A review essay on Dan Brown's novel The Lost Symbol (Doubleday, 2009)
by Bro. James W. Maertens, Ph.D. 32°
Dan Brown's recent thriller is one that must be of interest to Freemasons. Brothers of the Craft and of the Scottish Rite will see things in the novel quite invisible to other readers. Some are pleasing, some disturbing. In this essay, I wish to focus on the role that Masonry plays in the novel and how its representation in this fictional form may affect the fraternity in real life.
While Masons are the good guys in this story, there are some errors about Masonry in the novel that are troubling. Of course the central business about the puzzle of the pyramid is purely fictitious (so far as I know...). That's fine. However, there are subtler misrepresentations from the first page, and one almost thinks that given the research Brown must have done into the Craft, he made these little tweaks on purpose for artistic reasons. By the end of the book, I think he has given a very accurate and flattering portrayal of the fraternity's ideals. The concept of the Lost Word is actually explained very astutely. Non-Masons could still misunderstand and think that all Brown's Masons are saying is that the Lost Word is the Bible, but that isn't in fact what the book tells us. Brown gets into a long series of dialogues between Langdon and the two Solomons at the end to explain the mystery. Essentially the author's thesis, as expressed in the mouths of his characters, is that Masonry guards the secret that the human mind has vast powers and potentials that are not yet scientifically explained, that the ancients already knew how to harness these powers to change the material reality, and that now that secret can be revealed because humans are ready for it.
The message that human minds can "change the world" is hardly very surprising. The idea that mental power can change matter or heal disease (by manipulating the material body) is consistent with all the stories of miracles, healing, and magic we see in all sorts of accounts from all over the world. Such ideas have been written about in popular forms for decades at least. Brown (or his characters at least) subordinate the wisdom of the ancients and of tribal societies to Western science. A sage from India or China or Tibet would not find his revelations new, but perhaps the average American reader will. Brown tends to imply that the Noetic science is a form of science that the whole scientific community will accept as legitimate and that it will bring about a paradigm shift in thinking comparable to this shift from the geocentric to the heliocentric view of the solar system. He reduces "magic" to advanced technology, even quoting the old saw from Arthur C. Clarke about "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
Technophiles love that statement. A mage might justifiably reply that any sufficiently advanced form of magic is thoroughly distinguishable from what we normally call technology. However, the original Greek word "techne" meant Art, so we might broaden our minds and consider that technology or technics is not merely a matter of mechanisms. Brown rather leaves one with the feeling that he expects us to be able to do magic through some sort of super-advanced mechanism (perhaps nano-technology – that is all the rage at the moment.) All we need is a medical way to induce that secretion from the old pineal gland. I found that old reductionism disappointing.
The Lost Symbol is partly science fiction based on a few actual experiments by groups such as the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and books like The Dancing Wu Li Masters, which he mentions in passing. Fritjof Capra argued the need for a total paradigm shift in the sciences in his book The Turning Point in 1982. Brown is presenting the ideas of others in the form of a thriller, presumably in the attempt to get readers to think about these ideas as true (there's a weird irony in there somewhere). This also seemed to be the case in The DaVinci Code, which was based on the Lincoln, Baigent and Leigh non-fiction book Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1982). So, the ideas Brown uses for his thrillers have been in print in popular form for more than two decades, longer than some of his readers have been alive, one supposes.
Anyway, the difficulty of this presentation of real ideas in the form of fiction hits Freemasons directly in this book. The problem is that a spiritual seeker who longs to learn telekinesis or telepathy or mental healing powers, is going to be confused and disappointed if he turns to Freemasonry. If you want to learn to use the mind for healing today, studying traditional Chinese or Indian medicine would probably be a better avenue. If you want to learn "magic" as it has been traditionally called, try the Rosicrucians or the Golden Dawn. The seeker who knocks on the lodge door will find that Freemasonry does not overtly offer any instruction along those lines. The rituals contain keys, but the fraternity does not offer much help to the brother who wishes to learn how to use those keys in a practical way -- apart from the practice of cultivating virtue.
