Darmok at Tanagra, the Emperor’s New Clothes and Other Remnants of Popular Culture

There’s an episode of the old television series Star Trek: Next Generation called “Darmok,” in which the redoubtable Captain Picard is dropped onto a bleak planet landscape to do battle with the captain of another ship, without their knowing why they are fighting. The alien captain does not speak English, at least not exactly. His language is completely comprised of allusions to the various myths of his people. So when he says to the Captain “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” he is referring to what happened to those characters, Darmok and Jalad, at that place, Tanagra, in the mythology of his people. In order for Picard to understand what the man he saying to him, he has to first learn the myth.

From its very beginnings in the 1960s, Star Trek was carefully written with an eye and ear to the U.S. zeitgeist, whether it was with respect to the Vietnam War, religion, or, most often, intolerance. More than many episodes, this one is meaningful to me because it crystallizes the functionality of a shared symbology in human experience. In other words, the importance of popular art.

What do I mean when I say so-and-so is a Picard-like character? You would have no idea if you never saw or heard of the Star Trek franchise. Same with Mr. Spock of Captain Kirk. And yet these characters speak volumes about the human experience. Spock is all intellect. Kirk is mainly passion. And Picard is pretty much the perfect leader, a balance of these two qualities.

When I refer to one of these characters when speaking with a Trekkie, I don’t need to explain myself further. The character/symbol or signifier, to use a fancy term, is like a pomegranate, containing all the diverse and specific characteristics I intend to convey. And that’s not all. The very fact that you know what I mean if I mention Darmok at Tanagra brings us closer, because the very fact that you understand demonstrates that we share a common subculture, with its own language, meaning and values. If you get it, that is to say, you get me.

In these days of diminished religious education and augmented media offerings, we have fewer and fewer sources of common meaning and values. In some ways, that’s a plus. When books or other media contain deleterious content, I’m delighted that we have choices. On the other hand, if I can’t relate to your favorite song—that is, not only don’t I know it, or the artist, but I don’t even know the genre—it’s harder for us to communicate. I am thinking right now of my father’s disdain for the Beatles and Joni Mitchell. Oh, the fights that might have been averted had he sat down to listen! But then that is often the way with parents and children, particularly in the 1960s. At that time, adults still asserted, even celebrated, their differences from subsequent generations.

Which brings me to The Emperor’s New Clothes. Someone recently referred to that Hans Christian Andersen tale in conversation, and of course I knew exactly what he meant. He might have referred to a current event instead, and I might have gotten the same meaning. But what if I didn’t share his interpretation of that event? What if I thought the real-life “emperor” had been framed? Too complicated. No one believes Andersen’s emperor was framed, at least not seriously, not unless you are a fairy-tale revisionist. Because that was the point of the story.

The old, old stories are the same around the world, albeit with different names and settings and props. U.S. television has recently resurrected fairy-tale characters in two series, Grimm and Once Upon a Time, perhaps, as some media watchers have suggested, because we need a return to fantasy in these troubled times. Or perhaps, I argue, because we need a return to a shared understanding. To a shared language.

The alien captain died on that planet, because it took too long for the two men to learn to communicate. Let’s not let it happen to us.

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