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first day nerves

August 31st, 2006 by slewfoot

Music: Charlatans UK: Between 10th & 11th (1992)

Today is the first day of class to me, and I have a jam-packed schedule. Last night I decided to lay off the customary nightcap so that I was super-awake this morning, but about 11 p.m. I realized I was too hyped up to sleep, so I took a sleeping pill. Just one. It worked. I was knocked out an hour later, but kept waking up every other hour or so (Obi, my cat, also kept waking me up; he seemed more anxious about school than me!).

Anyhoo, Thursdays are the most grueling: I have my “Rhetoric and Popular Music” class from noon-thirty until two, a large lecture course (enrollment 250, currently we’re at 150 or so). Because the class is so huge, I have to sing and dance, so by the end I’m pretty pooped. Then, at 3:30 until 6:30 I have my “The Idiom of Haunting” seminar, and because it’s the first day, the floor is mine to occupy for three hours. Aye. I’ve got Tab energy drinks on hand—but I may even resort to a sugar-filled Red Bull!

Talking to “b” yesterday morning, I realized that this is my tenth year teaching. Wow. I’ve been doing this ten years! You would think I would have a handle on my teaching, but I still have a lot to learn (I guess part of that is adjusting to Texas students). You would think after ten years I wouldn’t get the jitters on the first day of class—but I do. I am nervous as hell. This is probably a good thing: if you are not nervous—at least on the first day of class—then you are too comfortable and prone to make bad teacherly mistakes (a least this is what I tell myself to make me feel better). Good luck to all on your first week of teaching!

fuck your way to God

August 28th, 2006 by slewfoot

Music: Brian Eno: Another Day on Earth (2005)

Ugh: the final push. I’m reminded of the Underworld’s song “Push Upstairs,” that relentless filter-sweep up from the base, weeeerrooooh, weeeerooooh, weeeerooooh (“push . . push . . push . . .”). The goal is to get this Jungian foray done before my mind switches gears completely into deconstruction and Derrida’s Specters of Marx. So, here is part three of my and Tom’s essay:

The Uncanny Truth: Glimpses of God in Sacred Sex

The entire universe can thus become a crowd of beckoning symbols; for once speech is considered merely “symbolic,” it is only one more step to considering action itself as symbolic . . . . This suggests a way of carrying symbolization far beyond the mere sexual symbolization of the Freudians, as the mystic would say that sexual yearnings are but the conventionalization of a still profounder yearning . . . .

—Kenneth Burke[1]

Thus far we have argued that TDC is a mystery about the Mysteries, and that its rhetorical style is classically alchemic insofar as the novel purports to advance a truth in the language of fiction. We then suggested that the strong reaction to the novel is in response to the peculiar mystery character of the novel as harboring a spiritual truth. For the remainder of the essay, we shall take to explaining in more detail what, exactly, this supposed truth is. Our purpose to not to advocate for this truth, but rather, to explain what is presented as the truth of TDC when we read it as an alchemical text. In other words, insofar as the “Language of the Birds” is a rhetorical strategy for occluding a truth in plain sight, TDC harbors a secret truth in the name of “fiction.” That truth is the alchemist’s understanding of change and transformation, the process of the coniunctio, and the illumination achieved at its highest level of completion, the rubedo.

Animism and the Sacred Feminine

As we noted previously, the spiritual and/or physical union of Mary Magdelene and Jesus is a common tale, so the intrigue of the novel must be located in something deeper within that story, perhaps even beneath it. A concept that helps to capture the reaction of many to Brown’s yarn is the “uncanny,” a concept that Freud used to denote the feelings of suspicion and fear in relation to some peripheral or startingly familiar object in a novel or story. Belonging to the realm of the “frightening,” Freud links the uncanny to the work of Schelling, for whom the concept was “what one calls everything that was meant to remain secret and hidden and has come into the open.”[2] He then gives Schelling’s definition a psychoanalytic twist by linking the concept to the dynamic processes of repression, whereby the uncanny feeling emerges as a fear of something that was once familiar and conscious and was subsequently repressed. The uncanny thus becomes a symptom of the failure of repression, the return of the repressed.[3]

If we turn, then, to the story of Jesus and Mary’s union in TDC, we are led to ask: what was once conscious, then repressed, and has now returned? Although Freud was more interested in primitive religious beliefs and practices, he furnishes us with a helpful answer. For Freud, ancient animistic views of the universe, views that feature a belief in human spirits, telepathy, and magic, dominated so-called primitive cultures:

It appears that we have all, in the course of our individual development, been through a phase corresponding to the animistic in the development of primitive peoples, that this phase did not pass without leaving behind in us residual traces that can still make themselves felt, and that everything we now find “uncanny” meets the criterion that is linked with these remnants of animistic mental activity and prompts them to express themselves.[4]

Bracketing the Lamarckism in this passage (the notion that outward experiences are imprinted on the psychic and genetically passed from one generation to the next), we are left with the notion that what has been repressed and is returning in the uncanny experience is an animistic set of beliefs. The appeal of TDC thus becomes, in part, its ability to speak to reader’s repressed beliefs about [the interpenetration of spiritual and material realities—-a classically alchemical and animistic point of view.

In fact, through the character of Robert Langdon, TDC specifies the animistic beliefs of the novel in terms of the sacred feminine: “Constantine and his male successors successfully converted the world from matriarchal paganism to patriarchal Christianity by waging a campaign of propaganda that demonized the sacred feminine, obliterating the goddess from modern religion forever.”[5] Langdon suggests that Matriarchal paganism, protected by the Mystery traditions for centuries, was repressed, “forgotten,” and replaced by a fledgling, patriarchical Christianity. Owing to the fact TDC is fiction, one is right to be skeptical of the ideas Brown forwards about the sacred feminine, however, scholars more respected than Brown have made a similar case.