Which is plenty, of course, and it is the first step, but beyond that work I haven't seen, in my three years as a Mason, the sort of organized master-apprentice mentoring relationship in "mystic powers" that the ancient mystery schools must have provided. Today there are many, many organizations that attempt to teach the sort of mental powers Brown's characters discuss. Freemasonry is old and respectable, but the alchemists have long ago left to found or join other organizations – Rosicrucian orders, Hermetic orders, Druid orders, irregular co-Masonic orders, or Gnostic churches.
So, I am concerned that Mr. Brown has built Freemasons up too much. In mainstream regular Craft Masonry and the Scottish Rite, the aspirant will not find mentoring in magic, nor indeed any discussion of the subject. Upon attaining the title "Master of the Royal Secret 32°, the Master Mason will find no invitation to practical application of all he has seen in the degrees except that he will be asked to participate actively in putting on the degree dramas, in recruiting new candidates, and in giving generously to the RiteCare clinics, the Scottish Rite Research Society, and the House of the Temple maintenance fund.
One aspect of the novel that I found very interesting is the contrast made between the Masonic mysteries and the sort of magic that is usually associated with the Goetia and Aleister Crowley, the sort of medieval magic that calls upon demons, uses blood sacrifices, sex magic, ritual purification, and so forth. Brown is not representing those traditions very fairly, but then his "magician" character is a homicidal maniac apparently obsessed with the Scottish Rite. I should think that Thelemites would be a bit offended – not to mention anyone into tattoos! In fact, Abra-Melin's book (which the narrator mentions in passing) is actually a book that fits pretty well into the model of the ancient mysteries and super-normal powers of mind. It is about connecting with your Higher Self, not just about rubbing oil all over yourself, or making ritual sacrifices.
However, as an artistic device, the blood-sacrificing magician vs. the good symbolic Masons is a very interesting contrast. Brown's main intent in this contrast seems to be to show that Masonry is not engaging in actual blood sacrifices or drinking actual blood in rituals nor engaging in "perversions" as has so often been suggested by anti-masons. Or if individual Masons do engage in that sort of thing, they are doing it on their own, not as part of regular Masonry. Will the distinction be lost on the non-Mason reader?
Another aspect of the contrast between magician and Mason is that magic is often a solitary, secretive pursuit, even anti-social. Masonry, on the other hand, uses group rituals just as most religions do. Tthere are some magico-religious groups who combine the two models but evil magic – sorcery or witchcraft, as they are usually called – has historically taken the form of secret and solitary rituals. If you are cursing someone, you don't want them to know it because they are bound to fetch the authorities who will arrest you for it.
The magician vs. Mason dynamic in The Lost Symbol is more complicated that a mere binary dichotomy. There is third side in Brown's comparison-contrast of methods, (forming a triangle), and that is Katherine Solomon's super-isolated laboratory for noetic science. Though she does have an assistant, her magic rituals are extremely secretive and secluded. Indeed, Brown is a bit vague about what sort of experiments she can be doing in her lab if she never lets any test subjects enter it. Brown is actually borrowing an idea current in magical circles these days, which is that magic is best performed at night, in privacy, and away from the madding crowd because negative vibrations interfere with the focus of the mental energies and intentions. It is hardly a coincidence that the "temples" of Dr. Solomon and Mal'akh are both perfect cubes secreted within larger buildings. It is interesting to notice the number of basements that appear in the novel. Even the CIA's special Office of Security is in a basement at Langley. In that basement, the magicians specialize in revealing and concealing secrets.
Katherine Solomon claims to have proven that, as more minds are added to a group directing the same intention, the power increases exponentially. Any Wiccan would tell you the same thing. It's one of the points of gathering in a coven. Dr. Solomon is alluding to the power of many people praying for change – for healing, for peace, etc. But her remark implicitly applies to a Mason's lodge too. When brothers meet and direct their minds to the ritual of opening and closing and the rituals of the degrees, they can amplify the power of the thoughts and intentions those rituals embody. How many lodges or Scottish Rite temples do actually focus their attention in this way, with a true group understanding of what they are supposed to be thinking and intending, and where they are directing that power?
