Judas and Da Vinci


Dan Brown

In the two weeks since Dan Brown, the author of The Da Vinci Code, has been found not guilty of breaching the copyright of Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail, another charge of plagiarism has been levelled against him. This time, Russian art historian Mikhail Anikin claims Brown stole his idea that Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was an allegory for the Christian Church.

Meanwhile, the ultra-conservative Catholic group, Opus Dei has asked that a disclaimer be placed on the film of Brown’s book (due out on 19 May) to the effect that the film is a work of fantasy. They also want an ‘adults only’ rating. It must be all that full-frontal religion.

Once you start writing about The Da Vinci Code, you find yourself grasping at metaphors involving mist and fog and that’s even if you do fancy that you can write better than Brown. With sales of 40 million and rising (figures that must be up there with that other wonderful conflation of history and fiction, the Bible), my bet is that Brown doesn’t care that much what we think of his prose.

As for the content of his book: Is it fiction? Is it non-fiction? Well, who knows? Questions around the content of The Da Vinci Code speak of even wider confusions: What is fiction? What is non-fiction? Not many people seem sure on that wider point either.

I can’t lay claim to this joke, made by blogger Jason Kottke in response to the recent discovery of The Gospel of Judas:

Jesus : No, no, trust me. You’re going to come out of this smelling like a rose.

And you have to wonder if the lawyers for the co-authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail said the same thing to Baigent and Leigh when they agreed to represent them.

In some ways it simply seems absurd that these men believed they had a case against Brown. ‘Writers have to avoid taking material from other writers,’ Baigent has stated, seemingly oblivious to the concept of research. As the judge in the case, Justice Peter Smith found, using ideas is not the same as stealing them he stated that while Brown had relied, in part, on Holy Blood, Holy Grail, in writing The Da Vinci Code, Baigent and Leigh had failed to prove that Brown had stolen their ‘central theme’ because they could not accurately state what that theme was.

The situation was not helped, however, by Brown’s slap-dash approach to the English language. When questioned in court about passages in his novel that were similar to those in Holy Blood, Holy Grail, Brown said that ‘reworking of the passage that’s how you incorporate research into a novel.’

Clearly, most writers would aim to reformulate the ideas of others more substantially than Brown did. He is morally culpable in other ways as well. Justice Smith observed that , ‘whilst the decision shows that he didn’t infringe copyright, his moral behaviour is more, in my view, open to question.’

As Laura Harris points out it in a Salon (salon.com) piece indelicately titled ‘The Da Vinci Crock,’ one of the reasons that readers have enjoyed the book is because they like the idea that there is some truth to it. At the very least, The Da Vinci Code, like the just-reconstructed and published The Gospel of Judas (now available from National Geographic), suggests that the Bible is a political document that moulded the facts to suit the purpose of those in power millennia ago.

What the ‘real facts’ may ultimately be, of course, has been lost in the mists of time. But it is interesting indeed heartening that in a world where fundamentalist Christianity has increasing power, a book that argues with the fundamentalist position can do so extraordinarily well. Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker wrote last week that,

The Gospel of Judas appears at a time of a new fashion, not to say rage, for ‘alternate’ Gospels and revisionist retellings of the Jesus story If Dan Brown or the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail are right and they aren’t then Jesus is reduced from the Cosmic Overlord to the founder of a minor line of Merovingian despots.

It’s no bad thing that people are relishing a book which questions the power of the Church and suggests that the Catholic Church is scared of what Brown insists on calling, ‘the sacred feminine.’ I would like it to be a fact that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and that they had a child together, a child who is said to have founded a dynasty of French kings. Unfortunately there is little evidence to support this claim.

Brown himself has a bet each way on the subject. He says at the front of his book that, ‘All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate,’ but when challenged as to the book’s accuracy, he pleads fiction. Salon’s Harris says:

It’s to his advantage to insist that the farrago of lies and misrepresentations used to prop up the conspiracy theory in The Da Vinci Code (and, originally, in Holy Blood, Holy Grail) is part of the historical record or at least in general circulation. Perhaps that’s why Brown has avoided talking to the press since The Da Vinci Code became a hit and drew fire from historians.

Brown muddies the waters by allowing the speculation that his book is truth to go unchecked. But he’s not the first author to indulge in this. As the New York Times argues:

Early in the 18th century, the English novel came into being when a sometime jailbird gulled his readers with the counterfeit memoir of a certain Robinson Crusoe No surprise that our ancestors’ mischief has lingered in the literary bloodline, especially when it comes to fiction masquerading as history.

In the end, the ‘fact’ at the centre of both the ‘non-fiction’ Holy Blood, Holy Grail and the ‘fiction’ of The Da Vinci Code is a hoax. The Priory of Scion, the ‘secret society’ on which both books centre, was the invention of an anti-semitic Frenchman, Pierre Plantard, who planted forged parchments in the French national library, the Bibliothèque Nationale, during the 1960s to provide spurious support for his stories about the bloodline of Jesus Christ.

I presume Dan Brown wrote his ‘Preface on the Priory of Scion’ before this information came out, but nonetheless, all those who buy the book will find on page one the statement that the Priory of Scion ‘a European secret society founded in 1099 is a real organisation.’

It’s certainly a fact that Dan Brown is trying to say as little as possible, though he did comment that he was, ‘ astonished that these two authors chose to file their suit at all.’ But Brown, of all people, should know that there isn’t much a man won’t do for 30 pieces of silver.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.