Yesterday T.S. O at one of my favorite blogs Video Meliora made a point concerning The DaVinci Code that I'm not quite certain I agree with, and yet I find fascinating. In context it reads:
The only answer I have to that is that, whatever their merits, Crichton & Clancy & others are living off the fame of their past books. They are a name brand now and could put out anything and it would sell. The key is their FIRST book, their break-out book. DVC is Brown's break-out book and there is something in a breakout book that might say something about a culture...
Now, let me set aside any misgivings I may have about the premise--they are as yet poorly formulated and more along the lines of murky stirrings in the depths more than fleshed-out thoughts. Let's accept the premise that this breakout book reveals something about the culture. Does it reveal anything new, interesting, or exciting.
I think it is a harbinger of something relatively new and an avatar of several old bogies that have not yet lost their patina of attractiveness. Let's start with the old. In the United States anything suggesting that the Catholic Church isn't all that upstanding or trustworthy has had a very long history (as long as the European-derived nation itself) of popularity and acceptance. One of the easy stepping stones to success is to suggest that there's something just not quite right about the Catholic Church. It's adherents might be all right, but those powerful old men in their secret chambers are out to keep hidden great mysteries and truths that a more open hierarchy long ago would have revealed. For example, if it had been about a group of Southern Baptists, they would never have suppressed these truths, having experienced centuries of suppression themselves (according to their own convenient history of existence.) So that's the first old bogie.
The second is the ever popular, ever new heresy of Gnosticism. Salvation comes to those with secret knowledge, knowledge that exists (as it were) just beyond the edges of scripture. This special revelation comes to only a few who, inspired by God Himself, do their best to share their knowledge, but ultimately only a few are destined for this inner circle anyway. This has bad a popularity since the time of Jesus Himself.
And there is yet a third appeal--one that isn't so much an old bogie as an Archetype with an enormous power even over those of us who have detached ourselves from the old stories. The appeal of the search for the Holy Grail remains. It crops up in odd places and it has odd resonances in society.
In this book we combine the Holy Grail (which always bespoke in some degree of Gnosticism) with anti-Catholic mutterings to generate a powerhouse of a story. But there is still another, newer element, that I would suggest as perhaps the predominant element of the attraction.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union we have been casting about for the new demon, the new evil force that will destroy us. We are looking for an enemy anywhere, and an institution as large and as ancient and as multi-storied as the Church provides the perfect vehicle. Moreover it ties in nicely to the first old-bogie.
If I were to read anything into this in terms of societal trends, I would suggest that society is looking for a focus, any focus. We have become unanchored and are drifting around in a sea of terrorism with no focused enemy and dangers behind every chador and under every turban. We have sufficiently freed ourselves of every burdensome consideration of propriety and morality that we are in a free-fall. I don't want to suggest apocalypse, but I do think Yeats's words resonate more powerfully today than they did when written.
The Second Coming
W. B. Yeats
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
I would suggest that the popularity of The DaVinci Code represents the "turning and turning in a widening gyre" in search of an anchor, any anchor, for our fears, our anxieties, and our uncertainties. We hold onto any truth because we falcons can no longer hear the Falconer. His word diminishes in meaning because we do not feel bound by it.
And The DaVinci Code certainly exemplifies "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." Mr. Brown himself would swear up and down on a stack of any holy book you care to designate that he is revealing hidden truths while scholars and supposedly intelligent people do little or nothing to counteract the idiocy. (This is speaking purely of the secular world, not of the more that 30 books from religious sources that are combating the ludicrous.)
If Mr. Brown's book fulfills a need, I would suggest that the need of the moment is not so much the "truth" he reveals, which in a year will have been forgotten, but rather that he has provided for us a focus for our fear and uncertainty. The monolithic and evil church of the turn of the 20th century--a la The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk.
The Church, after all, is the only thing that stands in the way of "true" freedom. By this I mean that the secular world sees it as the obstacle to everything good that society could accomplish through understanding and gentle loving guidance. On the other hand it is my view that the Church indeed IS the ONLY thing that stands in the way of true freedom--true freedom from sanity. Mr. Brown's book may be one symptom of the descent into societal depression and concomitant delusional behaviors.