By way of prefacing his latest book, The Lost Symbol, under the heading 'Fact' Dan Brown writes "In 1991, a document was locked in the safe of the director of the CIA. The document is still there today. Its cryptic text includes references to an ancient portal and an unknown location underground. The document also contains the phrase "It's buried out there somewhere." All organizations in this novel exist, including the Freemasons, the Invisible College, the Office of Security, the SMCC, and the Institute of Noetic Sciences. All rituals, science, artwork, and monuments in this novel are real."
The Lost Symbol follows the Dan Brown formula to a tee. Robert Langdon, his cryptographic protagonist of Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code has to unlock a series of codes on a masonic pyramid to find the location of secret, buried knowledge while avoiding the CIA and the attentions of a baddie determined to use that knowledge for nefarious purposes. But is Dan Brown seriously suggesting the protagonists, rituals, paranormal phenomena, conspiracies and magicks that weave the fabric of his novel together into an undemanding page turner actually exist? Or is he merely fibbing for dramatic effect? Either way, thanks goodness people like Tony Robinson are selflessly prepared to make documentaries exploring the book's main themes and setting us on the straight and narrow.
Well, actually, Tony Robinson (who my late Granddad always referred to as "that little shit") has made a complete pig's ear of the job. Decoded: Dan Brown's Lost Symbol sets itself three tasks: to learn whether the Freemasons do harbour secret ancient knowledge; if the USA is a grand masonic experiment (and by extension, does the architecture and layout of Washington DC embody masonic themes?); and lastly if so-called 'noetic science' (the study of the paranormal) is a goer.
To say the documentary is pretty thin gruel is to convey it a substance it didn't have. He asks Nigel Brown, the general secretary of the United Grand Lodge of England if they are the keepers of ancient wisdom. Of course, the answer is no but we do learn masons do roll up a trouser leg as part of one of their initiation rituals. Seemingly satisfied, it's then over to the states to meet with Akram Elias, a mason of the 33rd degree, to see if the American lodge possesses any secrets. If there is, Elias is keeping mum. Instead he prefers to go on (and on) about the masonic influence on the USA's founding fathers, such as the relationship between key phrases in the Declaration of Independence and masonry (apparently "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" has something to do with the emulation of nature, which goes down a storm at your local lodge).
Following Dan Brown's suggestion that Washington DC has masonic symbolism concealed in its layout, that little shit gets all excited when he identifies exploding stars and pentagrams in Pierre L'Enfant's street plan. Unfortunately it all proves rather short lived when it is pointed out similar shapes can be read into any street map. Ah, but what about the masonic symbols, such as the pyramid and capstone containing the all-seeing eye on the nation's currency? How about the recurrence of the number 13, and how mason is spelled out on the dollar bill?. All of which can be explained without referring to conspiracies - for instance the masonic iconography draws from a common well of symbolism current in the intellectual circles of the 18th century, and 13 is nothing more mystical than a reference to the founding states of the USA.
The final part of Robinson's journey is a look at noetic "science". In the book, Katherine Solomon (the female protagonist) has been beavering away in a secluded corner of the Smithsonian Institute to prove that ESP, telekinesis, life after death, etc. are real - and the story line makes clear she has solid scientific evidence supporting the existence of each. Rather than poo-pooing this completely, Robinson meets a self-described parapsychologist and has a go at trying to influence a random number generator with the power of thought. Predictably he gets nowhere. But rather than pouring scorn on noetics he umms and aahs about the science, saying we're only in the foothills of serious investigation into the paranormal. So much for rationalism.
By the end of the programme, Tony Robinson is almost incredulous that Dan Brown could have "enhanced" the conspiratorial creds of the masons, has been a mite economical with the imprint of masonry on Washington DC, and has exaggerated the extent to which science has proven the existence of the human soul. This is all very silly, after all did Robinson not read the back of the title page? "This is a work of fiction ... relationship to persons living and dead ..." etc.
Surrendering to the hype surrounding Brown's evocation of conspiranoid anxieties completely misses the point of The Lost Symbol. Leaving aside the actual existence of masonry as a mutual back-scratching club for aspiring middle class types and the rich and powerful, first and foremost Brown's concern is producing another semi-supernatural thriller that will bankroll the Brown brand for another couple of hundred million. But ultimately, like its predecessor, Symbol is a work of theology. Time and again we are forced to reflect on the religious mysteries Brown attributes to the masons - the idea that God is not apart from the human race but resides in each of us, that we were created equal to God, that apotheosis - the transformation of human to God - is a potential lying dormant in each of us. These are the secrets masonry wants to keep to itself (because the masses are "not ready") and it's this apotheosis the baddie seeks - if only he can find and inscribe the eponymous lost symbol onto his body. This is an 'enlightened' theology which puts cultivation of the self (in terms of intellectual pursuits) at its heart. By worshipping the self, one also worships God.
Of course there's nothing innovative or new about this - you can find similar in a million and one books about the healing powers of crystals, the divinities of sex, how to commune with the dead, and other forms of spiritual self-improvement. It might annoy the proponents of organised religion of all varieties, but ultimately it is the kind of spiritual belief most in tune with our highly individuated times. Where Dan Brown excels is making this theology appear fresh, radical and exciting when in fact it's old hat and utterly banal.