Hate, Fear and?The Da Vinci Code
Unlike the Bible, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction. But like the Bible, it makes sense of an absurd and chaotic world. Not logical sense, maybe, but intuitive sense. People like that. And they respond.
Published in March 2003, the conspiracy/mystery/adventure potboiler has continued to sell so well in hardcover that it went to paperback only two months ago. Brown got $6 million for the film rights, and with the Tom Hanks vehicle just out, the book will have moved more than 50 million units within the year.
It was obviously always intended to be a movie. Not every mystery novel has murderous albino monks, scholars who make leaping escapes through high windows, murder victims who pose like famous artworks, or more than two or three car/plane chases. Brown did everything but name his main character Indiana.
It’s more than the cinematic aspect of the thing, though, that makes The Da Vinci Code such a bell-ringer. Brown has understood what people hate, fear and hope for.
What they hate is the Catholic Church. Here’s a religion that has waved red flags at too many interest groups. To parents, it represents child molestation. To women, it represents unequal treatment and birth-control prohibition. To evangelicals, it represents legalistic remoteness from the fundamentals of faith. To First World liberals, it represents moral rigidity, backwardness, hypocrisy and greed. And Brown, eager to push buttons and knowing that readers are uncomfortable with shades of gray, has virtually stuck devil horns on his book’s venal, cynical, lying, power-mad or simply misguided Catholics. Of course, even white supremacists aren’t that bad, but references to the church’s stands opposing war and promoting human rights would have been distracting. Catholics correctly point out that if Jews or Muslims got the same kind of media treatment, there’d be a firestorm of outrage, especially considering the pains Brown has taken to indicate that all the organizations and locations mentioned in The Da Vinci Code are real. Opus Dei, the conservative Catholic organization so cartoonishly ogrified in the book, has warned the filmmakers against riling Catholics, pointing to what happened with the Danish Muhammad caricatures. But O.D. has said it doesn’t plan to boycott the movie. Yet.
What people fear is the modern world. They feel powerless in the face of it. First, it can easily seem that every single thing they’re told is a lie, that 1984 came true at least 22 years ago, and that the deception and mind control have only gotten worse. They’re suspicious of computers and the Internet, the technology and scope of which are ungraspable, even as they acknowledge utter dependence on them. In The Da Vinci Code, the symbol for those fears is the suppression of the Sacred Feminine, a wiser and more humanistic paradigm driven underground by the Masters of Control.
So people hope for simplicity, escape, connection with the Real, a.k.a. the Sangre Real, the Royal Blood, the Holy Grail. And The Da Vinci Code provides a magic key. The idea is that if we turned away from the false path and walked down the enlightened road of Mary Magdalene, we could break through. Such a revelatory acid trip would change everything. That, in fact, is just the goal toward which Da Vinci’s valiant Gnostics strove, though their methods were a lot more gradual.
Being a bunch of feeble hippies, they got their asses kicked in this world of illusion.
The Da Vinci Tomes
When it comes to spawning related books, The Da Vinci Code has put a mama salmon to shame, with more than three dozen in English having appeared in only the last several months to ride the movie’s slipstream. Walk into your local bookstore, and you’re sure to bang into a big display. There has been historical context (Bart D. Ehrman’s Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code). There has been religious outrage (Rejecting The Da Vinci Code: How a Blasphemous Novel Brutally Attacks Our Lord and the Catholic Church). There have been travel books. (Dan Brown’s got one!) There have been parodies. There have been three Idiot’s Guides. There have even been fitness books (The Diet Code: Revolutionary Weight Loss Secrets From Da Vinci and the Golden Ratio). I read them all, cover to cover (not). Here are three notables.
GNOSIS IS KNOWLEDGE, and knowledge is a curse. (Remember, it’s the tree of knowledge whose apples caused the Fall.) So idiots are electable; genii finish last. Faith gets you welcomed; enlightenment gets you persecuted. No wonder Gnostics through the last few millennia have spent so much time underground: The overground is dangerous dirt.
The activities of Gnostic-type secret societies are the hub around which the plot of The Da Vinci Code turns. But what exactly do Gnostics believe, and where do their beliefs come from? Richard Smoley, author of Forbidden Faith: The Gnostic Legacy From the Gospels to The Da Vinci Code, wants to tell you, and he does a marvelous job.
First off, Smoley gnows his stuff. He went to Harvard and Oxford; he was the editor of Gnosis (“the award-winning journal of Western spiritual traditions”); he’s written related books. He’s a damned pointy-headed Massachusetts liberal intellectual. But smart as he is, Smoley is not a smart-ass; he has a lovely touch with this material, which could have been emotional/literary quicksand.
