Six Degrees of Robert Langdon (Redux)

April 14, 2010

* This is the more self-indulgent version of a blog I’ve written for The Splinter Generation.  For the more professional version, click the link in my fun little blogroll over there –>

A week or so ago, glutted on Easter dinner and dulled with wine, I sprawled with my cousin on his fancy leather couch and drifted in and out of consciousness while, on the television, Tom Hanks, awash in deep red alert lights, scurried up a bookcase in the Vatican library to save himself from certain death.  Yes, we were watching Angels and Demons. No, we weren’t proud of it.  But, you see, the remote was so far out of reach, and we were so very mired in a hammy, wine-dyed stupor.

Besides, even had I been sober, I wouldn’t have cared.  Honestly, who hasn’t had enough of Tom Hanks?

I’ve never really been a part of the Dan Brown phenomenon.  I approached it (or avoided it) with the same curious caution I bring to anything that achieves mass popularity – I do not typically take part, but I stand back and consider why others do.  I’m disinterested in the actual thing (the book, the movie, the singer), as it’s often rather dull and unchallenging, but am endlessly fascinated by its popularity, and convinced that something interesting can be gleaned from an analysis of it.

Forgive me – I’m an essayist.  It’s my job to pause upon the mundane, ruminate, then make something up and hope it gets me girls.  You should have seen me during the Britney Spears era.

So I’m watching Tom Hanks prowl around on screen, and my cousin asks the obvious, but powerful question: “What the hell do people see in this [stuff]?”  It’s a good question.  As much of a lit-snob as I can be – I can’t deny that Dan Brown has caught on to something.  Nearly everyone I know, from the cognoscenti to the dope-patrol has read at least one Dan Brown novel – or at least they gave it an earnest try.

What does Dan Brown do that makes people like him so much?  More importantly, what the hell does this have to do with The Splinter Generation?

Well, for one – I believe Robert Langdon (the Tom Hanks character) to be a stunning example of the Hipster pinup-girl.  He’s the master of the esoteric – a symbologist.  A character who knows absolutely everything about subjects we’ve never even heard of.   He can (and often does) namedrop obscure figures and events of history in casual conversation.  He’s a character whose importance and popularity are directly proportional to how exhaustively pedantic he can be.  Robert Langdon is an action hero in rumpled corduroy.  I can’t tell you how many people I know who try for this.

More importantly, though – what I find most interesting about Dan Brown’s success, is that it seems to connect to a larger trend in popular entertainment.

Dan Brown is writing about the interconnection of things.  In the silly worlds of his literature, history is not just some pile of dusty corpses and yellowed pages.  It is instead a trail of breadcrumbs leading to something of unquestionably melodramatic importance (the supposed war between faith and science, for example – or an attempted abduction of Christ’s pouty progeny).  History isn’t about the past, according to Dan Brown – it’s about the present.  It’s everywhere – in every painting and sculpture – in architecture – in religion.  We are all caught and tangled in its web, and it is only our illusion that we exist beyond it.  Brown’s Langdon suggests to us that if we look closely at the symbols, we can see how interconnected all things actually are.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that he’s A. doing this on purpose, or B. is any good at it (for further evidence on this, I direct you here).  But Langdon has been whispering in my ear since Easter… and I can’t help but see a bit of what he’s talking about.

I think it’s safe to say that over the last decade, our society, in its fervent attempt to digitize absolutely everything on the planet, has grown more and more remote.  This is the central irony of the internet generation – we’re all so connected, that we’re disconnected.  And yet when I stop to consider the stories we’ve told over the last decade, a large number of them a seem to hinge on the contrary.

Babel, 21 Grams, Black and White, Crash, Magnolia, Signs – each of these movies has spoken to some general sense of interconnection.  They suggest to us, like Langdon does, that our disconnection, our remoteness, is merely an illusion.  That beneath every choice, every turn, there is an unbreakable causal web.

I see these symbols everywhere – even in crappy disaster movies – which ever since Independence Day (which, I acknowledge, came out prior to the last decade), have revolved around disparate groups of people, brought together by calamity.

Everywhere I turn, I see interconnection.  So why do I still feel so disconnected?

If my observations are correct, they lead me to a more serious set of questions:

Are these stories we’re telling an attempt to ferret out the truth?  Are they a capitulation to Langdon’s condescending, yet hopeful lectures? Or might they be darker than that – a prolonged period of creative mourning for what we’ve lost?  A facsimile of something that once was, but no longer is – like a viewing for a deceased relative?

Are we telling these stories of interconnection because we are, in fact interconnected?  Or are we trying to convince ourselves that we still are, when deep down we know we’re not?

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