There’s this Book I’m Reading, episode 7

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Da Vinci CodeA number of years back, I read something in the newspaper that has stuck with me ever since then. Unfortunately, I don’t remember when or exactly where I saw it, so I can’t properly cite it. I don’t even remember whether it was a review or an opinion piece or a column, but it was about The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. It began by quoting the opening sentence of George Orwell’s 1984, “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Although there’s nothing unrealistic or fantastical about the idea of a clock that doesn’t start over at twelve, it’s just jarring enough to alert the reader to the fact that the story isn’t set in the real world. George Orwell is introducing a fictional reality. It isn’t characterized by magic and mythical creatures, but they count hours slightly differently than we do, so we are aware from the outset that there is a disconnect between the book and the real world. As the book progresses and the reader gradually learns about the historical events that were made up for the book, the reader remains conscious that those facts are part of the story. The Da Vinci Code, the newspaper writer said, lacks this subtle acknowledgement that it’s not based in reality. And unfortunately, the result is that many people believe the alternative historical facts that were made up for the book. My teenage self found this point to very profound even though I hadn’t read either 1984 or The Da Vinci Code at that point. But I remembered that statement last winter when I did read 1984 and again this autumn when I did read The Da Vinci Code. And I still think that it’s a significant point.

OrwellIt seems to me that Orwell’s 1984 is actually considerably less fanciful than The Da Vinci Code. The historical facts that Orwell fabricated were, from his perspective, near future. The historical facts that Brown invented are distant past.  As I indicated in this blog post from last year, I think that Orwell’s imagined version of the 1980s was a fairly realistic possibility of the direction that the late twentieth century could have taken. When it comes to Dan Brown’s fabricated history, it doesn’t matter whether or not his facts are realistic because he wasn’t guessing about the future; he was writing about own version of historical events that have already happened.

I really enjoyed reading The Da Vinci Code.  Both as a recreational reader and as someone with a degree in English, I thought it was interesting and well-written. The plot is exciting and engaging, the characters are believable and likable, and there are a number of interesting themes and motifs. An additional appealing factor is that it involves historical details from a variety of time periods, which gives it the tone of a time-travel story even though most of the novel takes place in a single night. It’s highly intellectual for a sensational bestseller, and it’s very fast-paced and eventful for a novel that is essentially about historical research. Not only is it a gripping page-turner, but it raises the kinds of intellectual questions that leave you thinking long after you finish the book. What is the relationship between a symbol and a symbolized idea? If a symbol needs to be decoded, does that make it more meaningful or less meaningful? When it comes to ancient artifacts, is it more important to preserve something or to bring public awareness to it? What is it about human nature that makes us believe that secrets are meant to be discovered and revealed, and is that an impulse that should be followed? From an academic perspective, is it more important to debunk mistaken beliefs or to allow the continuation of a historically rich religious tradition?

But this book has raised other issues that aren’t about the questions and experiences of the characters, but rather about the relationship between the author and the reader. Dan Brown’s goal was to create a fascinating story with religious themes, and in that, he succeeded. It seems to me that he also was deliberately expressing his distaste for religion in general and Christian beliefs in particular. He succeeded in that, too. In the process of writing a novel that has sensational appeal, raises the intellectual and academic questions that he wants to bring to readers’ minds, and expresses his negative views of Christian theology, he alters historical facts. This is something that fiction writers do all the time to make a point or to tell a good story. Historical fiction often tends to be wildly inaccurate because the writer is not only trying to bring history to life, but also to tell a story that is interesting and original. Since readers know that fiction is, by definition, made up by the author, it isn’t necessarily immoral for an author to alter historical facts in order to tell the story that he or she wants to tell. But does the author have a responsibility to make sure that the readers know which facts are made up? Is it immoral for the author to put fabricated details into the mouths of academically respected characters? Is it wrong for the author to write about altered versions of actual people and organizations?

booksIn general, I’d have to say that the answer to the above questions is no. An author who writes a fictional story shouldn’t have to be responsible for ensuring that readers don’t accidentally believe that the story is true. If it’s okay for Margaret Mitchell to tell us that there was a woman named Scarlett O’Hara who lived in Georgia during the Civil War, if it’s okay for people like Thomas Malory and T.H. White to tell us stories about a medieval king named Arthur, if it’s okay for the BBC to tell us that there’s a man from the planet Gallifrey who travels through space and time in a blue box, then it should be okay for Dan Brown to tell us that there was a man in first-century Judea named Jesus who was married to a woman named Mary Magdalene and that religious leaders have since then gone out of their way to keep this union a secret.

