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Stuff and nonsense

I don't mind books becoming best-sellers, and I don't mind best-sellers becoming a hype. I do mind when the hype becomes so prevalent that everyone in my immediate vicinity starts not only to read the best-seller in question, but to believe implicitly in the veracity of it (simply because the author claims that it is based on all kind of historical fact), and recommends that I should read it, too -- their ulterior motive that I may come to see the error of my way in originally rejecting it.

And so, against my better judgment, I've started on Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. I seriously doubt I'll ever finish it. I'll not contest that the book has merit -- as a murder mystery, it may even be good (although I wouldn't know, as I'm not normally drawn to murder mysteries and don't have much experience of them). What makes the book unreadable to me is the representation of the 'facts' on which its whole premise is based, which are anything but.

Perhaps I should explain: at university where I majored in both History of Art and (Classical) Archaeology, I minored in such disciplines as philosophy, theology, byzantinology and judaica. The history of the early church and indeed, of Christianity, has always been a particular interest of mine. I read Greek and some Hebrew...or I used to, 20 years ago. I have studied many an ancient text dealing with the question of how Jesus was divine, exactly. I'm familiar with the controversy between (the followers of) Arius and Athanasius, between the question whether his divinity was to be understood as homoiousios or homoousios, and about the Council of Nicaea called by Constantine the Great, that established the orthodox view to be the homoousios-one: Jesus Christ was/is both God and Man in equal, yet separate, measure.

This is all included as the historical background to The Da Vinci Code -- but in a very twisted and in some cases, demonstrably incorrect, way. Dan Brown makes his characters believe, (and through them, some of his readership as well), that Constantine was an evil genius who gave us our present-day Bible, suppressing certain gospels that weren't to his taste and calling the Council of Nicaea to proclaim Jesus's divinity; that he was a lifelong pagan who only promoted Christianity for opportunistic reasons ('backing the winning horse') -- ignoring the fact that the Christians made up only a tiny, and moreover, persecuted minority of the Roman Empire's population at the time of his conversion, which took place on the eve of the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD. And I know he's also wrong when he claims that the Dead Sea scrolls hold gospels and the story of the Grail. They're not Christian, but Jewish documents containing all the books of the Old Testament except for Esther, and other, apocalyptic-messianic texts -- but none of them mention Jesus or his ministry. And he's wrong when he refers to the Nag Hammadi library as having been written on scrolls, too -- those books, in fact, are codices.

From what I've read of this book, it reminds me of nothing so much as of that BBC documentary which was broadcast sometime in the 80s, and the book that was somehow tied in with that (in my mind at least), Holy Blood & Holy Grail, I think it was called. In it, it was claimed that a bloodline had been preserved from JC, via the Merovingian kings of the early Middle Ages, to the present day. What a nonsense! Anyone tracing their family tree back more than 16 generations ends up with over a million forebears already. Tracing it back to one particular Jew who lived and died 2000 years ago is a complete impossibility. I remember I put that book away in disgust, too -- and had a quiet chuckle when, some years later, I read in the papers that the person claiming to be that 'direct descendant' had since been sent to prison for fraud.

Throughout the 90s, a lot of other books were published that tied in Leonardo da Vinci with secret societies and/or the Priory of Sion. As far as I know, there's never been any real proof for this association. It seems to me that whenever someone wants to launch another crackpot theory, and get it talked about, they claim Leonardo had something to do with it.

::re-reads post from the beginning::

I think I'd better stop this pointless critique here -- I'm sure I stand revealed as a total geek enough already...and besides, I haven't finished the book yet. I may be premature and unnecessarily harsh in my criticism. What do I know of anything, anyway? Maybe I misinterpretated the documents I was studying all those years ago, or was told lies in order to perpetuate the myth of Christianity's beginnings.

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missmurchison
Jan. 11th, 2005 02:24 pm (UTC)
Thanks. I remember that "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" nonsense too, and I've avoided this new book because I assumed it would be more of the same and I'd wind up nagging people who'd studied more of that period than I had to read and help me analyze. You've done the analysis, and saved me the reading, which I know would only have made me cranky!
gamiila
Jan. 11th, 2005 06:22 pm (UTC)
Well, I can't claim to have analysed it thoroughly -- I've only browsed through the book and come across a number of things that struck me as tendentious, ill-informed rubbish -- but I would be greatly surprised if other, more knowledgeable people than me wouldn't have seen the same things and reached similar conclusions.
And yes, I am that conceited! ;-)
superplin
Jan. 11th, 2005 02:29 pm (UTC)
I haven't read the Da Vinci Code, either, and doubt I will for many of the same reasons you state (although I have, in contrast, absolutely no background whatsoever in any of these subjects).

I don't know enough about the hoopla surrounding the book to know whether the author is deliberately trying to promote the story he tells as "true," or whether it's the case of a large number of readers who have misconstrued the factual tone of the book as stating fiction for fact.

I seem to remember a similar controversy around The Name of the Rose, and Umberto Eco stated that he had deliberately taken liberties with history to suit his story; if he wanted to write a textbook, he said, he wouldn't have packaged it as a novel. Not sure whether that's what's going on here or not.

