Tuesday, May 23, 2006
The novel has a binary structure. On the one hand you have the Church hierarchy, which is patriarchal, doctrinal, monotheistic, ascetic, and authoritarian. Those attributes are its normal pole, but it is open to corruption when they are over-emphasized. The first step toward over-emphasis is Opus Dei, which stands for a cult-like kind of monotheism in which individualism is much more surpressed than in the Church generally. But even Opus Dei is not so far from churchly normality. The villain of the movie is the man who corrupts the principles of Opus Dei itself, Bishop Manuel Aringarosa and his acolyte, Silas. They take self-denial in the direction of manic masochism, so that Silas routinely inflicts excruciating pain on himself in emulation of the crucifixion. And he has moved so far in the direction of giving up his individualism that he will do anything he is told by his master, including committing murder and torture. Inspector Bezu Fache, a representative of bourgeois order as a policeman, is likewise willing to put aside due process to obey his cultic master, violating individual rights and attempting to railroad a suspect, though he later has an ethical awakening.
Silas is, of course, a religious terrorist. With his monk robes, he inevitably nowadays evokes Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Corruption of an authoritarian and partiarchal tradition leads in the direction of murder for the faith.
This pole of the film reflects the authoritarian side of modern institutions and culture. It isn't about Catholicism at all, or about Opus Dei. It is about the unchallengeable doctrines (norms) of society, and about the constant danger that ordinary obedience to the law can turn into a cultic exaltation of the law above principle and spirit. The Silas's of the US are the Ollie Norths and the Irv Lewis Libbys, apparatchiks who are willing to break any law and throw over any constitutional principle in order to serve their masters. (I.e. Cheney gets to play Aringosa in the Plame scandal). As for patriarchy, it is still dominant in much of American life, from the presidency to the CEOs in the boardroom to the US officer corps, and it is linked to the bands of brothers who form gangs and go overboard in imposing conformity. Joe Wilson had to be punished for challenging the orthodoxy that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
The other pole in the Brown narrative is the priory around the female descendants of Jesus through Mary Magdalene. This pole is about paganism, feminism, individualism, scientific rationality and sexual freedom. This pole, likewise, can become corrupt and antinomian. Thus, the pagan orgy or hieros gamos repulses Sophie Neveu and causes an almost fatal break between the Grail (herself) and the priory. Likewise, scientistic society has led her to become an unbeliever, so that the Grail itself is corrupted by doubt. Sir Leah Teabing is the symbol of this pole gone to unethical extremes. In his quest for the Grail, he is willing to deceive and to kill. He is Silas's structural analogue.
The "pagan" (in Brown's sense) temptation is a significant feature of contemporary American life-- which can be lived without much immediate penalty as libertine, selfish, and undisciplined. Untempered by spirituality and ethics, science can be soulles and led to e.g. eugenics experiments.
Neveu, like Fache, is in the police and a symbol of middle class order. But she is willing to put her ethics above her professional discipline. When she sees that Fache has become a cultist and lost his perspective, she defies him and helps the fugitive Professor Langdon. She stands for genuine justice rather than only procedural justice.
The Brown narrative does not advocate replacing the patriarchal,authoritarian, self-denying Church with the feminist, individualistic, pagan, libertine priory.
It is, in fact, only the melding of the two poles that would create the happy medium. That would lie in gender equality, and in moderation in each of the values of authority and individualism, self-denial and self-indulgence, law and ethical principle.
That is the centrist position the public is looking for. It is religious, but for the most part values individualistic spirituality above dry Church discipline. It is willing to sacrifice, but not at the price of giving up self-actualization and individual ethical integrity. It is increasingly challenging patriarchy, though that struggle is lively. It recognizes the need for authority but is suspicious, in the Madisonian tradition, that too much authority will corrupt its holders.
The film is popular because it isn't about Catholicism or France or some odd conspiracy theory centered on Mary Magdalene. It is popular because it is about the dilemmas of secular modernity.
Still, it did big box office, and is hitting a nerve. Critics should be interested in what that nerve is.
