Saturday, 14 November 2009

The West Wing: Two Cathedrals

I'm currently in the middle of a conference (but it's in Birmingham, so I'm at home to sleep!) and I'm giving a paper on Latin in popular culture (which will hopefully eventually be published online in Rosetta, if it's accepted. Otherwise I'll post the slides or something!).

During my paper, I'll be mentioning this episode of The West Wing which is, according to me, The Best Single Episode of a TV Drama Ever Made. (In case you're wondering, The Best Single Episode of a TV Comedy Ever Made is either Blackadder Goes Forth, 'Goodbyee', or Yes, Minister, 'Party Games'). It is genius, pure and simple. Like my opinion on the awesomeness of Star Trek: Voyager, there is no moving me on this.

The main reason for it's wonderfulness (along with the last few minutes, which involve Dire Straits' 'Brothers in Arms') is that, halfway through, following an old friend's funeral, Bartlett stays alone in the National Cathedral and hurls abuse at God. In Latin. It's a wonderful, wonderful scene, brilliantly performed by Sheen and incredibly powerful - whether you're religious or not, the sight of Bartlett's very strong faith collapsing around him can't help but be moving.

The Latin, like the Latin in Joyeux Noel, is there because it is Catholic, and the point I am making in my paper is that one of the reasons that Latin is still quite strong in popular culture (compare the number of times my 'Latin' label gets used with the 'Greek' one!) is because it is the language of the Catholic Church, so if you have a Catholic character (or director - I will do a post on The Passion of the Christ at some point, when I get hold of it) you get random occurences of Latin.

Part of the reason for the Latin is also that it is simply awesome, for almost indescribable reasons - so much so that it is currently top of TV Tropes' Crowning Moments of Awesome for The West Wing. It's very hard to say why it's so awesome - perhaps we're all awed by Bartlett's ability to actually speak Latin, perhaps, because of the heavy influence of the Vulgate Bible (though the New Testament was originally written in Greek) it feels almost like Bartlett is yelling at God in His own language, perhaps we're so overwhelmed by such a devout Catholic yelling at God in the first place that he could do it in Klingon and we'd be impressed. Somehow, it is awesome.

I also wonder if it was hoped that Bartlett telling God to go to Hell would sound less potentially offensive if it's in Latin. I'm not sure about this, as he calls God a 'feckless thug' in English, so that might not have been the thought process at all, but the Latin in unsubtitled, so I wonder if it seemed that it would be less blasphemous and get past the censors more easily if some of it was incomprehensible.

The whole thing, with translation, is all over the internet, including here.

If anyone has any other ideas about this let me know - it'll be too late for my presentation, but might be useful for the written paper!


  1. Hey Julz, talking about God, maybe you should also publish a post about the film Constantine.


  2. Haven't seen that one - how old is it?

  3. Not old that all. It's a 2005 film.


  4. Oh, that's the one with Keanu Reeves, isn't it? Yeha I should watch that - I'm sure someone has a copy of it that I know. Look too sad/scary though!

  5. 'Constantine' isn't as entirely awful as you might think, taken on its own terms. Even as an adaptation of a gritty UK-written supernatural noir comic ('Hellblazer') it's intriguingly just this side of piss-poor.

    'The West Wing', on the other hand, is pure awesome. Bartlett's a classicist; what's not to like?

    One promising-looking book I've just picked up is Nicholas Ostler's 'Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin and the World it Created'. Initial signs are that he's an old fart but that the book may nonetheless be fun.

  6. Sounds intriguing! Somebody pointed out the significance of Latin as the language of imperialism during my paper the other day, which is something I don't really think about enough when looking at pop culture, especially characters like Bartlett and Sir Humphrey.

  7. Constantine is nearly as awful as you might expect, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Sadly it takes nearly the entire movie to finally be at ease (somewhat) with Rachel Weisz's voice.

    The comic book is totally ace, though.

  8. I completely agree with you on "Two Cathedrals" -the best episode of anything. Ever. The entire episode was poignant, clever, moving, and well-written, but I still recall the first time I watched it and how my jaw just dropped in those last few minutes. The unravelling of such a devout faith - and Jeb wasn't blindly devout, his faith was deliberate, studied, and cherished - was difficult enough, as was the railing in both languages. But the final touch of brilliance was Jeb's last act in the National Cathedral - the cigarette. It stopped being an unravelling of Jeb then and was his act of defiance. Whereas the first cigarette butt was defying his father (small "f"), the second was him defying God, who, as a Catholic, was always the Father he truly believed in.


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