the conclusion of the series instead chose to answer an entirely different mystery, only introduced in the first episode of its final season – and it is this misdirect that has arguably provoked the most criticism from those unsatisfied with the show. The ‘flash-sideways’ world, a seeming alternate universe version of the character’s lives, has been accused of being deliberate, overt distraction from the main plot; a tangential puzzle that ran for a full season just so it could be ‘explained’ in the final episode and thus give the momentary illusion of revelation, while actually elucidating nothing about the island and it’s central mysteries. 

The final episode, critics argue, is designed to actively bewilder rational thought with melodramatic gush: Jack realises that this ‘sideways’ world is the threshold of death. He is dead, all his friends and family too, are dead , and in their act of letting go into whatever afterlife awaits they have all been drawn back to each other, reunited one last time by their eternal bonds of friendship and love to draw strength from each other as they leave the mortal world, and all its myriad mysteries behind.

It’s a truly beautiful image. But as critics of the ending have noted, when you think about it for even a second after the credits roll, all that pathos dissipates into another flurry of irreconcilable questions.

After all, if this is the afterlife, then why is it just these guys? Some of these people only spent a couple of days of their entire lives together on some weird island they didn’t understand. Some of them barely even knew each other. Meanwhile their parents, husbands, wives, sisters and brothers go to a separate heaven. It would be like only reuniting with those friends you loved, and were totally going to keep in contact with, that you met back in college that one semester.  Why do romances that developed in a couple of intense weeks trump the true loves that these people supposedly left behind before their plane crash? Why do some people get to bring their children with them into the afterlife while others don’t?  And why are they all living out mutated fantasies of their own lives anyway? Why does Jack having a dream about finally being a father resolve his own daddy issues?  Why would being duped in a fantasy be preferable to gaining perspective on one’s own lived life?

Most problematically of all, and at the risk of sounding somewhat callous: So what if they’re all dead?

In the End There Is Nothing

Everyone dies. No one in the audience thought that these characters would live on forever. So shifting the whole focus of the series into a shocking twist revelation that they are all one day going to die, somehow, someday, has nothing to do with anything. It risks being rote emotional manipulation. It’s like shouting ‘One day the sun will swallow the Earth!’ when I ask you why you just crashed your car into my lounge room.

Questions became viral. Answer one and others would bloom, but always, there was that rhythm of Pavlovian conditioning: temporary confusion for eventual (albeit fleeting) reward.

It sounds pedantic to pick at details such as this, but LOST was a program that – both on a textual and meta-texual level – trained its viewers, week after week, for years, to overanalyse and obsessively critique. It delighted in call-backs and foreshadowing, drawing tenuous connections to disparate things, it spawned a whole industry of faithful viewers that would dissect every frame and reference in every episode weekly in online wikis and podcasts – so asking viewers to switch off those critical faculties in the end-run and just feel the feels, no matter how disjointed or irrational the logic those emotions are attached to might be, is rather misguided. At best. 

For those critical of the ending, Abrams, Cuse and Lindeloff may as well have been shaking a set of car keys in the audience’s face, hoping that they’d get mesmerised by the noise and shimmer. Because if that really was their plan all along – set up a mystery about the afterlife in the beginning of the very last season and answer only that one detail, rather than anything else about the island, in the final episode – then it exposes the whole series to be an utterly redundant story. Nothing in the present is contextualised at all, and the ‘future’ is only introduced to pay off a twist that’s irrelevant anyway. It’s hardly a concept worth extolling for several years as proof of a grand, pre-planned narrative.

For those who were satisfied with the conclusion, however, these kinds of complaints entirely miss the point, both of LOST’s ending, and the ultimate message of the show itself. The frustration that people feel at having their answers denied are in fact part of the process of the text communicating its true meaning – a meaning rendered in grand symbol by that final year and its fantasy depiction of those loved ones finding one another again, and drawing comfort from each other’s presence.

The point of LOST, they would argue, is to cure these characters – and we the audience at the same time – of our longing to seek for answers that will never come, for truths that are impossible to reach. Rather than searching for meaning in things and ideas, we should find meaning in each other. Because throughout all of our many fruitless pursuits, our friends, our family, our loved ones are by our side. The universe might be cold, and dark, and incomprehensible, but we can find some comfort if we treat each other with kindness. 

