There are four cinema multiplexes in our town. Big-time family fare opens at one, date movies and comedy at another, foreign films and liberal documentaries at the third. The fourth is the shabby venue where nothing opens and everything closes. With a low ticket price and a motley clientele, it’s the last stop before oblivion. The Da Vinci Code, voted “the most disappointing” movie of the summer in a Time magazine poll, moved there two weeks ago and has just closed.
The moment might seem to be at hand, then, for a retrospective stock-taking of this cultural phenomenon, though, as I write, the paperback edition of Dan Brown’s novel is still clinging to a spot on the paperback best seller list. As a comment on the faltering power of film in American culture, this fact merits a little attention in its own right. Typically, the appearance of a big commercial film has served to confirm and crown but also to conclude the success of a book with one last sales spurt, as if to say both “Now it’s really big” and “Now it’s over.” In more than a few cases, the thunderous grandeur of the film has altogether eclipsed the book that inspired it. Who remembers that Thomas Keneally’s splendid historical novel, winner of the 1982 Booker Prize, was entitled Schindler’s Ark. If you can find a copy at all today, you’ll find it in a library or a second-hand bookshop. Not so this time: Imagine Entertainment’s hugely hyped film adaptation of The Da Vinci Code has come and gone as just a brief, late episode in the continuing life of the novel and perhaps the genre, but thereon hangs the tale.
Has this novel been read as a novel? The late Patrick White, perhaps the first Australian novelist to acquire a truly global following, once observed that though good novels sometimes become best sellers, it is rarely their goodness that purchases their success. Most often, White maintained, there is some extrinsic, extra-literary factor that adds the surcharge of excitement—and then of sales. So it has been, I believe, in this case. Brown’s novel has its crucial literary strengths, and more about these below. But they alone do not suffice to explain its success. No, the appetite that The Da Vinci Code has awakened in a great many readers has seemed historical rather than literary. In fact, to an even moderately exigent critic, the response to the book might well seem to be historical as opposed to literary. That is, the historically enthused reader must actively ignore literary features that if noticed would undermine faith in the book’s historical “revelations.” That so many do this so easily raises the question of how widely the classic literary conventions are still functioning.
The socioreligious reception of The Da Vinci Code interestingly reverses that of an earlier succès de scandale, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Different from The Da Vinci Code in ways too numerous to list, The Satanic Verses nonetheless makes contact with it in two noteworthy regards. First, it tells of a scandalous human intrusion upon the writing of an ancient and revered scripture. Second, it alleges that the result of the ancient intrusion was the suppression of a feminine element in the scripture. Ancient commentaries on the Qur’an recount that Muhammad received a revelation from God, which briefly became a pair of Qur’anic verses licensing the worship of three Meccan goddesses. Quickly, Muhammad rescinded these verses as, after all, a Satanic temptation rather than a true divine revelation; in an expanded and fantastical retelling of the episode, they are the “Satanic verses” of Rushdie’s title. In a somewhat similar way, Sir Leigh Teabing, principal purveyor of arcane religious lore in The Da Vinci Code, amiably explains that the Roman emperor Constantine, operating as the true head of the Catholic Church, suppressed the original Christian Bible and promulgated a new one in which Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene was suppressed. The suppressed truth about Jesus, Mary, and their offspring has been handed down on only in the code of the book’s title.
Historians of Christianity know that Constantine did not suppress the old Bible or publish a new one. (For all his madcap extravagance, Rushdie is far more careful about straight history than Brown is.) Yet, strikingly enough, popular reaction to the supposed historical suppression retailed in The Da Vinci Code has been warmest at just this point, where one might have expected at least mild Christian indignation. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone of Genoa, recently named papal secretary of state, called the book “a sack of lies,” but more typical of his American counterparts was the Jesuit theologian who said to a radio interviewer, “I don’t mean to be obtuse, but are you asking me comment on the truth of a novel?” Significantly, that is exactly what he was being asked, and some Evangelical Christian publishers responded enterprisingly enough to the market opportunity. (Cf. “The Da Vinci Code Deception,” on sale through www.visionvideo.com.) Still, nothing approaching public protest ever broke the surface, while the stratospheric sales spoke for themselves.
