Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Far more than a thriller writer

It is easy to misjudge a writer, particularly if the blurbs on the cover of his or her books proclaim something like: “Impossible to put down. Another mind-blowing story!” Or: “Wow…Blockbuster perfection. An exhilaratingly brainy thriller…” Not that these blurbs are inaccurate regarding the novels I have in mind; up to a certain point they are spot-on, but only insofar as the “action” aspect of these narratives is concerned. What they simply gloss over – except perhaps for the adjective “brainy” – is the immense amount of research that has gone into their writing. The sheer volume of information with which the thrilling story is interwoven, is simply mind-boggling.

Have you guessed which writer I am talking about? I have written about his work here twice before in relation to two of his novels ( and ), but this time I want to talk more generally about his work, with illustrations from a particular novel. My partner and I have just finished reading the fourth novel by Dan Brown – The Lost Symbol (Corgi Books 2010) – and as before, we were hugely impressed with the sheer magnitude of the research that went into its writing.

This time the backcloth to the nail-biting story is the history of an organisation that most of us are vaguely aware of, while probably knowing very little about it – the Freemasons. In Angels and Demons it was the fraught relationship between the Vatican and the historical Illuminati that comprised this backdrop; in The Da Vinci Code it was that between the Priory of Sion and Opus Dei, and in Inferno the threat of overpopulation in the context of the World Health Organisation’s work. In all these instances Brown’s research, built into the narratives, has been impressive and accurate to a large degree.

To be sure, Dan Brown’s novels do not pretend to be the kind of literary work that would put them in the company of people such as Umberto Eco’s, Antonia Byatt’s or even less James Joyce’s literary art. I would not judge the work produced by the latter three writers by means of questions concerning the research that has gone into them – even if this was considerable – as much as by the literary exploration of language and the structure of the narratives (which often elaborate at a different level to that of the primary “narrative” on the nature of literature and of language itself, and in the case of Joyce may not even strike one as being comprehensible “narratives” at all).

Yet, while I would make no such claims for Dan Brown’s work, one should not underestimate the intelligence revealed by certain aspects of their narratives, over and above the astonishing insight they provide on organisations like the Templars and the Freemasons, not to mention his evocative descriptions of great works of art and architecture in cities like Rome, Florence, Venice, Istanbul, Paris, London and Washington. His description of the Capitol building in Washington, DC, for instance, made me look at it with new eyes – I never dreamed so much went into the construction of the building. And these artistic and architectural descriptions do not stand separately from the narrative; they are tightly integrated with it.

But it is not only here that this writer’s intelligence shows itself. The insight he displays into the rich layers of historical, mythological and religious or spiritual meaning embedded in the Freemasons’ practices (in The Lost Symbol) – the widespread prejudice towards them as an anachronistic, ritualistic organisation notwithstanding – is nothing less than profound. It does not end there either.

In The Lost Symbol Dan Brown reveals a deep understanding of the resonance between the mystical philosophical tradition and what is today known as “noetic science” – literally, the science of the mind (from the Greek: “nous”). The phrase, “mind over matter” sums it up well. “Mystical” derives from the ancient Greek for “conceal”, and understandably suggests something that is cryptic, not readily comprehensible, belonging to the sphere of the spiritual or the numinous. In short, mysticism testifies to the belief that certain things transcend human understanding. At the same time it alludes to a kind of “cosmic consciousness” that vastly surpasses individual consciousness. For that reason positivists hate it, believing, as they do, that everything can be reduced to “facts” – which, incidentally, comes from the Latin root verb, “facere” (“to make”), which is also the basis for the word “fiction”, strange as it may seem.

So what is the connection between “noetic science” (there is even an institute of noetic science: ) and the mystical tradition, which a great deal of the story of The Lost Symbol depends on? To put it simply: just like mysticism suggests that certain things are subject to concealment, or impenetrable in everyday terms, so noetic science suggest that the mind possesses powers that surpass our ordinary appraisal of it. What might come to mind is the ability of people like Uri Geller, who became famous for his ability to bend objects like spoons and metal keys by simply concentrating “mentally” on them. But noetic science is far more than such entertainment, although the latter falls within its purview. If you are really interested, you can download a book by one of the best-known noetic scientists of our time, Lynne McTaggart, who also features in The Lost Symbol: .

The Lost Symbol gives one a pretty good idea about contemporary noetic science, in which the “true power” of the human mind is demonstrated. Here is a passage on p. 84-85, where readers get better acquainted with one of the central characters in the book, a noetic scientist named Katherine Solomon:

“Despite Noetic Science’s use of cutting-edge technologies, the discoveries themselves were far more mystical than the cold, high-tech machines that were producing them. The stuff of magic and myth was fast becoming reality as the shocking new data poured in, all of it supporting the basic ideology of Noetic Science – the untapped potential of the human mind.

“The overall thesis was simple: We have barely scratched the surface of our mental and spiritual capabilities.

“Experiments at facilities like the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) in California and the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab (PEAR) had categorically proven that human thought, if properly focused, had the ability to affect and change physical mass. Their experiments were no ‘spoon-bending’ parlor tricks, but rather highly controlled inquiries that all produced the same extraordinary result: our thoughts actually interacted with the physical world, whether or not we knew it, effecting change all the way down to the subatomic realm.”

This is not something Dan Brown conjured from thin air. The Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab (PEAR) existed for 28 years, closing in 2007, and its work has been described in these terms (
“The enormous databases produced by PEAR provide clear evidence that human thought and emotion can produce measurable influences on physical reality. The researchers have also developed several theoretical models that attempt to accommodate the empirical results, which cannot be explained by any currently recognized scientific model.”

On the same website the two leading scientists at the facility made the following statement:
“We have accomplished what we originally set out to do 28 years ago, namely to determine whether these effects are real and to identify their major correlates. There are still many important questions to be addressed that will require a coordinated interdisciplinary approach to the topic, but it is time for the next generation of scholars to take over.”

The narrative of The Lost Symbol stages a showdown between a character who believes that the world is not ready for scientific confirmation of the knowledge enshrined in ancient mystical traditions, and would stop at nothing to destroy Katherine’s noetic-science research. At the same time he also believes that, if he plays his cards right, he can lay his hands on a mystical secret, guarded by the Masons, and buried somewhere in Washington, DC. For this he needs the decoding expertise of Dan Brown’s central character, symbologist Robert Langdon. And, adding to the intellectual challenge, there is a fascinating Freudian twist to the denouement. Together, the riveting narrative and the sheer profundity of what one learns about Noetic Science, the Freemasons, and much more, make for fascinating reading.

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