Smoley takes Catholics to task for their intolerance, and born-agains for their smugness, while admiring the former for their idealism and the latter for their commitment — if you manage to get pissed at him anyway, you’ve got to be a dick indeed. And esoteric traditions tend to be very . . . esoteric. Yet the author seizes firmly onto the doctrines of Arians, Docetists, Cathers, Rosicrucians, Kabbalists, Illuminati, Theosophists, et al., laying out their similarities and differences in primary colors and with a lighthearted wit. “Manichaeism must have been a somewhat chilly faith,” he writes. “Its adherents would not give food to beggars because this would perpetuate the imprisonment of the sparks of Light in the bodies of inferior beings.” He’s always clear, never condescending.
If there’s one thing all Gnostics seem to have had in common, it’s a distrust of the world as we see it. With the virtual-everything that we constantly encounter, this distrust turns out to be particularly powerful within the last couple of generations, and Smoley notes its influence in movies — ExistenZ, The Truman Show, The Matrix.
The suspicion that reality is not real, though, has been around for a long, long time, the Hindu idea of maya being only one ancient example. In the West, we tend to think of Plato, with his story of the cave and the shadows and the forms, as being the father of this notion. And many believe that Plato traveled in Egypt. Regardless of whether the philosopher picked up some tips there, the region did become a center for Gnosticism (and the Sacred Feminine); Smoley points out that a whole series of Christian thinkers with Gnostic tendencies — Simon Magus, Basilides, Clement, Origen — studied in Alexandria. Thus a very early and strongly held Christian myth was not so much about a man who died a bloody death to remit sin, but about a spirit who came to connect us with the previously unknowable True God, source of the Platonic forms.
We learn that Judaism acquired the idea of Satan through Zoroastrianism. And that the sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick used Gnostic ideas to explain his schizophrenia. And that the Priory of Sion, a prime fantasy vehicle in The Da Vinci Code, had a real-life history; it was absorbed by the Jesuits in 1617 . . . hmm. (Smoley also unveils the novel’s historical boners — attribution of Mary Magdalene’s genealogy to a nonexistent “House of Benjamin”; conflation of a historical Priory of Sion with a modern fake.) Flashes of insight keep exploding in Forbidden Faith; small though it is, it’s the kind of book that could boot a reader off on a longer intellectual journey.
A journey underground, of course.
WHAT A WONDERFUL COINCIDENCE that The Gospel of Judas, a suppressed Gnostic Christian text unread for some 1,700 years, has been published by National Geographic at exactly the moment Da Vinci fever climbs to its perspiring climax. You also have the lucky opportunity to purchase the accompanying volume on the codex’s discovery and restoration, to examine lengthy yet guarded video commentary at www.nationalgeographic.com by Elaine Pagels et al. (what a charming lisp she has!), to watch the National Geographic Channel’s cheesy documentary on the subject, and to purchase the DVD of same. If it’s not too much trouble, we would also like Judas T-shirts and coffee mugs. And McDonald’s Happy Last Suppers?
Judas confirms suspicions about the real reason Gnosticism faded: It wasn’t muscled out, it drowned in its own gobbledygook. Though in its decomposed state the Judas gospel spans only the length of a de Maupassant short story, it nevertheless finds room for several pages of Jesus haranguing Judas (here cast as the enlightened one chosen to liberate Jesus’ spirit from the bondage of earthly flesh) about all the numerologically significant ranks of assorted spirits Iscariot would discover if the despised apostle would only get off his ass and die. “Why are you wondering about this,” inquires Jesus in an especially tortured translation from the Coptic, “that Adam, with his generation, has lived his span of life in the place where he has received his kingdom, with longevity with his ruler?” Yeah, I was wondering the same thing.
Though observers are marveling about the manuscript’s strange rehabilitation of the Judas character, Marvin Meyer, in one of several included essays, observes that this wasn’t a unique reversal: The second-century Christian bishop Irenaeus accused a sect called the Cainites of championing such biblical villains as Cain, Esau and the people of Sodom. Some Gnostics, it seems, annoyed at episcopal claims to doctrinal exclusivity, adopted a contrarian view, identifying themselves with misunderstood bad guys: “You want to play Abraham? Okay, we’ll dig Sodom. You side with Abel? We’ll take Cain. You think you’re Jesus? We’ll be Judas.” So the Cainites were the progenitors of modern heavy-metal musicians, who say, “You hypocrites are godly? Then we must be satanic.” (Check metal lord Glenn Danzig’s “Twist of Cain.”) It’s no wonder that Irenaeus and the other heresy hunters wanted to stamp them out.
Compared to the vital Nag Hammadi Gnostic manuscripts unearthed in the same region of Egypt half a century earlier, The Gospel of Judas is significant mainly for its singularity (no other copies have ever been found) and for its reinforcement of knowledge about the Gnostic tradition, rather than for anything substantial it adds. And the timing of its publication may not be so great after all: In a decade when so many are feeling betrayed, sympathy for Judas is running low.