In her landmark study The Creation of Patriarchy, Gerda Lerner examines the gendered dynamics in Mesopotamian religious practices in the second and third millennium B.C., a period that did feature a common belief in what Freud would label “animistic magic.” “The answer to the question ‘Who creates life?'” writes Lerner, “lies at the core of religious belief systems” of this period.[6] Her intricate and careful analysis of texts from this period reveals how the answer to this question shifts over the millennia in complicated ways. Beginning with the Mother-Goddess figure as the sole generator of universal fertility, the emphasis gradually moves to the Mother-Goddess as assisted by numerous male gods or human kings. From there, creativity shifts from the Mother-Goddess and her male consorts to a “symbolic creativity” that is captured in the magical act of naming; symbolism thereby became a site of mystery and magic. Subsequently, demonstrates Lerner, the male gods who could name things were eventually collapsed into one powerful, male, storm-God.[7]

The completion of patriarchy, Lerner argues, is perhaps most famously represented in the Book of Genesis, where Yahweh now creates all by himself:

To the question “Who brought sin and death into the world?” Genesis answers, “Woman, in her alliance with the snake, which stands for free female sexuality.” . . . The weight of the Biblical narrative seemed to decree that by the will of God women were included in His covenant only through the mediation of men. Here is the historic moment of the death of the Mother-Goddess and her replacement by God-the-Father and the metaphorical Mother under patriarchy.[8]

Lerner’s analysis is particularly of interest to rhetoricians because of the centrality of the magic of naming and the fundamental religiosity of symbolism. The suggestion here is that because men cannot procreate, symbolic activity and thought were gradually established as the more important type of creativity. Hence the longstanding association of men with linguistic creation and rational thought, and women with biological creation and the body (e.g., in the dialogues of Plato).[9] In making their case for the sacred feminine as a Templar secret, Picknett and Prince extend Lerner’s observations to sexual intercourse: the arrival of (religious) patriarchy and the consequent association of the bodily with women led not only to sexual discrimination, but a demonization of sexual intercourse:

This simple-minded myth [of the singularly male God-head] has provided a retrospective justification for the degradation of women, and discouraged the alleviation of gynecological and birthing agonies. It has denied women a voice for thousands of years—and it has demeaned, degraded and even demonized the sex act, which should be joyful and magical. It has substituted shame and guilt for love and ecstasy, and it has inculcated a neurotic fear of a male God who was apparently so full of self-hate that he loathed even his best creation-humanity.[10]

Unquestionably, Brown’s novel is a book length exposition of this argument. However, insofar as TDC’s plot features a sacred “union” between Christ and Mary, the book does not so much advocate for a return to the dominance of the Mother-Goddess as much as it does a balance of the spiritual forces of male and female, a balance that alchemists referred to as the “hieros gamos” or “sacred wedding.”

C. G. Jung on the Hieros Gamos

As evidence from the ancient Mysteries suggest, there have been moments in Western history when gender dominance was either collapsed or shared. In literature on the Mysteries and related Hermetic texts, the balance between the gendered forces of ultimate reality was achieved in hieros gamos. Mythically, the union is frequently represented by the Mother-Goddess taking a young male partner, typically her son or brother, and by means of their sexual union bring fecundity and rebirth to the polis. One better-known, mythic prototype of this kind of sacred sexuality was the coupling of the goddess, Isis, and her god-consort Osiris. It is generally believed that in the ceremonies and rites of various Mystery traditions, ceremonial couples would engage in ritual intercourse to both re-enact the spiritual origin-story was well as achieve spiritual insight. The Pharaoh dynasties, for example, practiced ritual intercourse and carried it into the pre- and then Hellenic periods. As the practice traveled from Egypt to the Greeks, Picknett and Prince explain that

The hieros gamos was the ultimate expression of what is termed “temple prostitution,” where a man visited a priestess in order to receive gnosis – to experience the divine for himself through the act of lovemaking. Significantly, the original word for such a priestess is hierodule, which means “sacred servant”, the word “prostitute,” with its implied moral judgment, was a Victorian rendering. Moreover, this temple servant is, unlike the secular prostitute, acknowledged to be in control of both the situation and the man who visits her, and both receive benefits in terms of physical, spiritual, and magical empowerment. The body of the priestess had become, in a way almost unimaginable to today’s Western lovers, literally and metaphorically a gateway to the gods.[11]

Seen in this way, “sex is . . . the bridge between heaven and earth, bringing a release of enormous creative energy, besides revitalizing the lovers in a unique way – even down to their cellular level.”[12]

Although the idea of sex as a sacrament continued unabated in the East, mainly through Indian Tantra and Chinese Taoism practices,[13] it was violently oppressed and repressed in the West by the Church, whose terror and loathing of women was strongly grounded in the potential power of procreation and female sexuality.[14] There is, Picknett and Prince note, no clear-cut tradition of sacred sexuality in the West, “unless it was simply known as alchemy.”[15] Indeed, it was through the secret practice of alchemy that the sacred feminine and the concept of the hieros gamos were both preserved and further theorized.