If we look at our Masonic rituals, we can pretty quickly articulate the kind of changes in ourselves and in the world that those rituals dramatize. But unless the lodge room is working together to really direct that transformative power with the power of the mind then how much transformation do we actually achieve? The group power of mind is not just intellectual thinking, or emotional excitement, and it is certainly not going to be generated by rote recitations with the sidelines gossiping, joking, or criticizing during the ritual.
Was the Craft designed to be a "noetic science"? -- a ritual space from which to project intentions of peace and virtue and brotherly love into the larger world? Hard to say, but I rather think it was. Brown is free to play with the idea that Newton and Bacon et al. designed Masonry to work that way and that Franklin and Washington practiced the Art of Apotheosis. History so far is silent on that subject.
But we as Masons have also to look at what we are doing today and seriously ask ourselves if we do know what we are doing. There is no doubt that Masonic rituals work on the world outside the lodge in the sense that, whenever we leave the lodge as changed men, more focused on doing good in the world, more strongly committed to virtuous behavior, our actions as men change the world. And even small actions, as physicists tell us, may have a "butterfly effect" to create larger changes and movements. But should there be more?
I am not sure what Mr. Brown intends by the third side of his triangular comparison – that between the scientist Katherine Brown (a woman, notice) and the Masons. Does he mean to say that Masonry is Noetic Science in practice? Does he mean to suggest that ceremonial magic is also Noetic Science in practice? I am not sure about the latter because ultimately Brown's evil magician is thwarted. The author does not leave us with any examples of good ceremonial magicians (even thought he mentions Dr. John Dee and the alchemical work of Newton). On the other hand, one feels his scientist character is a bit naïve about how the scientific community works and how people respond to these revelations about the mind. After all, we are living in the middle of a period of public response to such ideas, often dismissed by scientists and religious authorities as "New Age" nonsense.
The climactic scene in the House of the Temple is a triumph of technology and Masonic virtue over the evil magician. The scene has a number of layers of symbolism going on, and it might be instructive to tease those apart to examine them more closely.
First, and most obvious, is the allusion to the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. Peter Solomon refuses to sacrifice his son. It is an interesting twist on the Biblical story in which we are led to believe Abraham was willing to make the sacrifice so long as it was God's will. In The Lost Symbol, it is not God's will but the deranged son's will that he be sacrificed. Plus it is extortion and revenge on Mal'akh's part and he is a monster, rather than simply the beloved son. The thwarting of the demonic character comes from the heavens in the form of Langdon's powers of reasoning combined with the CIA's super-magical technology (the EMP gun). The role of technology in the story could make a study itself, but the general impression I get is that technology, like magic, is a neutral instrument that can be used for good or evil, motivated by virtue or vice.
Throughout the book, the plot is motivated by the desire to save Peter Solomon's life. The name "Peter Solomon" is obviously symbolic, as any Mason will notice, a combination of "Peter" (the rock, or stone) with "Solomon" the great king and grandmaster. The character of Peter Solomon is represented as the supreme grandmaster of Masons. This, as we know, is a misrepresentation of how Masonry is organized and a misrepresentation of the organization of the Scottish Rite. However, Brown departs from the facts for artistic purposes. Peter Solomon, the Supreme Worshipful Master is symbolic of King Solomon himself – that is, he represents the supreme wisdom and guidance of God. He is not merely a super-rich, super-smart man. He symbolizes something larger. Even the fact that his character is Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution is symbolic of that vast wisdom – the omniscience of God.
