The Matters of Taste staff was alternately compelled and terrified at the prospect of reading The Lost Symbol. We can ignore Mr. Brown goofing off with the Louvre and the Vatican in his earlier books, but when he comes after our Capitol, his sorta-history begins to feel sorta personal. MoT Director of Factuality and Literary Correspondent (who is happy to be known just as “Taste”) was tempted to read the book with a red pen in hand (as she does when reviewing student papers) and was impressed to make it through fifty pages before finding an error. But by page 86 Taste felt the need to write this note so that Mr. Brown can clean things up prior to the inevitable splashy movie that Ron Howard will film.
Taste does not blame Mr. Brown for his mistakes. One person can only be responsible for just so much of a majestic undertaking like The Lost Symbol. This book is a monument to multidisciplinary studies: religion, philosophy, science, history—quite the intellectual cornucopia. But that’s actually the rub, isn’t it: no one (not even SuperProf Robert Langdon) knows as much about as many subjects as these books attempt to do. Mr. Brown must stand on the shoulders of a lot of specialists to write these books. And by stand on the shoulders of, of course we mean recycle the hard-earned research of. Mr. Brown must be gratified by having the work of countless (because why would he bother to count them?) academics at his disposal, to be able to read them just deeply enough, and just long enough, to not get too distracted from the real business of an author of fiction: sketching out this book’s version of the Attractive But Not Too Attractive Smart Brunette, traveling to the urban setting of the book to get a first-hand understanding of local color from the comfort of the Four Seasons, conducting primary research by tagging along on docent-led tours, and monitoring one’s agents at Sotheby’s. So, if a few “facts” are misrepresented along the way, who can blame a man as busy as Mr. Brown.
But Taste respectfully requests that Mr. Brown consider his venture from the point of view of one of those hundreds of people whose work upon which his work so dearly depends, who do know a few things about one of the small pieces of the great big knowledge pie that is at the center of the Dan Brown banquet table. Taste is not here to hate on Mr. Brown’s mistakes (or any of the other questionable aspects of his book, like the prevalent use of italics, the super-boring conversation among pinheads that reads with all the charm and excitement of watching a database download figures into a spreadsheet, the way the book is thickened by starting each of its really short chapters on a new page with all the finesse of a college student changing the margins of his paper to make it appear longer, or just the general way in which the plot sort of thuds along, but then comes to a screeching halt and is resolved only by a really long talky-talk scene that is some sort of worldview manifesto; and Taste will not even touch Mr. Brown’s attempts to convince the reader to sympathize with the plight of Masonic poobahs whose position in Washington’s entrenched power structure is threatened by the book’s villain). No: Taste is here to help.
Taste has assembled notes for just a few of the places where the Lost Symbol—forgive the use of the phrase—gets it wrong. Although factual and interpretive “wrongness” may be small potatoes in the overall context of this towering literary achievement, the fact that Mr. Brown missed opportunities to magnify the magnificence of the story is, of course, criminal. Here are our humble suggestions:
Mr. Brown describes this room as resembling a Greek amphitheatre, but it cannot do so, for there is no such thing. It was the Romans who made the amphitheatres. Amphi- means “on both sides,” referring to the relationship of the seats to the stage. Ancient performance spaces with seats only on one side of the stage are simply, what’s the word? Theatres. Specifically, with its half-circle plan, the room in Washington is most like a Roman theatre. As with many things, the Greeks did that differently, preferring a shape that was somewhat larger than a half-circle.
The difference between Greece and Rome is another detail from ancient history that confounds students of antiquity, but it is worth the note: They are different places, which peaked in the ancient world at different times, and where they did things differently. Mr. Brown may want to sort that out prior to any further art historical criticism: for the record, the George Washington sculpture by Horatio Greenough was probably not a “Zeus” (Greek god) that was in the Pantheon (Roman temple), as it is described in the book. Greenough’s sculpture was probably actually modeled on the Zeus (Greek god) sculpted by Phidias (Greek sculptor) for the Temple of Zeus at Olympia (in Greece). Besides, the Romans (in Rome) would not have cared about Zeus (Greek), since they worshipped Jupiter (Roman) as king of the gods. Semantics, semantics.
It’s very clever how Mr. Brown makes this monument, the tallest obelisk in the world, the “central” part of the story as it is the geographic “center” of the plan of Washington. If only it were true. The founders did not envision an obelisk on the site; as an Egyptian form an obelisk would not be on anyone’s aesthetic radar until Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt (1798) and the publication of Vivant Denon’s Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt (1803) made such historic forms popular—after the capital was laid out by Pierre L’Enfant. The obelisk (designed by Robert Mills) was the result of a competition in 1833—more than four decades after the city was designed. And even then, only two of the four great monuments arrayed at the cardinal points (the Capitol and President’s House) were even on the drawing board—the other two (Lincoln and Jefferson memorials) would be added with plans of 1901 (along with a fair amount of real estate that filled in a fair amount of the Potomac). Luckily, Mr. Brown, the cornerstone of the monument is more secure as a plot device than this “crossroads of America” metaphor.
