Music: Stuart A. Staples: Lucky Dog Recordings (2004)
I’ve drafted the second part of my and Tom’s essay, a.k.a., “Jesus Freaks (Out).” It’s kind of clunky, but the basic moves are there. We can streamline the thing later—now, it’s important just to shit it out before school starts. I feel the first day encroaching ever so slowly like a herpes outbreak. Come Thursday, it’s going to get itchy. Not that I would know anything about a herpes outbreak, of course.
From Mystery to the Mysteries
Cause you’re working
Building a mystery
Holding on and holding it in
Yeah you’re working
Building a mystery
And choosing so carefully
A number of reasons for the success of the TDC are obvious. In a time when most forms of political power traffic in “disinformation” (e.g., Iraq’s reputed possession of “weapons of mass destruction”), an increasingly cynical public has become particularly adept at decoding texts—especially if those tests hold out the promise of a nude celebrity or secret knowledge. As Jodi Dean has argued, because public demands for governmental transparency are deeply rooted in early American republican ideals, publicity has become
the governing concept of the information age. Contemporary technoculture relies on the conviction that the solution to any problem is publicity. More information, greater (faster, better, cheaper!) access seems the only answer. It doesn’t even matter what the question is. People are supposed to find out for themselves, search for the truth . . . .[ii]
Consequently, secrecy has become central to the formation of publics and the constitutive limit for democratic aspirations. Dean argues that “democratic politics has been formatted through a dynamic of concealment and disclosure,” where the secret, broadly conceived, has become a “normative core” of the ideal of publicity. It is within this context that we might describe Brown’s novel as a “perfect storm”–or rather, a “perfect yarn”–arriving precisely at a time when publics yearned for transparency in governance as the country was led to war on what appears to be political deception. Brown’s book was masterfully promoted to pique the interest of a public primed for uncovering secrets.
Although Brown followed a basic Indiana Jones recipe for his previous book, Angels and Demons (2000), he perfected the formula in the Da Vinci Code by changing his rhetorical strategy: Brown shifted from the basic generic features of the mystery novel to Western Mysteries themselves, moving the ground of his story-telling from the quaint safety of make-believe to the ground of true possibility. More than a fast-paced mystery, TDC soon came to be seen by many as the one “true story” of the Christian tradition, finally surfacing after 2,500 years of repression and deception by the Catholic Church. To better understand the appeal of this Christian secret to contemporary readers, it is helpful to demonstrate how Brown’s novel is a unique, occultic extension of the mystery genre that is deliberately modeled on the ancient Western Mystery tradition.[iii]
In general, both the mystery film and novel feature a secret that a “detective” of one sort or another discovers at the end.[iv] In the classic Sherlock Holmes novel, for example, a “godlike detective . . . [is] charged with finding [a] killer.” Our task as readers, argues Verda Evans, “is to see how he brings it off. We match wits with him.”[v] The pleasure of mystery is clearly its enthymematic invitation for projection, whereby the reader or spectator, identifying with the protagonist, experiences the pleasures of discovering clues and secrets as the story unfolds. Whether the mystery is the pursuit of a killer, a clandestine cabal of Freemasons, or secret knowledge about the origins of a government, every mystery features the interplay of secrecy and discovery, frequently climaxing in some sort of dramatic and spectacular advent of publicity (e.g., the secret is revealed to the world, or becomes a headline on a newspaper, and so on).
As a mystery, TDC features the interplay of secrecy and discovery throughout via a series of mini-mysteries that sucks readers into the plot. Brown’s key device is the simplest kind of mystery: the puzzle. As the novel progresses, TDC readers are forced to contend with anagram after anagram as they are led on a treasure hunt with the protagonists, Professor Robert Langdon, a sybmbologist, and Sophie Neveu, a cryptologist. Consider, for example, the most famous puzzle from the Brown’s story, a message left by Neveu’s grandfather, Jacques Sauniere:
O, Draconian devil!
Oh, lame saint!
Eventually, Langdon realizes the numbers, the famed The Fibonacci Sequence, are out of order, and sees this as a sign that the words might be as well.
“Without another word, Langdon pulled a pen from his jacket pocket and rearranged the letters in each line.
O, Draconian devil!
Oh, lame saint!
was a perfect anagram of . . .