But there are a couple things that make the situation regarding The Da Vinci Code a little different. One is that Jesus wasn’t just any historical figure; he is the basis of a large religious tradition that Dan Brown is undermining and discrediting when he makes up stories about Jesus that he hopes readers will believe to some extent. I gather that Dan Brown himself is not a Christian and that he doesn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, so from his own perspective, it’s no more heretical and immoral to fictionalize Jesus than it is to fictionalize any other historical person. But even if we are to take this issue from Dan Brown’s point of view and leave Jesus’ divinity out of the debate, it seems to me that it’s still awfully irreverent and insulting to write a story that knowingly and deliberately contradicts other people’s faith while presenting the fabricated details in a way that attempts to persuade readers of their legitimacy. I know that Dan Brown himself has said that The Da Vinci Code is just a story, but he makes all of his characters academic experts and cites imaginary sources that sound real.

That brings me to the other problem, which is that Dan Brown tries too hard to hide his imaginative hand in his version of Jesus. Sure, any intelligent and discerning reader knows not to believe everything that he or she reads in a novel, even if it involves a real person, but people are going to have a harder time distinguishing fabricated facts from actually true background information when both kinds of details come from the mouth of characters who are described as leading experts in their fields. It’s not unreasonable for readers to subconsciously assume that, when a fictional expert states a historical fact, that the author has done research and verified the truth of that fact. When Leigh Teabing, a fictional scholar in ancient documents concerning Jesus, claims that there are 80 extracanonical gospels and implies that they are consistent with each other, it’s only natural that many readers will take it for granted that this is true, when in fact Dan Brown exaggerated the number to make his point seem sensible, and that the extracanonical gospels are not at all in unity with each other. When Robert Langdon, a fictional authority in the field of symbols, interprets almost everything as a symbol of the sacred feminine, it’s only natural that many readers will take it for granted that it’s true that a surprisingly large amount of famous artwork and literature contains hidden allusions to Mary Magdalene and/or pagan goddesses and/or a vaguely theistic concept of femininity itself. When a prose passage that is evidently Robert Langdon’s train of thought says that the word “Jehovah” is a blend of the Hebrew words for the sacred feminine and for the Hebrew male God “YHWH”, it’s only natural that many readers will think that’s true and totally forget that “Jehovah” is a Latinized spelling of “YHWH”, not a combination of another name with “YHWH”. (That one struck me as being particularly absurd. The worship of YHWH did not involve the belief in the existence of a corresponding goddess or an abstract divinely female entity, and if there was such a female divine being, her name wouldn’t have begun with the letter J or a Hebrew equivalent of it, because there was no Hebrew equivalent of the letter J.)

Fabricating JesusIt would be an interesting project to go through the book and meticulously factcheck each piece of information that is presented as a nonfictional fact. It wouldn’t surprise me if some authors have actually done so, since I know that The Da Vinci Code has sparked a phenomenal amount of discussion. I do know of one book that dedicates a fair amount of time and space to explaining where Dan Brown got his ideas. (The book is Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels by Craig A. Evans, and I would recommend it. Although it isn’t absolutely unbiased, it’s less biased than most for-the-general-public books on the topic. He isn’t deliberately making up sensational theories for the sake of making a name for himself, which is what some of the “modern scholars” who he mentions have done.) Interestingly enough, not all of Dan Brown’s made-up facts are actually original. It seems that he did do at least a little research on some of the most extreme ideas that historians have suggested about Jesus and the early church. Evans lists some of the fabricated facts that Dan Brown uses and points out the lack of credibility in those sources. In theory, as a fiction writer, Dan Brown has the prerogative to pick a few radical and bizarre theories and create a story in which they are true. But this makes his misinformation particularly insidious, because it gives him the ability to frame his imaginary facts in a scholarly context.

