Friday, October 16, 2015

Where Miracles Happen: Thoughts on The Leftovers 2.02: A Matter of Geography

Pearson Moore

John torched the structure and, surrounded by incredulous men, watched as it burned. It had to be done. People were being led astray. No one seemed to understand this was a place where great things were happening. Someone had to protect the place, and John took it upon himself to do so.

One of the men shook his head. "John, no one needs to protect it."

Well, John didn't exactly torch it, and we didn't hear any of the nonbelievers say anything--at least not in that scene. But the memory grows fuzzy after a while. After all, I'm not talking about the house-burning scene from Episode 2.01, and I'm not even talking about anything John Murphy did. I'm talking about what John Locke did when he destroyed the submarine--the only way to leave the Island--in Episode 3.13 of Lost. John Locke protected the Island, John Murphy protects the Miracle, and both men protect by blowing things up or burning them down.

Please don't read too much into this comparison. John Locke had real insight into the truths of the Island. We have as yet no indication that John Murphy is anything more than a self-appointed vigilante, rooting out and destroying men of faith (like his friend Isaac) he doesn't understand. Perhaps he will turn out to be the hero of the story, but methinks it unlikely. Six long years were required for Jack Shephard to transform from Man of Science into Man of Faith, and I doubt the chirping cricket is the final word on the fire chief's troubled conscience. He has much growing to do if he is to become the hero.

Whatever is truly bothering John, it's far greater than a little cricket, and far more powerful than the red-haired ghost that slammed Kevin's head into the stovetop. The true miracles are accomplished by forces beyond science, earthquakes unbeholden to 'fracking', powers owing nothing to 'mystique'. There's nothing man-made about these forces and earthquakes and powers beyond reason and science.

Let The Mystery Be

"Everybody's a-wonderin' what and where they all came from," Iris DeMent tells us in her song. The world worries "where they're gonna go when the whole thing's done." We devote the most sober and thoughtful and frightful moments of our lives considering the inevitability of death and the meaning of birth and life.

Last year we met the GR--the Guilty Remnant--in Mapleton, New York. This year we've been introduced to another GR--the *Grateful* Remnant--in Jarden, Texas. "We are spared, and for that we are grateful," as young Michael Murphy proclaimed last week from the pulpit. "We are the 9261," he said, bursting with pride and gratitude. All of Jarden is the new, happy, perfectly adjusted GR, the grateful remnant of Texas.

So the fanatics of every religious tradition pour into town for their 11-hour stay in the Promised Land. There are no atheists in foxholes, and there are no atheists among the survivors of families who lost a Departed--unless they're from the chain-smoking New York brand of GR (the guilty ones)--or maladjusted, bewildered people like Kevin Garvey, the former Chief of the Mapleton PD. So thousands come every day, millions every year, and tens of millions more would come if they could.

So much worry, so much anguish over "what and where they all came from" and "where they're gonna go when the whole thing's done." But imagine what would happen if no one on those buses assigned priority to the human circle of life. Do any of those fervent believers, waving arms to the sky and praying in circles, worry about why a mouse is born, or why a bird must die? Isn't the religious preoccupation with human life and death just another sign of the unnecessary complications posed by childish belief in some all-powerful being that holds humans somehow above the rest of the universe? Wouldn't the world be a simpler and better place if these religious zealots simply recognized the truth: All animals are born, live, and die. Human beings are animals the same as mice and birds. Therefore, we too will be born to this world, live for a time, and die. The laws of biology are the same for all, just as the laws of physics are the same for all. The heavens don't revolve around Earth, as the religious fanatics of old used to teach. Just as humans are no more than animals, so too our little ball of rock and water is nothing more than a planet circling a quite unremarkable little star.

