National Geographic Won't Let Me See Their "Atlantis Rising" Documentary But Will Let Entertainment Journalists Cover It as a Fluffy Celebrity Story
Tomorrow night the National Geographic Channel is airing Atlantis Rising, a new documentary by conspiracy theorist and filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici (of Jesus Holy Bloodline / Talpiot Tomb fame) and Titanic director James Cameron. It chronicles the efforts of the pair, along with zany Biblical archaeologist Richard Freund (who last claimed to have found Atlantis on Nat Geo back in 2011) to find the lost continent of Atlantis. As part of the publicity push for the film, PR agent Johanna Ramos-Boyer of JRB Communications, LLC, acting as agent for the National Geographic Channel, sent out press releases to journalists, including me, offering interviews with Jacobovici and Freund, as well as a screener of the upcoming documentary. Ramos-Boyer and her team, acting with the kind of moral cowardice that speaks volumes about the integrity of the claims to have found Atlantis, led me on about the interviews for a week before abruptly refusing to reply to my emails or return phone calls. JRB Communications and the National Geographic Channel declined to provide me with the screener they promised me in writing on January 17.
What are they afraid of? I’m sure we can all guess. It’s unusual for a network to turn down publicity of any kind, even a critical review, but with fluffy, uncritical puff pieces running this week in The Vulture and People magazine—and not, for that matter, even in National Geographic’s own news site!—it’s clear that the TV show isn’t meant to be serious.
Consider, for example, Jacobovici’s illogical and fallacious reasoning for hunting for Atlantis: “I think a lot of people when they hear the word ‘Atlantis,’ they put it in the same category as alien abduction. That is simply not the case,” he told People magazine. “Somebody wrote this story down, and it’s not just anybody — it was Plato, one of the most famous philosophers in history.”
Ah, the argument from authority! Just because someone wrote something down doesn’t make it true. Euhemerus, a quite famous thinker in his own right, wrote of the lost island of Panchaea, and yet no one goes searching for it. Aristotle, an equally famous philosopher, wrote of Carthage’s secret discovery of fantastical islands in the Atlantic, but these too inspire no adventures. Francis Bacon and Thomas More were famous men, and yet we do not see the New Atlantis, nor Utopia.
Jacobovici explained to People magazine that he no longer believes that Atlantis was a single location but is instead a “civilization.” As such, he was able to identify Atlantis with the Nuragic civilization of Sardinia, a claim made centuries ago, famously by Jean-Baptiste-Claude Delisle de Sales in his 1793 work Histoire Philosophique du Monde Primitif. I translated the relevant passage last year.
“Once we realized that, and started visiting places like Sardinia — I mean, there are 7,000 temples on Sardinia that more or less match Plato’s description of Altantean architecture!” Jacobovici told People. “I was blown away.”
More or less? Plato did not describe Atlantaean architecture in terms reminiscent of Bronze Age Sardinia, except perhaps in one respect. In the Critias, Plato describes one temple, and he gives its description this way: “Here was Poseidon’s own temple which was a stadium in length, and half a stadium in width, and of a proportionate height, having a strange barbaric appearance. All the outside of the temple, with the exception of the pinnacles, they covered with silver, and the pinnacles with gold. In the interior of the temple the roof was of ivory, curiously wrought everywhere with gold and silver and orichalcum; and all the other parts, the walls and pillars and floor, they coated with orichalcum” (trans. Benjamin Jowett). Needless to say, Sardinian temples have none of this metal plating today, and it is doubtful that they ever did. The only similarity is the “barbaric” appearance, which could equally apply to any structure outside the Greek world. Plato offers details that could not possibly agree with Sardinia: the temples, he said, were surrounded by tablets inscribed with the laws of Atlantis. The Nuragic civilization lacked writing.
Jacobovici said he did not discover the “mother city” of Atlantis—i.e., the ringed capital Plato described—but he thinks it exists somewhere, if only we wish hard enough and squint hard enough at the evidence to make it so. Cameron, however, said that Atlantis might have been the Greek equivalent of “science fiction” and that there never was a world-bestriding all-powerful super-civilization, but he claims to be hopeful that substance stands behind the story. In other words, he thinks Plato based a fictional story on some much smaller historical event, which is about like saying that Westeros from Game of Thrones is real because George R. R. Martin was inspired by the Wars of the Roses—but that we can use geographic and literary “clues” from A Song of Ice and Fire to find the “real” Red Keep in King’s Landing.
It’s probably worth noting that Cameron’s interest in Atlantis comes from Lovecraftian fiction, particularly the backstories that Robert E. Howard gave to his Conan tales:
It intrigued me as a kid who grew up on science fiction and fantasy and Robert E. Howard and Conan and all that stuff. As you get older, you apply a little discipline and rigor to it, and I've made a kind of layman's study of archaeology of the Mediterranean area. You think, What was the basis of this myth, this legend? You trace it back and, of course, it all comes from one source, which is Plato — his dialogues, Critias and Timaeus. And you start to think, Is this all just a made-up story, or is it based on something? In the same way that Troy was found by exploring a legend.
Troy was not found by exploring a legend. Heinrich Schliemann made the story up as a bit of propaganda. A friend of his, Frank Calvert, found a buried city on property he owned in Turkey, and Schliemann back-formed a tale of using Homeric clues to prove it was Troy only after Calvert finally convinced the doubtful Schliemann that the site was the Homeric city. The location of Troy had never truly been forgotten and was accurately recorded in literature from Roman times down to Charles Maclaren, who accurately identified the very hill that covered the ruins in 1822, more than four decades before Schliemann falsely claimed to have come up with the idea on his own.
In speaking with The Vulture, Cameron conceded that his interest in the story of Atlantis is largely political. But, as we just saw, he isn’t quite secure in his facts:
Nobody would deny that there's a lot of free-floating anxiety out there right now about the political state of affairs globally, and especially in the U.S. And so there are rumbles of social collapse that aren’t far away in the imaginations of some people. I think there’s going to be fascination with some of these lessons from history. I think we can take lessons from the Romans as well, who threw out democracy in favor of a republic that was ultimately dominated by dictators. I think we should look to the past. History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes. We could wind up rhyming with thoughts of past fallen civilizations.
It is rather a bit sad to see that in the world today, myth and allegory no longer suffice to teach moral lessons; we must find fake facts to make them seem real. It is testament to the declining value of art in an age that considers the humanities an inferior fungus growing on the root of applied (but certainly not theoretical!) science.
For the record, Cameron has his facts mixed up. The Romans did not “throw out” democracy; “democracy” was a Greek political system, particularly in Athens. The Romans threw out their monarchy and established a republic. The republic actually grew more democratic over time as the plebeians seized more and more power from the patricians, and the Republic became populist at times, until the crisis that ended the Republic established a new order based on imperial rule and reinforcing the privileges of the new aristocracy. In one sense, Caesar was the culmination of two opposing trends, both a centralizer who reinforced the power of his self-selected aristocracy and also a populist who wanted to enact the people’s will, though only though the people’s formal, not actual, exercise of the levers of republican power. It’s probably also worth noting that the fall of the Republic didn’t destroy Roman civilization. It went on to reach greater heights under the Empire, and continued, in one form or another, down to 1453.
Because the network didn’t send me a screener, my review of the show will have to wait for it to air. Since I am not available Sunday nights and work Monday mornings, I probably won’t have it ready until sometime Monday afternoon.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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