Mr. Brown describes the Capitol dome as looking like the cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica. It does, only insofar as any of the many domes around the world that raise something roundish on top of a columnny base, which is to say, not much, and certainly not in a meaningful way. Its design was actually inspired by the dome of St. Paul’s in London. The architect of the Capitol’s dome, Thomas U. Walter, would be appalled to hear his dome compared with the one in Rome: he didn’t like the Catholic church or Michelangelo (or masons, for that matter). (Taste wonders if he may have been suspicious of spaghetti carbonara, to boot. His loss.)
And then there’s the fresco. Mr. Brown correctly describes its composition as blending mythological and historical figures, suggesting early in the book that this was done in a pretty literal fashion. In fact, Mr. Brown makes the early Americans out to be pretty literal folks; it is the book’s hero, Prof. Langdon, with his loafers, turtleneck and Ivy-League street-cred who is the sophisticated “modern” thinker who understands metaphor (but who, oddly, for all he knows about the “past,” oddly appears to have no aptitude for “historical thinking”). But, in actuality, some of those eighteenth-century bewigged and pantalooned gents were pretty smart and creative in their thinking, and they could handle a metaphor. And American material culture reveals that they had been making these kinds of historical mash-ups for some time: in fact, one of the very first public sculptures in the country portrayed a mythical water nymph holding up a really carefully articulated marsh bird as a symbol of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia. The artist actually entitled the work “Allegory of the Schuylkill River.” Truth: he actually used that word! Allegory! In 1809! And he, William Rush, was just some schmuck woodcarver!
The missed opportunities
Taste recognizes that these slight errors of fact are, in themselves, small potatoes in light of the inner logic and über-reality of the Lost Symbol. The real problem is missed opportunities to enhance the truthiness of the tome. We can ignore the Greek/Roman mix-up in Statuary Hall since only the most persnickety of architectural historians will get her nose out of joint over it. But Mr. Brown could enhance his use of this setting with a presentation of the building’s designer, English émigré architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who was tight with Thomas Jefferson—surely that connection opens narrative possibilities. It gets even better when one learns that Latrobe designed several parts of the Capitol, including the first Library of Congress (repository of Jefferson’s library), which was inside of the Capitol (Mr. Brown overlooks this history and suggests that the present day Jefferson Building of 1890-97 is the original one), directly adjacent to the rotunda and in a very specific historical revival style—wait for it—Egyptian! We anticipate that Mr. Brown is kicking himself for missing that narrative opening.
Mr. Brown might also reconsider part of Langdon’s multi-page reflections on the scene he surveys from the top of the Washington Monument. He could also muse on the nationality and inspiration of planner L’Enfant (who was familiar with Paris) and the original monument design for a circular, colonnaded base (which was Roman in its inspiration): there, in one fell swoop, another reminder (of several) of the settings of two other Langdon adventures/publications. Push that product!
Lastly, the Capitol dome: Mr. Brown missed some great possibilities here. First, its inspiration is St. Paul’s, designed by Christopher Wren, who was described as a first-class geometer by Isaac Newton, the Jeova Sanctus Unus himself. Oh snap!
Taste also encourages Mr. Brown to consider the dome from above, which presents just one more instance of the symbolic dot-in-circle, or circumpunct, which is such a key element of the story. The reader is told this is an “enduring symbol of lost wisdom . . . filled with history’s great philosophies and religions . . . all flowing upward, merging together.” It becomes a symbol of the Lost Symbol itself: “a single, unified human philosophy . . . a single universal consciousness . . . a shared global vision of God . . . Throughout history . . . all things to all people . . . it is alchemical gold, the all-seeing eye, the singularity point before the Big Bang.” Golly, it reminds Taste of something else too, something that is an even more apropos metaphor for the overall quality, wholesomeness and intellectual nutrition that a Dan Brown book provides its reader:
A final word
The ponderous weight of thoughtful story telling is more easily borne when it is spread among many, and many of whom might possess a notion—a few additions to the plot, dialogue or setting—to make Mr. Brown’s next book even better. These specialists and academics whose own books are published for the sake of a discipline rather than massive financial gain are not in it for the money, although they are probably not above pimping their expertise by exchanging intellectual insights for, say, a role in the movie version of the Lost Symbol (even academics are not above the thrill of meeting Opie in person, not to mention the opportunity to conduct some research in the Library of Congress that Mr. Brown can use in his next book). Taste thinks the part of “Female Tourist No. 3” would suit, say, an art historian, and be suitably in keeping with the esteem with which Mr. Brown holds the people in that profession (and the others), upon whose work Mr. Brown so dearly depends, yet whose recognition is as lost as the ancient wisdom that Prof. Langdon chases down throughout the book.
The Matters of Taste staff thanks Jared for the loan of his book, so we did not have to purchase it ourselves