Monday, June 05, 2006

Sir Isaac Newton, feminist?

Newton won't bite that apple!

This weekend I read a book just because everyone else is doing it. To me, this is one of the least persuasive reasons for reading a book. My friends can tell you that keeping up with current fads is at the bottom of my priority list (though why should you accept the testimony of such a small group of people?).

In this case, however, I have many excuses, the main one being that Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code relates to topics (religion, Catholicism, codes) that are actually interesting to me. When a friend lent me a copy of the book at last Friday's lunch group, I buckled down and dashed through it. The experience was relatively painless. I found The Da Vinci Code entertaining, cleverly plotted, and often amusing (although not always in the places that Dan Brown probably intended).

My opinion on Brown's sincerity in his promotion of a suppressed feminist past for Christianity is unimportant. There are certainly many misrepresentations of historical fact (e.g., Constantine created the Bible, the Council of Nicea first promulgated Christ's divinity), but fiction writers are specialists in pretense. Edgar Rice Burroughs took pains at the beginning of Tarzan of the Apes to depict himself as merely the editor of a mysterious manuscript that had come into his possession:
I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other. I may credit the seductive influence of an old vintage upon the narrator for the beginning of it, and my own skeptical incredulity during the days that followed for the balance of the strange tale....

I do not say the story is true, for I did not witness the happenings which it portrays, but the fact that in the telling of it to you I have taken fictitious names for the principal characters quite sufficiently evidences the sincerity of my own belief that it may be true.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did the same thing with his tales of Sherlock Holmes, just as Laurie King continues the tradition today with her own contributions to the Holmes legend. Dan Brown is in good company.

Good fiction requires plausibility, of course. If the reader can't suspend disbelief, the novel fails. If the reader explodes in incredulous laughter, we may reasonably infer that a faux pas has been committed. I can cite two such instances. One is Professor Langdon's lecture on phi, the Golden Ratio, a risible episode which I will save for a later commentary. The other is not entirely Brown's fault, although he falls into the trap of making it a significant plot point.

I refer to the inclusion of Sir Isaac Newton in the list of grand masters of the Priory of Sion. Given the Priory's supposed role in preserving the shocking secret of Jesus Christ's marriage to Mary Magdalene and her intended role as leader of the Church, Sir Isaac is one of the unlikeliest candidates imaginable for the job of grand master. A lifelong bachelor and overt misogynist, Newton would have been horrified at the notion that Christianity's true history included equality between the sexes. At least once, during what may have been a spate of mental aberration or melancholy, he directed paranoid rages at friends, apologizing at one point to John Locke for declaring “that you endeavoured to embroil me with women.” Imaginary or not, it seems that Newton numbered matchmaking among the cardinal sins.

Historians tend to agree that Newton died a virgin and that he may have been the kind of repressed homosexual who remains compulsively unattached throughout life. In any case, the “repressed” seems apt. One might expect that a requirement for the position of grand master of the Priory of Sion would be a robust heterosexuality, especially in light of the essential role of hieros gamos in the sect:
Langdon had read descriptions of this ceremony and understood its mystic roots. “It's called Hieros Gamos,” he said softly. “It dates back more than two thousand years. Egyptian priests and priestesses performed it regularly to celebrate the reproductive power of the female.” He paused, leaning toward her. “ And if you witnessed Hieros Gamos without being properly prepared to understand its meaning, I imagine it would be pretty shocking.”
No doubt Newton would find it so! One might also, therefore, question the role of Leonardo Da Vinci, who filled his art and his sketchbook with portraits of his favorite male model, the “little devil” Salai. There are definite problems with the roster of grand masters of the Priory of Sion.

One final thing, this one more of a head-shaker than a belly laugh. Langdon and Neveu roam London in search of “a knight a Pope interred,” at first not realizing the reference is to Newton, over whose funeral Alexander Pope presided. The second line of the poetic clue is “His labor's fruit a Holy wrath incurred.” Although I'm not especially good at mystery novels, I had already twigged to the fact that it was a reference to Alexander Pope, Sir Isaac Newton, and his famous apple, although I was put off the scent a bit by that “Holy wrath” business.
“Newton is buried in London,” said Langdon. “His labors produced new sciences that incurred the wrath of the Church.”
Excuse me, Mr. Brown, but are you confusing Sir Isaac with Signore Galileo? Newton incurred no Church wrath. His works in mathematics, optics, and physics were epochal, but they provided a new foundation for the system of the world rather than upsetting the existing order. The Church of England had no complaint with him (provided he kept prudently quiet about his unitarian tendencies) and he was beyond the reach of the Roman Catholic Church (to which “Church” usually refers in Brown's novel).

No, Isaac Newton doesn't fit Dan Brown's scenario very well at all.


Bill Meisel said...

Well done. I didn't have the patience to read the book but I did enjoy the movie. But I had forgotten about Newton's misogyny.

maybe this will help all those people who are afraid the book is nonfiction...

Nick Barrowman said...

You wrote:

The experience was relatively painless. I found The Da Vinci Code entertaining, cleverly plotted, and often amusing (although not always in the places that Dan Brown probably intended).

But the writing! Didn't it drive you crazy?

Zeno said...

I read fast, Nick. Really fast. Thus I made it through Dan Brown's prose with relatively few grimaces (but quite a few grins). But hey, he's the multi-millionaire and we are middle-class wage earners. Dare we think we write better than a bestselling author? (Uh, yes.)

The Ridger, FCD said...

Brown has problems with metaphor and syntax - primarily in verb arguments - and he doesn't mind stretching his research for the sake of his story - but the man can spin a yarn!

Plus, as pointed out on Ebonmuse's Daylight Atheism, the lure of the novel is a competing story, and people love stories. And this one has everything.

ps - my verification word starts with lw... I think. It might be hv. Odd looking font.

Anonymous said...

The word "risible" seems to be spreading through the Blog world. I will be anonymous and ask what it accomplishes.

I can cite two such instances. One is Professor Langdon's lecture on phi, the Golden Ratio, a risible episode which I will save for a later commentary.

Zeno said...

Is it? I hadn't noticed. I've known and used the word "risible" since long before there were blogs. I like it better than "laughable", but perhaps that's because my first language is a romance tongue and I like Latinate vocabulary.

Anonymous said...

You clearly are able to properly research fact (which I appreciate in a critic) so I was wondering... is there any truth to A. Pope presiding over Isaac Newton's funeral? In all the biographies or papers I've read about either, the other is never mentioned; the movie depicts them as friends and colleagues... any truth to that?

Zeno said...

I do not know of any connection between Newton and Pope other than the fact that their lives overlapped. Newton was not known for having much in the way of friends, though he could sometimes tolerate fellow scientists. I doubt he had a lot of time or patience for his literary contemporaries. Pope famously wrote some lines in Newton's honor, but I haven't seen anything about his "presiding" over Newton's funeral. Besides, Pope was a Catholic and would have been an extremely bad choice for the honor.