Essay 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
involved 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,
he 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 writes on music, literature and popular culture.
His  latest book is
Love Songs: The Hidden
History
, published by Oxford University Press.

Publication date of this essay: August 23, 2011
Foucault's Pendulum
by 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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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
The Reading List
(with links to essays)

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Hawksmoor

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Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective
Agency

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London Fields

Paul Auster
Leviathan
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Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man

Roberto Bolaño
2666

Jorge Luis Borges
Ficciones

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

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The A.B.C. Murders

Robert Coover
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The Pledge

Umberto Eco
Foucault's Pendulum
The Name of the Rose

David Gordon
The Serialist

Witold Gombrowicz
Cosmos

Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time

Elizabeth Hand
Generation Loss

Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr. Ripley

Norman N. Holland
Death in a Delphi Seminar

Franz Kafka
The Trial

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Gun, with Occasional Music
Motherless Brooklyn

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The Prone Gunman

Gabriel García Márquez
Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Cameron McCabe
The Face on the Cutting-Room
Floor

Philip MacDonald
The Rynox Murder

China Miéville
The City and the City

Mo Yan
The Republic of Wine

Patrick Modiano
Missing Person

Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore
A Wild Sheep Chase

Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire

Joyce Carol Oates
Mysteries of Winterthurn

Flann O'Brien
The Third Policeman

Orhan Pamuk
The Black Book

Georges Perec
A Void

Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49
Inherent Vice

Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Erasers
The Voyeur

Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl
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Gilbert Sorrentino
Mulligan Stew

Theodore Sturgeon
Some of Your Blood

Miguel Syjuco
Ilustrado


Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
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Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  


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