Although centuries of alchemical thought make it difficult to generalize about the diversity of alchemical beliefs and practices, many scholars agree that alchemists held (and continue to hold) a general worldview that orbited two concepts, the hieros gamos and the numiosum.[16] The numinosum is ultimate spiritual reality, a dimension that interpenetrates material reality and is synonymous with deity. The concept is fundamentally animistic and idealist in character, yet, ultimately material reality is part of the numinosum, even though we experience material reality as separate. A direct experience of the numinosum is fleeting but fundamentally transformative and often described in terms of “rebirth.” Indeed, for the contemporary alchemist, “the greatest failing of our world today, probably encouraged by the abstracting nature of science and technology, is the alienation from the numinosum.”[17] The most direct route to it is the hieros gamos, both in terms of sexual intercourse between a man and a woman and in terms of chemical substances.[18] The key to all alchemical work is the idea that “it takes two.” Chemically, the numinosum is tapped when two baser metals combine to make gold; spiritually, sexual partners receive fleeting glimpses of the numinosum at the moment of orgasmic release. The process of the union of two different substances, be they people or natural elements, is termed coniunctio, and at the highest, most spiritual level the coniunctio achieves rubedo, a highly desirous state of spiritual illumination.[19] Working on both the exoteric level of metals and the esoteric level of spiritual growth, Jack Lindsay reports that the process of coniunctio proceeded in three basic steps: (1) the mixing of contrasting substances; (2) the introduction of a third, dynamic factor that changes the original relation between the substances into a qualitatively new substance (sexual intercourse, Hegelian sublation, and so on); and (3) the stabalization of the new substance (e.g., the production of gold or spiritual transformation and rebirth).[20] Achieving spiritual illumination and new substances was described as the “Great Work” of alchemy.

What is unique about alchemical thinking—and what attracted Freud’s one time heir apparent, C. G. Jung, to alchemy—was its stress on the necessity of duality for spiritual insight and material change. With the introduction of the great monotheistic faiths, a more individualistic model of spiritual illumination replaced the pagan, epistemic teaching of the hieros gamos: from the ancient Mysteries to medieval alchemy, only a unification of contrasting substances can lead to spiritual rebirth. With the exception of a number of Eastern faiths, most contemporary religions feature a solitary individual seeking salvation from a transcendent deity (often with a middle man’s guidance). Because clinical treatment in psychoanalysis stressed the fundamental necessity of interpersonal dialogue between the analyst and analysand, C.G. Jung began to research alchemy and, eventually, described his psychoanalytic teaching as fundamentally alchemical.

Nathan Schwartz-Salant argues that Jung’s understanding of alchemy straddled the division between alchemy as a metaphor for self-improvement and insight and as a real “spiritually illuminated science.” On the one hand, some theorists believed that alchemy was a figural projection of the general, human processes of inner development. Jung clearly had sympathy with this view. On the other hand, however, some scholars, such as Titus Burkhardt, see alchemy as “a continuous system engaged in by centuries of adepts who passed their knowledge on to one another.”[21] Jung also had sympathy with this view, and particularly because of his understanding of the libido. Like Freud, Jung understood the life drive to be sexual, however, he found the drive behind the libido was a spiritual yearning for “individuation,” a process of psychical progression by which an individual becomes increasingly aware of his whole being and the interconnections among all facets of psychical and material life. As is detailed in his autobiography, Jung saw the esoteric side of alchemy as an innovative anticipation of his own psychodynamics. For Jung, the mysterium conunctionis of sacred sexuality was merely one form that individuation might take. “The mystical side of alchemy,” writes Jung, “as distinct from its historical aspect, is essentially a psychological problem. To all appearances, it is a concretization, in projected symbolic form, of the process of individuation.”[22]

The alchemic form of the individuation process, at least from Jung’s point of view, was also uncanny in a number of senses. First, of course, was the repression that the exoteric work represented: working with metals was a projection of interior processes (as is, Freud would maintain, civilization itself). Second, in respect to the threefold process of alchemy, Jung writes

The alchemic operation consisted essentially in separating the prima material, the so-called chaos, into the active principle, the soul, and the passive principle, the body, which were then reunited in a personified form in the coniunctio or “chymical marriage.” In other words, the coniunctio was allegorized as the hierosgamos, the ritual cohabitation of Sol and Luna. From this union sprang . . . the transformed Mercurius, who was thought of as hermaphroditic in token of his rounded perfection.[23]

This remarkable passage not only links the alchemic process with the sacred marriage, but adds the ultimate gender-bender—namely, that the changed lovers will experience themselves as hermaphroditic—not physiologically, of course, but psychologically. This psychical hermaphordism was central to the Great Work: masculine and feminine differences were to commingle within a single person’s psyche, just as the sexual act unites differences among bodies. We submit that it is the promise of this spiritual truth, the gender-bending promise and aim of the hieros gamos, that provokes so much reactionary rhetoric about TDC. Although ostensibly (and one might say even ideologically) TDC is a heteronormative tale, its tacit threat is the egalitarian promise of polymorphous perversity. For example, only the intercourse of Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu can unravel the spiritual secret, and only the contrast of their differences yields the Holy Grail of spiritual insight, an exciting contact—however fleeting—with the numinosum: the excitement of mystery itself.

We are now in a better position to revisit TDC and the terror it seems to provoke in many Christians and Church apologists. If the union of Jesus and Mary Magdalene is an allegory for the hieros gamos of the Mysteries and related pagan religious practices, then even in fiction TDC poses a threat to any mainstream religious teaching that stresses the centrality of individual salvation: neither patriarchy nor matriarchy have access to the divine, as they are not dialectical. The centrality of sacred marriage to TDC implies that spiritual enlightenment comes, not through the symbolic mediation of a priestly class, but rather directly, personally, and even literally via sexual relations with an adept. The concept of the hieros gamos is the antithesis of the Eucharist.

