Lost Exegesis (House of the Rising Sun) -- Part 2

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Part 1 of the essay can be found here. Unlike that part, this one will have spoilers of future episodes.

Watership Down

I have to admit, I was wrong. In the White Rabbit entry I claimed that Watership Down was in four straight episodes. It is not. But have no fear, it will appear again. Nonetheless, we might consider that the book has been “invoked” by virtue of the rabbit on the bus outside the airport terminal where Sun decides to stay with Jin. As such, we will continue to explore this rather delightful tale.

In terms of plot, Part 2 of Watership Down doesn’t have much to do with House of the Rising Sun, but there are a couple of interesting resonances. For example, the rabbits, led by Hazel, form a new warren which they dig out underneath the roots of a massive tree. They call their new home The Honeycombe. So we have a convergence of bee symbolism, the World Tree, and “caves,” just like this episode.

The rabbits make friends with a large bird, Kehaar, who speaks with a thick accent and performs reconnaissance for them. They use this to their advantage when they realize they have no females amongst them (they are all “bucks”) and decide to go raiding other locations to find “does” – to basically steal females from other warrens. Well, one warren is run under martial law, while the other is just a girl’s rabbit hutch on a farm. Two “away teams” split off (hmm). One returns empty-handed, lucky to be alive, thanks to the timely intervention of a train (which is actually kind of how the Island’s “monster” sounds). The other leads to the wounding of their leader, Hazel, who nearly dies before he’s rescued by his brother. After this encounter, he decides he’s going to lead his rabbits to raid the militarized “other” warren and steal their “mothers,” effectively splitting his own “hive” as not everyone agrees with him.

There’s a couple of interesting broader-scale themes that emerge in this part of the book that are relevant to LOST. First, the question is raised on what it’s like to live “naturally,” with the farm-hutch rabbits and the militarized “other” warren used for contrast. And this of course applies to how the Losties are organizing themselves in a “state of nature,” as it were,. What kind of political system are they setting up? Leadership by the most dynamic individuals, for the most part, just like Watership Down’s rabbits, but with everyone pretty much free to do as they please. It’s a question and answer that’s actually brought up by the historical John Locke, so this fits nicely into the larger pattern of philosophical thoughtfulness that LOST has already staked out.

Secondly, there’s the matter of rabbit mythology. After Hazel’s near-death experience, his brother Fiver (the mystic) ruminates on the possibility of “another world”:

“Hrairoo,” said Hazel one evening, “what would we have done without you? We’d none of us be here, would we?”
“You’re sure we are here, then?” asked Fiver.
“That’s too mysterious for me,” replied Hazel. “What do you mean?”
“Well, there’s another place—another country, isn’t there? We go there when we sleep; at other times, too; and when we die. El-ahrairah comes and goes between the two as he wants, I suppose, but I could never quite make that out, from the tales. Some rabbits will tell you it’s all easy there, compared with the waking dangers that they understand. But I think that only shows they don’t know much about it. It’s a wild place, and very unsafe. And where are we really—there or here?”
“Our bodies stay here—that’s good enough for me.”

It’s an enticing passage, because it rather hints at being a description of the Island itself. The Island is certainly another country, a wild and unsafe place, and only six episodes in we’ve already encountered a “monster” that tears down trees and kills the pilot, the ghost (or resurrection) of Jack’s dead father wandering around the jungle, and the miraculous cure of a paraplegic’s dead legs. (Not to mention the polar bear, though that’s not supernatural, merely strange and incongruous. )

But on the issue of mythology, it’s interesting that Watership Down and LOST carry out a balancing act between their stories’ respective mythologies and their material plots. Several episodes of LOST haven’t had anything strictly “mythological” in them at all, and even those that do are still buttressed by their attendant dramas. In Watership Down we get a few references to the rabbits’ mythology, as evidenced above, alongside chapters devoted to the actual myths of El-ahrairah, the “prince” of rabbits whose daring exploits inform not just what makes rabbits special and unique, but also places them in relationship to their “gods,” for lack of a better word.

