Why The Da Vinci Code became such an extraordinary bestseller? Not only critics, who rated on average the novel as good but not exceptional, but also author Dan Brown himself was surprised. In the London copyright case of 2006, Brown told Judge Paul Smith that “many people have told me they actually prefer [his previous and originally unsuccessful novel] Angels & Demons to The Da Vinci Code,” and he seemed to share their opinion. However, Brown testified that “a great deal of the success of The Da Vinci Code is down to the excellent promotion the book received. The Da Vinci Code got a huge launch. My first three books were barely promoted. There were more Advance Reader Copies given away for free of The Da Vinci Code than the whole print run for Angels & Demons. I am convinced that The Da Vinci Code would have failed if it had been published by my previous publishers - equally, I think Angels & Demons would have been a big success if published by Random House with as much fanfare as they brought to The Da Vinci Code” (Brown 2006.)
But is it really all in the money spent in advertising? Theologians, social scientists, and literary critics often disagree. For many theologians the success of The Da Vinci Code is both good and bad news: it attests to a huge interest in Jesus Christ, and an equally huge eagerness to explore alternative versions of his story different from the one usually told by mainline churches. For many social scientists, the fact that Angels & Demons failed in 2000 (of course, it was rescued from oblivion and made into a best seller in 2004, but only after the triumph of the Code) while Da Vinci was what it was in 2003 may have something to do with an event placed in the middle between 2000 and 2003: September 11, 2001. Before 9/11 conspiracy theories were becoming passé and unfashionable. 9/11 proved that conspiracies (however one prefers to interpret that one) do exist and often succeed in history, making literature on conspiracy theories popular again. Conspiracy theories succeed because they appear both scary and strangely reassuring. The extreme complexity of history, so difficult to grasp for the layperson, is reduced to a few conspiracies: of the Jesuits, the Illuminati, the Priory of Sion, the Opus Dei, the Vatican, perhaps the CIA, the Mossad or Al Qaida. This, of course, is not new. Conspiracies led by the Antichrist have a long history, and regularly resurface during periods of crisis (McGinn 1994.) Madame Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891,) who founded the Theosophical Society, interpreted human history as the perennial struggle between a benevolent Great White Lodge, led by more-than-human Ascended Masters, and a malignant Black Lodge.
There is now considerable scholarly study of conspiracy theories (Ciuffoletti 1993, Barkun 2003.) While we can regard grand metaphysical theories such as Blavatsky as meta-conspiracies, historians deal daily with micro-conspiracies such as 9/11, which obviously do exist and at least occasionally succeed. Somewhere in the middle are macro-conspiracies. Unlike meta-conspiracies they do not rely primarily on the supernatural, although the latter may be occasionally involved. But unlike micro-conspiracies their aim is not confined to a single event or set of events, no matter how historically important. Allegedly, macro-conspiracies aim at controlling the whole human history or a good deal of it.
Jesuits, Freemasons and Jews have being typically accused of trying to control history as a whole. The idea that Freemasonry organized the French Revolution, although historically false, was seriously suggested by authors who were widely read, both Catholic such as the former Jesuit Father Augustin Barruel (1741-1820,) and Protestant, including the Scottish scientist and philosopher John Robison (1739-1805) (Barruel 1798-99; Robison 1795.) Interestingly enough, both Barruel and Robison argued (once again, falsely, as latter scholarship amply demonstrated: see Le Forestier 1914) that Freemasonry organized the French Revolution through a German secret society, the Illuminati. The Illuminati were established in Ingolstadt, Bavaria, on May 1, 1776 by law professor Adam Weishaupt (1748-1830,) and did have the political aim to overthrow the Catholic and conservative Bavarian monarchy. Had they not been dismantled by the Bavarian police in 1787, they may have organized a French Revolution of a sort in Germany two years before the one we all know in France. On the other hand, they had nothing to do with the French Revolution proper nor with the Revolution in America, a persistent mythology notwithstanding (see Stauffer 1918.)
