We’re in the home stretch, people. You’ve either enjoyed or suffered through the first two installments of "Paradox Island," and you’ll be rewarded today with the final installment. Today we’ll look at the ontological paradox in which Benjamin Linus operates, and how that may explain every action he’s ever taken on the show.
Before doing so, I want to try and simplify things, both for you and for myself. I’ve tried to elucidate the time travel rules under which Lost operates, and I may have occasionally sucked you or my prose through a wormhole along the way. Nothing, and I repeat NOTHING, should be taken as fact, either in terms of Lost or time travel. I don’t pretend to be close to having all the answers about either. With that said, let me try and sum up as best I can how time travel works in Lost.
Time on the Island exists outside of time in the real world. It exists at some point in the past, relative to our perspective in this, the real world. Something about the electromagnetic properties of the Island have ripped it from our observation point (by which time is measured), lending time to work, as far as I can tell, "slower," for lack of a better word.
One can breach the barrier between the Island world and the real world in several ways, but at some point in the latter half of the twentieth century, The Hanso Foundation found the safest and most reliable way of doing so. Moreover, they discovered a way to GET BACK. The Island best suited their purposes PRECISELY because of how slowly time moves there. I have no idea at what rate time moves on the island, but let’s say for this argument that it moves four times as slowly. If you’re trying to create a solution to the apocalypse, and the clock’s ticking, it’s helpful to have an environment in which 12 years of work could be accomplished in only 3.
So far, so good. But there’s a catch. Due to the dissonant time lines between the Island world and the real world, there’s a chance that you could return at a time in which you previously exist in the real world. It’s unclear, moreover, that when you cross over between time frames, you completely leave one and fully enter the other. While your various selves exist in different time frames, everything’s groovy. However, when you’re time traveling, you’re subjected to another paradox, with a name you Lost fans will love: The Twin Paradox.
The trick in traveling back and forth, for whatever reason (physical or psychological), is to ensure these two selves never, ever meet. This has been made clear in the Orchid Station orientation video. This could also explain why the Hanso Foundation scheduled work shifts in the way they did: to account for the literal "shifts" that occurred while traveling to and from the Island. That’s all unclear, but what is clear, and should remain in the forefront of everything else, is that two selves coming into contact is, in the immortal words of Immanuel Kant, wicked bad.
OK, I hope that’s cleared things up for you. Personally, I want to spend another 2,000 words exploring that "Twin Paradox," but I’ve put off Ben’s ontological paradox long enough. Maybe because I really hope what I will describe truly is an ontological paradox. If there’s a better, more apt term for the phenomenon I am describing that exists, I encourage you to point me in its direction. I’m OK with having named this incorrectly, so long as the thrust of what I’m describing becomes clear.
I’m going to leave it to you to go read up on the basic principles of the ontological paradox, but what interests me the most is this particular section:
Physical items are even more problematic than pieces of information, since they should ordinarily age and increase in entropy according to the Second law of thermodynamics. But if they age by any nonzero amount at each cycle, they cannot be the same item to be sent back in time, creating a contradiction.
The paradox raises the ontological questions of where, when and by whom the items were created or the information derived.
I think Lost contains such a physical item, one whose origin cannot be rationally explained in any way I’ve been able to fully justify until reading about this paradox. An item that is Benjamin Linus’ Rosetta stone, his reason for being, and his reason for doing everything he’s done until this point.
That item? A painting inside Ben’s bungalow. I’ve linked it before, but for those who can’t recall, I’ll link it again. In that painting, I’m convinced, sits Ben’s beloved, Annie.
Since "The Man Behind the Curtain," I’ve been a little, shall we say, obsessed with Annie. Her absence mystified me: was she alive? Killed in the Purge? Killed in childbirth? "Curtain" cemented her as crucial to not only Ben’s story, but the story of Lost as a whole. And yet, that painting also sat within Ben’s house as a child. It’s not a portrait of her in the normal sense, in that she couldn’t have sat for this particular photo at the time it first appears in the show.
That being said, the ontological paradox allows this painting to exist long before she would be this age. It, in Ben’s mind, is the ultimate end goal to everything he does. Every action, every calculation, every manipulation is done in order to shape events towards the final conclusion; i.e., this painting. A happy, healthy, adult Annie, living on the Island. Perhaps even painted by Ben himself.
I’ve spoken often and at length as to how such a paradox could have started, but in the interest of time (and not having you jump between eighteen articles at once): it’s likely, in my mind, that such a paradox could be the result of a bargain made between Jacob and Ben before The Purge. The specifics are of course elusive, in that I’m coming up with this theory on the flimsiest of actual evidence within the show, but it feels absolutely right to me nonetheless.
Looking at the painting, it’s easy to see why Juliet Burke was brought to the Island: she impregnated a male field mouse, not unlike the furry creature in Annie’s lap in the painting. For Ben, she simply fits a role to be played in the ever-evolving story that leads to a successful reunion with Annie. While he may feel actual remorse over the things he puts others through, the ends truly justify the means.
Looking back at Season 3, I see, more than anything else, Benjamin struggling to maintain control over this paradox. The constant fertility experiments may have been the first stage in deviating from the narrative. The arrival of his tumor may have been a sign that such a paradox may not be in play anymore, and as such, one could look at everything he’s done since the crash landing of Oceanic 815 as Ben’s way of readjusting the narrative in order to fit the desired end. His ever-desperate demeanor in Season 3 thus becomes an outward sign of just how out of reach that painting must feel to Ben.
The painting’s the thing, wherein you’ll catch the conscience of Benjamin.
Thoughts? Queries? Suggestions for medications I should be on? Leave them all below!
Ryan also posts every 108 minutes over at Boob Tube Dude.