Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The conspiracies within

My first reaction to today's Salon piece on The Da Vinci Code (by Dan Brown) was puzzlement. Did it really take Laura Miller this long to realize that the idea for the Code came from a suspect piece of research (Holy Blood, Holy Grail)? Or did she have fresh insight on new evidence?

Miller has an epiphany: what draws people to the Code is not characterization or plotting, but the seed of "truth" on which it is built — the grand conspiracy of religion.

(What's the big deal if Jesus married and had children?, you ask. Something to this effect: Jesus' leaving a bloodline throws into question the central tenet of the Catholic Church — Christ's godliness.)

HBHG is a shoddy (though fascinating) work. Its authors seemingly hoped
to legitimize it through extensive footnoting and obscure references.

Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln are the Moriartys of pseudohistory, and "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" is their great triumph. Their techniques include burying their readers in chin-high drifts of factoids — some valid but irrelevant, some uncheckable (the untranslated diaries of obscure 17th century clerics, and so on), others, like the labyrinthine family trees of various medieval French noblemen, simply numbing, and if you trouble to figure them out, pretty inconclusive. A preposterous idea will first be floated as a guess (it is "not inconceivable" that the Knights Templar found documentation of Jesus and Mary Magdalene's marriage in Jerusalem), then later presented as a tentative hypothesis, then still later treated as a fact that must be accounted for (the knights had to take those documents somewhere, so it must have been the south of France!).

HBHG was reprinted to profit from the code phenomenon (my own copy, about a decade old, is called The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail), and its authors are suing Brown for breach of copyright of ideas and research.

Miller sorts out some of the facts from the fiction in the Code as well as in HBHG, as countless others have already done to capitalize off of the Code's success. She's happy to point out authors' mistakes.

What Miller fails to grasp is that even Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and its acknowledged inspiration, was not wholly original, and the factual inaccuracies of it don't matter as much as she thinks.

For as long as there has been a Church, people have questioned the authenticity of Christ.

I love conspiracies. Not because I believe them, but because they dare to question the status quo. In the guise of entertainment, conspiracies offer a framework by which millions of people who would otherwise never step outside of themselves are allowed to explore ideas they would shun in polite society.

Favouritism at the office. Forged documents. JFK. Aliens. To think, Christ may be the biggest conspiracy of all!

The Code taps into the smudge of paranoia we're all born with — the inner voice that wonders if all is as it seems, that poses doubts, that asks who is in control. It's the same seed of consciousness that grapples with free will and God.
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