Some mysteries should remain unsolved.
We all love a good mystery. I believe a wise man once said something to the extent of “And to many humans, a mystery must be solved”. There’s that nagging sense that there is some big truth out there that’s being concealed from you, and you can’t rest until you learn what it is, because of information wanting to be free, or any number of other justifications for the quest for gnosis we’ve come up with throughout the ages. In the United States, perhaps we’ve wed our thirst for mysteries with our romantic ideal of vigilante justice garnered from the media’s foundational myth of the “Old West”. Perhaps it’s this simultaneous desire to see a mystery solved and a perpetrator brought to justice by a lone lawman that has brought about things like the noir genre, and that speaks to something about who we are as a people. Just go and ask Odo. I think this same desire for a certain kind of disclosure is part of what fuels the appeal of conspiracy theories and conspiratorial thinking, the corollary of which is the romanticization and mystification of the intelligence community. I find it very satisfying that this selfsame episode introduces us to the Obsidian Order through Julian Bashir, possibly the second-biggest truth-seeker and mystery buff on Deep Space 9.
But the biggest mystery of all is of course Garak. The question of “Who Is Elim Garak?” (whoops, guess I spoiled a major plot point. Oh well) is a complicated one. But then again, so is the question of who any one of us are. Personal identity theory is more than just the continuity of consciousness in an android body. Let’s, for the moment, set aside the persistence of the self problem, and you go ahead and make of consciousness whatever you will. Are we, could it be argued, the sum total of our life experiences, and thus not only shaped by them but reducible to them? Perhaps on one metaphorical level each of us are nothing more than an amalgamation of events and interactions with other people. This is, after all, how we will all be remembered someday. There is no hidden platonic “real” you because a part of you behaves a certain way in social situations, and it’s by those facets you display in interactions through which you will be defined in the eyes of society. I never got far enough in philosophy to say with confidence if there’s a name for that theory, apart from perhaps “anti-solipsism”. Or maybe, post-structuralist reading writ large. Whatever the case may be, when we’re talking about fictional characters perhaps it could be argued this is literally who they are.
The identity and personhood of characters are intrinsically bound up with the stories that are told about them. Who they are to us is defined by how they behave in the snapshots of their lives we see and read, coloured by our own interpretations and perspectives, and perhaps what we need them to be at that particular stage in our own lives. Garak knows this better than most characters: From the beginning, his relationship with Doctor Bashir has been governed by particularly camp performative artifice. Garak constantly teases, misdirects and misleads because he knows Julian loves it, because Julian can’t resist a mystery or an adventure. And so do we: Garak seems to be somehow aware of the irresistible aura of mystery that surrounds him and enjoys playing it up with wild abandon. He sided with the Good Guys against Gul Dukat in “Cardassians”, only to seemingly do a face heel turn in “Profit and Loss” by striking against the Cardassian Underground….Except that technically put him on the same side as Odo, who was at first ready to comply with the Provisional Government’s request to extradite Natima Lang and her allies. And in the end, he helps them escape. Just like he possibly did to all those Bajoran kids during the occupation.
“The Wire” is what happens when Garak’s innate understanding of the fourth wall goes out of control and meta. The options Garak gives us with which to choose his past, and thus choose how we will perceive him, say just as much about us depending on how we decide to react to them. Depending on the mask, Garak is either a loyal fascist Cardassian soldier wracked by guilt over his perceived inability to carry out his duty, a hero who saved the lives of a group of innocent Bajorans, betraying his charge and position in the process, or an opportunist who, while no less heroic in his actions to save Bajoran victims of the occupation, did so by selling out his best friend. In each and every possible case, however, the key reaction is Doctor Bashir’s, not Garak’s: Julian forgives him at every turn, but what is he actually forgiving? Is Julian forgiving an amoral soldier’s momentary lapse regardless of circumstance, or is he healing a someone who perceives themselves as a failure and a turncoat by showing him he did the good and just thing in the end? Either way Julian is a healer; someone who is himself charged with preserving and protecting life.
But which option will prove the best for us and our own future? Well, maybe there’s truth and righteousness no matter which one we choose. Maybe we don’t have to choose.
“My dear Doctor, they’re all true.”
“Even the lies?”
“Especially the lies.”
Indeed. Because what can be more true than fiction, which is the very framework we construct to understand our lives and the world around us? All received knowledge comes to us through some form of story. Since ancient times oral history and oral tradition used mythopoea to symbolize the origin and machinations of the universe. Science constructs facts based on observation and inference that translates localized knowledge into the language of western academia. And history takes the form of a narrative woven by invested parties. All of Garak’s stories about his secret origin and backstory are true, because there is some quantum reality where each of them are true. And like any great fictional character, the origin we pick for him is the one that tells the best story at any given time; the one we need to hear now. Like Odo and Dax, Garak is a mutable being aware of his mutability who chooses the way he presents that is the most advantageous for the current moment.
The fact of the matter is, no matter who Garak was or is and no matter what he may or may not have done, his friendship with Julian always exists in the present moment. Together they’re always looking forward. During Garak’s mental breakdown, Julian constantly casually brushes off cutting, hurtful words that would have spelled the end of any relationship that wasn’t as unbreakable and intractable as this. And so this becomes Garak’s biggest and greatest performance of all: Through his constant rewriting of his own history, he forces Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to confront and remember its utopian roots. He forces empathy and forgiveness while at the same time spurring action. It doesn’t actually matter who Garak “really” is, and it would be wise of the show never to tell us. Indeed, maybe there is no “real” Garak and he’s simply whoever and whatever we need him to be right now. All that matters is presence and memory. And progress.