How Can It be a Secret if Everyone Knows It?

(Like a good conspiracy theory, this post will have many apparent digressions, most of which will eventually work their way back around to the Big Picture.)

I didn’t really want to say much about the vastly overhyped Da Vinci Code (DVC) and the kookstorm surrounding it, but here I am. Shadowy forces greater than me are obviously at work here. On Friday our quest for pants brought us near a movie theater where the movie was showing, and despite the cruddy weather, people were outside with placards. (I can say “people” because there were exactly two of them.) I assume they were protesting DVC, though I would consider RV, Poseidon, or Mission Impossible III to be worthy of warning people against as well. Critically, DVC is landing with a dull thud, but our society doesn’t pay attention to critics anyway, preferring to beta-test crappy movies themselves, so it was a big hit this weekend.

As I said about the book here and here, this is much ado about stupid. Anyone whose faith is compromised by this dumbass thriller wasn’t an asset to your religion in the first place. (Though on the other hand, anyone who’s convinced of anything by it could probably be easily swayed back to your side with an equally limp argument.)

ANYway, on Saturday we went up to Northampton and stopped at Raven Used Books. There I found a copy of Everything Is Under Control: Conspiracies, Cults, and Cover-ups by Robert Anton Wilson (RAW).

I first got into RAW back when I was young and dumb, at that age where I’m pretty sure I’m knowing and discovering things that no other human on Earth has ever thought about. In other words, I was a teenager. I had bought the game Illuminati, a board/card game based on the idea of secret societies vying for control of the world. I hardly ever found anyone to play it with me, and didn’t play it right anyway, but in the rulebook was an introduction to the idea of secret conspiracies, and the writings of Robert Anton Wilson. The game was based on his book(s) The Illuminatus! Trilogy (written with Robert Shea), and soon I was grabbing a copy of the book to read.

The book is a delightful mess and was nearly incomprehensible to me. This was partly because it’s well grounded in late-sixties, early-seventies counterculture and politics, and me being a dumb middle-class teenager had absolutely no knowledge of the cultural background required to get most of the jokes and points. Also, it’s not very well written. In an attempt to both parody and copy James Joyce, the book shifts time, place, and narrator in mid-sentence, people change identities, plot threads are left dangling for ages, if they’re even returned to at all, the tone shifts dramatically, and what little plot there is becomes hopelessly entangled into itself and impossible to follow. Naturally, I was mesmerized. Anything so incomprehensible had to contain Great Wisdom, and I re-read it several times in the hope of extracting the shining diamond of Truth at the center.

In addition, I read other books on the topic of secret societies and conspiracies. Predictably, I didn’t bother to research any of the sociopolitical points in the book, instead I headed straight for the Kennedy Assassination books, the UFO stuff, and the “esoteric” stuff. Each time I’d then go wrestle with the Illuminatus! Trilogy again and try to yank more secret wisdom out of it. I convinced myself that I was really opening my mind to new ideas and getting at the real truth behind it all.

Eventually I grew up a little, read a little more, and finally, by way of Carl Sagan, James Randi, and Umberto Eco, got inoculated against the more bizarro parts of the thing. After that I could still appreciate the whole secret conspiracy/Fortean weirdness thing, but in a different way, as an expression of society’s psychological needs. The last time I re-read The Illuminatus! Trilogy I realized that its opaqueness was actually part of the joke…its form mirrored that of a conspiracy theory, with people changing roles, convoluted reasoning, and so forth, ultimately not really answering anything and just delighting in the fruitless search. This was, I finally decided, the truth at the center.

