The Name of the Rose
set the gold standard
for all such books: a meticulously detailed scholarly milieu
, a philosophical problem (that seems, on first glance, utterly academic and of no consequence), a death (or series of them) which, although seemingly unrelated to the problem, soon prove otherwise, interesting, multidimensional, characters, a series of challenging puzzles, leading to a dazzling treasure of legendary status, that just happens to deal with the original philosophical problem in a novel and unexpected way. Many were the nights I'd relax from advanced physics homework to read the last two pages with a head full of good weed and some good 80's hard rock making lapidary
patterns in my head like those on a barbaric reliquary
, dreaming of vast empty planes/plains and the ecstasy of the soul.
It truly changed my life: in my free time, I read Latin and pored over Scholastic philosophy, learned calligraphy and for awhile, affected a large cowl-necked shapeless tunic over my parachute pants that I accessorized with torn bits of knitware and brocade to achieve a look I thought of as being Dark Ages. You know, like Sting in the Synchronicity videos: witchy, Anglo-Saxon, devout Catholic, and skeptically Modern all at once. Postmodern, in fact.
Eco's message (and Robert Anton Wilson, like him) was soundly against fanaticism: the initial question was "Did Christ laugh?" -- the answer was a resounding "Yes!" The Truth, as he saw it, isn't on the side of those who preach gloom and doom, or who take themselves entirely seriously, it's on the side of those who aren't afraid to relax, allow for other interpretations and lighten up a bit. Although some unwary readers took "Rose" to be a chronicle of true facts, most of the initial readership was content to simply read it for entertainment: from the start, Eco made it clear that even though he had researched the era thoroughly and had accurately quoted many rare texts, there's as much sense in searching for the Aedificum or for further works of Adso of Melk as there is to search for the Land of Oz or an accurate copy of the Necronomicon. On the other hand, it's interesting to hear the discussions of late-Medieval schisms and heresies (it's not often pointed out that the Catholic Church wasn't always a totalitarian juggernaut, but has been plagued with skeptics from without and dissention from within almost continuously throughout history) that form the core of the "real history" part of the book. The puzzles were challenging, fair, and just beyond the reach of a casual reader, inasmuch as you tend to be at the same level of incomprehension as the characters are, at any given minute. Lastly, it's an interesting book, full of figures that can be interpreted as cartoons, intellectual embodiments AND as "characters" in a conventional novel, set in motion with multiple plotlines -- if you found the philosophical discussions tedious, you could always just slow down and enjoy the (meticulously detailed) pretty scenery.
The Da Vinci Code has been trumpeted as "Eco on steroids", but its cultural lineage owes more to Daniel Quinn: a conglomeration of popular intellectual progressive myths, given substance by an array of facts, factoids, and pure fabrication, wrapped in some heavy-duty preaching, and given form as a not-terribly-good adventure novel. "Code" is full of the heavy-duty propagandizing that would have given Brother William fits, if he wasn't laughing behind his cowl: while "Rose" politely asks people to question and to recognize the truth that lies in dialog, Code cuts off all dialog whatsoever by acting like a 14-year-old kid who's just read Bertrand Russell and can't wait to tell their Confirmation class they've decided to become an atheist.
...which point our Noder looks sheepishly guilty...
