Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

Foucault's PendulumFoucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A strange series of coincidences, difficult to dismiss as chance, recently convinced me that I had to read Foucault’s Pendulum. First, the book itself appeared, “unbidden,” as the literary novelists always say. A few weeks ago, I found a hardcover in good condition inside a Little Free Library that usually boasts only children’s books and pop fiction. The LFL in question is, by the way, shaped like mailbox: was Someone sending me a message?

The mystery deepened only a week after I’d plucked the book from the box. I had been re-watching Chris Carter’s downbeat conspiracy-themed late-’90s TV series Millennium for the first time in many years, on the theory that the deliriously psychedelic conclusion to the controversial second season, in which an outbreak of the Marburg virus threatens to decimate America, might be newly relevant in “the age of coronavirus.” A few episodes before that apocalyptic finale, however, comes a tale that caught my paranoid eye. An episode titled “Anamnesis” is about gnosticism, matriarchal cults, and black madonnas; scripted by a female writing duo, it’s the only episode in all three seasons not to star the main male protagonist, featuring instead a team-up between his wife and his female sidekick; “Dancing Barefoot” plays, and “Thunder, Perfect Mind” is recited. Longtime readers of my work will know what I was thinking: that this episode, aired about a year after the novel’s publication, was inspired by Toni Morrison’s gnostic and female liberationist fantasia Paradise.

A bit of Internet sleuthing, though, demonstrated to me that no one had made the connection, and that the writers didn’t claim such an influence. On the other hand, I discovered that all the elements I’d associated with Morrison were there in Foucault’s Pendulum, precisely the novel I had found by chance just days before. Since Morrison has several times mentioned her admiration for Eco, it’s not out of the question that he influenced her or, perhaps more aptly, moved her to a counter-statement on some of the same themes. It’s also likely that this conspiracy-soaked occult novel affected the writers of Millennium, among many other late-20th-century gnostic revival works.

Finally, canvassing the Wikipedia entry on the novel before I read it, I found that among the endless occult paraphernalia Eco packed into the text was “[a]n obscure one-time reference to the fictional Cthulhu cult through a quote from The Satanic Rituals—‘I’a Cthulhu! I’a S’ha-t’n!’. The words closed a ritual composed by Michael Aquino.” Aquino was a high-ranking Satanist and a psychological warfare expert for the U.S. military; he co-wrote the notorious Pentagon position paper “From PSYOP to MindWar: The Psychology of Victory”. Understandably, he recurs again and again in the annals of American conspiracy theory: the politically paranoid on the right abominate him for his Satanism, while those on the left loathe his anticommunist and militarist commitments. Through a vector I’m not at liberty to disclose, I am only two of the proverbial degrees of separation away from Aquino, though I have obviously never met him or had anything to do with him or even discussed him with anyone who has. I imagine conspiracy theorists will promulgate this curious fact widely on the Internet to discredit me whenever I finally become as famous as I deserve to be, considering that I am one of America’s great writers. (Megalomania and paranoia: like horse and carriage.) Two days after I made the Aquino-Eco-Millennium connection, it was announced on Twitter that Aquino had died. Yes, Someone was trying to tell me Something: I dutifully took up Foucault’s Pendulum and began to read.

Eco’s bestselling 1988 novel (translated from the Italian by William Weaver) has an unearned reputation for difficulty, as if it belonged on the same shelf as Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow (and Eco, a medievalist and semiotician, was also a Joyce scholar). Most of it, however, reads exactly like the four paragraphs above, which is why I indulged in such personal paranoia. If you had fun reading them, you’ll have even more fun with Eco, who is both zanier and more learned than I am.

The novel does raise a high barrier to entry, as if Eco wanted readers to consider his work forbidding. The first chapter is prefaced by a block of untranslated Hebrew—a little research reveals it to be a quotation from Isaac Luria—and proceeds to the narrator’s lengthy meditation on the resemblance between the history of science and the history of magic as he walks through Paris’s Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers, where the eponymous pendulum is housed, and where he intends to rendezvous with a mysteriously endangered friend, Jacopo Belbo. After this rough start, though, the novel settles into being a perfectly companionable, fast-paced, highbrow bestseller not unlike others of its time (e.g., Possession, Smilla’s Sense of Snow, or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle).

