Lost, Found: The MacGuffin Theory

The moment with Charlie at the end of the pilot episode — where he asks his fellow hikers, in response to the French distress signal, “Guys, where are we?” — seems to be the question that launched a thousand theories. Indeed, one of the key phenomena surrounding Lost fandom is theorizing about what the heck is going on. The world seems rife with theories about the nature of the island. Purgatory. Hell. Heaven. Time travel. Aliens. Psychics. Nanotechnology. Countless variations on each of these, and plenty of others.

Step back for a moment. What is going on? Fans all debating, arguing with each other, speculating about something they aren’t really sure of, but claiming their rightness nonetheless.

Kind of like Shannon and Boone. Kind of like Sawyer and Sayid. Jin and Sun, Michael and Walt. Kind of like how there will soon enough be many additional couplings in the service of conflict and argument: Jin and Michael, Sawyer and Jack, Jack and Locke, Jack and Ben, Ben and Juliet, Ben and Locke, on and on and on and on. Fighting. Win/lose. Dichotomous thinking. A failure to put fears and the past behind in the service of working together to achieve harmony on the island.

Kind of like the the U.S. vs. Iraq. Or Iran. Or, in the past, Russia or Germany or Japan or Britain. Or the Union vs. the Confederacy. Or Russia vs. Georgia. Or South Korea vs North Korea. Or India vs. Pakistan. Or Christian vs. Muslim. Or Muslim vs. Jew. Or Capitalism vs. Communism. Or Conservative vs. Liberal. Or East vs. West. Or business vs. environment. Or work vs play. Or “man” vs. “nature.” And on and on and on and on. Fighting. Win/lose. Dichotomous thinking. A failure to put fears and the past behind in the service of working together to achieve harmony on whatever bit of ground, no matter how big or small, we find ourselves on with some other people.

Part of me is a sci-fi geek like so many Lost fans out there. The show gives us plenty of food for thought. The theorizing is interesting and lots of fun.

Part of me is a trivia geek in general. I love trivia. It’s fun to learn, fun to know, fun to explore and discover all the nifty little details of things. True of lots of things, and especially fun to do so in a world as intricate as that of Lost.

But there’s a reason it’s called trivia. It’s trivial.

There’s a reason it’s called theory. It’s not practice.

I’m just not so sure this kind of theorizing about the show matters much. Only one or a few theories will be consistent with whatever truth the writers cook up. But does it really matter which way it goes? If it’s aliens or nanotechnology or time loops or what have you, it will merely explain the physical reality of what goes on. Whatever the physical reality, it seems like there will be little bearing those answers could have on the symbolic reality, the emotional reality, the psychological reality of the show. It is on these levels that we stand to best understand what the show is trying to tell us, what bearing the show might have on our own lives. If this weren’t the case, then the show just becomes a complicated but shallow puzzle, devoid of any meaning for us — because we’re not going to be able to implement aliens or nanotechnology or time loops in our lives to make the same things happen for us. In that sense, knowing which it is simply can’t matter to us. But there very definitely are ways we can go on the same kinds of journeys as the show’s characters, journeys of resolution and growth, toward harmony and peace of mind. And that’s got nothing to do with those physical explanations. Nothing at all.

Making theories is about making meaning. We all do that all the time, and that’s certainly what I’m trying to do here in these writings on Lost. The question is what to make meaning about, and toward what end. So I hereby put forth the MacGuffin Theory of Lost. In case you don’t know, here’s how Wikipedia defines MacGuffin:

A MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin) is a plot device that motivates the characters or advances the story, but the details of which are of little or no importance otherwise.

The element that distinguishes a MacGuffin from other types of plot devices is that it is not important what the object specifically is. Anything that serves as a motivation will do. The MacGuffin might even be ambiguous. Its importance is accepted by the story’s characters, but it does not actually have any effect on the story. It can be generic or left open to interpretation.

The MacGuffin is common in films, especially thrillers. Commonly, though not always, the MacGuffin is the central focus of the film in the first act, and later declines in importance as the struggles and motivations of characters play out. Sometimes the MacGuffin is all but forgotten by the end of the film.

The island and its mysteries are too central to the story for us to be likely to forget them entirely by the end. However, I’m not sure we’ll ever fully find out what the physical truth is about all of it. Indeed, as the show goes on, it becomes clear that other characters seem to have a lot more knowledge about the island than the Oceanic 815 survivors, but that even they may have apparent holes in their knowledge. Time will tell. But even if we do end up finding out the whole truth, I just don’t think it matters much. I believe the island and all its mysteries are a genuine MacGuffin. They are there as compelling plot devices to motivate the characters and advance the story — the characters’ story, the characters’ journeys. The details of the island may be interesting to learn at some point, but they won’t really have any implication for the show’s fundamental story, its fundamental meaning.

