Friday, February 04, 2005

Da Vinci Code: dumbing down or dumbing up?

Last night I watched Tony Robinson doing a magnificent demolition-job on the stormingly popular novel, The Da Vinci Code.

Before responding to the programme, let me state first off, I really enjoyed this novel. As a long-time fan of the nonsense behind the narrative (ah, Holy Blood & Holy Grail; ah, Renne le Chateaux), I took to this novel at speed and with much delighted enthusiasm. It is a good thriller - sure, it's not the most well-written book in the world, but since when does that stop us enjoying a good yarn? It has a rollickingly action-packed plot - I hardly know anyone who has read it that hasn't read it at speed. And with Fibonacci sequences and ancient practices and symbols to the fore, it is a complexly woven narrative that demands the reader pay attention (even if everything DOES get explained).

So to the programme: the main crux of Robinson's argument was Dan Brown is just plain WRONG. Brown states at the start of his book a series of 'facts': and a much-played clip in the documentary showed Brown on American TV stating that "all the art, the architecture, the secret societies and secret rituals are true". Robinson took great delight in demolishing the 'truth' of these. For example: that the Cathars and the Knights Templar were not as Brown describes them and their history is not as the novel records; that the Grail scarcely exists in any form in literature - cup or blood - until the romantic texts of the medieval period; that Rosslyn Chapel is not full of symbols as the novel interprets them...

Well, that's all well and good BUT, the things themselves - these groups, the art and buildings - they DO exist. And whilst the interpretations may take things too far, I don't think this necessarily contradicts entirely Brown's comment - certainly not within the context of novelistic licence. Yes, The Priory of Sion was almost certainly a CON of the first order. But this leads me to my main point: one that also deals with that other main topic Robinson critiqued, the role of Mary Magdelene.

What The Da Vinci Code does is bring into the popular realm subjects that would otherwise remain off the popular culture agenda: medieval history, theological history, high culture, symbolic language. It may well be that what the novel does - and I have read this criticism on several occasions - is that it makes people feel smarter than they are. That it gives a false sense of intellectualism to people. That instead of doing some 'real' art historical reading/research, instead of taking ideas and critiqueing them, it just lets people dip their feet into false conspiracies.

BUT: in an age where we are constantly told that society isn't interested in high culture, in thinking, in analysis of any sort; when reality television dominates our cultural life; when history is supposedly declining as a subject... isn't there something rather reassuring about human inquisitiveness that makes them pick up a chunky novel that engages with such topics? That leads them into reading other related texts - some maybe NOT as frothy? That inspires them to visit these places, to look and consider what they are seeing? That questions the writing of histories for particular puposes (such as the editing out of the role of Mary Magdelene?) and puts it onto the agenda for thinking about the construction of religion(s)? Isn't this something that deserves consideration, if not praise? I am rather pleased to see/hear people talking about Mary Magdelene with an eye to what the Bible actually says (as opposed to all those artists images we have taken to heart from picture books and children's Bibles) and thinking about the editorial interests in shaping the Bible to what we know it as today. To think about Latin and translation and ancient texts: isn't that a positive?

There was a certain amount of snobbishness running through the mocking tone of Robinson's documentary that made me feel rather uncomfortable. The question is, who or what are we really criticising here?

1 comment:

Casyn said...

You have hit the nail right on its metallic head. This is why I have no interest in reading or watching any of the 'Da Vinci Code Decoded" type docos. The novel sparked an interest and an awareness of all of the interpretations and perspectives of facts, and if I really want to know more I'm likely to go and look for myself to form my own opinion.

I find most of the negative reaction to the book to be knee-jerk slamming because of what it 'may' be suggesting. I wonder if most of these people have read Angels and Demons?

My thoughts for these people are that it's a fictional novel based in fact. If it's enjoyable and gets people reading and thinking, then it can only be positive.