Monday, May 22, 2006

Dan Brown... and Leon Uris

I found a bunch of articles talking about The Da Vinci Code, and one of them struck a chord. Over at The National Review website, in his article, The Da Vinci Crisis: Dan Brown's book reveals a crisis of truth in society, Thomas S. Hibbs notes that the influence of Brown's book is so great it has been reported that there are tourists who visit the Louvre who instead of looking at the Mona Lisa, stare at the floor and ask “Is this where the curator was murdered?”

According to Hibbs, this is symptomatic of a larger problem:
Inhabitants of the modern world are increasingly ignorant of the wider world—geography, politics, world religions, and great works of art. But we have the nagging sense that something significant must be at work in history, in religion, and in art. Brown's story fulfills our desire to have things fit together, to have the great events of history, the great religious teachings, and the greatest works of art and architecture woven into an intelligible story.
Ignorance on one hand...the search for easy answers on the other. Mmmmmm--that sounds familiar!

Pretty much sizes up the situation that Israelis, and those who are pro-Israel, find themselves.

Ever notice how hard it is to battle the kind of propaganda that can be summarized in a two-word bumper sticker, like: Free Palestine.

As opposed to the easy emotional pull that pro-Palestinian propagandists have, we seem to be in the position of having to pull out names, dates, and history books--a real disadvantage. What can we possibly come up with that would fit on a bumper sticker?

Other than: Stop The Palestinian Murder of Americans, what else is there?

Maybe what we need is a 'novel' approach.

In 2001, Edward Said wrote:
The main narrative model that dominates American thinking still seems to be Leon Uris's 1950 novel Exodus.
Said was exaggerating, of course, but Exodus was a literary event and more. When it first came out Exodus was a best-seller in hardcover for more than a year and was in the number 1 slot for 19 weeks. In the US alone, it sold as many as 20 million copies. The paperback edition went through 80 printings. It was the biggest best seller since Gone With The Wind. All this is according to Charles Paul Freund in his article, Exodus and Anti-Exodus: The power of literary mythmaking. But Exodus was more than a best-seller:
The work's real impact, however, lay beyond mere literature. For a great many people, the plot of the novel—and of the even more popular 1960 film—became the popular template for understanding the Mideast, especially issues involving the unending Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Uris popularized Israel as a place of righteous refuge, solidifying a link between the Holocaust and Israel that is actually a matter of contention among Israel's own historians and intellectuals. This is not to say that his story was false; the refuge narrative is at least one valid Israeli theme. But Uris helped make it the primary such narrative, characterizing critics of Israeli policy in terms of that story, and setting the terms of debate for decades.

For example, academic Melani McAlister, in a recent analysis of the relationship between American culture and U.S. Mideast policy, argues that when the novel came out, "most Americans still knew little about Zionism or Israel," and that the Uris story was "a foreshadowing of what Israel was to come to mean to Americans."
Exodus is a story based on historical fact; The Da Vinci Code is a story that has been shown to be based on fabrications of a 20th century Anti-Semite. So, not surprisingly, Uris was able to accomplish something far beyond what Brown has done. Besides building up while Brown has torn down, Exodus was a creative force that inspired and gave meaning. It countered ignorance not by providing easy answers but by providing a goal and an image to look up to--both for Israelis as well as the West.

Of course images and myths have a tendency to dissipate over time. In the case of Exodus, Freund believes that the image created--which granted was greater than life--was diluted in part by the Post Zionist revisionists. Then again, in a way no one could have anticipated, Arafat was able to grab the world's attention and was one of the forces that created the mythos of the Palestinian people and homeland.

It is unlikely that there will be a book like Exodus in our future. But Israel still needs a narrative, a self-image which it has lost and has left it wandering--almost aimlessly--perhaps since the Yom Kippur War.

In writing about The Da Vinci Code, Hibbs wrote:
Brown's story fulfills our desire to have things fit together, to have the great events of history, the great religious teachings, and the greatest works of art and architecture woven into an intelligible story.
Today Jews and Israelis need no less--for our history and our Judaism to be re-energized and our sense of self re-awakened, for everything to fit together.

We surely cannot continue stumbling on indefinitely as we are now.

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