Saturday, November 28, 2009

Galileo versus DaVinci versus DeMolay

Last night, Trillium and I watched Ron Howard’s latest Robert Langdon movie “Angels and Demons”. It wasn’t bad; typical Hollywood fare, though, I am afraid. There were lots of chase scenes and a rather stellar explosion at the end; dozens of people died, generally at point blank range. As a result, the visual impact of A&D was far greater than the “Da Vinci Code”, and considerably less cerebral. We watched the special features section on the DVD where Ron and the boys tried to explain why that was the case. Ron Howard wanted to do a movie that stretched his directorial skills; something that was different from the “Da Vinci Code”. He asserted that he had never been interested in doing a sequel of any kind because that implied doing the same thing over again. But He and Dan Brown agreed that something different could be done with “Angels and Demons”; they never said what the different thing was and why it could be done. I am prepared to tell you, however.

The fact of the matter is that A&D was the first of the three Langdon novels that have been written; the “Da Vinci Code” being the second, and the “Lost Key”, published earlier this year, was the third. The “Lost Key” concerns itself with the esoteric aspects of Freemasonry as expressed in the architecture of Washington DC. While the Masons in the story are almost entirely sympathetic characters, the rituals of the fraternity are graphically represented. Were I a Mason, I might have been a little disturbed at the manner in which the Masonic symbols were rather starkly presented, most of which without explanation, without laying out the underlying history from whence the symbols developed. One comes away from the book asking one’s self, “How could these intelligent, well-educated men engage in what appear to be medieval barbarisms”. Frankly, I believe that Dan Brown’s intent was that we would walk away with that question ringing in our ears. Does Dan Brown have any personal antipathy toward Freemasonry? I doubt it. He is a story teller who found the Masons far too tempting to pass up.

The “Da Vinci Code” explored the legend of the Holy Grail in Gnostic terms. The Gnostics were primarily 2nd Century advocates of the “secret” knowledge that explained the origins of Christianity. The notion that Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdalene has been around for hundreds of years. Some ancient texts suggest that he was also married to Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, the friend whom Jesus raised from the dead. That these women bore him children as been part of Gnostic literature for nearly 2000 years, almost since the foundation of the Christian Church in the meridian of time. Dan Brown was not introducing anything new, but he was revealing ideas that had been suppressed for generations for being heretical to Traditional Christianity. The Catholic Church took umbrage at Brown’s presentation of the Gnostic literature as fact, and was not any less distressed at the rather malignant portrayal of certain segments of Catholic culture. Does Dan Brown have any personal antipathy toward the Catholic Church? I doubt it. He is a story teller who found the Gnostic legends far too tempting to pass up.

“Angels and Demons” treats another secret organization, the Illuminati, and the involvement of such men as Galileo, Bernini, and Raphael. The underlying tension in the story is that which seems to exist between science and religion, some of which played out four hundred years ago in the life of Galileo. The irony of Brown’s theme, however, is that of all of the denominations of traditional Christianity, Catholicism is far more at ease with scientific research and discovery.

Much of this attitude derives from the writings of one of the finest, if not the finest, theological minds that has ever graced the Catholic Church: Saint Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican priest who lived during the 13th Century. His “Summa Theologica” came to inform almost all Catholic philosophy, a work that is based on the Aristotelian approach to truth, the same philosophical approach that informs modern science. Prior to the 13th Century, the greatest Catholic thinker was probably Saint Augustine, a neo-Platonist who lived during the second half of the 4th Century and the first half of the 5th Century. For eight centuries, from Augustine to Aquinas, the Catholic approach to doctrinal philosophy followed in the same path established by Augustine in his “The City of God” and “On Christian Doctrine”.

When the Protestant Reformers sought for recognition, they essentially rejected Thomas Aquinas and Aristotelianism, and turned to the kind of Neo-Platonist approach that Augustine had advocated. For five centuries, from the 15th Century to modern times, the conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism has been fundamentally the same as that which naturally existed between the Greek philosophers, Aristotle and Plato. Therefore, Protestants tend to be far more offended by scientific thought than are Catholics. Hence, to find in Brown’s Camerlengo, the advisor to the Pope, a rabid Platonist, a reactionary to Aquinan thought, is almost too much to swallow. Brown overstepped himself a little there.

The “Da Vinci Code” is a far more cerebral volume than is “Angels and Demons” and while it does have some action, the real power of the writing is in the pursuit of the Grail legend. “Angels and Demons” is more of a thriller, a story that takes place during a twelve-hour period, an hour by hour race to save the lives of the four Cardinals and to find the anti-matter bomb. The Illuminati legend is not as richly important as was the Grail legend and as a result, there is not as much philosophy to discuss. The books, therefore, differ radically in their pacing and focus. Ron Howard perceived that difference between the two novels and saw how “Angels and Demons” could be a “different” movie. The irony here is that although the movie is different from the “Da Vinci Code”, it is very much like every other action/adventure movie that Hollywood has cranked out in the last thirty years or so. It will be interesting to see whether Ron Howard can perceive another “difference” in the “Lost Key” that would compel him to direct the third movie.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Love Over Parklane West

A week or so ago, I finished watching the third season of “Psych”. I actually like the series. The concept is interesting: a fellow who has such observation skills that he can resolve mysterious crimes with great ease. He, of course, is faking his psychic talent, but his detective abilities are off the chart. There is in the series a wonderful tension, however, one that has been used to good effect in many previous shows and will no doubt find expression in future productions. The protagonist, Shawn Spencer (played by James Roday), is secretly interested in the junior detective of the Santa Barbara Police Department, Juliet “Jules” O’Hara (played by Maggie Lawson). As it turns out, Juliet has some mutual interest as well, but any opportunity to explore their feelings is usually frustrated by the other characters or the plot of the story. The third season ended with a forth-right Juliet suggesting that maybe they should pursue the romantic situation a little. This, unfortunately, was overshadowed by the fact that Shawn was at that very moment, in the middle of a date with his high school sweetheart, Abigail Lytar, a girl that he had originally left in the lurch many years before. Shawn wants to take Juliet up on her offer with all of his heart, but he cannot bear to embarrass Abigail again. Season Four continues in that same spirit.