Leonardo da Vinci!”[vi]
With this discovery the protagonists are led to look for more clues in the famous Mona Lisa painting, more puzzles that lead to more clues, and so on, over the course of 105 mini-chapters; there is even a puzzle deliberately embedded by the press in the dust jacket of the hardcover![vii] By virtue of its many puzzles, TDC is placed squarely within the mystery genre along side other occultic, puzzle-laden novels like Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason’s The Rule of Four, Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, and Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas.viii None of these kindred mysteries, however, is as alluring or successful as TDC, so we must locate the appeal of Brown’s mystery in something beyond its intriguing puzzles. We argue that makes TDC unique is, first, the ancient, Mystery-character of the central secret in TDC; and second, the way in which Brown crafted the novel to suggest this secret may actually be true. We discuss each element in turn.
Building a Mystery
First, for those readers who have not read the novel or are unfamiliar with the story, the basic secret “revealed” in TDC is related in six uneasy pieces by an esteemed Holy Grail scholar, Leigh Teabing, to the young cryptologist Neveu: first, Jesus was not the literal son of God, but rather a very human yet charismatic prophet of a hybrid religion that was part pagan, part Egyptian, and part Jewish.[ix] Second, Mary Magdalene was not some lowly prostitute who Jesus “redeemed,” but rather a wealthy, independent priestess.[x] Third, Jesus and Mary were intimate, either legally through marriage or spiritually through sacred sexuality.[xi] Fourth, after the crucifixion, a pregnant Mary fled to southern France to live out her life in a Jewish community.[xii] Fifth, Mary’s daughter, Sarah, was born in southern France, and eventually married into the Merovingian royal bloodline.[xiii] Finally, the Holy Grail was not a cup–neither the one from the last supper nor the one that caught Jesus’ blood as he hung on the cross–but rather the royal bloodline of Mary Magdalene herself.[xiv] In short, the central secret of TDC is that Jesus and Mary had a family, and the true Christianity had to do with a hybrid religious practice that celebrated the feminine.
Insofar as the heresy central to TDC is not news, we must look to how Brown repackaged it at a descendant of the Mystery tradition in both form and content. The first clue is the word “mystery” itself, which derives from the ancient Greek term for mystic rites, later rendered in Latin as mysterium.[xv] Although in contemporary usage “mystery” refers to “a hidden or secret thing,” originally the term referred to what is known as the Western Mysteries, secret religious rituals and ceremonies that can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks. The Eleusinian mysteries, for example, were ceremonies that centered on the abduction, rape, and death of Persephone and her subsequent resurrection with Demeter (her mother), followed by the divine birth of a spiritually conceived son.[xvi] Scholars today do not know much about the practices of the Mysteries because they were expressly secret, however, we do know that all of them
shared some common characteristics: They were centered on a divine female as the vessel of transformation, even if they were clocked in patriarchal form; their purpose was to secure eternal life in the afterworld, through rebirth or redemption; they contained an erotic-sexual element of union with the primal mother; . . . there were blood sacrifices; there were elements of magic and ecstasy in the rites; [and] the initiate was revealed the secrets and the instructions of the cult.[xvii]
In contemporary society, the Mysteries survive in a number of little-known cults and secret societies (e.g., the Ordo Templi Orientis), as well as the more widely known fraternity of Freemasonry.[xviii] Whether the ceremonies and rites practiced by these societies today can be directly linked to the ancient Western mysteries is doubtful, however, the rhetorical function of secrecy and the centrality of sacred feminine remains. Perhaps the most popular vestige of the Mysteries is the Christian Eucharist, whereby the consumption of bread and blood is thought to transform into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Many have argued that seeking “salvation through the union with Christ” is actually a reunion with the Goddess or Great Mother, “as the cup which holds the blood and wine” as well as the “womb in which rebirth and baptism take place.”[xix] The party line of scholars is that the Hellenic mysteries ended when Christianity became the dominant religion; their secret rites and ceremonies were absorbed, disguised, and transmuted into Christian dogma and ritual.
That Brown intended TDC as a modern day celebration of the Western Mysteries is unquestionable, as secret societies of all kinds are mentioned throughout the novel. As the story progresses, the central secret of Christ’s bloodline and family is protected by a members-only society, the Priory of Sion, whose central ritual is a sex-rite. In fact, the second secret of the novel concerns a childhood memory of Sophie Neveu, who accidentally stumbled upon a meeting of the Priory of Sion and witnessed an ancient rite of reunification with the Goddess. Brown teases the reader with flashes of Neveu’s memory until, near the middle of the novel, a titillating graphic depiction of the rite is related (a depiction that was, incidentally, excised from the screenplay): twelve men and women arranged in a circle do a little ritual dance that gets faster and faster, while a man and a woman have sex until both climax, all the while chanting esoteric gibberish. With some embarrassment, after Neveu reveals the memory to Langdon, the goodly professor explains
that although what she saw probably looked like a sex ritual, Hieros Gamos [sacred union or marriage] had nothing to do with eroticism. It was a spiritual act. Historically, intercourse was the act through which male and female experienced God. The ancients believed that the male was spiritually incomplete until he had carnal knowledge of the sacred feminine. . . . Since the days of Isis, sex rites had been considered man’s only bridge from earth to heaven. “By communing with woman,” Langdon said, “man could achieve a climatic instant when his mind went tally blank and he could see God.”[xx]
In short, TDC is no mere mystery novel; it is a novel about the Western Mysteries. We will even go so far as to suggest the TDC functions as a vehicle for the Mysteries itself, but in order to establish this claim, we must detail the role of rhetoric in this ancient religious tradition.