Admittedly, there’s a very fine line between making up facts to tell an interesting story and making up facts that fool readers, and it has more to do with the readers’ perception than the author’s intention. But I do think that Dan Brown went too far. I lost count of how many times while I was reading The Da Vinci Code that I suddenly realized that it was responsible for the spread of a blatantly untrue fact that I’ve heard people say time and time again. (For instance, it’s absolutely false that the gnostic gospels were favorable towards women and were hidden by the Roman Catholic church because the popes were sexist. The four gnostic gospels that I have read are far, far more sexist than anything in the Bible.) People don’t even need to have read The Da Vinci Code themselves to have heard and repeated these falsehoods. Then these things get passed around as fun facts or as ammunition against Christianity, and few people are going to feel the need to look them up and see if they’re accurate.

The problem here isn’t the fact that someone wrote a book that isn’t historically accurate. The problem is that our culture enjoys debunking Christianity so much that there are people who are willing to believe anything they read in a fictional book that backs up their arguments, even if they are otherwise intelligent people wouldn’t take that approach to any other topic. Although I am suspicious of Dan Brown’s motives in writing such a book, I certainly wouldn’t argue for censoring his work because of the factual liberties that he takes. But I do think that the general reader population ought to keep in mind that Dan Brown is not a theological expert or a historical expert, that his religious-themed writings are fictional, and that his version of Jesus is not the Jesus who actually existed and who is the foundation of Christianity.

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There’s this book I’m reading, episode 4

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1984I started reading 1984 by George Orwell a while ago, and I had intended all along to write a blog post about it. Now I’ve finished the book and am reading other things, but I decided to write about it now anyway. 1984 is considered a quintessential Cold War- inspired dystopian novel. That may sound oddly specific, but it really isn’t, because dystopian novels are particularly associated with the Cold War era. As I read the book, I could definitely see why it was such an influential book. My senior seminar paper last semester required me to have a working knowledge of the ideas and motifs inherent in dystopian literature, and 1984 exemplifies them all.

When it was published in 1949, the Cold War was a new development in world politics, World War II was a recent event, and there wasn’t the kind of technological optimism that characterized 1960s science fiction such as Star Trek. In fact, the novel portrays a world that the author describes as being more primitive than the earlier decades of the twentieth century. The only advanced technology shown in the book are the telescreens, which are basically webcams in the walls. That may have been beyond the scope of 1949 technology, but Orwell was being realistic in his assumption that it was technologically feasible in the near future.  This future society that Orwell imagines has degenerated because it has fallen prey to an enforced communism, which he evidently intends for readers to equate with Nazism and Russian socialism. (Not that the Nazis were communists; the parallel there is the military rule and brutality.)

I find Orwell’s predictions to be impressively accurate. Of course, the world had not degenerated into a communist dystopia by 1984, but I think it probably would have if, as Orwell imagines, the countries of the world had merged into just three nations. That idea is, in my opinion, the only non-feasible element of Orwell’s imagined future. I don’t think there’s any way that such a major change could take place in the space of just a couple decades, but if it did, and especially if such a thing had happened in the early years of the Cold War, things probably would have turned out the way they are in 1984.

The world described in the novel is characterized by inescapable government surveillance, a systematic dumbing down of culture in order to make everything politically correct, and a less-than-luxurious lifestyle enforced by government rationing and regulation. These are all things that many people would argue actually are happening. In many cases, there’s some validity to those arguments, although I personally find it silly that anyone could blame the government for their lack of financial prosperity when we live in a country where the average citizen is ridiculously rich by international standards. I mean, seriously, I don’t have money to spare and am very concerned about it, and my family is poor by the standards of most people who go to my college, but I’ve never had to worry about literally starving to death, which is something that really does happen in the real world. And I own so much clothing that I actually need furniture in my room to keep the stuff I’m not wearing at any given time. Compared to the lifestyles of truly impoverished people, that’s some extreme opulence. But that’s really beside the point. The point is that there’s some truth to the argument that 1984 is just an extreme version of the real world, and the extreme government system in the book is just an exaggeration of the way government inherently works anyway.

