Friday, September 01, 2006

Well, I finally went and read The Da Vinci Code, because on the way back from Chicago there was nothing else to do other than listen to my wonderful iPod, which I mean in total sincerity because a) my iPod is genuinely wonderful, and b) I was way too tired to do any writing. I don't really want to talk about TDC a whole lot more, but I feel that fairness requires me to acknowledge I have read it. Fairness also requires me to admit that I enjoyed it well enough. I'd like to skip over the religious part fairly quickly and just discuss it as a book, or an exercise in world-building.

The Christian critique can be passed over, as Antilles has dealt with all of my thoughts on that subject in more than adequate fashion. As far as the way the book treats paganism ... well, personally I didn't think paganism got any better treatment than Christianity, and for essentially the same reason - lack of research. As near as I can figure, both Teabing and Langdon view paganism as essentially doctrinally monolithic, and that monolith basically looks like some sort of cross between Hellenized Egyptian religion and the new-kid-on-the-block religions of imperial Rome only without the pantheons of either (something tells me Artemis would object to being lumped with Aphrodite into a single entity simply labeled "The Goddess"). They also seem to know an awful lot about the actual theology of "paganism," for which I'd be terribly interested to see their primary sources.

But the truth is that the portrayal of religion in the novel didn't especially bother me. I mean sure, I thought it was childishly researched, and I'd be very sorry if anybody took as fact anything material about Christianity, paganism, or history. But there's nothing wrong with taking the current fad for Magdalene conspiracy theories and making an adventure story out of it. I mean heck, Infernal Gaslamp was really nothing more than twisting real people, organizations, or events according to an author's personal fantasy life and using that raw material to tell a story, which is basically all Brown is doing. Except that where The DM told a coherent story, I didn't feel like Brown did. The question I was asking myself through the whole book was, "What catastrophe are we trying to prevent?" There's a lot of talk about the awful power of the Priory's secret - how valuable it would be, how it could topple the Church, even some talk about how it could bring modern religion back into balance. So clearly this secret is supposed to be important. But I just didn't feel like the book established that. Now, mind you, I try to take books on their own terms. So I'm willing to accept, for purposes of reading, every point at which the world of TDC differs from the real world. Even so, what was the great catastrophe? Arguably, the final twist of the book is that there is no great catastrophe. But clearly the book feels that many, many people thought there was going to be one. And I just couldn't figure out what it was. That the Catholic Church - indeed, the entirety of Christendom - would be shown a fraud because Jesus wasn't divine? Well, maybe that's good, but it's never really very clear. Nor is it clear how proving that Jesus had a child proves that he wasn't divine. I mean, even the deluded Christians of Brown's world think that God the Father had a child, and that doesn't seem to have cast any doubt on his divinity. Maybe it would just topple the Catholic Church, because it would prove that the Catholics had killed in order to protect themselves. But that seems pretty far-fetched, and not even Teabing or Langdon goes that far.

Perhaps, though, TDC thinks that bringing the Priory's secret out into the open would not topple Christianity but rather reform it (and perhaps in time all "modern religions," to use the book's phrase) by bringing it in line with the gender-balanced paganism of our forefathers. I think that's really the most likely consequence the book is asking us to accept. And speaking as a writer, I have two problems with that.

First, the implicit converse of this theory (and the book makes this point explicitly at one point) is that gender-imbalanced "modern religion" is a catastrophe worthy of building a thrilling adventure story around. Essentially, the book is asking me to look around and say, "Behold the world as you know it. Isn't it awful?" And frankly, it isn't. Or rather, it is awful, but I don't know that it's so obviously awful that reforming the world as we know it makes for a good thrilling objective (even if that objective turns out to be a red herring). Especially when what we're reforming it to is:

Second, nobody in the book - not even Teabing and Langdon - ever goes on record as saying pagan antiquity was better than the Christian era, or that the areas of the world where non-modern religions hold sway have it fundamentally better than the areas of the world where modern religions hold sway. Nobody ever says that in gender-balanced pagan antiquity women had more rights than they have today, or that there were fewer wars, or that societies were not dominated by corrupt oligarchies, or even that people were just plain happier. And as everyone knows (even restricting ourselves here to the Greek-influenced Mediterranean, as TDC sort of unconsciously does), gender-balanced pagan antiquity was generally a brutish and nasty time to live when people of power did what they pleased, states were far more frequently at war than they are today, and women had very few rights compared to the rights they have today. So it's not exactly clear what beneficial effects gender-balancing modern religion is supposed to have, and nobody ever makes it clear.