There’s another structural element of Watership Down worth remarking on at this point, namely that each chapter begins with a brief epigraph. With fifty chapters, that’s fifty other texts that end up being referenced, and each blurb has some aesthetic kinship to the chapter it precedes.   What this means is that Watership Down is also a book that’s got a strong intertextual element to it. And these outside texts are hardly uniform. The epigraphs quote literature, poems, children’s ballads, philosophers, and even ancient myths. Given that the Lost Exegesis is resolute in its belief that literary and cultural references are deeply interwoven into LOST and in fact shine a light on its mysteries, I find this rather heartening.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Watership Down comes across much of the time as a “boys’ own” adventure. All the main characters are male, and so much of the story is rooted in the action-adventure tropes of pulp fiction. Hell, at the halfway point the story turns sharply into an adventure geared towards stealing the females of another warren, because the protagonists are all male, with the promise of derring-do and possibly lots of fighting. LOST isn’t that bad – there’s quite a few female characters, all of whom get (or will get) their own centric episodes. But it’s a critique to note – for it’s true that there are more male characters than female characters, and even in a story that’s centered around a female character, there’s over three times as many men as women featured as protagonists here.

 

King Solomon’s Mines

CHARLIE: There's a whole beach of people waiting for us to get some drinking water for them. And the Great White Hunter's getting restless.

It’s an interesting choice of phrase, “The Great White Hunter.” And in at least one respect Charlie’s not wrong – Locke is white, and he’s the hunter of the group, having already bagged a boar for the Losties. But in this day and age we wouldn’t exactly call it a compliment. There are racist and colonial connotations to the phrase, as the “great white hunters” basically part and parcel of the pillaging and domination of Africa. While we haven’t seen an indigenous culture on the Island, it has already been likened to Africa through the literary reference to Heart of Darkness back in Walkabout. That said, I’m not so sure this is an apt phrase for John Locke. He isn’t aristocratic, isn’t particularly privileged apart from being a cis white male, and the episode’s concern with race relations actually explores Michael’s reaction to being attacked by a Korean.

Instead, I would argue that the “Great White Hunter” invocation is a pointer to a particular genre of adventure tales, the “Lost World” genre which emerged at the end of the 19th Century. At the time, European explorers were “discovering” the artifacts of previous civilizations around the world. Archeological finds, in other words, of magnificent statues, ancient temples, and the ruins of long-forgotten peoples. These finds were in beautiful but difficult-to-reach places – deserts, jungles, mountains – which added to the exotic allure of these stories.

It’s fairly well acknowledged that H Rider Haggard was the first to create a “Lost World” story with his book King Solomon’s Mines, featuring the fictional “white hunter” known as Allan Quatermain, albeit a character based on real life people. Other more well-known books include Lost Horizon by James Hilton, Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, and Edgar Rice Burrough’s The Land That Time Forgot. One could reasonably argue, however, that the genre actually emerged from “hollow earth” stories like Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne.

Anyways, King Solomon’s Mines seems like a reasonable place to start given the whole “white hunter” angle. Frankly, it doesn’t really have much resemblance to House of the Rising Sun so much as it provides yet another take on the Caves of the episode’s B-plot and the attendant apocrypha we discussed in Part 1 of this essay. In Haggard’s book, a small group of explorers (three white men and several natives) go off in search of the fabled Mines of King Solomon. There’s the usual “boys own” adventure stuff, the difficulties of traveling into Africa’s interior and what it takes to survive. It starts to get interesting, however, when they reach the fictional “Kukuanaland” where they encounter a large African civilization ruled by a cruel and despotic king.   One of the small group’s guides turns out to be the lost rightful heir to this “throne,” and a good chunk of the middle of the book is concerned with battling the despot and restoring the rightful ruler. This kind of ties into what we were discussing with The Book of the Bee and The Book of the Cave of Treasures, apocryphal Biblical books that are very concerned with the direct lineage of Adam and Eve, very important for determining kingship.

This is, of course, tenuous. But then we get to the exploration of the actual Mines. Guarding the entrance are three enormous statues, identified as Ashtoreth, a mother-fertility goddess, and the gods Chemosh and Milcom (or Moloch), who are often taken as interchangeable—who we could take as twins. A “mother” and “twins.” Those who have seen the final season episode Across the Sea should recognize the similarity. The entrance to the “mines” themselves is actually a magnificent cave. The cave leads to an antechamber where there are skeletons. And there’s even a goatskin bag filled with stones. With that amount of similarity to the iconography of the Caves plot here in House of the Rising Sun, I have to say I’m intrigued. I’m even more intrigued that the climax of Solomon’s Mines involves being trapped inside the deepest part of the caves, and finding a way out thanks to discerning some airflow, which foreshadows the climax of the next episode in Lost, The Moth.