In light of the affront the central teaching or “truth” of alchemy poses for contemporary Christian teachings, we submit that TDC is not merely an alchemical story, but rather, a repackaged, alchemical text: first, the prose can be seen as occult rhetoric, a “truth” hidden behind the veal of fiction and, though written in an accessible style, is still nevertheless doing a kind of Janus-faced labor; second, the secret about which the narrative hinges—the necessity of two for spiritual insight—is a central alchemical axiom rooted in the ancient, Western mysteries. Whether or not one believes in the ability of sacred sex to lead to spiritual insight (one of us is enamored with the possibility, while the other is hopelessly agonistic on the issue—though willing, very, very, willing, to practice the art with suitable volunteers), when one reads the novel itself as a demonstration of the kinds of secrets the story is about, TDC effectively functions as an alchemical text, delighting those “in the know” and offending (or secretly titillating) those who are not. The truth of TDC need not be “true” for it to function for millions of readers as a spiritual insight, irrelevant of the intentions of Brown or Doubleday. As a dutiful kabbalist might say, the consequence of getting this alchemical formula right is “in the numbers.”


1 Kenneth Burke. “Ausculation, Creation, and Revision: The Rout of the Esthetes; Literature, Marxism, and Beyon.” Extensions of the Burkeian System (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993), 103.

2 Sigmund Freud. The Uncanny, edited and trans. by David McLintock (New York: Penguin, 2003), 132.

3 Also see Nicholas Royle, The Uncanny (New York: Routledge, 2003). In a chapter titled “The Private Parts of Jesus Christ,” Royle details the intimate relationship between the uncanny, sexuality, and divinity.

4 Freud, Uncanny, 147.

5 Brown, Da Vinci, 133.

6 Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 180.

7 Tom, we need some page numbers from Lerner here.

8 Lerner, The Creation, 198.

9 See Elizabeth V. Spelman, Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), esp. 19-36.

10 Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, The Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ (New York: Touchstone/Simon and Shuster, 1997/98), 160.

11 Picknett and Prince, Templar, 257.

12 Picknett and Prince, Templar, 152.

13 Cite something here on Tantric sex stuff.

14 We need to cite an authority of some sort here, and probably NOT Picknett and Prince.

15 Pickett and Prince, Templar, 153.

16 See C.G. Jung, Alchemical Studies: Volume 13 of the Collected Works (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), 122-124, 180-185; and C.G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy: Volume 12 of the Collected Works (London: Routledge/Kegan Paul, 1953), 36-37; and Nathan Schwartz-Salant, Jung on Alchemy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

17 Schwartz-Salant, Jung, 7.

18 We need to have a discussion here about the essentialist basis of this theory, and where we would put homosexuality in all of this. I think the tack would be to discuss the ancient’s not really having a concept of “gay” back then—sex was sex . . . I dunno. Some jerk will get up in our grill about this.

19 Schwartz-Salant, Jung, 10-14.

20 Jack Lindsay, The Origins of Alchemy in Greco-Roman Egypt (London: Frederick Muller, 1970), _______<---need page numbers Tom!

21 Schwartz-Salant, Jung, 11.

22 Jung, Alchemical Studies, 105-106.

23 Jung, Alchemical Studies, 122-123.


August 27th, 2006 by slewfoot

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

—Sarah McLachlan[i]

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.

summer project #4

August 25th, 2006 by slewfoot

Music: Spandau Ballet: The Singles Collection (1985)

Everyone I know has that “Oh Shit!” look as the first day of class looms; scrambling we syllabae-ize and finalize course packets. Both of my preps are done, thankfully, though I need to re-research my lectures for next week. Regardless, my hope is to knock-out a new draft of my and Tom’s essay on The Da Vinci Code. Tom has already drafted 17 pages; now it’s my turn to add my signature and a few moves. Here is the introduction to tease the curious (all two of you!). Hopefully I’ll get around to writing sections on mystery and alchemy this weekend.

There’s (Really) Something About Mary:
Mystery, Alchemy, and Sacred Sex in The Da Vinci Code

When Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ opened on August 12, 1988, approximately 10,000 Christians gathered outside of Universal Studies in protest.[1] The film was banned by the Vatican and condemned as blasphemous worldwide because of a fantasy sex scene between Jesus and Mary Magdaline,[2] and despite a number of cooling attitudes among evangelical Christians about the film, until relatively recently, the movie was the most famous of a long line of “blasphemous films” condemned by religious groups and authorities. As the debates over the inclusion and exclusion of the gospels are apt testament, the textual suppression to affirm clerical power has always been a recurrent theme in the history of Christianity.[3] In our time, however, the most well-known, blasphemous texts have been deliberate feats of fiction. Before Last Temptation, William Peter Blatty’s best selling novel The Exorcist, as well as William Friedkin’s gut-wrenching filmic version in 1973, provoked charges of blasphemy from religious authorities (as well as catalyzed a full-blown exorcism-heavy religious trend, the deliverance movement).[4] Seven years after The Exorcist controversy, Umberto Eco’s most unlikely bestseller The Name of the Rose–along with Jean-Jacques Annual’s filmic version in 1986–reignited a popular obsession with blasphemy. Two things were common to all of these condemnation controversies. First, each book and/or film surfaced a close relationship between sex and spirituality, whether sexual relations were between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, Satan and little girls, or monks and peasants. For many Christians and certainly the Holy See, blasphemy is the sexualization of the sacred (Jesus, innocent children, and so on). Second, each novel or film generated waves of “phantom criticism,” which concerns the condemnation of a text by biblical historian or Christian apologist without having ever read or seen it.[5] In the scene of contemporary popular culture, it would seem blasphemy and phantom criticism are dialectical counterparts.

