Lost Exegesis (House of the Rising Sun) — Part 1
It’s been a while since we had one of these LOST Exegesis posts! So sorry for the delay. It couldn’t be helped. And not just the nearly two months since the last one of these — I had trouble accessing Eruditorum Press last night. Anwyays, enough excuses. It’s been a while. As such, please remember that Part 1 of the essay is spoiler-free. For those who’ve seen the entire series, the second part of the essay, titled “Through the Looking Glass” (and appearing next week in the second part of this massive post), applies foreknowledge to the episode at hand.
So, on to the episode at hand. House of the Rising Sun is complex. Not to say that it’s difficult to understand; on the contrary, it’s rather straightforward, at first glance. It’s here we discover that whatever preconceptions we had about Sun and Jin, they were a bit wrong – these characters are not crass stereotypes – she’s the spoiled rich girl, he’s the poor nice boy corrupted by her father, who would have guessed that? It may have been Walkabout when I fell in love with the show, but it’s House of the Rising Sun that first earned my respect.
As we’d correctly surmise from the Opening Eye of the episode, this episode is Sun-centric. But there’s a lot more this episode’s plate. While Sun’s Flashbacks and her husband’s current predicament on the Island form the primary threads of the episode, there’s also the trip to the Caves, which also ends up split in two, with Jack and Kate’s early friendship tested by differing philosophies regarding the camp’s next big decision, while Locke takes an interest in Charlie. There’s even a thread breaded in that’s devoted to Michael. So there’s a balance of five stories, and even more characters to juggle, all in forty-five minutes on a network budget. On top of that, we get another piece of mythology with the skeletons found at the Caves, some new takes on previously invoked symbols, continued thematic concerns, and several more cultural references to untangle.
It’s three episodes in a row now where we’ve started with an Opening Eye. This time it’s Sun’s. And this time it’s a Left Eye, as opposed to the Right Eyes of Jack and Locke. So from the outset, we’d anticipate an episode that’s Sun-centric, and we’d be correct; at the same time, however, the switch from right to left should harken something different, symbolically, than what we’ve seen before, given the dichotomy. And this is definitely an episode about dichotomy.
Previously we’ve identified the Opening Eye with some kind of enlightenment, and I’m happy to continue doing so. But let’s also consider that the Eye itself is often used as a way of describing certain celestial bodies. In Egyptian mythology, for example, the Right Eye represents the Sun, and the Left Eye represents the Moon. The sun shines during the day, making everything visible; the Moon shines at night, and still leaves much in darkness. And then there’s the matter of these two bodies being gendered – the Sun is typically male, the Moon typically female (though not always, obviously). And with that particular dichotomy, we get all kinds of other dichotomies. So let’s come up with a dichotomy of enlightenment.
One kind of enlightenment is about things external to us – the nature of the world, of one’s predicament, even certain spiritual matters. Ergo, the other kind is interior, inward looking, not so much consciously realized as emotionally felt. And this nicely encapsulates Sun’s trajectory in House of the Rising Sun (a title that suggests a kind of ascension for her) and the clarification she achieves regarding her relationship with her husband.
What’s particularly interesting about this is how much her Flashbacks figure into this clarification. Again, I think it’s fairly clear that what’s happening on the Island is triggering her Flashbacks. Her first, before the opening credits, comes as she smells a flower she’s dug up – we then cut to Korea, where we find her in swanky attire at a fancy dinner party, but Jin isn’t a celebrant, he’s a waiter, courting a lady above his socioeconomic class with… a flower. Sun finds it particularly romantic. However, Jin hopes to give her a diamond… and this is an interesting juxtaposition, a jewel and a flower. It evokes an ethos of Buddhism, which we’ll leave aside until a later episode.
The next Flashback exhibits the same kind of continuity. Sun tries to communicate gesturally with Sayid, pointing to the watch on her wrist, as if this might make it clear that Jin attacked Michael over a watch. But Sayid doesn’t understand, and says that the handcuffs will stay on. Shortly thereafter, Sun’s second Flashback occurs, and the first image we see is her hands. Her left wrist is adorned with a fancy gold watch. Her right wrist is grasped by her other hand. Not unlike the juxtaposition of handcuffs, over a watch, that Jin is currently bound by. And this, really, is a fun juxtaposition: “time” being congruent with a form of “imprisonment.”
