LOST: The Nature of the Smoke Monster

SPOILER DISCLAIMER: Out of respect for Hulu watchers, TiVo devotees, Netflix subscribers, 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.

I’ve made a studied effort not to look at any bloggers’ theories about the entity on LOST known variously as Jacob’s brother, the smoke monster, Smokie, the Man in Black, and (in my mind anyway) Esau.  I might go looking after I finish writing this, but I haven’t yet.  I wanted to take this stab based entirely on my own take on the show, modified of course by my own literary background but uninfluenced by what might prove to be more compelling takes on the phenomenon.  I’m vain that way.

What I Won’t Say about Smokie

To begin with, I think it’s fairly obvious that there’s little sense in doing a Carl Linnaeus-style genus-and-species taxonomy of Smokie (that name I’ll use as a default, largely because Sawyer’s pet name for the phenomenon is fun and doesn’t carry any more particular baggage).  In the universe of LOST Smokie seems to be sui generis or at the most (and I’ve not read any theories about Jacob and Smokie’s mother either) an entity of which there can only be one at a time in the world.  Moreover, given that he spends the entirety of the series wandering in the island’s hidden places, there’s not much sense in pondering what a laboratory examination might yield.

I note these things not merely for the sake of an academic’s peculiar caution with categories (though I do exhibit that trait, I’m sure) but because Smokie is an entity that the LOST writers have shielded from the rather clinical view of the superhuman that sometimes characterizes shows like Smallville, Angel, and Battlestar Galactica (with the notable exception of whatever becomes of Starbuck).  In the universe of LOST nobody ever puts Smokie on a table to do a DNA analysis or traces the origin of his species.  Smokie’s origins have something to do with a woman who murders the mother of newborn twins and raises the latter-day Castor and Pollux to be guardians of the island, but the actual nature of Smokie–why he can’t go through sonic fences or go any farther out in the water than where a freighter anchors–remains a mystery in terms of the show.  In some sense Smokie is a being of the angelic order, in Thomist terms: he is his own species.

So, limited in my angles of approach, the rest of this post is going to examine Smokie from two sides, one being an empirical examination of phenomena within the show and some deductions therefrom; and the other being a look at some literary antecedents for such a critter.

What the Show Revealed

This will not by any means be an exhaustive list, but some data and inferences about Smokie (mainly from the last season) lead me in particular literary directions:

  1. The bones of Jacob’s brother and the woman who raised him remain in “the cave” for the two thousand years (I’m assuming that Jacob and his brother had something to do with the Roman Empire since everyone in their episode was running around speaking Latin) that Smokie is active in the lives of those who live and die on the island, so Smokie and the person who was Jacob’s brother are not identical.
  2. Even when Smokie takes on the appearance of John Locke, he seems to maintain the personality that he had during the Roman chapter and in 1867, when Richard Alpert arrived on the island.  When Jack tells him he’s nothing like John Locke, Smokie doesn’t object.  So Smokie and the person who was Jacob’s brother are not radically separate.
  3. Although the audience first sees Smokie when Jacob floats his brother’s unconscious (dead?) body into the Heart of the Island, the Rebekah figure (who was not Jacob’s mother biologically  but who raised both boys) does seem to be the main suspect when an entire human settlement ends up murdered and their dwellings burnt, so something with superhuman destructive capabilities predates Jacob’s brother’s becoming Smokie.
  4. Smokie is able to pick up objects as heavy as human bodies and fling them, and he also breaks stones apart in a fight scene with Jacob’s disciples.  Moreover, the Dharma Initiative and later Charles Widmore seem to be able to keep Smokie at bay by the use of electronic technology.  So Smokie is neither pure spirit nor entirely a hallucination but an entity who occupies this position rather than that and who can act upon material objects.
  5. Although whatever entity (the show seems to indicate it was Rebekah) destroyed the human village also buried the wheel house, Smokie seems to have excavated it to the point that, after Locke time-shifts from before the well was filled to after, Smokie can guide him to the wheel itself.  So he seems to retain both his desire to leave the island and his ability to manipulate the forces of the island.
  6. When the system that sustains his existence as Smokie breaks down, the entity, still in the form of John Locke but retaining the personality of Smokie, becomes mortal again (as does Richard Alpert).

Monsters with History

I highlight these things because Smokie’s being within the show seems to follow in certain literary traditions, Smokie taking on the role of an allegorical Sin articulated most materfully in medieval literature.  In William Langland’s Piers Plowman, during an early vision, Reason (which in the allegory seems to be Right Reason, or Reason as illuminated by God’s Law) comes to hear confessions, and the seven sins themselves come forward and confess.  The interesting thing about the scene is that each of them was at one time a person with a name, and each stands, upon repentance, to return to human community when shriven.  But as each advances, its human form (there are former men and former women here) has been distorted by the sin and by the stories of sin that it tells so that the bodily form has taken on the distortion of Sin just as the soul is distorted by Sin.  So these pitiful souls share continuity with their human histories even as the sin that defines them has rendered each monstrous.

Although his scenes take place in the post-mortem world (which the island in LOST is not, I assert), Dante’s monsters also share in this tradition.  Two notable monsters in Dante’s Inferno (which will get its own post here soon–I’m midway through Purgatory in my annual summer reading) are Minos and Geryon, one a Minoan and the other a Spanish king who, in the underworld, lose their human forms entirely but continue to act in manners that indicate a continuity of personality.  Minos is transformed into a snake-man but nonetheless retains his personality as the harsh judge, and Geryon becomes a chimaeric creature with a human head, dragon’s scales, and lion’s claws; but his deceptive character makes him one of the lords of the circles of frauds deep in Inferno.

Later, Renaissance writers would pick up on these things, notably Spenser in Faerie Queene with Jealousie, the monster who began his career as husband to a licentious woman; and Milton’s version of Satan and the host of Hell, who transform from angelic forms into monstrous demonic ones as their sins become their essence.  In all of these instances, the characters retain genuine and distinct human (or angelic) histories even as their bodies or forms distort and become sub-human (or sub-angelic), terrifying to those who would behold them and often more capable of destruction than their former bodies.

So although LOST (wisely, I think) will never put Smokie on an examination table to see what his DNA structure looks like, a close look at the narrative data indicate that Smokie is an embodied creature whose superhuman powers warp but do not annihilate the humanity that gives shape to his activities.  The Smoke Monster will never again be the human body that he left behind in the Roman era, but he will never be rid of the things that drove him to spite his brother and adopted mother, and in some respect he becomes in the universe of LOST the embodied sin Spite.  As an act of moral storytelling, this brilliant and ancient move allows the show to take an entity at its first appearance entirely disconnected from the human beings on the show and demonstrate that, in times at first masked, the Smoke Monster, like Geryon and Envy and Jealousie and perhaps even Grendel, has in his narrative roots the same mothers and brothers and loves and hates that the beloved Jack and Kate and Sawyer (and on some days even Ben Linus) have.  So the nature of the smoke monster and the nature of the Oceanic 815 survivors is ultimately not a difference rooted in cells and molecules but in story and choice and circumstances and those other human, all too human moments that make us what we are.

There but for the grace of God go all of us.

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