Alchemical Rhetoric Explained
The rhetorical significance of the religious and historical legacy of the Mysteries can be reduced to the central role of secrecy and the function of strange symbolism in their teachings. In part, the secret character of their practice was thought to be homologous to spiritual truths, and the strange symbolism of the Mysteries were intended as mnemonic springboards into spiritual insight.[xxi] As Kenneth Burke suggests in The Rhetoric of Religion, mystery as such is a consequence of the “inadequacy” of all symbol-systems, which is reflected in “the sexual dichotomy” as well as the various social hierarchies built upon that basic mark of difference (e.g., “the king will be a mystery to the peasant, and vice versa”).[xxii] In this respect, the religious symbol–from the Christian Cross to the Star of David and everything in between–is fundamentally and primarily a reminder of mystery, of our alienation from each other (e.g., male and female, mother and child, and so on) as well as the Godhead or some anterior and prior harmonic state.
Yet as the Western Mysteries died out and Christianity became a dominant way of thinking in the Middle Ages, those who continued to believe in the older “pagan” ways were forced to expand the function of secrecy: not only did secrecy preserve and promote the religious experience of mystery, but also the identities and lives of those who continued to practice its rites and ceremonies. In other words, because it was dangerous to worship the Goddess, the Mysteries went “underground” into various practices that housed their teachings in strange and difficult to decipher language. Because secrecy began to function as a mechanism for protection, again, little is known about the survival of the Mystery teachings (e.g., the claim that Freemasonry continues the tradition in some direct fashion is exceedingly hard to establish). Some scholars suggest, however, that the consequence of the Christian “suppression” of ancient religious practices was alchemy, both a materialist quest to turn baser metals into gold as well as a style of thinking and a mystical practice designed to made “base” men and women wiser and more spiritually enlightened. In this respect alchemic language and symbolism is the last, remaining vestige of the ancient Mysteries.
Joshua Gunn argues that occult rhetoric, such as that of alchemy, is typified by “allegorical and figurative language” as well as the “frequent use of misleading, ironic blinds.”[xxiii] [EDIT FOR BLOG: I really dislike referring to myself in the third person, but I’m trying to hide for the purposes of “blind review”–it’ll be changed if it makes publication]. In older alchemic texts this work is frequently accomplished in what was termed the “Language of the Birds,” often very simple prose that harbored a deeper, magical meaning. The cipher of alchemy was also frequently accomplished in strange pictures, such as the schema of alchemy developed by Steffan Mcihelspacher in 1616 and known as “The Alchemical Mountain” or the “Mountain of Philosophers.”[xxiv] The image features a mountain upon which are arranged a number of Tarot figures. In the center of the mountain there is a palace, inside of which sit two figures in discourse. There are seven steps leading to the palace labeled “caltination” [sic], “sublimation,” “solution,” “putrefaction,” “distillation,” “coagulation,” and “tinctur” [sic] in ascending order. In the foreground of the picture, there are two figures: a blindfolded man on the right represents “the fool,” a figure indifferent to Enlightenment. On the left, Charles Walker explains, a man
is using a ferret to dig his hare from the labyrinth beneath the magical mountain. This action symbolizes an arcane alchemical axiom, contained in a word from the Language of the Birds–VITRIOL. The word is made up from the first letters of an alchemical Latin adage, found in many occult texts: Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificandoque Invenies Occultum Lapidem. Some claim that all alchemical secrets are contained in this adage, which may be translated as: Visit the interior of the earth, and by rectifying, you will discover the hidden stone. The hidden STONE is the PHILOSOPHER’S STONE, the secret stone which will heal all sickness, preserve youth eternally, and transmute dross matter into gold. It is the secret of life . . . .[xxv]
Of course, the intrigue of alchemical symbolism is that one should not take surface meaning literally: although some alchemists did believe in a literal, magic substance that would make life a breeze, many of them understood the philosopher’s stone to be a secret truth, perhaps a mathematical equation, that has nothing to do with a rock discovered in the ground, but rather with the truth of the soul to be found in the bowels of the Self. Understanding how the ancient Western mysteries lived on in the Language of the Birds of alchemists, we can now start to approach TDC as something other than mere entertainment. TDC can not only be read as a mystery novel about the Western Mysteries and a centuries old conspiracy to repress the sacred feminine; insofar as TDC has, in a sense, resurrected interest in the Goddess cults of the past, it is an alchemic text itself.
