Reviewed by Ted Gioia

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 in-
volved here—along with the
Rosicrucians, the Jesuits, the
Knights Templar, and maybe
the Trilateral Commission as
well.  

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, such a bookish premise 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, the
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 initially.  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 rents 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 Pendulum into 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.


Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of
the Cool
.
Foucault's Pendulum
by Umberto Eco
Click on image to purchase
Umberto Eco’s life must be a kind of
symbol, similar to those he deconstructs in
his works on semiotics.  But a symbol of
what?  His transformation from medievalist
to bestselling writer could be a sign of the
zaniness of the
marketplace, or
the sophistication
of the reading
public, or perhaps
merely testimony
to the value of a
good publicist.  Or,
honestly, maybe it's
just a deserved re-
ward for writing so
well.  Then again,
Eco himself may be
a dangling signifier,
revealing little or nothing about his own
readers.  "I myself like easy books that put
me to sleep immediately,” he has
commented.  In other words, books unlike
those written by Umberto Eco.

Our author was born on January 5, 1932 in
Allesandria, a town south of Milan in the
Piedmont region of Italy.  He entered the
University of Turin with expectations of
becoming a lawyer, but instead ended up
focusing his studies on Thomas Aquinas and
medieval culture and thought.  Many more
career shifts would await in him future years,
which found him working in journalism for
Italy’s state-owned RAI television network,
writing literary criticism (including a study of
James Joyce’s
Finnegans Wake), and serving as
the first professor of semiotics at the
University of Bologna, the oldest university
in Europe.  Of course, this was all prelude to
his transformation into a novelist, which in
typical Eco fashion, he did with grand
success. His 1980 novel
The Name of the Rose
would become one of the biggest selling
novels of the century, and later morph into a
popular film.   When he is not conquering
new fields, Eco plays the recorder, smokes
several packs of cigarettes per day, and
enjoys his personal library—ominously
similar to the deadly one portrayed in
The
Name of the Rose
—with its 30,000 volumes.  
Let the borrower beware!
ROGUES GALLERY:
UMBERTO ECO
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Further Clues:

Umberto Eco's Home Page

Interview with Umberto Eco by Lila Azam Zanganeh
from The Paris Review

About Foucault Pendulums and How They Prove the
Earth Rotates
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