A Catholic Reader

Reading Literature in the Light of Faith

Menu Close

By Jove, I think I’ve got it! Or “Sokath, his eyes open”

In case the title of this post is too cryptic for you, let me explain: the “it” I think I’ve got is the way forward for this blog. For the past couple of years, I’m been concentrating on writing a novel, my first — in fact, I’m still working on it. In the process, my various blogs, of which this one is the chief, have fallen fallow, a situation that has been as necessary as it has been regrettable (for me, at least). But I’ve finally got the novel in good enough shape that I can dare to let the intellectual side of my brain steal a little time from the creative side. And that means I’m ready to resume this blog.So that explains half of my cryptic title, but what about the other half: “Sokath, his eyes open”? Some obscure literary allusion that can be grasped by only the most erudite? In fact, no. That is, not unless you consider the script of a television science fiction series to be “literature” (I must admit, I do not.) In fact, I’m quoting a Tamarian in the second episode of the fifth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (or TNG).

I had no idea I was not the only one impressed by this episode. It is apparently HUGE amongst geeks everywhere. I found this on the Square Root of Minus-Garfield, http://www.mezzacotta.net/garfield.

When the original Star Trek series got rebooted back in the 1980s, I was delighted. In those days, sci-fi was not well represented on television. So I gritted my teeth through some truly awful episodes during the first season or so of TNG, and became a fan of what turned out to be quite a long and successful franchise (if we include the three spin-off series, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise, the Star Trek TV reboot endured more than twenty seasons).  While a lot of it was just fun to watch, one of the things I admired about the series was the writers’ willingness to grapple with perennial human and social problems while telling tales of grand adventure. (As I’ve said elsewhere, I think this is what the best science fiction always does). Although the more topical episodes were seldom the best in terms of pure entertainment value, nonetheless some of them were truly memorable.

The episode that has stuck with me most persistently is one that I admired more for what it attempted than what it achieved. For now, I’ll pass over its defects and concentrate on what I find compelling about this episode, “Darmok.” Captain Picard and his crew encounter an alien race called the Tamarians. This is not the first time representatives of the United Federation of Planets have encountered this race, but it is the first time they have tried to enter into serious discussion with them. This is because, although Starfleet’s vaunted universal translator can render any alien language into Standard English, even in English, what the Tamarians have to say doesn’t make much sense.

It takes Picard and his crew a painfully long time to figure out what must have been clear to most television viewers very quickly: the Tamarians communicate solely by literary references, allusions to the great epic tales of their culture. Because he does not know the stories from which these cryptic quotations are taken, Picard has trouble understanding what his opposite number means by such enigmatic references as “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” or “Temba, his arms open wide.” When it is almost too late , the Starfleet captain finally understands and tries to communicate his understanding and goodwill in terms the alien will appreciate — he tells him the story of the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, from the eponymous ancient Mesopotamian epic. Here is an excerpt that shows Picard resolving the misunderstanding at the last possible moment:

When I first saw this episode, I was deeply struck by it, despite the fact that the plot, in many ways, just didn’t make much sense. At the time, I didn’t know what exactly it was that struck me so, but several years later, when I was teaching a college course called Humanities in the Western Cultural Tradition, I often fantasized about showing this Star Trek episode on the first day of class, as a kind of apologia for the course. I think it touches on something deeply relevant to what I hoped to achieve: not only to familiarize students with our great cultural tradition, but to convey to them a sense of how vital it remains, particularly for anyone who wishes to believe himself “educated.” These stories are (or, at least, have been until recently) deeply embedded in our culture, and they have given that culture its form. To know these stories well is, in some sense, to know ourselves, not merely as atomistic individuals but as members of something larger than ourselves, something much older and (God willing) more durable than our own personal tastes and meager efforts.

In the epilogue of “Darmok,” Captain Jean-Luc Picard arrives at a similar  conviction about the importance of understanding one’s own culture. We see him sitting quietly, reading a book, which turns out to be a volume of the Homeric Hymns in the original Greek (what a Renaissance man!). Had I ever shown this episode to my students, that scene would have been the kicker: even in the distant future, the ancient past will still be “relevant.”

So, as I continue to work on my novel — which, it just so happens, also shows that ancient literature will continue to be relevant in the far future — I will try not to neglect this blog’s ongoing discussion of the great (and sometimes merely good) literature of the Western tradition, as well as contemporary works that I think will be of interest to my readers.

Here are some of the works I hope to be writing about over the coming weeks and months:

  • Graeco-Roman epics, including The Odyssey and The Aeneid, and perhaps Beowulf as well
  • Medieval Arthurian Romance, including Chretien de Troyes’ The Story of the Grail and the Middle English Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
  • The works of Flannery O’Connor and other modern Catholic authors
  • St Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions and his City of God
  • Philosophical works, including Plato’s Republic, Cicero’s De republica (chiefly The Dream of Scipio), and Thomas More’s Utopia
  • Catholic social teaching, beginning with Rerum Novarum

Are there any “great classics” you would like to have illuminated? If you have any suggestions or requests, please mention it in a comment below.While you’re at it, let me know how you like this layout for the blog. I’m a little irked that it doesn’t allow you to search for posts by keyword (or a bunch of other stuff I’d like it to do) and I’m not quite convinced that a little extra eye-appeal is a good trade-off for loss of functionality. Or am I the only one bothered by that?

If you’d like to read an extended analysis of the “Darmok” episode, take a look at this article from The Atlantic.

©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas