samuel x. brase likes to write

The Island MacGuffin

Posted in pop theory by Sam X. on 8 April 2009

“Mystery is more important than knowledge.”

One of the theses that JJ Abrams hurriedly lays down in this breathless 18-minute talk. He is saying this in relation to imagination, and I think his humor and general attraction to pulp stories provides an easy distraction from what is a sublimely intelligent realization. The statement is slippery and unproveable; further, I’d argue that mystery and knowledge are of equal importance. One is damaged entirely by the lack of the other. Mystery gives knowledge relevance, and knowledge gives mystery a purpose. This relationship is reflected in imagination and human life in general. His argument is that mystery about knowledge provide the reasoning for characters to interact and live. JJ is describing Hitchcock’s theory of the macguffin within more abstract terms, yet the result is the same. In Lost, you have a mysterious island which brings a number of people together who otherwise would never have interacted. In North by Northwest, you have unimportant government secrets which bring two people together who otherwise would never have met.

Hitchcock argued that the macguffin, the mystery, is irrelevant to the overall story. George Lucas, years later, claimed that the macguffin should be powerful, such that audiences care about it – hence his use of the ark of the covenant in Indiana Jones. JJ would appear to agree with Lucas, and Lost is the next logical step in the macguffin ideology. Macguffin has gone from irrelevant object to relevant object and now to character. The Island in Lost is, in the beginning, simply their location, but by as season 5 winds down (which I haven’t seen, please don’t spoil!), it has taken on the traits of a character.

This is the realization of JJ’s thesis. In his mind, the mystery, that is, the Island, is more important than the truth of its nature or past. I think the Island’s nature is integral to understand the Island; the problem when you put the mystery in the spotlight as a character is that the audience empathizes with the character and thus the mystery. It ceases being “a secret to be revealed” and becomes not unlike a character from the first couple seasons, such as Kate and the murky reasons that she is a felon. Then again, perhaps he is dehumanizing the characters, such that they are no different than the Island. All have confusing pasts which the show tries to lay bare. All are mysteries that beg us to solve them.

But the answer, the knowledge, is critical, because if it didn’t exist we wouldn’t want to pursue the mystery. We would know that mysteries reveal nothing, and we would sit in vapid states, forgoing pursuit of anything, be it astronomy, literary theory, cooking, or politics. Our desire to understand is based on the fact that sometimes we do understand. We have understood before and we can understand again. So we strive to learn, we strive to know. We watch Lost until the very last episode when everything is revealed and then we sit back, satisfied that at least this one part of the universe can be interpreted successfully.

Mystery and knowledge are part and parcel of telling a story; both are necessary. The ruse and the reward. Don’t neglect either, respect both.

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