Friday, September 18, 2009

Washington squared

Mr Dentith has gone to the trouble of reading the latest Dan Brown, The Lost Symbol. We should all be grateful to him. Now we do not have to read this book and, since it apparently is much the same as the last one, we are saved reading that as well. Not that we were intending to read either, were we?

Well, no, but I couldn't resist having a look at the new one, since I was in a bookshop which had a display of its many unsold copies. The last word in the book, I can reveal to you, is "hope." In fact, I can reveal to you the closing paragraphs, since another Dan at Canongate (in a piece smartly named The Crazy World of Dan Brown) has gone to the trouble of writing it down:
As the sun rose over Washington, Langdon looked to the heavens, where the last of the nighttime stars were fading out. He thought about science, faith, about man. He thought about how every culture, in every country, in every time, had always shared one thing. We all had the Creator. We used different names, different faces, and different prayers, but God was the universal constant for man. God was the symbol we all shared . . . the symbol of all the mysteries of life that we could not understand. The ancients had praised God as a symbol of our limitless human potential, but that ancient symbol had been lost over time. Until now.

In that moment , standing atop the Capitol, with the warmth of the sun streaming down all around him, Robert Langdon felt a powerful upwelling deep within himself. It was an emotion he had never felt this profoundly in his entire life.

Atop... streaming down... upwelling, especially upwelling: this is classic dud prose, of a kind one rarely finds these days. It was not a dark and stormy night, but a bright new morn; but it makes no difference. Incidentally, this is not the first time that Robert Langdon had an upwelling: in The Da Vinci Code he had a sudden upwelling of anger, preceded (only moments earlier) by a sudden surge of uneasiness. Incidentally still, upwelling is:
In ocean dynamics, the upward motion of sub-surface water toward the surface of the ocean. This is often a source of cold, nutrient-rich water. Strong upwelling occurs along the equator where easterly winds are present. Upwelling also can occur along coastlines, and is important to fisheries and birds in California and Peru
No man is an island, but Professor Robert Langdon is an ocean.

So, you might be asking (as, according to T.S Eliot, the taxi diver asked Bertrand Russell), what's it all about, then? It's about the Freemasons, the architecture of Washington DC and Albrecht Dürer, that's what it's about. Of all people, Albrecht Dürer: the book has a chapter entitled Albrecht Dürer? So who, you might ask, is this Albrecht Dürer? Not the artist you thought he was, it seems. Apparently he was well versed in the Mysteries (with a capital M) and there are many clues in his works (this is a book about clues, you will understand). I must have missed this aspect of his work, as has every other Art Historian. For he always seemed to be the most lucid and rational of artists. But Brown has him as yet another initiate of the Mysteries, who cannot but help leave bleeding obvious clues to said Mysteries in his otherwise lucid and rational works of art.

You would have thought, would you not, that, if you were a secret society trying to keep a secret, you would not recruit to your membership artists, who would leave clues about your secret in their works. It seems an odd way to go about things. The best way to keep a secret is to tell no one; the second best way is to tell one other person; the worst way (to skip a few other ways) is to tell a Northern Renaissance artist who leaves clues about the secret in his engravings. Telling an Italian Renaissance artist who makes frescoes including the secret he has been told is just as bad.

Another bad way to keep a secret is to have clues to it built into buildings. Worse still is to build them into cities. This, apparently, is what the keepers of the secret did in Washington DC. Franklin Square is a square; a square is made from right angles; a right angle is an angle of ninety degrees; there are thirty-two degrees of Freemasonry. Go figure. No, me neither. As it turns out, Mr Brown gets Washington DC quite wrong in this book. But this will not stop hordes of idiots descending upon us Architectural Historians to demand that we tell them the secrets that we must know.

We, after all, are not Freemasons. It is the Freemasons who know the secret. Now, the only Freemason I have known (knowingly) in recent years is Ryan Sproull, who edited Craccum in 2006 and has since slipped into obscurity. I was quite surprised when Ryan became a Freemason, in the first degree because he was so candid about his membership: I had thought it was meant to be a secret, communicated only to other Brethren. In the second degree, I was surprised because Ryan professed to be (a) an Anarchist and (b) a Buddhist. Being (f) a Freemason seemed contradictory to these professions. One could hardly accuse Ryan of being a feminist, but being a member of an organisation which excludes women is not what one would expect of progressive people. Not that I am an expert, of course; it may be that the Durutti Column was also a Lodge, but I doubt it; it may be that Noam Chomsky is On The Square, but again I doubt it. It may also be that some Buddhists raise a trouser leg before meditation, but I doubt it still. But then, perhaps Ryan was putting aside any concerns of allegiance for the greater good of discovering the secret.

As I mentioned earlier, there are thirty-two degrees of Freemasonry, in the Scottish Rite at least, and one has the opportunity of becoming an Intimate Secretary (ooh-er Master) before going on to even greater things. Once one reaches the thirty-second degree, Master of the Royal Secret, presumably they tell one the secret; otherwise, it would be a complete waste of time, wouldn't it?

On the other hand it may be that there is no secret, and that the Freemasons are a bunch of petit-bourgeois misogynists who like nothing more than to scratch each others' backs while they dress up in silly clothes and recite ridiculous incantations, all the time believing that they are part of some esoteric tradition which is so much more important than the base self-interest and corruption for which they are known. But then, I would think that, wouldn't I? I have never been much of a joiner, let alone a mason.

