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Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol”

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September 2009
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I read The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown’s latest thriller not because I am one of his fans but because I am a Mason.  I did not care for the DaVinci Code because I was aware that Brown was really just fictionalizing the 1982 non-fiction exposé Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent et al.  I did not like the fact that Brown was getting credit for creating the story when actually he was basing it on someone else’s book.  Arguably, Holy Blood, Holy Grail contained so much speculation that it was already almost fiction.  Baigent and Leigh have published further books on their theory of the Merovingian kings descending from Mary Magdalene and Jesus.  But, in the weird world of publishing, a fictionalized presentation of the ideas caught everyone’s imagination.

The Lost Symbol is at least more original.  Brown has done some research on noetic science, freemasonry, and ceremonial magic, among other things, but when I hear the reviewers and readers complaining that he is not factually representing these things, I wonder what is wrong with readers today.  I don’t know anything about Brown.  I don’t think his writing is very good, but he does have that knack for writing a page-turner, and that is what sells.  What I find interesting is that he can pack so much thought-provoking stuff into that plot framework.  His stories almost collapse under the weight of exposition, but not quite.  He makes it just barely plausible by having his main character be a college professor, so the reader can accept the lecturing.  But why do readers mistakenly believe he is trying to represent the organizations in his stories factually?  They accept that the characters are fictitious; why not the organizations?

Dan Brown does what most novelists do: creates a fictional world.  It isn’t real.  If a novelist successfully represents the real world and a story that seems as if it could have really happened, that is one sort of novel.  But Brown is not writing that sort of novel.  Possibly, he is just bumbling along, but if so, his stories still work.  His main character is a “symbologist” which is a made-up academic specialty.  He calls Langdon a symbologist because readers would probably close the book if he was called a semioticist.  In DaVinci Code he borrowed Opus Dei and the Catholic Church to be the antagonists, fighting to destroy the evidence of the “real” Holy Grail.  But why do readers think that Brown want’s us to believe that his fiction is literally true?  The uproar surrounding DaVinci Code seems to have been generated by this wierd inability to tell fiction from expository writing.   Arguably, Brown’s failing as a writer is that he does not inspire that “willing suspension of disbelief” required of readers.  Instead, quite a few readers reacted as if Brown’s intention was just to bash Catholicism or expose Opus Dei.  Maybe that was part of his agenda, but I rather doubt it because it is so obvious that he is creating a work of fiction that does not remotely pretend to be real (that is, if you step back from the roller coaster ride).

Brown appears to be giving you a history lesson, and some of his “facts” are actually real scholarly opinions or interpretations of historical facts, but for the most part he is drawing on fringe elements — conspiracy theorists, or writers who are not scholars at all.  Does he faithfully portray the real Catholic Church? No.  That would spoil his story.  It isn’t a realistic novel.  It is just fooling you into thinking it might be real because it includes so many details of building’s architecture, real places, real paintings, etc.  But that is just a device to allow the author to slip in his fictional creation.  Novel readers today expect realism.  Even in science fiction they want “gritty” realism.

Well, Brown’s novels should perhaps be categorized as fantasy-thrillers.

The Lost Symbol takes five major elements and weaves them together (a pentagram?).  They are:

  1. The study of symbols in culture
  2. Freemasonry
  3. Noetic science
  4. Ceremonial Magic
  5. The architecture of Washington D.C.

I have some knowledge of all of these elements as they exist in real life. This knowledge, slight though it is, allows me to see quite clearly that Brown is fictionalizing all of them and not portraying them completely factually.  He adjusts the facts to suit the needs of his story.  Freemasonry is the one element that most interests me in this book, so let me take it up first.

Brown’s representation of Freemasonry is mostly accurate.  He borrows extensively from the writings of Masonic authors.  The saying that Freemasonry is “not a secret society; it is a society with secrets” has become widespread in the fraternity as a good comeback to anyone who calls Masonry a “secret society.”  Brown is right that Masonry is mostly about brotherly love and truth and acceptance.  He is correct that many civic leaders have been Masons, including presidents from Washington on.  He plays off some of the popular myths and conspiracy theories about Freemasonry in order to create creepy dramatic tension.   The opening scene of the initiation and the candidate drinking wine from a human skull is a good example of this.  On the surface it is playing right in to the folks who think Freemasons are creepy and that their rituals contain symbolism that smacks of “evil” or “dark magic” or whatever.

By the end of the novel, however, Brown shows very dramatically exactly how the anti-masonic exposé is made. The video that is used to blackmail Peter Solomon shows actual rituals, but it shows only the most sensational parts out of context in order to suggest that the participants are a bunch of weirdos.  Masonic rituals are all initiations.  Every one of the 33 degrees is an initiation ritual, and it is true that the American public understands very little about initiations.  It also has a very low tolerance for unfamiliar rituals of any kind. Many Americans today even consider church services weird.  Brown does not show the actual beauty of Masonic rituals.  How could he when he is not a Mason and has not experienced them?  But he seems to have talked to enough Masons and read enough Masonic writers to fairly represent the idea that Masonic rituals are symbolic and harmless and that they are intended to raise the moral consciousness of the initiate.  Masonic rituals are not intended to convey real history.  They too are symbolic fictions designed to teach deeper truths.

