A. Trust me, the next thing I say is true.
A. The last thing I said was false.
The namesake of the third season's seventeenth episode, Catch-22, was originally supposed to be called Catch-18; in Judaism, the character for 18 is also the character for 'life,' which is ironic given both the context of Joseph Heller's book and Charlie's impending bad end. It also happens to be the date the episode aired, April 18, and shares the same meaning as the Russian word Ð¶Ð¸Ð·Ð½ÑŒ, which begins with the character that looked so similar to the symbol on the tree from "One of Us" — Ð–. Brother Campbell tells Desmond in the flashback that Des is now "one of us," and Charlie asks Desmond why he left Penny behind. Brother Campbell also keeps a photo of him with Mrs. Hawking on his desk. Right around this time in previous seasons, Boone died and the imaginary Dave jumped off a cliff; and we see Charlie (possibly) die a few times in this episode. And Desmond, the soldier who sees everything twice, has another flash which he tries to manipulate. We're in a new realm of echoes, as Lost pushes its literary mirror-twinning towards a text that's about echoes, circular logic, and its own form of deja vu.
The catch, of course, is that there is no catch. In Heller's book about WWII bombing missions, Catch-22 is a rule that states if a soldier is insane, then he has to be pulled from duty. However, if a soldier tried to prove he was insane, he must be sane, because the only sane thing to do is to try to get out of flying more deadly missions. Only a crazy person would willingly go on those bombing runs, but only a sane person would try to prove he was insane so he could save himself. Therefore, the insane thing to do is be sane, and the sane thing to do is be insane — which you can't really do. Get it? The thing undoes itself. This is the absurd circular logic that underpins the characterizations, dialog and the plot of the novel, which follows that trajectory to a number of logically absurd conclusions. And like the circular logic, events and themes recur throughout the novel in a way that echoes the recurrence we've seen throughout many recent episodes of Lost, especially since "ExposÃ©." It's fitting that the protagonist of Catch-22, Yossarian, is nicknamed Yo-Yo.
That structural narrative recurrence of Lost has been occurring in at least three major ways: With characters echoing aspects of other characters and past actions (as many noted with Juliet and Hurley, and the seeming Jack/Kate/Sawyer games again — but with a more knowing Sawyer); with Desmond seeing things before they happen; and with us, the audience, witnessing the flashbacks multiple times and from multiple perspectives. We're privy to personal information the other characters aren't. That idea of recurrence is also of major significance in Dharmic religions like Buddhism and Hinduism (and possibly for the Dharma Initiative); everyone is on a suffering treadmill of birth, life, death, and rebirth, until they can jump off through enlightenment (which recalls the overstimulation chamber from Room 23 in "Not in Portland" — "we are the cause of our own suffering"). The only question is if the individual can grow and attain the enlightenment to end that suffering. It's doubtful Charlie ever will; twice now, we've seen his throat get wrecked (even if one was a possible Charlie). In Dharmic religions, the vishuddha chakra is related to growth and expression, and is located in the throat.
Desmond may be attaining some measure of enlightened thinking; perhaps not enlightenment, but a growing awareness, along with his growing beard; he seems to be the only one on the island who can grow a real beard, which is in contrast to his past determination to shave every day while in the Swan hatch. What he may be coming to realize is the nature of David Hume's compatibilism: For the first time Desmond tries to work with his flash rather than against it, at the risk of skewering Charlie. This is his test, which recalls his discussion with Brother Campbell about the name of the wine the brothers make, Moriah; was it a decent god who asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah? Campbell's reply suggests that decency had nothing to do with it, it's the willingness to accept the test that qualifies one to pass. We (and Des) later come to know that Des's test is the island, and he willingly sacrifices both his life with Penny and nearly sacrifices Charlie's life. Did he pass?
The rhetorical banter between Des and Brother Campbell gives the nod to another rhetorician and Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, George Campbell. A Presbyterian minister and rhetorician (he wrote The Philosophy of Rhetoric), Campbell challenged the philosopher Hume's position on miracles. When it came to miracles, Hume was skeptical of testimony and argued testimony had to be judged against a record of direct experience. When testimony of an event occurred, we had to judge such testimony against a record of past testimony that proved to be true and testimony that proved to be false. If a testament seemed improbable, the next step was to question the veracity of the messenger. Campbell wrote A Dissertation on Miracles just to prove Hume wrong, arguing that it is human nature to accept testimony, and skepticism doesn't develop until later in life. If children didn't accept testimony uncritically, there'd be a lot more little burnt hands in the world. Whereas Hume claims experience is the default position, Campbell says it's testimony. Charlie is that uncritical child who accepts Desmond's testimony of Charlie's coming death, in part because Des seemingly has already had the experience of Charlie's death. In this way, Des is holding up Hume's part of the the equation, defaulting to a kind of experience, whereas Charlie is proving Campbell's side of things, believing in a testimony he has no way of verifying.
What this means is that something that doesn't actually exist — the occurrence of Charlie's death — is having a profound impact on the lives of the Lostaways, which brings us back to Catch-22. The catch, of course, is that there is no catch. Not only does the Catch-22 undo itself, but it doesn't really exist; one of the mandates of Catch-22 is that it is illegal to look at it. Eventually, Yossarian comes to realize that there is no catch, but because enough people believe in it, Catch-22 has material consequences. Charlie's death doesn't actually exist, but is having material consequences. We see the material consequences of the non-existent all the time; historically, the Gulf of Tonkin incident didn't occur, but it's what led to the Vietnam War (and there are echoes of that today with Iraq). In a broader sense, Lost is fiction and itself doesn't exist, yet it has impeded upon our material world via the alternate reality game and has lead to us being here online right now creating dialogs about this show and relating it to our broader lives. It's making life where it's not supposed to be — abracadabra, something out of nothing. (And 'abracadabra' seems fitting for a narrative that creates so much out of thin air, rather like the smoke monster; from its Hebrew and Aramaic roots, it means "I create as I speak," "it will be according to what is spoken," and "disappear like this word.")
Desmond also tries to create a possible something out of a possible nothing when he accepts the test and nearly sacrifices Charlie. Morally, he understands he should save Charlie. However, he thinks if he accepts the possible future as it is, Penny will drop from the sky, deus ex machina. In other words, Des knows that possible future shouldn't be, because it only holds a hope for Penny's arrival, while it determines Charlie's throat being pierced. Yet he's willing to try it — to a point. In the end, he does the moral thing and saves Charlie's vishuddha chakra, possibly changing the picture on the jigsaw puzzle box in the process. The Portuguese woman who parachuted into the island brought not only her own copy of Heller's book with a picture of Des and Penny in it, but a satellite phone that Sayid might be able to work with (if there's anything left in Otherville). She also brought another literary reference. The scene itself recalls the parachutist from William Golding's Lord of the Flies, when a British pilot parachutes onto the island the boys are stranded on but arrives dead. He is their deus ex machina, their savior, but when they arrive, their deus is mortuus. In mirror-twinned fashion, we have a live goddess, so to speak. She seems affiliated with the Portuguese-speaking men at the arctic station at the end of the second season, but we don't know yet if she speaks English, and the one Portuguese-speaker was buried a few days back (unless Vincent got to him).
Is that a logically absurd conclusion? Just tell me if I've got flies in my eyes or not. Go ahead. I can take it.
Books mentioned in this post
J. Wood is the author of Living Lost: Why We're All Stuck on the Island