The series “Chuck” also has a similar unrequited love tension. Chuck Bartowski (played by Zachary Levi) is smitten by one of his federal “handlers”, Sarah Walker (played by Yvonne Strahovski). Sarah is constrained by her job; Chuck is constrained by his shyness. The truth is that they both want to find some common ground, but any attempt to do so is broken up by Sarah’s partner, Major John Casey (wonderfully played by Adam Baldwin) or by the nefarious plot lines. Everyone wants the relationship, but everyone knows that it would ruin the show. What a conundrum!

Last night I finished another novel by Alexander McCall Smith entitled “Love Over Scotland”. This book is the third in a series called “44 Scotland Street”. In my opinion, McCall Smith hasn’t written anything finer. The books are engaging, the characters charming, even the most annoying person has redeeming qualities. One of the protagonists is a young woman named Pat who is an assistant at an art gallery run by Matthew. Matthew is painfully shy, even though he is extraordinarily wealthy. Through the first two volumes of the series, and most of the third book, Matthew has one distress after another as he watches Pat suffer through her trials and tribulations. He is inclined to care for her, but he doesn’t want to be misunderstood. Toward the end of the novel, both Pat and Matthew realize that there may just be a chance for them together. When that realization appeared in print I almost shouted out loud for joy. McCall Smith had set me up, of course, and I was particularly susceptible to his ruminations on love. I wish to share a few of the most poignant with you.

Antonia, a new character in the series, is a writer of novels about ancient Celtic saints, who has endured a dreadful marriage and is finally coming into her own. She is flat-sitting her friend’s apartment while the latter is off doing anthropological work on the Malacca Straits pirates (a most entertaining adventure, I might add). She briefly meets a six-year old named Bertie, a gifted linguist and accomplished saxophone player. Here is her reflection on her encounter:

She thought back to that little boy, to Bertie, and now she saw what it was about him that made him so appealing: he spoke the truth. Candour was so attractive because we were so accustomed to obfuscation and deceit, to what they call spin. Everything about our world was becoming so superficial. All around us there were actors. Politicians were actors, keeping to a script, condescending to us with their brief sound-bites, employing all sorts of smoke and mirrors to prevent their ordinary failings from being exposed…. Light, clarity, integrity. Every so often one saw them, and in such surprising places. So she had seen it in that peculiar conversation with the little boy on the stair. She had seen candour and honesty and utter transparency. But you had to be a child to be like that today, because all about us was the most pervasive cynicism; a cynicism that eroded everything with its superficiality and its sneers. And a little child might remind us of what it is to be straightforward, to be filled with love, and with puzzlement.

When I read that, I wanted to be a child; I didn’t want to be part of that adult world that manipulates the truth to its own advantage. I wanted to be straightforward, filled with love.

Sometime during this past week, Trillium asked me about the title of the book, “Love Over Scotland”. “What does it mean?” I told her that I did not know exactly, but I was certain that Alexander would get to it eventually. He did, and it raised some questions in my heart and mind. A paragraph after Antonia’s thoughts about Bertie, she thought about another character in the book, Angus Lordie, a man she initially found absurd; in this she was somewhat justified.

When Dominica came back, Antonia thought, I shall do something to show her how much I value our friendship. And Angus Lordie, too. He’s a lonely man, and a peculiar one, but I can show him friendship and consideration too. And could I go so far as to love him? She thought carefully. Women always do this, she said to herself. Men don’t know it, but we do. We think very carefully about a man, about his qualities, his behavior, everything. And then we fall in love.

I wondered if that was what Trillium did 42 years ago. It had never occurred to me how exactly she made that decision to be my wife. If Alexander McCall Smith is right, if that is the way women choose those with whom they fall in love, then I have not received a greater compliment in my entire life.

Right at the end of the book, Pat and Domenica are talking about a wonderful thing that Matthew had done for Big Lou, the woman who owned the coffee shop down the street:

“And was Big Lou pleased?”

“Very,” said Pat. “She hugged him. She lifted him up, actually, and hugged him.”

Domenica smiled. “It very easy,” she said. “It’s very easy, isn’t it?”


“To increase the sum total of human happiness. By these little acts. Small things. A word of encouragement. A gesture of love. So easy.”

The book ends with a dinner party in Domenica’s flat where Angus reads one of his poems. It is about maps, geographical and personal. Here are the final lines, which speak for themselves.

Old maps had personified winds
Gusty figures from whose bulging cheeks
Trade winds would blow; now we know
That wind is simply a matter of isobars;
Science has made such things mundane,
But love – that, at least, remains a mystery,
Why it is and how it comes about
That love’s transforming breath, that gentle wind,
Should blow its healing way across our lives.

Love, unrequited or not, is worth the effort.