Friday, November 5, 2010

Lost and Partly Learned Meanings

Both "Parker's Back," by Flannery O'Connor, and the introduction of Tattooing the World present figures -- Parker and James O'Connell respectively -- who enter into rites of marriage and tattooing without possessing full awareness of the implications of those rites. Parker marries Sarah Ruth without being able to articulate his motive for agreeing to such a union, and after having just resolved "to have nothing further to do with her"; later, after having the face of Jesus tattooed on his back to compel Sarah Ruth to "heel," Parker comes to find that the image, like his wife, has a much greater sway over him than he anticipated (O'Conner 663, 665). O'Connell, as the excerpts from his memoir in Tattooing the World relate, was given a full-body tattoo by women in Samoa which he did not realize he was getting before the process commenced and was then, he claims, wedded to the "chief's daughter without...awareness" of the bond he was entering into (Ellis 5, 6).

Neither Parker nor O'Connell seem to find much satisfaction in marriage -- O'Connor says that making such a commitment to Sarah Ruth "[makes] Parker gloomier than ever, and the fact that O'Connell "denies his own responsibility for the marriage" seems to imply that he is not content with the arrangement (O'Conner 663; Ellis 6). Both figures, however, are fascinated by their tattoos. O'Connell, who "cannot understand" the symbolic meaning which has been given to his tattoos by the native culture of the Caroline Islands, invents a theatrical show in which he "redefines" the meaning of the tattoos so they can come to signify concepts which he recognizes (Ellis 3, 18). Ellis imagines O'Connell "contemplating the patterns" backstage, which makes one wonder if he sensed that the tattoos were meant to allow "human beings" to "recognize [their] place in cosmos," and was hoping to divine just such knowledge (Ellis 3, 12).

It is in first seeing a man with a full-body tattoo at a "fair" probably somewhat similar to O'Connell's "performances" that Parker first becomes slightly cognizant that there is "something out of ordinary about the fact that he existed," (O'Connor 658; Ellis 18). This feeling only becomes more intense when he decides to get the tattoo of Christ. Like O'Connell, Parker believes his tattoo is conveying a message to him, even though it is not written in any discernable language. First ordering him to "GO BACK" and pick it from a catalogue of religious tattoos, Parker later feels that the image -- specifically the eyes of Jesus -- are commanding him to "[examine] his soul," a directive he knows must "be obeyed" (O'Connor 669, 672). Before his wife violently rebuffs his attempts to communicate the spiritual movement within him, Parker has made some progress toward reformation -- a theme which O'Conner critics, including Baylor professor Thomas Hibbs, and most importantly O'Connor herself, highlight as being present in her writings.

The idea which Tattooing the World explores of tattoos "joining...the interior and the exterior," and as designs which "extend...the soul itself," as Parker's tattoo does in O'Connor's story, also relates to an episode of Lost in which one of the main characters, Jack, is shown getting a series of tattoos in flashback (Ellis 18, 10). Having flown to Thailand, Jack begins an affair with a woman, Achara, who says she has a special "gift" which she cannot share with him. When he discovers that this secret art she engages in is tattooing, he is confused as to why she treats the job with such delicacy -- looking at the designs with the perception, which we discussed in class as being a current American mindset, that they are only "decoration." But Achara puts forth a view of the tattoo similar to the Samoan one Ellis articulates in her book, in which the "mark" gives a person "definition." After being told by Achara that he is a "leader" who is nevertheless "lonely" and "angry," Jack insists that this summation be "put on... him," even though performing such a procedure on a foreigner goes against Achara's cultural mores (MacIntyre).
While this raises a whole set of issues similar to those which were raised in class and which Ellis brings up in Tattooing the World about what rights cultures have in regards to the patterns that they create, it also indicates that Jack's tattoo, like Parker's, establishes a standard which he must rise up to, rather than being one he already fully embodies, something other fans and commentators have also noted in criticizing how Jack interacts with Achara (Ellis 19).

In formulating this post, I was initially hesitant to bring up this episode because both Lost fans and writers consider it one of the poorer episodes of an otherwise quality series (Lindelof). While I still agree with this assessment, reading about tattoos this semester has caused me to realize that one of the fan complaints about the episode -- that the story of Jack's tattoos was not worth exploring, which showrunner Damon Lindelof has agreed with -- stems from a cultural mindset that views the art as being insignificant, whereas the writers were seemingly trying to communicate the greater ramifications tattoos can have outside the United States (Lost Flashbacks Podcast; Keegan; Lindelof Interview). Thus, while it may not manifest as dramatically as it did in the contrasting responses to James O'Connell's tattoo, the conflict Ellis details between "different frame[s] of reference" for tattoos continues today (Ellis 13).


Ellis, Juniper. Tattooing the World: Pacific Designs in Print & Skin. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

O'Connor, Flannery. O'Connor Collected Works. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1988.

Thomas S. Hibbs. Pundicity: Informed Opinions and Review. Web.

Lost: The Complete Collection. ABC Studios, 2010. Blu-ray.

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Doux, Billie. "Stranger in a Strange Land" Review. Billie Doux. Web.

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"Stranger in a Strange Land."
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Brian. Lost... and Gone Forever. Web.

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Hibbs, Thomas S. "Graham Greene and Film Noir." 2004. Web. 25/10/2010.

Hibbs, Thomas S. "Hopeless Emptiness: Capitalist Suburbia in 'American Beauty', 'Revolutionary Road', and 'Mad Men.'" 10/03/2009. Lecture/Web. 21/10/2010.

Hibbs, Thomas S. "It Is the Question that Drives Us: The Matrix and Philosophy." 07/09/2004. Web 22/10/2010.

The Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture. Fall Conference. Catholic Culture Literature Series. Catholic Culture Film Series. "Shining in Obscurity." "O'Connor and Percy." Web and Video. 25/10/2010.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: Third Edition. United States: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008.

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Various Flannery O'Conner Quotes.

Various Flannery O'Connor Critics.

Various Lost Podcasts and Websites.

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