In light of the well-known controversies of these three novels and films, when Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code hit bookshelves in 2003, few were surprised that phantom critics would begin denouncing Ron Howard’s heavily hyped–and almost universally panned–filmic version before it hit theatres in 2006. What apparently made this text so heinous was that Brown embedded a radical sub-text about the “real [sexual] life” of Jesus within a page-turning, puzzle-solving mystery: Jesus and Mary Magdalene had children. Yet unlike the previous novels, Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has sold over 60 million copies worldwide. The sheer pervasiveness of the enterprise surrounding the novel even led the Vatican to appoint an official Da Vinci Code debunker: this blasphemous book is the first to ever have “an archbishop dedicated to debunking its contents.”[6] As a representative of the Catholic church, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone yoked the global ubiquity of the novel its influence: “There is a very real risk that many people who read it will believe that the fables it contains are true . . . . It astonishes and worries me that so many people believe these lies.”[7]

Insofar as the suggestion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a family is not a new one, then, what are the “fables” and “lies” advanced by The Da Vinci Code (hereafter DVC)? Brown argues that he did not make the stories revealed in the novel up himself, but culled (some allege plagiarized) them from two well-researched, controversial alternative histories of Jesus, Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1982) and Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince’s The Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ (1997). What Brown adds to the “fantasy” of The Last Temptation of Christ is an alternative history of Jesus in which Mary Magdalene was the Holy Grail herself, carrying Christ’s seed and creating a bloodline that extends to present day. What seems to make the DVC so much more blasphemous than its forebears, however, is that the Jesus-Mary connection and the Holy Grail twist are not presented as a “fantasy” within the fantasy world of a novel, but a possible truth embedded within the vehicle of fiction. In this essay, we are concerned with this gesture of burying a presumed “truth” within a fictional ruse, a gesture that we characterize as fundamentally “alchemical.”

In what follows, we are not primarily concerned with the “true history” of Jesus Christ. What we are concerned with is why this admittedly fictional text that tacitly claims a true, alternative history of Jesus (Brown’s protests to the contrary) has threatened the Vatican and other Christian leaders so much more than any of its predecessors. Film commentators, church authorities, credentialed historians, local ministers, and fundamentalists of every persuasion seem to have gone collectively berserk over this text, and we are interested in advancing at least a partial explanation.[8] Our provisional answer is twofold: First, we argue that part of the reaction concerns the way in which Brown builds mystery with promises of extra-textual truth. For example, the novel opens with a statement headed in boldface as “FACT:”

The Priory of Sion–a European society founded in 1099–is a real organization. . . . The Vatican prelature known as Opus Dei is a deeply devout Catholic sect that has been the topic of recent controversy due to reports of brainwashing, coercion, and a dangerous practice known as “corporeal mortification.”[9]

Although the latter “fact” is verifiable, the former is a complete fiction; the Priory of Sion was a secret society hoax fabricated by Pierre Plantard, a French prankster, in the 1950s.[10] Regardless, opening this way suggests the novel is a vehicle for a secret truth, precisely the function of alchemical rhetoric for centuries. Second, we argue that the controversy surrounding DVC does in fact orbit a blasphemous truth that is hardly a secret: religion and sex are intimately related. Yet, as we hope to show, things are much more complex than reducing this relation to historical paganism, for depth psychology promises a deeper insight. Read on, curious reader, and we’ll take you deeper into the mystic.



[1] “Can Religion and the Movies Mix?” BBC News Online (20 Feb. 2004): para. 20; available accessed 25 August 2006.

[2] Xan Brooks, “Last Temptation Writer: Mel’s Passion is Medieval.” Guardian Unlimited (23 March 2004): para. 7; available:,12589,1176024,00.html accessed 25 August 2006.

[3] Need source here.

[4] See Joshua Gunn, “The Rhetoric of Exorcism: George W. Bush and the Return of Political Demonology.” Western Journal of Communication 68 (Winter 2004): 1-23; and Thomas S. Frentz and Thomas B. Farrell, “Conversion of America’s Consciousness: The Rhetoric of The Exorcist.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 61 (1975): 40-47.

[5] Just as with the film version of The Last Temptation of Christ, protests of the film The Da Vinci Code began long before the film was ever released. Need source here, further explanation?

[6] “Vatican Appoints Official Da Vinci Code Debunker.” Guardian Unlimited (15 March 2005): para. 1; available,,1438297,00.html accessed 25 August 2006.

[7] “Vatican Appoints,” para. 4.

[8] We need to cite a number of examples–tracts, published articles, etc., that berzerkily denounce the book.

[9] Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York: Doubleday, 2003): 1.

[10] Pat Donnelly, “Da Vinci Details: Fact and Fiction.” The Gazette (Montreal; 13 March 2006): E3.

austin is awesome

August 23rd, 2006 by slewfoot

Music: Something groovy overhead, hippie sounding organs with lots of triangle

Have I ever written about how Austin is so cool? Ok, so, after I saw the shrink I decided to find a coffee house so I could get a promised review outta the way. Ended up at Austin Java, lovely place. I left because, as per usual, I forgot my damn earbuds and some asshole designer (web design, I think) decided to bring her office to the coffee shop AND TALK VERY LOUDLY AND ANNOY EVERYBODY. So I left in search of free wifi and quiet. I mean, even McDonalds has wifi in Austin.

