Monday, July 12, 2004

Stories of conspiracy and paranoia

Foucault's Pendulum, The DaVinci Code, Jonathan Rabb's execrable novel titled The Book of Q, Three Days of the Condor, Conspiracy Theory, Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Fahrenheit 911, Late Great Planet Earth, and its descendant Left Behind, Pinky and the Brain.

The paragraph above is a mixed bag of great fiction, crackpot theories, movies and books, and several works that purport to be nonfiction. Murder mystery, adventure, thriller, "evangelistic" tract and excuse for blaming all the world's problems on one of its tiniest and least-landed minorities.

What they all have in common is that they "reveal" (or portray) a secret society with designs of world domination, with religious overtones (although the nefarious conspiracy is occasionally a political body), and seeing the world through the prism of the work gives the audience a new view of reality, a question that lingers after the work is finished, "What if it's all true?"

The oldest in that group (not at all a systematic collection) is the Protocols, dating from the early 20th century.

I haven't read (seen) all of them, but what I'm getting at is not their quality as works of art or research, but more about what their popularity says about their audience. I've got more questions than answers right now:
  • What is the history of the secret society-conspiracy literature? What would a systematic collection look like?

  • What is the appeal of the secret society, beyond the conflict of the story--that is, why does that specific conflict feel so intensely interesting?

  • Is the interest a function of our large, mobile society? If so, how does the popularity of the Protocols in Egypt and around the Middle East figure (is there an answer beyond the obvious one? is the obvious one a function of something else?)

  • Why are we so willing to believe? A friend saw a sign under The DaVinci Code in Powell's Bookstore: "Even if you don't like the story, read it for the information"(!).

I write this not as someone who is so above the hoi polloi that I've never experienced the appeal, but as someone who has tasted and enjoyed the paranoia. I'm hoping that recording the questions is the first step in getting the answers.

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