If the author has been misread, then in an odd way it's a positive commentary on the book, which manages to sell its fiction so convincingly that people think it's fact. If he's deliberately trying to spin the story and promote it as "what really happened," though, I lose all respect for him.

Not that he probably cares, as this is one of those "crying all the way to the bank" scenarios. ;)
gamiila
Jan. 11th, 2005 07:21 pm (UTC)
to know whether the author is deliberately trying to promote the story he tells as "true," or whether it's the case of a large number of readers who have misconstrued the factual tone of the book as stating fiction for fact.

I wasn't sure either until I opened the book in question, and started reading. On the first page, even before the Prologue, it states quite categorically that "all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate". The murder mystery is, of course, pure fiction. But the plot centers on the "lost", i.e. apocryphal gospels and their portrayal of Jesus, and the author seems convinced that these gospels contain the historical truth -- an historical truth, moreover, that was suppressed by the early Church at the instigation of the emperor Constantine. And then the whole 'bloodline preserved intact through the ages'-fallacy is repeated once again.

It's probably no coincidence that the name of the murder victim is the same as that of the abbé who set tongues wagging with his strange behaviour in late 19th century Rennes-le-Château and ultimately started this whole myth developing.
bogwitch
Jan. 11th, 2005 02:31 pm (UTC)
Holy Blood & Holy Grail,

I've read that. Somebody made me. I'm deeply cynical of any books like that. They seem to prey on the fact that most people aren't educated in these fields to sell books.

I can't say I am, but I'm not daft either. It's what put me off paganism in the end (that and it's so twee). There might be some old/interesting ideas there that I agree with, but the bollocks that gets attached...
gamiila
Jan. 11th, 2005 06:17 pm (UTC)
I've read that. Somebody made me. I'm deeply cynical of any books like that.

After having lived for some time in the Arab world, I've come to loathe and detest conspiracy theories of any kind. I really can't be spending any more time than I have already on this book. Thank God I only borrowed it of one of my colleagues, who swearsit's the most intelligent book he's ever read. Somehow, that says more about my colleague than the book, to me...

but I'm not daft either. It's what put me off paganism in the end (that and it's so twee).

Oh yes -- the twee factor's put me right off as well. ;-)
bogwitch
Jan. 11th, 2005 06:58 pm (UTC)
Blessed Be.
gamiila
Jan. 11th, 2005 06:59 pm (UTC)
Aaarrrrrgggghh!

::puts up two fingers in a cross::
bogwitch
Jan. 11th, 2005 07:02 pm (UTC)
Watch it, or I'll set my crystals onto you. Or I might if it wasn't for the three fold rule.
gamiila
Jan. 11th, 2005 07:24 pm (UTC)
::piping down::

No, not the crystals! Anything but the crystals!

God, you're good at this Wiccan stuff. I must ask my sister what wards I can set up against your baleful influence before venturing into your vicinity again...

(not long now till the panto!)
bogwitch
Jan. 11th, 2005 07:28 pm (UTC)
I wasn't named Bogwitch for nothin'.
elsaf
Jan. 11th, 2005 03:01 pm (UTC)
It's not even a very good murder mystery. The characters are paper thin and flat as pancakes. And the premise is absurd. The victim, as he knows he's dying and knows who shot him, runs around setting up this convoluted scavenger hunt rather than writing "the (spoiler) killed me." Right...

And the sooper sekrit knowledge is something that has no value at all unless a lot of people know it. Keeping it secret keeps the information from having any value.
elsaf
Jan. 11th, 2005 03:06 pm (UTC)
From what I've read of this book, it reminds me of nothing so much as of that BBC documentary which was broadcast sometime in the 80s, and the book that was somehow tied in with that (in my mind at least), Holy Blood & Holy Grail, I think it was called.

Oh, and I meant to point out that Leigh Teabing's name is an anagram of the names of the authors of Holy Blood Holy Grail. They're suing Brown for plagarism. Of course, if their book is non-fiction, using their information is not plagarism. However, if their book is fiction...
gamiila
Jan. 11th, 2005 03:52 pm (UTC)
And what if it's what they call 'faction' these days? ;-)
spiralleds
Jan. 11th, 2005 08:33 pm (UTC)
Faction?
::shudder::

There is something annoying frustrating about a book being sold as fiction, but described as real and people are willing to swallow it at truth, hook, line and sinker!

Your post greatly amused me. I keep meaning to read the book, because as a seminary student people keep asking me if I've read it and what I think of it and I keep thinking I should have an answer!

gamiila
Jan. 11th, 2005 10:00 pm (UTC)
Re: Faction?
Your post greatly amused me.

I'm glad.

I keep meaning to read the book

Although my first impulse would be to say "don't bother", ...

because as a seminary student people keep asking me if I've read it and what I think of it and I keep thinking I should have an answer!

I think that it would be really interesting to hear what you as a seminary student will make of it! ;-)

Incidentally, I think that's the same reason people keep asking me what my views are, because they know it touches on my field of knowledge.
jonesiexxx
Jan. 11th, 2005 04:20 pm (UTC)
Rambly thanks
Thank you for this. I've been debating whether to read it, not because I want to for its own sake, but more to keep up with the zeitgeist.