I am now at the Gingerman, a favorite department hangout. The wifi connection that appears in my window is titled, “Ciagars, Hookers, and Mo'” . . . at first I thought it said “Hookas,” but no, it’s “Hookers.” I laughed. They have a gazillion beers on tap here and a groovy beer garden. I got a primo parking spot. I’m sipping some super-yummy Dogfish 60 and reviewing an essay (I’m going to recommend revise and resubmit . . . I rarely reject unless it has absolutely no hope). Oh, and taking a break to blog. In an hour department friends will arrive. Life in Austin is good.

the juice is loose

August 22nd, 2006 by slewfoot

Music: Marconi Union: Distance (2006)

I have just returned from a “panel” titled “What I wished I had known” for the new faculty (roughly 120 folks). Of course, when they contacted me to speak those folks over at DIIA, which stands for “Division of Information and Innovation Assessment” or something mind-numbing and unrememberable like that, didn’t know what they were going to get: he he he. I enjoyed it, and clearly the new group of faculty about to become absorbed by the UT Borg did too. They laughed, which is all one can hope for. “I hope they could get past their laughter,” said one DIIA person. “You made a lot of really good points true of my experience as well.” Anyhoo, these poor faculty have FOUR MORE DAYS of administrivia and panels about “how to write a syllabus” and what not. Four Days!. I think that is simply too much to put new people through. You don’t remember all that stuff anyway, and very few people ever fit within their allotted time slot. I mean, The President spoke before us, and he yammered on endlessly as people who like to hear themselves speak (me too) are wont to do (“oh, and one more thing . . . . Finally, let me tell you about . . . . And I almost forgot, blah blah blah”). I always stick to a script to not waste or encroach on someone’s time.

Anyhoo, here is the script I roughly followed, more or less.  This script represents a couple hours of work that is now going to get posted and be forgotten forever (gee, just think about the labor time spent on stuff like this; it’s all gratis work, and the “network” opportunities are really overblown; tasteless calories for the vita monster, too).


Hello again, my name is Josh Gunn and I’m in the department of Communication Studies. Most people call me, however, Herr Rev. Doktor Professor DJ Joshie Juice. You can call me Juice.

Now, I knew, since I was third, that if I went with the most important things that I wished I knew, you’d probably get to hear it, well, a third time. So, I thought I’d go with the road less traveled and offer up a series of complaints.

You know, since I was born into redneck stock in the appalacias that can be traced back to a disgraced clan of fisherpeople from the Scottish Highlands, and disgraced because we were supposedly THE WAR clan–Gunna means war–and our Chief or Grand-poo-bah was be-headed, so we like fled to the shoreline and fished and then became criminals or something and got shipped to America. What was I saying? Oh, yes, because we’re all cowards and criminals, we Gunns know how to complain.

We Gunns also know how to hide our complaining in pretty language that sounds informative. So, here I am to supposedly inform you with “What I Wished I Had Known.” I’m going to go with my Good Ol’ Georgia Grammar and re-title this: “What I Wished I Knew: A Top Ten List by Herr Rev. Doktor Professor DJ Joshie Juice.”

* TEN: I wished I knew that when they say “UT students” are smarter, this also means they know how to point out contradictions in the syllabus grade policy and will call you out in front of the whole class, thereby causing a week of “Oh my god I’m naked in the elementary school cafeteria”-style dreams.

* NINE: I wished I knew that the UT salute [SHOW] and the phrase “hook ‘em” has magical, memory wiping effects, just like that memory-wiping flash device in the Men in Black movies. In the event one of my smart students pointed out a contradiction in course policy, all I had to do was salute and scream “hook ‘em,” and everything would have been ok.

* EIGHT: I wished I knew that everyone doesn’t like or use profanity like I do; like I said, I was born in and raised into a din of profanity and jokes about doing inappropriate things in church. As a corollary to number eight, I wish I knew that the walls in my building–the second most ugly and poorly designed building on campus–are paper thin. If you use profanity during office hours neighboring faculty will develop and use a rating system. Fortunately, I’ve never been awarded an X, but I did get an NC-17 rating one time when I read this article by Celeste Condit about the animal brain that really made me mad. These essentialists think that they can just hardwire social construction away; it’s all I can do to contain myself from using certain p-words. Ok, I’ll say it: POSTMODERNISM, POSTSTRUCTUALISM, POSTHUMANISM, POSTMARXISM, POSTFEMINISM. Take that, you essentialist PRE-POST PANZIES.

*SEVEN: Really, this is only tangentially related, but: I wish I knew my department was in the second most ugly building on campus, which is full of offices with no windows. I would have negotiated the department to move to a different building with my mighty vita power. All I managed to get was a fake window that emits UV rays to help me stave off depression. That’s what you tell them folks: you get depressed without sunlight. Then they HAVE to buy you a fake window. You can even tape a picture of a palm tree in them to create the illusion that your janitor closet office is sitting at some beach resort.

* SIX: I wished I knew that the memory-wiping effects of the UT salute and phrase “hook ‘em” does not work so well with faculty, especially after you are chastised for using profanity during office hours.

* FIVE: I wished I knew the library system has a ruthless, Draconian book recall system with mercenaries that will demand your first born if you don’t return a recalled book in four minutes. If you’re away at a conference and an art history grad student writing a paper nineteenth century hygiene needs the latest Zizek pony trick, expect it to cost you, big time.

* FOUR: I wished I knew that my department’s assigned librarian is like having our own Good Witch Glenda. With a magic flip of the wrist, she can subdue recalled book mercenaries and possibly order the library second copy of Zizek’s latest pony trick so that you can finish your manuscript.

*THREE: I wished I knew that I needed to bring a change of clothes to school whenever I need to go to the library. It’s like three miles away from my office, which is in the second most ugly building on campus. The first couple of times I went, I discovered this was unwise to do before teaching without a change of clothes and a sweat towel to dry off. Those smart students will giggle at your sopping armpits and grimace at the unpleasant stench that your redneck body emits.