The contrast with Muslim reaction to The Satanic Verses could not be more striking. Well before the infamous fatwa of Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie, the ummah had reacted with grief and outrage to the news that a presumptive Muslim—announced as such by his Islamic name—had called the sacred origin of the Qur’an into question.
How do we explain the difference between these two reactions? In 1989, during discussion of the Muslim reaction to The Satanic Verses, it was rather widely asserted that Islamic culture had little appreciation of the novel as a genre. This was taken to be the root cause of all the trouble. Muslims understood the conventions of the once-upon-a-time tale, we were told, as witness The Thousand and One Nights. They understood the conventions of straight history as well. Fiction, however, the distinctive Western hybrid that W.H. Auden called “feigned history,” was alien to Muslim culture. “It’s a novel, guys!” was the exasperated cry. But they didn’t get it. They couldn’t. They were Muslims. How surprising, then, to find Americans and Frenchmen, whether they approve of The Da Vinci Code or not, dealing with it so largely as fact rather than as fiction—that is, very much in the supposedly Muslim way. Is the West losing its grasp on the conventions of its most distinctive art form? Whence arises this strange readiness to read this or any novel as history in the first place?
A related phenomenon, I would suggest, is the blurring in public discourse of verisimilitude and veracity. Comedian Stephen Colbert’s truthiness, a coinage intended to mock presidential rhetoric, was recently declared “The Word of the Year” by an association of semanticists. But truthiness is a fair synonym for verisimilitude, the “truthlikeness” that novelists have long cultivated in realistic fiction. What strikes me is how large an American political constituency seems fully prepared to accept presidential verisimilitude as a fair substitute for presidential veracity. This willingness to accept plausible official fiction where verified fact would once have been required seems to me to be of a piece with the widespread inclination, in the case of The Da Vinci Code, to read undisguised but only barely plausible historical fiction as settled fact. The same gullibility seems to operate in both cases.
One of the simplest but most powerful conventions of fiction as a genre has been its understanding—shared by writer and reader—that the views of any given character, even the protagonist, are not to be taken as the views of the author. This is the convention that makes it possibility to distinguish fiction from testimony and therefore invention from mere mendacity, and this was the convention that seemed to be ignored by Muslim critics of The Satanic Verses who endlessly accused Salman Rushdie of “lying.” But how well is this same convention grasped at this point in time within our own culture? Nothing, I note, has more consistently marked discussion of The Da Vinci Code—now, ironically, banned in Iran out of respect for “Prophet Jesus, Peace Be Upon Him”—than the confident attribution of the historical understanding or misunderstanding of Brown’s characters to Brown himself. Whether readers loved or hated the book, this seems to be how they received it. Thus, John D. Hagen, Jr., writing in America, a Jesuit journal of opinion, concludes his historically well-informed response to the novel, entitled “The Real Story of the Council of Nicea,” as follows: “In sum, the story of the Creed is just the opposite of the story told by Dan Brown.”
Wait a minute, Mr. Hagen, one wants to object: It is not Dan Brown who tells the story of the Nicene Creed in The Da Vinci Code but Brown’s character Sir Leigh Teabing. And—very much to the point indeed—Sir Leigh Teabing is revealed in the denouement of the novel as the evil mastermind behind the murders that launch the novel’s action. Does that not matter at all? The arresting police officer delivers the final verdict: “He [Teabing] had exploited both the Vatican and Opus Dei, two groups that turned out to be completely innocent.” Do the historical errors of a fictional criminal really require such detailed refutation? Has the author himself not impugned the trustworthiness of the character by turning him into a murderer?