Yessir, things would be a whole lot easier, and there would be a whole lot less stress and anger and war if the religious fanatics could just grow up and realize the truth that's staring them in the face. If common sense and logic ruled the world, the unbearable psychological nonsense of both forms of GR would disappear. If science ruled the human mind we wouldn't have to see all these delusional people suffering so much--and causing all this unnecessary suffering for us right-minded and properly adjusted folk.

If you believe common sense and logic and science are Damon Lindelof's antidote to the madness of the world, if you think this truth is the thesis of The Leftovers, you're not listening very well, and you're going to be mightily disappointed in the outcome of the series.

Listen carefully to the lyrics, the words of wisdom, the showrunners chose to introduce every episode of Season Two:

"I think I'll just let the mystery be."

No one interrupted the song to say, "Hey, you atheists out there, you can tune out for the next minute, 'cause you guys already know the truth. There is no god. There are no unexplainable phenomena. There are no mysteries." No, the song was chosen for all of us: "Let the mystery be."

Think about it this way. Two percent of the world's population of mice did not suddenly disappear into nothingness. Two percent of the world's population of birds did not instantaneously vanish and never come back. Two percent of dog and cat owners did not witness their pets dematerialize before their eyes. Only human beings were subject to this unprecedented violation of biolgical, chemical, and physical law. There has never been such a bewildering and catastrophic nullification of the law of the conservation of mass-energy, to our knowledge, in the history of the universe.

The premise of The Leftovers is that HUMAN LIFE IS MYSTERY. Common sense, logic, science, or indeed any construct human mind can devise is impotent to explain the meaning of human life. No scientific advance, no medical knowledge, not even the best supercomputer running full-tilt for days or years or millennia can figure out why humans are indeed different from every other part of the universe. We're not mice. We're not birds. We're not cats and dogs.

Let the mystery be.

Don't try to deny the mystery, or whatever unknowable force is in control of the mystery will set you straight, and probably not in a pleasant way. Don't try to control the mystery, for the mystery and the power behind it are not amenable to human manipulation. Don't claim for yourself some insight into its truth, for its truth is inscrutible.

But don't think, either, that we will ever be told how to think or believe or react to the MYSTERY that is at the core of The Leftovers. When Lindelof and Carleton Cuse were given the opportunity to inscribe on stone the secrets and truths of the universe, in Season Six of Lost, they chose two dead religions to convey the meaning of life, and they etched their stone tablet not with Hebrew or Latin letters, but with Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mesopotamian cuneiforms. Whether you're a devout atheist or committed Christian, faithful Muslim or observant Jew, you are going to be stretched and challenged and slapped in the face by this series. Don't believe me? Well, just ask Gladys, second in command of the GR in Season One.

Let the mystery be.

I suspect for just about all of us, schooled as we are in the bizarre Enlightenment era conceit that human beings are no more or less than ants, possessing importance no greater than clouds that are here today, gone tomorrow, the real difficulty will be found in agreeing that there is a mystery at all. Presented with the fact of such a mystery, our Enlightenment schooling will tell us the next step is to study it, quantify it, reduce it to mathematical principles.

Of course, this is precisely what we saw occurring when MIT made an offer of 2.7 million dollars for the purchase of Nora Durst's 'anomalous' home. "Our guess is that it's a matter of geography," the scientist told her. But these were not disinterested data collectors. Not if the University was willing to put up three million dollars. For three million dollars you don't get to study something of interest only to academics. The granting authority will expect--will demand--'real-world applications'.

"If you're right, then what? What does it matter?" Nora asked. That is, she wanted to know what the real-world application was.

"People want to be able to protect themselves against a recurrence," the MIT guy said. The MIT *scientist* said. The guy whose team will apply all the tools of logic and science, and oh, you can be sure plenty of supercomputer time, to catalog and study and infer and deduce and so completely understand the Departure and the forces surrounding it that they'll be able to predict with pinpoint certainty exactly how everyone can protect themselves from a recurrence. Yeah, sure. Good luck with that, MIT.