This is significant. We saw, back in Pilot Part 2, how a literary reference (yes, I’m calling the polar bear comic a literary reference) presaged an actual encounter with a polar bear on the Island. And here we have it again, and from an “apocryphal” reference at that! (I’m calling King Solomon’s Mines an “apocryphal” reference based on finding it not through a direct invocation, like Watership Down, but through the tangential “great white hunter” dialogue.) So this is something we’ll be keeping a close eye on.

 

Genesis of the Daleks

Speaking of apocryphal references, the whole bit with Charlie standing on a beehive that’s about ready to go off like a landmine really reminds me of the bit where the Fourth Doctor steps on a landmine back in Genesis of the Daleks, a 1975 Doctor Who serial. In the Doctor Who story, the Doctor steps on a landmine, but it’s kept from going off by propping it up from underneath to hold it steady. Here, Charlie steps on a beehive, but the idea is to “cover it up” from above. This “reversal of polarity” has the opposite effect – the beehive goes off, and everyone has to run for cover. And then there’s the title of the episode – Genesis.  The Caves are the home to skeletons dubbed “Adam and Eve” by Locke, a blatant invocation of the Biblical Genesis.

I bring all this up to explore what I think is a central conceit of LOST, a hidden conceit, one that’s been “covered up.” It’s something we’ll be exploring in greater depth over the course of the Exegesis, namely the notion of going back in time to change the course of history. This is ostensibly the main plot point of Genesis of the Daleks: the Doctor going back into the history of the Daleks to avert or change the conditions of their creation.

From a literary point of view, this is a fascinating exercise. It rather flies in the face of our expectations of a fictional show’s “universe,” the idea that the past could be retconned in order to present some newer, fresher, more exciting takes on the show’s now 12-year-old iconic monsters. Simply the introduction of Davros as the Daleks’ creator, and the marvelous conversations between Davros and the Doctor, justify this kind of a move. But there’s another parallel that’s just as interesting to underscore, namely that the very act of writing typically involves an awful lot of rewriting, of editing. As writers, we cover up that which we’ve written before, because now have better words, a better sentence, a better idea. It’s not unheard of for a novelist, upon reaching a glorious climax to their book, will have to go back and rewrite the beginning (and hell, the middle) to create a better payoff for the end.

Speaking of which, have you ever noticed that, at least back before the widespread use of electronic publishing, in an old “new edition” of some book it’s possible to see what’s been rewritten, because the “new” bits are in a slightly different typesetting than the original?

 

Through the Looking Glass (House of the Rising Sun)

So now we’re at the point where we’ll be throwing caution to the wind and reveling in our foreknowledge of what’s to come. And one of the most striking things I found about Season Six of LOST was the revelation that Sun no longer knew English in the “Sideways” AU where it’s implied there was no longer an Island from which to influence the events of the world and indeed of the characters.

I say this because in my initial Exegetic explorations of this episode, I noticed a particular use of “mirroring” and “continuity error” to come up with a time-travel theory for why Sun suddenly knew English. Let’s start with the evidence. This scene occurs after the Flashback where Sun confronts Jin in front of the bathroom mirror, and realizes he’s now a violent thug for her father. After a bunch of the B-plot stuff, there’s a shot of Sun on the beach as she watches Michael head off into the jungle. We cut to a shot of Jin tied up to the fuselage. And then there’s a closeup of Sun – and this is an interesting closeup in two respects. First, this is a reversed image. Yunjin Kim, the actress who plays Sun, has a notch in her left earlobe. But in this shot, it’s her right earlobe that’s notched. So this is a reversed image, and there’s no earthly reason to reverse this particular shot – it’s a closeup, and she’s looking off to the horizon. Second, this shot is accompanied by a sound effect, that of Michael chopping wood, which is actually happening in the next shot. The sound effect has breached the preceding shot.

As Sun watches Michael chop wood from behind a stand of bamboo (definitely away from the beach now), we cut to Flashback, where we discover Sun is planning to leave Jin, and there’s just a snippet of a line from Sun’s interior decorator that foreshadows the big reveal: “You’ve taken your lessons?” After the Flashback, Sun approaches Michael and reveals that she knows English. And this Reveal is married to a pair of shots that hinge on another “reversal” – one of the physical continuity of blocking. In one shot, Michael is holding up his right hand, while the left holds the axe down by his leg. In the very next shot, from the other angle, it’s now his left hand that’s up, while the right holds the exe down by his leg.

