Sunday, 27 December 2009

Decoding Dan Brown

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.

16 comments:

TGR Worzel said...

Interesting posting Phil, making some good points.

splinteredsunrise said...

You'd have been better off reading Gary Lachman's excellent book Politics and the Occult, which does go into all that Masonic stuff but in a far crisper and sharper way. And also contains enough goodies to keep Dan Brown in thrillers for the next twenty years.

Emily said...

I loathe Dan Brown's books. I did love the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, though and am interested in conspiracy theories and the power of the Masons. My husband is also a hater of Tony Robinson!

TGR Worzel said...

The other consideration is that it is always good have your mind stimulated by such questions. Even if the book is merely excellent fiction, the process of thinking about the issues and inquiring does no harm whatsoever...

Simon said...

"excellent fiction"

Are we thinking of the same Dan Brown?

cowan said...

Tony never mentioned that American Freemasonry was derived from Scottish Freemasonry. The White House was built by 60 Masons from Aberdeenshire and designed by architects, both Irish and French, affiliated to Lodge Kilwinning, Ayrshire.

My home town of Crieff, Perthshire(Lodge No. 38) has its streets laid out as a Masonic symbol.

More interestingly, it is superimposed on the ancient ley system, with stone circles and standing stones at the outside perimeter, with the leys being initiated from three volcanic plugs, 1:Stirling Castle, and 2:Dumbarton Castle, (ancient seat of the kings), which is lined up with Crieff's King Street!

A friend has also discovered that there is a curious alignment of major cities in the USA, like a double cross.

Perhaps Tony is a Freemason himself, and is trying to defuse the current and perhaps unhealthy interest and conspiracy stories against the Fdreemasons!!!

If you wish to learn more about this towns unuual and interesting plan, Google
Crieff, Freemasons,

or:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yURHxZG258I

Anonymous said...

Well, on that basis, Brown could wrtie a book arguing that the left in the UK is a Masonic construct, given the historic use of masonic iconagraphy utilised by the Trade Unions who founded the LRC. (The all seeing eye being one such symbol seen on many old banners). This was very much a craft tradition, and i can recall only two decades or so ago, that the Boilermakers in my plant had a lodge, an ark (a chest used to keep lodge papers) and that their full time officer still used to refer to the lay members as 'worthy brothers'.

Harry Paterson said...

There are some glaring errors and some very misleading elements in the 'little shit's' documentary. Most obviously is the 33 degree mason who appeared. There are only three degrees in the Craft. That's it. No more. Fact. There are, however, other organisations open only to Freemasons where what we call appendant degrees are granted. This might appear a bit pedantic and a bit nit-pickey but it cannot be overstated that no other degrees at all are in any way superior to the three degrees (four in some lodges in Scotland)conferred in Craft, or 'Blue', lodges. In terms of the secrets these fall into only two categories: the 'signs, tokens and words' by which Freemasons recognise each other and the 'story' itself which, via allegory, recounts the building of Solomon's Temple and this is only secret so that the dramatic impact of it's moral message is not diluted by the candidate having any prior knowledge. The example I like to use is if you read the last chapter of a book first then you will simply not get as much out of the book as you read it as you've been coloured by prior knowledge. I was also very surprised the there was no mention of the Knights Templar and their relationship to the Craft but that's a whole other discussion ;-)

H.

Harry Paterson said...

Oh, and by the way, Tony Robinson is most assuredly NOT a Freemason. Trust me ;-)

Harry Paterson said...

"Leaving aside the actual existence of masonry as a mutual back-scratching club for aspiring middle class types and the rich and powerful"

Considering that Freemasonry is the only organisation that I know of where, literally, a Duke and a Dustman, can work in harmony, respect and friendship, this is a tad harsh, Phil! In fact, it's probably the only organisation you could find where the Duke is actually junior to the aforementioned bin man. A more egalitarian organisation you'd be hard pressed to find, comrade.

Phil BC said...

Ah, H, that explains why you tickled my palm when we shook hands all those years ago. And to think I thought it was because you'd taken a shine to me!

Re: the functions of masonry, I guess in the early phase of development it helped knit together various elites and enabled them to act in a more cohesive manner against opposition from other elite (especially landed elite) interests. Now? Well, why bother with masonry while so many other organisations and institutions do a job speaking up for elite interests? Judging by your comments I would say masonry has an integration dynamic in much the same way the mass parties of old used to have. It provides an outlet for community spiritedness as well as a network of companionship.

Arthur Bough said...

Phil,

Obviously once again great minds think alike. I watched Tony Robinson to much the same effect as I wrote in my blog Christmas TV. However, although I obviously agree with your comments about materialism, I think i have a slightly different take on it. Its necessary, I think, not to be too mechanistic in that materialism.

For example, we know from the 'Uncertainty principle' of Quantum Physics that matter itself is influenced by observation. Qunatum Mechanics certainly reinforces the basic premises of Dialectics, but means we have to be far more sophisticated in terms of our definition of matter, and therefore materialism.

Moreover, there is more direct and clear evidence that "Mind over Matter" is a fact, and not a myth. i'm not talking about people moving tables with their thoughts here, but let me give some obvious examples. Ask any doctor whether a person's mental attitude affects their health, or ability to overcome illness. They will tell you that it undoubtebly does. That after all is the way that placebos work. Similarly ask an athletics coach what role "Positive mental attitude" plays in performance.

This is not just a percieved benefit, it is a measured fact that different mental states produce various chemicals in the body that determine peformance, resistance to illness and so on. That is a diret example of the mind directly creating changes in matter through affecting process. As I write in my blog, there are so many well documented cases of Yogi being able to regulate heart rate, and other bodily functions as to put that ability beyond reasonable doubt.

