An excerpt from Secrets of Inferno


Just a decade ago, it seemed that you couldn’t get on an air- plane or a subway or sit in a café without seeing someone (more likely a number of people) reading Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. It was at the top of the New York Times bestseller list and on its way to becoming one of the bestselling books of all time. We were intrigued and curious ourselves. How much in Da Vinci Code was fact? How much was fiction? Which parts were which?

The more we explored and read the background materials— the same books, artworks, legends, and esoterica that Dan Brown had pored over in the course of creating his story—the more we found our family and friends interested in what we were learning. At a holiday party in 2003, we inquired of the head buyer for Barnes & Noble if she thought there would be a market for a book that would analyze fact and fiction in The Da Vinci Code. On the spot, she offered to buy 50,000 copies for her stores.

Armed with that enthusiastic support, we decided to put together an unauthorized companion book that would pursue what seemed to us a set of provocative and important issues raised by The Da Vinci Code (or DVC as we call it). We didn’t want the book to be just our opinions. So we sought out world-class experts in every area of knowledge touched by Dan Brown’s mega selling book—theology, history, art, codes, the historical Jesus and the historical Mary Magdalene, the real-life Gnostics, Leonardo da Vinci, architecture, science, mathematics, the Knights Templar, the Vatican and the Papacy, the so-called Priory of Sion—to help us.

We fully understood that DVC was a work of fiction and of pop culture. We disregarded Dan Brown’s preamble asserting that, “all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” (He continues to put similar statements at the front of all his books, including Inferno, the most recent: “All artwork, literature, science, and historical references in this novel are real”). We understood that he had braided strands of fact and fiction into an incredible adventure tale that took Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu through Paris, London, and points beyond, at a whirlwind pace. Along the way, while keeping readers turning every page and eager to go on reading into the night past every short, cliffhanging chapter to the next one, Brown had managed to work in a stunning collection of intriguing bits of religion, art, history, and culture. This was a great late night suspense story and a great beach/poolside read.

Yet we saw it as much more than that. The book caused many people to think, argue, and debate. It drove readers into bookstores and to the Web. In the middle of our increasingly vulgar and dumbed-down pop culture, here was a book that made people hungry to know more and even to go out and find answers for themselves in response to the questions that nagged at them when they closed the book.

Our book, Secrets of the Code, ended up as a mega bestseller in its own right. It was translated into more than thirty languages, sold several million copies, and showed up on bestseller lists all over the world, from the New York Times to Le Monde. Over the years that followed, we did similar unauthorized guidebooks to Dan Brown’s other novels, including Angels & Demons (A&D), The Lost Symbol (TLS), and now, Inferno. We also branched out and did guidebooks to other pop culture phenomena, including other novelists (Stieg Larsson) and TV shows (24).

What we have learned from a decade of doing these books is that works of pop culture are great ecosystems in which to promote thought and discussion about important ideas, trends, and issues worthy of being discussed in the global public square. Dan Brown, in particular, has a unique gift for making these ideas, trends, and issues accessible and fun to learn about. No matter how maddening he may be from a literary point of view—the dialogue is often cringe-inducing, the characters are generally made of Rimsy cardboard, the suspensions of disbelief he asks of his readers are extraordinary—somehow, he works it so you want to keep reading.

What’s more, the reader can effortlessly tour important works of visual art, architecture, and literature, as well as plunge into esoteric episodes of history, without having to do anything other than tag along at Robert Langdon’s ridiculous pace. (We have checked the action in all his books and they have all turned out to be based on fundamentally impossible timelines, but never mind!)

With Inferno, Brown has given us an extraordinary gift on multiple levels.

First and foremost for us, there is the story of the great late thirteenth and early fourteenth century poet-author Dante Alighieri, the creator of the Divine Comedy (also known in these pages by its Italian name, the Commedia). The Divine Comedy is composed of three parts—Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. As Dan Brown’s title implies, he has drawn most of his use of Dante from the Inferno section, whereas our book treats Dante more holistically.

Dan Brown is one in a very long line of authors and creative artists in many fields who have been fascinated by Dante and who have used or been inspired by parts of Divine Comedy in their works. Brown tells us himself in his Inferno that, “In the seven centuries since its publication, Dante’s enduring vision of hell had inspired tributes, translations, and variations by some of history’s greatest minds. Longfellow, Chaucer, Marx, Milton, Balzac, Borges … had all written pieces based on Dante . . . Monteverdi, Liszt, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, and Puccini composed pieces based on Dante’s work . . . Even the modern world of video games and iPad apps had no shortage of Dante-related offerings.”