(A good friend of mine, eg, is not attracted to fantasy/sci fi/au. But he made a point of watching a few "famous" Buffy eps - The Body, OMWF, Chosen - partly out of curiousity, but mostly because of his interest in knowing what pop-cult intelligensia types were watching and talking about).

Now I know TDVC will just make me mad. Or if I do read it, I'll have informed skepticism. Not just knee-jerk skepticism.

Your meta problem with it - people passing off their own agenda as historical fact - is a big hot button for me. It's why I loathe Oliver Stone movies. And why I worry about Life is Beautiful depictions of the death camps.

And, btw, I didn't know that Leonardo masterminded JFK's assassination. Interesting.
gamiila
Jan. 11th, 2005 06:10 pm (UTC)
Re: Rambly thanks
And, btw, I didn't know that Leonardo masterminded JFK's assassination.

Hadn't you heard? He's also responsible for engineering King Tut's fatal accident, and was really an alien from outer space.
viciouswishes
Jan. 11th, 2005 09:16 pm (UTC)
I know he's also wrong when he claims that the Dead Sea scrolls hold gospels

*shakes head* This is pretty low level Bible text knowledge. I went to a crappy religious school when I was 12 and learned this. It's what I call hack writing and bad research.
gamiila
Jan. 11th, 2005 09:53 pm (UTC)
Exactly! All he had to do, if he wasn't sure of his case, was to google for it (I think)...

The bad research shows through in other areas as well; e.g. where he claims that 1st century Jewish decorum forbade a Jewish man to remain unmarried; or where he claims that Q, the hypothetical source material on which both Matthew and Luke are partially based, is an actual book written by Jesus and held under lock and key by the Vatican.
mommanerd
Jan. 11th, 2005 10:21 pm (UTC)
Hey, I'm thrilled you posted this. I've refused to read that book for the same reason. So many seem to be taking it as fact and as an expose of sorts. Of course, I don't have your gift for pointing out the specifics.

Thanks!
gamiila
Jan. 12th, 2005 05:39 am (UTC)
You're welcome!

I don't have your gift for pointing out the specifics.

And here I was, worried I might be nitpicking, and missing out on something that others, with less of an eye for historical detail, were seeing!
deadsoul820
Jan. 12th, 2005 05:07 am (UTC)
I have to say upfront that the Priory of Sion, etc. is one of my very favorite crackpot conspiracy theories. I don't believe a word of it, but find it very amusing in a tweak the church kinda way.

My problem w/TDVC is simply that it's ssssooooooo very badly written. Horribly, horribly written. DB's idea of characterization is to say whathisface (main character - I've repressed) is "Harrison Ford in tweed". Sum total. And the murder mystery is laughably easy - I was figuring out all the riddles chapters before the "experts" had their V-8 moments.

Look what you made me do! I'd resolved to get past this and here you go stirring it up again. But thanks for the historical/religious crit; I now even more reasons to hate this book.
gamiila
Jan. 12th, 2005 05:50 am (UTC)
I have to say upfront that the Priory of Sion, etc. is one of my very favorite crackpot conspiracy theories. I don't believe a word of it, but find it very amusing in a tweak the church kinda way.

I find the Priory of Sion very interesting and amusing, too, in that it's obviously a hoax, yet so many people seem to take it and its claims completely seriously. I don't think there is any evidence to suggest that the society, if society it is, really has existed for as long as it claims it has (personally, I'm inclined to think it's 'been around' for decades rather than centuries) or been led by all those illustrious personages of the art and literary world (to me, that smacks of all those people who go to a hypnotist to find out about their previous lives, and come back convinced that they were Cleopatra or Napoleon, never anyone insignificant).

My problem w/TDVC is simply that it's ssssooooooo very badly written. Horribly, horribly written.

Ah -- I thought it might be just a sloppy translation (I don't usually read books in translation, but this time I borrowed a copy off one of my colleagues who does apparently prefer to read things in Dutch), but now you tell me it doesn't get any better in the original, eh? Tsk tsk.

Look what you made me do!

Sorry! ;-)
irishabastard
Jan. 12th, 2005 03:49 pm (UTC)
What's strange is that no one seems to be pointing out that Brown is just a formula writer. He's what I generally refer to as 'airport reading'. Fairly fast paced, easy to read and digest, and harmlessly entertaining if you don't examine too closely. Sort of like a stripper who looks great in a dimly lit club but pretty disappointing when the spotlight hits. His last book, Angels and Demons, which didn't receive nearly the press, has the same main character, and basically the same plot and outline as The DaVinci Code, albeit with a different conspiracy.
gamiila
Jan. 12th, 2005 05:15 pm (UTC)
Sort of like a stripper who looks great in a dimly lit club but pretty disappointing when the spotlight hits.

LOL! Leave it to you to come up with such a simile...but quite an accurate one that I can agree with wholeheartedly.
( 26 Speak Like A Child — Shout To The Top )

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