Emerson explores intellectualism, meaning of ‘Lost’

Jan. 18, 2011, 2:07 a.m.

Juxtaposing intellectualism and popular culture, actor Michael Emerson discussed the philosophy behind the hit TV show “Lost” on Saturday evening in Cubberley Auditorium. Philosophy professors Joshua Landy and R. Lanier Anderson interviewed Emerson on stage in a conversation that spanned from the show’s philosophical roots to the driving forces behind the show’s characters and relationships.

Emerson explores intellectualism, meaning of 'Lost'
Actor Michael Emerson (right) discussed several philosophical issues from 'Lost' with Philosophy Prof. Joshua Landy (left), including the role of religion and the mixing of different cultures in the TV show. (Courtesy of Joshua Landy)

The discussion was part of the “Film and Philosophy II” lecture series sponsored by the Division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages.

Emerson’s character in “Lost,” Benjamin Linus, enters the series as an antagonist, but evolves into a hero by the show’s end.

“We tend to judge our perceived enemies in a really flat way,” he said. “We make them two-dimensional ‘boogeymen.’ It’s easy and somehow satisfying and comforting to perceive others that way. So it robs us of a little of our steam when they’re humanized.”

The discussion focused on some of the philosophical aspects of “Lost,” including the central theme of good and evil on the Island, the show’s mystical main setting. The panelists explored the conflict between the Christian ideal of good trumping evil and the Eastern philosophy of balance between the two forces. Both have a strong presence in “Lost.”

“I think sometimes those symbologies are local rather than general in the telling of the story,” Emerson said.

“I think overall the writers are interested in a pan-religious message,” he continued. “They’re interested in integration. I think they’re attracted to the idea that a lot of religious systems pose a cosmogony of opposites, and we see it played out time after time in the drama of the series.”

Emerson often circled back to the writers of “Lost,” giving a rare glimpse into the thought process of the show’s creative minds.

“The writers are mowing through material intellectually,” he said. “They’ll use whatever they can lay hands on, and enjoy doing it and enjoy mixing it up for the audience’s delectation.”

Landy and Anderson focused on the importance of the “Lost” characters’ backgrounds and the way in which events and relationships in each character’s past play a large role in his or her actions and personalities throughout the series. Emerson touched on the theme of the past and its impact on character Ben Linus.

“Their history humanizes each of them for us, and draws us into the story of their development or transformation,” he said. “I think that interests people everywhere — this idea that regardless of our past, we are perfectible or changeable. We are as good as the present test, and everyone on ‘Lost’ fares better and better with the present testing.”

Some of that narrative, however, does not apply to Linus. Whereas some characters’ pasts determine the tests they have to endure to change, Linus’ past has a more permanent effect on his character.

“Part of him was frozen at the time of his life-saving baptism,” he said. “Your maturity is often frozen at the age of your great success.”

The panelists dissected the series’ final scenes at length. The final episode ends with Ben separated from the rest of show’s characters, sitting alone on a bench.

“Ben doesn’t have a partner,” he explained. “My interpretation of the ending was that people got to enter the hereafter once they had been matched up with their mirror redeemer or their soul counterpart, the one in whose eyes they could find forgiveness…I thought Ben still needs that.”

Despite all his insights, Emerson said that the show’s actors were often just as in the dark as its audience about the meaning of “Lost,” particularly the meaning of some of the show’s more obscure references.

When the interviewers told Emerson that Dogen, one of the characters introduced late in the series, was named for a type of Eastern philosophy, Emerson remarked, “That’s great! We don’t get footnotes with the script.”

Kabir Sawhney is currently a desk editor for the News section. He served as the Managing Editor of Sports last volume.

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