In the Flashback, once again Jin presents a gift to Sun – this time a diamond ring, just like he promised. Sun is dazzled by the jewel. But now we’ve got yet another symbol that marries time and bondaged – the rings of engagement and marriage are supposed to be “eternal” (though of course they’re not). And so we come to understand where Sun is in the present, struggling with ties of marriage, bound to Jin just as he’s bound to the airplane wreckage. And it’s this bondage that’s at the heart of her drama, informing so much of her motivation.
The third Flashback also revolves around a gift – this time it’s a puppy (a Sharpei, I believe) but now the relationship between Jin and Sun is starting to strain. Jin is pulling away, because of work, and Sun is quite aware of it. The Flashback is preceded by Jin pulling away from Sun’s ministrations; she’s applying some kind of plant to ameliorate the chafing on Jin’s wrist.
The fourth Flashback stands out. First of all, this is the only Flashback that doesn’t involve Jin giving something to Sun. However, there’s still plenty of continuity between the Island the Flashback. On the Island, Sun asks to leave Jin, to try to explain the predicament. Jin refuses, says her place is by his side, and that they will not explain themselves to a thief. We then cut to Flashback, where Jin rushes into the bathroom to wash the blood off his hands (still a focus on hands, hmm). It becomes clear that Jin is now a thug for Sun’s father, a thief in his own right. And it is here, presumably, that Sun decides it’s time to leave her husband.
So that’s all very nice and good. But there’s a couple other interesting elements to this Flashback. Even though we have two of our principal cast members in it, it’s still presented entirely from Sun’s point-of-view. It begins her on the couch, before Jin enters the apartment, and it ends with her leaving the bathroom, and the editing of all the transitions in between make her the focal point for continuity between every shot. At one point, in the bathroom, she looks down at the floor, and the camera follows her gaze. In other words, it’s as if the Flasbhacks are “narrated” in the third-person-close. We see what Sun sees and knows, and nothing more. Finally, most of the scene happens in front of a mirror, which includes many shots that visually twin our main characters, once again informing the show’s mirror-twin aesthetic.
The fifth Flashback comes as Sun approaches Michael in the jungle, where he’s chopping wood. She prepares to speak to him, and then we Flash Back to her apartment, where a distracted Jin has apparently gifted Sun a home-redecorating splurge. But the scene is actually about Sun’s plan to leave Jin during their upcoming trip, and in the course of her conversation with her interior decorator we hear a glimpse of what’s about to happen: Sun has been taking “lessons.” When we return to the Island, it’s Revealed that Sun knows how to speak English.
There’s another tidbit in the Flashback worth mentioning – the interior decorated says that when Sun’s family comes to think that she is “dead,” she’ll be free to move wherever she wants. “Dead” has become a recurring theme at this point in the show. In the Pilot Part 2, we discover through the Frenchwoman’s transmission that her team is all dead. In Tabula Rasa, Jack euphemistically declares that since they “all died three days ago” everyone deserves a fresh start. In Walkabout, Kate and Michael believe that Locke is dead, on account of the monster, until he shows up with something else that’s dead, namely the boar. And in White Rabbit much ado is made of Jack seeing his dead father walking about the Island, and of course there’s that empty coffin to contend with. Given that death is juxtaposed with being “free” – the polar opposite of imprisonment – does that seem to suggest that death is the end of time?
Anyways, The sixth and final Flashback occurs at the airport. There’s yet another gift – Jin presents Sun with a flower at the terminal, bringing the round of gifts full circle. But in terms of the continuity between the Island and the Flashback, we instead get something approaching irony. Jin has just been freed from the airplane wreckage after Michael cleaves the handcuff chain with the axe after his lovely speech about the “damn watch.” But in the Flashback, this is juxtaposed with Sun deciding not to run away, but to stay with Jin. On the one side, freedom; on the other, bondage.
