A Philosopher Looks at The Da Vinci Code
Glenn W. Erickson, Ph.D. has taught philosophy at four U.S. universities and five federal universities in Brazil and Nigeria, sometimes as a Fulbright Scholar. He is author of a dozen works in the areas of philosophy, literary criticism, art history and the history of mathematics.
I must admit to having finished Dan Brown´s novel, like some quick-sketch artist, in a single sitting, and, not presuming to have lost the common touch, feel obliged to portray The Da Vinci Code in a favorable light. Not having been able to put it down while dandling it on my knee, I would not the cad be who puts it down now in public.
The novel is, in the first place, politically correct insofar as its Moral is that World Religions, especially the Western religions of the Word, have tended and intended to suppress the Woman-God or women-gods, and hence the life-values that such divinities might be supposed to manifest or embody. At first a kind of ideological battle-cry for the feminist movement, such a view is now conventional in occidental intellectual circles. It has even been perhaps the majoritarian opinion among scholars of Comparative Religion for upwards to half a century that observation of the relative oblivion of autonomous female deities in at least the last two millenia, of deities who seem to have been prominent in Paleo- and Neolithic contexts, proves valuable in reconstruction of the emergence of our institutionalized world-visions. The spin on this story adopted in the novel is that, in the formation of the cannon of the New Testament during the reign of Constantine the Great, edited out was the marriage of Jesus to Mary Magdalene, who is rightfully his divine consort, the numinous bearer of the eternal feminine. And the MM girl was no whore either, as spiteful Patriarchal gossips would have it, but the scion of a royal line, an important and powerful person in her own right. The ratio runs: Mary Magdalene : Jesus :: Bathsheba : David.
The premise of the novel is that a super secretive society, the Priory of Sion, originally the antiquary arm of the Knights Templar, has been closely guarding three items for nearly a thousand years, things which comprise the legendary Holy Grail: first, a plethora of scrolls, including a treasure trove of apocryphal gospels, which document the role of Mary Magdalene; secondly, Her relics; and finally, Her contemporary bloodline, whose most prominent members include: the Grand-Master of the Priory of Sion and curator of the Louvre, murdered at the onset of the novel, his wife and his grandson, who have spent ten years hiding in rural Scotland, and his granddaughter Sophia Neveu, the female protagonist of the novel, employed as a code-breaker for the French clone of the FBI.
The mechanism of the novel is a series of ciphers that must be decoded in order to preserve the secret of the Holy Grail. Since his three chief subordinates, who together with him alone knew the secret of the Holy Grail, have been slain by a fanatical albino monk of the Opus Dei [an organization which, somehow and somewhat notoriously, really exists within the Roman Catholic Church], the Grand-Master is obliged, in his dying hour, to pass on the secret of the Holy Grail. He leaves this secret to his heir and ward Sophia Neveu in such a manner that she becomes introduced to the male protagonist of the story, a Harvard professor of Religious Symbology, [sic] Robert Langdon. Together they decipher an initial riddle, which discovers a painting (La Giaconda), which indicates a key and the location of a safe-deposit box, where lies a wooden box containing a marble vessel, with a further marble vessel inside, which contains a conundrum that discovers a tomb which contains a puzzle that points to a temple, where they encounter a third of the Holy Grail (Sophie´s brother and grandmother, whom she thought dead), and a further riddle that gives away the whereabouts of the rest of the Grail (back where the whole thing started).
The Da Vinci Code is evidently a detective story, which is to keep the best sort of company, The Brothers Karamazov, say, or, Oedipus the Tyrant, even Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The reader gets his (or hers, to be sure) chance to break each of the ciphers in turn: the Louvre crime scene, the Mona Lisa and environs, the bank vault, the wooden box, the first and second marble containers, Isaac Newton´s tomb in Westminster Abbey, Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, and back to the Louvre. Apart from the hell-for-high-leather manner of telling the tale, which is to say, the technique of cutting back and forth to simultaneous scenes of action and hence following the courses of several characters at once (as familiar today from stage, screen and tube, as from prose fiction), the fascination of the work lies in the wit of the ciphers and the wisdom of their deciphering. We get an especially enjoyable lesson in the occult symbolism of Leonardo da Vinci´s painting and graphics: I think I can see Mary Magdalene close by Christ at the Last Supper.
At a deeper level, Brown is casting Mary Magdalene in the role which Nietzsche, in his last spirochetal wits, assigned to Ariadne: the gynogoddess also necessary to deny our nothingness and negate the nattering nabobs of nihilism. Runs the ratio: Ariadne : Dionysus :: Magdalene : Jesus. And in the skein of ciphers, Ariadne is the antitype of Sophia, whose thread leads Bob “Theseus” Langdon out of the Labyrinth.
The Aristotelian unities can be observed in the novel. Except for the recognition scene in Scotland, the action transpires chiefly as a Tale of Two Cities, the Megapolis stretching from Paris to London, and in the course of the twenty-four hours, from the murder of the Grand-Master to the arrest of the murder’s intellectual author, Sir Leigh Teabing. Nevertheless, the occult aspect of the novel comes a cropper. Its pastiche of New Age lore is (I dare not say “Lite”, for New Age brand is always sold in the Health Foods Section of your local supermarket) but silly-all-too-supercilious. There are several, sometimes alternative, explanations for this circumstance.