Since flat-out atheism is out of fashion, he subs a bit of the more fanatical anti-Christian strands of Sacred Feminine mythos and claims that Goddess worship (with sacred eroticism its central rite) dominated all pre-Christian cultures. Jesus Christ was not the humble-yet-divine figure that we see in Sunday School class, but a wealthy priest of royal blood whose marriage to Mary Magdaleine amounted to a consolidation of power in the House of David. Mary M's closeness with Jesus led to dissention within the flock, however, and, in the years following the Crucifixion, the anti-Mary faction won, to the extent that she became vilified as a common whore, and Goddess worship became something of a sore point, which became officially whitewashed over 300 years later when the Council of Nicea, convened by the Sun-worshipping Constantine, expunged the more than eighty gospels in favor of a mere four, all anti-Mary and Goddess free and, contrary to previous popular opinions, declared Christ divine. Meanwhile, Mary M. and her unborn child had fled to Marseilles, where her descendants became the Merovingian dynasty, rulers of parts of France from the fifth to the eighth centuries. Since then, the truth of holy bloodline of Jesus Christ has been safeguarded by a) the Knights Templar, b) witches, midwives, and other "wise women" , and c) the Priory of Sion, a shadowy confraternity whose Grand Masters have included Sandro Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and of course, Our Boy Lennie. Since, if the truth were ever let out, Christianity would be doomed, all these worthies have been the subject of everything from organized smear campaigns to outright murder at the behest of the Catholic Church, leading to the truth being whispered but never spoken outright -- until now, of course. Since, as any Goddess-lovin' New Ager can tell you, it's our neglect of good old Mom that's gotten us into (name modern mess here), this information is not only mind-blowing but essential, if we're going to continue on this planet Earth. All of this should be familiar to anyone who's hung around Neo-Pagan, occult, conspiracy, or simply pop Biblical skepticism, although probably not all in one place at once time.
But "Code" goes beyond all this, say supporters, it has facts, it has truth! Well, it has some facts: Paris is in France, Rome is in Italy, Leonardo painted the Last Supper, and wrote his notebooks in what was considered for centuries to be an unbreakable cipher. The Priory of Sion exists, as does Opus Dei, the Knights Templar, at one time did also. On these points, it's fairly accurate. On others, it forces interpretation: an equal-armed cross, like a plus sign, could mean anything from "first aid" to an ancient Sun symbol, to the country of Switzerland, the figure to the left of Jesus in the Last Supper does, in certain lights, look womanly, but otherwise looks like other Leonardo sketches of the apostle John, who is, in traditional iconography, supposed to look like an effeminate young boy. The V symbol can mean Victory, Five, Blessing, the Devil, a bird in flight, or Peace, depending on your era and circumstances. The number five might mean the goddess Aphrodite, but it could also mean the Five Wounds of Christ, the five senses, or a human hand. In "Code" these have but one interpretation, which is of course, to support the myth outlined above. And then there are long fabrications, and (how shall I say it?) blatant bull-throwing, at times laid on so thickly that trying to explain the difference, according to one reviewer, is like hitting a swarm of gnats with a pile driver.
Take, for instance the Madonna of the Rocks: this six-and-a-half-foot painting on wood (which Brown says was five feet long, painted on canvas, and is so light a character whips it off the wall as an ad hoc shield) was produced for a popular religious fraternity, and had to be painted twice because the original version was snapped up by a collector before the guys could raise enough money to pay for it (and Our Lenny needed the money). There was also considerable talk about its content: the contract was that the painting was to show clearly God the Father on the top, and some prophets on the sides, and these weren't shown, leading to a lawsuit, in which the finding was clearly in favor of the artist's right to artistic licence, which was pretty common in pre-Savaronola Florence. Further, it was charged that it looked confusing: the incident shown has no Bibical precident, Mary is holding John, not Jesus, there's no way to tell which baby is which, and the landscape in back of them foreshadows doom and destruction, not the Baptism of Christ. Version 2, more mellow, less busy and with little halos and appropriate symbols around the principals, found better favor with the frat (the other parts were done by someone else on separate pieces of wood, and stuck in the frame around the central painting). Brown's version has the painting done for a convent of nuns who are so shocked by John the Baptist blessing Jesus that the wealthy "flamboyant homosexual prankster" (with "hundreds of lucrative commissions from the Vatican") da Vinci has painted that he has to do it all over again. That rascal! I see a blonde, curly-haired old fop unveiling a large canvas, giggling, and obviously pleased with himself, while a whole convent stands slack-jawed in horror, while a stern Mother Superior stands, ruler at the ready, about to kick the old pansy out the door. (As if nuns did anything else...) Brown goes on to downplay Leonardo's impressive technical skills to say that all of Leonardo's paintings are simply chock-full of playful visual puns, hidden meanings and double-entendres, according to "art historians" and "the experts", and this "fact" is written in "most" art history textbooks.