And So It Begins

Geography, the MIT guy said. The word struck a chord with Nora. Her objective became the identification of a place, any place at all, that would spare her a second round of unbearable misery. But there were no such safe locations in the town of Mapleton, a place requiring too much 'brittleness' to the bite, where "the chef requests no substitutions." Hemmed in on every side, no room to breathe--not even the food could be enjoyed without 'brittleness'--how could she possibly go on living?

"Do you want to get out of here?"

Kevin's offer made sense in so many ways. Only days before, Nora and Kevin were stumbling around each other, as they seemed to do throughout all of Season One. "Listen," he said when Nora offered to stay with him, "if we're going to can't just...We don't really know each other."

The missing phrases were 1. a family and 2. live together: "If we're going to be a family we can't just live together." But of course, a family does live together. That's what a family is and does. But they couldn't be a family, they couldn't live together, because they didn't know each other.

What followed was the strangest confessional scene I've ever witnessed. "I walk in my sleep. I abducted a woman against her will, watched her kill herself, then your brother Matt and I secretly buried her. And I smoke." Leaving the biggest sin for last, are we, Kevin? Once Nora confessed to her strange meetings with gun-toting prostitutes, they absolved each other. "It's okay," they told each other. Even Jill absolved her father and his lover. "It's okay. It's all okay."

I'm OK, you're OK.

Hey, that could be the title of a book, or even a terrific, time-tested, universally-applicable theory of psychological self-help. Yeah! Let's give it a good scientific name, though. How about Transactional Analysis? Sounds to me like they solved all their problems, so now they're ready to move on into paradise, into their Texas Jarden of Eden.

Most of you reading this didn't have to live through the upheavals of the 1960s. A lot of it--the Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Movement, greater social awareness and tolerance--brought real benefit to the United States and to the world. In some ways the world of the late 1960s and early 1970s was a safer, saner, more enjoyable place to live. Books and ideas commonplace at the time could land you in jail nowadays, in this far more stifling world of the early 21st century. But some of the movements of the time were just so much nonsense. Transactional Analysis, it is safe to say, has not fared well since the days of free love and enlightenment-through-LSD and the philosophy of Turn on, Tune in, Drop out. "If it feels good, do it" was a useful mantra for irresponsible teenage Baby Boomers, but once we took the last toke (somewhere around 1975) and snorted our last line (somewhere around 1985) and started raising kids of our own, we stored "If it feels good, do it" in our closets, right next to the love beads and the Vietnam War protest signs, still coated in mud from Woodstock.

Lindelof didn't live through the silliness of the 1960s (though he and most of you missed out on the moon landing, which was the signature event of the 20th century, and a pretty awesome thing to witness, even on black-and-white television), but I doubt he will propose "I'm OK, You're OK" as the solution to everyone's Season One problems. In fact, I believe we've already seen, and especially in the powerful figure of Patti Levin and in the mind-numbing rap music blaring from Kevin's earbuds, that not a single problem from Season One has been resolved.

As important as geography is in this story, we already have an inkling that Jarden is no Garden of Eden. Nora has pinned three million dollars and all of her hopes on a place she believes safer than any other. But listen closely to the beautiful, majestic song that transported us from Mapleton to Jarden: "Take It All" by Ruelle. The very first verse speaks of traversing the gates of hell, where the ground rumbles. Hmmm. A place called 'hell' that the song says is frequented by earthquakes? Lots of earthquakes. Hmmm. Have we become acquainted with any such place in Season Two?

These are some of the qualities the song says Kevin and Nora will find when they arrive at their earthquake-prone destination:

high stakes

Doesn't sound like any Garden of Eden I've heard of. Yet the song encourages them to "take it all." And so they did: A run-down house with brown running water and light bulbs that explode, neighbors who spend their free time evaluating new arrivals' suitability for residency in the town that was spared by God, and earthquakes that make miraculous water and feisty teenage girls disappear into thin air. Welcome to the Jarden. And so it begins.

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