Monday, May 15, 2006

da vinci, etc

Look! Who is that right in front of Jesus with soft features and no beard? It must be... Mary Magdalene, the secret wife of Christ whose descendents are the true Holy Grail and whose story has been ruthlessly suppressed by the evil Catholic Church! Jeepers! It's a good thing that Leonardo was a member of the secret Priory of Sion and knew the truth, and could transmit it through a code... Wait... That's not Leonardo's Last Supper, it's a medieval wall painting from the south of France. Oh... So the apostle John was always represented that way? Oh...

I swear, I don't know why The Da Vinci Code gets my goat so much. I mean, I read the damn thing and even enjoyed it after I got over the vapid prose, wild historical errors, and cardboard characters. I'll probably see the movie if I get the chance. Still, when I hear mention of it on a blog (like Steve's or Crystal's), I go on and on about it. Why is that? It's not so much a question of blasphemy or offence to my religion (although it really is insulting to Catholics), rather I think it's offensive to my calling as a historian. Look, we historians work very hard. We read lots and lots of documents, some of them very old and written in dead languages with very difficult scripts, and we are methodologically almost pathologically anal. We realize that history is complex and never easy to explain. The real causes of events are myriad and intangible, the evidence is often spotty and the questions usually outweigh the answers. When we teach history, we want to give our students a coherent story of what happened in the past, fighting in a Sisyphean manner against an accepted narrative based on pop-culture simplifications and vulgar prejudices. The last thing we need is a testacazzo like Dan Brown making things harder for us.

Oh, please do not tell me "it's just a novel." Yes, but Brown places a page at the beginning claiming that certain of the things referred to are "facts." These "facts" include the existence of both the ancient "Priory of Sion" (invented in the 1950's by a fanatical French anti-Semite) and the documents about the "priory" in the French National Library (forged and planted there by the aforesaid anti-Semite). This sets the tone for many discursive passages in the book in which characters explain even more "facts" about early Christianity, the Church, art history, etc. Brown makes it obvious that he wants the reader to see his information as based on a real, credible alternative reading of history. Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" is "just a movie," but I'm sure Lee would be upset if we were not to take seriously the many brilliant insights about race and American society he transmits through the film's fictional story. Both works claim a certain seriousness, even if Lee's film is good movie-making and profound social commentary whereas Brown's book, although admittedly a page-turner, is from the literary and historical point of view a pure exemplar of birdie doo-doo.

Perhaps the Catholic in me is slightly annoyed as well. I mean, there is so much to criticize in the Church, why come up to me and spout this drivel in order to get me to change my beliefs? A couple of Christian commentators, being wise and generous, have pointed out that the fact that people get excited by conspiracy theories of this type or look to the gnostic gospels as evidence of some kind of cover-up of "true Christianity" may be due to the fact that what they see as Christianity is disappointing. Perhaps. But it takes very little investigating to see how clearly they are barking up a wrong tree (to see some responsible debunking of the Da Vinci claims, here are two alternatives from the official Catholic and secular perspectives). Maybe my annoyance is primarily that of an academic. Why even try if people will not check with the experts to see if a particular theory holds water? Once again, the triumph of anti-intellectualism. Why read a book on early Christianity by a respected scholar when you can read the Da Vinci Code? Why listen to every responsible scientist in the country about global warming when you can just invite a guy who writes thrillers about dinosaurs to the White House to help formulate your policy?

I'm beginning to get whiney, I'm sorry. I'll shut up now.

One more thing: a moment of silence for one of our oldest poets, Stanley Kunitz who died this weekend at age 100. Flights of angels, Stanley.

PS: Speaking of loss and scholars, one of the great historians of Christianity, Jaroslav Pelikan, died this weekend at age 82. Requiescat in pace.

17 comments:

Brian Cubbage said...

Dude, I had no idea that Pelikan passed away. R.I.P. indeed. I love reading him.

As for the Da Vinci Code: I'm annoyed with it, too, so I've simply refused to read it and give Dan Brown any more royalties or, indeed, any more attention. I second your frustrations, which are my frustrations, too. People like Dan Brown make it harder on all of us who feel a calling to educate the public in a careful and responsible way.

Darius said...

I see your point. It would be way more interesting to me, with few if any downsides I think, if it were fiction, clearly billed as that, and referenced what's known historically, so that it had greater plausibility.

As far as trying to do any movie on the historical Jesus, it's going to have to be fiction since we lack any detailed information about Jesus himself that could be called historical - as distinct from the religious beliefs of those who wrote about him. But the more intelligent the fiction, if it refers to real events, the better.

Maybe one upside is that it makes the general public aware that there's such thing as history-based approaches to learning about scripture? I know in my own religious upbringing, I was taught nothing but doctrine.

crystal said...

the triumph of anti-intellectualism

... hee hee :-)

The reason the book/movie bothers me is mostly what you mentioned - that it is historically innaccurate.

This kind of thing is typical of the fictionalization of historical stories ... look at Gladiator (the movie). There was no Maximus, per se. And the gladiator who did kill Commodus, did so while the emp. was sleeping (they think), not in the arena.

Or take Kingdom of Heaven - in the movie, it seems the truce arranged at the end lets everyone go free. But actually, they all had to pay to be let go, and those who didn't have the cash, became slaves.

I think this happens not because the writers want to fool people, but just because it reads better, it's more dramatic, etc. But as someone who cares about history, it is irritating.

Paula said...

Right, anti-intellectualism.Fast books.Fast information.Fast food for brain.

Liam said...

Brian -- yeah, I was very bummed when I heard about Pelikan. He certainly did seem to get a lot out of a long life, though.

Darius -- you're right about getting people to learn a bit more of the history of the bible. Unfortunately, a lot of people just stop at Dan Brown and learn nothing.

