Sunday, April 16, 2006

Dan Brown: The Da Vinci Code

Dan Brown: The Da Vinci Code. 2004, Doubleday 0-385-51375-5
Physical description: hardbound, 467 pgs, large pages, illustrated (many other versions including paperback are available now); Amazon link.

Leonardo Da Vinci certainly fits our idea of the ideal Renaissance Man. Curious, inventive, practical, brilliant, and apparently charismatic to be around as a young man. Gifted. Yet, curiously sometimes careless and inattentive, unable to complete things. He was many things. On page 50 of this edition, Brown writes that Da Vinci was a “flamboyant homosexual” and fought “a perpetual state of sin against God” despite the public success of his life in historical terms. In fact, he was a member of secret orders, most notably the Priory of Sion, a secret fraternal organization founded in 1099. Da Vinci’s homosexuality is probably difficult to prove factually, but it certainly sounds likely from the historical “circumstantial evidence.”

Of course, we have all heard about the basic premise of this novel, that Jesus married prostitute Mary Magdalene, that she carried his child when he was crucified, and that his descendents live today. So it is pretty reasonable to construct a novel based on what could happen to one of those descendents.

That is one problem. The whole novel presents a fascinating treasure hunt through all the not-so-secret religious enclaves and space in France and later England and Scotland, tracking down the clues. It is set up with a prologue, epilogue, and 105 relatively short chapters as nuggets, each leading to the next point. The plot seems a bit of an afterthought, a vehicle to develop Brown’s theory. It starts when Jacques Sauniere meets a violent and spectacular demise in a secure area of the Louvre in Paris. Professor Robert Langdon is called in and for two thirds of the novel he is a major suspect by the police, so he “must” save himself. It seems a bit of a setup. There is granddaughter Sophie whom he runs around with, and a British aristocrat Leigh Teabing, owning a chateau in France (not an uncommon situation in real life) who can provide a lot of the clues.

Now, this novel does represent “English literature” as we learn the concept in high school. Literature, we learn, relates to the deep-seated issues in any culture. In Britain, authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh of the 1982 book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, from Random House, sued Dan Brown and Random House for publishing Dan Brown's novel; which the original authors claim unfairly expropriates detailed research presented in the earlier non-fiction book. Ideas cannot be copyrighted, but in Britain, at least, there is legitimate controversy about detailed factual research. A judge in Britain (Peter Smith) turned down the plaintiffs on April 7, 2006 and since Britain has loser pays in these circumstances, the plaintiffs could have to pay up to $1.75 million in attorneys fees for both sides. (In the US, "loser pays" applies only in some cases; check with your attorney; there is a movement in general tort reform to encourage its use in the US to stop SLAPP and frivolous lawsuits.)

What of the entire theory? It has several big ideas that lead up to the blood line. One is the equating of Mary Magdalene with the concept of the Holy Grail. Another is the “eternal feminine,” an idea common in the Faust legends developed in operas by Gounod and Boito and in choral symphonies by Liszt and Mahler. That is a bit of a paradox, that Da Vinci himself was so embroiled in a philosophical ploy involving the deepest notions of heterosexuality, the sexual union where one becomes mindless, and yet could have lived the charismatic homosexual male, someone who as a young man would have been the star on today’s disco floor. And even the book’s authorship adds to the controversy, as the novel seems to have been a joint effort between Dan Brown and his own wife. In his discussions about the eternal feminine, he almost seems to predicting Masters and Johnson’s modern book “Heterosexuality,” as a joyous thing, but for 90% of people.

Then you have the Vatican, its ultraconservative organization Opus Dei, and the whole paradox of Catholic thought with a celibate priesthood (which seems to have added so much to today’s scandals – effectively a ban against straights, and now it is trying to ban gays, too). While we all know that there are religious reasons for celibacy and abstinence, the real dichotomy is psychological. Family values and blood loyalty drive the lives of supposedly “normal” people, but at some point the individual breaks away from sexual or even social communion with others and focuses on himself or herself, upon an individual reconciliation with his own potentiality, and with God. But I don't see a contradiction between Jesus's being married and his Friday death, soul and body together, and complete resurrection Sunday, by God. Since he would ascend in the Pentecost, however, it seems unlikely he would have continued to function as a husband in a conventional way of this theory is true.

The illustrated version reminds one of a reading text in grade school in that one looks forward to the pictures on many pages. The photographs cover most of the controversial religious places in France and England, leading to the Rosslyn Chapel in Edinburgh, Scotland (a major business area in Arlington, VA gets its name from that). Somehow the presentation style reminds me of Hendrik Van Loon and The Story of the Bible (1928), which has many well spaced drawings – though here we have glossy photographs. In a way, the illustrated edition becomes a kind of filmstrip, like what we used to watch in grade school in addition to movies. We don’t see those often any more. (My cousin and I used to actually make them with drawings back in the mid 1950s and show them to family and friends as “movies.”)

That brings me to the real movie, which Sony Pictures/Columbia is due to release May 19. There will be a review here then.

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