In the end, I think the point is to revel in the mystery, to participate in it, and thereby to learn to do the same for the mystery of our own lives. Because the moment you become too confident about your answer to a question, you become less open to other possible answers. That is the antithesis of learning. And if the complexity scientists are to be believed, and I think they are, learning is evolving, is consciousness itself. Life itself is learning. The secret to learning, to life, is to never institutionalize knowledge, to always live in the question, the quest, the seeking, the moving forward. To always be open to the novel. To always be willing to adjust oneself to restore one’s participation in the larger harmony of things. That’s living.

How can any of these things be done if we’re too content with our answers?

And how can we appreciate how much Lost can encourage us toward this kind of harmony for ourselves and others if we get too caught up searching for one right answer about the physical mysteries of the island?

I still like the theories and the trivia. I’ll still play around with them. Probably far more than would be best for me! It’s fun and enjoyable and engaging, and I wouldn’t dream of telling people not to do it. But I personally hope we don’t ever find out the full truth of the physical reality of the island. Because in the end, I really do think it’s just a MacGuffin. If we do learn the full truth at some point, though, guess what? No difference. It’ll still be a MacGuffin. So though I’ll continue to play with theories, I’m going to keep my focus on the fact that that’s not remotely all that Lost has to offer, because it has so much more for us. Lost is too profound a show to content itself to fulfilling its purpose by simply answering those mysteries. To settle for that in Lost is to deny the greatness of Lost, just as to settle for what’s comfortable in ours lives and deny our fears instead of overcoming them is to deny our own greatness.

Indeed, I’d daresay that, if there is a conspiracy theory to be found in Lost, it’s really on the part of the show’s creators. They are conspiring to suck people in with entertainment that is astonishingly compelling, but not merely to compel and to entertain. They want to suck people in just as the island sucks people in. Whether it’s the survivors and the island or the audience and the show, the point is to bring people somewhere they didn’t expect, somewhere they didn’t necessarily plan or even want to go but found themselves drawn to, needing to be there, to get more than what they bargained for, and to become the better for it for the rest of their lives. And because all of these themes and journeys work not only on the conscious level but also subconsciously, subliminally, archetypally, this conspiracy theory can be true even if the writers don’t realize that this is what they’re doing, even if this wasn’t their conscious intention. Their own subconscious minds would be active participants in the conspiracy, working on their own journeys by creating a show that impels others to do the same.

Lost is a great show by almost any measure. Its dramatic quality is astonishing. Its ratings are high. The phenomenon that surrounds the show is already legendary. But for all involved, from its creators to its audience, and whether anyone realizes it or not, the most significant greatness of Lost can only be achieved beyond the show itself. That, I think, is the real mystery of Lost, and it’s a mystery that can’t possibly have any one answer. It’s a mystery that is answered somewhere along the way, by every individual who is inspired by the show to engage in the questions of their own lives and seek harmony. Helping illuminate just how Lost can help us do this is what Lost, Found is all about.

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5 comments for “Lost, Found: The MacGuffin Theory

  1. August 20, 2008 at 4:08 pm

    I’m such a geek, here I am commenting on my own post before anyone else gets a chance to. Anyway, I recently started reading Unlocking the Meaning of Lost, by Lynette Porter & David Lavery. In chapter one, The Making of Lost, there is a section called Lost in a Good Story: The Problem of Serial Creativity. In it, Lost writer David Fury talks about a couple of things related to this post.

    “We are holding back, but it’s not like we want to burst forth and admit we are a sci-fi show in the closet coming out….It’s more about trying to find the elements of the island that become metaphors for character stories that we are trying to tell.” — The metaphors, the symbols, the character journeys as more important than the “truth” about the island’s mysteries.

    “If ‘we answer some of these question, and if we do it in the most reality based way, I think people will feel cheated.’ On the other hand, supplying answers to Lost’s enigmas ‘in the most interesting sci-fi way’ could well result in ‘alienat[ing]…the core audience of the series.” — Revealing too much truth, however done, will not satisfy the audience.

    Food for thought.

  2. Mark
    May 24, 2010 at 10:20 pm

    I find it astounding that you wrote this in 2008 and today, after seeing the finale, it has proven to be very true. I do believe the island is a macguffin and those seeking hard fast answers will never get them. Good call man- repost this on Darkufo site or somewhere where many can see it.

  3. Egg MacGuffin
    June 7, 2010 at 6:01 am

    I still feel cheated !!!

  4. June 17, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    dude, you are a visionary!

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