As far as historical fiction about Jesus, I've heard Anne Rice's book is pretty good. Has anyone read it?

Crystal -- I don't have too much against fiction distorting history (I'd have a problem with Shakespeare if I did), especially if it results in good art. People, however, should know the difference.

Paula -- I don't have a problem with all frivolous entertainment. I love a good adventure movie. But you're right about fast information. There's too much fast information in the world right now, people should learn how to slow down and think about it.

Talmida said...

That's it!! That's it! Anti-intellectualism!!

I thought the DVC book was a hoot (as was Angels & Demons). I loved it. But was pretty pissed off when I started looking things up (which I always do) and finding out that they were false.

I love historical novels -- it's a great way to pick up bits of history without working too hard at it. They always send me to the net or hte library to follow up on questions that catch my interest. I don't expect movies to be accurate (was the stirrup even invented at the time of Gladiator? No stirrup, no cavalry), but I do expect books to have a basic framework of truth upon which they hang their tale.

DVC doesn't offend my catholicism -- please! the church has done enought outrageous things on its own without making up any more. It offends my desire for knowledge. It bothered me that I couldn't trust ANYTHING -- there was no learning for me at all in the book.

And all books should have some learning in them, some meat, even if its only that Lord Peter thinks that sherry is the best drink to have with cigarettes, or that mosquito DNA survives in amber. DVC has nothing.

I'll probably go see the movie too -- and of course I'll have to re-read the book before I do!

:)

P.S. If you liked the art puzzle in DVC, you ought to check out Landscape of Lies by Peter Watson -- make sure to get a copy with the painting on the cover. :)

Liam said...

Thanks, Talmida, that looks fun.

I enjoy books like this. I liked "Rule of Four", for example. I loved "The National Treasure" movies. I probably would have enjoyed DVC a lot more if the tone wasn't so didactic. Still, Dan Brown was smart -- he knew how to get rich stirring up controversy.

Jeff said...

Jaroslav Pelikan passed away? He was a class act. Another class act who recently passed away (with too little fanfare, IMO) was John Kenneth Galbraith.

Liam said...

Jeff, I agree with you on both accounts.

Matthew said...

Liam, I'm trying to grab your atom.xml feed, and it's giving me an error. Do you have your blog set up to use some other sort of syndication?

Liam said...

Matthew, I have to confess my technical ignorance. I really don't know what an atom.xml feed is. If my blog is set up for any kind of syndication, I didn't do it.

If you explain to me how to investigate, I could try to check it out.

Gabriele C. said...

There was cavalry without stirrups; it's just a slightly different riding technique and a horned saddle. You don't need stirrups for light cavalry like archers, javelin throwers and even sword fighters, though having done the latter myself, stirrups make it easier. You needed them for the Mediaeval heavy cavalry, the use of the lance.

The exact history of the stirrup is a bit murky, maybe it was invented by nomadic Turk tribes in northern China. The Alans (a Sarmatic tribe) and probably also the Huns had them, and the Goths adopted them after their contact with the Alans. The Romans had almost no cavalry of their own except their equites who were a rank rather than a military designation and served as officers (they were mounted, though). The Romans employed cavalry auxiliary and mercenary troops. I've done some research on the auxiliaries at the time of Hadrian; he got cavalry from fe. Gaul; Iberia (the Vardulli cohort in my novel) and Numidia. Those was mostly light cavalry, mounted archers, scouts and such.

In the late Empire more heavy cavalry was employed, a lot of Gothic troops among them who fought mostly with the spatha, the longsword. But even then the Romans didn't adopt the general use of the stirrup. The Sarmatians had stirrups, but since their role in 2nd century Britian was temporary (contrary to a certain 'History based' movie), the Sarmatian heavy cavarly was too special to have influenced the Romans.

Thus, no stirrups at the time of Commodus, but cavalry.


I blame movies more than books because books have - a bestseller like da Vinci Code aside - less impact. To call King Arthur for the 'historical Arthur' deserves the director and scriptwriter to be flogged, good Roman style. And don't get me started on that Braveheart mess which has formed a wrong image of Scottish history in way too many minds.

That said, badly researched books end up against the wall, and the author on the Never Buy Again-list.

crystal said...

Liam, I liked National Treasure too.

Gabriele, tell me about Braveheart and where it was wrong. I know the part where it implied Wallace was the real father of Ed II was wrong ... Wallace died years befoe Ed was born ... but where else did it err?

Yikes! We're like those nerds from the X-Files (the Lone Gunmen) who would sit arounf the tv, picking out the technical flaws of the latest science fiction series ;-)

Steve Bogner said...

Anti-intellectualism!? Good one; spot-on!

Gabriele C. said...

Crystal,
everywhere. The blue faces, the kilts, the patriotism that is 21st century American not 14th century Scottish, the black-and-white painting of the English-Scottish relations (the English kings had some feudal rights in Scotland), the lack of distinction between different political groups in Scotland ...

If they had sold Braveheart as action movie set in Mediaeval Scotland, I'd be fine with it, but no, they had to claim it to be history. Same with that King Arthur flick. I wonder if it's a marketing trick.

crystal said...

hey, I liked the woad faces best of all - now I'm disallusioned :-(

Gabriele C. said...

Some British tribes at the time of the Romans may have painted their faces and bodies blue, but even that isn't proven for sure. We have some odd references to the name of the Picts as painted people and there's a discussion whether that refers to paint or tattoos. My Picts have a few tattoos though not all over the body, and they may paint their faces to avoid being seen creeping around the wrong side of the Roman border defenses in the darkness, but they don't necessarily use woad; ashes, earth and grass do a pretty good job as well.