Friday, October 30, 2009

The Quest for Truth in a Sea of Codes and Symbols

As the first chapter of The Da Vinci Code gets underway, Robert Langdon has already returned to the Hotel Ritz and gone to bed when he is awoken by a phone call at 12:32 a.m. The concierge informs him that he has a visitor. Langdon reflects upon the past evening and how the speech he gave might have ruffled a few feathers in the audience. In Dan Brown's novel, time is of the essence.

When Akiva Goldsman took on the task of writing the screen adaptation for The Da Vinci Code, he turned back the clock a few hours and performed some fairly significant editing; amazingly while almost every event in the book is included in the movie, the dialogue is reduced to 10,000 words.

In the novel, Langdon begins his presentation at The American University of Paris with the words, "I'm here tonight to talk about the power of symbols."

Goldsman changes the focus of the evening. The screenplay captures only the face value presentation of Dan Brown's novel, while the novel weaves in knowledge and history behind its many details.

"How do we sift truth from belief?" Together they tell one story from slightly different perspectives that bring meaning neither could have accomplished on their own.

"How do we write our own histories, personally or culturally . . . and thereby define ourselves?"

The novel leaves the story in the hands of a curious professor; the movie hints that there is something of great significance on the horizon waiting for the appropriate time for it to be revealed.

"How do we penetrate years, centuries, of historical find original truth?" "Tonight this will be our quest."

In both the film and the novel Saunière is a Frenchman living in Paris who uses English to write his last words on the floor at the Louvre: "O, Draconian devil! Oh, lame saint!"

The scrambled Fibonacci sequence is a clue that the letters in the above words are also scrambled, but arriving at the names Leonardo Da Vinci and The Mona Lisa is only possible when the scrambled lines are written in English. If the curator had written the words in French they would have appeared "O, Draconian diable! Ah, saint boiteux!" Or in Spanish, "O, Dracon! Oh, santo cojo!"

It would seem that the novel is telling us that something of great importance can be lost in translation.

Words are used to describe the brass strip that marks the Rose Line inside Saint-Sulpice. It's slanted in an awkward angle at odds with the symmetry of the church. The scene asks us to look upon it from a different angle to understand the larger role Saunière plays in the story. Further on, Langdon and Sophie cross the nave at Westminster Abbey on a diagonal as they're approaching Newton's tomb looking for the orb that isn't there.

As it turns out, the apple is the missing orb which happens to be a detail with a little story of its own; an apple falling from a tree supposedly inspired Newton to explore the phenomenon of gravity. With respect to the larger story of the novel, the apple serves as a double entendre.

"Fifteen thousand feet in the air, Robert Langdon felt the physical world fade away as all of his thoughts converged on Saunière’s mirror image poem . . . ."

An ancient word of wisdom frees this scroll and helps to keep her scatter'd family whole. A headstone praised by Templars is the key and atbash will reveal the truth to thee.

The poem is written in metered words, in English, that require a Hebrew cipher to decode it. Langdon takes a few moments to reflect on his knowledge and experience with iambic pentameter. We're told that the Priory, as well as many European secret societies, considered English to be the only pure language because it wasn't rooted in Latin—"the tongue of the Vatican."

When it comes to the Atbash Cipher, Langdon knows its history and uses, Teabing knows the Hebrew alphabet, and Sophie shares how to facilitate the substitution of letters in the process of decoding words. Each area of expertise is needed.

The answer to the riddle for the first cryptex—which is included in the novel but doesn't appear in the movie—begins in English with the "head of stone" identified as BAPHOMET. When vowels are removed and BAPHOMET is written as it might appear in Hebrew, it becomes BPVMTh. When worked through the Atbash Cipher, BPVMTh becomes ShVPYA and translated back to English becomes SOFIA, a word which represents Wisdom.

At the end of the movie, Robert Langdon returns to the glass pyramid outside the Louvre. In the novel we're told the pyramid is constructed of 666 panes of glass, a number which fed conspiracy buffs because it was the number of Satan. Actually, the number 666 is derived using Gematria, which is another tool used to decode Hebrew writings. Langdon doesn't explain how the number is derived, but in its most basic usage, Gematria assigns a numeric value to each letter in the Hebrew alphabet. When the numeric values of letters in a word are added together, their sum provides the numeric equivalent for the word. Numeric equivalents shared by different words or phrases can be compared to extract a deeper meaning as well as authenticate the Divine origin of writings included in the Bible.

In the novel, Sophie described a time when her grandfather wrote the word planets in English and told her that 92 other words of varying lengths could be formed with its letters . . . though their meanings were likely quite varied.

Using Gematria, many words or phrases can have the same numeric equivalent even through they are spelled with different letters. Typically words whose numeric equivalents are the same have a relationship; sometimes they can be interchanged, other times they enhance meaning and understanding, enriching the context in which each is used.

For example, in Hebrew the word echad or "one" has a numerical value of 13 and is equivalent to the word ahava or "love".

Erev, translated as "evening or sunset" has a numerical value of 272 and is equivalent to eber which means "to the other side".

Tahe'r translated "pure or clean" has a numeric value of 214 and is equivalent to ruach meaning "breath, wind, spirit".

As I mentioned previously, numbers are important to this story and it should come as no surprise that numbers are used in multiple ways to gain understanding. My search for words and their numeric equivalents led me to an on-line version of The Holy Bible, organized as wheels within a wheel—with English and Hebrew or Greek side by side, along with numeric equivalents for all. The presentation of this particular bible is grouped according to the Hebrew letters which are identified on its outer rim, strikingly similar to the cryptex found in the novel if it were looked upon from a slightly different vantage point.

* Source for Gematria numeric equivalents: Walter Vaughn

Photo by permission: / CC BY-ND 2.0

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