So, five out six Flashbacks feature a gift; one is different. And five of six Flashbacks have amazing emotional continuity, while the other is instead drenched in irony, or some kind of union of opposites. Thankfully we have a symbol for expressing this kind of dynamic: the Tao. Taoism actually has a complex history and several disparate ways of being expressed and practiced, which we’ll not get into here. For now, let us just contemplate the symbol itself, which is often used to stand for a universal pattern behind the natural world, a pattern of balance and order.
First, within the field of white, there is a black circle, and within the field of black, there is a white circle. So there’s a union of opposites to consider – from the darkness, the light, and from the light, the darkness; they are not separate, but joined. The white field isn’t entirely white, and the black field isn’t entirely black — each has a point of exception within. It’s also a pattern of mirror-twinning, an aesthetic we’ve identified in earlier episodes. Finally, it visually plays into what Jack found on one of the skeletons at the caves, a pair of stones within a leather pouch, one of them light, the other dark. This sort of play on dichotomy is something we’ll see over and over again in LOST.
The Heroine’s Journey
Previously we identified the general shape of the Campbellian “Heroic Journey” structuring many of the early episodes. Perhaps I’ll steal Jack’s “structre” here, for it’s not unlike a ghost haunting the episode. Sun hears the Call to Adventure: her husband (the princess) needs to be rescued. She has internal reluctance: their embattled marriage. When we get to “crossing the threshold” and “the belly of the whale,” the journey extends to the Flashbacks: her “Mentor” is the interior decorator who’s had her learn English in preparation for, of all things, leaving Jin. Imagine, if Sun never planned to leave Jin, she wouldn’t have learned English, and she’d never be able to convince Michael to resolve the situation. The conversation with Michael is the “inner sanctum” moment of the episode, the moment where the Boon is secured. Like all our previous Journeys, this moment actually takes place in the Jungle. Michael becomes the “Rescue From Without” as he’s the one to ultimately free Jin.
The whole resolution, however, hinges on Sun’s act, and specifically her act of confession. She admits to Michael that she knows English. It’s a confession because she feels ashamed. But now that she’s confessed, she can actually become a Master of Two World – specifically, the worlds of spoken English and spoken Korean. And once she’s overcome her shame of how she ever came to learn English in the first place, she finds the Freedom to Live, as demonstrated in the final montage where she pulls out a sundress (sun… dress) at the caves to a flabbergasted Jin, and in so doing she demolishes the stereotypes set out at the beginning of the series.
So why cast all this in the structre of the Heroic Journey? Well, that’s a question that deserves two answers. First, on the part of the showrunners, it’s not an inherently bad thing to employ well-known structures when developing a TV show that at the time is running half the weeks of the year. That’s a tremendous about of production time to account for, and greasing the wheels with structure totally makes sense, especially a structure that is so versatile and can generate compelling scenes like we just got with House of the Rising Sun. Like certain poems, which depend on their structures to be the kind of poems they are – sonnets, for example – the imposition of structure (hmm, imprisonment?) can actually have a liberating effect as long as one’s craftsmanship is impeccable. And this is show that, early on, is already demonstrating a tremendous amount of professionalism, from the writing to the performances to the production.
The other side of the question is why I would choose to focus on Heroic Journeys, given all the other rich material on offer with LOST. Two reasons. First, I actually like the Heroic Journey story. Sure, it’s not the “monomyth” that Campbell makes it out to be, but it’s still a terribly interesting story, especially since it purports to identify what’s truly heroic. Given that Campbell explicitly charts out the ego-death as a necessity for heroic action, and goes into great detail on what a difficult struggle that ego-death actually is, I actually find a lot of value in his words. I read him as the mystic he is, for while he’s using academic language and publishing within the halls of academia, what he’s actually saying is just an expression of so many mystical experiences drenched in mythological connections. So “structre” is actually quite apt, given this is essentially spiritual material.
