Spoiler alert: Do not read on if you have not yet read The Lost Symbol.
Most of the commentary about The Lost Symbol so far has focused on its belief system, philosophy, cosmology, and its view in particular of the Freemasons. Several critics have noted that, with The Lost Symbol, as opposed to The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown seems to be taking a stand for what he believes in.
Philosophically, that seems to be a New Age ideal of an ultimate spirituality for mankind based upon a commonality of beliefs and religions. But could he also be driving at a social and a political theory too?
If a reader was inclined towards hidden meanings, subtexts, codes and ciphers, he would not have to look far for evidence of Brown’s socio-political code:
- The Hero Freemason. Brown praises the ideals and vision of the Freemasons throughout the novel. And he pre-empts some of the most frequent questions about the Freemasons’ reputation for discriminatory practices through his choice of characters. In general, Freemasons do not admit women, though U.S. lodges do have affiliated groups for girls and women. It’s hard to square that rigid definitional aspect of membership with inclusiveness and tolerance. But Langdon tells his Harvard class that Masonry is a “spiritual fraternity that does not discriminate in any way” and Brown seems to believe this. Thus, he creates Katherine Solomon not only as a brainy, beautiful, world-class scientist, but also as someone who has been essentially initiated into all of the most important ideas of Freemasonry by her brother, Peter. Additionally, although there is a long history of African-American participation in Masonic lodges, there is an equally long history of discrimination as well. Some critics allege a close association between Albert Pike, the nineteenth century Freemason leader, and the Ku Klux Klan. So it is very convenient that Brown has chosen Warren Bellamy, the Architect of the Capitol, and an imposing, elegant, gravitas-imbued African American to play the role of a distinguished Freemason.
- Characterization of the CIA. Langdon solves the mystery of The Lost Symbol and rescues Peter Solomon despite director Inoue Sato, of the CIA’s Office of Security, rather than because of her. Indeed, far from being an efficient, evil-fighting organization, the Agency, as personified by Sato, is stubborn, authoritarian and always two steps behind Langdon. Brown chooses his historical terms carefully. So it is notable that in Chapter 48, after Langdon and Architect Warren Bellamy have escaped, Sato threatens Capitol police chief Trent Anderson and security guard Alfonso Nuñez with a “CIA inquisition.”
- Torture. Torture was on the minds of Americans during a significant portion of the Bush Administration and will forever be entangled with America’s controversial interrogation techniques following the invasions of Afghanistan and, particularly, Iraq. Torture plays a significant role in The Lost Symbol too. Trish Dunne is tortured to reveal her pin code, Robert Langdon is tortured to translate the symbols on the bottom of the pyramid. And Katherine Solomon endures a gruesome torture, being slowly bled to death, to force Peter Solomon to help Mal’akh complete his quest. Unlike other pop culture tales of this decade–such as the TV series “24,”–there is no ambiguity here about the evil of torture. Only the bad guy uses torture. Everyone else—Langdon, Solomon, et. al.—must use their brains to figure things out. The good guys are never violent in Dan Brown’s world.
- Water as a means of torture. Mal’akh’s method of securing information from Robert Langdon—nearly drowning him in a sensory deprivation tank filled with liquid—immediately suggests the years of recent debate over waterboarding. The standard American waterboarding technique involves laying a hooded prisoner on a board with his head slightly lower than his heart, covering his face with towels and slowly pouring water over the towels to simulate drowning. Mal’akh’s props may be different—a glass crate slowly filled with a warm liquid—but he does generate the same sense of drowning effect.
- Religious Fundamentalism. Mal’akh is clearly his own uniquely mad character, not part of any known group or movement. But the ease with which he blends into the tony neighborhood of Kalorama, in his meticulous planning, and in his ultimate zealot’s drive and murderous logic, cannot help but connote Al- Queda-type Islamic terrorists. And how do Dan Brown’s heroes deal with this evil incarnate? Peter Solomon won’t kill Mal’akh even when he has the opportunity to do so. Instead, he tries to reason with him.
- “Rush to War.” When Langdon, Sato and Anderson discover the Masonic Chamber of Reflection hidden in the subbasement of the Capitol building, Langdon explains that it could be a room where a powerful lawmaker might “reflect before making decisions that affect his fellow man.” He then imagines “how different a world it might be if more leaders took time to ponder the finality of death before racing off to war.” Is Brown editorializing on the Iraq war?
- Hope. Dan Brown ends his novel with a one-word paragraph – Hope. In a book that has been devoted throughout to a discussion about “the word” the very last word just happens to match Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan and the single word that will forever be associated with Shepard Fairey’s iconic poster. Given the usual six- to nine-month gap between the submission of a manuscript and publication, it’s a fair guess that Brown was tweaking, and perhaps even writing, the conclusion to The Lost Symbol while the 2008 election was at its peak. Was “Hope” sitting at the end of the manuscript before Barack Obama’s campaign began? Did it find its way, subconsciously, into Dan Brown’s brain during 2007-2008? Or did he place it there on purpose, one final, powerful message for our times?