I was amazed at some of the newspaper reviews I read of The Lost Symbol.  They seem to have failed to see any deeper truths the fiction is trying to convey.  Most took the attitude that the book was nothing more than entertainment and that it was well-crafted but not especially well-written.  The British Daily Telegraph seems to hate Brown for the way he “misrepresented” European manners and customs in his earlier books, as well as for a prose style that is almost beneath contempt.  But again, no sense of value to the truths the book is trying to convey.

Of course, these same writers might tread Masonry with a sardonic smile as a quaint and silly institution for men who like to play act and dress up and learn secret handshakes.  That description might be accurate for some Masons but there are many others who take the study of Masonic symbolism and its philosophical lessons seriously; many who have devoted a lifetime of study to the complex web of symbols.

All of these broad aspects of Freemasonry and many details (such as the very real House of the Temple) are fair.  The places where Brown deviates from fact into fiction are telling and I do not think they were done either out of a malicious desire to promote negative beliefs about the Craft, or out of incompetence.  The changes were deliberate artistic decisions  Let me enumerate again:

  1. Drinking wine from a human skull.  obviously, given U.S. law about the possession of human remains, this ritual could only be symbolic and the skull a plastic one.  Such a ritual does fit with the skull symbolism that appears in many Masonic drawings — it is, as it has always been in human cultures, a memento mori, a reminder of the reality of our own mortality.  Not the symbol of a murderous pact.  Brown doesn’t suggest it is, but a non-Mason reading the book might get that impression.
  2. The oaths or “obligations” of the degrees do have symbolic “punishments” that sound gruesome, but they are just that: symbolic.  No Mason ever tells another that if they violate their oath a bunch of brothers are going to slit their throat in a dark alley.  The symbolic penalties allude to one of the stories dramatized in the degree rituals, they relate to the punishments three murderous conspirators called down on themselves in the story.  They are punishments suitable to the quasi-Biblical setting of the story and they are, again, symbolic even in that context.  Suffice to say that they symbolize the loss of speech (truth), heart (love), and bowels (integrity).  There is more to it than that interpretation, but you can get the idea.  The candidate calls those punishments down upon himself as a sign of the depth of his sincerity in his obligations to the craft.  Nobody else threatens him with them as literal punishments.  The confusion over this point has been perhaps the main aspect of the rituals that has been taken out of context by anti-masons and sensationalized in published exposures of the rituals.  The main point of all the obligations, moreover, is not simply to keep the secrets of the fraternity; the obligations taken are to aid other brothers in need and to otherwise behave morally and truthfully.  The obligation to “obedience” to the lodge is also easily blown out of proportion into some sinister intent to control the members of the fraternity.  In reality it means that members are swearing to do their best to attend meetings and participate in the organization.
  3. The young man being raised to the 33rd degree of the Scottish Rite. Unimaginable. Middle aged, maybe, but the 33rd degree is  awarded for many years of service in leadership positions within the several bodies of the Scottish Rite.  Obviously, it would not suit Dan Brown’s plot to have to try to explain the realities of the Scottish Rite.  His story hinges on the idea that a young man can fool his way into the Rite in a short time by giving a huge donation to charity.  I think that would be pretty much impossible.  The honor of the 33rd degree is treated very seriously by those who have earned it.  Moreover, the Supreme Council that is the highest administrative body of the Scottish Rite is composed of members elected from among the large number of men holding the 33rd degree as an “honorary” degree.  Those council members are called “active” to distinguish them.
  4. The head of the Supreme Council is called “Worshipful Master” and oversees a “lodge.” Nope.  The Scottish Rite is organized very differently from a Masonic craft lodge (the first three degrees).  The head of the Scottish Rite is called the Supreme Grand Commander.  Why Brown made this particular change is unclear to me.  Possibly it fit his overall desire to make the Scottish Rite and blue lodge Masonry into one monolithic organization with a hierarchical organizational structure.  If he went so far in his research to read Freemasons for Dummies, he would know that this is not factually correct.  So, again, artistic license.
  5. The degrees of Masonry are the administrative power structure of the Craft; that is, Masons move up in a power structure with each degree they take.  Absolutely untrue.  The degrees are not a power structure.  There are a few degrees that have to be attained before a brother can be a member of particular bodies of the Scottish Rite or the York Rite, and he cannot vote in the blue lodge until he has been raised to the degree of Master Mason.  But beyond these gateway degrees to full membership, the degrees are unrelated to the administrative or leadership positions.  Each lodge and body of Masonry has elected and appointed officers who act as leaders and decision makers for a specified term of office.  By ignoring the real organizational structure of Freemasonry and its decentralized and democratic character, Brown makes it seem more sinister and easier to grasp.
  6. The symbol of the Scottish Rite is a double-headed phoenix.  A good example of artistic license.  Brown is not in error, he is deliberately changing the eagle to a more evocative bird, one that likewise fits his theme of death and resurrection.  The theme itself is one of those central mythological themes and at the root of the ancient mystery schools as it is rooted in Freemasonry’s symbolic language.
  7. The claim that Masons swear to protect a brother Mason even over one’s country.  That claim is definitely made up.  Freemasons might wince at it because it feeds into a common anti-mason accusation that Masons serve their order over the civil or religious authorities, but Brown slips it in for no other purpose than to heighten dramatic tension.  In his story, the looming question of whether the Masons are working with or against the CIA is crucial to the suspense.
  8. The Masons are guardians of the secret science of the ancient mysteries. This claim is one that is hard to judge true or false.  Many Masons would agree with the statement.  Others would say this is just the wishful thinking of nineteenth-century brothers who were heavily into comparative religion and the study of the place of magic in human culture.  The fictionalization comes in on a different level in this case.  Brown is creating a fiction about the ancient mysteries, one which suggests that they allowed practitioners in ancient times to perform miraculous wonders through the power of their minds (or as some might say, the power of faith).  Brown brings in noetic science as a term for what others call parapsychology.  It lies on the border between accepted science and the unknown.  Brown engages in science fiction when representing the work of Katherine Solomon.

