Thursday, 17 October 2013

The Da Vinci Code: Page Turning as Entertainment

The Da Vinci Code is designed to be a page turner. Even though I was not always pleased with what lay on the next pages, I was certainly turning them. The chapters are very short, and they sometimes end with a piece of information whose details are not immediately revealed. That means having to turn to the next chapter to find out what the details are.

Actually, that usually means turning through three chapters. The book has many characters with many subplots, and the shifts between the subplots means that two or three chapters may go by before the story returns to the plotline that has ended so abruptly. The existence of subplots was a welcome change from the previous book I read (Fifty Shades of Grey). 

At first, I liked reading about the various holy sites and relics that the book describes. I read the illustrated version, which has nice stiff paper and many colour illustrations. I value books that teach me something. At some point, however, I realized that the details about these sites were often incorrect.  I have never been convinced about the pseudohistorical coverup of the Catholic Church and the Priory of Sion, but I thought the details about the places and relics were true--the book gives many details, often revealed in long speeches that the characters give to each other.

The first time I did my own fact-checking was in Chapter 20, a flashback to when the hero, symbologist Robert Langdon, is telling his students about the number phi, or the divine proportion.  Langdon tells his students that this number represents a ratio found not only in geometry but also in nature, so that, for example, the ratio of the diameters of the adjacent concentric spirals in a nautilus's shell equals a numerical constant called phi. I had never heard of this, and I was surprised because that is an extraordinary piece of information.

The reason, I found out through a series of Internet searches, I had never heard of phi in nature is that the claim is not true. The divine proportion, also called the golden ratio, is a ratio in geometry that artists have used in designing objects, but it is not true that this number appears consistently in proportions of the human body or in a nautilus shell. People certainly seem to have tried to find the golden ratio in nature (like in a romanesco broccoli head), and individual objects may have this ratio somewhere, but the only ones who are convinced of its absolute imminence in all nature are, well, crazy people.

Sacred vegetable [picture from Wikimedia Commons]
I kept reading, though. More codes, pieces of history, and descriptions of buildings flew past me.

At Chapter 26, the adrenaline of turning pages turn into something else--a spider-sense-is tingling hormone?--when I began to read about the book's details about Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci was into goddess religions. That was news to me. The book does another flashback to another scene of Langdon in the classroom, this time with a class of convicts in a penitentiary. Here, Langdon tells his students that the woman popularly called the Mona Lisa looks androgynous. I looked at the picture that my illustrated book provides. She didn't look androgynous to me. Then Langdon says that "Mona Lisa" is Da Vinci's anagram for Amon L'Isa, a term that represents a union of male and female power. I said to myself, huh: did Da Vinci really use the word "Amon"? Did Da Vinci know English?

More Internet searching didn't reveal any evidence that Da Vinci knew English. More importantly, Da Vinci did not give his famous portrait any title at all. A sixteenth-century Italian art historian, who was born many years after Da Vinci died, gave the painting an informal title. English speakers call it "Mona Lisa" because Giorgio Vasari calls it that ("Lady Lisa," basically, based on the theory that this is a portrait of someone named Lisa Giocondo). Italians call the painting "La Gioconda," rather than "Mona Lisa." (Footnote: I became familiar with the use of "Mona" to mean "Lady" when I read The Decamaron. All the women are called "Mona" something in that book.) Doing this research made me take more seriously the many Da Vinci Code debunking websites out there.

The last straw for me was when I found out that Brown changed the name of a Da Vinci painting, Virgin of the Rocks, and switched the identities of two of the people in the painting, a big switcheroo, too, between Jesus and John the Baptist. These changes make Da Vinci seem like a better candidate as the grand master of the Priory of Sion, a hoax created by Pierre Plantard, who tried to convince people he was the king of France.

That is when I became angry. All this effort to send characters (and the readers) around France and Great Britain, dumping all kinds of data on us through long dialogues between the different people looking for the different mysteries, and much of this data is wrong?

The book goes on to make many other claims believed by, well, crazy people, and not by the unnamed historians and scientists that the book often invokes.

Perhaps it served me right to think I would actually learn something through this book. The book is not based on history,  but on pseudohistory.  I suspect that this book sold so well because people believed the pseudohistory. Many people would rather believe conspiracy and pseudohistory than learn actual history, which is more difficult to do quickly and sometimes is more banal.

I decided that this book was no better than those narratives that attribute all kinds of historical events to the machinations of the Freemasons, the Knights of the Golden Circle, the Illuminati, the Jesuits, the Jews, the FBI, the mafia, Teletubbies, and African-American presidents. I enjoy some of those books, but they are a low level of enjoyment (I laugh at them, not with them).

I also noticed that the page-turning devices were just tricks to get me to keep going, like eating the mediocre hors d'oevres at a dull party keeps me going. Soon the codes began to sound stupid (the code writers like to write in eighteenth-century poetic language for no good reason I can see), and the answers to them are disappointing. The point of view shifts became clumsy attempts at creating suspense. A supposedly heroic character describes his actions in his own point of view, but he never reveals, even in his thoughts to himself, that he is the one behind all the murder and blackmail. This book has a kind of narrative crudeness that I expect in low-brow and middle-brow mystery stories.

Finally, the book that is about a pro-woman religion still has men doing all the rescuing and men in all the positions of power (even in the so-called pro-woman religion).

The book had no real intellectual or even spiritual content, in the end. Its content betrays everything that the book's characters purport to support. It is empty page-turning.

I lost faith in the story, and the page turning became more like the page turning I did for Fifty Shades of Grey: I was trying to get it over with.

1 comment:

  1. I would like you to devote some time to analyzing popular responses to the books in this series. Why do so many people like these books? What is the relationship between popular culture and literature?