So I felt like the book's biggest failing was that Brown took real people, organizations, and events, twisted them according to his personal fantasy life (so far so good; we have the makings of a good novel) and then didn't use them to tell a very interesting story. For most of the book I was asked to believe that revealing the Priory's secret would have some large, sort of cataclysmic effect. And I was never able to figure out just what that effect would be, or even might be. Which left most of the book feeling sort of meaningless to me. It's not that I thought the premise of the Priory's secret was improbable. Infernal Gaslamp certainly had that problem - I consider it extraordinarily improbable that Cthulhu will ever appear on Earth, for instance. The trouble is that, granting the premise, I thought the cataclysm extraordinarily improbable. If Cthulhu ever were to appear on Earth, it is reasonably clear to me the catastrophic consequences which would follow. If it were to become accepted as fact that Mary Magdalene bore a child by Jesus and was intended to found the church rather than Peter who actually founded the church, it is not at all clear to me what catastrophic consequences (or even which beneficial consequences) would follow.

Which, I don't know, strikes me as kind of a narrative failing. Did I miss something?


Tyler said...

I think you're completely correct. The book though it presented an interesting fantasy, has no real merit as a story in and of itself. Characters were wooden, plotpoints unfurled with startling regularity and it came to a huge conclusion which was underwhelming to say the least. I thinkwhat both you and I did not get from it, if I may assess your mental state a bit, is that we are both confident in our worldviews: you in foursquare christianity, me in secularized pantheism. The book titilated those sad saps who followed in various and sundry beliefs (be they christian, atheist or other) without considering their implications. For them, the poorly researched fantasy (which one must admit was presented as fact, save that the book sat in the fiction section) was the revelation. The very idea that oh I don't know, the council of Nicea existed is evidence of some breach of faith. Now the council of Nicea for those of us who are both learned and secure in our worldview is easily explained: either it was a political farce designed to shove Christianity into a neat little cubby hole or it was visited by divine inspiration which led them to the right conclusions or a combination of the two. But for those who did not realize it had happened it creates a crisis of faith, they have not had the time to consider what it means, and feel (wrongly) as though they have been lied to. This in my opninion is the essence of why the book was such a hit.

Natalie said...

Of course, the fantasy is a lot more revelatory\\incendiary because it's poorly researched. For instance, it would be a lot less shocking if Teabing said that at the Council of Nicaea a bunch of bishops got together to discuss the question of Jesus' divinity, which had been ongoing almost from the beginning of Christianity; that the council was a debate rather than a parliament and no votes were taken; that after the debate all but two of the bishops agreed that Jesus was divine; and that the content of the canon wasn't even discussed.

Jonathan said...

well put re: paganism also having reason to be somewhat indignant with brown.

as for the popularity, perhaps some readers are content to be wowed by the ostensible cliffhanger, without ever seeing real evidence of the cliff. in other words, we are so used to cliffs -> cliffhangers that now when we see cliffhangers we infer cliffs, even though there may not be any. in fewer words, if brown's was the first novel, it wouldn't have been popular.

Tyler said...

In thinking about this more, also in keeping with Jonathan's commentary on the unevidenced cliff from which to hang: in the film, the incomproble Ian McKellan (as teabing) is favored in the previews as stating in stentorian tones that "[the ritualistic denial of the Nazarene-Magdalene line is] nothing short of the greatest coverup in human history!"
I think we live now in an era of expected corruption. We do not trust our leaders, secular or religious, conservative or liberal, local or global. We expect that things have been hidden from us. Therefore revelation of coverup can be thought of as tantamount to catharsis... purging the bad and living at last in the fresh air of truth. I think we have forgotten in part that truth is only a preliminary step in the process of reform. If a coverup is indeed exposed, something must be done with it. And apropos of that the size of the coverup does nto equate to the consequences of its revelation. Though one must admit "nothing short of the greatest coverup in human history" is an excellent apetite whetter. Shame we never get the meal it promises.