The Da Vinci Code
by Dan Brown
Reviewed by John Brady
Friday, April 23 2004, 3:42 PM
In the end, Dan Brown's best-selling The Da Vinci Code enacts what it depicts. A story of deceit, it itself is deceitful. A novel in which works of art and literature are portrayed as elaborate masquerades harboring an ancient secret, it hides a secret of its own. Masquerading as critical of religion, the novel proves instead to be an assault on secular reason. The Da Vinci Code inspires a passive spirituality suffused at once with new age goofiness and a gullible, slightly feverish inclination toward baroque conspiracies.
In line with the novel's general penchant for multiple and hidden meanings, the code of the title is a double referent. As a mystery story, the book opens, appropriately enough, with a murder. Jacques Sauniere, a 'renowned curator' at the Louvre, is shot in the stomach in the museum's Grand Gallery by Silas, a large, brutal albino who, significantly, is also a monk in the secretive, ultraconservative catholic sect, Opus Dei (but more about him in a moment). Sauniere is a member of the Priory of Sion, a sect even more secretive than Opus Dei, and has an urgent, but naturally secret, message he must convey to future generations. Left to die, he uses his last few precious moments of life to create an elaborate code employing, in part, the works of Da Vinci. Unraveling this first code is the task left to the novel's hero, Richard Langdon, a Harvard professor of 'religious symbology' and a reluctant, but nonetheless quite effective detective. Ably assisting him is Sophie Neveu, a renegade cryptographer from the French version of the FBI, who, although she is French, young, and, according to the narrative, good-looking and although this is a gyno-centric novel celebrating the power of the feminine, is surprisingly prudish, sexless even.
Working to solve the puzzle left behind by Sauniere, Richard and Sophie begin to follow the trail of the book's second code, one which is much more portentous because it in fact holds the key to understanding almost the entire course of Western civilization. (If, by chance, you're looking to find the Hegel of airport literature, Dan Brown just might be your man). For as Richard, Sophie, and the reader come to appreciate, lurking in some of the most important cultural artifacts of the West, including Walt Disney's The Little Mermaid, are clues pointing to an age-old, but naturally secret, message, one which, if revealed, would not only identify the hiding place of the Holy Grail and in turn help to expose the divinity of Christ as a sham and along the way rehabilitate the reputation of the Bible's most lovable whore, Mary Magdelene, but also unleash the explosive power of long-repressed feminine energy and a sexed-up pagan spirituality.
The Catholic Church, invested as it is in Christ's divinity and, as it has demonstrated countless times, more than a little leery of whores, female sexuality unleashed and pagans, naturally has an interest in keeping the West's core subliminal message secret. Opus Dei -- as the novel never lets us forget, a collection of religious nutbars even loonier and more power-hungry than the mainstream church -- is more than willing to take the lead in thwarting Richard and Sophie's efforts. Thus, the organization unleashes upon the world the aforementioned Silas.
Has an author ever managed to squeeze as many markers of religious freakiness and general kookiness into one character as Brown has with Silas? A 'massive monk,' Silas is a celibate fond of flagellating himself until the blood runs down his back in order to take his mind off sex. (Not surprisingly, the technique is said to work). He takes an extreme cotton to his spartan monk's cell. He accepts the commands of his superiors without question. He's handy with a gun. And to top it off, his albino's red eyes glow with righteous fury when he shoots the people who get in his way, including an elderly nun. Reading such descriptions of Silas as well as those of his conniving Opus Dei bosses and their scheming Vatican allies, the reader quickly gets the impression that The Da Vinci Code will be serving up a tasty, if slightly over-the-top, critique of institutionalized religion.
Such an impression is only bolstered by the stakes of Richard and Sophie's pursuit. As the true nature of their search becomes clear, they (and the reader) realize that finding proof of the non-divinity of Christ would have world-altering effects. Handed another defeat by the investigative techniques of secular reason, religion and belief would surely never be the same. For a significant portion of time, much of the novel's dramatic tension derives from anxiety about whether this explosive truth will in fact be revealed. We are asked to root for Richard and Sophie, root for a professor and a police investigator, root, in other words, for two individuals whose career choices mark them as representatives of modern forms of knowledge (skeptical reason, scientific technique). Will these two triumph over their religious pursuers who are fanatically devoted to protecting the power of tradition and religious dogma? Will they be able to push the envelope of enlightenment further by dispelling perhaps one of the most powerful myths still to haunt secular modernity?