OrwellThat’s a pretty superficial reading of the book; Orwell makes it very clear that the novel is a critique of powerful governments and of the motives that lie behind politics. Besides, as my dystopian research from last semester indicated, dystopian literature is almost always a political statement. These kinds of stories complain about the government of the author’s time and place by portraying a future version of that time and place that show what the author imagines will happen if the political situation doesn’t improve. Whether the specific issues being addressed are about the environment, about social issues, about the degree of power the government has, or about war, it’s axiomatically true that a dystopian story will be a commentary on something specific.  You can call that a slippery slope fallacy or you can call it a clever literary device, but it’s definitely the way the genre works. It’s very unlikely that anyone would ever write a good book with the premise, “The world is a really great place now, but in the future, it’s going to be terrible.”

Aside from the dystopian predictions about government, another characteristically postmodern element of 1984, which I found to be an interestingly accurate prediction on Orwell’s part, is the idea that truth is relative. This relates to the political aspects of the government because it is the government who sets these truths. The main character, Winston Smith, works at a job that involves altering records in order to hide the fact that the government changes their mind about things. At one point, Winston and his coworkers have an especially big job because their country has started fighting against the country that was previously their ally, and everyone is required to think that the war has always been against the country that is the current enemy. All references to the war in every speech, piece of propaganda, or news story must therefore be altered. This fact control is so prevalent and so successful that even the people doing the alterations don’t see it as lying or covering up the truth. Everyone believes exactly what the government tells them to believe, no matter how directly it contradicts what they know to be true. Winston Smith is unusual in that he has memories that disagree with the official “truth” and that he believes the government to be capable of and responsible for falsehood.  This is considered to be thoughtcrime and insanity, which leads to my favorite quotation from the book: “Perhaps a lunatic [is] simply a minority of one.”

Another thing in particular that really struck me about this book was the concept of “newspeak”. (It took me a few chapters to realize that the phrase is new-speak, not news-speak) Newspeak is basically a simplified version of English. The language is systematically being made less and less expressive by decreasing the vocabulary. Each edition of the dictionary has fewer words than the previous, and this is generally regarded as being a good thing. Words with synonyms are considered to be superfluous and unnecessary. For example, words such as “great”, “excellent” and “fantastic” can be eliminated because they mean the same thing as “good”, and words such as “bad”, “terrible” and “horrible” can be replaced with “ungood”. The people in charge of editing the dictionary are well aware that they are cutting away at subtle shades of meaning when they make certain words obsolete, but they consider this to be a positive thing because of the resulting simplicity. Their ultimate goal is to cut the entire language down to a single word that has such a generic and widespread meaning that it can be used for absolutely everything. Of course, the government is in charge of all this. The result is that, by simplifying language and controlling people’s ability to communicate, the government is controlling people’s thoughts and preventing them from being intelligent, logical, and capable of understanding anything beyond their monotonous everyday work.

As an English major, I’m very fascinated by the power of language. In fact, “the power of language” is a phrase that comes up very frequently in just about every English class I’ve ever taken. If 1984 is ever studied in any English classes at my college, I’m sure that “the power of language” is one of the main points that the professors expect students to take away from this book. It’s an idea that appeals to English professors and English majors alike because, not only is it a fun motif to look for, but it explains why one would want to study English and literature anyway. Nobody would really deny that words are linked to ideas, but the point being made in books like 1984 is that words are ideas; that freedom and knowledge and capability come through the power of vocabulary. If we spoke a language that only had one word, we could only think one thought. Even though the newspeak of 1984 is a long ways away from its one-word goal, it’s still simplified enough that people’s lives and their minds are simplified and they can be controlled like livestock. But, by speaking a language with a large vocabulary and a variety of different options for ways to express any idea, we have much more control over our own world and our ability think logically and capably.

I don’t think this was the primary point of the book, and in fact I think it contradicts Orwell a little bit because it’s a bit too optimistic, but I definitely think that 1984 could be used to make this point. The fate of humanity doesn’t just rest in the actions of the government and the degree of power that it has. Thought control isn’t an inevitable result of a strong government, and people won’t necessarily fall for the deceit of their leaders just because those leaders are overwhelmingly powerful.   It’s not a small detail that one of the mottos of the government equates themselves with newspeak, and it’s not a coincidence that the book begins with Winston starting to keep a diary in oldspeak. The ability to articulate ideas (whether you say them out loud or write them or just think them in words) is the ability to think ideas and to do things; language is the most powerful tool in existence. In 1984, humanity is defeated because their tool of language is being taken away from them. In real life, we can avoid a dystopian future by hanging on to the tool of language.