Flashbacks, Memory and Non-Linear Time on LostAnd therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. (...)
The time is out of joint; O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
The Island is only half the mystery -- and half the story -- on LOST.
With one exception ("The Other 48 Days"), every episode of LOST splits its focus between a "now" sequence that unfolds on the Island, and a "then" sequence that unfolds in flashback. But past and present are not distinctly separated -- and LOST's most compelling stories often stem from unusual transactions between the two timelines.
The most common view of time is the "straight arrow" envisioned by Isaac Newton: Time marches in a straight line at a uniform pace from past to present to future, without variation. Time can only move in one direction -- always forward, never backward, certainly not to the left or right, and never in circles.
Science left the "arrow of time" behind, after Einstein, Schrödinger and many others warped, bent, reversed and even broke the straight line using the mechanics of relativity and quantum physics. But our perception of time is still profoundly wedded to the arrow. Except under extraordinary circumstances, most of us viscerally experience time exclusively as a one-way ticket from past to future.
The scientific concept of non-linear time is fairly recent, but there are ancient spiritual traditions which foreshadowed the science. These traditions have been highly visible on LOST, particularly in the second season, with the debut of the Dharma Initiative.
Whether or not Dharma is a red herring in the overall plot of LOST, the symbolism attached to the Initiative almost certainly carries some weight. There are two main elements of the Dharma Initiative's logo -- the word Dharma and a circular arrangement of lines called the "ba gua" (the original phrase refers to the lines themselves and not the circular aspect).
Both these elements stem from Buddhist-Hindu-Taoist tradition -- in which time is not linear but cyclical, repeating in a loop like a Möbius strip and always returning to the source. The cyclical nature of time manifests itself differently in each tradition, but the ba gua diagram represents the process through all the related spiritual paths. The eight sets of three lines are trigrams used in the i-Ching, a Chinese oracular system that was later integrated widely across Eastern religions. There are two commonly seen variations of the ba gua:
One is called the primal ordering (left), which is intended to represent the cosmic scheme of existence in its more purified form. The second version (right) is known as the temporal ordering. The primal diagram is symmetrical, while the temporal is not. The Dharma logo features the temporal arrangement, in an inverted form. The inverted form may be a clue to the nature of the Island, but the inverted version of the diagram is not uncommon in its ordinary context.
The structural elements can get fairly technical, but the upshot is that the temporal diagram is out of balance -- not unlike a pendulum when it is set into motion -- and is thus meant to illustrate the cycle of how events unfold in linear time. There are many ways to interpret this layout. My own interpretation holds that the concept of time illustrated by the diagram is:
Asymmetrical: The imbalance of the diagram allows for a map of sequential events that includes cause and effect, without demanding predestination. There are consistent relationships between cause and effect (and past, present and future) that are not strictly logical-linear outcomes. In other words, general patterns are predictable, but the specific outcome of any given situation is not.
Cycling: Time flows in a circle. At the end of one sequence lies the beginning of another.
Fractal: The cycle does not simply repeat; it repeats with infinite variation. This does not exclude a consistent internal logic. Similar events tend to repeat in each complete cycle (in fractals, these are called "iterations"), but the events never play out in exactly the same way.
The word "dharma" can be read in many different ways. In some contexts, it does refer to the cyclical nature of time. Under this view, dharma is the cosmic principle that drives samsara -- the cycle of death and rebirth in which a person's karma determines the situation of his or her return. Dharma here represents the fine-tuning, if you will -- the actions of an individual that (by changing karma) cause the cycle to be different each time it repeats.
How does all this abstraction relate to LOST? Pretty concretely, as it turns out. Because on LOST, linear time is broken -- in often spectacular ways. On LOST, time is cyclical, and the cycle may be collapsing.
In each episode, we are given a flashback with obvious relevance to the events unfolding on the Island. While this is, to an extent, simply good storytelling, LOST does not stop there. Instead of simply drawing parallels between past choices and current events, the past has a way of physically manifesting itself on the Island. For instance:
The black horse from Kate's flashback mysteriously appears on the Island in "What Kate Did."
The voice of Frank Duckett (the man Sawyer killed) is heard among the whisperers in "Outlaws."
Desmond, a figure from Jack's past, surfaces most improbably in "Man of Science, Man of Faith."
Claire's psychic may have played a role in placing her on Flight 815, as seen in "Raised By Another."
The Nigerian plane, explained in "The 23rd Psalm," is the most extreme example so far of an unlikely manifestation from the past, in this case Mr. Eko's.
The breakdown of linear time doesn't stop with the miraculous appearance of items or people from the past. We've also seen examples of Island phenomena surfacing again and again in the past. The most notable of these is the polar bear -- seen first on the pages of Walt's comic book, then as a real creature on the Island. After this appearance, polar bears began to pop up over and over again in the flashbacks -- albeit in extremely minor roles such as a refrigerator magnet in "Whatever the Case May Be," a gift to Walt in "Adrift," and a knick-knack on the mantle in "The Long Con."