These eight points are at least the major ones in which Brown fictionalizes Freemasonry.  As we can see in the final item above, these artistic choices to deviate from established facts spreads from his fictional representation of Masonry to his fictional representation of noetic science research, the ancient mysteries, the CIA, and ceremonial magic.  The CIA comes off smelling like roses.  Ceremonial magic comes off in very stereotypic form as evil demonology that involves blood sacrifices and megalomania.  Is what Brown says about the architecture and symbolism of the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument factual?  I do not personally know, but if Brown took artistic license there, I would not be surprised in the least.  Finally, is the author’s representation of the academic study of symbols accurate?  Certainly not.  It is based on actual academic work, but it is fictitious, just like everything else.

Are those representations fair?  No, of course not.  They are not intended to be fair.  They are intended to push our buttons, to create dramatic tension and suspense, to keep the reader off balance, not sure who is good and who is evil or what the earth-shattering secret is, until the very end.

The end has evidently disappointed some of Brown’s readers.  They were hoping for some juicy, controversial accusations against some big organization. Some, naturally, thought the book would suggest that the Freemasons are, after all, running a secret world government, the puppet-masters whose existence would.  Or maybe the readers were hoping that he was, at last, going to reveal the secrets of the ancient mysteries —  the secret to immortality and magical powers.

The irony, and I think the strength of The Lost Symbol is that Brown does reveal the mysteries.  His narrative and the symbolism in his story points right at it for those with eyes to see.  But it is deliberately (I suggest) different from the denouement of the film National Treasure.  Readers who have seen the film, which also features Masonic secrets, cannot fail to notice the resemblance.  Both stories (like DaVinci Code) are riddle plots.  The protagonist must solve the riddle before the antagonist heads him off.  But in The Lost Symbol there is no fabulous, fantasy treasure.  There is not magical device that will unlock a sci-fi doorway into superpowers.  In fact, right toward the end of the plot, Langdon realizes that there are actually two riddles: the riddle of the pyramid, and the riddle of what Mal’akh is doing and where he is doing it.  They turn out to be two separate riddles, only connected by Mal’akh’s belief that he needs the “lost symbol” to write on his Fontanelle so that he can become a demon.

In the resolution at the end of the story, the reader, with Langdon, is shown that what is lost is not a “symbol” in the sense of a glyph, but is the Lost Word, the knowledge and understanding of the Logos, that divine light which resides in each of us.  The “lost symbol” is merely a symbol for “that which was lost” once upon a time.  The ancient mysteries told the same tale. The story of the Garden of Eden does likewise.  Somewhere in the mists of the past, the myth says, human beings lost their connection to the Divine.

That’s it.  Boom.  Anticlimax?

Every brother Mason who has knocked on the door of the lodge and been raised to the degree of Master Mason has asked himself that question.  Every Master Mason who has gone on to achieve the 32nd degree of the Scottish Rite asks it.  After all of this drama, symbolism, and apparent teasing with the Lost Word, is that it?  But this is how Freemasonry works.  It is not an elaborate succession of initiations in which a brother must prove himself worthy to receive the secret.  It is a series of rituals that lead him onwards, ever onward, to discover the secret for himself.

Dan Brown makes the “secret” of the mysteries sound a bit like “The Secret” — that other best-selling book in the past few years.  The power of intention, the power of prayer, the magic of visualization and repeated affirmations — that is the big “secret.”  But students of the mysteries and of magic have known that secret for generations, and probably back to the dawn of civilization among cultures outside of Europe — Tibet, India, China, and many tribal cultures.

So, do Freemasons practice “The Secret” ?  Actually they do, even if they might not make the connection with that popular book and the New Age cosmic consciousness movements.  They practice focused intention in prayer and in rituals devoted to symbolizing virtues and so, if the noetic theories be true, send out into the world good vibrations of love, truth, charity, and respect — the brotherhood of men.  Whether you believe in good vibrations or not, it is undoubtedly true that whenever a lodge meets the men who come out of its doors at the close of the lodge are filled with the love of virtue, kindness, and hope for humanity.  There is Light out of Darkness, and Order out of Chaos.

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