First is the Platonic: The artist makes copies of things which are in turn copies of the forms, and whether these copies are wrought well or badly, they are yet only copies of copies. And D. Brown gives us bad copy on Occult Science. It is nearly enough to make us homesick for, say, Foucault´s Pendulum, when we remember that U. Eco made his occultist plot up out of whole cloth, trying not for historical relevance but rather for a sublimely paranoiac fugue à la Pale Fire. We say “nearly enough” because FP woefully lacks DVC´s narrative flair.
Second is the Sam Waltonesque: Mr. Brown may know his stuff, after all, but he knows his target market better still. In order not to throw the rider in the first gallop of learning, as Harold Bloom did in his novel of the occult (and his only novel not occulted), Dan Brown feels, for example, compelled to reduce what is commonly regarded as one of the two greatest discoveries of ancient mathematics to a decimal approximation, 1.618, which, for its part, is observed in the average proportions of myriad organic and aesthetic forms. Phi on such treatment of the Golden Mean!
A third is Horatian: Here Brown gives his projected reader more than enough credit to deprecate or despise neo-Paganism, and never seeks to produce the bona fides of fictive verisimilitude in his intermittent glosses on the Occult Sciences. He´s sending up astrologers, heckling Hierophants, prodding I Ching casters, discarding cartomancer, knocking numerologists and, in brief, funning all charlatans and night-crawlers. `Tis all tongue in cheek, that`s to say, the Roman genre, namely, satire (“the reason we are underlings, Horatio, is not in our stars….”). Thus, since Walt Disney paid dues at the local Masonic lodge (like any other fellow who expected to get favorable hearing at the Anaheim Savings and Loan [if not in the Appellate Court]), Bambi´s mother´s really Astarte on the high hoof, Snow White´s Isis in Lilliput, and Cinderella´s Ashtoreth at her Sweet Sixteen. If they do this in the dry wood, what will they do in the holly? It is enough to make the White Goddess grave in her turn.
To be sure, the novel plays the up paranoia angle inherent in the conspiracy theories of the occult tradition -- for somebody has been hiding this stuff and probably for no good reason – in a good-natured, mock dramatic, even comic spirit. Here the point of the Priory of Sion is never to reveal it, yet to struggle through the ages to preserve it.
Finally there´s the Heideggerian: Although both the premise of the novel concerning the rivalry of Priory of Sion and the Opus Dei, and the mechanism of ciphers to be solved, require a grab bag of occultist speculation, neither pagan magic nor pious miracle portends. The point of view of the novel is consistently realistic, doctrinal questions being of mere psychological import, even when a mass disillusionment consequent on an anticipated revelation of the Holy Grail might well spell institutional trouble. In such wise, what turns on the issue is the Gift of Being to Man. As the wise old granddame explains in the unraveling of the novel, our New Dawn of comprehension brings the Mother Goddess to light again in the Work of Art and hence of Culture. And so the cogency of occult explanation is not important in the end, but rather only what works for you, what works for me. Even dumb answers work for lots of folk, or indeed most of them, and a tip the Duns cap to you, every one.
Begin the Beguine of forlorn hope and unaddressed question. The Harvard don, Doc Langdon, in his solidarity with the Templar cause, seems more langue d´oc than langue d´oil, more Cathar yes than Catholic aye. Given their female goddess and the possibility that Sir Steven Runciman might have been an inspiration for Sir Leigh Teabing, why does Brown never push the Grail legend in the traditional direction of the Beghards and the Bogomils?
Insofar as there is some small effort on the part of the author to suggest parallels between his work and John´s, the occult text of the novel is surely Revelation; and one leaves it to the reader to identify Saint Michael, the Woman clothed by the Sun, the False Prophet, the Antichrist and several main personages of the Apocalypse in The Da Vinci Code. Perhaps some such program is obligatory given the theme of the novel; you can´t tell the players without a program.
What is more, once they are ultimately the flashcard version of Revelation, Brown seems to give short shrift to the Tarot cards. The Tarot is, as I have maintained in a number of books and articles, a series of miniature paintings, secreting a series of graphic images, each composed of a pair of regular polygons, which polygons are determined by the proportions of a series of Pythagorean triangles. These graphic images, which constitute the Angelic Language, is the centerpiece of the Christian cabala, grown out of its Neoplatonic counterpart. Although Joachim de Fiore, Giotto, the original Tarot artists, Fernando de Rojas, and Shakespeare understood the gist of this language, and its place in John´s Logos theology; Brown does not. At least the comment in the novel is that the Tarot serves as a means for perpetrating pagan symbolism strikes one as especially wrong-headed.
Finally, there is a reasonable possibility that, like numerous contemporary novelists and poets, such as T. S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Mario Vargas Llosa, and innumerable lesser lights, Dan Brown has secreted the Major Arcana sucessively in his work. In the scope of this commentary, these identifications cannot be developed. Yet in any case, were Mr. Brown to have mined this robust central vein of occult tradition, and not hacked gingerly about the edges, he might have produced not only a preeminently readable, but also a more significant, novel.
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