Which textbooks, I don't know: Janson's History of Art doesn't say a word about codes in Leonardo's paintings, neither was this pointed out in the Time/Life volume devoted only to him, nor is there anything in the Pelican survey of the High Renaissance. His notebooks, on the other hand, were held for a time to be absolutely unreadable, and probably in a kind of cipher, until it was shown that they had simply been written backwards, with a lot of common-at-the-time, but now unused, abbreviations, and this has been pointed out, now and then. (And no, there aren't any Hymns to the Goddess, maps of Scotland, or Priory minutes recorded there.) What seems to be Brown's method here is to use the common notion that all paintings considered "art", if they aren't to be thought of as simply money on the walls for someone, are probably a) symbolic, in a way that most people can't understand, b) "deep", which lets most people off the hook on trying to understand it (since most people don't want to be though of as being "deep" themselves) and/or c) some kind of inside joke or protest or con on the part of the artist. He then puts this together with the very real Leonardo cypher, and hey, presto! he can claim anything he wants to: that Mona Lisa's subject is unknown (she's actually Mrs. Francesco del Giocondo), and her name is actually an Italian anagram for two Egyptian solar deities (clearly an anachronism, since the Egyptian pantheon was only rediscovered to scholars several centuries later), or that the absence of the chalice in The Last Supper refers to the presence of the "real" Holy Grail in Mary Magdeleine (the subject of the Last Supper is Christ's prophecy of betrayal, not the blessing of the bread and wine). Leonardo was a spiritually troubled man, a quiet loner whose only known affair was with a (male) apprentice, and whose life was mostly spent (like most artists of the day) living on little money of his own, currying favor with the likes of the Medicis and Sforzas, not the Vatican: while this state of affairs might have led him to mutter under his breath, Leonardo's dry wit (preserved in his notebooks) manifests itself mostly in the form of "prophecies", a kind of Renaissance joke/riddle where ordinary occurances are described in fulsome, misleading language to sound like momentous events in the future. This doesn't sound anything like the kind of fellow who'd join or run a pagan cult or use his prodigious talents with a brush for several years simply to give some nuns a hotfoot. And that's only the artistic side of the story....I haven't even touched on the fact that Mariolatry isn't ever mentioned, nor Protestantism, or, for that matter, Islam....
But it's a novel! Don't take it seriously! some might say. Isn't it just the most wonderful detective story, ever? Forget about how inaccurate it is, it might as well be on another planet! Did you like it as a book?
We-ellll........(spoiler alert here).....
Most people tend to like this book in direct proportion to their interest in conspiracy theories, proving their Catechism teacher wrong, and in the more elementary disciplines of the occult and in inverse proportion to their appreciation of literature, popular or otherwise. Otherwise it's a fairly pedestrian thriller in the form of a 24-hour nonstop chase scene with a little glamorous eye candy and a few puzzles thrown in. In it, the handsome, virile, Robert Langdon, symbologist extraordinaire, is implicated in the murder of the Louvre's top curator, who is found dead in the Louvre in a pose reminiscent of Leonardo's Vitruvian Man (otherwise known as spread-eagled) and leaving a note containing a Fibonacci sequence, two cryptic lines and one more to the point, written in invisible ink. Auburn-haired hotshot cryptographer Sophie Neveu, granddaughter of the deceased, is also called in, and chase is on to clear Langdon's name, one step ahead of French officials and Opus Dei, considered here as a hit squad for the Vatican (instead of the usual suspects, the Jesuits). Although there's lots of talk about how the meany old Church squelched ancient fertility rites (which here don't seem to be connected with, uh, babies), the Prof is "quite shy" and Sophie is sexually squeamish, a state of affairs that allows the pair to ramble on with the kind of banter and pregnant pauses that you find, mostly, in romance novels. What sexy detail there is, is lavished on descriptions of an albino Opus Dei hit man's auto-flagellation -- the actual sex turns out to be a tease. The action/adventure parts don't do well, either, being interrupted at every turn, by mini-lectures, flashbacks, and long-winded asides, and outside the two principals and the turncoat, the characters are one-dimensional and boring as hell.
