Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Codes and Codices

I'm back in Israel. I apologize for the inactivity of the past couple of weeks, the result of various pressures and technical problems. Hopefully, the next few days will make up for that.

There is, today, a large body of popular fiction that tries to inject the excitement of the thriller into academic bibliography. I think it really began with Umberto Eco's brilliant novel, Foucault's Pendulum. (By the way, I saw a Foucault's Pendulum this week!) But it only really took off in the wake of the Da Vinci Code.

I think that by now it is possible to draw some conclusions about this genre. I want to comment on one, as a warning to others. My impression is that many of these books (or movies) stem from a desire on the part of the author, and perhaps the audience, to connect their learning and interest in the academic endeavour with things that are "really exciting".

And here lies the crux of the problem. What practical relevance can philological arcana ever have? Or, to put it differently, how can anyone get fabulously rich by being a scholar?

There are some easy solutions. One is the supernatural - knowledge matters because really, things are not as they seem. In Eco's book, he plays with this solution, flirts with it, but never lets it take over. Sometimes, even full-blown occultism can be weaved in with elegance. In less skilled hands, the supernatural solution is silly and off-putting.

The second is even less imaginative. It's all about money. What kind of money can book knowledge bring? Hidden treasure, of course. Duh. Though this tack also can be followed with elegance.

The third approach is most interesting, and it is really what Foucault's Pendulum is all about. The power that knowledge, or the belief that there is hidden knowledge out there, has over real lives. The Da Vinci Code attempted this, and certainly hit a nerve. But the story wasn't compelling enough, the mystery wasn't convincing enough.

But some of the books I have read recently fumble this one as well. Lev Grossman's Codex, for instance, runs into the ground with a contrived, boring family scandal. A few weeks ago I read Leslie Silbert's Elizabethan novel, the Intelligencer. Even after finishing the book, and puzzling over it for several days, I couldn't work out the criminal motivation driving the story. I think he wants the jade dragon. I don't know why. I don't really care.

[Update: This point is the utter downfall of The Third Translation. It gets off to a very promising start. But when the tension has risen to a climax, the possibility of arcane scholarship uncovering something new, powerful, exciting, of ancient texts being as true as they purport to be seems tangible - the author gives up. He just drops everything where it was and leaves.]

I enjoyed reading most of these books (though by no means all of them). I like reading about books. And, as I tried to suggest here, I think there is great potential in exploring the ways in which investigation of the past can influence the present. But it demands a little more imagination.


Blogger Phillip Minden said...

You really found the Pendulum brilliant?

I had read The Name of the Rose (yes, before the film) and liked it. Then, I read the Pendulum and it went on my nerves. I don't know if it plays a role that I was 15 years older, or if it is only Eco's terrible showing-off and the lack of story line.

6:30 PM  
Blogger manuscriptboy said...

I read it several years ago, and yes, at the time I found it brilliant. I suspect that, were I to read it again today, I would not be as impressed. I didn't enjoy The Island of the Day Before as much as I had hoped to. Baudolino was fun, but a little pointless. I just bought his latest novel (which is illustrated, by the way) but have not had a chance to open it yet.

9:40 PM  
Blogger Phillip Minden said...

The plot (exposition) sounded interesting enough to give him another chance. I haven't bought or read it yet.

11:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As Lia, I can't resist. The Name of the Rose is obviously the best one, but Baudolino is equally exciting and emotional, and I actually felt sad to finish it. I wouldn't describe Foucault's Pendulum as showing off, because I just don't think that's what Eco's about, but I definitely read through the first 400 pages kind of fast just to get to the last 100, which I knew would be great, and which were. They were incredible and brilliant (and I only read it last year). The Island of the Day Before is not as good as the others, but it definitely has depth and some terrific writing.
I think Eco makes the Middle Ages, and all sorts of esoteric issues and ideas, come alive in a way no one else I've encountered - author or otherwise - has been able to do for me. Also, he's a guy a Semiotics professor (I haven't read his theroy yet but I hear it's fantastic) who translates all this obscure knowledge into real human stories (and being made up doesn't make them any less real). He never gets lost in theory.
The guy is practically my hero.

1:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don DeLillo's novel "The Names" was published quite a bit before Eco's and is quite different but involves a paleographer in Greece who needs to figure out certain paleographic puzzles in order to solve/prevent murders. Lot of stuff about the inscrutability of reference and the underdetermination of interpetation.

9:14 PM  

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