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The New Canon: Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

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Just as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980) anticipated Dan Brown’s 2003 bestseller The Da Vinci Code, so did Eco’s follow-up book Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) point the way to Brown’s The Lost Symbol (2009). I am tempted to construct a conspiracy theory to explain the convergence in the efforts of these two authors, who are themselves so obsessed with conspiracy theories. For a start, I suspect the Masons are involved here—along with the Rosicrucians, the Jesuits, the Knights Templar, and maybe the Trilateral Commission too.

Eco was unable to match the commercial success of his debut novel with Foucault’s Pendulum. But who could blame him? The Name of the Rose sold a reported fifty million copies worldwide, and served as the basis for a movie, a video game, and at least three different board games. For all I know, Eco has also made money from baseball caps and coffee cup licensing, and may be negotiating a theme park ride at Euro Disney. Foucault’s Pendulum got none of that, not even a lousy T-shirt.

But make no mistake, Umberto Eco’s second novel is just as brilliantly conceived and intricately plotted as its predecessor, and comes equipped with even more historical pageantry and philosophical speculations. As with The Name of the Rose, this book is ostensibly about books, and the troubles they can cause. I know, it hardly seems like a promising start for an adventure story, but don’t underestimate Doctor Eco, who previously showed that even medieval eschatology could inspire as much action and intrigue as a Lost Ark or missing horcrux.

Eco’s three protagonists work in the publishing industry, where their efforts increasingly focus on trashy books filled with mad occult speculations and conspiracy theories. They have nothing but contempt for the authors of these works, but out of sheer boredom, they begin constructing their own half-baked conspiracy theory—which they refer to as the Plan with a capital P. At first, the Plan is merely a private joke and idle entertainment, but increasingly they work at it in earnest.

Our narrator, Dr. Causabon, is the driving force of the cohort, and a specialist in the Knights Templar, that Christian military order that flourished during the Crusades but was brutally repressed at the start of the fourteenth century. Most historical accounts assume that the Templars ceased to exist after the execution of the order’s Grand Master Jacques de Molay, who was burnt at the stake on March 18, 1314. But alternative theories hint at the survival of the Templars, even until modern times, perhaps under the guise of freemasonry or some other ‘cover’ organization.

Causabon is a scholar with little sympathy for the mystics and cranks who obsess about such matters—at least initally. But gradually he finds himself dragged into their ranks. Midway through the book he begins to fantasize about himself as a kind of intellectual Sam Spade. “I had a trade after all,” he decides. “I would set up a cultural investigation agency, be a kind of private eye of learning.” He even sets up an office, which resembles something out of a Raymond Chandler novel or film noir thriller. Yet this glamorous pursuit—think of Causabon as Bogart with an esoteric Ph.D.—is just a another stage on a downward spiral towards a loss of intellectual integrity and a mind-boggling credulity. In time, Causbon is the one who needs to seek out specialists in their own offices… in order to find out whether he has gone leave of his senses.

A reader familiar with author Eco’s background in semiotics and literary theory can’t help wondering whether he is making fun—or, perhaps more to the point, launching a fierce epistemological attack—on the deconstructionists and critics who have taken over the humanities in recent decades. No, the Foucault in the novel’s title is not Michel Foucault, but rather 19th century physicist Léon Foucault, but the trendy theorists of postmodernism are implicitly taken to task here. Eco builds up elaborate structures of interpretation only to allow them to come crashing to the ground, while the real and tangible ultimately reveal their primacy over that which is merely conceptual. What an odd turn of events for an author who was an intellectual first—and is still closely associated with this same post-modern tendency—and only later a novelist!

For a novel that operates primarily at the level of conjecture and hypothesis, Eco finds opportunities to incorporate enough elements of traditional mystery and adventure stories to keep his readers deeply engaged in the proceedings. Causabon and his publishing house colleague Jacopo Belbo receive a visit from an author, going under the name of Colonel Ardenti, who relates a fanciful story about a encoded document, which the colonel has managed to secure and decipher. The resulting message provides a roadmap to a grand secret to be revealed to a group of Templar initiates over a period of hundreds of years, culminating in the 20th century. This account, easy enough to dismiss as the ravings of a madman, takes on some credibility when the police show up soon after and relate that Ardenti was apparently murdered in his hotel following the meeting, and—even more puzzling—the body immediately disappeared before the authorities arrived.

We are now on the familiar turf of the pulp fiction novel. But Eco is reluctant to play that game—at least not in the clichéd ways of the past—and signals from the start that he will not make matters too easy for the casual reader. In just the first fifteen pages of Foucault’s Pendulum, he relies on an arcane vocabulary (in English, the word choices include hydrargyrum, chthonian, demiurge, proglottides, ogives,plerome, and ogdoades). You won’t find those in Stephen King or Mitch Albom. For example, if you walked into a room in a museum that showcased cars and airplanes, would you describe it thus: “You enter and are stunned by a conspiracy in which the sublime universe of heavenly ogives and the chthonian world of gas guzzlers are juxtaposed”? You would, apparently, if you were Umberto Eco.

It’s not always such slow going. At various points in the course of this novel, the reader is allowed to watch a candomblé possession rite in Brazil, travel through the sewers of Paris, and get an education on 700 years of sinister schemes and secret societies. Eco also superimposes a second plot on this arcane spectacle, one that focuses on the choices between heroism and cowardice made by villagers in the closing days of World War II. If they ever make Foucault’s Penduluminto a film, the director will probably omit this entire interlude. But the reader would do well to pay close attention, since its almost Aristotelian focus on choice, responsibility and simple virtues is not a haphazard addition to the novel, but a clear statement by the author of the alternative to the deconstructive, quasi-academic inward focus of the rest of the narrative.

By the same token, one of the most telling set pieces in this story arrives when Causabon’s girlfriend debunks the Plan, the grand conspiracy theory hatched over a period of months. After a little bit of research, she presents a convincing case that the secret Templar document that started it all is really just a shopping list. Of course, such a pedestrian interpretation can’t be allowed in an ordinary novel of intrigue and adventure, and our obsessive occultists refuse to accept it. The reader is free to do so as well. But Umberto Eco is no ordinary novelist, and it would be like him to construct one of the most grand and complicated plots in modern fiction, and then work just as hard to undermine it.

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