So back to the present, I picked up this Robert Anton Wilson Book about conspiracies and settled in for a reacquaintance with an old friend. I devoured the thing in three days, having a grand old time bathing in its kookery. And the thing that struck me was how often certain themes came up in various conspiracies: Mary Magdalene, the Merovingian Kings, the Priory of Sion, the Vatican. This is all the big mystery behind the Da Vinci Code. Now, I knew that it was actually pretty old hat, largely being lifted wholesale from the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail. It can also be seen in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, the comic book Rex Mundi, and, if I remember correctly, the book Gospel (which I can’t find on Amazon because I don’t remember the name of the author who chose such a vanilla title for his book). In reading this encyclopedia of conspiracy theories, I can add that other people who already were tipped to this whole Mary Magdalene thing were…everyone. This has got to be the worst-kept Big Secret of all time. I’m amazed that enough people hadn’t heard of it to make DVC a shocker.

So, back to my original point, at last. People, don’t worry about this movie testing peoples’ faith. This revelation is nothing new. Sure, it’s finally getting even more mass exposure than before, but as I said, do you really want people in your church whose faith is shaken by Tom freakin’ Hanks? Or by a poorly-written airport novel which owes its fame solely to the fact that it makes its reader feel like a big genius? This is my whole teenage Illuminati! fascination writ larger. People see stuff like this for the first time and they get caught up in the excitement and mystery, but ultimately there’s no there there. It just is. It’s mystery for its own sake, and once the high wears off, you’re ready to back to how things were. This particular conspiracy happens to involve Jesus and his pee-pee, so that’s pretty shocking to many people, but this exact same mindset is what keeps folks forwarding urban legends into your inbox and what makes people I know ignore every single news report and scandal of nefarious goings on and instead get wrapped up in shadowy conspiracy theories about 9/11.

Speaking of which, this Everything is Under Control book was published in 1996, which means it’s utterly devoid of anything from the current Bush Administration, the Iraq War, and of course, 9/11. This makes so many of the conspiracy theories seem kind of, I dunno, quaint and old-fashioned. You read some and you think, “Oh man. If only we could go back to the simpler time of the Kennedy Assassination.” It’s hard to look at the things that are actually going on now, the real stories we get actual reports of and evidence for, and believe that anyone ever took some of this other stuff seriously. There’s an underlying theme of, “Surely anyone trying to amass this much power and wealth must be after something huge, like the secret of the universe or the truth about Jesus or the wisdom of the aliens or something!”

It never seems to occur to anyone that They want money and power because They want money and power. That’s all it is.

Did you read all this? Damn, I’m sorry.

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16 Responses to How Can It be a Secret if Everyone Knows It?

  1. Topher says:

    Now, are you sure they weren’t protesting the fact that they turned a poorly written book with very stock characters into an uninteresting movie? That seems more likely than this whole religious ballyhoo.

    I read the silly thing as a Barnes and Nobel project (that is to say, in the cafe at the store for free…its how i also finished Hannibal, another disappointment.) and tried to give poor Mr. Brown another chance with Digital Fortress. Wow, its like he has a Big File of 2D Characters and whips it out for each novel: flop-haired youthful male professor? Check. Female specialist with an IQ of 180 and body of a super model? Check. Somewhat creepy possibly backstabbing older father figure? Check. Assassin with some physical abnormality? Check. Give me a break.

    On the other hand, my current B&N project is going through all the trade paperbacks of ‘Fables’, which has been really really good. Will probably pick those up from local comic book store before too long.

  2. Gack – it’s been years since I last read Illuminatus, and while I loved the changing of thread in mid-sentence thing I’m now worried that if I read it again I won’t like it.

    Only one way to find out, I guess…

  3. Greg Burgas says:

    Wilton Barnhardt wrote Gospel. It’s actually pretty decent, and in a different vein than the Priory of Sion/Merovingian/Mary Magdalene conspiracy.

  4. Joe Giarratano says:

    I Read the book. I Saw the movie. Thought both were fun, not great, just fun. Remarkably, I saw a popular movie in the 21st century that was almost TOTALLY devoid of sex scenes, though the premise was about the greatest sex ever told. Another movie.

    However, on a more interesting note, (to me, that is) as I peruse this new (to me) world of blogdom, I note that there are never (that I have yet found) any notes saying how great a book, or movie, or author, or politician, or school, or church, or ANYTHING is. It seems so safe to ridicule and be above the fray, leaving the naive to their uncritical tastes. Hmmmm. I guess that means me too.

