THE DA VINCI CODE: DECODING THE PHENOMENON
The Paradoxes of Mainstreaming Esotericism
by Mark Sanborne
Dizzy from all the Decoding? Tired of endless yammering about Tom Hank's hair? Ready to move on from the "Greatest Coverup in Human History"? Well, welcome to the cult, er, club. The perfect media-publicity storm and religio-cultural zeitgeist-tickler that is The Da Vinci Code, the second coming of Dan Brown's controversial super-blockbuster 2003 novel, has at last arrived in theaters. So let the deconstruction begin...
Despite being roundly panned by most critics, the movie is, unsurprisingly, making tons of money—nearly $150 million in its first two weeks—attracting both the book's legions of fans along with many others curious what all the fuss is about. For those of you who may have been hiding in a tomb the last few years, here's the gist:
Both the novel and movie posit that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, who was not a prostitute (a folk tradition added later by Rome) but a lady of high standing who fled Palestine after the crucifixion with the couple's child—a girl, Sarah—and settled among the Jewish community in southern France. After hundreds of years their descendants, carrying the royal blood of the house of the biblical King David, eventually got around to intermarrying with the Merovingians, the myth-shrouded first line of French kings who lived in the fifth through eighth centuries. Ever since, the Roman Catholic Church has been obsessed with extirpating this sacred lineage to prevent the explosive secret from getting out, beginning with the supposed assassination of Dagobert II in 679. (Much of Brown's speculative information came from a 1982 British book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, about which more below.)
In response, a secret society known as the Priory of Sion was formed during the First Crusade in 1099 to protect the putative royal bloodline. The Priory, in turn, was said to have formed the real-life Knights Templar, the order of warrior-monks who served as the Crusader armies' shock troops and went on to establish the first international banking system before being accused of heresy and suppressed by the greedy King Philippe IV of France in 1307.
Meanwhile, the Priory had also been busy behind the scenes propagating the Grail romances that became all the rage in the 12th and 13th centuries, particularly those by Chretien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach, which included a Grail Family guarded by Templars. However, rather than being a sacred cup or chalice—the San Graal, or Holy Grail—it actually represented the Sang Raal, or Royal Blood, transformed from a pagan fertility symbol like the Horn of Plenty into a covert reference to the womb of the Magdalene, the Sacred Feminine suppressed by the church, and the secret lineage of the King of the Jews.
But wait, there's more. The Priory of Sion supposedly has continued to exist down through the centuries, with grand masters of the order ranging from the first, Jean de Gisors, to such luminaries as Nicolas Flamel, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Robert Fludd, Robert Boyle, Issac Newton, Charles Nodier, Victor Hugo, Claude Debussy, and Jean Cocteau. However, the only "grand master" we can be sure of is one Pierre Plantard "de Saint-Clair," an eccentric Frenchman who died in 2000 and who may have been the man behind the curtain who pulled the levers on the whole thing.
TELL & SHOW
Enough gist for now, let's review the movie in question. In most key respects it is indeed faithful to the book—many might argue to a fault, though clearly director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman felt they couldn't afford to alienate the novel's vast readership. (Similar logic lies behind the Star Trek movies: first satisfy the trekkie fan base, then everything else is gravy.)
That faithfulness means the movie consists largely of exposition, with patches of competently staged action serving as brief bridges to the next set of esoteric talking points. (Despite Brown's hammy prose, reading the novel seemed faster than watching the film, though Hans Zimmer's score is nicely evocative.) And a fair amount of the special-effects "action" consists of brief, sepia-tinted historical flashbacks to such events as the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., the First Crusade, and the suppression of the Templars.
In brief, for the lucky few who have not read or seen The Da Vinci Code, the movie follows the adventures of Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Hanks), who while visiting Paris is called to the Louvre to view a dead and self-mutilated curator laid out on the floor like da Vinci's Vitruvian Man. Langdon quickly hooks up with Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), a police cryptographer who turns out to be the estranged grand-daughter of the dead man—who in fact is the latest grand master of the Priory of Sion.
The two are quickly on the run from Bezu Fache (Jean Reno), a French cop, and Silas (Paul Bettany), a cowl-wearing albino assassin, both of whom are acting under orders from a bishop of Opus Dei, the ultraconservative Catholic society. The bishop (Alfred Molina) is seen conspiring with several shadowy Vatican figures, discussing the need for "sacrifices" to cover up the church's dirty laundry. Meanwhile, Ian McKellen steals the show in the role of Grail expert Sir Leigh Teabing, who employs hi-tech computer wizardry to demonstrate to Sophie that the person to the left of Jesus in da Vinci's "The Last Supper" is actually Mary Magdalene. He seems to be the only one in the movie having fun, and offers viewers a knowing smirk like he did when playing Gandalf smoking a bowl of Hobbit-weed back in the first installment of The Lord of the Rings.
