LOST: Purgatory is Other People

SPOILER DISCLAIMER: Out of respect for Hulu watchers, TiVo devotees, and other folks who didn’t watch the Superbowl-length extravaganza on May 23, I’ve waited until now to start writing about LOST for this blog.  That said, this series of posts is going to begin with the last scene of the last episode of the last season of the show, and I’m going to work elements from the show’s entirety into these posts.

You know what that means, you with the last two episodes sitting on your DVR hard drive: bookmark these posts and come back to them, because I am going to talk about the episodes you haven’t watched yet.

Alright.  Now on with it.

In The Last Battle, the final novel in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Eustace and Jill, along with other characters from Narnia, find themselves locked in an apocalyptic battle for the fate of Narnia.  (I don’t think that’s a spoiler, since the novels are fifty years old, and since the book’s called The Last Battle.)  By circumstances that each of you should read, many of the characters find themselves in a new world, a place where human beings and centaurs alike can run without growing weary, can enjoy the presence of Aslan the Lion uninterrupted, can remain together after experiencing a life that tears people apart from one another.

Elsewhere in Lewis’s corpus, specifically in The Great Divorce, Lewis makes modifications to Dante’s version of Purgatory.  Dante’s vision of Purgatory is a place for those already saved by the grace of Christ, so there’s no sense that people are “working” for their salvation, for God’s favor, or for anything else.  However, because of their choices while living among men, the souls in Purgatory still desire wrongly, be those desires misdirected (such as the prideful man’s desire for his own glory rather than God’s) or out of proportion (such as the lustful man’s desire for women or men, as the case may be, that overcomes his desire for God).  Their term in Purgatory in most cases is not set by judicial fiat but lasts until they want to go to Heaven, which in turn means that their desires have grown strong enough (as in the case of the slothful) or have reoriented themselves (as in the case of the avaricious) to the extent that they can genuinely enjoy Heaven.  Lewis, a Platonist at his core, modifies the picture slightly (influenced, I think, by G.B. Shaw’s Man and Superman, but there’s no proving that) in that his Purgatory is also his Hell.  The desire to ascend is, in theory at least, available to all in the “grey city,” but most people in Lewis’s allegory seem perfectly content to dwell eternally with the shadows of real things, while the desire for reality (the signature mark of a Heaven that is reminiscent of Plato’s world-beyond-the-Cave) is relatively rare among the dead.  So, like Shaw’s Heaven, Lewis’s is for those who have decided that they want something more than the shadows of Hell, and Hell is for those who are comfortable living in those same shadows.

I’m sure that by now, the evangelical blogosphere will have commented at some length on the visual elements of that last scene in LOST–the fact that the stained-glass window in the “church” where Jack finally arrives has (among other things–you can find these blogs, I’m sure) a Menorah, a cross, a crescent and star, a Yin-Yang, and other religious symbols, communicating as heavy-handedly as one could imagine that, in this universe, the content of religious traditions is effectively irrelevant.  So I’m not going to start there.  Far more interesting in that last sequence is the marked borrowing from C.S. Lewis, something that certainly does not start with the last episode or even the last season but nonetheless dominates the last fifteen minutes or so of the series.

That the “flash-sideways” world of season six is the afterlife became more than evident in the final episode.  After all, Christian Shephard, Jack’s father who is also dead, tells him he’s died.  In order to account for the presence of people who survived longer than did Jack, Christian tells him that in the place he’s entered, there is no “when,” that people who died long before Jack and people who died long after Jack simply exist there together.  (Granted, the writers could have gotten that from Boethius, but the locution on the show sounded more like Lewis.)  So far, that establishes the Boethian eternity of the place.  But the actual narratives that occur in the “sideways” world point to this afterlife as at least kin to Lewis’s purgatory.

