Shortly before Christmas I saw the movie Wag the Dog, 1997 for the first time. I thought it was a fabulous movie and definitely thought-provoking. I remembered the fuss that ensued upon its release since similar circumstances that the movie portrayed fictiously all of a sudden began to be enacted in real life.
My initial emotions to the movie were ones of amazement and frustration (i.e. "this could be happening to us now with all the Iraq crap!"). It didn't take long before I could settle back into a deep chuckle, though. It was ingenious, after all. And it wasn't a new idea.
The IMDB summarizes the plot, "Before elections, a spin-doctor and a Hollywood producer join efforts to 'fabricate' a war in order to cover-up a presidential sex scandal." People believe there is a war going on in Albania, because it's on their TVs, though what they're seeing is a Hollywood studio and Kirsten Dunst, not a peasant girl in war-torn Albania. What is also being created is a picture of the president. A context is being created in which the president can project a certain, favorable image of himself as Leader of the Free People, just days before the election. The portrait ultimately gets the president his reelection.
At first what the spin-doctor and the Hollywood producer did in the film seems shocking...that they would willingly lead the American people to believe a bold-faced lie. But this kind of thing has been happening for centuries. It's what makes politics in the Middle Ages so fun.
I recently finished Umberto Eco's Baudolino, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's set in the 12th/early 13th century, and follows Baudolino through his youth and adulthood. He is adept at languages and telling stories, traits that lead the savvy Italian peasant boy to the bosom of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who share a close father-son relationship. Baudolino hates war, which is unfortunate, since it is common fare for the circles he hangs out in, so he's always trying to come up with ways for the emperor to look good without the emperor's having to destroy cities. These involve everything from fabricating relics to mindless ceremonies.
It's all about the emperor's image. It doesn't really matter what the real picture is. And since Frederick is the Holy Roman Emperor (whom we all know is neither holy nor Roman nor an emperor), a lot image fabrication has to do with his relationship with the pope, who has the ultimate weapon, excommunication. So the sticky political issue is how to be more powerful than the pope.
The book is partly about story-telling, and Baudolino's story is presented to us as he narrates it to a Greek as Constantinople burns. One of my favorite moments in the book comes at the beginning as Baudolino recounts his early days as a student of Bishop Otto, who was currently writing Chronica sive Historica de duabus civitatibus and Gesta Friderici (it's very important for the emperor's image to have his own Gesta). Bishop Otto remarks one day to his student, regarding Baudolin's remarkable prowess for telling stories, "If you want to become a man of letters and perhaps write some Histories one day, you must also lie and invent tales, otherwise your History would become monotonous. But you must act with restraint. The world condemns liars who do nothing but lie, even about the most trivial things, and it rewards poets, who lie only about the greatest things."
Baudolino takes this advice to heart and invents perhaps the greatest lie of his life, the existence of an entire kingdom. Upon the recommendation of his beloved Bishop Otto, he is convinced that there is a kingdom of Prester John, and if he could just find it for Frederick, it would solve all the emperor's sticky, political problems, especially releasing him from the sticky mire of Italy. Baudolino took this dream with him to university in Paris and shared it with some close friends, who nursed it until it grew and grew. Eventually, they took action and fabricated letters from Prester John to Frederick, and threw in the Holy Grail (also fabricated) to help out their story. They needed to find the kingdom. Each member of the band of Baudolino's friends had their own dreams and reasons, and they all revolved around finding the kingdom.
The book takes an interesting twist at this point. What at first was a nice story of European politics takes on fantastical elements as Baudolino and his friends set out to actually find the kingdom. Sharing conversation suited for the taverns of Latin Quarter in Paris (e.g. arguing over the existence of a vaccuum and the shape/map of the world) their path takes them through strange lands, encountering people and beasts more suited to the marginalia of medieval manuscripts.
When they reach what is reportedly the environs of their destination, they find a society of anatomically bizarre and varied creatures who are essentially ruled by a class of eunuchs. When they engage in conversation with locals, they find that these folks don't seem to notice that some of them only have one leg and a giant foot and that others have eyes on their chests, they distinguish each other through the particular brand of Trinitarian heresy each holds. It's hilarious! Baudolino's group stays for awhile; Baudolino falls in love. And because of the necessity of a quick get-away they never actually reach the kingdom. They're not even sure if it exists.
When they're all back safe and sound in Constantinople, the book turns back to Baudolino and Frederick and the dream of Prester John's kingdom, except it's no longer about saving Frederick's image, since he's dead now, but a life for Baudolino that is true, not some great story he made up. But the reader is still left wondering if he isn't still living in his made-up world? what of our lives anyway? It's like Bishop Otto said, "If you want to become a man of letters and perhaps write some Histories one day, you must also lie and invent tales."
It's an excellent book, full of wonderful allusions and cultural distinctions. And the medievalist in me was tantalized from start to finish.