The Name of the Code

In The Da Vinci Code, the protagonist is an academic "symbologist" whose training allows him to play detective in a heavy-handed plot of murders, ancient conspiracies, the search for the Holy Grail, and a female descendant of Jesus. It has been pointed out that his field should more properly be called "semiotics", the study of signs, since symbology is a largely made-up discipline. But in fact, Dr. Robert Langdon is no such thing. He is more like an historian of myths, like the very popular Joseph Campbell. Semiotics would not propel a best-seller forward. It and related disciplines produce such dense, jargon-ridden discourse that the dastardly Opus-Dei fanatics would wipe out the DNA of Our Lord and Mary Magdalene before anyone would even care to decipher what was being said.

In the late 1960s a wave began to sweep through academia. It was an amalgam of writings in various disciplines with the same thrust, largely the study of language as a model for the study of just about everything. It was labeled French theory because a lot of the writing came from France, or critical theory, or simply theory. It was way cool. It was largely incomprehensible and that added to its way-coolness: it was a hip lingo, a CBGB of the mind.

Two thinkers who laid the groundwork for this were French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, whose wide view of his discipline is called structuralism, and earlier, Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, father of semiotics. The latter came up with a nifty way of looking at language, all languages, or better yet, all sign systems, that is not that hard to understand. It has a lot in common with old-school diagramming, a grammar-teaching device I fist encountered in junior high. Of course, like grammar itself, like language itself, the field got denser and denser.

In my last years as an undergrad a different wave was sweeping colleges, at least among the bohemian crowd of my friends. Drugs. Suddenly, instead of getting wasted on drink, mostly the disgusting cheap beer we could afford, my friends were getting seriously wasted. When they were high they were out of my frequency, when they came down they were morose and surly, and, worst of all, they talked about drugs in a semi-clinical lingo I could not follow. Lonely times for a college senior too timid to even toke on a joint.

Graduate school. The second half of the decade. This time, a gauzy sensuous wave. A political militancy softened by a love ethic. Trippy music. Tripping. I lost my timidity. I tried, and mostly failed, to play the blues on my guitar. I also started to feel, but did not catch, the wave of critical theory. As in a replay of my last undergraduate years, I stopped understanding my friends who had caught it. We got jobs teaching at fancy schools. My friends moved into Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, the two Jacques, Lacan and Derrida, each more incomprehensible than the next. And others whose names, to quote Cervantes, no quiero recordarme.

At the end of that giddy decade I had chosen my own kind of academic hipsterism, film studies. You mean I can get a Ph.D. in, like, movies? Cool. I was good at it -- though by current film-geek standards I'm very low grade, at the time it was satisfying to know that I could turn my having spent a nerdy childhood going to new movies and watching old ones on TV into a career. And film studies was about to get swallowed by all that Francophile babble.

In the mid 70s I attended an NEH summer seminar on film studies at the University of Iowa, a hotbed of the trendiest theories applied to film criticism. I finally read all those guys in a methodical manner and had the theories explained. I'm not dumb. I got a lot of it. Not all. Psychoanalyst Lacan and whatever-he-was Derrida, I recall passing my eyes over the pages and losing the train of thought, if I ever got it. And the great Italian semiotician, Umberto Eco, he who would call on his vast intellectual resources and encyclopedic knowledge to write a sweeping detective story one could call the thinking persons's The Da Vinci CodeThe Name of the Rose, I didn't understand a single word of his semiotic writing. Not one.

(to be continued)