June 12, 2006
Old Bev: So Dark the Con of Men?
Professor Robert Langdon, hero of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, is a well-known symbologist, American, and bachelor. In the space of a few days in Paris and London, Langdon is accused of murder, seeks the Holy Grail, and gets the first date he’s had in years. He’s a classic bumbling hero, roused from a hotel slumber to meet Bezu Fache, the captain of the Central Directorate Judicial Police who is hell-bent on arresting him; Sophie Neveu, a cryptologist who believes Langdon can help solve the mystery of her grandfather’s murder; and Sir Leigh Teabing, the world’s preeminent Holy Grail scholar. Dan Brown doesn’t give us too much personal information about our hero, preferring instead to let chatty Langdon provide most of the historical exposition, but we do know that he has had but one love in his life, a woman named Vittoria who drifted away a year before The DaVinci Code picks up. Langdon, like most every other character in the book, is looking for a lady.
The DaVinci Code is a competent thriller, but it takes more than that to sell over 40 million copies and nearly $200 million worth of movie tickets. Dan Brown’s genre elements – murder, escape, conspiracy, romance – exist first in the primary plot starring Langdon and company, and finally in a more famous plot starring Jesus Christ and his disciples. Murder, escape, and conspiracy are all familiar Biblical elements, but romance? There’s where the 40 million copies come into play. Robert Langdon’s newest manuscript asserts that the Holy Grail is the sarcophagus of Mary Magdalene and documents that trace her bloodline into the present day. Why Mary? She allegedly married and bore the child of Jesus Christ. This is more than Biblical gossip though, because Dan Brown’s Catholic Church has suppressed Mary’s claim to the church (ie, the sacred feminine) and seeks to destroy the Grail and murder Christ’s living descendents. The DaVinci Code is ostensibly a book about restoration of (or failing that, reverence for) female power – so how come there’s only one female character in the book?
If Dan Brown doesn’t tell us much about Robert Langdon, he tells us even less about Sophie Neveu. At least Langdon’s ramblings and manuscripts are evidence of his own passion and intellectual life; Sophie’s interest in cryptology is attributed directly to the design of the grandfather who raised her. If Sophie had a love at one point, he doesn’t get a name – we know just that she is lonely. She’s useful to the search for the Grail only because of her hazy childhood memories. Sophie is a human code, and she needs Langdon to help her read herself. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a lonely repressed lady cryptologist, but Brown isolates her in a world where female power has been lost, and encourages only the men to reclaim it.
When Langdon informs his lecture hall of the “mind boggling” “concept of sex as a pathway to God” held by the early church, he fields a question from the crowd:
“Professor Langdon?” A male student in back raised his hand, sounding hopeful. “Are you saying that instead of going to chapel, we should have more sex?” Langdon chuckled, not about to take the bait. From what he’d heard about Harvard parties, these kids were having more than enough sex. “Gentlemen,” he said, knowing he was on tender ground, “might I offer a suggestion for all of you. Without being so bold as to condone pre-marital sex, and without being so naïve as to think you’re all chaste angels, I will give you this bit of advice about your sex lives.” All the men in the audience leaned forward, listening intently. “The next time you find yourself with a woman, look in your heart and see if you cannot approach sex as a mystical, spiritual act. Challenge yourself to find that spark of divinity that man can only achieve through union with the sacred feminine.” (310)
What’s interesting here is that Langdon responds only to the “gentlemen” in his class. He perceives the question – a misunderstanding of his lecture – to be fundamentally male, and assumes either that women already have an appropriate attitude toward sex or that perhaps they don’t need that appropriate attitude if the man has it. There’s no space in his treatment of the sex act for female sexuality except as a conduit for a male experienced “spark of divinity.” Sophie Neveu is positioned similarly in the narrative – there’s no space for her experience of the murder or Grail quest outside of what it means for her late grandfather and her male companions. She is the portal through which the academics finally make tangible their theory. Her agency is only as great as the extent to which Langdon and Teabing exploit her. Dan Brown offers few clues, in a 454 page bestseller about the suppression and celebration of the ‘sacred feminine,’ as to how a woman might negotiate her own intrinsic divinity.