Building a Controversy
In part, the Mysteries’ teachings were secret in order to maintain its leadership hierarchy as well as create bonds among cult members. The mysteries were also secret in order to inspire wonder and respect. In his masterful send-up of the English mystery cycles (the medieval Christian equivalent to the Mysteries) Kenneth Burke summarizes the authorial function of secrecy in a humorous dialogue between “The Lord” and “Satan”:
Mystery in itself will not be without its usefulness in worldly governance. For, once a believer is brought to accept mysteries, he will be better minded to take orders without question from those persons whom he considers authoritative. In brief, mysteries are a good grounding for obedience, insofar as the acceptance of a mystery involves a person in the abnegation of his own personal judgment. . . . That is, subjection is implicit in his [the follower’s] act of belief.[xxvi]
Burke’s observation that mystery and subjection go hand-in-hand helps us to make more sense of the public reaction to Brown’s revival of this ancient form of drama. Understood in the context of contemporary modes of publicity, TDC reintroduces Mystery lore in a way that seems to advance an underlying truth, threatening a conspiracy of subjection, and this is no more evident than in the rabid dismissals of the book and film by secular critics and religious authorities alike.
A representative anecdote is a review of both the film and book by Anthony Lance, who writes film criticism for The New Yorker magazine. Witty, urban, literate and (usually) very careful to document his opinions with evidence from the film reviewed, Lane prefers films with richly textured plots, multi-faced characters, and complex, non-predictable endings. In short, reflecting the tastes of his readers, Lane thinks that great films are visual forms of literature. Conversely, he gives less time and has less sympathy for films that are based on popular, less literary books or whose plots tend to collapse into their whiz-bang special effects. Given his reviewing tendencies, then, one would not expect Lane to review TDC positively; one would expect, however, Lane’s review would continue his habit of careful documentation. A brief look at is atypical reaction to the film is particularly revealing, for it underscores a broader, critical hostility toward the tacit truth-claims of Brown’s fiction.
Lane begins his review with a plot summary, but by his but by his third sentence, we realize that this will be no ordinary summary. “[Jacques Sauniére’s] final act was to carve a number of bloody markings into his own flesh, indicating, to the expert eye, that he was preparing to roll in fresh herbs and sear himself in olive oil for three minutes on each side” (76). We imagine that this is supposed to be funny and to pierce what Lane takes to be the overly serious tone of the scene, but for us, both of whom have an amazing tolerance for bad taste, this one, well, tastes very bad. Obviously, Lane has a burn on for Brown. We learn that some of his malevolence comes from feeling manipulated by the film, strong-armed into believing the unbelievable. “One’s natural reaction to arm-twisters of any description,” he continues, “is to wriggle free, turn around, and kick them in the pentacles. So here goes” (76). And with this austere pronouncement, Lane leaves the film behind and takes off on the novel, obviously his first target. He gets right to the point:
No question has been more contentious than this: if a person of sound mind begins reading the book at ten o’clock in the morning, at what time will he or she come to the realization that it is unmitigated junk? The answer in my case was 10:00.03, shortly after I read the opening sentence: “Renowned curator Jacques Sauniére staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.” With that one word, “renowned,” Brown proves that he hails from the school of elbow joggers-nervy, worrisome authors who can’t stop shoving along jabs of information and opinion that we don’t yet require.
Hold on a minute here. Is it a common critical practice to dismiss an entire book because we don’t happen to like the first word of the first sentence? Not where we come from, but that is precisely what Lane does, and, by extension, asks us to do as well. He even has a word for those of us with enough of a trailer-trash chutzpah to actually enjoy the work and be intrigued by its subversive message. “Should we mind,” he scoffs, “that forty million readers-or, to use the technical term, ‘lemmings’-have followed one another over the cliff to this long and laughable text?” (76). Lane’s remarks recall the Lord’s remarks to Satan in Burke’s notes on religion: “mysteries are a good grounding for obedience, insofar as the acceptance of a mystery involves a person in the abnegation of his own personal judgment.” Now we’re all for slipping a metaphor in where an argument won’t work, but this is mean-spirited stuff, and Lane, for those who follow his commentaries, may not always be kind, but has never been this brutally unforgiving.
