Puncak in Ruins, Part 2: Lost Detour
This post is the second of five in a series. The first is: “Puncak in Ruins, Part 1: Arrival Scene”
The Ruins of Lost
Throughout six seasons of broadcast, the television series Lost developed a rich mythology spanning at least two millennia of history on a mysterious tropical island. Generations of visitors—“they come, they fight, they destroy, they corrupt and it always ends the same”—have left layers of ruins strewn about the island in their efforts to understand and harness its unique powers. The older ruins evoke the monuments and temples of Roman, Egyptian, Khmer, and Mayan civilizations. More recent ruins such as slave ships, abandoned laboratories, plane crashes, hydrogen bombs, residential barracks, and damaged film reels testify to the modern conceit of progress. Each set of ruins poses a mystery to successive generations of visitors to the island (and the show’s fans). Here are just three of the show’s iconic ruins, each one is linked to their respective entries on the Lostpedia website:
Along with the show’s characters, Lost fans feel compelled to dig into and explore the island’s ruins. On Lost websites and blogs, the fans pore over the “remnants of a horrible history” and derive great pleasure from speculating on their origins and searching for hidden meanings. One explorer and blogger of ruins named Michael John Grist composed a special post about the ruins of Lost. Before listing his favorite ruins from the island (each with excellent pictures), he explains their appeal:
I could wax lyrical all day about how meaningful (and awesome) it is to have a place littered with great works of ancient culture right alongside mementos of modern-era slavery, sci-fi technology, and new-age hippy enlightenment… It’s a series of juxtapositions that enthrall and intrigue, with the common thread of ruin running through them. We can get high on the notion that once, great things were done here. Great people built these structures, martialling [sic] forces and money almost unimaginable, following grand visions and shooting for eternity. Now though they are gone, and we wander the culture-casts they have left behind like the snarls of mis-matched detritus washed ashore at high tide. — Michael John Grist, “The Ruins of Lost”
Ruins: Uncanny Eye Candy
Among its many themes and interpretations, the entire Lost series could be read as one long waxing lyrical ode to “grand visions” reduced to “mismatched detritus,” eye candy for our melancholic gaze. The ruins reveal visual traces of the island’s secrets. Lost’s winning formula demands that the revelation of one secret must introduce several more; the payoff for loyal viewers is not any one secret’s revelation, but that any one revelation leads to more ruins, more traces, more questions. Upon the series’ conclusion, angry fans complained that too many of their questions went unanswered while a handful of serious uber-fans such as Entertainment Weekly’s Jeff “Doc” Jensen realized that “Lost’s mythology is best left to our imagination.” Referring to the damaged film reels, Jensen speaks for all the ruins depicted on the show when he called them “cryptic texts that demanded interpretation, and perhaps couldn’t be trusted. These qualities fired my imagination.” Lost never reveals its secrets with complete transparency, but instead expects (and respects) the viewers to do interpretive work on their own. Here is an example of one of the damaged films, the first one viewers ever saw, at the beginning of Season Two:
It’s fun to watch old films on projectors like children of the 1970s used to watch in elementary school, tweaking our nostalgia funny bones. This is an instructional video about a project that has completely disappeared from the island (more on the Dharma Initiative below), and clearly there were sections of film cut out from the reel, begging the questions: “what happened here?” “who did the hack job on the film edits?” “what were they trying to hide?” prompting one of the main characters, after discovering and watching the film, to echo fan viewer sentiment saying “we’re gonna need to watch that again.”
In real life the appeal of ruins depends on the imagination of “great things were done here.” Visiting ruins allows a fantasy of time travel, conjuring images of former grandeur. Fantasies like this are fulfilled in spades on the science fiction world of Lost where the show’s characters travel through time and inadvertently witness (sometimes triggering) many of the great and horrible events that inevitably lead to ruin. Additionally, Lost viewers are provided with character flashbacks, flash forwards, and even flash sideways to further stimulate the uncanny sense that pervades the show. By uncanny, I mean depictions of the “strange, weird and mysterious, with a flickering sense (but not conviction) of something supernatural” prompted by partial revelations of secrets that should remain hidden.* We discover the remains of a colossal statue on the island’s shore at the end of Season Two, but never see its original form until Season Five, then finally see how it was destroyed in Season Six. We visit the slave shipwreck for the first time in Season One, but never find out how it got to the island (or who was on it) until Season Six. We hear mention of an ancient temple in the middle of Season Three, but never see it until just a day or two before nearly all its occupants are slaughtered in Season Six.
Montage of Ruins
Grist’s quote above makes the same typological distinction among the island’s ruins that I made in the first paragraph: there are the ancient civilizational ruins on the one hand (“great works of ancient culture”), and modern era ruins on the other (“mementos of modern-era slavery, sci-fi technology, and new-age hippy enlightenment”). The “juxtapositions” of ancient and modern “enthrall and intrigue” him. I’ve come across other sites that choose to define only the ancient artifacts on the island as ruins. For example, Lostpedia’s entry on “Ruins” lists only the old stone sites such as the lighthouse, the statue, the temple, the tunnels, and the wells. Likewise on Wikipedia’s “Mythology of Lost” page, the sub-header “Ruins” describes only the ancient sites, with an emphasis on the ruins decorated with Egyptian hieroglyphics. But even when fans (like Grist and I) choose to define post-Enlightenment era remains as “ruins” on the island, we still maintain this binary typology of ancient and modern. I am partial to the twentieth century ruins on Lost precisely because when they are set against the more picturesque stone ruins, the disharmonious montage of accumulated debris has a powerful effect on how we eventually come to understand the “present” situation when Lost’s original cast of characters plane crash onto the island in 2004.