To that list, Brown could have added Boccaccio (Dante’s first major fan, who urged that the book Dante had called his “Comedy” be preceded by the word, “Divine”), Botticelli, Blake, Delacroix, Rodin, Gogol, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Malcolm Lowry, Primo Levi, Dorothy L. Sayers, Salvador Dali, and many, many more. Even Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei has now joined the list of Dantistas with his 2013 foray into pop/rap/heavy metal generating a music album called The Divine Comedy. Indeed, while Dante has gone into serious eclipse in modern high school and university education (where Divine Comedy was once required reading for an educated person), Dante enjoyed a banner year in 2013.

Even before the publication of Inferno, Matthew Weiner, the creator of the hit TV show Mad Men, decided to launch the 2013 season with a two-hour opening episode in which protagonist Don Draper, in the seeming paradise of Hawaii, is seen reading the 1960s John Ciardi translation of Divine Comedy, and narrating Dante’s famous opening lines about coming to be lost in a dark forest in the middle of his life. Each of the ensuing 2013 episodes of Mad Men had a direct connection to Dante’s rings of hell, as Don seemed to be descending deeper week by week. The season ended on the prospect of Don having hit bottom, entering psychological purgatory, atoning for his sins, and trying to start a new life.

As Mad Men showed, Hollywood has historically done its bit to keep Dante alive in pop culture. From the stunning ten minute choreography of life in the Inferno contained within the 1935 Spencer Tracy film Dante’s Inferno to David Fincher’s Se7en (and at least one film critic’s) theory that numerous scenes in Easy Rider are modeled on Gustave Doré’s illustrations of Divine Comedy, many have tried to capture Dante on film. Yet no one has truly succeeded. Dan Brown and Sony will get their chance when they turn Brown’s 2013 Inferno into a big budget movie, currently scheduled for release in December 2015.

The Dante of Dan Brown’s Inferno may have very little in common with the fourteenth century poet and his creative output. Several of our Dante commentators will tell you as much in the following pages (see pieces by Barolini, Botterill, Cook, and Cornish, for example), although at least two of our distinguished academics find that Brown has come up with an intriguing post-modern recasting of Dante’s work (see Erickson and Mazzotta).

For us, however, Brown’s novel, despite its limitations, has given our contemporary culture a wonderful chance to have a new discussion and to learn about Dante, the Divine Comedy, Florence, and all the big ideas connected to Dante’s amazingly rich treasure house of intellect. If, in spite of Dan Brown’s sometimes clunky prose style and characters as weightless as Dante’s “shades” in the underworld, you are led to want to know more about Dante, you have come to the right place.

Here is a chance to think about good and evil—and how the meaning of those words has changed over the years—fate and free will, science and religion, knowledge and mystery, male and female, the real and the imagined, mortality and immortality. Plus, political science, visual art, language and literature, philosophy and history, the Bible and the Greek and Roman classics, Florence and its endless supply of Renaissance geniuses and its beautiful art, and of course, poetry.

Brown only skims the surface of Dante’s treasures. But that’s OK. He has invited all his readers to this Dante party, and we have responded in this book by bringing together academic Dante specialists from leading universities, with scientists, philosophers, ethicists, medical researchers, futurists, and members of our own Secrets team to comment on Brown’s use of Dante and the many other issues that underlie the plot of Inferno.

Brown doesn’t stop at Dante and Florence of the fourteenth century. His Inferno also calls attention to a series of twenty-first century issues he wants to explore. These include overpopulation of the planet, potential responses to the challenges of resource shortages and survival in an overpopulated world, the contemporary movement known as transhumanism, and the growing community of scientists, technologists, and societal thinkers who are interested in and working on the power of technology to self-evolve the human species in ways that have never before been possible.

Let’s specify at the outset that we disagree with the way Brown chose to frame some of these issues. To our way of thinking, Brown has revivified 1970s and ’80s Neo-Malthusian concerns about the so-called “population bomb.” Ironically, Inferno comes at just the time when most of the regions of the developed world—North America, Europe, and Japan—are facing very low birth rates and population growth statistics. Some countries even have negative population growth. In Italy, where Brown’s evil villain-turned-am- biguous-hero Zobrist has been working to perfect his sterilizing virus, the birth rate is near historic lows. The total population has grown only very modestly from fifty-eight million in 2000 to an estimated sixty-one million today. More Italian politicians, economists, and sociologists are concerned with their country’s “birth dearth” than with curbing population growth. Speaking of Japan’s population decline, Dr. Shoichiro Toyoda, former Chairman of Toyota Motor Corporation, once quipped that if current trends continue, there will be no Japanese left a thousand years from now.
Although China’s record of three decades of enforced one- child policies troubles every Western humanist, the political leadership in Beijing has achieved what was previously thought impossible. China has brought its population growth under control. Today’s Chinese birth rate is only modestly higher than Italy’s.