“DR. IAN BROWN”?’SThe Da Vinci Mole: A Philosophical Parody is a silly little book, but it’s actually pretty funny. Hinting that it’s written by Tom Cruise, it goes on to make every other kind of dumb conspiratorial connection, as its swollen-headed hero, Hank Thomas (cf. Tom Hanks), bumbles his way through discovering the hidden meanings of everything from Scientology to Jackson Pollock’s splatter paintings. Try as it might, Mole can hardly be more ridiculous than the book it parodies, but it has its own rewards and insights:
“But what if we spend many days and risk countless dangers tracking down this secret, only to have it turn out to be a secret that your grandfather never wanted revealed anyway and so all our efforts would be pointless?”
“That would be absurd, Hank,” Saphie replied. “That would make no sense at all.”?
FORBIDDEN FAITH: The Gnostic Legacy From the Gospels to The Da Vinci Code | by RICHARD SMOLEY | Harper San Francisco, also an e-book | 234 pages | $25 hardcover
THE GOSPEL OF JUDAS | edited by RODOLPHE KASSER, MARVIN MEYER and GREGOR WURST | National Geographic | 185 pages | $22 hardcover
THE DA VINCI MOLE: A Philosophical Parody | by “DR. IAN BROWNE”| BenBella Books | 144 pages | $10 paperback
Since distortions and the demands of plot are likely to render unrecognizable many of the real historical and contemporary people and institutions referenced in The Da Vinci Code, here are some brief definitions of how they should be understood in this context. If this seems too complicated, just keep one main point in mind: Catholicism is bad. Very, very bad.
MARY MAGDALENE: Though barely mentioned in the New Testament, M.M. is the most important person who ever lived — the carrier of vital mystic knowledge and a crucial symbol of femininity suppressed throughout history.
JESUS OF NAZARETH: Mary Magdalene’s boyfriend.
MARY OF NAZARETH: Mary Magdalene’s mother-in-law. A minor character of insufficient importance to rate any mention in Da Vinci Code World.
THE SACRED FEMININE: The principle of fertility and the underworld, as worshipped by the ancients in the form of such goddesses as Isis, Ishtar and Aphrodite. The Feminine was widely acknowledged until suppressed by a masculine collusion between the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church, which carelessly neglected to suppress Mary of Nazareth, a Catholic saint who, some say, may have been a woman.
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH: A world religious institution whose entire purpose is to acquire wealth, promote evil and trample truth.
OPUS DEI: The paramilitary wing of the Catholic Church, founded by the Spanish priest Josemaría Escrivá in 1928 to train assassins who can stand ready to kill enemies standing in the church’s way, such as museum curators and unlucky nuns. Its devotees (often psychotic albinos) practice self-flagellation, self-mutilation, political intrigue and prayer. Some of Escrivá’s more outrageous injunctions, published in numerous books, include the ominous “Be useful,” the sexist “Be a man!” and, suggesting that revenge is a paella best served cold, “Never reprimand anyone while you feel provoked . . . Wait until the next day, or even longer.” Despite his Fascist associations, St. Josemaría was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002 in return for a massive bribe from Opus Dei.
SECRET ESOTERIC SOCIETIES: Luckily, the Truth, in the form of suppressed Christian Gnostic philosophy and ancient Egyptian wisdom, has been preserved over the millennia by a number of secret societies. These “good guys” include the Knights Templar, the Rosicrucians, the Masons, the Priory of Sion, Skull and Bones, and the Church of Satan.
LEONARDO DA VINCI: A cranky Italian Renaissance artist and inventor; chronically unemployed, he whiled away his time by hiding subversive messages and gay in-jokes in his paintings.
EMBEDDED IMAGERY: Artists are always social deviants; otherwise they would have chosen more useful careers, such as weapons design, oil marketing or filmmaking. Fortunately, Da Vinci vented his own sick frustrations by subtly emphasizing the Sacred Feminine in his masterwork The Last Supper, thus undermining a Satan even greater than art — Catholicism. In similar fashion, the Feminine and its Gnostic/Masonic guardians have surfaced in American tradition via art: the goddess Liberty and pyramid symbols on our coins and currency. That’s all very well, but as the recent film Rape of the Soul points out, embeddings in religious art can also be used to advance the dread Catholic agenda with hidden images of demons, phalluses and buggeries. Do you find yourself strangely driven to frequent playgrounds after turning the illustrated pages of your church calendar? Now you know why.
RON HOWARD: Playing the part of young Opie on The Andy Griffith Show in the ’60s, Ron Howard was a victim of child-labor exploitation and who knows what else under the iron hand of noted Catholic executive producer Danny Thomas. The trauma may have led him to an uncredited part in The First Nudie Musical (1976) and unpleasant ’70s associations with trashy Catholic director/producer Roger Corman. Now, as director of the filmic Da Vinci Code, his opportunity for revenge on the church has arrived.
TOM HANKS: Raised under Catholic influence, Da Vinci Code lead actor Hanks fled the church as soon as he was able, considering himself born again. What unsacramental experiences may have led this upright family man to play the part of a frivolous cross-dresser on the early-’80s TV series Bosom Buddies? We can only guess. What’s certain is that for anyone longing to retaliate against papist abuse, the Code film is the chance of a lifetime.