Now, why might this be an example of time travel, you ask? It’s quite a leap to make. And yes, it’s quite a leap. But consider, Sun didn’t know English in the timeline where the Island was sunk. In the Flashback immediately falling on the Reveal, Sun is reciting the time. Furthermore, the very next thing that Sun and Michael discuss after this “continuity error”? The watch. The watch that Michael is wearing. Which is used to tell time. And it’s interesting how Michael describes it to Jin as he sets the Korean free later in the episode:

MICHAEL: I have a deranged Korean guy trying to kill me and for what?! Look, I get it, right? It's the watch. Mine broke and I found this in the wreckage, and I figured, "Hey, why let a $20,000 dollar watch go to waste?” Which is ridiculous, since time doesn't matter on a damn Island!

Anyways, if the presence of the Island is so important to Sun knowing English, what might possibly be the mechanic behind that turn of events? It’s not like it’s obvious that Jacob’s touch had anything to do with that. But it’s certainly possible that Sun rewrote her own history, without even knowing it, if there’s more to these Flashbacks than just memories (let alone just being a “narrative device”). What if one’s consciousness is actually traveling back? And a different choice ends up being made?

I would argue that it’s the Flashbacks that permit this rewriting. Because it’s not just Sun learning English that’s different from this version of reality and the one that’s presented to us in Season Six – no, in that reality, they aren’t even married! They’re still in love, mind you, but they have a very different life than the one that’s presented here. Regardless, we’ve had four straight episodes where a character is presented with Flashbacks, and that character is actively facing a personal crisis of some sort or another on the Island. At the very least, even if Flashbacks aren’t time-travel events, there’s still something about this Island that confers a sense of deep introspection.

 

The Mirror of the Eye

I want to go back to the beginning of this story, because there’s another conflation of images that’s particularly relevant for the Exegesis. Back in Pilot Part 1 we talked about the interesting Magritte painting called “False Mirror” and how it related to Jack’s opening right eye. Here we’ve got a shot of Locke’s right eye, but it’s closed, not open, and it’s closed because he’s practically blinded by the sunlight that’s reflecting off the mirror he’s using to shave. The eye in relative shadow, his left, is open. Like Sun’s Opening Eye to begin the episode.

“I’ve into the Eye of this Island,” he said last episode, “and what I saw… was beautiful.” Now, it seems, he’s taken it upon himself to be the Island’s guru. The man who understands The Island, all proper capital letters and such. This is his mode throughout his interaction with Charlie. Charlie, of course, is a drug addict, desperately trying to get his fix. And he keeps getting foiled in this episode, with Locke tailing him and all. Which is kind of the point. After all, Charlie’s stash is going to run out – this is Fate. But rather than run up against Fate, Charlie can choose to embrace it by voluntarily giving up his addiction before the final hour rings.

Locke gets Charlie to do this by literally being the Island guru. This is not, to be sure, the way Jack goes about doing things. Jack builds rational arguments, which he prepares to defend if they’re not accepted. He’s not looking at people with their own individual wants, needs, quirks, wounds, what have you. Locke, on the other hand, despite getting on Charlie’s nerves by continually following him, ultimately connects with Charlie by finding something else that Charlie deeply values, to the point of it being a defining part of his identity: his music. And this personal approach is actually how so many gurus can be so effective – by focusing on the other person, rather than their own reasons.

Notably, it’s not Locke’s rational argument (Fate) that brings Charlie around. First, when discussing Charlie’s guitar, and the chances of finding it, Locke makes a peculiar admission:

LOCKE: You'll see it again.
CHARLIE: Oh yeah? What makes you say that?
LOCKE: Because I have faith, Charlie.

Now, we know that Locke has already seen the guitar – or at least, the case. It might be an article of faith that the instrument is still undamaged and playable, but not that the guitar will be found. The guitar has already been found. It’s not lost. It’s just that Charlie hasn’t seen it yet. As such, we might say that Locke is a bit of a con man here – he’s getting Charlie’s confidence, not through reason, but through emotion. Which, I think, is the secret truth of confidence: it’s an emotion.

