Monday, 19 October 2020

Book review: Veritas, Ariel Sabar (2020)

I bought this book at Gleebooks while I was out looking for a book on Liszt. (I’d called the bookstore earlier and they’d told me to look up a title and ask them to order it, but my online researches weren’t fruitful. It took the woman behind the counter in the store less than a minute to find what I needed, and she ordered it for me. While I was standing at the back of the shop, waiting, I picked up ‘Veritas’ in order to buy it.)

Subtitled 'A Harvard Professor, a Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife', the book is sometimes a fascinating work of journalism – and sometimes dull – chronicling the participation of an esteemed academic in the unearthing for public scrutiny of a document a man who contacted her purported was an ancient manuscript. If that sounds elaborate, wait until you get to the section on the history of Harvard. I sometimes wondered if Sabar had just taken the technique of writing a magazine article and stretched it out (seemingly) indefinitely. I wouldn’t say that the book has structural problems, but I think that some people will find this overly-complex.

Starting in 2012, the story unfolds carefully in a way that allows you to understand the personalities of the people involved and the gravity of the outcomes of the case, which began when a professor at Harvard University named Karen King received an unsolicited email.

It’s salutary that her name is “Karen”, and the book makes frequent nods toward the online public sphere, where extreme views get all the attention. It’s a timely reminder of how abuse of trust can undermine a whole class of individuals and upset a fragile balance. Sabar began researching the case while writing a story for a well-known US magazine. 

The book is the result of a broader search for answers. It illustrates much about society generally, especially about our beliefs as a collective and about our unwillingness to listen to dissenting voices. In this way it’s a kind of parable about conformity and the mob, something that has, because of social media, become more obvious in recent years. Academics are complicit in perpetuating this dynamic and, as Sabar suggests, the poor conduct of one can damage the reputation of an entire class of individuals. 

The conflict between left and right is alive in these pages, and though Sabar goes a bit fast at times he is thorough and conscientious – both qualities that are essential a journalist.

I wasn’t impressed by all his assumptions, especially where he slates conservative voters’ objections to abortion to the issue of sex, and the church’s disapproval in relation to it. Personally, I think the idea that abortion is bad has more to do with concerns about the sanctity of life – something that religious people have, in all ages, valued higher than their secular counterparts (you can see the truth of this assertion for example in the fact that it was the religious who first advocated for the abolition of the slave trade in the 18th century). 

But this is a minor – though important – point to make and in doing so I don’t want to detract from the relevance of Sabar’s achievement, which is larger than what I have outlined here as in its second half the book veers off into truly strange territory. 

To explain how this happens would risk revealing the plot, so I’ll keep silent. Suffice it to say that Sabar’s story goes to the heart of the nature of the status of institutions of higher learning, which have come to signify so much about our civilisation: what, if anything, is wrong with the way that they portray themselves, and the way that we see them? If you are employed in a professional capacity by such an organisation, how should that fact work on your personal conduct? What is the ultimate responsibility of the academic, vis a vis the public and vis-à-vis herself? To the truth? Whose truth? And what, in a Postmodern age, is truth?

The image on the cover is of Harvard University and Sabar attempts to wound his subject but I think misses out on more productive leads though the narrative longueurs near the end suggest an appetite for detail. Sabar might’ve spent more time thinking about the nature of truth itself, rather than just allocating blame for certain actions to certain individuals.

The process that all of his major players are involved in should be the main subject of the book. 

No-one comes out of the wash looking particularly radiant, but it’s not clear what the ritual cleansing is in aid of. 

My guess is that each reader will take away different lessons, depending on their experience in life. I just wish Sabar had had more fun with his material.

No comments: