Thursday, May 04, 2006

Be Smug With Me.

I'm currently on page 325 of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. I am not reading it for pleasure. Although, by and large, even the pop-culture public is sick of the book, and they (thanks be to God) don't take it seriously, still, there are enough people out there who know little enough that they just eat this stuff up.

The book is a propeganda tract for every little bit of esotericism out there--Wicca, goddess worship, nature worship, gnosticism, ritual sex, etc.--candy-wrapped in a shallow, implausible, comic-bookish mystery story. Brown paradoxically preaches absolute postmodern relativism regarding historical beliefs, and at the same time he throws out phrases like "established historical fact" and "copiously researched" to decorate his fantasy. It is as if repeating these claims ad nauseum was sufficient to command the assent of millions.

And, sadly, it is.

But this blog post isn't meant to take down every ugly part of Brown's book (I imagine even every anti-Brown book published so far only scratches the surface), but to point out one in particular. The smugness. Oh, is it ever thick. It's so thick that Brown even celebrates it, attributing smugness as the grand virtue of every character sympathetic to his esoteric paganism. The sly self-superiority and the grandiose stroking of his own cleverness saturate the novel so much that I'm wearied by it and I have to take frequent breaks.

I can only imagine that the smugness is a deliberate mechanism. Smugness in a novel isn't a habit; it's a technique. Although being smug is not generally a lauded quality, in day to day interactions it has a polarizing effect. Smugness, I assume, generally involves taking loud pleasure in one's own superiority--real or imagined. When it comes to gnostic superiority--the superiority of being in possession of "secret knowledge," the difference between the "haves" and "have nots" is particularly sharp. Nobody wants to be on the wrong end of smugness; nobody wants to be the one ignorant of the reason for somebody else's furtive "knowing" smile.

Thus is nestled, in the smugness of Dan Brown, an ingenious little temptation. Be Smug With Me. Believe what I tell you. As one of the back cover praises says, "Read the book and be enlightened." Then you won't be one of the dumb people anymore. You can be among the intelligent, the enlightened, the smug.

For those who don't feel particularly tempted by the desire for gnostic superiority, the smugness has a different--and again, intended--effect. Rage. It does not matter how demonstrably untrue are all the smug person's reasons for being smug; how many laws of logic are flouted in the name of smarmy moralistic self-flattery; how academically ridiculous the case is--no response will crack the ritual mask of smugness. This, understandably, makes Brown's many targets--faithful Catholics--upset.

The anger, predictably, feeds into the smugness. Brown includes in his novel several (naive) portrayals of the general public as being "unable to handle" what he has to sell. To disgree with his esotericism means you're a dupe; but to get angry means that you're weak, and maybe even psychotic (like Silas the Opus Dei monk).

It reminds me of G.K. Chesterton's explanation of circular thought in Orthodoxy: if I believe I am the Queen of England, then surely if you disagree with me it is because you have an agenda to keep the true monarch off the throne. It's a wonderful, logically consistent, perfect, tiny world of self affirmation.


Danny said...

Great post Jeff. I haven't read the Da Vinci Code, but your perspective on it has certainly deterred me furtherly, the other motivating [or rather unmotivating] factor being laziness.

Also, it was pretty unexpected to read "how many laws of logic are flouted in the name of juicy mental masterbation[sic];" Juicy? C'mon man, isn't that a bit graphic? The temptation to make a joke involving your title at the church is very tempting, but I 'll control myself. Check out my sic by the way. Yeah, I'm pretty much bathing in smug at this point.

About confirmation, what are our plans for Wednesday? Do you want us to meet you at the pastoral center or
what? Email me at

Jeff said...

Ew. Just... ew.

All right I'll rephrase it. Sometimes I get carried away with the invectives. I should watch less cable TV.

Anyway, let's just meet as if it were for regular class. 6:30pm at the offices. We've got more things to discuss. I've got Mr. Carter on board, too (provided his prior appointment isn't on the same evening).