Naturally, as a priest of Opus Dei, I can’t claim to be thrilled about Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, or this weekend’s movie opening, but it seems to me that there is, despite the copious ink spilled and still awaiting spilling, something that commentaries on Dan Brown’s work consistently overlook: its author’s self-deprecating sense of humor.
He has designed something that, for all its faults, artfully resists being taken too seriously. In fact, there’s a key scene in the novel which stands out both as a testimony to Brown’s humility and as a clever invitation to laugh with him when you watch the movie.
The hero, Harvard professor Robert Langdon, is in New York having a “power lunch” with his editor, Jonas Faukman, to discuss his upcoming book on the “symbology” of the sacred feminine. Faukman, worried by the manuscript’s daring conjectures about Jesus, Mary Magdalen, and the Holy Grail, wants to make sure that Langdon has scholarly support for his theory, so he reminds him: “You’re a Harvard historian, for God’s sake, not a pop schlockmeister looking for a quick buck.”
Of course, what makes Langdon’s imaginary manuscript controversial is precisely what has made Brown’s real novel controversial, and, just in case anyone misses the parallels, Brown has made the editor’s name an anagram of his own editor’s name. The scene is clearly meant to conjure up a real-life conversation between Brown himself and his editor Jason Kaufman.
What makes this an impressive tribute to Brown’s humility is the comparison that he invites the reader to make. The fictional Robert Langdon is indeed a Harvard historian, but everyone knows that Dan Brown is not. In fact, most readers will naturally wonder if the author of second-tier thrillers like Digital Fortress and Angels and Demons isn’t–to use a word much abused in the novel–literally a “pop schlockmeister.”
So, in an amusing way, Brown calls attention to his own lack of academic credentials and the sub-literary quality of his novels–points which certainly haven’t escaped notice. The art historian Bruce Boucher has suggested that the book be turned into an opera instead of a movie, because “If something is too stupid to say, you can always sing it.”
And yet, the joke is not on Brown, because he’s clearly in on it himself. In fact, before that New York “power lunch” ends, the comedy gets richer and even more self-aware: Prof. Langdon triumphantly pulls out a bibliography of fifty historians who support his theory, and Faukman, glancing at the list, gasps, “They’re… real historians!”
Here again, Brown is winking at the reader, because it’s perfectly clear that there are no real historians who support the nonsense that Langdon has written: only one of the “real historians” on the list is mentioned, and he’s entirely fictional. In fact, he’s the novel’s villain: Sir Leigh Teabing, the famous “British Royal Historian.” Obviously, were a real historian available, it would have cost Brown nothing to include the name.
As everyone now knows, “Teabing” too is a coded name: an anagram of the last name of Michael Baigent, one of the unsuccessfully-litigious authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, the popular work of pseudo-history from which Brown got many ideas for his novel. Needless to say, Baigent is not an historian. Not content, though, to make Teabing the villain, Brown also makes him criticize his namesake. Commenting on Holy Blood, Holy Grail (in an odd way, his own book), Teabing adds insult to injury by telling the heroine Sophie, “To my taste, the authors made some dubious leaps of faith in their analysis.”
By this point, it should be obvious that the author of The Da Vinci Code is having far too much fun to worry about getting his facts straight or making much sense. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the entire novel is a convoluted search for Saint Mary Magdalen’s tomb, which has been a popular pilgrimage site in Provence for about thirteen centuries.
By the end, Brown emerges as a remarkably daring writer. He even mocks his own novel’s appeal, introducing the phrase “Everyone loves a conspiracy” like a weary refrain. At one point, a librarian laughs at Langdon and Sophie for their tiresome search: “I wish I had a shilling,” she says, “for every time I’d run searches for the Rose, Mary Magdalen, Sangreal, Merovingians, Priory of Sion, et cetera, et cetera. Everyone loves a conspiracy.” Prof. Langdon himself recalls people talking about the Holy Grail “ad nauseam” on the Internet and says to himself: “Everyone loves a conspiracy.” Yet again, Brown is teasing his readers, because “a conspiracy” is precisely what he’s selling.
Brown is clearly a good sport who knows perfectly well what he’s up to, and he can’t resist tipping his hand to let us in on the joke. So hats off to an author who’s not ashamed of coming across as a “pop schlockmeister looking for a quick buck”–and, as we now know, finding it with a vengeance… literally.
–Fr. John Wauck studied renaissance history and literature at Harvard and lives at the world headquarters of Opus Dei in Rome, where he is a professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. He blogs on The Da Vinci Code at davincicode-opusdei.com.