And besides, I rather like the idea of Sun being heroic in saving her husband. Her climax is a confession, which is very much kith and kin with ego-death. Her climax is a confession, which is ultimately rooted in her relationships, and doesn’t have anything to do with fighting monsters or boys’ own action-adventure. So hell yes, I’ll call Sun a hero.
Sun’s Mirror: Kate
One of the very interesting things that LOST does with some regularity is to employ chiastic structures in developing its character trajectories. We’ve known for some time that Sun’s marriage to Jin has been strained – at least from Sun’s perspective on the Island. In this episode we see her start putting it back together. Kate’s trajectory in this episode is a mirror-twin of Sun’s; they are heading in opposite directions.
For the purposes of this episode, the relationship that we’re talking about here is between Kate and Jack. In the beginning it seems to running on all cylinders – there’s a lovely bit at that beginning that demonstrates how tight they’ve become:
KATE: It’s not like I’m asking a personal question.
JACK: It is a personal question.
KATE: You don’t have to get all quiet on me. I just want to know.
JACK: Well, you’re not going to know.
KATE: What’s the big deal?
JACK: It’s not a big deal. It’s just something I did. I had my reasons. And I don’t want to put it out there.
KATE: It’s just that you and your tattoos don’t add up. Are you one of those hard-core spinal surgeons?
JACK: That’s me. Hard-core.
CHARLIE: If you guys are finished verbally copulating we should get a move on.
As we’ve pointed out several times already, there’s a propensity for LOST to employ a certain kind of mirror-twinning in the actual dialogue. Here we see Jack echoing every one of Kate’s lines, and every time (except for the last) he exercises a form of negation. What’s not a personal question… becomes a personal question. Wanting to know, and not going to know. A big deal… not a big deal. Only when we get to “hard core” does the negation stop. Charlie’s picked up on this, calling it “verbal copulation” (a wonderful phrase I try to employ regularly now in real life.)
Anyways, Charlie goes on to point out how nice it is that Kate and Jack are sharing an inside joke, which kind of seals the deal on the fact that Kate and Jack have a pretty good relationship going on here. But all that changes once we get to the Caves (and we’ll get to the symbolism of the Caves in a little bit) and the B-plot (bee plot) starts to develop. They find a couple skeletons, one male, one female, and on their bodies Jack finds a pouch with a White stone and a Black stone. In other words, there’s some obvious dualism going on here.
While Sun is trying to figure out how to free her husband, Kate begins to have doubts in Jack. Jack keeps going on and on about living at the Caves, coming up with all sorts of reasons why it’s a good idea, but Kate… resists. And it’s not that she isn’t interested in Jack – at one point she thinks he’s checking out her ass, and she’s perfectly okay with that, but when he confesses that he was actually thinking about modifying the Cave environment for long-term living, Kate becomes disenchanted. And maybe it’s specifically a disenchantment that Jack just assumes that she’ll be happy to go along with it – as she says, he hasn’t convinced her yet.
It’s not like Kate’s alone in this – when Sayid hears the plan, he’s angry that Jack is now making decisions about their fate without consulting everyone. Again, I have to point out that there’s a duality here: Sayid argues that they should stay on the beach to keep the signal fire going, while Jack wants to relocate to the Caves to be close to fresh water. It’s a Fire/Water dichotomy. For Sayid, heading out to the Water would be a kind of “defeat” – which in turns sets up another dichotomy, one of holding on versus letting go, or “pessimism” versus “optimism” as Sawyer eventually puts it to Kate on the beach. It certainly plays right back into the episode’s concerns with bondage and freedom.
It’s at the beach where Kate’s relationship with Jack comes to a head:
JACK: It’s almost time to go.
KATE: I don’t want to be Eve.
JACK: No one’s asking you to.
KATE: I just can’t… dig in.
This – this is very telling. Kate doesn’t want to “be Eve.” Which is actually an argument against being a part of a mythological foundation, and hence of being locked in to a fate. Jack says no one’s asking her to “be Eve” and yet he’s already assumed that she’ll be that to him, willing to support his decisions no matter what. And as Kate said back in Pilot Part 1, she’s actually the sort of person who really wants to run. And which we saw again in Tabula Rasa at Ray Mullen’s farm. Kate really, really values her freedom. So of course she’s going to side with staying where there’s a chance to escape from the Island, which rather casts the Island as a sort of virtual prison, when you think about it.