I hasten to add that Hagen is not exceptional in his way of reading the novel: His way—so illustrative of the erosion of the appreciation of realistic fiction as a genre (if not of close reading in general)—has been the usual way. To be sure, Brown could have written a refutation of Teabing’s historical balderdash into the denouement of his novel alongside his late and easily missed characterological subversion of Teabing himself. He did not do that. Functionally, his eleventh-hour indictment of Teabing is like the moment in a dream novel when the character awakes: The awakening matters little, it is the dream that lingers in the memory. There are, moreover, a good few moments in the novel when Brown, as the omniscient narrator, speaks in as Vatican-bashing a manner as any of his characters. Still, I find it remarkable that in all the ink spilled about the historical truth or falsehood of this novel, the literary datum that the revisionist historian at the heart of the novel turns out to be a crazed killer has attracted so little attention. I am struck by the omission because restoring distance between Brown and his character would have restored something crucial to the functioning of the novel as a novel and foiled its misconstruction as history. The omission seems a telling bit of concrete evidence that our ability to read fiction as fiction is fading away alongside our ability to insist upon fact when fact is called for.
Though that double weakening may explain why fanciful historical revision as delivered in this or any popular novel might be taken all too seriously, it does not, of course, explain why this particular revision has been so warmly welcomed. For that explanation, we must look further. Personally, I find it hard to believe that the success of The Da Vinci Code has fed any real appetite in the United States or abroad for Vatican-bashing per se. The Roman Catholic Church is simply not strong enough or pervasive enough in its influence to deliver the plus-factor that Patrick White spoke of in the making of a mega-best seller. It is too weak to play the role of glamorous mega-villain, and, significantly, the popularity of the novel has not been accompanied by even the faintest whiff of antagonism toward American Catholics themselves. At the same time, the reaction to the novel among many of its readers has been far from flippant or nonchalant. Idle diversion for some, the novel has clearly been much more than that for many others. Perhaps if we are to appreciate what has been going on for them, we must recall that golden age stories have existed in every culture and that Anglo-American culture has had both a secular and a Protestant version of the golden age. In the secular version, the golden age is a mythologized Greco-Roman civilization before Christianity ushered in the Dark Age. In the Protestant version, the golden age is a mythologized primitive Christianity before the Roman Catholic Church corrupted it. If our golden age arch-legend receives a revival in this novel, it may be because the intuition is particularly strong just now that our culture is in ominous decline. Long ago, many yearn to believe, perhaps even not so very long ago, things were much better than they are now. Can we recover what has been lost?
The literary strengths of the The Da Vinci Code, without which no such extrinsic cultural consideration could give it the success it has enjoyed, are, first, that it cuts to the chase within the first twenty pages and keeps running from that point on and, second, that it joins an intriguing intellectual pursuit to this flight from danger. The book may be mocked as “literature for people who like crossword puzzles,” but let’s not forget that the many millions who love crossword puzzles do not lack, for that reason, a full range of broader cultural concerns. Especially when it speaks of the suppression of the sacred feminine in Christianity, The Da Vinci Code may be dream-speak for the suppression of simple kindness in so many of the key institutions of our society. Life is hard and getting harder. There is no free lunch. There is also, increasingly, no paid vacation, no pension, no health care, not much free television or radio, and pervasive background terror from criminals at home and enemies abroad. Declines of this sort can be matched throughout the developed world.
Obviously, The Da Vinci Code is not literally about any of that. But the dream history at its center, the history that has attracted all the attention, is a story of how “we” once had something pretty wonderful and “they” took it away from us. In fact, we never had it, and they never took it; but at a time when real peril is mounting and when the line between history and fiction is progressively disappearing, the myth of a past suppression may easily enough made to stand in for the dream of a future restoration. That dream—whether encoded by accident or by design—may be the secret ingredient that has turned this ingenious novel into so gigantic a cultural phenomenon.
Jack Miles is senior fellow with the Pacific Council on International Policy and, beginning September 2006, a scholar in residence at the Getty Research Institute.