“This Place is Death”: The Dharma Initiative Ruins
The most thoroughly explored and documented ruins on Lost are the multi-sited remains of a scientific project on the island known as the Dharma Initiative. Dating back to the 1970s-80s and funded by a reclusive Danish industrialist named Alvar Hanso, the Dharma Initiative built communal research facilities on the island “where scientists and free-thinkers from around the globe could pursue research in meteorology, psychology, parapsychology, zoology, electromagnetism, and Utopian social-[static].” Ordinary recruits in the Dharma Initiative believed the aims of the project were purely noble and scientific while the Initiative’s leadership had knowledge of secret matters, took little interest in Dharma’s hippie “namaste” veneer, and routinely violated the terms of a truce that the Initiative had with the island’s native “hostiles” population.
When Oceanic Flight 815 crashes on the island in 2004, the Dharma Initiative has long since collapsed, leaving rusted and overgrown facilities all across the island. Some of the buildings were repurposed by the “hostiles” (known as “the others” by the Oceanic castaways), who exterminated nearly all of the Dharma folks in a purge that conflicting sources suggest happened either in 1987 or 1992. The Oceanic castaways first stumble upon the sealed entrance of a Dharma station—an underground facility called The Swan—halfway into Lost’s first season, and the mysteries of the Initiative and its deadly destruction begin to unfold for the remainder of the series. After we (Lost viewers) and the Oceanic survivors have explored the Dharma ruins and learned some of its history during Lost’s first four seasons (including discovery of the mass grave where the hostiles/others dumped all the dead Dharma bodies), the show’s fifth season depiction of the Dharma Initiative radically switches from archaeological to anthropological when a handful of the show’s characters travel through time to 1974 and join up with the Initiative during its early heyday on the island. The sudden appearance of a fully functional and populated Dharma community is weird, nostalgic, tragic and totally kitschy all at the same time. For several episodes we observe the Dharma Initiative’s internal politics, class structure, and inevitable corruptions from 1974 until 1977. Our foreknowledge of their misguided experiments and pending deaths affirms the stubborn folly of the Dharma Initiative’s unrestrained ambition to save humanity and usher in a utopian society by exploiting the island’s unique properties.
The Dharma Initiative’s tragic end may only be one of the island’s more recent catastrophes, but it’s the most significant catastrophe for us in the present because the events depicted occurred during many of the characters’ (and our) lifetimes. At least four of the show’s consequential characters turn out to be the children of Dharma Initiative members who died in the Purge (for the fans keeping track, I’m referring to Ethan, Ben, Miles & Charlotte), while one more (Daniel Faraday) turns out to be the son of island hostiles/others. In his Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin wrote: “We must wake up from the world of our parents.”** He placed special emphasis on the material culture debris, the trash heaps of recent history, from the generations that immediately preceded him in order to achieve that goal. The ruins of our parents’ generation strike a nostalgic chord (for childhood memories perhaps) and attract our melancholic gaze even as ruins have the potential to disabuse us, if only for a moment’s critical awareness, of the illusion of historical progress.
What Do the Ruins on Lost Have to do with the Ruins in Puncak?
An extended digression into the romance and nostalgia of what my friend Rob called “ruin porn” after he read Part 1 of “Puncak in Ruins” gets problematic if we focus too closely on ruin-as-noun at the expense of ruin-as-verb, or ruin-as-object over ruin-as-process (more on this distinction in Part 4). In order to safely explore how ruins stimulate the melancholic gaze and a sense of the uncanny, I chose the science fiction world of Lost to avoid constructing elaborate nostalgia fantasies about the ruins in Puncak that I wrote about in “Puncak In Ruins, Part 1.” Dezant, his family and I spent the weekend at a site of real-life ruins that most certainly had real-life consequences for real-life property owners in Villa Kota Gardenia, so I will postpone my morbid fascination with the site until Part 4, in which I will give it a more balanced treatment. In the meantime, a focus on the ruins of fictional worlds helps me get the fantasy aspects out of my system.
Furthermore on Lost the analytical themes that ruins inspire are too explicit to ignore: because multiple layers of ruin cover the island; because time travel enables an actual redemption of ruin fragments that could only be redeemed figuratively in the real world; and because the primary source of pathos on Lost is every single character’s fucked-up relationships with their parents, which in turn allows for amplification of the nostalgia and melancholy associated with the cultural artifacts on the island from their parents’ generation. Finally (and this is what got me started on this “Puncak in Ruins” blog-a-thon), when I tried to figure out what was itching me so much about the ruins we found at Villa Kota Gardenia up in Puncak, I realized that—for me personally—some of the awful buildings there reminded me of the Dharma Initiative ruins on Lost, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to write about one of my favorite serial television shows. For Part 3 of “Puncak in Ruins” I will discuss one more associative resemblance from popular film (The Year of Living Dangerously), and this one actually has a critical scene set up in Puncak.
To be continued:
* Royle, Nicholas. 2003. The Uncanny. New York: Routledge.
** Buck-Morss, Susan. 1989. The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.