Both Barruel and Robison also contributed to spreading legends about both the Illuminati and Freemasonry by failing to distinguish in modern esoteric societies between what Masonic scholarship defines respectively as “authentic history” and “mythical history.” Freemasonry, for instance, according to its “authentic history,” i.e. a history based on documents verifiable by professional historians, is a late development of the trade guilds of stonemasons which lost their commercial importance and ended up having more members who had joined because of their beautiful legends than professionals builders or architects. When this situation became obvious, Freemasonry was re-organized in 1717 and a professional writer of legendary histories for newly founded organizations, Presbyterian pastor James Anderson (1684-1739,) promptly hired in order to produce a “mythical history” of the order involving Noah, Solomon and his personal architect Hiram, Saint John, and other characters of both sacred and profane history. For the Freemasons who had hired Anderson his mythical history was not a fraud, but a legenda, a “legend,” a word which in Latin means “what should be read.” While the “authentic” history was widely known as true, but somewhat uninspiring, Anderson’ legenda was destined to be read in Masonic lodges leading to meditation and philosophical debate. Most Freemasons of the 19th century were well aware that the “mythical history” was not literally true, and the same applies to those Illuminati who knew that their order did not exist before 1776, although its founder Weishaupt produced a mythical history dating back to pre-Islamic Persia and Italian Renaissance.
The same is also true for the modern Rosicrucians, and for the Priory of Sion, which did not exist before Pierre Plantard (1920-2000) legally established it in 1956 and later produced a mythical history dating it back to Merovingians, the Knight Templars, and the Crusades (see Introvigne 2005a; Introvigne 2005b.) The distinction between “authentic” and “mythical” history is crucial for the whole social scientific study of esoteric societies. By no means should “mythical” history be considered fraudulent or unimportant: it is by meditating on the myth that members have meaningful spiritual experiences and regard as rewarding their membership in such societies. On the other hand, only the most naïve members regard the “mythical” history as literally true, and only the most controversial leaders present the “mythical” version as supported by historical evidence (Plantard did this with the Priory of Sion, sold titles in its newly founded organization pretending that it was a century-old order, and ended up in jail for fraud.) Readers of Dan Brown, and occasionally Brown himself, confuse “mythical” and “authentic” history with respect to the Priory of Sion, the Illuminati, and if the somewhat gossipy anticipations are true Freemasonry, the subject matter of Brown’s next novel with Robert Langdon as a character, The Solomon Key.
Of course, the creation of a mythical history has been the fact not only of religious or esoteric groups, but of their enemies as well. Barruel and Robison took advantage of the mythical history created by the Freemasons and the Illuminati themselves, but added a number of elements in order to make them appear more sinister. Before confessing that all his writings were part of a huge hoax, the French impostor Léo Taxil (pseudonym of Gabriel Jogand, 1854-1907) went much farther in the 19th century, claiming that Freemasonry was controlled by a still more secret society, Palladism, in turn led by Satan himself, who occasionally appeared in Masonic meetings in the form of a crocodile. Although obviously ridiculous by 21st century standards, Taxil’s books were not only widely read, but taken seriously by a number of European governments and by the Vatican itself, although by the late 1890s the latter was concluding correctly that they were part of an elaborate hoax, thus compelling Taxil in 1897 to publicly confess his fraud (see Introvigne 1994.)
