'The Lost Symbol'
By Harold K. Bush Jr.
Dan Brown's latest blockbuster, "The Lost Symbol," reveals a lot about our current cultural milieu. Within the meandering plotline of this mediocre work, produced by one of the best-selling novelists in American history, there are revelations to be found about contemporary American spirituality.
To ignore Brown is to ignore America's occult foundations: our lengthy fascination with various supernaturally inclined secret societies like the Masons and the Rosicrucians, our paranoid fears regarding said secret groups and our common predilection for gnostic approaches to belief.
Occult is a strong word, of course, but it is apropos for the eclectic epistemologies that remain hidden, secret knowledge known only to a few initiates. Christianity is just too darned simple. And so, besides the flagrantly occultic and flat-out weird beliefs of this novel's chief villain, as well as lengthy accounts of Freemasonry, Brown presents encyclopedic passages explaining with a straight face the supposed findings of "noetic science": the alleged scientific evidence suggesting the mind's power to alter reality, evidence that becomes crucial to the plot.
Like his other fictions, which include "The Da Vinci Code," "The Lost Symbol" attests to America's strong interest in the occult and New Ageisms, a growing disenchantment with traditional faiths, and a warmed-over humanism.
For another, and related to this, Brown's novels are perhaps at their best when illuminating the desperation characterizing broad segments of American popular phenomena. Brown's worlds are haunted by paranoid fears of sinister unseen groups with hidden agendas. These cabals, says Brown, have undertaken all sorts of mayhem and manipulation in their attempts to control the present and the future, to domineer over the master narratives of our history (controlling the future is another major theme of the occult).
In Brown's previous books, these authoritarian regimes have included the Catholic church and various historical entities such as the Knights Templar and the Illuminati, made up of world class geniuses like Da Vinci or Isaac Newton (who makes a return appearance here).
In "The Lost Symbol," such figures are supplanted by American heroes such as George Washington. But the chief source of fear is Mal'akh, a deeply disturbed antagonist tattooed over his entire body, a weight lifter and a mystic all in one. Creepy indeed, but credible in our contemporary culture of no-holds-barred criminal pathologies.
Brown insists on the individual's ability to decode and therefore interpret a vast array of strange and foreboding signs to discover ancient, profound truths. Thus does his view of the transcendent self comport well with therapeutic models of contemporary America, where self-esteem reigns.
Interpretation is difficult, to be sure; and yet, if we can prove ourselves worthy, his stories assure us, we will find the hidden enlightenment of long-lost truths.
For this latest book, the so-called "lost word" is central, along with the long-lost pyramid of the Masons, with its solid-gold capstone — two artifacts that together reveal the entrance into a legendary spiral staircase descending into the bowels of Washington, where the "ancient mysteries" might be found. MORE BOOK REVIEWS
Finally, there are within the pages of "The Lost Symbol" some pretty slick (and often wildly incorrect) depictions of both the American past and its overarching Christian and/or esoteric belief systems (by now, a standard feature of Brown novels), meaning that readers should be prepared to handle all sorts of nonsensical conceptions.
It's like watching certain films by Oliver Stone: One must be careful about deciding which facts are "true" to history, and which are nothing but microwaved piles of balderdash. Thus do I urge that we approach "The Lost Symbol" and the other novels of Brown with tongue firmly in cheek.
They all speak to a general historical fuzziness in American popular culture, a fuzziness, by the way, that does not seem particularly troublesome to most readers these days.
In these and other ways, "The Lost Symbol," like those endless commercials for wonder drugs or those insipid "debates" on cable "news" channels, can tell us a lot about what we Americans obsess over and what we value.
It's Oprah meets Joe McCarthy, with a dash of dazzling Harvardesque psychobabble thrown in for good measure.
As such, "The Lost Symbol" documents a deeply confused culture, handcuffed by fears and paranoia, shackled by unseen forces beyond its control, and yet ultimately believing that truth does in fact exist (but probably in some esoteric form that only worthy souls can discover), and that humans are divine, when rightly understood.
Brown's novel, in short, should give us all deep concern about the state of our nation and, perhaps, of ourselves.
Harold K. Bush Jr. is a professor of English at St. Louis University and the author of "Mark Twain and the Spiritual Crisis of His Age."