Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Mona Lisa Smile

I tend to read literary fiction. Apparently, I value a well-crafted sentence over (any) plot. But I’d really prefer both, so the fact that Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code is not artistically written and that its plot is derivative and predictable did little to impress me.

The story centers around a two-millennia conspiracy by the Vatican to suppress the Sacred Feminine and crush any suggestion of goddess-cult in the early Church. Except that Mr. Brown plots his chapters like a made-for-TV movie--every time someone begins to reveal something surprising, he cuts to a new chapter, new subplot, and makes his readers wait (plus he likes to use line breaks where none is warranted by passage of time or place) for the shocking conclusion. Except that the revelations aren’t anything new or not commonly known (potential spoiler ahead--I’ll tell you in bold when it’s safe to read again): some believe that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ wife; the Knights Templar were a mysterious organization; Sangreal means both Holy Grail and Royal Blood (his native French speaker didn’t know this, for goodness’ sake!).

Spoiler over; you can safely read again. As with any mystery/thriller, there are plot twists. Only none were surprising (okay, the end was surprising, but only because of its utterly lame banality). But the whole book is derivative and inferior to its forebears. For contemporary Medieval conspiracies, read Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. He deals with Knights Templar, etc., too, offering a more plausible explanation of their history and their current status. For following environmental clues in what may be a giant conspiracy or just the fact that everything is interrelated, see Thomas Pynchon (The Crying of Lot 49 is fairly coherent; I read V., too, and didn’t get a thing from it). If you want an accessible, funny (okay, Mr. Brown wasn’t at all trying to be funny, but oh well) book about 2000-year-old Vatican conspiracies, check out Tom Robbins’ Another Roadside Attraction (actually, don’t--I don’t remember its being any good, although it sure was funny).

So as fiction, The Da Vinci Code’s not very good. How about as history? I don’t pretend to be a great connoisseur of Catholic history, but he sure ascribes a lot of power to them. Somehow, it’s the Vatican that took the feminine out of not only Christianity, but Judaism and Islam as well (sarcasm doesn’t come across well on the computer screen, so if it was unclear, I don’t buy it). It strikes me that he makes the same mistake as Richard S. Van Wagoner in Mormon Polygamy (in which book Van Wagoner gave a very good history of polygamy in the 19th Century Mormon church, but then found it as the sole motivation behind virtually every organizational and doctrinal development made during that time: he’s found something interesting and conflated it with motivation. I tend to believe that organizational and personal motivation is more complex than one factor; I have no doubt that the Catholic church didn’t particularly like the Marian cults, but I don’t think that the suppression of the feminine was the reason for the Inquisition.