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Duh, Vinci

Step right up, folks, and get your secret history of Western civilization

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Audrey Tatou and Tom Hanks - PHOTO COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES

Call me an incorrigible pointy-head, but The Da Vinci Code strikes me as quite possibly The Silliest Story Ever Told. The only appropriate cultural response to the goofy metaphysical thriller will be the inevitable parody by the makers of The Naked Gun or Scream. Watching Ron Howard's creaky movie version I kept thinking, "People take this piffle seriously?"

Ezra Pound somewhere opined that even the trashiest bestseller is of some worth, since it offers a lesson in how to make a living by writing. Though I consigned the duty of reading Dan Brown's how-to-become-a-millionaire-novelist manual to the "life is too short" file, its screen incarnation suggests that his handy formula interweaves two basic elements, not unlike the Star of David's intersecting triangles (warning: watching the movie makes you see patterns everywhere).

One element is a narrative superstructure of what might be called exhaustively contrived potboilerplate, thriller-style. You know--murders in dark museums, car chases, conspiracies, split-second escapes, dastardly villains, secret rooms, albino assassins--that sort of thing. Brown's main contribution to the mechanics of keep-'em-turning-the-pages would seem to be a truly childlike--or adolescent--fascination with all manner of secret codes, cryptograms, hidden meanings and symbols, which his tale serves up in monotonous and eventually tiresome profusion.

The other element, meanwhile, is a thematic substructure of Big Ideas, concerning Man and Religion and the Secret Hands that turn the levers of history. In terms of sophistication, these are roughly on a par with the tablets of immortal wisdom handed down by New Age idiocies like The Celestine Prophecy. But because Brown's Big Ideas challenge key tenets of Christian belief, they have gotten an inordinate amount of attention.

Approaching the Da Vinci formula for the first time, one might wonder, as I did: Are the Big Ideas merely there to give the thriller machinery some dramatic heft and intellectual pizzazz, or are the thrills there to rocket us into the profundities of the Big Ideas? Alas, the latter seems to be the case. Brown apparently really believes in his Big Ideas, and that the fiction is there to serve them rather than vice versa.

But seeing the movie convinced me that this understanding is the exact opposite of The Da Vinci Code's real nature, and that the "dark con" at its heart is nothing other than its author's own essential self-deception. That is, Brown--with his bland chipmunk visage and tweedy get-up the very image of a sub-middlebrow striver--has duped himself into believing that he's serving the gods of Truth rather than of Lucrative Diversion.

To believe otherwise, one would have to give credence to his Big Ideas, both individually and as an aggregate. So what are they? As far as I could discern, the main contentions include:

1) Jesus was not divine. His divinity was a doctrine turned into orthodoxy by the fourth-century Council of Nicaea.

2) As part of its patriarchal political program, the Church suppressed worship of "the divine feminine" that had been part of pagan religions, and oppressed women ever after.

3) Mary Magdalene was not only a leading follower of Jesus but his lover and spouse.

4) After Jesus' execution, Mary Magdalene went to France where she had Jesus' baby. The Holy Grail refers to her womb and (presumably) the couple's bloodline, which continues down to the present.

5) Since remote antiquity, a group called the Priory of Sion, including such luminaries as Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newton, has sought to protect that bloodline and its secrets, the revelation of which would explode the foundations of Christianity, or at least Catholicism.

6) For an equal stretch, the conservative Catholic cult Opus Dei has endeavored to eradicate the bloodline and its guardians.

To deserve serious consideration, I would submit, these ideas need both to cohere and to stand up individually. Yet 4-6 are the sheerest hokum, since they can be traced directly not to credible historical sources but to pop-occultist speculative pulp of recent decades.

While 3 is at least debatable, the "proof" Brown adduces is laughable. Shown the fey figure to Jesus' right in da Vinci's The Last Supper, we are told, ta dah!, that this is Mary Magdalene--as if for four centuries no one noticed that there was a woman sitting in the middle of the picture! Unmentioned, at least in the movie, is that this figure is supposed to be the Apostle John, or that there's a long artistic tradition of representing the "disciple that Jesus loved" as a lissome young man (add in that da Vinci was gay and you have the basis for a realistically provocative reading of the painting).