The narrator, pregnantly named Casaubon to evoke both an early modern hermetic scholar and George Eliot’s dried-up aspirant to The Key to All Mythologies, narrates retrospectively. It is a few days past the climax in the Conservatoire; Casaubon has broken into the aforementioned Belbo’s computer, Abulafia (so named for an early Kabbalist), read his files, and come to understand his story. The story is as follows.

Casaubon is a level-headed scholar who embarked on his studies shortly after the abortive revolution of 1968. Too high-minded for radicalism, this antiquarian instead writes a thesis on the Knights Templar, the fabled Crusading order of the 12th through 14th centuries, whose reputation for sexual transgression and spiritual esoterica outlived their disbanding. Then Casaubon meets an older man, Belbo, a native of the Piedmont region whose childhood was marked and marred by Italian fascism. Belbo works for a Janus-faced Milanese publishing house, half small academic press and half vanity publisher, that often brings him into contact with “Diabolicals,” i.e., believers in conspiracy and the occult. Belbo is accordingly fascinated by Casaubon’s Templar research, and is all the more fascinated when a Colonel Ardenti brings to the publishing house what he believes to be a long-lost coded Templar communiqué, portending the order’s continued existence through the millennium and their plan to conquer the world. When Ardenti disappears—as if he were stricken by shadowy forces for having revealed too much—Casaubon and Belbo have their first taste of hermetic danger.

Casaubon then takes a sojourn to the homeland of his Brazilian lover, Amparo, and in the Latin American country he encounters not only the syncretism of New World religion—Candomblé and Umbanda, syntheses of Catholicism with Yoruba and indigenous American practices—he also meets Agliè, an occultist who claims to be an immortal count. Once back in Milan, he becomes a research consultant and again encounters Belbo. By this time, the fashionable leftism of the late 1960s has given way to the fashionable New Age spirituality of the late 1970s as the left’s material defeat inspired a metaphysical turn among the radically chic. Belbo hires Casaubon and they decide to capitalize on the trend and publish a series of occult books. They are joined by the publishing house’s other main employee, Diotallevi, a devoted Kabbalist, albeit of ambiguously Judaic heritage.

Not content merely to disseminate the delusions of others, this trio begins to compose their own ultimate conspiracy theory, the conspiracy theory of all conspiracy theories, encompassing the Templars, the Rosicrucians, the Illuminati, the Elders of Zion, and all other protagonists of the paranoid imagination. Our heroes assign the nefarious elites the task of trying to control the (hollow) earth by harnessing telluric currents with menhirs and obelisks from Stonehenge to the Eiffel Tower. In the course of composing this meta- and master-fantasy, they become convinced that everything in the world is connected, everything a symbol for everything else, and all united in what they call “the Plan.” This hoax draws them deeper into the world of the occult; they attend mysterious rites in remote mansions, and Agliè inevitably reappears to serve as guide to hermetic histories and as a romantic rival to Belbo for the affections of the mysterious and volatile Lorenza Pellegrini.

Casaubon eventually marries and has a child, and his wife, Lia, attempts to talk some sense into him: for instance, she convincingly argues that Ardenti’s supposed Templar plot, which set Belbo and Casaubon off in the first place, was a merchant’s list of wares, not a ten-point program to conquer the planet. Diotallevi, meanwhile, slowly expires of cancer, convinced he contracted the illness as a poetic punishment for trifling with the fabric of the world, for irresponsibly generating a metastasis beyond all boundaries of spiritual and political meaning.

Whereas Casaubon and Diotallevi are chastened, Belbo is by contrast consumed with sexual jealousy and drunk on his own imaginative power. He tries to revenge himself on his erotic rival, Agliè, by convincing him that the Plan is real. He intimates to Agliè that he has some secret knowledge the self-proclaimed immortal count cannot access. Agliè and his occult associates, however, actually seem to aspire to the power Belbo has attributed to the Templars et al., and they lure him to Paris, to the Conservatoire, to Foucault’s Pendulum, to pry the knowledge out of him, not realizing that his knowledge was never more than a fiction. By fictionalizing the Plan, in other words, our protagonists brought the Plan into reality. I’ll leave you to discover the climax and conclusion on your own.