Various animals such as homing pigeons have abilities that in some ways appear inexplicable outside some connection to an unseen world. But, the fact that such connections with an unseen world exist does not make them in any way "Supernatural". Radio waves fall into the same category.

Scientists are already able to make brain waves control various devices, inlcuding new prosthetic limbs, and they are working on ways even to transfer human consciousness into computer storage! Finally, we know that gravity is a very, very weak force. Even the smallest magnet can overcome the gravitational force of the entire Earth. As the brain works essentially on the basis of electrical impulses, it is not at all impossible that it could produce some "anti-gravitational force" itself, ebcause we do not actually know exactly what gravity is!

Phil BC said...

Quantum mechanics? Don't start otherwise you'll melt my brain!

I don't think it's helpful to separate mind and matter - the mind is a product of our embodied biological and social existences. Thus being able to block out pain, regulating heart rhythms, etc. don't necessarily contradict a dialectical approach to mind and body, Nor does the development of cybernetic implants or tools that can be controlled by thought waves via an interface.

But I am extremely sceptical of noetic sciences and the like. In three centuries of the modern scientific method there is still bugger all hard evidence of paranormal phenomena.

Arthur Bough said...

Some other points occurred to me after writing this. Without accepting the spiritual aspcts of Yogic teaching, which basically says that we are not separate egos, but all part of the same single existence, there is of course, a very real sense in which this is true. The same is true of "Dust to dust, ashes to ashes."

As Materialists we beleive that we are madde up of the same material as the rest of the Universe. Of course, our bodies are continually being reproduced from thee food we eat, the air we breath, which emans that we are continually connected in a material sense with that external world. In the same way our skin cells die, and return to it continually, just as the contents of our lungs are expelled into it, and so is our excreta.

But, in addition we define ourselves as separate categories as individuals from everything else mainly because a) we are self aware, and b) because modern science and philosophy is based on definite and distinct categories in a way that was alien even to scientists in he 19th century, certainly was alien to Marx and Engels.

I read somewhere that even very young humans do not do this prior to becoming self aware. certainly animals do not see themselves as distinct from the world that exists outside them. yet there is no reason to separate the matter that stops at the physical barrier of our skin, from the millions of atoms of matter that is in direct contact with that skin. far from it because those atoms are in continual interaction. It is in fact far more rational to understand the material world in terms of a single "matter" in constant flux, and which as paart of thaat flux forms temporary conglomerations, some of which turn out to be human beings.

We know that in our interaction with thaat externaal material world there are also many other things arising from our mental state that affect other human beings and sentient creatures. if we are afraid of a big vicious dog, that mental state produces chemcials that signal that fear to the dog, if we are attracted to someone, we produce pheromones that signal that attraction and so on. If we were the kind of "self-contained" category that humans usually consier themselves to be, then none of those interactions would in fact be possible.

Arthur Bough said...

Phil,

I am not in any way suggesting belief in the paranormal, quite the opposite. However, as your position stands - it may just be the formulation in words - I strongly disagree with it.

Clearly, the "Mind" understood as brain is not separate from matter, but as I have said above nor are we as individuals separate from all other matter, yet it makes sense to recocgnise that we do constiture separate entities, each with our own dynamic. There are many similar examples. A Parliament is not separate from the human beings that elect it. It is directly their product, and is made up of other human beings. Yet, a parliament cleaarly has its own dynamic, rules and life of its own separate from the society which brings it into being.

In fact, the mind is not simply equivalent to the brain any more than the calculations and functions performed by a computer are equivalent to the electronics thaat carry out those functions. And the irony is that if you inist on the idea of a purely mechanical materialism in which the Mind is nothing more than the chemicaals, which make up the brain, the electrical impulses, and the experiences of the individual you end up with the very opposite of Materialism, a point that Marx and Engels made in relation to this kind of Feurbachian or even pre-Feurbachian materialism. If it were true then no original thought is possible, only reflection of what has already existed.

If thought processes are no more than simple chemical and electrical reactions taking palce in the brain then instead of the Marxist concept of Man creating his own history through practical action flowing from original thought - which by its nature means the creation of the most immaterial of things - ideas - outside the realm of the material world, what insteaad we have is Man simnply being a puppet, a robot, whose ideas are pre-determined as a result of those very chemical and electrical reactions. In fact, what we end up with is a theory of pre-destination! you do not have to beleive in God to arrive at this theory of pre-destination, merely as Engels states of Feurbach ,

" philosophy of nature-passive adoration of nature and enraptured kneeling down before its splendour and omnipotence. 2. Anthropology, namely [a] physiology, where nothing new is added to what the materialists have already said about the unity of body and soul, but it is said less mechanically and with rather more exuberance, [b] psychology, which amounts to dithyrambs glorifying love, analogous to the cult of nature, apart, from that nothing new."

In other words we end up with Hegel's concept of the "Idea" unfolding and being represented in the material world, or God as Nature i.e. not Marxism, but metaphysics.

In fact, simply accepting that the Mind is the product of the Material World, but separaate from it, that it has its own dynamic is fully consistent with a dialectical and materialist position, as is the concept that ideas have their foundation in the real world, but have a life and dynamic of their own separate from the material world. Moreover, that distinction mirrors the distinction and division within Physics in which different rules apply at the Quantum level.

Phil BC said...

Going by what you've written it is a difference in terminology that separates us rather than anything substantial - it stems from my deep allergy to the Cartesian split between mind and body thanks to a period I spent steeped in poststructuralist philosophy.