JACK: Kate, how did you get to be this way? Just what is it that you did?
KATE: You had your chance to know.
JACK: If you need me you know where to find me.
KATE: You know where to find me, too.
The end of their interaction comes back around to that conceit of verbal copulation. Not just in the mirroring of their final two lines, but also how Kate invokes that Jack had his chance to know her past – which, of course, is something Jack was withholding from Kate at the beginning of the episode. So much mirror-twinning.
And as I pointed out at the beginning of this section, this is the opposite trajectory of Sun. Sun begins the episode practically estranged from her husband, and ends up going to the Caves with him after finding some kind of resolution to their relationship, of actually fighting for their relationship. Kate begins the episode rather tied up in Jack, and ends up staying at the Beach without him after realizing there’s nothing in their “relationship” worth fighting for at this point. Sun and Jin have been together for a long time. Kate and Jack barely know each other. Ironically, Sun finds the “freedom to live” in patching up her relationship with Jin, or at least starting to, while Kate has practically imprisoned herself in solitude in solidarity with her principles.
LOCKE: Do not move.
JACK: What’s going on?
LOCKE: He’s standing on a beehive.
CHARLIE: What’s a beehive doing there? Beehives are supposed to be in trees.
JACK: What now?
LOCKE: If he moves, he’ll split the hive.
CHARLIE: I don’t like bees, okay. I have an irrational fear of bees. I think I’m allergic to bees.
LOCKE: Please be quiet. We need to get something to seal the hive.
KATE: To cover it?
Of course, Kate and Jack aren’t the only ones to split up in this episode. The camp itself is literally split in two as a result of Jack’s decision to move to the caves. This is captured nicely by the metaphor of the beehive (which is shown at Charlie’s feet, the black and white checkerboard pattern of his shoes barely visible underneath the grime). The beehive, a symbol of thinking alike, of acting in cooperation, of unity, becomes “split” upon “moving.” Of course, there’s all kinds of funny here. If bees are a symbol of being in community, it’s actually quite funny that Charlie considers himself to have an irrational fear, an allergy, even, to bees. Because Charlie’s a loner, on account of his drug addiction. Kate, on the other hand, thinks that to “cover” up the beehive will suffice to “seal” it – in other words, that a kind of a deception (a cover up) will keep everyone unified. Not unreasonable: she was in on the decision to keep the Frenchwoman’s transmission secret from the rest of the camp. Jack, on the other hand, ends up bringing a suitcase to cover the hive – as if keeping unity is helped in any way by bringing along your own baggage to the proceedings? Please.
Anyways, let’s talk about bees for a bit. Charlie’s right – beehives are supposed to be in trees. Which, by the way, is an apt convergence of symbolism. Just before the away team reaches the Caves, we get a single shot of a magnificent Banyan Tree seemingly standing guard just outside the entrance. Now, Banyan Trees are mythologically similar to Ash Trees and really all those trees which stand for The World Tree, Yggdrasil, which is the axis mundi that connects Above and Below, Past and Future, to the Here and Now. The tree, in other words, is a symbol of connectivity. And this is exactly what beehives are also a symbol of. Beehives belong in trees.
But there is more to the symbolism of bees than “Unity in Strength.” Indeed, there’s a decidedly spiritual component to honeybees, where the sweetness they produced stands for Divinity. Indeed, bees often stand for Resurrection, given that during the winter season they do not come out of their hives. Christ is likened to the “honey in the rock” (Psalm 81:16… hmm, rather hard-core). So there’s a duality to bees – not just being industrious in the collective sense, but illustrious in the personal sense. And there’s an element of “fire” to their work. They collect pollen, formed by the interaction of flower and sun (which brings us back to the opening imagery of Sun and her flowers), and their stings burn.
