My great-grandfather Elias Trichter was a Mason, a member of the Cambridge Lodge 622 of the Free and Accepted Masonic Guild of Brooklyn, New York. He died before I was born, but I inherited an elaborate plaque, titled MASONIC HISTORY and signed and stamped to commemorate his initiation as a Master Mason on February 21, 1910, witnessed by brothers Mortimer Carman, Howard J. Fitzpatrick and James A. Nixon.
The plaque is decorated with biblical scenes and scientific and engineering symbols, all revolving around a large illuminated letter “G” (said to stand for either Geometry, God or both). The Masons are known to be a quasi-religious organization that respects all religions, and the fact that my great-grandfather, an Orthodox Jew, congregated here with fellow Brooklynites named Carman, Fitzpatrick and Nixon proves this to be more than an empty claim. I’d love to know what they did at this lodge, though I imagine it was more recreational than mystical. Perhaps joining a lodge was the social networking of its time.
Today, it’s easy to make fun of Masons and Shriners and the International Orders of the Friendly Sons of the Raccoons (as the fake Masonic Lodge in Brooklyn that Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton belonged to in The Honeymooners was called). A condescending New York Times article by Maureen Dowd about Dan Brown’s popular Masonic-themed novel The Lost Symbol (also known as the book that will save publishing) is fairly sarcastic about Dan Brown’s interest in the Masonic tradition:
During the five years he researched this book, did Brown begin to believe those sensational stories about how, if you expose the secrets of the Masons, they will slit your throat? Did he discover that the Masons are not merely a bunch of old guys dressed up in funny costumes enjoying a harmless night away from the wives? Could they really be, as a recent Discovery Channel documentary on the ancient order wondered, “Godless conspirators bound to a death pledge who infiltrate institutions and run the world”?
It’s also easy to make fun of Dan Brown’s novels. Like The Da Vinci Code, which it resembles closely, The Lost Symbol is shamelessly over-plotted and requires a willing suspension of disbelief. However, readers of “fine literature” should not necessarily stay away.
For all Dan Brown’s excesses, his books are undoubtedly intelligent — not in a “correct” way but in terms of historical ambition and research. In The Lost Symbol we are pounded with surprising facts about the history of several buildings in the Washington DC area. We are introduced to Albrecht Durer, Ben Franklin and Isaac Newton. Several puzzles involving ancient religious and mathematical symbols are introduced, and in the end everything fits together like the gears of a handmade clock.
As in Da Vinci Code, the intricate detail work involved in plotting this phantasmagoria is hard to imagine. I know a lot about history, but I cannot imagine the amount of research Dan Brown must have done to have been able to make this book as satisfying as it is. It took him five years to write The Lost Symbol and I bet he worked every day of these five years.
The Lost Symbol is more philosophically ambitious than Da Vinci Code, and after the primary conflicts are resolved Brown tips his hand with a multi-chapter coda that reaches almost preachily for a big message. Religious truth that transcends petty rivalries between debased human religions is part of this message; Brown also invokes Carl Jung and Albert Einstein in positing a collective human consciousness, and urges us to believe that in their purest forms religion and science must converge. These are progressive and revelatory messages, and I’m glad millions of people are reading this book. I wonder if my great-grandfather Elias Trichter would have enjoyed it as much as I did.