The fact that Peter Solomon's hand is cut off is symbolic too, of course. The right hand is the traditional sign of a Mason's will during votes and the Worshipful Master's gavel hand in most cases. As Brown notes, the left hand is the hand of what is "sinister" while the right is the hand of righteousness. Everything in Dan Brown's books is layered wordplay and symbolism. His protagonist, Langdon, figures out one layer of the symbolism, and the reader is invited to figure out the deeper layer(s). Quite possibly there are multiple correct interpretations or solutions at that deeper level. Notice how "levels" and "deeper levels" are a recurrent trope in this book.
The severed hand also makes Solomon a wounded grandmaster, a wounded God. Indeed, as with Langdon (the Savior in this story) Solomon has gone through the sensory deprivation tank's "death and rebirth" more than once. Like Osiris he is dismembered; like Jesus and so many other god-men, he has died and been resurrected. No Mason can miss the coffin analogy with its significance in our rituals. The final death and rebirth comes when Solomon is rescued from the terrible dilemma at the climax. In a kind of inversion of the Abraham and Isaac story, the father refuses the horrible act of murder (murdering not only a son but a brother), and, when the helicopter breaks the skylight, it is as if God has taken out the villain. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.
Death and rebirth happens most beautifully in the final scene of the book when the return of the sun enacts this power within nature. But it also appears when we learn that Katherine Solomon's research was not totally destroyed, after all. Her brother's Masonic habit of secrecy saved her work, which is itself symbolic of saving the Ancient Mysteries through secret hidden "holographic storage units." The pyramid, in The Lost Symbol, is almost a holographic image – it keeps popping up everywhere and leading to the same essential truth.
Dan Brown obviously does a tremendous amount of research and his technique as a writer is to load his stories with details that the reader knows to be real. He then slips in things which the reader may not know about. Does the aluminum capstone on the Washington monument have a tiny inscription that says "Laus Deo"? I don't know. It is certainly possible? Is there a private sub-basement to the U.S. Capitol? There again, I don't personally know, and it could be true. Is there a secret vast storage facility containing 98% of the Smithsonian's collections? Again, personally, I would have to research to see if that was based on a real place and to what extent it was fictionalized. One can be pretty sure that the Noetic Sciences lab, like the main characters, is complete fiction, but as the front matter of the book says, the Institute for Noetic Science, that is mentioned, is a real organization.
So, when we, as Masons, approach The Lost Symbol, we can see the bits that are incorrect about Freemasonry. The folks at IONS can tell us how Brown's representation of noetic science has been tweaked for fictional purposes, and if they would the CIA could tell us how he has taken artistic license with their real methods. On the whole, the big ideas of Masonry are well-presented. But there are details which are misleading and worrisome.
The first, and largest, issue is that Masonry is represented as a single organization, not a collection of inter-related but independent organizations. Calling the head of the Scottish Rite "Worshipful Master" and suggesting that the Supreme Council 33° is a "lodge" is incorrect and misleading. Grand Lodges are completely omitted (as, of course, are the York Rite bodies) and the reader who knows nothing about Freemasonry might easily take Brown's representation as accurate. Such misrepresentations may have awkward consequences for the Craft because they feed into the popular fiction promulgated by Taxil and others that Masons are a single vast organization and that the head of the Scottish Rite is the Masonic Pope.
The second misrepresentation is also a common mistake, but one presumes Brown knew better. That is, the idea that the thirty-three degrees of Scottish Rite Masonry are ranks within the organization, and that the Supreme Council 33° runs the whole show like the board of directors of a multinational corporation (or like the Mafia). Although, Brown does represent several degrees factually, he perpetuates the misleading notion that the degrees of Masonry are also its administrative hierarchy. Being an SGIG or SGC, just as being a Worshipful Master or Grand Master, depends on a lot more than having done the degree work. And the idea that a man could be granted the honor of the highest degree simply because he gave a huge donation to Masonic charities is yet another troubling point (upon which Brown's whole plot depends).
