I read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code back in 2004 when the paperback came out because it was all anyone would talk about at the time. Before the film had even come out it was a cultural phenomenon, becoming one of the best selling books of all time, only outsold that year by Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It had spawned several cash-in documentaries about anything even vaguely attached to the story, attendance at the Louvre had skyrocketed and everyone suddenly had very firm opinions on Christian doctrine. I wondered what all the fuss was about so bought a copy from Tesco with my staff discount where it was also on deal so it cost me all of about £2. I found it to be a good enough airport thriller overburdened with descriptions of cultural or historical artefacts cribbed seemingly direct from Wikipedia. It was short lived however. Even by the time the film was released interest had cooled and, as most pop culture events do, it disappeared from the public consciousness within a year or so.
OR DID IT…???
You see I never saw the movie, as, like a lot of people, I’d lost interest in the story and its topics by the time of its release, having not had that much interest in it to begin with, but it was on Netflix recently so I finally gave it a watch. It is not a good movie, I’m sorry to report, given that its source material is almost pure exposition interspersed with people running away, but it did remind me of what the book was about in the first place and that set alarm bells ringing. It’s a story about conspiracy theories based on ancient organisations that infiltrate the upper orders of society; where a professor of ‘Symbology’ is able to do global book tours explaining these conspiracies to sold out venues; it’s a book of, at best questionable, at worst down right inaccurate, explanations of the topics it discusses and, above all, a book about a bunch of old men fussing over a woman whose sole purpose, as they see it, is to breed. Starting to sound familiar?
The startling rise of conspiracy nuts in this century came into my awareness after 9/11 when some weird videos emerged online claiming it was “all a planned demolition/jet fuel can’t melt steel beams” etc. Since then its been Flat Earthers all the way down. With the rise of the truly disturbing right wing cult of ‘Qanon’ today, the disparate group of online zealots who rallied a mob to storm the US capitol building in January, I feel uneasy looking back at the story The Da Vinci Code touted all those years ago. But not just in its topics, its method too. Even at the time Dan Brown was torn apart by historians, art historians and every sect of Christian/Catholic faith for its reliance on total nonsense that was presented as if true. Half the fun of all those documentaries that cropped up thanks to the book’s popularity was that they were all called something like “The Real Da Vinci Code” and spent an hour talking about Leonardo’s art style and various lost paintings. One especially memorable one was about the psychology of conspiracy theories themselves which I still remember to this day (which I wish I could find online), that explained how we build narratives to fit only the information we have available to us (a big influence on the book I wrote on this very subject). In short, the book’s central conceit (that Jesus had kids and there’s been a millennia long war and cover up over it) was a load of baloney presented as fact that became a popular sensation, and if that doesn’t sum up our contemporary cultural mess I don’t know what does.
The Da Vinci Code may not have caused a lot of the issues we see poisoning the cultural well today but it embodied many of them years before they became what are now, life-threatening issues to many. And there’s no wannabe Indiana Jones to save us this time.