What it's best at doing, to return to the Daniel Quinn comparison, is flattering the reader, which Brown does by dumbing down anything that looks like a difficult word or concept into mush, while simultaneously hinting that you're awfully clever to have gotten this far.
For a first example, take his coinage "symbologist", Robert Langdon's academic specialty. An academic that studies symbols is a semiotician, studying semiotics -- Umberto Eco is one -- the word comes from the Greek, σεμιον meaning "sign". It's a difficult discipline that goes far beyond merely interpreting symbols to understanding how symbols are defined and change their meaning over time, and is nowadays usually a part of the linguistics or interdisciplinary studies department, though formerly it was considered a part of logic. But "linguistics professor", "logician", or "semiotician" would require the reader to have to remember a new and difficult word, and so he created the "Department of Symbology" at Harvard, whose sole exponent seems to be our dashing Long Don, and whose method seems only to amount to pointing to any arbitrary symbol -- a circle, a V-shape, two crossed lines -- and interpreting it as some kind of Goddess worship. (This might be interpreted as a satire of postmodern academia, but I doubt it. Nice work if you can get it, however.) If Brown can't paraphrase, he repeats himself: if he has to introduce a new term, say, "crux gemmata", you'll find it explained on page n, on page n+1, and again, somewhat later, as someone strokes their jewelled cross, saying "Yes. This is a Crux Gemmata, you see.." How clever you are, Brown seems to be saying, to be able to have seen that!
And then, there are those fiendishly difficult codes and ciphers that have kept all those explosive secrets all these years, and are still used by the intellectual elite of the Priory to communicate. Most of them are simple enough for a moderately well-versed geek to break in a couple of minutes, if not instantly, and none require the knowledge of any language other than English (which seems strange for a caper that includes Roman and Crusader Palastine, Renaissance Italy and Medieval and present-day France). Having to deal with them frustrated me like a too-easy round of Carmen Sandiego -- you know the answer already, but you have to keep clicking to advance the story line -- as characters dithered around trying to solve, say, a text displayed in mirror image. Gee, I must really be smart, if I can solve puzzles that have stumped such intelligent people! is what I'm supposed to think, but all I feel is let down, and indeed, a bit insulted -- sort of like signing up for an "Archeological Dig Adventure" vacation in Egypt, and finding myself in a LARP with my picture PhotoShopped into a portrait of Cleopatra as a McGuffin. Don't bother, I say, I already know I'm a goddess, the real question is, what happens next after that?
Unfortunately, Brown lacks the courage to go as far as R. A. Wilson and Robert Heinlein in the gnosis department -- apparently, he figured popular belief would only stretch so far. Instead, at novel's end, we find Robert Langdon cozily at the literal feet of Sophie, whom we're told is the last surviving heir to the Sang Real, having experienced an (equally predictable) religious epiphany of his own (“the quest for the holy grail is the quest to kneel before the bones of Mary Magdalene. A journey to pray at the feet of the outcast one.”) and a sequel (about the CIA) already in the works, with teasers listed on "Robert Langdon's" web site. Which leads me to the book's ultimate disappointment -- Brown doesn't seem to believe what he's writing himself. Asked if he were a Christian, he waffled, and said that his faith, like everybody's, was "evolving." In asking us to disbelieve in the divinity of Christ, and his doctrine whereby "the last shall be first", he ultimately leaves his Goddess worship without a leg to stand on: with Jesus reduced to the status of failed politician, the whole New Testament, with all its wonder and promise, is reduced to another version of Anthony and Cleopatra, neither one of whom, despite having reached divine status during their lives, have anyone wanting to worship them nowadays. In denying the divinity of Jesus Christ, I submit, he denies the possibility of our own. And that, neither my occult, nor my Christian, nor even my postmodern sides are willing to accept.