G. K. Chesterton is reported, somewhat inaccurately, to have remarked that those who cease to believe in God don’t necessarily believe in nothing; instead, they are prone to believe in anything. In his recently published, Truth: A Guide, Simon Blackburn quotes this quip in support of his contention that our culture currently suffers from a crisis of truth. A soft, democratic form of relativism has given our contemporaries a “green light to believe what they like with as much conviction and force as they like.” An influential British philosopher with distaste for religion, Blackburn laments the current forms of dogmatism: “Astrology, prophecy, homeopathy, Feng shui, conspiracy theories, flying saucers, voodoo, crystal balls, miracle-working, angel visits, alien abductions, management nostrums and a thousand other cults dominate people’s minds.” Can we add, and perhaps move to the front of the queue, the cult of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code?
Of course, many readers, and soon to be viewers, of the story are simply interested in it as a mildly entertaining yarn; many are drawn in by the controversy itself; but, if media reports are even marginally accurate (and Amy Wellborn has collected quite a bit of anecdotal evidence from responses to her own book about the Code), then many, many individuals are inclined to take large portions of the book as offering a true picture of the history of Christianity and of our greatest works of art and architecture. Although Brown has recently urged that his book is just fiction, the book contains a page entitled “FACT” which lists alleged facts about the antiquity of the Priory of Sion and about Opus Dei, and then makes the bold claim that “all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.” Well, “accurate” must mean the descriptions are true to the fictional world constructed by Dan Brown with a little help from his Gnostic brethren.
And there is that little problem of what we might mean by truth. An even better book than Blackburn’s, Truth and Truthfulness, written by another British philosopher, Bernard Williams, describes the current unrest about truth in our culture in this way. He detects “an intense commitment to truthfulness–or, at any rate, a pervasive suspiciousness, a readiness against being fooled, an eagerness to see through appearances to the real structures and motives that lie behind them.” This request for transparency, for hearing the whole story, pervades our political and media culture. Yet, it is not exactly the same as a commitment to truthfulness, since it entails only a demand that others tell the truth. (Indeed, plagiarism scandals that have afflicted such icons of journalism as the Boston Globe and the New York Times indicate that the stipulation of truthfulness is too often a one-way street.) Paired with this demand, Williams observes, “there is an equally pervasive suspicion about truth itself: whether there is such a thing; if there is, whether it can be more than relative or subjective” and “whether we should bother about it.”
The cult of The Da Vinci Code is a marvelous illustration of both these impulses concerning truth. It purports to offer transparency, an unveiling of things kept hidden by powerful institutions. It simultaneously feeds our skepticism about truth, since it deflates the greatest claims to truth in the history of human civilization. This is why conspiracy theories are at once superficially so satisfying and essentially so vacuous. And Brown’s conspiracy theory has a clever hook; it invites us, as readers, to participate in the solution of the great mysteries, as the book is structured, tediously by the end, around a series of codes that need to be deciphered.
There are now travel guides organized around the plot of The Da Vinci Code. But the impact on travelers is less elevating than it is unintentionally comic. A British paper recently reported tales of tourists in the Paris Louvre ignoring the Mona Lisa to stare at the floor and inquire, “Is this where the curator was murdered?”
Inhabitants of the modern world are increasingly ignorant of the wider world–geography, politics, world religions, and great works of art. But we have the nagging sense that something significant must be at work in history, in religion, and in art. Brown’s story fulfills our desire to have things fit together, to have the great events of history, the great religious teachings, and the greatest works of art and architecture woven into an intelligible story.
Brown’s story also feeds our (utterly unearned) modern sense of superiority; we can see further than our predecessors, not because we stand on the shoulders of giants, whom we have spent our lives trying to master, but because we suppose that we can see through them. It is a lot easier to figure out Leonardo by reading a couple chapters of Dan Brown than it is to subject oneself to a rigorous study of Renaissance art.
Thus does Brown’s Code illustrate both of the impulses that Williams detects in our current cultural malaise concerning truth. Against the deconstructionists, Williams urges, “those who say that all historical accounts are ideological…rely on some story which must itself claim historical truth.” That riposte misses the mark a bit with respect to Brown, since Brown is a deconstructionist only with respect to what his book takes to be the dominant public myth of Christianity in the West. Brown’s book contains a counter-narrative about which neither he nor his credulous fans exercise much skepticism at all. It is tempting to see in this a confirmation of Chesterton’s quip, but it is also important to ask just what that counter-narrative is and whether it makes any sense at all.
The murder of the curator in the Louvre sets the plot in motion. The quest to solve the murder brings together Sophie Neveu, a young detective and granddaughter of the curator, with Robert Langdon, identified as a Harvard “symbologist.” Their quest unveils battles between secret societies, in one of which–the Priory of Sion–the curator was the leading member.
For a book that propounds a subversion of patriarchy by the eternal feminine, The Da Vinci Code embodies a blandly traditional gender relationship between the elder, experienced male (Langdon) and the youthful, naïve female (Sophie). One of Langdon’s great paternal moments of pedagogy comes as he listens calmly to Sophie’s distraught confession that she had a “rift” with her grandfather after she inadvertently discovered his participation in a strange sexual ritual. Langdon patiently asks Sophie whether the ceremony took place around the time of the equinox, with androgynous masks. When she responds affirmatively, he explains that she witnessed an ancient ceremony called “Hieros Gamos” or sacred marriage, which celebrates the “reproductive power of the female.” What appears to be a “sex ritual” has in fact nothing to do with eroticism. “It was a spiritual act,” a means of achieving “gnosis–knowledge of the divine.”
The term “gnosis” calls to mind, as Brown’s book does explicitly in many other ways, the ancient religious cult of Gnosticism, which sought a complete transcendence of the body and an ascension to a realm of pure spirit. The most advanced members of the sect were thought to have already transcended the realm of the body. That’s the supposition behind Langdon’s assertion that the sexual ritual was void of eroticism.
But this is where Brown’s use of Gnosticism itself becomes incoherent. The great emphasis in the book’s final chapters is not on transcending the body to achieve pure spirit, but on the “power of the blood coursing through the veins of Sophie Neveu,” whose parents are both from “Merovingian families–direct descendants of Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ.” The Priory of Sion guards the secret in order to protect the “surviving royal bloodline.” (It is interesting to note that the Priory of Sion is not ancient, as Brown’s book says it is, but is rather a mid-20th century invention intended to advance unseemly political interests in France.)
There is double trouble here for Brown’s heroes. First, how do we get from the Gnostic repudiation of the body in favor of the spirit to the assertion that what is most significant is pure biology, a bloodline? Second, why should anyone today care about the protection of a royal bloodline? On the one hand, Brown wants to demote Christ, who is no longer to be conceived of as divine, but merely as an influential human; on the other hand, Brown wants to elevate Christ’s human bloodline, his royal genealogy. But unless we harbor nostalgia for hereditary monarchy, why should we be moved by this or deem it worthy of protection? Is there not something deeply troubling about Brown’s enthusiastic embrace of the purity of blood?
Of course, this confirms Chestertonian sentiment about the credulity of the superficially skeptical. It also confirms Pascal’s ominous aphorism, “He who tries to make himself an angel ends up as a beast.”