The myriad forms of ‘truth’ depicted in the narrative, those who applaud LOST’s finalé would say, were just one expansive MacGuffin. This is a J.J. Abrams show – both Cuse and Lindeloff developed the concepts and themes for the program under his guidance – and Abrams has always loved his MacGuffins and Mystery Boxes.

4. What’s In the Box?

In his 2007 TED talk, Abram’s speaks of his theory of storytelling by describing a mysterious box his grandfather once gifted him. Although wondering at its contents, Abrams decided that he would never actually open this box, never definitively discover what was inside. If the box remained shut, he reasoned, then whatever it contained was would remain an object forever empowered with potential and wonder, forever charged by a never-satiated curiosity. It was this quality, this lure toward the perpetually unknown that fuelled his filmmaking, and was a quality he hoped to evoke in his audience. 

It was, as many have noted, a cute riff on the nature of the ‘MacGuffin’ in fiction and film. A MacGuffin – a term said to have been coined by Alfred Hitchcock, who was a master of dangling MacGuffins in his character’s faces – is a plot device, an object within a story that motivates the action of the narrative. It can be something that a protagonist pursues (like the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark, or the eponymous ‘Maltese Falcon’) or a mystery to unravel (‘Rosebud’ in Citizen Kane). In spy films, it’s frequently the ‘secret files’ or ‘nuke codes’, in heist films it’s the ‘score’.

In many ways, the Macguffin itself is usually all but forgotten by the plot as the story continues, or, it is utilised only in order to reveal a greater truth. Just as in life, you think that you are going in search of one thing, but come to discover quite another – and the MacGuffin becomes a curious metaphor for this quest: answers may or may not eventually come, but the journey itself is the crucible through which that revelation passes. To return to an earlier example: Indiana Jones never gets to see what’s inside the Ark of the Covenant. He pursues it because he is an historian, a man driven by an abiding love of knowledge and reason who desperately wants to glimpse the unknown. But ironically the Ark reveals that sometimes the greatest wisdom is knowing when to be humble, when to look away. Otherwise you get your face melted off.

Abrams and his collaborators Lindeloff and Cuse, seem to have been enchanted by this concept of the MacGuffin, but by striving to repeatedly turn it into a Mystery Box, fetishising its contents, continuously asking the audience to be intrigued by what it contains but staunchly refusing to expose what that might be, they ultimately have a detrimental effect upon the stories being told. LOST might be the most immediate example, but it has been surfacing in the great majority of their work. Sometimes, as in Cloverfield, the mystery of what the monster looks like and obscuring its reveal, becomes not only the driving focus of the film and its flurry of impenetrable first person shaky-cam, but also of all the advertising material that led to its premiere (which was arguably repeated to lesser effect for Super 8).

Other times it’s a meta nod to the audience at the end of Mission Impossible 3. When Ethan Hunt is offered the opportunity to learn what the ‘Rabbit’s Foot’ actually is – the thing he’s been chasing for two hours; talking about non-stop; getting shot at, blown up, and almost losing the love of his life for; something he was prepared to throw Philip Seymour Hoffman out of a plane to discover – he refuses, instead flashing a charming Tom Cruise smile, seemingly at the audience itself, and strolls away, everyone still gleefully oblivious.

In Alias, the character of Rimbaldi, an historical Leonardo da Vinci/Nostradamus mash-up figure, was meant to be a MacGuffin/ mystery box/ whatever, motivating both the show’s heroes and villains to unearth his many wacky inventions and dissect his ominous prophesies. By the end of the series however, this perpetual pursuit of Rimbaldi’s increasingly elaborate portents of doom, and his penchant for fashioning Star Trek calibre physics-defying tech in the 15th century, drove a tale about doublecrossing spies trying to juggle their personal and professional lives, into full-blown the-last-20-minutes-of-The-Kingdom-of-the-Crystal-Skull territory. Along the way, the entire country of Russia goes into a weird, mystical, end-times lockdown, prey to an enormous floating red ball (an image that, if you look for it, curiously appears in most every Abram’s work, somewhere) that wants to measure out unspecified destruction across the face of the Earth. Not only was none of this excess justified in the narrative (outside of simply repeating the words ‘Rimbaldi device’) but it had utterly hijacked the original storytelling conceit.