But then the tension dissipates. Towards the end of The Da Vinci Code, as Richard and Sophie's search seems about to reach its pay-off, it becomes quite clear that the two heroes are ultimately not interested in the truth. Betraying the values of publicity and critique, they are willing to allow the secret history to remain secret, thus saving belief from the corrosive powers of skepticism. (The person most interested in finding the grail and damaging institutionalized religion turns out to be the novel's chief villain). A novel that seemed to be a story pitting the forces of knowledge against those of spirituality suddenly becomes a story awash in spirituality. It is, to be sure, not the spirituality of any one particular church. Instead it is a watered-down spirituality of vague pieties where belief is not a key to salvation so much as a therapeutic device that helps people handle the pressures of modern life. Practicality replaces truth as the standard of judgment. As Richard remarks to Sophie, 'Religious allegory has become a part of the fabric of reality. And living in that reality helps millions of people cope and be better people.
We tend to think of conspiracy thinkers as loons. Most probably are. But we shouldn't let the possible mental instability of those who see secret plots everywhere cause us to lose sight of the fact that another hallmark of conspiracy thinkers is their audaciousness. It takes a certain boldness to stand up in public and declare that one's fellow citizens, regardless of the faith that they might have in their intellectual gifts, are in fact powerless dupes of malevolent forces. People don't like to hear that. They tend to react badly when they do. They sometimes try to harm the messenger. Equally bold is the conspiracy theorist's self-presentation as the keeper of the truth, as the one person in the entire world who can help dispel the general populace's ignorance. This drives people crazy, too. No one likes a know-it-all.
As a writer, if not a theorist, of conspiracies, Brown is particularly audacious. At the heart of the novel is nothing less than the idea that not only was Christ mortal, but he was a royal mortal, a descendent of King Solomon. If that weren't enough, he never grounded his church upon Peter, but handed the keys to the kingdom over to none other than his wife, Mary Magdelene, who, it turns out, was not a whore, but a royal herself, a descendent of the tribe of Benjamin. Christ, it seems, was interested not only in stamping out leprosy and harassing the odd money changer now and then, but also had vast political ambitions, most notably reclaiming the throne of Solomon. Thus, he and Mary, to top it all off, had a kid. Or in the novel's more purple prose, 'Behold the greatest cover-up in human history. Not only was Jesus Christ married, but He was a father. My dear, Mary Magdelene was the Holy Vessel. She was the chalice that bore the royal bloodline of Jesus Christ. She was the womb that bore the lineage and the vine from which the sacred fruit sprang forth.
The Church's effort to stymie Richard and Sophie with the help of Silas the Oddball is only the latest in its centuries long quest to suppress knowledge of Christ's true nature. And Church officials would have succeeded if not for the efforts of the Priory of Sion, which counts among its past members some of the leading intellectual lights of Europe. Figures like Da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, and Jean Cocteau encoded the real history of Christ in their works and worked to save it in other ways as well. In other words, forget the Renaissance, forget the Enlightenment, forget the scientific, industrial and democratic revolutions. What has really driven the intellectual and cultural history of the West has been a theological fight involving the attempt to preserve the royal bloodline of Christ and the sacred feminine as represented by Mary Magdelene.
In their attacks against secularism, conservatives like to emphasize what they feel are the authentic religious foundations of modern institutions and politics. In this perspective, the true religious nature of life has been obscured by the secular notion that non-religious factors -- e.g. self-interest, reason, class consciousness -- explain the behavior of individuals and the course of politics. Despite its criticism of organized religion and the sop it throws to feminism with its invocation of the sacred power of womanhood, The Da Vinci Code displays this conservative sensibility. It, too, yearns to see in the march of history the influence of a higher power instead of something so mundane and human as interests, passions or reason.
And as the book's final scene makes clear, human intellectual energies are best directed to searching for and submitting to this sacred force. At novel's end, Richard, now without Sophie, who, in the course of the search, has located long-lost family members with whom she wishes to remain, does in fact find the grail's final resting place. But instead of opening it up to the scrutiny of the wider public, a modern gesture, Richard, experiencing, as the reader is approvingly told, a "sudden upswelling of reverence," falls to his knees, the classic gesture of subordination.