“Sokath, his eyes opened”: Cultural Literacy Matters

An episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation reminds us that great stories have great power, but only if we know and understand them.

WHEN THE ORIGINAL Star Trek series got rebooted back in the 1980s as Star Trek: The Next Generation, I was delighted. In those days, science fiction was not well represented on television. 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.

“Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”

The episode that has stuck with me most persistently is one that I admired more for what it attempted than what it achieved. 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 seem to 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 Tamarian counterpart 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 (watch clip), which parallels their own relationship in some notable ways. Having finally made this cultural connection, Picard is able to end the standoff between the alien commander’s ship and the Enterprise, even though the alien commander has died — but only because he is able to bridge the cultural gap between them. Watch:

Myth as a way of communication.

Cultural Literacy Matters

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 made such an impression on me, but several years later I found myself teaching a college course called Humanities in the Western Cultural Tradition, and I remembered that Star Trek episode, and even  fantasized about it to my students on the first day of class, as a kind of apologia for the course. I wanted them to become conversant in our great cultural tradition, not only because doing so would feed their souls but also because it would allow them to converse with all the preceding generations for whom these cultural references were full of meaning and wisdom. I wanted to be able to teach them great works from our western cultural tradition and allow them to see the wisdom and truth to be found there—“Sokath! His eyes open!”

Cultural literacy matters. The past is not dead and lost; important parts of it live on from one generation to the next. I wanted to convey to my students (and now to you, too, dear reader) a sense of just 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 the “Darmok” episode, 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 other things, 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.

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

4 replies on ““Sokath, his eyes opened”: Cultural Literacy Matters”

Thanks for the post, and I look forward to your future writings. I'm reading The Odyssey right now, partially due to your influence. Odysseus and Telemachos have just been reunited and have made their plans to destroy the suitors.

A friend of mine and I have often made fun of "Darmok," especially the problem of how such a way of communicating could ever come about. However, I think you are right that Darmok can be "admired more for what it attempted than what it achieved." It is rather thought provoking.

I wish you well in your revived blogging and the completion of your novel.

hi, Lisa! First, congratulations on the progress of 'the book.' I can't wait to see it/read it!
I understand completely your need to set down the blogging for awhile.. In fact,your blog is the first I'm reading since my first historical fiction was published in December and it's companion study guide two weeks ago. It is the first I read, with others lined up, in order to help me get back to posting on my own blogs! In fact, only in the last month or so did I finally decide on a specific theme for my main blog (that has been alive for many years withOUT a theme!).
So, thank you for your Catholic insights to the classics. I will enjoy every word….
God bless,
(if this posted twice,i have no idea why LOL)

Greg, you have made my day — I'm just getting ready to write a post explaining in greater detail why I think everyone should "read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest" the great source texts of the Western imaginative tradition. The Odyssey is a great place to start — in fact, the resolution of the suitor situation is one of the scenes in the Odyssey that will figure in a key scene at the beginning of Cast Into the Deep Sea of Stars, my current work-in-progress. As alien as the world of the ancient Greeks may seem to us today (and I don't think any modern person can feel too comfortable there), it nonetheless still has a lot to say to us. As I'll explain in my next post, I don't think the same is true, in quite the same way, of the epic of Gilgamesh.

Cheryl, I'm honored to provide an opportunity for your return to the blogosphere. Congratulations on getting your book and study guide published! Re: having a theme for your blog — if it's a blog for your readers, let it be about your writing (NOT the writing process, but about your characters, the world they inhabit, etc.). I'm working on a new blog for the readers I hope to have someday, when my own novel is published — it will deal exclusively with things that will be of interest to those readers, although I will, of course, provide links to this blog as well. I want this blog, A Catholic Reader, to be all about helping people deepen and broaden their own reading, and offering insights from my own.

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