Meanwhile, in Lindeloff’s Prometheus, inexplicable character behaviour and action (like, the goals of the Engineers; pretty much everything that the character David does) were similarly left unexplained, presumably in the hopes that this confusion would inspire debate and speculation. Like the years of audience prediction and theorising that that kept LOST alive in the public consciousness, this was perhaps another attempt to spackle over unjustified, but narratively convenient, scriptwriting with viewer enthusiasm. But as critical response to the film’s plot holes proved, there are only so many times you can gesture to an empty box before the trick gets stale.

Now this is personal opinion, and your mileage my vary, but for me, Abrams, Cuse and Lindeloff’s products have started to offer diminishing returns, and I suspect it is because this notion of the ‘mystery box’ as the sole motivator for drama is fundamentally flawed. Because a MacGuffin, in its truest sense, operates very differently to a mystery that you simply refuse to tell, or never had an answer for in the first place. Narrative is a form of discovery, and it’s okay to begin with a question mark, only to discover the answer in the process of writing; but when the point of every story becomes a variation on holding a box in front of someone’s face and inviting them to wonder what’s inside it, when both you and they know that it will never be confirmed either way, it’s no longer revealing of anything – save how willing that person is to put up with you wasting their time. 

If we already know from the beginning that there is no possible truth to find – no possible revelation, no confirmation – then the pursuit of truth is rendered meaningless. It’s no longer Schrödinger’s cat in a box, both alive and dead at once, inviting speculation and theory. It’s nothing. It’s a space that may as well literally be void. And if we agree to chase MacGuffins that we already know will always remain irrelevant, even before taking the first step in their pursuit, then fiction becomes not an invitation to wonder, but an abject admission that the journey itself was probably pointless all along.

And so, in an extreme case such as a show like LOST, which so overtly made the pursuit of this Mystery Box of answers its trajectory, the entire narrative consequentially becomes as insubstantial as dream (perhaps fittingly for a show that begins and ends with the image of a man opening and closing his eyes). It runs its course with no rules or restriction, no ultimate obligation to resolve itself or even evoke anything recognisably real. It’s just a bunch of stuff that happened (or didn’t as the case may be), with the audience awaking to find themselves feeling foolish for having once believed it was anything more than a series of fleeting images. 

5. A Lonely God

Up until its finalé, LOST was a show fuelled by a covenant between creators and viewership: a promise that all those loose ends would get tied up. Sure, this detail you’re seeing doesn’t make sense right now, but it will some day. What’s this weird hatch?  Don’t worry, you’ll find out eventually. Of course, when that question is answered, several more flood in to immediately fill up the gap: So now what’s with all the numbers?  Why are there Egyptian hieroglyphs in a mechanised timer?  What’s the Dharma initiative?  On and on and on. 

Questions became viral. Answer one and others would bloom, but always, there was that rhythm of Pavlovian conditioning: temporary confusion for eventual (albeit fleeting) reward. Consequentially, those who followed the show were willing to leave innumerable questions hanging, the presumption being that when the time came those puzzles would all be resolved, as they always had (to varying degrees of satisfaction) thus far.

If the supporters of the show’s ending are right, if indeed it was a six-year exercise in therapeutically shocking the characters and audience into abandoning their futile pursuit of ultimate ‘truths’ and believe in each other instead, then it perhaps worked too well. Because the most significant thing that the final season’s mawkish sleight of hand exposed was the game of perpetual chase that had always been at the narrative’s core: the authors, by necessity, were never going to deliver real answers to the central questions that they had used as bait.

Viewed kindly: they couldn’t, because that would invalidate the message their work was trying to convey. Viewed unkindly: they – like Ben, like the Man in Black, like Jacob – needed followers, viewers, to empower them, and they used distraction and blind faith to achieve their ends. 

Thus, by the time the ultimate theme of the show was revealed – appreciate each other; don’t get so hung up on the big stuff – their viewers were so indoctrinated with this pattern of trust and reward that when it was finally broken, undermining what was presumed to be the central conceit of the show, it rippled backward to hollow out their memory of everything else (it also probably didn’t help that this realisation comes as a jarring exposition dump five minutes before the show ejects the viewer from its fiction).

