June 23, 2004

Three versions of da Vinci

Zack Ajmal of Procrastination liked Dan Brown's book, The Da Vinci Code, which reminds me that I've been doing a bit of procrastinating myself -- I started the book a while ago, but put it aside. My objections to it had little to do with its religious content; rather, it was the unorthodox means by which the detective investigates the murder that occurs in the first or second chapter. I think this is a literary device, but it's not especially a good one. When the detective brings someone who certainly would be a murder suspect to the crime scene, allowing him to see the disposition of the body, all the evidence, and what not, and asks his help in solving the crime, it seemed too much of a stretch to me.

Zack finds the controversy over the book curious -- so do I, although I suspect it probably has something to do with Brown's clumsiness as an author: his insistence, on the opening page, that the framework of his fiction is fact. Jorge Luis Borges created what I think may well be one of the most innovative heresies ever in a short story entitled "Three Versions of Judas," which can be found in a few of the anthologies of his stories (I prefer the translation in Labyrinths, only because it was the first I read). The piece reads more like a scholarly article than a short story -- and Borges approaches his subject matter with a detachment that makes the reader far more receptive to the ideas of Nils Runeberg, and all the horror they entail. By contrast, Brown's assertion that his fiction is something other than a fiction invites some fact checking, although I imagine the book's controversy hasn't hurt sales too much.

The plethora of books challenging Brown are probably as much a function of economics as theology -- there seems to be a market for them. Add in the fact that there's nothing especially novel about Brown's take on Christian theology -- Umberto Eco's magisterial Foucault's Pendulum covers much the same ground, although with a good deal more skepticism -- and one can conclude that such books aren't particularly difficult to produce. Nevertheless, it's gratifying to see the vigor of the debate sparked by Brown's book, and one of these days I'll have to finish reading it.

Posted by Ideofact at June 23, 2004 11:11 PM

The detective's strange investigative technique bothered me as well. It doesn't work very well in the context of the story. I can think of a couple of ways it could be made believable, but would still be quite unorthodox.

Posted by: Zack at June 24, 2004 01:29 AM

The controversy surrounds his outrageous claims that the book isn't a fiction but a real historical work.
Further, Brown makes outrageous mistakes on simple facts. It's really dumb, boring, reguritated pulp fiction. Eco's book on Focucault's pendulum was a well written satire on the whole deep tinfoil hat conspiracy genre.
Supposedly his next book will be on the Masons.
In any case, Brown's books reminds me of Hanna Ardent's sardonic comment that 19th century historgraphy was obsessed with the backstairs of history with Jesuits, freemasons, Jews and other manipulating history from anonymous rooms in the back alleys of big cities.

Posted by: xavier at June 24, 2004 07:45 PM

Zack --

I'm glad I'm not the only one who found Brown's technique offputting. Eco toys with the detective genre in both Name of the Rose (the detective monk is William of Baskerville) and Foucault's Pendulum (the narrator describes himself as a Sam Spade of culture), and I assumed that Brown would adhred to the conventions of the detective story as well. It was really offputting. I'll still get around to reading it though.

Xavier --
That's a great quote from Arendt -- for a while, I spent a fair amount of time digging through that sort of book (it extended beyond the 19th Century; see, for example, Nesta Webster, who wrote in the mid-1920s that while the Protocols may be a forgery, they describe a conspiracy that's all too real). I think one of the best passages in Foucault's Pendulum is the one in which Casuabon describes himself as a sanitarium doctor, viewing his patients' manias with indulgent bemusement, who ends up a patient himself.

Posted by: Bill at June 25, 2004 01:32 AM

Eco's is the ultimate anodyne for the silliness, but before him I read quite a lot of rosicrucian/neognostic/kabbalistic nuttiness and speculation, including the interesting "Fingerprints of the Gods" subgenere and the just plain whack Robert Anton Wilson novels.

My own dislike of Brown's book is that it has otherwise reasonable people, who never before braved those nutty halls I once explored, suddenly spouting as new-found ah-ha's some amazingly sloppy rehashings of the pseudo-history that is grist for that crazy old mill. Because they haven't heard it all before, it seems like New Truth, and yet compared to all the "Truth" floating in the backwaters of Illuminoidia, it's pretty cheap stuff indeed. Those who know me as a Bible scholar ask me questions, and I must admit it exhausts me trying to find a place to start that won't lead to too long and ridiculous a journy for all parties.

You want a real-life, no-nuttiness-added example of centuries-long religious censorship, try the more mundane (yet still wonderfully fascinating) Michael Servetus on for size.

Posted by: Mac at June 29, 2004 01:34 AM