Each of the characters who persisted through all six seasons (along with some others, but not all of them by any means) come into contact with one another, especially those whom they have loved in the world of the living, they become aware that they’ve lived in the world of the island, but some of the characters that the viewer finds familiar do not leave the sideways-world for the final reunion.  As the newly-aware spirit of Hurley has an encounter with the spirit of Ana Lucia, one of the Oceanic 815 survivors who died in the second season, she takes the bribe that Hurley offers to free Desmond, Sayid, and Kate.  When Hurley silently motions his confusion, Desmond says to Hurley that she’s “not ready yet” to join the awakened.  At the door of the “church,” Ben Linus watches the others go in but does not himself enter.  When Hurley invites him, he says that he’s got a few things “to work out” before he can come.  Finally, the characters wandering lost (get it?) in this world seem entirely unaware of their previous existences until near-death experiences, physical contact with others from the island, and other moments bring them to the awareness that here, in this world, they can indeed have what the other world denied them.

If that jumble of character-names baffles you, that means that you’ve not watched the show.  Join Netflix, start with season one (the first five seasons are available both as DVD’s and as Internet feeds), and realize what some of us felt like over the last ten years when people discussed Harry Potter novels!

So where Dante’s purgatorial souls need to cleanse their souls so that they only desire God, and where Lewis’s souls in the “grey city” need to extend their desires outward from shadows to reality, the “sideways” souls in LOST need to let go of those things that kept them from connecting with one another in the land of the living, embracing one another so as to replace obsession with community. Folks rightly point out that this is the communitarian thrust of the show, and the marginalization of particular spiritual traditions in the final scene makes the most sense as the natural outgrowth of a universe in which those traditions no longer serve to connect people, a place where a pretender Catholic priest and a mostly-atheistic physician and various devotees of a magical island are not brought together by those powers that transcend the relationships between people but stand secondary to them.

As a parting thought, I have read some commentators on the Internet who worry that the “sideways” world and its last word in the series threatens to render the comings and goings on the island meaningless.  Once again I’d point to Narnia as the inspiration for that relationship between Island and Purgatory.  When Eustace and Jill and the Calormene warrior pass on to be judged by Aslan, their bliss in the world-after does not mean that all that has happened in Narnia is meaningless; it simply means that all of that, just as all of the realities that define Peter’s and Susan’s and Nathan Gilmour’s world, stand not absolutely but in some sense related to Eternity.  Although LOST (to nobody’s surprise) will not even send Ben Linus to whatever would be the equivalent of Hell in that reality, nonetheless Ben’s delay in entering into communion with those whose communion he needs in that Purgatorial existence seems connected to his ruthless and manipulative treatment of other human beings in his quest to connect himself to the Island and to Jacob, whose only concern for him was to ask the dismissive question, “What about you?”.  Ultimately the souls in the Purgatory of LOST, like the souls in the Purgatory of Dante, must suffer greatly before they realize that there is only one desire worthy of enjoying.  For Dante, following Augustine, only God is to be enjoyed.  For LOST, what leads one out of Purgatory is connections to other people.  Purgatory is… OTHER PEOPLE!

I don’t know how many of these posts I’m going to write, but this one has been fun, so look for more over the course of the summer.  I should point out now that the real LOST bloggers out there have been writing about the show as it took place, that I’m at most a Johnny-come-lately commentator.  Go look at those blogs for a glimpse at just how complex and fun this series has been, and come back here when you’re ready for another dose of LOST-and-theology musing.

2 thoughts on “LOST: Purgatory is Other People

  1. Thanks, Nathan. I’ve been trying to put my finger on why this episode made sense to me (I’ve been surrounded by avid watchers furious over those last 15 minutes). I’m gonna send ’em here. If they don’t get the Lewis and Boethius references, then I’ll point out that they probably missed a lot of the point in the other seasons, too.

  2. I’d spent the entire first season convinced that the Island was Purgatory, so I found the show closing the way it did pretty satisfying. Looking forward to future posts.

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