Maybe, mythologically speaking, it makes sense the beehive is in the ground. In the ancient Near East and throughout the Aegean world, bees were seen as a bridge between the natural world and the underworld. Bees were carved on tombs. The Mycenaean Tholos tombs even took the form of beehives. Ancient priestesses were likened to bees. Not a bad symbol to mark the edge of the Caves.
A myth from the ancient Egyptian city of Heliopolis — City of the Sun, located in a suburb of modern Cairo — is that the sun-god Ra was self-generated, having spontaneously arisen from the primordial Waters of the Nun. After his self-generation, Re began to generate other gods. In a lesser known tradition, and one that the priests of Heliopolis themselves are said to have taught as part of their allegorical mysteries, states that the goddess Neith was the first deity that emerged from the Waters of the Nun, making her the foremost of the Egyptian Gods. She became Virgin Mother of the Sun by giving birth to Ra, who appeared as a child on the horizon. She granted the power of disseminating Light to Re through the vehicle of the Sun, then in the form of a bee flew off to the place where the city Sais was to be in order to establish her cult and temple there. The Temple of Neith in Sau is traditionally known as the “House of the Bee.”
So at least in Egyptian mythology, there’s a link between the Rising Sun and the Bee, however apocryphal. But such an apocryphal link also exists in Christianity. Amidst the biblical Apocrypha (which have been rejected or declared non-canonical by various church authorities) there are a pair of interesting works called The Book of the Bee and The Book of the Cave of Treasures, both translated by E. A. Wallis Budge, an Egyptologist. The books serve multiple symbolic purposes. First, they remind us that most myths have many variations, that myths change over time. LOST is a show that likes to take myths and apply them in novel and unexpected ways. The Book of the Bee, written in the 1200s by Bishop Solomon of Iraq, has many parallels and likely draws from The Book of the Cave of Treasures, written by Ephraim the Syrian in the 4th century. They are related to The Book of Adam and Eve, the collective name of several apocryphal books of their tale. The whole point of Book of the Bee and Cave of Treasures was to trace a direct lineage from Adam through the patriarchs to Christ, while also validating the lineages of Eastern kings. Cave of Treasures in particular details how after expulsion from Paradise, Adam and Eve end up in a cave where they rebuild their lives. It is there that they have their many progeny, and where they are finally buried. This indicates that the caves that Jack finds have a long and ancient history. The caves also represent a place for new beginnings for Jack and his flock, although a place outside of Paradise. And, of course, Jack finds a “treasure” in the Caves, the black and white stones, but the implications of this (beyond the obvious dualistic symbolism) will have to wait until we’re through the looking glass.
House of the Rising Sun
“House of the Rising Sun” is a folk ballad of indeterminate origin, and is most popularly known from the hit version produced by The Animals in the early Sixties. Quite likely the melody comes from a traditional English ballad; folklorist Alan Lomax (whose explanation for the origin of the song is considered the most plausible among many in academia) posits that the extant lyrics were composed by a pair of Kentuckians, Georgia Turner and Bert Martin. The oldest recording of the song dates to 1934, by Gwen Foster and Clarence Ashley, the latter claiming he learned the song from his grandfather. This song has a history to it.
It’s a history that’s definitely “non-canonical” insofar as there are an extraordinary number of versions to the song. The melody changes slightly over time, depending on the musical genre the song finds itself in, be it a waltz, the blues, or rock and roll. Likewise, the lyrics will shift given a number of factors – such as the particular vernacular of the singer, not to mention their sex. Earlier versions of the song are often sung from the female perspective, a woman who followed a drunk or a gambler to New Orleans and became a prostitute in the House of the Rising Sun, or an inmate in a prison of the same name. From the male perspective, the song warns of the dangers of drinking and gambling, where the Rising Sun may be the house of debauchery where he loses himself.
