Friday, May 19, 2006

Da Vinci Code History

A smart perspective on the Da Vinci Code.

I'm reminded of my experience reading Caesar's Women, part of Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series. On the one hand, I can't recommend it as either fiction or literature. On the other, I can't say there is anything egregiously ahistorical about the book, unlike Dan Brown's Da Vinci code, at least according to Elizabeth's critique.

One of the things that bothered me in the Caesar's Women was that she rearranged some of Cicero's speeches during the first Catilinarian conspiracy. As I recall, she defended her logic by arguing that the dramatic effect of portraying the speeches differently helped the reader understand the history better than had they been portrayed in the same order as given by the sources. It struck me as a bit of authorial malpractice. If she cannot articulate the drama in the manner historical fact requires, then perhaps she does not understand the drama. Put another way, if the only a way a person can make sense of a story is by changing it, then perhaps they are not competent to make sense of the story.

While I don't think what McCullough did openly (she articulated her reasons in the forward, if I recall correctly) is quite as bad as what Dan Brown has apparently done, a similar criticism can be applied to Brown. If the only way he can make sense of God is to rewrite the story of His only Son, perhaps he isn't competent to be discussing God.

The other thing that bothered about McCullough was the book's lack of moral imagination. Although she seemed to accurately detail the events in the years just after Caesar's return from his questorship in Spain, I have a hard time believing that the atmosphere of Rome in the time period of her novel was quite so precisely analogous to the atmosphere of a telenovela. All of the heroes were handsome; all the villains physically ugly. The morals that she favored were the victorious morals; those she disdained were those of the losers. Virtue was virtue by virtue of it's might; vice was vice by virtue it's unpopularity. It is though she were a new girl at high school who tried to attach herself to cool crowd by praising them in her journal.

This to me was at least shallow history, if not ahistorical in itself. It is not to say that her book was wrong, just much smaller than the subject to the point the subject itself is misrepresented. Whatever Rome was in the last days of it's republic, a high school it was not.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

It sounds like McCullough was borrowing a trick from film - recreating speeches for dramatic effect. Whether or not that's acceptable in film is a separate question, but, presuming it is, I don't think dramatic effects that are acceptable in film are automatically then made acceptable in literature. The two media are entirely different.

We expect writing to be accurate, in fact the entire development of the English language is an evolution toward greater and greater accuracy - hence linguists call English as "the language of negotiation." (By contrast, linguists call Spanish the language of song, French the language of love, German the language of analysis and Italian the language of poetry.)

I believe this cultural expectation of accuracy and truth in writing - or at the least a monumental attempt toward achieving truth - requires us as writers to live up to a higher standard than that either Brown or McCullough espoused in their books.