As things move along, he doesn’t let up:
Even as you clear away the rubbish of the prose, what shows through is the folly of the central conceit and, worse still, the pride that the author seems to take in his theological presumption. How timid-how undefended in their powers of reason-must people be in order to yield to such preening? . . . .Despite repeated attempts, I have never managed to crawl past page 100. As I sat down to watch ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ therefore, I was in the lonely, if enviable, position of not actually knowing what happens (78).
After beating up on the director, the screenplay writer, and all of the performers, Lane offers us one final vision of his insight. “The Catholic Church has nothing to fear from this film. It is not just tripe. It is self-evident, spirit-lowering tripe that could not conceivably cause a single member of the flock to turn aside from the faith. Meanwhile, art historians can sleep easy once more, while fans of the book, which has finally been exposed for the pompous fraud that it is, will be shaken from their trance.” (78)
What is going on here? The intense anger, close to rage, seems way out of line. Lane’s wrath is both personal and unsupported. No critical claim is ever buttressed with a single shred of evidence, either from the book or the film, save, of course, the credibility of Lane. Nor do we think this lack can be rationalized as space limitations (Lane has written much longer reviews) or by his unwillingness to give any more attention than is absolutely necessary to a text that has already been given way too much public press. We think Robert M. Pirsig may have come closer to the mark here when, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he has his narrator reflect on the intensity with which Phaedrus, the narrator’s alter ego, defends the university as the foundation of reason. “You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. . . . When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogma or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt” (134). Could it be that Lane protests so vehemently against The Da Vinci Code because, on some level, he too fears it might be “true,” in some sense of that term? This hypothesis, speculative to be sure, would go far to explain the intensity of Lane’s reactions.
i Sarah McLachlan, “Building a Mystery.” Performed by Sarah McLachlan. Surfacing (BMG, 1997). Compact Disk.
ii Jodi Dean, “Publicity’s Secret.” Political Theory 29 (2001): 625.
iii We distinguish between “the occult” as referring to a tradition involving the study of secrets, and “the occultic” as a highly connotative term for all things dark and mysterious. The reasons for the distinction will become clearer below.
iv See Verda Evans. “The Mystery as Mind-Stretcher.” The English Journal 61 (1972): 495-503; and Edmund Wilson, “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?” Classics and Commercials (New York: Noonday Press, 1950), 231-237.
v Evans, “The Mystery,” 497.
vi Brown, Da Vinci, 104-105.
vii Well hello, curious reader! Welcome to the footnotes, where most of the secret work of academic writing is done. You didn’t think we’d hint at a secret and not tell you what it was somewhere in this manuscript, did you? Is there no help for the poor widow’s son?
viii See Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, The Rule of Four (New York: Dial Press, 2004); Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum, trans. William Weaver (New York: Ballentine Books, 1989); and Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Club Dumas, trans. Sonia Soto (New York: Vintage, 1998).
ix Brown, Da Vinci, 252-254.
x Brown, Da Vinci, 269-270.
xi Brown, Da Vinci, 266-268.
xii Brown, Da Vinci, 276.
xiii Brown, Da Vinci, 274-278.
xiv Brown, Da Vinci, 270-271.
xv Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “mystery.”
xvi Rosemary Ellen Guiley, Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience (Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 1991), 382. Also see Nancy A. Evans. “Sanctuaries, Sacrifices, and the Eleusinian Mysteries.” Numen 49 (2002): 227-254; and George Mylonas, Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961).
xvii Guiley, Harper’s, 382.
xviii There is a debate among masons concerning whether they should continue to harbor the Mysteries or disown the tradition as central to the order. See W. Kirk MacNulty, The Way of the Craftsman (London: Central Regalia Limited, 2002).
xix Guiley, Harper’s, 383.
xx Brown, Da Vinci, 309.
xxi See Joshua Gunn, Modern Occult Rhetoric: Mass Media and the Drama of Secrecy in the Twentieth Century (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), esp 34-52.
xxii Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970), 308.
xxiii Gunn, Modern Occult Rhetoric, 26.
xxiv See Charles Walker, The Encyclopedia of the Occult (New York: Crescent Books, 1995), 14.
xxv Walker, Encyclopedia, 24-25.
xxvi Kenneth Burke, Religion, 307. Also see M. James Young, “The Unity of the English Mystery Cycles.” Quarterly Journal of Speech (): 327-337.