Even the titular “House” varies, be it a euphemism for a brothel, a prison, or even referring to a possibly real house in New Orleans, possibly a short-lived hotel on Conti Street in the French Quarter from the 1820’s that used risqué advertising, or a building on the riverfront of the uptown Carrollton neighborhood owned by the Social Aid and Pleasure Club – one of the many krewes which now maintain the yearly Mardi Gras rituals which precede Lent. Neither building now exists. Folk singer Dave van Ronk (whose version of the song led to Bob Dylan “borrowing” the arrangement, which was subsequently “borrowed” by The Animals) claimed in his autobiography that he had seen pictures of the old New Orleans Prison for women, the entrance to which was decorated with a “rising sun” design. He considered this proof that the House of the Rising Sun had been a nickname for the prison.
Regardless, the House is a place that ends up shackling your soul, and as such the song makes a perfect title for the episode given its thematic concerns – we might even liken the House to that of Sun’s father, which is really the source of Sun and Jin’s troubles. But of more interest to me is how the structure of the song might be a reflection of the show itself. Stories, like songs, have a way of changing. They don’t stay the same throughout history. And yet we can always recognize the same old story being told again. We recognize it, despite the changes, because there’s still a continuity. A story, like a song, is composed of many different threads. As long as some of the threads remain consistent, other threads may be changed to create something that is both the same and different. Which is, yes, a union of opposites. On a broader scale, perhaps it is the embrace of certain contradictions that paves the way for evolution.
In terms of LOST, we can see now see the repeating structures of the story telling, concealed by having each taking a different slant on that structure. But there’s now enough continuity for us to start understanding what this show is all about.
Are You Sure?
Once again we’re treated to a closing montage with a pop song taking over the soundtrack thanks to Hurley’s CD player – so from title to closing, the episode is bookended by songs. “Are You Sure?” (by Willie Nelson and Buddy Emmons) has a similarity to “House of the Rising Sun” in that they’re both bluesy ballads of warning, but whereas the old blues song plaintively recounts a past transgression, this one is told strictly from the present tense. And unlike the other, “Are You Sure?” has a definitive beginning, and as such very few variations. And that’s kind of a neat way to structure the beginning and the end – incredible possibility leading to a final word. But there’s a chiasmic structure to this outlook – because surely the past is what is fixed, while the present is still open to change?
Anyways, the song itself is more oriented to the B plot (the bee plot) as the lyrics seem to speak directly to the two camps of Losties and just how satisfied they are with their choices. Not that most of our Losties are filled with the kind of regret that “Are You Sure?” implies, what with how it questions “looking down the bar” at “lonely faces” which have caused “pain and misery.” I mean, the song is about someone admonishing the alchoholic in their life and trying to jar some sense into them. That, like, might only apply to Charlie as he’s coming off his drugs – he is playing the guitar at the end, a segue into the proper song.
But it’s nonetheless apt when considering Kate and Jack and their clash about whether to stay on the Beach or move to the Caves. Each has a distinct philosophical disagreement with the other. Jack believes it’s most rational to hunker down near a source of a water and “dig in” – focusing on survival on the Island. Kate, on the other hand, is driven not by “reason” but by her own personal issues: not wanting to get too invested in these complete strangers, and basically just wanting to run, which makes sense given what we’ve seen of Kate so far. Sawyer tries to paint this as “optimism,” but it’s a funny sort of optimism that eschews the choice that depends on and indeed facilitates the building of relationships. (Yeah, I’d totally take to the Caves.)
What I like about this song at the end, especially given what’s transpired, is that it provides a modicum of unification despite the sundering of the group. The hive has been split. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t still, in some sense, still one hive – the hive mind is still the same, be it on the Beach or in the Caves, a mind of reflection and melancholy. The superposition of Kate’s and Jack’s faces at the end speaks to this lovely contradiction.
(to be continued in Part 2 next week)
February 12, 2016 @ 8:11 pm
Great to see the Lost Exegesis back! It occurs to me also that “The House of the Rising Sun” & “Are You Sure?” are both folk songs (the former “traditional” and the latter from the mid-century folk revival), which makes them kin, and that folk songs often employ this sort of repetition with variation structure that you keep coming back to: Circular structures that end where they began, repeated chorus or refrain interspersed with different verses, etc etc.