*TWO: I wished I knew there was a complex and extensive series of tunnels running under the university. I still wish I knew where the master map was so I could get a copy. You see, I did my graduate work at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and while there they have a series of heated tunnels crisscrossing campus for the winter months. In downtown Minneapolis they have a series of skywalks. I mean, the city is like one SUPER DUPER HABBITRAIL. Now, for those of you who are not 30-something, the HABBITRAL was a series of tubes and sliding boards and stuff for hamsters; when I was a kid I LOVED them, and my hamster scooter did too. Well, see, I wished I knew about UTs SECRET TUNNEL system because I would have campaigned to have them opened and air-conditioned for the summer months. Heck, I think we should do that now. Why not? I have brought a petition for those of you who want join me. I’m calling it my Herr Doktor Professor Rev. DJ Joshie Juice’s HAPPY HAMPSTER TUNNEL CAMPAIGN.

And finally, the number one thing that I wished I knew when I first came to the University of Texas: This sounds really friggin’ cheesy, but, I wished I knew that everything was going to be all right. A year ago I knew this intellectually, but the emotional knowledge and faith wasn’t there for me in the first semester. I was scared. UT is massive, the research pressure is intense, and you are often surrounded very, very busy people. They say it takes a year and a half to fully develop a social network, and my organization communication colleagues tell me nine months to feel rooted in a job. Security eventually happens, as do the drinking buddies and friends. And if orientation is any measure, this university is a most excellent place because of the resources and money these folks pour into making sure you are happy. Take their money and run.

driskill hotel haunting

August 21st, 2006 by slewfoot

Music: Seefeel: Polyfusia (1993)

Last night the haunting seminar seminarians spent a seminal evening in the Driskill Hotel, touted by some as the most haunted hotel in Texas. Perhaps, but the only spirits I saw went into my liver. In any event, people have been asking about the evening, so I thought I’d recount a bit of what happened but, of course, not reveal all (as that would not be “building a mystery,” with props to Sarah).

We arrived at the Driskill around 4:30, checked-in, and regrouped at the hotel bar where we related our own ghost stories a bit. Then, with coupon props to Meghan Dunn, we dined at Manuel’s—a chic Mex-fusion joint on Congress—and had margaritas. After full and a bit less uptight, we regrouped at the hotel for a hour-long tour of the place by Kevin from Austin Ghost Tours.

Kevin told us lots of stories about this hotel, which built in the wild west days circa 185-something and apparently “serviced” all the mucky-mucks, politicians, and folks-who-could-afford-it. The hotel failed many times and closed for years at a stretch (and was once deeded to someone at a poker game). The bar across the street, Buffalo Billiards, used to be a brothel and there were also all kinds of little rooms upstairs in the Driskill for the back-room inclined to get it on. Anyway, I won’t relate all the stories because it will ruin the fun for readers who want to do it; suffice it to say some people died in the Driskill, a few rather tragically, and they don’t know that they are dead. “The Sixth Sense got it right,” said Kevin at one point. “Most ghosts just want to be acknowledged and then they’ll leave you alone.”

After the tour, we regrouped for some more spirited discussion, and then a few brave folks broke-off to go wandering around with a camcorder. The rest of us talked and then Brooke fashioned a make-shift talking board. We rejoined the others, who had found a really charged spot in the Carousel Room (we were told this is where old timers tried to get their secret society aspirations on). No ghosts wanted to chat with us. So then we snooped around in search of another charged-feeling room, but were soon called back to the Carousel Room, wherein Will, Maggie, and Adria had located a chatty spirit in the mood to talk.

The ghost identified herself as “Baby” or “Bebe,” we could not tell (she was not a very good speller). She was 34 and said she was angry and really didn’t want us to let her go. (The room was very, very cold by the way–some say uncannily cold.) I speculate she was a prostitute ghost and want to fuck (with) us. After she stopped chatting, we left and Maggie and Will and Meghan closed out with some peaceful prayers.

After that, we went to Buffalo Billiards and talked to a couple of bartenders about their ghosts. Some of their stories were pretty creepy, too. I pooped out at midnight (It was a very long and continuously LATE—though delightfully happy—weekend, but details about that later). The rest of the folks did various things; some continued to explore until 3 a.m., others went to bed. I had a sound sleep and awoke at 7:30 a.m. refreshed and unspooked. I hear Adria, however, was quite creeped out . . . (or creeped herself out)! A great start to what I think will be a fun seminar clique!

Oh yes, I bet you want to see the full photo gallery.

the voice abject returns

August 17th, 2006 by slewfoot

Music: The Sisters of Mercy: Floodland (1987)

Yesterday New York City released even more Nine-eleven emergency phone calls. This third wave of releases (the last was on March 24) is in response to pressure from “families of the victims.” The families believe, although it is often poorly articulated, that there is more “information” packed into the grain of the voice of the dying than investigators could possibly provide. This much is true. This information, this data, is not knowledge but the wonderful, horrible, irrepressible will to live. Without any maudlin intention (or desire), one is hard pressed not to call this love. The something-more-in-voice-than-voice quality of the voice of the dying person, this abjection, is a reckoning with the impossible, the constitutive limit of representation.

The New York Times has hand selected, edited, and produced a number of these audio clips, which you can hear on line. The most chilling of the tapes is from Melissa Doi, who died on the phone while talking to a dispatcher: “Can you stay on the line with me please. I feel like I’m dying.” No matter what the newspaper does, there is no way to properly frame this call. Listening to the tape–which is almost unbearable at times–the only and overdetermined response is to cry (don’t listen to it if you don’t want to cry).