When an element is introduced, it seems to reverberate into the past and then re-emerge, sometimes transformed, in the present or future (as when the polar bear resurfaced in the "Orientation" film). There are other examples of reverberation:
The ba gua diagram appears in the hatches, then reverberate into Jin's flashback as an i-Ching reading in "...And Found." Jin sees the logo in the "Arrow" hatch before seeing the i-Ching in his flashback.
The plane appears first in Locke's vision, then as an object on the Island, then much later in Eko's flashback and in a subsequent vision by Charlie in "Fire + Water."
The numbers appear first incidentally (Flight 815, Seat 23A, etc.), then formally on Rousseau's map, then in Hurley's flashback, and then on (and subsequently in) the hatch. The numbers also run through the other characters' flashbacks in very minor ways.
Christian appears first in Jack's flashback, then on the Island (apparently as a ghost), then in Sawyer's flashback.
The character connections are slowly escalating as well. In addition to shared individuals (Kate's mother, Lotto girl), the castaways themselves are slowly propagating into the flashbacks of shared events -- Shannon and Jack, Sawyer and Boone -- or related timelines -- Sayid on a television screen in "What Kate Did," Hurley on a television screen in "...In Translation." While these appearance may simply indicate pre-existing connections among the characters, they could also represent the Island's "present" resonating into the past.
These abnormal time shifts contrast with very specific measures of linear time on the Island itself -- measures which are almost always tinged with the surreal and the mysterious. Linear time behaves strangely on the Island. It presents paradoxes, conceals secrets and often simply malfunctions. Examples include:
The 108-minute timer in the hatch.
The 16-year "iterations" of Danielle's message (which may not add up according to Sayid's impromptu calculation).
The mysterious watch that Sun's father entrusted to Jin.
The irregular tides (cited in "Whatever the Case May Be").
Eko's 40 days of silence.
Jack's five-second window for experiencing fear (going back to the very first episode).
Although these markers delineate the passage of time in its traditional manner, they are surreal elements on the show -- ticking away time in linear -- but still somehow unnatural -- fashion. Linear time, when it surfaces on the show, leads to paradox, contradiction and peril.
We have had numerous hints that the question of time somehow relates back to the central mysteries of LOST. On the Island, time is broken and jagged. Its workings are opaque. As we unravel its structure, we will come to understand exactly what the Island represents and what rules dictate the shape of the world that has enveloped the survivors of Flight 815.
Like Hamlet, our castaways are afflicted with ghosts -- both figurative and literal. And like Hamlet, they are charged with an unenviable task -- to set right a "time" that is out of joint. And, like Hamlet, they are caught in a strange nether place outside the realm of linear time where memory cannot be escaped -- but neither can it be ignored.
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix'd with baser matter. Yes, yes, by heaven!
Or perhaps it is more fitting to turn to the i-Ching for insight into the challenges the Island holds. The hexagram most directly concerned with time is No. 32, Duration. As interpreted by Wilhelm, the passage could, in the final analysis, provide a fair summary of LOST's core concept and a fitting sentiment on which to close this analysis:
Duration is a state whose movement is not worn down by hindrances. It is not a state of rest, for mere standstill is regression. Duration is rather the self-contained and therefore self-renewing movement of an organised, firmly integrated whole, taking place in accordance with immutable laws and beginning anew at every ending. The end is reached by an inward movement, by inhalation, systole, contraction, and this movement turns into a new beginning, in which the movement is directed outward, in exhalation, diastole, expansion.
Technorati Tags: Lost, Dharma, Dharma Initiative, i-Ching, Alvar Hanso, Hanso, Hatch, logo, bagua, ba gua, trigrams
Posted by J.M. Berger || Permalink
Post a Comment
I think this is a terrific assessemt (I also like the Schroedinger's Cat assessment, although I don't think they could really go that way on network tv).
It is interesting that the pivotal I Ching trigram is #32 Duration again.
In Episode #3, season 2, after Desmond has left, Locke is entering the numbers and enters 4 8 15 16 23 32
Jack corrects him and Hurley confirms that the last number is 42 before Locke hits execute.
Richard Wilhelm's translation of the I Ching includes this statement for #32:
"the dedicated man embodies an enduring meaning in his way of life, and thereby the world is formed. In that which lives things their duration, we can come to understand the nature of all beings in heaven and on earth.
If a man remains at the mercy of moods of hope or fear aroused by the outer world, he loses his inner consistency of character.
Persistence in search is not enough. What is not sought in the right way is not found.
There are people who live in a state of perpetual hurry without ever attaining inner composure. Restlessness not only prevents all thoroughness but actually becomes a danger if it is dominant in places of authority."
Food for thought....I think you are onto something.
In Taoism and in particular in the Taoism to do with Dao Yin, the study and practice of internal physical exercise and meditation, the primal ordering of the Ba Gua is reversed, as the purpose of the physical and mental disciplines are to extend your life by making you healthy, in some cases this is expressed as making you younger. 108 is also a very significant number in this regard with the practice of Tai Chi, Hsing I and Lo Hu Pa Fa.