What does all this arcana signify? Luckily, our author-semiotician is happy to expound, in and out of his novel. Americans of the Internet age are familiar with Eco’s 1995 essay, “Ur-Fascism” because it has gone viral during the administrations of our last two Republican presidents. Eco’s thesis is that “fascism had no quintessence,” was an incoherent ideology justifying power to a resentful populace, which perhaps explains why the liberal literati can apply it to such opposed figures as Bush and Trump. Two related characteristics of fascism, Eco explains, are syncretism and traditionalism:

One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult elements. The most influential theoretical source of the theories of the new Italian right, Julius Evola, merged the Holy Grail with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, alchemy with the Holy Roman and Germanic Empire. The very fact that the Italian right, in order to show its open-mindedness, recently broadened its syllabus to include works by De Maistre, Guenon, and Gramsci, is a blatant proof of syncretism.

The reader of Foucault’s Pendulum will immediately recognize the Plan in this description of fascism, since all the texts and authors Eco mentions (save Gramsci) come up in the novel. To posit a unified tradition out of disparate elements is to think like a fascist; Belbo, Casaubon, and Diotallevi may have set out to spoof fascism, but they became ensorcelled by it. As Casaubon notes,

We consoled ourselves with the realization—unspoken, now, respecting the etiquette of irony—that we were parodying the logic of our Diabolicals. But during the long intervals in which each of us collected evidence to produce at the plenary meetings, and with the clear conscience of those who accumulate material for a medley of burlesques, our brains grew accustomed to connecting, connecting, connecting everything with everything else, until we did it automatically, out of habit. I believe that you can reach the point where there is no longer any difference between developing the habit of pretending to believe and developing the habit of believing.

Why are these men prey to these beliefs? In their own eyes, they were born too late for their historical moment. Belbo was too young to be a partisan, and Casaubon was too young to be a soixante-huitard:

To enter a university a year or two after 1968 was like being admitted to the Academic de Saint-Cyr in 1793: you felt your birth date was wrong. Jacopo Belbo, who was almost fifteen years older than I, later convinced me that every generation feels this way. You are always born under the wrong sign, and to live in this world properly you have to rewrite your own horoscope day by day.

Belbo became an editor rather than a writer because he conceded that he would always be a spectator and never a protagonist, while Casaubon—one of whose early meetings with Belbo ended with their running from police during a street demonstration—seems to fear they are both cowards. Having missed their rendezvous with history—even though, as Belbo knows, we all do—they seek extrahistorical alternatives in delirious theories of eternity. Casaubon further explains near the novel’s conclusion that occultism and conspiracy theory mean we are never at fault for own failures:

There can be no failure if there really is a Plan. Defeated you may be, but never through any fault of your own. To bow to a cosmic will is no shame. You are not a coward; you are a martyr.

Because Eco is weak on female characters, Casaubon’s wife Lia hardly exists in the novel except to spout hard-headed wisdom at her husband to counter his magical thinking. Three-quarters of the way through the massive book, she delivers a long speech summarizing the moral of the story, fascism’s antidote, to its narrator, (she calls him “Pow”):

“Pow, archetypes don’t exist; the body exists. The belly inside is beautiful, because the baby grows there, because your sweet cock, all bright and jolly, thrusts there, and good, tasty food descends there, and for this reason the cavern, the grotto, the tunnel are beautiful and important, and the labyrinth, too, which is made in the image of our wonderful intestines. When somebody wants to invent something beautiful and important, it has to come from there, because you also came from there the day you were born, because fertility always comes from inside a cavity, where first something rots and then, lo and behold, there’s a little man, a date, a baobab.

“And high is better than low, because if you have your head down, the blood goes to your brain, because feet stink and hair doesn’t stink as much, because it’s better to climb a tree and pick fruit than end up underground, food for worms, and because you rarely hurt yourself hitting something above—you really have to be in an attic—while you often hurt yourself falling. That’s why up is angelic and down devilish.”