How about "No"?
First off, Brown isn't quite suggesting that the aggressive, evil, dominating, authoritarian, pleasure-denying pain-loving murder-worshipping power structure of Christianity needs to be mixed just a tad with the peaceful, good, cooperating, individualistic, pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding, murder-abhorring structure of neo-pagan feminism. He's pretty damn sure the latter needs to completely replace the former-- and who could argue, when it's put like that?
True, Cole saw the movie, and didn't read the book, and the movie was more watered down. (In fact, the book waters itself down in the last few chapters, suggesting -- almost surely at an editor's insistence -- that all the evil people in the book be recast as simply misguided, and the Catholic Church be entirely absolved of any bad behavior the previous 430 pages suggested it was guilty of.)
Still, he gets the main message wrong.
Beyond that-- is this really a very interesting or novel message? It's a Goldilocks solution-- not too hard, not too soft, ooooh, this Christian/neopagan fusion religion is just right. That's the sort of split-the-difference "let's just bury our differences and agree that we should get high and mellow" "answer" that leftist soft-heads like Cole propose when they wish to seem reasonable. (When they're being more honest, they're fire-breathing preachers of hate, just on the other side.)
I liked the fast pace of the twists and turns of the DVC - and I think Brown should concentrate on writing screenplays, because this is one genre (fast-pace action with twist and turns, light mystery) that produces an entertaining result for movie goers. In fact, when I was reading the book, I often had the feeling I was reading a prose version of a movie script and not a real novel.
I was profoundly irritated with Brown's lefty political ideology, and also yes, even though it's clear his core lefty thinking is vehemently against conservative thinking (also Sue D.'s comment), it's all watered down in order not to diminish those sales figures.
I actually liked Cole's attempt to relate the book with larger issues - not that Brown is intelligent enough to intentionally do something that grand - and not that Cole did it that well. But it does give so-called "intellectual" profs something to justify their tenure posts with.
Among some of the main points that I disagree with Cole is this:
This pole of the film reflects the authoritarian side of modern institutions and culture. It isn't about Catholicism at all, or about Opus Dei. It is about the unchallengeable doctrines (norms) of society, and about the constant danger that ordinary obedience to the law can turn into a cultic exaltation of the law above principle and spirit.
I think the book has very little to do with challenging authoritarian anything in modern institutions, the only authoritarian challenge is against very old institutions, the very conservative Church (religion) and patriarchy. Challenging religion authoritarianism and secular authoritarianism -which is what the left practices all the time- are two very different things.
I think the main reason the book has generated so much interest is exactly because it challenges the basis for Catholicism/Christianity and it reflects a growing questioning about religion in general and specifically regarding Cath/Christ. dogma.
I see many people who like to call themselves Catholic or Christian as long as they can be very liberal at the same time, in order words, there is a tremendous weakening of the power of Cath/Christ Churches to instill religious dogma as the truth (compared to 500/300/200 years ago). Society has also shifted and changed in some profound ways regarding women and the book (like the left) loves to represent itself as a newer, more enlightened paradigm - at the same time that it mixes the qualities of a smart professional woman with sex object "Jesus Christ's hot daughter." That's the formula for most of these very sexist action movie women characters nowadays and it affirms a core type of sexism in both the right and the left, once again a nice formula for big sales. More exagerated versions of this are Lara Croft and all that genre. It's the institution of a new sexism versus the old one (the 50's house wife and all that, for example)
The novel has a binary structure. - which is profoundly irritating since it destroys any possibility for more human characters, you end up with theses pseudo-characters, these caricatures of people who are supposed to positively represent Brown's stupid corrupt wishy-washy leftism.
Surprising that aside from the female character Brown did not have two male heros, the Tom Hanks character and a homo - who faces all these mean "prejudices" from Christianists and makes all the pro-homos gloat to death about how "enlightened" they are. It's exactly what John Le Carré-The Constant Gardener- degenerated into.
most recent related post: I refuse to pay money to go see it.
Posted by alessandra at May 23, 2006 04:21 PM