by Joe Shea
American Reporter Book Review Editor
December 2, 2009
'THE EXTINCTION GENE' IS MORE THAN WORTH A READ
GILROY, Calif. -- St. Paul, in a letter to the Corinthians, suggests that stories have at least two layers of meaning, whose understanding depends on not only the intent of the raconteur but also the cognitive faculties of the intended audience. In the epistle, he overtly distinguishes between infantile minds and mature minds. "I have fed you with milk, not solid food," he writes, "because you were not ready for it."
A story has its plot and characters and literal meaning, straightforward to anyone who understands the language in which it is told. The power of abstraction has given people the ability to see deeper meanings in a work of fiction. The mature mind's grasp of the message of a story is perhaps what St. Paul means.
So it is with Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol, the third book in his Robert Langdon series, preceded by Angels & Demons and The DaVinci Code.
At one level the reader is delighted with a page-turning thriller, an excellent story for anyone who enjoys this genre of literature. The plot is simple. Langdon is called by his billionaire friend, Peter Solomon, to meet him in Washington, D.C., at the U.S. Capitol. Solomon sends a jet to pick up Langdon from his Harvard habitat but doesn't show for the meeting. Through an unexpected sequence of events, Langdon, now searching for his friend, traverses a number of places within the U.S. Capitol and throughout the capital city.
As Langdon discovers the disappearance of Solomon involves the CIA and some unexplained matter of national security. As his adventure progresses, he learns that he can trust only Solomon's sister, Katherine, a researcher studying the rather obscure science of Noetics, and "the Architect," the individual responsible for supervising everything related to the U.S. Capitol building and its facilities.
For those familiar with Brown's earlier Langdon stories, The Lost Symbol is more like Angels and Demons than The Da Vinci Code. As the title of the story suggests, Langdon's challenge is to understand the meaning of symbols to solve the riddle and save his friend within the limits of a single city, before morning.
At another level The Lost Symbol has a pedagogical purpose, something like Freemasonry 101 and Advanced Freemasonry all rolled up into a single course. We learn that the Founding Fathers and the designers of the national capital and its buildings had a deeper intent beyond its apparent imitation of Greek and Roman architecture. Although as many as 18 of the 56 signers of the U.S. Constitution - and 15 of 44 presidents - have been Masons, a large segment of the U.S. population, especially Catholic conservatives and fundamentalist Christians, have viewed Freemasons with suspicion.
Freemasonry has often been called a "secret society." Masons conduct their meetings using a ritualized format, much like fraternities and sororities on college campuses. There is no single Masonic ritual. There is more than one "rite" and each one is free to set (or not set) its own ritual. However, there are similarities that exist among Masonic jurisdictions.
While Masons are required to believe in a Supreme Being, the nature of the Supreme Being is not specified, enabling Freemasonry to exist in various forms all over the world, with just under two million members in the United States. Masons comprise one brotherhood from a diversity of beliefs and backgrounds. Thus we have the Masonic motto, e pluribus unum, adopted by the United States, originally suggesting that out of many colonies or states emerge a single nation; today it means that America is a single people and nation, emerging out of many peoples, races, religions and ancestries.
All Masonic ritual makes use of the architectural symbolism of the tools of the medieval operative stonemason. Freemasons, as speculative masons (meaning philosophical building rather than actual physical construction), use this symbolism to impart moral and ethical teachings based on the principles of "Brotherly Love, Charity, and Truth." They have their founding roots in medieval Europe, and claim origins that stretch back to stonemasons who built the pyramids of ancient Egypt.
As Langdon starts on his adventure through the U.S. capital, we learn that Masons were the dominant influence in designing the layout of the city of Washington, D.C., and its buildings. The key to finding his friend, Peter Solomon, lies in interpreting correctly the signs manifest in Masonic symbols and locations through the city.
There is an even deeper level to The Lost Symbol, presumably intended for truly mature, inquiring minds. In his Langdon stories, Brown pursues a recurring iconoclastic theme: intellectually challenging the very spiritual foundations of Western Civilization.
In The Da Vinci Code, Brown relates an alternative account of the life of Jesus Christ, the Source of Christianity in the West. The author tells a story where Jesus marries Mary Magdalen, who flees Israel with their daughter, Sarah, after Christ's death, to southern France. Sarah marries into the Merovingian bloodline of royalty that survived through the ages to the present day, a hypothesis that is inconsistent with the received doctrine of the Catholic Church and other conservative Christians. The Vatican banned the book, following a scathing review in L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican City daily newspaper.
In Angels and Demons Brown reveals the internal politics of the Vatican itself, including exploring the possibility of a papal murder and the rude politics of selecting a successor. In the forefront of the story is the clash between medieval Catholic doctrine and modern science. (The Church, whose universities taught Copernican doctrine from th 1700's, did not formally accept the astronomer's vision of the universe until 1992.)
