The Da Vinci Pendulum

Category: Books
Sat, 09 Apr 2005, 22:08

For some time, I had wanted to write about The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, but one thing held me back. When Sylvana gave me a copy of the book for my birthday, I finally read the thing, and I no longer had an excuse.

The Da Vinci Code is about Harvard professor Robert Langdon, symbologist and Holy Grail expert, who is suspected of murdering the curator of the Louvre, Jacques Saunière, and three others. A fugitive from French justice, Langdon is joined by Saunière's grand-daughter, Sophie Neveu, an expert cryptologist. Solving the murders is secondary to the story. While Langdon's goal is finding the Holy Grail, Neveu is driven by the opportunity to discover the truth about her family. In reality, both goals are intertwined.

The obvious comparison is to another book about secret societies and murder and the Holy Grail, Foucault's Pendulum, by Umberto Eco, professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna. Foucault's Pendulum, wonderfully detailed and scholarly researched, is an absolutely riveting and challenging novel. For weeks after reading it, I couldn't look at anything without suspecting some hidden meaning. The Da Vinci Code, in contrast, is a much easier read. However, unlike Foucault's Pendulum, it gets many factual details wrong. Also, some of the puzzles are rather easy and it's somewhat annoying when a symbologist and a cryptologist have difficulty in seeing the obvious.

Clearly this book is not intended to be another Foucault's Pendulum. Brown targeted this book at the general public, which is why the book sometimes reads like a cheap airport thriller. For example, Langdon is an expert in "symbology", not in "semiotics", which is perhaps a more appropriate term for his area of expertise. But few in the general public know what semiotics is.

Also, consider the factual errors. Brown reportedly spent a great deal of time researching the book, and yet still got a lot of details wrong, such as the size and medium of Leonardo's painting The Madonna of the Rocks. In some cases, the errors are necessary in order to advance the plot. But in others, it would have been just as easy to get the facts right. I think the errors are there simply to emphasize the point that the book is a work of fiction, and that any speculative history therein is not to be taken literally.

Much has been written already about this book, most of which is unfavorable. Even the Vatican has condemned the book, which will probably only serve to increase the book's already massive and unprecedented popularity. But I think most critics miss the point that The Da Vinci Code was intended to introduce some profound esoteric knowledge to the general public in an accessible and entertaining manner.

By writing this book, Brown invites his readers to learn more. One might be tempted to reread the 1982 book Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. But since that book has been widely discredited, it's better left on the bookshelf of your public library. Instead, to understand what The Da Vinci Code is really about, go read Jesus and the Lost Goddess by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy.

In conclusion, if you want deep insights into the Holy Grail or the Catholic church, you won't find anything new here. But still, The Da Vinci Code is an entertaining read that might bring its readers a little bit closer to understanding some ancient esoteric wisdom.

Hans

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