Still, they must be rather pleased by Mr Brown's book, which not only portrays them as keeper of the secret but apparently as the good guys. Mr Brown's publishers must also be pleased, since theirs is the largest print run in publishing history. The Catholics have nothing to complain about this time. So everybody is happy, apart from the Art Historians and the Architectural Historians and the literati. But what do we know? We don't have a secret, after all.

But we do have the Interactive Dan Brown Plot Generator.


Giovanni said...

I see you've got an image of the nude Ann Brown up there, very topical. David Slack would be proud.

I've never read any of Mr. Brown's books but a friend assures me that his lack of ability to transcribe place names in Rome correctly is worth a few laughs. One can only imagine how serious the rest of his "research" must be.

Robyn said...

What? Surely you know that the Freemasons are not a secret society. The line is they're not a secret society but a society with secrets. All the Masons I've ever met have been quite open about their membership. They just won't spill on what that membership gives them. (I imagine it's like Rotary, but with fancy robes and cooler halls).

And being a Buddhist is not contradictory to being a Mason. All that is required is a belief in a higher power. You can call that higher power Buddha or God or gaia or whatever makes you happy.

The Masons' website (OMG! They have a website!) is currently down due to not being able to handle increased traffic from the interest generated by the Brown book.

Ryan Sproull said...

Robyn, you're right about Buddhism and Rotary, and Paul, you're right about anarchism and the gender restrictions.

While Proudhon and Bakunin were both Masons (Proudhon presumably because he was getting all parliamentary at the time, and Bakunin because had such a massive hard-on for secret societies), it's safe to say that my political leanings are uncommon in that environment. Discussion of politics and religion are banned in the Lodge, however, due to their obvious divisive nature.

Leaves me very few things to talk about, of course.

Regarding gender restrictions, it was my main misgiving and continues to be something that bothers me. That's offset a little by the existence of similar organisations that are women-only and others that have no gender restrictions, neither of which particularly bother me. Modern-day justifications for the Lodge being men-only tend to rely on there being some essential or perhaps biological difference between men and women - which is a bit chicken-or-the-egg when you wonder if these perceived differences are caused by such attitudes as much as they are the cause of them. They also tend to smack of the "different but equal" justifications of assigned gender roles in Islam, which have never overly impressed me.

That said, all of the Masons I've met are extraordinarily respectful of women, tend to emphasise family and family life, especially look after widows, etc - all of which may be sexist, but it's the well-meaning sexism of chivalry, rather than the base sexism of an NRL team.

In the end, it was a pill I swallowed. But you're right, Paul. There are conservative aspects to Freemasonry that seem unlikely to change any time soon.

Gay men very welcome, though.

Hopeless Googlers of their own name, unite.

joe w said...

There are conservative aspects to Freemasonry that seem unlikely to change any time soon.

So they still recognise one another by the way they hold their cocks when urinating?

Ryan Sproull said...

It's a bit more complicated than that, Joe, unless by "urinating" you mean "sacrificing virgin goats".

Paul said...

Why did you join, given your misgivings?

Further, Robyn and you both misunderstand me. My concern was not that the Masons should accept Buddhists and Anarchists, but that any self-respecting Buddhist or Anarchist should want to join the Masons. A belief in a higher power might be enough for the Masons but a Buddhist surely must baulk at their references to The Great Architect of the Universe, which seems a personified and monotheist higher power to me. An Anarchist surely must have some difficulty with the Freemasons' reputation for political conservatism and with its exclusiveness.

Ryan Sproull said...

Why did you join, given your misgivings?

It's hard to say, looking back. There were things I found appealing - religious ritual without a specific religion, the charitable aspects, association with people outside of my own generation, my interest in esotericism, association with people who were not only decent folk but also actively trying to better themselves, the vague romance of such an old establishment. I think that all of those things can be found here and there, but here they were all in one.

Eventually, those things outweighed the things I found unappealing - mainly the exclusion of pure atheists and women from membership. I took what I considered the bad with the good, as you generally have to do with any organisation. It's not unimaginable for me to join the Greens or the Labour Party, for example, and that would involve swallowing a few bitter pills for a greater good.

Apologies for misunderstanding you - I see what you mean. You're right about the language being drenched in personal-godism. It doesn't lend itself simply to Buddhism, but I don't find it too difficult to enter into the idea of the thing without getting caught up in the language used to express it. I find that religion is often a kind of ritualised politeness towards things outside of our control or at the borders of our horizon of disclosure. Saying "Thank God" can express relief or joy without explicitly believing there's a person being thanked, and the language that's sprung up around theism has generally evolved to express those kinds of feelings. Obviously not the only way such feelings can be expressed, of course.

As for anarchism, they're a freely associating group of adults, and there's nothing stopping anyone else from doing the same. They're generally conservative in that they tend to be older guys these days, and also tend to look down on things like breaking the law or adultery, but in my experience they're a far cry from the American-style religious right - who tend to regard Freemasonry as Satanic.

But as I said, politics and religion are off-limits for discussion at the Lodge, so while it's fairly obvious to the older guys there that we likely disagree on plenty of things, it's all put to the side and it's never caused me any bother. I think my Cold War Supervillain T-shirt raised an eyebrow once, but that's about it.

Ultimately, there's never going to be an organisation for me to join that consists entirely of people with whom I agree completely, and that's probably true for everyone.

The brief answer to your question is that the perceived pros outweighed the perceived cons, and the day that stops being the case will likely be the day I leave it. So far, they haven't. So it goes.