Sunday, September 19, 2004

Dan Brown's Body

I was going to spend some time this evening on a critique of Dan Brown's Angels and Demons which, God help me, I read this past week. Angels and Demons is arguably better than The Da Vinci Code; I should have read it first. Unfortunately, despite the cheap entertainment value (Brown knows how to hook you, but his novels leave you feeling like you've just consumed the literary equivalent of Doritos: flavorless after the first few bites, but somehow still compelling in a junk-foodish way), it gets a few things wrong. I suspect that experts in various fields would find different bones to pick. For me, as a student of religion, two things leaped out at me right away:

1. Brown's casual and unqualified claim, in A&D, that Hatha Yoga is a Buddhist practice.

2. The completely erroneous claim that the Pope's contribution of semen for the purpose of artificially inseminating a nun did not involve the breaking of his vow of chastity.

As regards the first claim: There are certainly Buddhists who practice Hatha Yoga, but Hatha Yoga is originally Hindu, and Brown, in his zeal to move the plot forward, seems to have passed this fact by. The basic principles of Hatha Yoga can be found in such scriptures as the very Hindu Yoga Sutra of Patanjali.

As regards the second claim, Brown is off his rocker. Last I heard, masturbation was and still is considered a sexual act, and priests who take the vow of chastity are closing themselves off from all sexual options-- yes, even the comforting embrace of Madam Hand and Her Five Lovely Attendants. Most artificial insemination still involves obtaining sperm the old-fashioned way (see here), and since Brown's Pope is actually a rather horny guy, it's doubtful his spoo was collected by artificial means. No: His Holiness played Whack-a-Pope, and this is a clear infraction of the vow of chastity.

Instead of ranting on and on about Brown's errors, I'll point you to this wonderful essay by a certain Gene Callahan debunking Angels and Demons. This will take care of most of your anti-Brownian needs, I think.

For those of you who haven't bothered reading either Angels and Demons or The Da Vinci Code, let me sum up the common elements of both. Da Vinci is essentially a shameless remake of Angels. Common elements:

1. Robert Langdon, studly Harvard religion prof (dealing mainly with symbology), protag.
2. Strong, fiery, super-competent female companion who inspires lustful thoughts and with whom Langdon strongly bonds within the space of 24 hours.
3. A competent killer who is the pawn of a hidden agency.
4. A hidden agency (or at least the shadow of one).
5. An obnoxious chief of security, probably innocent, but portrayed as possibly guilty of something nefarious.
6. A Eurocentric narrative.
7. Steaming clumps of various Romance languages in the toilet swirl of text, with occasional flecks of Arabic and German visible in the mix.
8. The Brownian formula for writing a fast-paced novel (which I already discussed here).

I think that's it for Dan Brown. I won't be reading Deception Point or Digital Fortress. While I can't stand Tom Clancy's desiccated, awful prose, I have to give Clancy credit for researching his novels well enough that he occasionally gets scandalized calls from the Pentagon of the "How the hell did you find that out!?" kind. I doubt Brown is getting such calls. More likely, he's being hounded by people telling him to stop chewing his own colon polyps.

Here's my imaginary rendition of a new Dan Brown novel featuring Robert Langdon, Runaway Obelisk:


Robert Langdon, Harvard University professor of religion and avid water polo player, woke up in agony and found himself lying in a sticky pool of something.


He flicked on the lamp near his bed and gasped as pain flared from his crotch. Langdon looked down and screamed in horror: he was lying in a pool of his own blood. Flicking aside his sheets, Langdon saw the source of the blood: his penis had been removed with mercilessly surgical precision.

Langdon cast about wildly for some way to stanch the flow of blood; this couldn't have happened long ago. His gaze landed on the bedroom mirror, on which had been written a message in lipstick:

In 9D mInNits
yeR dIcK gos in UH
BOtdle uv forMaLDuh HIDe

Ninety minutes? Langdon realized he had no idea when the countdown had started, no idea how much time remained to him before his penis was to be plunged into a bottle of formaldehyde-- preserved for posterity but completely useless to the desperate symbologist in the present.

Langdon removed the pillowcase from one of his plush pillows and pressed the crumpled fabric against his ruined crotch as he stumbled out of bed, looking for clues. It didn't take long: his eyes spotted a strangely shaped pile of cat dung on the carpet next to his bedroom door. The cat dung was in the shape of a glyph Langdon had never seen before. Langdon circled the glyph and realized it was actually two Chinese characters:


Just the other day, Langdon had been talking with some of the grad students in Buddhist studies. One had asked the other: "What's the Chinese word for anus?" "Gang-mun," the second had laughed. Langdon had thought the answer a joke; now he knew the student had been serious.

Chinese characters from my cat's ass... a message in lipstick on my bedroom mirror... Langdon did a double-take and stared hard at the mirror again:

In 9D mInNits
yeR dIcK gos in UH
BOtdle uv forMaLDuh HIDe

Seventeen syllables. Japanese haiku. Japanese has four writing systems: hiragana for Japanese words, katagana for phonetically rendering foreign words; romaji, or Roman letters, to render Japanese in a way readable by Westerners... and finally, kanji, or Chinese characters, for Sino-Japanese words. The Chinese weren't the only ones who wrote in Chinese.

Langdon suddenly realized that his penis was heading for Japan, and he had less than ninety minutes to catch it before it would be bottled for the trip. In a flash of near-Zen illumination, he saw that his enemies, whoever they were, had forced his cat to call him an asshole. To add insult to injury, the cat had been compelled to do this in a language it didn't know. Langdon's unknown enemy was unimaginably cruel. Who knows how many rough drafts the cat had gone through to get those characters right? Langdon looked at the dungpile again and, sure enough, saw blood in the stool. When this is over, kitty, I'm giving you an extra can of tuna every night for the next month, Langdon quietly promised.

A frightened and furious Robert Langdon swallowed his pride and reached for the phone.

NB: The Sino-Korean pronunciation of the word for anus is hang-mun. I got the Chinese pronunciation "gang-mun" from my Buddhism prof at CUA. He probably wouldn't appreciate my revealing this fact on the blog, but I trust he's got enough of a sense of humor not to take himself too seriously. Full disclosure: my prof is a Taiwanese Buddhism expert. I can't vouch for whether "gang-mun" is the mainland pronunciation.

NB2: My explanation of the four Japanese writing systems was deliberately incomplete, à la Dan Brown's partially-researched style. Here's a decent page with a fuller explanation. Interesting site in its own right. If Dan Brown should inspire you to do anything, it's research.


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