While Taxil was pro-Jewish and denied that the Jews were behind Masonic conspiracies, other Catholic and non-Catholic authors claimed just the opposite. The idea that the Jews used Freemasonry to control the world travelled throughout the 19th century and was consecrated by the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a false document created by anti-Semitic right-wing Russian extremists between 1902 and 1903, and passed to the Russian secret police that made the text known throughout the world. By 1910 it had been proved that the authors had fabricated the document by combining two different pieces. The first was a book written during his exile in Belgium by an anti-Bonapartist lawyer, Maurice Joly (1829-1879,) about a conspiracy of the heirs of Napoleon I (1769-1821) to control the world (Joly 1864:) the Protocols simply changed Joly’s references to the Bonapartes by referring them to the Jews. The second was a discourse pronounced by a fictional rabbi in the popular German novel Biarritz (Retcliffe 1868.) The novel was signed by one John Retcliffe, a pseudonym disguising the anti-Semitic journalist Hermann Goedsche (1815-1878.) Although this information has been widely available for almost a century, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are still widely used by anti-Semitic propaganda, are officially reprinted by governments of Arab countries, and even quoted in the by-laws of the Palestinian party Hamas.
This paper argues that conspiracy theories are not only, nor mainly, disseminated by allegedly scholarly or investigative works. They prosper because they are the stuff of popular literature. What popular culture exactly is, is the subject matter of considerable debate (see Walz 2000.) Most definitions refer to the concept of “serial:” popular literature is easy to read because it keeps offering the same characters through a long series of issues and stories (Bleton 1995.) Although enjoyed by all classes, it is certainly true that popular literature first persuaded the newly alphabetized masses of the 19th century to read regularly. The genre started with the feuilleton, Although the name was created by French journalist Louis-François Bertin (1766-1841) for a detachable supplement enclosed with a daily newspaper, and including news about theatrical productions, it was used in the 1840s for serialized novels whose parts appeared daily in a newspaper. The chapters should perforce leave their heroes in a cliffhanger situation in order to persuade the reader to buy next day’s newspaper.
Although famous novelists such as Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870) and Charles Dickens (1812-1870) did participate in the feuilleton game (where authors were better paid than when writing in volumes,) Eugène Sue (1804-1857) emerged as the king of the feuilleton precisely because he realized how fit to the genre was the conspiracy theme. In hia feuilleton on Le Juif errant (The Wandering Jew: Sue 1856,) Sue showed two well-known conspiracies fighting against each other: the Jews and the Jesuits. Although for the anticlerical Sue the Jews were the victims and the Jesuits the villains, its material was later occasionally used for anti-Semitic purposes. Other authors elected to stay on safer ground by using fictitious secret societies, such as the prolific Paul Féval (1817-1887,) who devoted a number of feuilletons to an organization known as the Habits Noirs, the Black Coats. An Italian reader would have recognized, however, obvious references to the Mafia in the Black Coats, and the same is true for the most successful Italian feuilleton, I Beati Paoli, offered to the readers of the Palermo daily Giornale di Sicilia in 239 instalments between 1909 and 1910 and published as a book in 1921 (Galt 1921.) Although the Beati Paoli are noble avengers of the innocent in 19th century Sicily, they do use illegal means, may correspond to an at least partially historical organization, and have generated an endless debate on whether this book, the most widely read in Sicily for one century, may be a covered apology for the Mafia. Although the author Luigi Natoli (1857-1941,) writing under the pseudonym of William Galt, and by the way a Freemason, was certainly not friendly to organized crime, modern Mafia leaders have proudly proclaimed the Beati Paoli as their noble forerunners (Montemagno 2002, 51.)
From the feuilleton originated the dime novel, sold separately from the daily newspaper. The first dime novels were simply novels firstly written as a whole and then cut in chapters (usually ending in a cliffhanger mode in the feuilleton’s tradition) sold as weekly instalments. Later, the dime novel adopted the slogan “each instalment a complete story” and, although the main characters were the same, each 16 to 32 page booklet, with a richly illustrated cover, included a story which could be read even without knowledge of the previous issues. Such knowledge was however useful, particularly when cycles featuring the same villains were offered. The modern dime novel emerged from the previous British “penny dreadfuls” (often devoted to what we call today “true crime” stories, although some were only alleged to be true,) through a number of leading publishers in the United States, including Beadle & Adams and Street & Smith. The latter, established in New York in 1855, went on to create a worldwide dime novel market by entering into a joint venture with the German company Eichler, which in turn had branches in several European countries, including France, the Netherlands, Italy, and Sweden. Street & Smith and Eichler granted world-wide fame mostly to two characters: Buffalo Bill and the detective Nick Carter. The latter’ stories may have had, when World War I started in 1914, a worldwide weekly readership of 75 million (Cristofori e Menarini 1986,) more than any subsequent comic book, and even more than The Da Vinci Code.