    Excuse the ring.

  5. Dave says:

    However, on a more interesting note, (to me, that is) as I peruse this new (to me) world of blogdom, I note that there are never (that I have yet found) any notes saying how great a book, or movie, or author, or politician, or school, or church, or ANYTHING is. It seems so safe to ridicule and be above the fray, leaving the naive to their uncritical tastes.

    Yeah, you’re right about that one, sir.

  6. Philip says:

    It’s been a long time since I read the Illuminatus! Trilogy, but I do remember it being a mess. The one thing from it that has stuck with me is the idea that communication is only possible between equals. In a hierarchical situation, the person with less power will tell the person with more power what he or she thinks the more powerful person wants to know. That makes a lot of sense to me.

  7. David Thiel says:

    J.G.– Get back to us when you’re not so new to it.

  8. Nigel says:

    Dave, could you please roll your chair a little to the left, we’re having trouble with the microphone. There that’s better thank you. Carry on please.

  9. Bill says:

    I also read the Illuminatus! trilogy in my youth, and it broke my brain open and led me to explore lots of fascinating material that pretty much all turned out to be wrong. But mostly wrong in interesting ways. The book itself had diamonds of great ideas buried in mountains of crap. Of course, for the teenage me, the gratuitous sex scenes didn’t hurt either. The one thing that sticks with me from it is the idea that gorillas can talk but don’t tell humans about it because the humans would stick them in a factory and make them work a lathe all day.

  10. Joe Giarratano says:

    To David Thiel: It would help a lot if you explained exactly what perspective I will eventually pick up when I am less new to blogs. I promise I will look for it, if I know what it is.

  11. Dave says:

    What exactly is your beef, Joe, that I didn’t like DVC? I didn’t. That I didn’t think it was a fun, exciting read? I didn’t. My experience with the book (i’ve no intention of seeing the movie) didn’t mirror yours. What’s the problem here?

    And how does this extend to every blog in the world being nothing but making fun of how bad things are? As the examples I provided show, that isn’t the case. I didn’t like DVC, but on the other hand, there are many bits of pop culture I do like, and I haven’t failed to express that. Even in my recent post attacking the board game Monopoly I provide alternative games I do like.

    It seems like your problem with what I said goes beyond the DVC. Does it?

  12. David Thiel says:

    J.G. – Not really trying to help. I figure that if you look around long enough, you’ll find that your hasty, admittedly uninformed judgement of the entire blogosphere doesn’t hold much merit. Or not. I really don’t care.

    But I do think you’ll find that if you wander into someone’s personal forum and make snotty implications about the blogger–despite your protestations, that’s what you did–you’re going to find a cold reception.

  13. Joe Giarratano says:

    Dave – Are we a little sensitive? My “beef” has nothing to do with DVC, nor does it have to do with YOU. DVC is just a book, and the movie is just a movie – about average, sort of fun. And though this is just another blog, you Mr. Dave perform what I think is a very valuable service. You provide a forum.

    My “beef” has more to do with the results I have seen so far of blogdom in general. I find very little positive in it. Of course, that probably means that I want to only find “Rah Rah America” or “Hooray for Dan Brown” or “Way to go University of (blank).” Must it be all or none? I know it’s more difficult, but can we have what once was called “CONSTRUCTIVE criticism.” Or is it just too cool to ridicule everything (not you, Dave, I’m talking the general “atmosphere” of blogdom, and no, I won’t love it or leave it.)

    Maybe you can help me out. Someone list for me the BEST 3 books you ever read. Then list the BEST 3 politicians you have ever heard of, the BEST 3 movies you ever saw, and maybe even the 3 BEST blogs on the internet. I’m not finniky about the political leaning of any of the above, I just want to know what EXCITES you as being the VERY BEST of its kind. One risks a lot more when he does so.

  14. Joe Giarratano says:

    P.S. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.

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