So far, Brown's putative arguments amount to silliness piled upon silliness, proof of little more than P.T. Barnum's assessment of the public's fathomless credulity. (As for ideas 1 and 2, we'll return to those.) No doubt some of its fans might argue that this is meant only as entertainment of an enjoyably portentous sort. But if that were its primary appeal, then a recent caper film called National Treasure--a similar historical-conspiracy thriller, but far more ably made and entertaining than the Da Vinci Code movie--should have been a record-shattering blockbuster.

Yet National Treasure, despite the genuine fascination of its ideas, presented itself as little more than a high-spirited popcorn movie. The Da Vinci Code's runaway success, in comparison, seems to owe something crucial to the self-seriousness of Brown's communicable belief that he's saying something important.

The Da Vinci Code promises to do for albino monk assassins what Jaws did for sharks - PHOTO COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES

How else do you explain that the Da Vinci book mutated so spectacularly into the Da Vinci phenomenon-cum-industry? Walking into a Barnes & Noble recently, I was staggered to see a table the size of a small river barge weighted down with countless titles related to Brown's book and its chin-tugging historical speculations. Obviously, lots of folks take this stuff seriously, notwithstanding its transparent silliness: Did you know there's a Da Vinci Code diet book?

No doubt the zeitgeist deserves much credit for the phenomenon's extravagant spread. Not so long ago, Brown's entertainment would have earned him a trip to the stake. Today, it comes after decades of scholarship that have drawn into question much of the historical accuracy of the New Testament and Christian traditions, decades of growing popular and scholarly (including feminist) fascination with pre-Christian and non-Western belief systems, from paganism to Goddess worship.

Perhaps most relevant to the Da Vinci phenom was the discovery in Egypt in 1945 of the so-called Gnostic gospels and texts. Suppressed in late antiquity, these "alternate" testaments of other early Christians, not all of whom believed Jesus to be divine in the Johannine sense, suggest the extent to which the construction of a Church-decreed orthodoxy (in which the Council of Nicaea was crucial) did come at the price of encasing the spiritual discoveries of early Christianity in a suffocating authoritarian--and yes, misogynistic--enforcement bureaucracy largely inherited from the Roman Empire.

Today, with that orthodoxy in an advanced state of decomposition, people not only are again seeking freely but have a lot more information about the roots of Christianity to enable their quests. A book like Elaine Pagels' Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, to cite only one example, explores some of the extraordinary spiritual insights contained in early Christian writings that ended up in the non-canonical bin.

You can certainly say that the core of Brown's thesis--especially Big Ideas 1 and 2, above--taps into the same fascinations, but there's one huge difference between the two writers' works, besides that hers is a lucid scholarly meditation and his is a trashy thriller. Pagels shows us the spiritual value of what was lost in the creation of orthodoxy. Brown doesn't, apart from some pseudo-feminist silliness. (Note to Dan: Pagans didn't worship "the divine feminine"; they worshipped specific goddesses, and much of this impulse was preserved by the Church in the veneration of Jesus' mother, or Mariolatry.)

Brown's failure in this regard is what makes the movie of The Da Vinci Code an eerie doppelganger for Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Though approaching the Jesus story from the opposite angles of anti-orthodoxy and ultra-orthodoxy, both movies manage to give us breathless accounts of "what really happened" without ever delving into what Jesus taught. Thus both serve up something of considerable dramatic (and commercial) power but very dubious spiritual or intellectual worth: content-free Christianity.

Of Howard's screen adaptation, I should note that it features surprisingly wan central performances by Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou and somewhat more lively work from Sir Ian McKellen. Alternately frenetic and stolid, and way too talky, the movie's main revelation is an acrid irony: While fans of the book said it read like a killer movie script, the movie demonstrates that such ponderous, idea-heavy material must've worked better on the page.

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