Needless to say, I was not disturbed by the book or film's cavalier treatment of orthodox Christian tradition. (For the record, I was confirmed as an Episcopalian, but my instinctive adolescent doubts were even more confirmed when I learned that "my" Anglican religion had been created so that Henry VIII could get laid. That early cynicism, combined with my early interest in anthropology, eventually helped make me the scientific Taoist-Gnostic I sort of am today.) In fact, by far the most disturbing thing in the movie came early on, in a scene showing Silas demonstrating an X-treme form of the "corporal mortification" practiced by some Opus Dei adherents, pulling the sharp barbs of a "cilice" from the bloody and suppurating flesh of his thighs as he lashes his back with a cat-o-nine-tails and the camera lingers far too long on his naked white butt crack.
The action, such as it is, moves from France to London, but once McKellen leaves the scene the movie slows to a crawl, and the last 15 minutes seemed painfully endless. In their search for the Grail—which apparently consists of the bones of the Magdalene and some bloodline documents—Langdon and Sophie finally get to Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, a hotbed of esoteric speculation built in the 1400s that includes Templar and pagan influences. Our loveless couple encounters a crowd of locals looking like they'd stepped out of an English country catalog who turn out to be members of the Priory "family," and Sophie finds out (SPOILER ALERT!) that she, too, is carrying the royal blood. Langdon ends up back in Paris at the Louvre, but I'll save the final plot "twist" for those still don't know and insist on going to the movie.
FAITH, HOLLYWOOD, AND THE GLOBAL MARKET
Since Martin Scorsese's 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ caused a vicious religious backlash around the world—and it only showed Jesus fantasizing about having sex with Mary Magdalene—Sony Pictures Entertainment knew it had a big problem on its hand when it acquired the rights to The Da Vinci Code in 2003. A fascinating story in the May 22, 2006 New Yorker detailed how, in the wake of the unexpectedly huge box office success of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, Hollywood was learning not to totally ignore the concerns of religious-minded moviegoers.
Sony hired a faith-oriented consultant and by last year was already funding websites like www.thedavincidialogue.com, where mainstream religious experts debunk Brown's work. The effort to proactively reach out paid off, and most clergy around the country talked more about engaging the issues than protests and boycotts, which were seen as counterproductive. Even Opus Dei spoke of the upcoming movie—which of course no one could stop from being a blockbuster, anyway—as a "teaching moment." But this new spirit of toleration did not sit well with everyone: Barbara Nicolosi, a screenwriter and Christian blogger, called those working with Sony "useful Christian idiots" who were debating the issue "on Hell's terms."
Hollywood movies are one of the most reliable exports from the West to the rest of humanity, but in this most unflat world of globalization, pleasing everyone is not always easy. Ironically, while Sony was able to help temper the tone of the domestic debate about the movie, it appears to have had more problems with its customers in much of the rest of the world.
In advance of The Da Vinci Code's mid-May debut at the Cannes Film Festival, a variety of protests were staged in India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, South Korea, and Zambia, among other places. India even put a temporary hold on the movie's release because of complaints. Apparently, Christians outside the US, particularly those who are a minority in their own country, are more militant in defense of their faith than many god-fearing Americans. (Though thankfully the protests haven't risen to the level caused earlier this year by Danish cartoons lampooning the prophet Muhammad.)
Meanwhile, the Da Vinci Moment was the sort of thing American cable TV was made for: wall-to-wall coverage with what seemed like dozens of news reports, documentaries, profiles, and puff pieces all tied to the movie. The History and Discovery channels were particularly gung-ho in the week leading up to the premier, and my eyes glazed over as I took in as much as I could.
Several interesting examples from the History Channel stand out. One was on the network's new hit, "Digging for the Truth" with host Josh Bernstein, a hunky Jewish Indiana Jones who travels the world taking a hands-on approach to archaeology. In this one, he actually got a French museum to donate a sample from the bones of a supposed Merovingian princess and compared its DNA to that of an ancient community of Jewish descent in Israel. Result: Supposedly the princess didn't carry a Middle East "marker," providing extremely-sketchy-to-the-point-of-nonsense evidence that the genes of the Semitic Jesus and Mary Magdalene did not mix with early French kings. (Whew!)
Another eye-opener: a documentary that suggested the Knights Templar, both before and after the suppression of their order, were instrumental in the formation of the five cantons of the modern Swiss state. It noted the rapidity with which Switzerland went from being a collection of isolated settlements to an organized confederation with famously well-drilled defense forces during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance periods, and developed into a center of international banking. There's also Switzerland's traditional neutrality in international affairs and spirit of religious tolerance, both Templar traits. And oh yeah, the Templar emblem appears on the Swiss national flag and on the flags and emblems of many of the cantons—not to mention on the Swiss Army knife! Good stuff.