After World War I the dime novel was slowly replaced in the U.S. by pulps (which included not only one, but different stories of the same genre, while keeping alive Nick Carter and creating new Western heroes such as Zorro,) and in Europe Eichler went bankrupted because its owner was officially ostracized in Germany as a Jew and elsewhere as a German (he ended up by committing suicide.) But other companies bought licenses from Street & Smith and kept alive heroes such as Nick Carter until the 1940s, not to mention many local imitations. Dead in the U.S., the dime novel was alive and well in Europe throughout the early 1950s and continued in the Netherlands and Germany until the 1970s. In the meantime, pulps had been largely replaced by comics, and the latter were experienced decreasing sales because the new kingdom where the serial hero reigned was now television.
The most successful dime novels prospered by proposing, once again, secret societies and conspiracy theories. Some of them, like the various series devoted to Giuseppe Petrosino (1860-1909,) a real-life NYPD detective who fought the Mafia and was killed by it in 1909 in Palermo, returned to criminal secret societies (although the German authors of the Petrosino dime novels quickly ran off of realistic Mafia incidents, and started recycling old Sherlock Homes stories as Petrosino adventures.) Many conspiracies were “romantic,” insofar as a damsel in distress, usually a princess destined to reign in some minor Central European kingdom, was abducted and replaced by a look-alike adventuress (Nathan 1990.) Eichler and other German companies excelled in producing such material, which was then translated in several languages. Other conspiracies involved spies, often connected to miscellaneous secret societies and organized crime. Contrary to what many have argued, it was not World War I but the war between France and Germany in 1870 that generated the first dime novels consecrated to spies. The first series is probably the French Jeanne l’Alsacienne, started by Georges Le Faure (1856-1953) in 1887, which ran for 211 issues and was continued by other Le Faure series involving increasingly sinister German-led conspiracies.
Other authors introduced esoterica into the dime novel. Some difference between France and United States, the two countries where in the early 20th century dime novels had the largest audience, are worth noting. Well before the establishment of AMORC in the United States in 1915 by Harvey Spencer Lewis (1883-1939,) Rosicrucianism was well-known in France. Two organizations, the anticlerical Kabbalistic Order of the Rosy Cross and the pro-Catholic (if unorthodox) Catholic Order of the Rosy Cross, of the Temple and the Grail, had been established in Paris in the 1880s and the fight the two groups picked up in the 1890s was followed with amusement by the popular media and nicknamed “the War of the Two Roses.” Crucial to the amusement were the antics of Joséphin Péladan (1858-1918,) the leader of the pro-Catholic group (and the son of a very pious and well-known French Catholic author,) who signed “Sâr Péladan” and was often seen in Paris dressed in the most eccentric Oriental garbs.