Worldwide, a series of advances in agriculture and medicine have allowed total world population to continue growing significantly, without the apocalyptic battle (at least, not yet) over resources that was predicted to be happening about now. Even very poor countries have experienced meaningful improvements in nutrition, health, and infant mortality rates over the last forty years. So far, the worst-case scenarios have not obtained and many experts would argue that the world of 2013-14 is better fed and healthier than most experts would have predicted a generation or two ago.

Of course, some important populations continue to grow. Africa, India, West Asia, the Middle East, and parts of Latin America are all continuing to grow far faster than the rest of the world. We are emphatically not arguing that population has disappeared as an issue. But more than focusing on exactly how many billions of people the world can bear—as Brown does—we think the key issue is developing the ideas and solutions that will continue to make life livable and manageable for everyone on the planet. There can be no question that nations and societies all over the world must develop more thoughtful and sustainable policies, as well as new technologies and new ways to distribute resources. Whether it is our very survival as a species that is at stake or “only” the quality of our lives in the future, we must face up urgently to the realities of climate change, sea level change, new (and old) toxins and pollutants, new (and old) viruses and diseases, and the growing list of dwindling and harder-to-extract energy and mineral resources. It’s these types of issues on which global emphasis should be put—not on figuring out how to “thin the herd” as Zobrist wants to do, and especially not by forcibly reducing populations.

Overall, the issue of the “population explosion” is less of a worry on the long list of potential global crises than it was three or four decades ago. (Our esteemed contributor, Paul Erlich, author of the 1968 book, The Population Bomb—whose work is cited by Dan Brown in Inferno—disputes the latter statement, so please see his essay for some countervailing thoughts.) In these pages, you will hear from a variety of experts on population, viruses, and the future of the planet, each of whom weighs in with his or her own point of view on the story Brown has spun.

Brown’s Inferno introduces many readers for the first time to the transhumanist movement. We have brought several leading thinkers from that movement into the pages of Secrets of Inferno as well. But it seems to us that Brown sets up a false logic chain by making Zobrist and Sienna, who are committed population warriors, the spokespeople for transhumanism and the technologies that are leading us in the direction of self-evolution.

In our experience, the people most interested in transhumanism and in the power of new technology to solve global problems and enhance the capabilities and lifespans of Homo sapiens are generally not terribly troubled by population trends. Certainly, they are not troubled in the way Zobrist is. And most scientists, engineers, and medical researchers trying to get us to see why we should not overly fetter the development of powerful new technologies are desirous of more freedom for their research. They are not trying to restrict the freedom of other people to bear children as they choose.

Trying to think about the real issues involved with the survival of our species, its evolution, and future enhancement is grist for the most interesting mill of philosophy, ethics, morality, science, politics, and futurist speculation. Dante would have relished this discussion and he would have had very strong opinions about it. He’s the one, after all, who coined the term transhumanism.

It’s too bad that Dan Brown does not use Inferno to stimulate more of this debate. But in a way, he has already done it. One of the key points of his 2009 novel, The Lost Symbol, was that the great sages of history have always known that humans are “as gods.” The secret writings of the wise people of many societies over the last several thousand years (termed by Brown in TLS the “Ancient Mysteries”) all reflect this fundamental idea of humankind as its own godly force. Within human society, we have always had the vision we need to be as gods; in the twenty-first century we have the technology as well. Not only can we shape our own destiny, we must do so. We must take responsibility for creating the future we wish to have. This is true whether we are speaking about ourselves as individuals, our societies and governments, or even our species. This idea—particularly cogently expressed in Brown’s work in TLS—is actually somewhat akin to Dante’s commentaries on free will and the responsibilities of leaders for the outcomes obtained by their societies.

Whether you loved Dan Brown’s Inferno and couldn’t put it down, or you are a Brown critic or skeptic, Secrets of Inferno will hopefully take you further—beyond the Pillars of Hercules, beyond the known world—to consider and contemplate the fascinating stew of art and ideas that Robert Langdon and Sienna Brooks could only whisk by at breakneck speeds.

T.S. Eliot once observed that, “Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them. There is no third.” Fortunately, modern society does not suffer for a lack of venues in which to reflect on Shakespeare. But for Dante, that is not the case. Brown has brought Dante back to the top of the bestseller list and invited us to explore Dante’s world. And that’s the main reason for creating Secrets of Inferno and sharing it with interested readers.

on October 10 • by

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