In other words, there are no mystical symbols uniting all of matter and history into a divine or diabolical master narrative. There is only the imagination’s beautiful projections onto the universe of what it finds nearest to hand: the body and its sensations. Eco vindicates materialist humanism against idealist obscurantism.

This thesis brings us to the novel’s political subtext. Though Eco cautions against allegorizing, it is clear that the Foucault of the title is not merely the Léon Foucault whose 1851 pendulum demonstrated the earth’s rotation, but also Michel Foucault and his generational cohort—the poststructuralists, the philosophers of “French theory”—whom Eco holds responsible for turning the left toward conspiratorial thinking in politics and mystical thinking in language. A pointed allusion to Harold Bloom is made; a minor character is a clear burlesque of Jacques Lacan. Diotallevi delivers a deathbed speech blaming his cancer on his indulgence in what students of late-20th-century literary theory will recognize as “the slippage of the signifier”:

“Have you ever reflected that the linguistic term ‘metathesis’ is similar to the oncological term ‘metastasis’? What is metathesis? Instead of ‘clasp’ one says ‘claps.’ Instead of ‘beloved’ one says ‘bevoled.’ It’s the temurah. The dictionary says that metathesis means transposition or interchange, while metastasis indicates change and shifting. How stupid dictionaries are! The root is the same. Either it’s the verb metatithemi or the verb methistemi. Metatithemi means I interpose, I shift, I transfer, I substitute, I abrogate a law, I change a meaning. And methistemi? It’s the same thing: I move, I transform, I transpose, I switch cliches, I take leave of my senses. And as we sought secret meanings beyond the letter, we all took leave of our senses. And so did my cells, obediently, dutifully. […] I’m dying because I convinced myself that there was no order, that you could do whatever you liked with any text. I spent my life convincing myself of this, I, with my own brain. And my brain must have transmitted the message to them. Why should I expect them to be wiser than my brain? I’m dying because we were imaginative beyond bounds.”

As if to annoy Susan Sontag, Eco posits metaphor as a metaphor for cancer, and through his trio of conspirators, he accuses Foucault, Derrida, and Co. of carcinogenesis in the academic body, akin to their hermetic precursors in the Knights Templar, the Rosicrucians, and the rest, all of them in flight from matter to fantasy, or (since the novel is structured according to the sefirot of the Kabbalah) from Malkuht to Keter.

This crypto-academic polemic against the postmoderns is ironic, in that Foucault’s Pendulum bears most of the hallmarks of a postmodern novel. It is a complicated metafiction, a kind of gargantuan Borges parable, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” grown to Ulysses length. It is moreover dependent for its structure and effects on popular literature; Casaubon compares himself again and again to Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, while the Sherlockian Eco borrows his expository technique from Conan Doyle. Metafictionally enough, Belbo and Casaubon discuss just this issue:

“Proust was right: life is represented better by bad music than by a Missa solemnis. Great Art makes fun of us as it comforts us, because it shows us the world as the artists would like the world to be. The dime novel, however, pretends to joke, but then it shows us the world as it actually is—or at least the world as it will become. Women are a lot more like Milady than they are like Little Nell, Fu Manchu is more real than Nathan the Wise, and History is closer to what Sue narrates than to what Hegel projects. Shakespeare, Melville, Balzac, and Dostoyevski all wrote sensational fiction. What has taken place in the real world was predicted in penny dreadfuls.”

“The fact is, it’s easier for reality to imitate the dime novel than to imitate art. Being a Mona Lisa is hard work; becoming Milady follows our natural tendency to choose the easy way.”

Casaubon makes the latter comment, and we are, I think, invited by the novel’s general ideological drift to agree. Conspiracy theory is trash fiction; quality fiction deals with reality, and transfigures it responsibility rather than transforming it crassly and “beyond bounds.” Again a fount of wisdom, Lia explains,

“Your plan isn’t poetic; it’s grotesque. People don’t get the idea of going back to burn Troy just because they read Homer. With Homer, the burning of Troy became something that it never was and never will be, and yet the Iliad endures, full of meaning, because it’s all clear, limpid. Your Rosicrucian manifestoes are neither clear nor limpid; they’re mud, hot air, and promises. This is why so many people have tried to make them come true, each finding in them what he wants to find. In Homer there’s no secret, but your plan is full of secrets, full of contradictions. For that reason you could find thousands of insecure people ready to identify with it. Throw the whole thing out. Homer wasn’t faking, but you three have been faking.”

