Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Would James Joyce Have Watched "Lost"?

Tonight again I ask, as I have for several seasons now, "Do I really have the time and commitment to watch Lost this year?" Of course, this year is different--it's the last season. I might not have to ask this question again.

For the first several seasons, I was committed to the show. I delighted in all the twists and turns. Just when I thought I had figured it out, ka-blam, there went my theory. I loved all the allusions, even though I couldn't order them into anything that helped me figure out the story. I loved the fact that there was so much reward in watching the reruns, so many things to notice that I didn't catch on the first viewing.

In short, watching Lost is similar to my study of literature. Finally, there's a payoff for being such a font of usually worthless information! I'm the woman you want on your team when you play Trivial Pursuit (along with someone to answer the sports questions that elude me), but that skill for storing a lot of ephemeral information isn't usually rewarded many other places.

Today is also the birthday of James Joyce. I've thought of Ulysses, as I've thought about Lost this morning. They're similar in ways that might not ordinarily occur to us: lots of allusions both to popular and classical culture, a looping narrative, a story-telling style that can drive one mad (and is often driven by mad narrators), interesting juxtapositions, and a simple tale (or is it a simple tale) blown up into a huge endeavor.

I've written about James Joyce before, here, on Bloomsday, and I expect to write about him again. His accomplishments fascinate me, even as I admit that many of them aren't exactly readable. There's a reason that writers abandoned all the experiments that the Modernists undertook in the 1920's. Yet, we still find traces of those Modernists everywhere, especially in some of our more interesting and intellectual pieces of popular culture, like Lost.

I made my way to Joyce accidentally: as a new graduate student, I was in the last group to register for classes, and Tom Rice's James Joyce class was one of the few classes that still had seats left. Some of the more seasoned grad students congratulated me on my bravery, but really, Dr. Rice made it easy. You do need a guide with a project like Ulysses, and you couldn't ask for a better one than Dr. Rice.

Likewise, I didn't start out watching Lost. Although the apocalyptic, stranded on an island theme appealed to me, I was afraid it would make me afraid to fly on a plane. But in early 2005, after we came back from Christmas vacation with a long plane journey, we collapsed into a heap and got sucked into one of the repeats.

At first I would have said I was watching because those actors were so lovely to look at. But quickly, the puzzles of the narratives sucked me in, while the pleasures of spotting allusions and making narrative connections.

I get the same charge from reading poetry that I do from reading Joyce and watching Lost: the thrill of catching the allusions and realizing that there's far more at work than the deceptively simple surfaces would suggest. That's the same thrill I get from writing poetry too: trying to create something with rich textures in a tightly compressed space.

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