The real-life Sâr Péladan was the model for a dime novel character, the Sâr Dubnotal, a Rosicrucian who solved a number of mysteries (including the Jack the Ripper case) through meditation and hypnotism. It is unclear whether the author was really, as some have claimed, Norbert Sevestre (1879-1945?.) The series was published by Eichler both in Germany and in France in 1909 and ran for twenty issues only. Ironically, critics have argued that it was too well written for the average reader of dime novels (Lofficier and Lofficier 2003.) A direct derivation of Sâr Dubnotal (both were schooled by Indian yogis) was a later dime novel hero of the 1920s, Fascinax, a French creation probably due to the well-known novelist Gustave Le Rouge (1867-1938.) The series, which ran for 22 issues in Paris in 1921 and had two Italian translations in 1924 and 1949, starts in the Philippines with the mortal struggle between two powerful yogis, the benevolent Nadir Kritchna and the villain Numa Pergyll. Both know the secrets of the Rosicrucians, but Pergyll prevails and has Kritchna sentenced to death on false accusations. Kritchna is however saved by a British M.D., Dr George Leicester, who is schooled by the yogi in the Rosicrucian magic and becomes the esoteric superhero Fascinax, ultimately able to defeat both Pergyll and other miscellaneous villains. The interesting idea in the Fascinax series is that not all Rosicrucian and all yogis are good: some are evil, and may try to use their magic to become masters of the whole world (or, at least, the whole international criminal underworld,) thus returning to the conspiracy theme.
The different U.S. and French approach to esoteric conspiracies emerges from the differences between the U.S. original stories and the European Eichler translations, prepared in France by the popular author of romance novels Jean Petithuguenin (1878-1939,) of the Nick Carter dime novels involving Dazaar, one of the most famous villains ever to cross swords with the American detective. The original Dazaar cycle was created in 1904 for Street & Smith’s New Nick Carter Weekly by Frederic Van Rensselaer Dey (1861-1922.) Dey did not create Nick Carter (the first stories were written, following outlines coming from the publishing house, by John R. Coryell, 1848-1924,) but was its most prolific and celebrated author before committing suicide in 1922. In the first episode, published in the New Nick Carter Weekly no. 372 (February 13, 1904,) a mysterious and strikingly beautiful woman knocks at Nick Carter’s door. Her name is Irma Plavatsky, and she very much resembles Olga, the leader of the Russian Nihilists who had previously fought Nick Carter but had ended up saving his life by sacrificing her own (we will later learn that Irma is Olga’s cousin.) Irma tells Nick that she has a double personality: while kind and benevolent when she is her normal self, she is possessed for long periods by the evil Tibetan magician Dazaar and, when possessed, performs the most evil deeds, which she only vaguely remembers after each possession ends.
Nick originally does not believe the story, but later becomes persuaded that it is literally true, and that Dazaar is able to possess not one person only, but seven prominent New York socialites. Nick’s Japanese assistant, Ten-Ichi, the son of the Mikado, reveals to the detective that he has met Dazaar in Japan. Dazaar is a century-old Tibetan Ascended Master, who has been expelled by the Great White Lodge and has created a powerful organization, controlling inter alia all of the world Satanist lodges, and aimed at dominating the whole world. It takes several weeks, and horrible tortures by Dazaar’s Tibetan acolytes and possessed socialites, before Nick discovers that only six of the seven New Yorkers are innocent citizens unwittingly possessed by Dazaar. The seventh, Irma Plavatsky herself, has lied to the detective and is Dazaar in his most permanent incarnation. Irma/Dazaar is captured, brought to trial, and sentenced to death. She dies in jail before being executed, vowing that her posthumous vendetta will kill Nick’s wife, Ethel. The latter is in fact killed several weeks later, apparently by a hit man connected to organized crime. Nick however discovers that the killer has been paid by Dazaar, who has only faked her death and is alive, well and living in a luxurious Manhattan hotel.
As the story further unfolds, we learn that members of the Great White Lodge, when old, magically exchange their souls with those of young men, thus in fact implanting their old soul, completed with powers and memories, in a new body, while the poor young men acquire the body of the decrepit magicians and quickly die (the possibility of this “Avataric magic,” or exchange of bodies and souls, was seriously discussed in Rosicrucian circles at that time.) White Lodge members had however always used male bodies. Dazaar is the first Master who has decided to try a female body, thus violating White Lodge rules and being sanctioned with the expulsion. His experiment has created in the otherwise omnipotent Master a crucial weakness, the potential for human love. In fact, Dazaar as Irma Plavatsky is in love with Nick Carter and, when she discovers that the recently widowed detective is dating his attractive neighbour Cora Tempest, not only does she abducts Cora but vows to win Nick’s love or die. In order to save Cora, Nick consents to marry Irma in her new headquarters, the Palace of the Vampires. Nick, however, is a master of disguise and Irma in fact marries Chick Carter, Nick’s adopted son, disguised as the detective. In the last battle, a furious but exhausted Irma shots herself, out of love for Nick and wishing, as she says in her last words as reported in the New Nick Carter Weekly no, 396 of September 30, 1904, to deliver him forever from the only enemy he could never have defeated through merely human means.
