Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Da Vinci Code

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown is the publishing phenomenon of the century so far, having now spent nearly three years on the hardcover best-seller list in an age when nearly no book takes more than a year to get to paperback. Last weekend I took the book on tape on my ski trip, heard most of it by the time I got back (northern Vermont is five hours away from my home), and got the book out of my small local library (which owns five copies) to finish it. The appeal of the book raises interesting questions precisely because it will never rank a historical or literary masterpiece. Indeed, in addition to its historical mistakes (on which more below), it contains a couple of howlers that testify, once again, to the collapse of the editorial process in major publishing houses. One would think, for instance, that some one would have known that a British knight named Leigh Teabing would never be referred to as “Sir Teabing” by anyone (“Sir Leigh” is correct), or that Kent is an English county, not a “suburb.” As a thriller it is mediocre, written in clear and simple English but with a plot that rivals the most extreme tales of Robert Ludlum or the early John Grisham. (To judge from our popular literature, we live today in a world of eternally heightened adrenalin and extreme paranoia, since no mystery, apparently, can hold the public interest without a new dead body every fifty pages or so, and nearly every hero has to prevail against the combined forces of the world’s police departments and intelligence services.) The plot turns on a number of clever mathematical and linguistic puzzles, which are not too difficult for an attentive reader to solve, at times, before the characters do. The book’s appeal must have something to do with its subject matter, and indeed, it does, I think, touch on fundamental cultural issues which are likely to take a back seat as the world shakes itself into a new shape during the next couple of decades.

As most of you probably know, the book centers around a quest for the Holy Grail, which it recasts as a cache of documents presenting an alternative version of Christianity, one much closer to pagan religions. According to its hero, a Harvard professor, they center on the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene and the fate of their descendants. True Christianity, like many ancient religions, emphasized the “sacred feminine,” the female as the source of all life, and featured sexual and fertility rituals which were purged from the Church after Constantine’s conversion in 325 C.E. Both the Old and New Testament (to say nothing of the Koran) demonize women, of course, by making Eve the source of original sin and enshrining a patriarchal god of wrath, vengeance, and (on his good days at least), mercy. This, the author argues at one point, has unleashed the chronic violence and cruelty of western culture, as well as our enduring shame about sex—certainly a critical issue in the United States, in particular, over the last forty years.

The bad news about the book has emerged in a number of commentaries both in the United States and in France. First of all, much of its theory, reportedly, was borrowed from an earlier book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, which sold briskly twenty years ago. Secondly, its other premise—the existence of a secret society, the Priory of Sion, which has supposedly watched over the Grail for 1500 years or so and whose Grand Masters included Leonardo da Vinci, Sir Isaac Newton, and Victor Hugo—is apparently entirely bogus, the 60-year old invention of a French Fascist. (For details see an article in Salon by Laura Miller, at http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2004/12/29/da_vinci_code/ . ) The hero, Robert Langdon, argues at one point that every religious creed is a metaphor, and so is his book. That, however, is the key to its genuine interest.

The battle between the three great monotheistic religions on the one hand, and more nature-based, erotic and artistic creeds on the other, is one of the great themes of western civilization, and a number of different authors have attacked this issue from many different perspectives. The most recent and thorough treatment of the subject is Sexual Personae by my contemporary Camille Paglia, which argues that Judeo-Christianity never triumphed over paganism, that male achievements (which would certainly include the political and military realms, as well as the artistic and scientific) grow out of a flight from femininity, and that a struggle between gender identities lies at the heart of most of the greatest western literature and art. As both she and Brown point out, the conflict is very strong within Christianity itself, which had to adopt numerous pagan holidays (led, of course, by Christmas), which (except in militant Protestant forms) disregarded the Old Testament prohibition against the worship of graven images, and which in its Catholic form gave woman a prominent, if somewhat equivocal, place. (Henry Adams in Mont St.-Michel et Chartres suggested that Protestantism might best be understood as an attack on the figure and significance of the Virgin Mary, who in Medieval Catholicism had provided the mercy which God so seldom showed.) Paglia still embraces the sexual revolt of the 1960s and 1970s as another periodic return to Paganism, but more recently she has lamented the rise of yet another wave of Puritanism, led, ironically, by feminists who resent their eternal power over men. How much of that revolution will survive the next twenty years is now a serious question here in the United States, where militant Protestantism is again on the rise, HBO now shows lovers in bed wearing their underwear, and abstinence education is the preferred sex education policy of the Republican majority.

The broader question of the impact of sexual Puritanism on politics is harder to tackle, but at least one great western thinker has done so. I personally feel it is more than a coincidence that the three great western monotheistic religions have managed to spread their influence over most of the globe, frequently by conquest. (Judaism, to be sure, has been a very minor player in this process over the last two thousand years in comparison to Christianity and Islam, but the Old Testament shows that conquest certainly was part of its original tradition as well.) Certainly in the United States and Britain, at least, sex seems to be driven underground during periods of great national struggle, only to emerge with a vengeance 20 or 30 years after a great war has ended, most notably in the 1960s. But one of the more remarkable treatments of this issue lies at the heart of Orwell’s classic 1984, even though this aspect of the book was generally ignored when it came out and has never received the attention that it deserved.

Winston Smith in 1984 lives in a totalitarian world where thoughts are rigorously controlled and sex is rigidly curtailed. As O’Brien explains to him during his interrogation, the Party’s scientists are even at work on the abolition of the orgasm. Winston’s own awakening is a gift from Julia, who seduces him not primarily, as she explains, because she loves him, but because she loves sex. That, Winston realizes during their very first encounter (surely one of the more striking cases of first-date sex in western literature), is the force which may some day tear the party to pieces—not rational deduction or the addition of two and two to make four, but raw, animal lust. “When you’re making love,” Julia herself comments, “you’re using up energy, and afterwards, you don’t give a damn for anything.” And the party, she adds, can’t stand for you to feel that way. Orwell had learned about this before he had reached the age of 10, at his boarding school, where miserable living conditions and terrifying lectures about sex had helped prepare the British male elite for the rigors of the Empire. The contrary impulse must have been powerful within him, since he himself had actually never lived through a period of frank sexual freedom. In my opinion, Julia is every bit as much the hero of 1984 as Winston, even though she, too, apparently, was terrorized into submission during interrogation by the exploitation of her childhood fears.

Interestingly enough, the fanciful Priory of Sion keeps its creed alive with the help of its own rituals, including actual sex performed before a gathering of believers. (These rituals, Brown also notes, were reproduced in the Stanley Kubrick movie Eyes Wide Shut as well, although I have not checked to see if they figure in the Artur Schnitzler story on which the movie was based.) Sex on film has been perhaps the closest western culture has come to anything like that, but it is rarely celebratory, and now it seems to be diminishing again. The idea that sex, even if more freely available, must be private, may indeed by the ultimate trump with which repressive religion keeps us focused on career, conquest, intellectual pursuits, sports, cleanliness, and everything else which distracts us from our hormonal impulses. Columbus and his men actually discovered Caribbean societies whose inhabitants seemed to have few interests other than eating and love-making, but those societies, we know now, were doomed.

In a terrible irony, the resurgent power of religion may actually strip the film version of The Da Vinci Code of one of its major themes. The idea of Jesus's marriage to Mary Magdalene and the children that they begat may, reportedly, be drastically toned down or even dropped from the film altogether. The battle goes on and may remain, ultimately, unequal. Whatever else it is or is not, the book The Da Vinci Code is a blow for eroticism in an increasingly puritanical world, and thus, many might say, a small step for man- and womankind.

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