While Brown explicitly takes the side of science in this story, he does admit that the fruits of Science can be used for evil purposes - but so can religious fanaticism.
The Lost Symbol takes the assault on established doctrine a step further. Relying on science to provide more accurate insight into truth is explicitly assumed to be the starting point of any inquiry. Katherine Solomon's experiments indicate just how far Brown is willing to extend the reach of science. Yet the deeper mysticism that abounds in the symbols of tradition demands as much respect as any scientific inquiry. If truth emerges from the scientific method, it is no less bound up in the wisdom inherent in the received traditions of a selective, secret, exclusive fraternal organization of primarily men.
For all its excellence, The Lost Symbol is not without its obvious problems. The plot has at least two flaws. Peter Solomon has an estranged relationship with his son, Zach. Zach Solomon may be the archetype of a petulant, immature kid, but the origins of the estrangement is never fully explained or developed. Perhaps Brown assumes we'll understand. However, in real life, Zach's characteristic immaturity often dissipates when the kid reaches adulthood. Zach's hatred for his father never subsides, even though the reason for the final tipping point is clear.
Brown appears to have forgot that the reader might have, probably has, read his earlier books, and hence already knows Robert Langdon, at least knows that the Professor of Symbology has experienced a number of adventures. The Robert Langdon we know might make a mistake but not a stupid decision, which he clearly does at one point in the story. Of course, we expect Langdon to be able to compensate for his error. But the error is not resolved without stretching the imagination, which, unfortunately, the author forces the reader to do.
In terms of his homage to Freemasonry, Brown is decidedly one-sided. He doesn't tell the whole story. In 1826 William Morgan, a resident of Batavia, N.Y., disappeared. At the time it was generally assumed that he was killed by Masons, who alleged dumped his body in a river. Apparently, Morgan had declared his intention to publish a critical book, exposing the rituals and secrets of Freemasonry. His disappearance ignited a wide-spread anti-Freemason movement in the United States, and it launched the formation of a new Anti-Masonic Party, which fielded candidates in the U.S. national elections between 1828 and 1838.
The event created broad agitation and led many to believe that not only the local lodge but all Masonic groups were in conflict with local communities. Because judges, businessmen, bankers, and politicians were often Masons, ordinary citizens began to think of Freemasonry as an elitist organization.
The trial of the Morgan suspects was mishandled, and local Masons resisted further inquiries. Thus, according to report written at the time, many New Yorkers concluded that Masons "controlled key offices and used their official authority to promote the goals of the fraternity. When a member sought to reveal its 'secrets' they had done away with him, and because they controlled the officials, [they] were capable of obstructing the investigation. If good government was to be restored all Masons must be purged from public office."
The authors of "The Proceedings of the United Stares Anti-Masonic Convention," held at Philadelphia on Sept. 11, 1830, considered the Masons to be members of an un-American organization taking unfair advantage of common folk and violating the essential principles of democracy. True Americans, they said, had to organize and defeat this conspiracy.
Many of today's conspiracy theories have a Masonic theme. The national security matter that is a component of the plot is probably closer to reality, and perhaps more questionable, than most people would expect. All conspiracy theories are not necessarily irrational.
Brown doesn't discuss any of this in The Lost Symbol. Because an anti-Masonic movement has been a significant part of American history, it seems somewhat presumptuous to ignore it. But Brown does.
Whatever we say of the story and its apparent message, we cannot deny that Brown's mettant en question of thedeepest spiritual and cultural assumptions of Western civilization has sparked intellectual inquiry far beyond anyone's expectations. The Da Vinci Code has been translated into 40 or so languages. (One translator reportedly became so distraught at the content of the story that she committed suicide.) The Ron Howard movie based on the book was released in nearly 75 countries. Over 20 books have been written to refute the various hypotheses that emerge in the plot.
Angels and Demons has been translated in almost as many languages and the film on which the book is based so far has been released in 60 countries.
The Lost Symbol is certain to reach as many people as the first two books in the Langdon series in spite of the fact that it is surely a mythopoeic narrative of a uniquely American weltschaung: what is absolutely destructive evil, and what is unquestionably American and good, is beyond dispute.
But the conflict between good and evil in this book is not so much a struggle as a competition - a game, if you will - that requires intelligence and good timing, not bullets, to win. To this extent, it is a different kind of thriller: however criticized, it captivates a mature mind.
And mature minds definitely are not uniquely American, which explains the global appeal of the Langdon series.
Charles J. Reid has worked as a writer in a variety of capacities for more than 40 years. In the late 90s he served as the American Reporter's Assistant Book Review Editor.