The name of Irma Plavatsky obviously reminds the reader of Madame Blavatsky, and was recognizable as such in New York, where the New Nick Carter Weekly was published by Street & Smith. In fact, in the previous decades the tabloid press had often published lurid exposes of the Theosophical Society and of Blavatsky herself, accusing her of being a fraudulent Spiritualist medium and even a Satanist (Santucci 1999.) It is also important to note that, while today Tibetan Buddhism is widely respected, in the early 20th century many Orientalists regarded it as an inferior form of Buddhism or an entirely different religion dominated by magic or perhaps black magic, “Lamaism” (Lopez 1998.) Million of readers were thus exposed through the Dazaar saga to the idea that Theosophy and Tibetan Buddhism were indeed potentially dangerous religions.
The Eichler group had Dey’s Dazaar cycle not only translated, but somewhat rewritten, by Jean Petithuguenin. The French version reflects the strong reaction by the French religious and esoteric milieu against Oriental religions and the Theosophical Society, called by some “la haine vers l’Orient” (the hate of the East.”) The Rosicrucian competition had denounced Blavatsky as fraudulent and evil, and exalted the superiority of the Christian esotericism of the Rosy Cross over the barbaric and demonic Oriental religions. Works by Catholic missionaries also frequently claimed that Tibetan Buddhism was demonic in essence. It is thus not surprising that Petithuguenin (whose version of the Dazaar stories was used by Eichler throughout Europe) depicted an even bleaker picture of the Tibetans, even calling them “Tibetan negroes,” a racist if not entirely accurate insult.
Irma Plavatsky is also a different character in the version by Petithuguenin. Here, there is a real Irma Plavatsky who was once a beloved fiancée of Nick Carter in Paris and died. Dazaar has borrowed her body from the grave; hence the romantic relation with Nick and the detective’s ambivalent attitude to her. Nick’s wife Ethel is downplayed, and the attractive neighbour Cora Tempest eliminated entirely from the European version. The woman Irma kidnaps and Nick seeks to rescue is not Cora but Ida Jones, Nick’s cousin in the European translations but only an able assistant (not a relative) in the original U.S. stories. And finally Irma Plavatsky in the version by Petithuguenin does not shot herself, but is magically “called back,” or dissolved, by the Great White Lodge she has betrayed. Her last words are also different: “All is lost… All has been in vain… I failed to solve the ultimate enigma.” In Péladan’s Rosy Cross the “ultimate enigma” was a code word used in order to indicate the “eternal woman” and the mystery of love. It was precisely this enigma that Eastern religions and cultures were regarded as unable to solve, because (at least as presented by missionaries and Orientalists) they were considered as lacking an adequate anthropology and as debasing women for lack of a Christian or even secular, but Victorian, moral code. As a male, a Tibetan “lamaist” or a Theosophist such as Dazaar may have been a match for the highly moral Victorian hero Nick Carter. By incarnating into a female body, neither Theosophy nor Tibetan Buddhism may seriously compete with Christianity and Victorian ethos, and Irma Plavatsky is fatally doomed. And all this notwithstanding the fact that, while Helena Blavatsky was definitely not good-looking, and even somewhat masculine (she explained this by claiming to be the reincarnation of a male magus, Paracelsus [1493-1541,]) Irma Plavatsky was one of the most beautiful women even depicted in the dime novel world.
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