But suddenly it becomes understandable why some fans of the show were not only disappointed by the thematic switcheroo they had witnessed, but enraged with the authorial figures who had thus far presented themselves as the gatekeepers to a knowledge that was now being outright denied. The ending had hollowed out the very thing that those viewers had poured their faith into, and Lindelof and Cuse become a casualty of this purge because ultimately, beyond the fan wikis, beyond the clues, it was they who fans believed in most of all. 

One of the few times that I can think of this pattern of grandiose promise and surrender to the inexplicable actually working is in a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge called ‘Kubla Khan’. Coleridge, one of the foremost figures in the English Romantic movement, was said to have fallen asleep while medicating himself for an illness, and in the slumber that fell over him, he experienced an epic, exquisite poetic vision. When he woke, he began pouring the lines of verse down onto the page, as though receiving them fully formed from some divine inspiration. 

A knock on the door, however, broke his concentration, and after he had seen off the visitor, the trance was broken, the vision fading, and the poem was left unfinished. Like LOST, the resulting poem begins with phenomenal promise, but collapses into frustration, but, the meta-knowledge of Coleridge’s incapacity to capture his fading dream loads this mere glimpse of the epic grandeur with a mythic grace. 

Now, Coleridge could well have been massaging the truth. The fact that he was, at this point in his life, self-destructively addicted to opium (which was almost certainly the cause of both his hallucination and his inability to concentrate long enough to put it into words) makes his version of events more than a little suspect. But his yearning and his lament is consequentially built into the substance of the poem itself. 

Indeed, as you read the resulting work, he is more a victim than the reader – he has failed in his quest, haunted by the epic poem that might have been. But the scraps that are left behind ironically reveal something that his completed poem probably never would: he was human, trying and failing to do the work of a god. He devoted himself, through his art, to the construction of a world that he believed might be singularly revealing – and when it crumbled, it was his own limitations that were on display. We grieve with Coleridge, because he is mourning something we recognise within ourselves.

The folly of the LOST writers, in contrast, was that they tried to deflate the pursuit of mystery, while still maintaining that there were answers still to find – they had them – the audience just wasn’t allowed to know. That, ultimately, wasn’t the story they wanted to tell. Rather than admit that they too shared their audience’s bewilderment, that they too were trapped in an impossible journey toward an enlightenment at once both tragic and dignified, they tried to retain their authorial detachment, still distracting, still deflecting, even to the last frame of the show. 

And I think, ultimately, it is that sense of remote patronisation that hurts the program the most – whether you believe that the writers were successful with their planned ending or not. Instead of sharing in their audience’s – and indeed the character’s – lament, they wanted to remain at a distance (again, even declaring that they would not answer questions about the LOST finalé for a year after it aired). 

Perhaps that is what has placed Damon Lindelof in this curious bind, simultaneously trying to reengage with the alienated portion of his LOST audience, despite knowing that he is still, necessarily, the focal point of its scorn (a form of self-flagellation he describes in greater detail in his ‘review’ of Breaking Bad): because he, too, is grieving, but has locked himself out of the community that formed from the program’s final revelation. And if that is the case, then personally I find that extremely unfortunate – because whatever you may think of Lindelof’s work, he is himself a talented and funny guy (his Tweets were often hilarious), and it seems clear in his efforts to reach out to his fans (even apologising for not considering them ‘fans’ after he, too, felt the disappointment of a fiction he had invested in) he is still, on some level, trying to comprehend the role that he personally played in their frustration. Still, no one wants to sympathise with god’s existential ego-death if he’s still trying to insist that everything’s fine.

The writer-gods of the LOST world were proved fallible by their own fiction, but unlike Coleridge in all his broken regret, by trying to remain inscrutable, they refused to acknowledge as much. Instead, they wanted their mystery box to remain shut – forever teasing, forever taunting, despite being understood by everyone to have nothing inside.