Sophie, though she serves as an object of desire for the bulk of The DaVinci Code, only behaves sexually after she learns herself to be the direct descendant of Mary Magdalene and Jesus Christ. It’s as if Brown can’t ask his heroine to reevaluate her sex life in the same manner that he asks men, through Langdon, to; instead he fashions Sophie as a blank slate. She doesn’t endure a reawakening at the conclusion of the novel, but an awakening:
The stars were just appearing, but to the west, a single point of light glowed brighter than any other. Langdon smiled when he saw it. It was Venus. The ancient Goddess shining down with her steady and patient light…Langdon looked over at Sophie. Her eyes were closed, her lips relaxed in a contented smile…Reluctantly, he squeezed her hand…Langdon felt an unexpected sadness to realize he would be returning to Paris without her. “I’m sorry, I’m not very good at—” Sophie reached out and placed her soft hand on the side of his face. Then, leaning forward, she kissed him tenderly on the cheek. [Langdon asks Sophie to meet him in Florence the following month, and she agrees as long as they avoid museums etc.] “In Florence? For a week? There’s nothing else to do.” Sophie leaned forward and kissed him again, now on the lips. Their bodies came together, softly at first, and then completely. When she pulled away, her eyes were full of promise. “Right,” Langdon managed. “It’s a date.” (448-449)
This is an unremarkable conclusion to an unremarkable romance plot, except for the fact that Brown offers no representations of female desire not explicitly allied with a Goddess. If her enlightened sex with Langdon will in fact help her explore her spirituality, why does this probihit Brown from acknowledging her prior sexual impulses? Jane Schaberg and Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre point out in their article “There’s Something About Mary Magdalene” that female sexuality in The DaVinci Code exclusively “helps men achieve their full spiritual potential,” but they also posit that Brown’s Christianity is one that “appeals to those looking for a spirituality not based in creed or authority, but on knowledge, personal reflection and an embodied life in the world.” (Ms. Magazine, Spring 2006) In The DaVinci Code, however, no woman who is not literally the descendant of a goddess negotiates such a spirituality. Individual women – like Vittoria, who made choices illegible to Langdon – are absent. Brown keeps women abstract by referring to them only in groups: Langdon’s female students “smiled knowingly, nodding” (but don’t speak to each other as the men do), no female participant in a traditional sex ritual is identified (as Sophie’s grandfather is), an unnamed Parisian academic reminds Langdon of all the simpering women back home, a nun is emblematic of a body of believers, and Sophie’s grandmother represents the entire bloodline of Mary Magdalene. For the individual woman in The DaVinci Code, there is no “embodied life in the world” if it does not involve a male body – or if she is a part of the literal bloodline of Jesus and Mary.
One scene in The DaVinci Code stands out from the rest. It's not included in the screen adaptation by Akiva Goldsman. In it, Langdon and Sophie take a cab ride through the Bois de Boulogne:
Langdon was having trouble concentrating as a scattering of the park's nocturnal residents were already emerging from the shadows and flaunting their wares in the glare of the headlights. Ahead, two topless teenage girls shot smoldering gazes into the taxi. Beyond them, a well-oiled black man in a G-string turned and flexed his buttocks. Beside him, a gorgeous blond woman lifted her miniskirt to reveal that she was not, in fact, a woman...Langdon nodded, unable to imagine a less congruous a backdrop for the legend he was about to tell. (157)
Sophie doesn't have trouble paying attention; her eyes are "riveted" on Langdon. It's also worth noting that the women appear in groups here as well. But the scene's explicit depiction of a secular shadowy sexual marketplace is unique within the novel. Here a more complex web of connections between individual and temporal sexualities, lifestyles, and belief systems is glimpsed. Langdon himself seems to congratulate his author on the decision. Unfortunately, the cab-driver's radio begins to crackle with news of the fugitives, and Langdon and Sophie have to hightail it out of the Bois de Boulogne, and it's on to a Swiss Bank to search for the distillation of the sacred feminine.
Posted by Jane Renaud at 10:27 PM | Permalink
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