Third, is the misrepresentation that the Supreme Council is made up of high-ranking government officials. The plot of the book hinges on this idea too. It is troubling to the fraternity because it again echoes a common negative myth – that the Masons are a secret network of powerful men who hold the reigns of power all over the world. It is very hard to swallow his basic idea that the tattooed Mal'akh could have fooled the brotherhood all the way through the degrees. Even if he attended a One-Day-to-Masonry session and a One-Day Scottish Rite Reunion, it is beyond belief that he could have become a 33° IG (honorary) in a matter of a few years (we aren't told how long it took). The level of involvement in the Scottish Rite needed to be given that honor would have long before exposed his true character. Moreover, a Scottish Rite Mason knows that if an evil man actually went through all the degrees, he could hardly do so without learning something and giving pause to his murderous and treacherous motives. (If it is nothing else, The Lost Symbol is a cautionary tale for lodges to interview prospective candidates more rigorously!)
Fourth, and finally, there is one particular bit of dialogue that I found to be worrisome. It is in Chapter 55 where Langdon and Bellamy, the Mason-Architect of the Capitol, are arguing about whether they should open the tiny package containing the capstone of the pyramid. Bellamy argues that Langdon has a moral obligation to protect the great secret the pyramid guards. Langdon cannot believe what he is hearing. His top priority is to rescue his friend Peter. Langdon then says, "Peter is your Masonic brother. You're sworn to protect him above all else, even your own country!"
Not only is this statement untrue with regard to real Masonic obligations, but it is one of those things that, once more, feeds a particularly insidious myth about the fraternity – the idea that Masons have more loyalty to each other than to their country. It was on this sort of charge that Masons used to be accused of being seditious and untrustworthy. I am not sure on what Brown may be basing this remark. He appears to have read John Adams' letters against Masonry, so I wonder if that might be his source. But any Mason could have corrected this error, had he asked.
Even more curious, the scene between Langdon and Bellamy makes it seem that Bellamy has absolutely no idea what the pyramid is guarding. Presumably neither has Peter Solomon. But by the end of the book we find that the whole elaborate puzzle was not guarding a hidden secret at all; it was guarding a "secret" that is entirely out in the open and has been for centuries (if not indeed millennia). The end of the novel leaves one feeling a little cheated. It is satisfying to Masons perhaps.
At least the spiral stair did not lead to a vast underground vault full of Templar treasure, but one has to wonder what was the point of the pyramid in the first place? It seems to have been nothing but an elaborate game, a treasure hunt. The only "secret" it revealed was that the Lost Word is the Logos and that the Bible can be read as a guide to the perfection of higher mental powers. Why keep that secret in the first place? Too blasphemous for the 18th century? I guess that's the idea. Now the time is ripe to reveal this particular secret. There is now hope for the future and a New Age of Aquarius.
Maybe that is an earth-shattering revelation to some readers. It wasn't to me. It mildly intrigued me and made me want (like Langdon) to study the Bible with some of those "key phrases" and "code words" in mind – read it through the lens of noetic science perhaps? The revelation also made me want to read Newton's Biblical and alchemical writings. I found myself wishing that Dan Brown would include a list of sources and further reading at the end of his novels. Readers who have picked up Freke and Gandy's The Jesus Mysteries will have already seen this sort of interpretation of the Bible.
Curiously, Masons can recognize exactly this feeling of puzzlement at the end of the journey – The third or the thirty-second, the candidate may find only a puzzled feeling of anti-climax and scratch his head saying, "What was that all about?" Other brothers may realize that the whole elaborate drama was meant to point you to further thought and action. It points to the links among all ancient religions and philosophies and the Word is already in your possession. The Lost Word cannot simply be "found" lying in a secret vault; it must be rekindled in the heart of every person through the combination of revelation, realization, and right action. Perhaps that is the ultimate lesson The Lost Symbol means to teach.
Now, it remains for Freemasonry to provide the kind of initiation Robert Langdon goes through in this wild adventure. It remains for us to give each newly raised brother a view of the Light like that which Robert Langdon and Katherine Solomon have in the final scene of the novel. If what we offer is less inspiring, less hopeful, and less mind-opening, then the fraternity is not going to be able to meet the expectations of seekers drawn to it by this book. And that is something to think about.