6. My Magic Box

Luckily, just so that this article doesn’t likewise end on a note of frustrated bewilderment, I am pleased to announce that I have a secret mystery box of my own that I am now prepared to open. By extraordinary coincidence (and curiously unbeknownst to a whole history of literary scholars) I alone have a copy of another poem that Coleridge wrote that day, after he woke from that very same stupor.  As history will no doubt now correctly record, he wrote ‘Kubla Khan’, then (after grabbing a snack and writing some letters to his friend Rimbaldi) he immediately got to work penning a second vision that had haunted his dreams… which for no particular reason he failed to mention anywhere else ever again.

And the poem that resulted from this labour, I am humbled to present to you now.

Now, as you read Coleridge’s prophetic words, you may well wonder how this piece could have gone undiscovered for so many years, or ponder the mysterious manner in which it came into my possession. Similarly, you might well ask how a poet from two centuries ago could have predicted any of what is presented here. How the author of ‘This Lime Tree Bower My Prison’ and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ could have known what the internet, astrophysics, and water coolers were…

All of these are important questions – questions that I assure you each have very simple, very straightforward answers. But those questions are for another day, because we are running out of time here, and this is more important. For now, you just have to trust me, and take at face value this completely real, totally not made up, 100 percent confirmed, second poem that Coleridge definitely wrote all by himself.

Enjoy.

DHARMA DO
Or, Six Seasons In A Dream.
(A Fragment.)

To ‘purgatory’ plunged the flight
Of Oceanic eight one five,
Toward an island built, it seemed,
From maddened, nonsense fever dreams,
    And the Twilight Zone archive. 
And so six seasons came to falter
Sacrificed upon an altar
That worshiped vapid mystery boxes,
Of stall, delay and plot regressions,
Where mysticism was sour and noxious,
And characters ne’er answer simple questions.

But oh! That ceaseless hope of revelation,
A reason to the tangents, jumps and asides!
Smoke monsters, polar bears, and Dharma stations,
An entire season where they went back in time,
And lazy ‘twist’ character suicides!
That iced wagon wheel of space vortex jumping,
The ghostly cabin where Jacob was slumping,
Egyptian statues with only four toes,
Was Hurley hiding a stash of Ho Hos?
The hatches, the numbers, the hieroglyphs,
Astrophysical dimensional shifts!
And ‘mid this tumult came the writers’ assurance
Reward awaited every fans’ endurance,
Even for those who liked Nicki and Paulo.*
But six meandering years: for a dumb fist fight,
Some faked up church to greet eternal night,
And all to stuff a cork in a magic grotto.
Scarce wonder the fans, with gnashed teeth and scorn
Enflamed the internet the following morn!

    No Sherlock for their witless Watson,
    They wept that such a fertile tale
    Adrift amongst pretentious flotsam
    Had left a corpse so trite and stale:
From fuel for weekly water cooler rants
To synonym for ‘fly by seat of pants’.

    A boy called Walt with psychic powers
  Once unknowingly foretold:
  The let-down of the following hours
  The ripening set-ups left to sour
  When the actor got to old.
  This nonpareil ‘chosen’ one,
  The Others sought obsessively
  Suddenly bundled on a boat and gone
The day he’d entered puberty.
For just as Walt was painted off
The writer’s ‘plan’! their grand canvas!
Those ‘truths’ that kept the plot aloft
Mumbled away with no payoff,
Reassured by Cuse and Lindeloff
That truly it was always thus:
There ne’er was need for explanation,
T’was the ‘journey’ now, not ‘destination’,
As soon t’would be in Prometheus…


Signed, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

(Yes, I am definitely the real Sam Coleridge. The one who wrote ‘Frost At Midnight’ and stuff. So don’t blame the guy who found this poem for being a hater of whatever this thing ‘LOST’ turns out to be.  In truth, he probably loved the ride it took him on a great deal – even for all its maddening frustration. On second thought, whoever found this poem should probably be given a Nobel Prize in literature or something. And also a Playstation 4.)

* Fun Fact: No one liked Nicki and Paulo.

Colin Dray is a Lecturer in Literature at Campion College of the Liberal Arts, Australia, and has taught Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong, Australia. His writing and criticism has appeared in Australian Literary Studies, Meanjin, Voiceworks, Antipodes. His blog can be found here: http://drayfish.wordpress.com/


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/180537-lost-and-found-mystery-boxes-and-pleasure-domes/