LOCKE: Do you want your guitar? More than your drug?
CHARLIE: More than you know.
LOCKE: What I know is that this Island might just give you what you're looking for, but you have to give the Island something.
CHARLIE: (handing over the drugs) You really think you can find my guitar?
LOCKE: Look up, Charlie.
CHARLIE: You're not going to ask me to pray or something.
LOCKE: I want you to look up.

In their next scene, Locke turns to an alchemical argument to convince Charlie of making this particular choice: Give something to the Island, and the Island might give something to you. I call this “alchemical” because it’s a basic alchemical principal, that of “equivalent exchange.” And this is kind of an important principle on an Island dominating by mirrors and twins. Two things (or even two people) can be considered “equivalent” if they share enough in common. For Charlie, music is the only thing other than heroin that can give him a high right now. So the drugs and his guitar are equivalent.

The other part of this that’s alchemical is the literal demonstration of faith here. Sorry, that’s supposed to be funny. It’s actually a pun. First, in terms of “faith,” by pointing up John Locke is using a gesture that’s rather famous in certain paintings – Raphael’s version of Plato, for example, and da Vinci’s John the Baptist. They’re very different figures – one is religious, one is secular – but both are using the gesture to indicate a “higher” power, be it the Divine or the abstract principles of philosophy. For Locke, this would be the Island, and Charlie’s question of whether Locke is asking for “prayer” with this gesture and command makes me lean towards John the Baptist rather than Plato. But he’s simultaneously being quite literal – he literally means to “look up” because the guitar case is up on the mountainside.

And even though Charlie must surely know he’s just been conned, the look of rapture on his face surely makes it all worth it. It’s really not a problem to be conned into one’s bliss.

 

Jack’s Water

There’s one final reversed image to contend with. In the closing montage, as Willie Nelson sings on Hurley’s CD player, we see Jack drawing water from the small pool of fresh water at the Caves. As we’ve said before, the water of the Caves is balanced out on the Beach by a great bonfire – though obviously there’s the Sea by the beach, and Locke has made a small campfire at the Caves. Still, it’s the fresh water that’s practically a defining feature of the Caves. And here we see Jack drawing water, in two consecutive shots (the second a closeup of the first) which just happen to be reversed.

Again, I have to wonder about the choice to reverse these shots. It’s obvious, for one thing – you can even see the “Oceanic” logo on Jack’s water bottle in reverse, and of course his tattoos are on the wrong side (don’t forget, at the beginning of the episode, Kate made a big deal about Jack’s tattoos).

It’s here that I would spin some grand tale of Jack traveling back in time to change something, but for the life of me I can’t think of anything. First of all, there’s no corresponding “reversal of polarity” when it comes to earlier in the story. It’s not like, for example, Jack has traveled back in time and decided it’s better to split up the camp at this juncture to save on lugging 23 gallons of water back to the beach every day.

But, nonetheless, the image of Jack’s water bottle drawing water is striking, because again this is an image that’s very important at the end of this very long saga. Which has an awful lot to do with Caves, though not these caves in particular. In the end, I’m drawn to those stones that Jack found. One light, one dark. It’d be awfully easy to switch them back and forth in his pocket, for example, to set up a mirror-twinning by which he could create entry or exit points. Perhaps that’s the moment that Jack changes his mind about digging in at the beach? In which case, Kate’s sadness would be based on a recognition that Jack’s changed something that she can’t follow along with. But I’m not inclined towards this reading. Sometimes, I think, what happened simply happened.

But what of the reversed images in Jack’s case? Well, we noted that in White Rabbit, there were also reversed images of Jack at the Caves. Perhaps that’s what’s significant to note here. These are Jack’s caves. But they’re not ordinary caves – rather, they are a mirror, or at least a potential mirror, that can be held up to each of these characters. And that, I think, is rather more exciting than any sort of far-fetched time-travel theory. Perhaps... perhaps this is simply a moment where Jack... remembers.  Remembers what he is going to become, what he is going to give up, and why. 

There will come a time when Jack drinks the water... and it will change him forever.  For good.

 

Comments

Kat 1 year, 7 months ago

Another great entry, and I'm enjoying the ongoing four-part analysis of Watership Down, one of my favorite books.

I LOVE how John pointing up points to John the Baptist -- I hadn't known that that was a common artistic trope before, but now it makes so much sense. The real tragedy of John Locke is that he is the Island's John the Baptist, preparing the way for the redeemer, and not the savior himself.

Looking forward to The Moth next week - one of my favorites!

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