[11 August 2008]
It would be too easy to blame Dan Brown. Shifting 80 million copies of the Da Vinci Code seemed to bring about a resurgence of interest in esoteric symbols and the secret language of signs. Quite apart from the depths of meaning in The Last Supper, people found significance in everything from streetplans to barcodes. Everything pointed to a sinister hidden conspiracy if you knew where to look. If you couldn’t see it, you were destined to be manipulated, or worse still, you were one of them …
Da Vinci Code came a vast conspiracy industry, consisting of books, websites, pamphlets, and documentaries, supporting and refuting these theories in equal measure. Some saw the hidden messages as clear evidence of an invisible hand at work, while others consigned Brown’s novels and their many disciples to the crank file. The key argument against them was that no conspiracies existed, and no symbols were there.
Of course, Brown didn’t invent these theories; he just found a lucrative way to exploit them. He wouldn’t have been half as successful if there wasn’t a well established public fear of these cryptic codes, and an open market for new takes on old stories. In short, there is a reason why the world beat a path to Brown’s door, though it is a lot more prosaic than the motivation given to his characters.
Dr. Robert Hieronimus has spent his career seeking out the hidden meanings behind everyday objects. His new book, The United Symbolism of America, examines the United States’ most popular and iconic symbols, including the Great Seal, the Stars and Stripes and Statue of Liberty, and studies their multiple layers of significance. Refreshingly the book sets out to debunk the more outlandish claims about their respective meanings, not by denying that any hidden meanings exist, but by showing that they do.
For Hieronimus, it is entirely understandable that the reverse of the Great Seal should feature a pyramid and a radiant eye. The former represents matter, and the built world, while the latter is of spiritual significance, showing the spirit shining on the human endeavor below. In short, America is a human project, on which god is smiling. This was designed to be obvious. The problem is not that the symbols are deliberately obscure, but that we are no longer conditioned to read them properly. Most of the signs and emblems that America uses to define herself date back to the days of the Founding Fathers. In that time few people were literate, so symbols were used to communicate complex themes and ideas. The symbols aren’t sinister—we’ve just forgotten how to read them. These days, if something isn’t clear in a literal sense, it is inherently suspicious.
None of this would be any more important than a college essay if it wasn’t for the run of false theories and counter-theories that have spread like a virus over recent years. As Hieronimus sees it, these are not harmless thought-experiments or innocent yarns, but damaging and deliberate attempts to cause people to doubt the very fabric of society. Symbols are a positive thing, and can unite people under a common cause or identity, but only if they are treated with respect. Hieronimus regards those who insist on dark or satanic interpretations with outright contempt, and describes them as ‘fundamentalist-conspiratorialists’. They would prefer that America was seen as an evil project of the Illuminati, the Freemasons or Zionists, and deliberately exploit the general ignorance of symbols to ‘prove’ their case. Hieronimus’ mission is to show these symbols in the way that they were intended and diminish such arguments. Quite some task.
Counter conspiratorialist views aside, The United Symbolism of America is fascinating for its depth of historical learning. Chapters on the installation of the Statue of Liberty and the development of the Stars and Stripes are as useful for debunking household misconceptions as they are for refuting sinister plots. We learn for example, why children would be more correct to dress up as Francis Hopkinson than Betsy Ross in school pageants. Many writers would be content to describe who really composed the Stars and Stripes. Hieronimus goes further and explains why it it no mere accident of history that they don’t and why it is significant that a woman took Hopkinson’s place.
Overall, Hieronimous’ book succeeds most is where it provides these links of information and evidence that binds disparate facts together. His argument is all the more convincing because of his eagerness to dismiss anything as mere coincidence, if there is any evidence to suggest otherwise. His sources are wide ranging, and his examples are genuinely illuminating.
Unfortunately, his mission is hamstrung by his constant need to contest the claims of the dreaded fundamentalist-conspiratorialists. For each gem of information, there is a reminder that some groups hold an opposing view, which, Hieronimus tells us, is clearly false. We are never allowed to forget that fundamentalist-conspiratorialists ‘see satanic connections everywhere’. This becomes frustrating after a while, and even insulting. After all, Hieronimus states his argument very clearly in the opening chapter; does the smart reader really need to be reminded constantly? Ultimately, the repetition of his argument actually diminishes its value, and he risks sounding like one of the tubthumping evangelists he so plainly despises.
This is a shame, because Hieronimus’ writing is accessible and straightforward and the complex array of evidence that he assembles is handled with flair. It would just be more satisfying if he trusted his readers a little more, and allowed them to draw their own conclusions after being given the facts. If his thesis is a sound as he clearly believes, then the information should be enough to deny the various claims on their own merits, they are sufficiently though-provoking after all.