DaVinci Code as Parable of American Modernity
Despite the scowls and titters of the critics, the DaVinci Code did $77 million at the box office in the US, better than Tom Cruise pulled in MI3. And the world-wide gross is already $224 million.
What in the world accounts for the popularity of this complicated and improbable story?
Dan Brown’s narrative is about restoring the happy medium to contemporary Western modernity.
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.
By the way, Shiite Islam exhibits many of the features discussed in the film. The Prophet Muhammad did marry, Khadijah. And Muhammad and Khadijah’s daughter was Fatimah, the equivalent of Sarah in the film. Fatimah had children by her husband Ali. So exactly the kind of dynasty issuing from the Prophet’s daughter existed in Shiism as exists in the film as the sang real. Indeed, there are lots of Muslim women called Sayyida who claim descent from the Prophet, just as Sophie Neveu claims descent from Jesus of Nazareth. By the way, they sometimes have difficulty finding husbands because they are obliged to marry up.
The practice of self-flagellation also exists in popular Shiism, when believers mourn the martyred grandson of the Prophet, Huaayn, by beating themselves, sometimes with chains. Only a few Shiites go anywhere near in their flagellations as far as Silas in the film, though.
The Shiite dynasty centers on the males, although there were femailes as well in each generation. Fatima has been an important symbol of feminine authority in Shiite gnosticism and in Shiite modernity. The Iranian dissident and activist Ali Shariati put forward Fatima as a model for the New Woman in Iran of the 1970s. The same contradictions thus exist in Shiism as in Brown’s vision– between hierarchy and holy dynasty, and between female spirituality and pure patriarchy. (Sunni Islam pays much less attention to Fatima than does Shiism, and, in fact, one of Fatima’s big fights was with the Sunni Caliph Abu Bakr, over whether a plot of land owned by the Prophet was private property or a public, Islamic heritage).
Gnostic Shiites like some of the Ismailis at some points became antinomian, giving up Islamic law altogether. I suppose they are the Teabings of history.
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.
As a film, it has its disappointments. The figure of Langdon does not actually speak like an academic. His talk at the Louvre is a sermon, not an analysis. His arguments with Teabing are jejune and the substance unbelievable. There is too much exposition, too much explaining and dwelling on the details of the whole gnostic conspiracy theory. To be good, the film would have had to be more allusive and less preachy, to show not tell.
Still, it did big box office, and is hitting a nerve. Critics should be interested in what that nerve is.