Finally, while watching yet another program, I was suddenly struck by the image of a painted statue at a church in southern France dedicated, like many in the region, to the Magdalene. The statue is of both Mary and her child, Sarah, and while Mary appears European, Sarah's skin is a chocolate brown, and her features appear to be Egyptian. A Black Madonna in waiting, perhaps?
THE PRIORY OF PIERRE PLANTARD
There were also numerous programs, on both cable and broadcast TV (including 60 Minutes) dissecting the "facts" that Brown claimed lay behind his fictional story. The prologue of his novel is preceded by this statement: "FACT: The Priory of Sion—a European secret society founded in 1099—is a real organization. In 1975 Paris's Bibliotheque Nationale discovered parchments known as Les Dossiers Secrets, identifying numerous members of the Priory, including Sir Issac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Leonardo da Vinci."
So much for the "facts"—it's hard to know where to begin. The so-called Secret Dossiers were not "discovered" by France's national library, but were deposited there in the 1960s by the aforementioned Pierre Plantard and his cohorts—and are generally assumed to be fraudulent. They were not "parchments" but consisted mostly of copies of modern typewritten documents, including numerous genealogies and the infamous list of Priory "grand masters." The dossiers were uncovered in the 1970s by three British writers—Henry Lincoln, Michael Baigent, and Richard Leigh—in the course of research that led to their controversial 1982 book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which first formulated and laid out the whole Priory-Merovingian-Jesus-bloodline scenario, and which Dan Brown (and his wife and principal researcher Blythe Brown) later appropriated for The Da Vinci Code.
In the novel, the name of the Ian McKellen character, Leigh Teabing, is an anagramatic tribute to the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and Teabing actually points out the book on his shelf and cites its importance. But those indirect acknowledgements were not enough to prevent Baigent and Leigh from suing Random House, publisher of The Da Vinci Code, in London's high court for copyright infringement, charging that Brown had in effect stolen the "architecture" of their nonfiction book for his novel.
This past April, Judge Peter Smith ruled against the plaintiffs while also strongly criticizing the methods and testimony of Dan Brown and the fact that his wife declined to appear before the court. In keeping with the circus-like spirit of the occasion, the judge also embedded his own gimmicky coded message in his 70-page decision (italicized letters spelled out "Smithy Code Jackie Fisher who are you Dreadnought," an obscure reference to British Naval history), while the highly publicized trial helped pump up the sales of both Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code in the run-up to the movie's premier.
And what about elusive Mr. Plantard? It turns out to be a story that neither begins nor ends well During the war, he formed a quasi-occult, pro-Vichy association that was both anti-masonic and anti-semitic. In 1956, he registered the Priory of Sion as an association with the French government, indicating in its statutes a desire to form a monastic order. In the 1960s he teamed up with author Gerard de Sede to begin spreading the idea the Priory was descended from the Abbey of Sion, a monastic order that records indicate indeed was formed in Jerusalem during the First Crusade but later was dissolved.
Though French researchers were already casting doubts on Plantard's credibilty as early as the 1970s, the manufactured Secret Dossiers became a centerpiece of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, ultimately providing much of the intellectual basis for The Da Vinci Code. Finally, however, Plantard's confabulations caught up with him, and what remained of his reputation was ruined. In 1993, an investigative judge ordered a search of his home, which turned up numerous forged documents, including some proclaiming him as the true king of France through a nonexistent Merovingian linkage. Plantard admitted to his fabrications under oath and afterwards lived quietly until his death in 2000.
BLASPHEMERS AND FUNDAMENTALISTS: PARADOXICAL UNITY
In the end, it's hard to see clearly through all the murk. But maybe that's sort of the point. The Da Vinci Code is successful because it taps into the deep inner stuff that makes us tick, drilled into our collective unconscious by 2,000 years of mass indoctrination.
Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln also worked the notorious anti-semitic forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, into their story, maintaining that it actually referred to the Priory of Sion, with the Jews as stand-ins for the real secret order. Meanwhile, fringe Christian end-timers view the pseudo-unveiling of the Priory as a fulfillment of prophecies in the Book of Revelations and proof of a vast anti-Christian conspiracy.
Hollywood merely appropriates the outrage of the fundamentalists as an implicit tool of the publicity machine, while the fundamentalists likewise use outrage at this evidence of society's domination by amoral apostasy as a recruiting tool. These seeming opposites feed off each other—the same dynamic which is at work in the global showdown between Western imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism.
Sony's "The Da Vinci Dialogue"
Wikipedia page on the Priory of Sion
"Bible scholars to crack Mafia code?," April 23
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, June 1, 2006
Reprinting permissible with attribution