I’m very ambivalent about the release of these tapes and their presentation by the Times and other news organizations. On the one hand, they help to demonstrate–better than any symbolic resource at our disposal–what makes us human, why we are neither robots nor mere animals. On the other hand, it is on the basis of an illusory identification with such voices (here, identification with the dispatcher’s voice is forced, though the horror is truly reckoning with our own deaths) that wars are supported and fascists come to power. This voice abject, this thing in voice more than voice, is what I’m writing the new book about (Haunting Voices: Speech and Transcendence in Postmodernity is the working title). When I listen to these tapes, I am convinced that what I’m writing about is important, and that when my eyes well up without a soundtrack or some Spielberg-produced pabulum, my emotional response can guide scholarship. That’s one thing I have learned (among many) from my colleagues in performance studies: humane scholarship requires you to feel it. Another thing I have learned is that feeling too much–especially in autobiographical performance–can be abusive to your audience, sacrificing community for self.

Cognizant of my own distaste for the mediatized maudlin machines, I will have to think hard about how much of my feeling to put in this/my writing.

retroactive wishes

August 16th, 2006 by slewfoot

Music: The Today Show

As a part of my semi-relentless effort to meet junior faculty in my age bracket, I’ve volunteered to help out at next weeks “new faculty orientation.” Now, UT goes overboard with this: it’s a whole damn week capped by a Borg-like, neo-fascist singing of “The Eyes of Texas” with the steer sign thrust into the air (it’s the same sign heavy metal types use to signify “hail Satan”). Last year I bailed out when I learned it was more than a day (a wise choice, I was told). I bet the Education department or college is to blame. Anyhoo, I don’t mind being there a few hours. My volunteerism extends to two.

I am on a four person panel titled, “What I Wish I Knew In My First Year at the University of Texas,” or something like that, with three other first years and a moderator. I think they want us to take a “topic,” but I decided I would do a George Carlin-style top ten list just to entertain myself (I previewed what one woman is going to say, and she’s talking about how she wished she knew how to better manage service, teaching, and scholarship, but . . . there really ain’t no magical formula for that; for service, you just got to say “no”). Anyhoo, so here’s one for anyone finishing a first year someplace in academe, and especially any new Texas people. What can you add to my currently abbreviated list to make my talk more entertaining and funny?


  • TEN: I wished I knew that when they say “UT students” are smarter, this also means they know how to point out contradictions in the syllabus grade policy and will call you out in front of the whole class, thereby causing a week of “I my god I’m naked in the elementary school cafeteria” dreams.

  • NINE: I wished I knew that the UT salute and the phrase “hook ’em” has magical, memory wiping effects, just like that memory-wiping flash device in the Men in Black movies. In the event one of my smart students pointed out a contradiction in course policy, all I had to do was salute and scream “hook ’em,” and everything would have been ok.

  • EIGHT: I wished I knew that everyone doesn’t like or use profanity like I do, and that the walls in my building are paper thin, and that if you use profanity during office hours neighbors will develop and use their own rating system.

  • SEVEN: I wished I knew that the memory-wiping effects of the UT salute and phrase “hook ’em” does not work so well with faculty, especially after you are chastised for using profanity during office hours.

  • SIX: I wished I knew the library system has a ruthless, Draconian book recall system with mercenaries that will demand your first born if you don’t return a recalled book in four minutes. If you’re away at a conference and art history grad student writing a paper nineteenth century hygiene needs the latest Zizek pony trick, expect it to cost you, big time.

  • FIVE: I wished I knew that my department’s assigned librarian is our own Good Witch Glenda and, with a magic flip of the wrist, can subdue recalled book mercenaries and possibly order the library second copy of Zizek’s latest pony trick so that you can finish your manuscript.


Ok, that’s all I can come up with at the moment. Can anyone help?

Gotta get my day on. Today I’m getting ready to DJ a wedding this weekend. Must get the music together, head up to Guitar Center for a speaker mounting bracket, and figure out how to DJ from a notebook computer. I’ve never DJ-ed from a computer, but everyone’s doing it these days. After checking out the wedding hall, I decided I might do it because where the DJ sets up is far removed from the dance floor–which means no one can get tipsy and spill their booze on the computer.

coffee house grumpiness

August 15th, 2006 by slewfoot

Music: a bunch of noisy ass people

I’m trying to work at my favorite coffee shop today, but having much difficulty. I’m trying to read, but someone’s phone keeps ringing. I’m trying to write a book review, but before I can get to a comma or the next clause, some asshole drops his big ass computer wart-plug, which makes a thundering crash. The ball headed grad-student type behind me keeps dropping his spoon (well, he did it twice). The two high school kids on the couch to my left are laughing hysterically in between bouts of something punctuated with the word “like.” I arrived here at dead-time (usually 2-ish), and it was full of people and there was no where to sit. I waited patiently on a couch ledge until the other ball-headed grad student type packed up and I could dash to a table. With all this busy-bee racket I’m not getting my busy-beeness on. [Edit, five minutes later: Dammit, now not one but two groups of very chatty people, one VERY loudly in Spanish, moved in. I’m going to go work in the bar where it’s QUIET] Person after person keeps walking by looking for a seat, leering at the empty one at my table that they cannot sit at because I have a book manuscript all over the table (I need the space, I telepathically say to this lady in a pink shirt and poofy hair–DAMMIT, PEOPLE, TURN OFF YOUR DAMN PHONES–another phone went off). Why can’t I find a quiet coffee house with ample tables to sit at? Why can’t I remember to bring my ear-pods? Why can’t people stop dropping their shit on the hardwoods? Why doesn’t the very cute woman with short, cropped black hair and a Gene Simmons Kiss t-shirt and Converse low-tops in the corner writing and reading a book on Art History live with me?