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the da vinci code

7 April 2006

I had read a good deal of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code over the shoulders of next-seat airplane passengers over the last few years, but I resolved that I would wait till it appeared in paperback before reading the whole thing myself. If, as movie posters assure me, the book is a phenomenon, my job as a reviewer is to try to figure out why it's phenomenal.

No pop-culture craze succeeds for simple reasons. I would venture that The Da Vinci Code is a huge hit because it appeals to different slices of the reading population for different reasons. For some, it's a brisk page-turner, pulpy but soft-boiled: a soufflé, in fact, light to the point of frothiness. Start it in Hartsfield and you will be in LAX before you know it, which is a decided literary virtue.

The Da Vinci Code obviously has meant a great deal more to some readers, however. It has apparently spurred tourism to its settings: The Louvre, Westminster Abbey, the heart of Midlothian. It has gotten people reading up on Templars, Masons, Rosicrucians, and other staples of the occult. Knockoffs have flooded bookstores. And it has provoked serious, detailed debunking from Roman Catholic intellectuals. Webpage after webpage tells readers how to break the Code, how to dismantle the Code. Entire sites are devoted simply to providing a portal to the many controversies over the novel.

The controversies are even more puzzling than the novel's somewhat lame cryptograms. The Da Vinci Code is, frankly, "review-proof." To say that its plot is preposterous is an affront to preposterousness. Robert Langdon, mild-mannered American art-history professor, is in Paris to deliver some boring lectures when he gets a phone call: a top curator at the Louvre has been murdered in grisly fashion. Langdon isn't in the museum for fifteen minutes when an achingly hot young French cryptographer named Sophie Neveu is taking his elbow. Sophie gets Robert out of the building and onto a semi-domesticated goose chase across Europe in search of the Holy Grail. Yup, that Holy Grail, as in Parsifal or Monty Python. Will they find it, or will Sophie and Robert be tracked down in turn by an enormous homicidal albino monk?

This makes for very cool reading if you have the suspension-of-disbelief gene, but really, people, as a serious alternative history of Christianity, it's about as accurate as Harry Potter. So why is anyone getting exercised over it?

A large element in the popularity of The Da Vinci Code seems to be its carefree, positivist epistemology. To put it less pedantically: in the world of the Da Vinci Code, art historians can look up a few facts about murky events of 2,000 years ago, document them with a few references, and the truth will become unarguably clear.

To judge from its sales in hardcover to business travellers, The Da Vinci Code appeals to affluent, well-educated people in the corporate world, people who always wonder how much more cultured they'd be if they'd just paid a little more attention in Humanities 101. Now, any serious art historian knows that Robert Langdon is just a wish-fulfillment: from dweeby tweedmeister to James Bond in one night in Paris, on the strength of his proficiency with occult symbolism, yeah right. But I suspect there are readers who actually accept that there are some university faculty who really are top-notch at figuring out those "hidden meanings" that their freshman professors kept giving them C's for not finding. And here, one of the hidden-meaning mavens gets fame, the girl, and the Grail.

To the extent that The Da Vinci Code is an academic novel as well as a thriller, it points to one reason that humanities-bashing has become a widespread parlor game in our culture. Humanities scholars almost all realize, with the occasional exception of a Harold Bloom or a Camille Paglia, that the answers about history, art, and literature are never easy and never clear. The more you learn, the more you realize how much you don't know and how much you possibly can never know. But why are we paying such people even middle-class salaries and giving them tenure – just to explain to our kids that the world is so complicated that truly educated people have to admit they can never figure it out?

Heck, we want professors like Robert Langdon, who can sort out the history of Western religion in the course of an evening. Nobody wants lectures on grey areas from greybeards.

It has been a strange week in the news. The media has confidently announced that a single fossil provides the missing link between fish and land animals, thereby proving Darwin correct and creationism refuted. Again, we wish. A new apocryphal Gospel has been unearthed that shows Judas in a completely different light. I'm tempted to say that this is akin to finding a new Brontë manuscript that shows Heathcliff in a completely different light. Most academic commentators have stressed that this Gospel is about religious mystery, not history, but there are also quite a few quotations like this one in the media:

Biblical scholar Marvin Meyer, of the Albert Schweitzer Institute at Chapman University, California, said: "The text provides the opportunity to evaluate, and perhaps re-evaluate, the historical role of a figure who has been much maligned within Christianity and has been a prominent figure in the development of anti-Semitism." (from a story by Dalya Alberge in The Australian, 8 April 2006)

There are many, many people who believe that Judas Iscariot can be known as a historical personage rather than as a character in a teaching story, even though he does not exist for history outside of his role as a character in teaching stories. (Perhaps not including Prof. Meyer, who may be talking about the historical role of an image of Judas, rather than the historical Judas. But I think many readers will just grab the word "historical" and think "At last we know what the real Judas was like!")

Then comes the news that Jesus may have walked on ice instead of water. You remember Matthew 14:25: "And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea."

A rare set of weather events may have combined to create a slab of ice about 4 to 6 inches [10 to 15 centimeters] thick on the lake, [making it] able to support a person's weight," said Doron Nof, an oceanographer at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. (Story by Amitabh Avasthi in National Geographic News, 6 April 2006)

Funny enough, the ice isn't able to support Peter's weight a few verses further on, and Jesus has to haul him out of the drink. But a lot of readers seem uninterested in the parabolic nature of such stories ("O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?" says Jesus to Peter in Mat. 14:31). Instead, they seem fascinated with the project of trying to find evidence for the literal truth of parable.

Dan Brown himself is careful to distinguish between different ways of arriving at knowledge. "If you and I could dig up documentation that contradicted the holy stories . . . should we do that? . . . Those who truly understand their faiths understand the stories are metaphorical," says Langdon (370). His new girlfriend Sophie isn't so sure. She insists that only literal belief matters to some people.

And Sophie's got a point. We are surrounded, particularly in America nowadays, by a curious intellectual trend that asks for literal, scholarly, even scientific verification for what is properly supernatural, impossible, even superstitious. For such people, the news that Jesus walked on ice is a confirmation of their beliefs, not a demolition of them. (Peter, for such believers, just stepped on a mushy bit of the floe; the spiritual application remains just as strong.) For some such people, the wacky alternative history of The Da Vinci Code is a grave threat to Christian truths; to others, it's a fascinating re-establishment of their faith, on a foundation of ironclad literal facts.

Brown, Dan. The Da Vinci Code. 2003. New York: Anchor, 2006.