Yet Eco’s awareness of the problem can’t save him from it. His self-amused luxuriation in subject matter he himself disparages, and his self-conscious adoption of a literary form he himself understands to be aesthetically inadequate, inevitably undermines the novel. Eco devotes appallingly long passages to eye-glazing and extremely un-limpid expositions of the Plan. Seduced by his own erudition—why would he criticize these wild theorists so ardently if he didn’t see himself in them?—Eco gives us much, much more than we need to get his fairly simple point. This tedious exposition, along with the sensationalist thriller structure, diminishes the novel’s dealings with reality, even though “deal with reality!” is the novel’s main counsel. As Belbo said, “Great Art” should project a better reality, not a worse one.

Belbo’s recollections of childhood during the war are detailed and powerful (“Ur-Fascism” suggests that they reflect Eco’s own biography), but the Brazil sequence, in which Eco vents his spleen against syncretism in general on Afro-Brazilian religion, is high-handed and arrogant, an imperial perspective. So, come to think of it, is Eco’s argument against conspiracy theory as the last philosophical recourse of life’s losers. While Eco is right to warn against mystical theories that explain everything and that moreover scapegoat whole populations for social problems, preaching academic reason at the poor or ill-educated is destined to breed resentment, especially when anyone can see powerful people conspiring to retain and extend their power in plain view every day. The novel’s genuine political insight comes when the occultists, a company of believers drawn from the social elite, fall for Belbo’s Plan: the powerful themselves are often the biggest conspiracy theorists of all. But doesn’t this rebut the idea the idea that conspiracy theory is the socialism of fools? The novel’s narrative is at odds with its stated thesis, which is not dialectic but confusion.

That these contradictions and over-simplicities are wrapped in an overlong upmarket airport paperback makes the whole enterprise distasteful. Is Eco exploiting an audience he thinks of as naive, just as his publisher-heroes intend to do? Despite its peacock-displays of empty erudition, Foucault’s Pendulum is the furthest thing from difficult. It is complicated, but not complex. It is too easy—and bizarrely self-satisfied in its own disinclination to strive for greatness.

In her Secret Life of Puppets, a brilliant 2001 study of late-20th-century neo-gnosticism, Victoria Nelson considers the novel. (She also begins her essay by recounting a series of bizarre coincidences that convinced her to reread it; maybe this is as obligatory a way to open an essay on Foucault’s Pendulum as is “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” when writing on Pride and Prejudice.) Nelson allows that she enjoyed Eco’s narrative for its thrilling rendition of hermeticism and conspiracy, but she finally judges it to fall short of literary merit:

Eventually, however, five hundred pages of any sort of parody begin to wear thin, and the escape from seriousness produces in a reader its Hegelian opposite—the desire to escape from unremitting fun. […] We feel not that that we have penetrated to the heart of a philosophical labyrinth but rather that we have been left stranded in the middle of a cold, fancy game of virtual reality purchased from the computer store. And such gamesmanship and emotional distancing are somehow more disturbing coming from a deeply intelligent and erudite sensibility than they would be from a cheerful hack.

Anthony Burgess, in his New York Times review, comes to a similar conclusion:

You may call the book an intellectual triumph, if not a fictional one. No man should know so much. It is the work not of a literary man but of one who accepts the democracy of signs.

Eco does not accept this democracy or even accept that it is a democracy—he thinks it is fascist syncretism and has Diotallevi liken it to cancer—but he ironically cannot contest it in a novel so besotted with its author’s fantasy. Like his tragic heroes, Eco has been consumed by his own parodic plan. Maybe this was his intended point, but he pays too high a price for it. If Someone was trying to tell me Something by depositing this book in the Little Free Library and hedging it with just the pop-culture coincidences that would get me to read it, then the message must have been this: when faced with the mysteries of the universe, skip the dime novels and stick to Great Art.