Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

14 October 2007

I wasn’t planning to post another Umberto Eco book review so soon, but with new material coming out on this book’s primary subject, I simply couldn’t resist.

Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

When you’re an editor at an Italian publishing house that’s essentially a glorified vanity press specialising in occult and esoteric literature, you’re bound to read some (or rather, many) manuscripts that would be best filed under the term ‘crackpot.’ Whether the subject at hand happens to be those pesky Freemasons who keep poisoning the wells, or incontrovertible proof that the Knights Templar are alive, well, and plotting with the Soviets, the BBC, and a reincarnated Joseph of Arimathea to find the Holy Grail and take over the world…well, even conspiracy theories can get boring if you read enough of them. So three editors — an academic researcher named Causabon, an eccentric writer named Belbo, and a numerology enthusiast named Diotavelli — decide to have a little fun with what is otherwise a fairly dull job.

Their plan (which they later refer to as ‘the Plan’) is very simple. They will pull random ideas and statements from their piles of crackpot manuscripts and start to weave them together as carefully as possible. Belbo even has a computer program that is capable of shuffling the ideas around in random patterns, which the three men can then use to keep coming up with increasingly fantastical connections between seemingly unrelated incidents. The basic idea behind the Plan is to rewrite world history as one massive conspiracy theory, involving the Knights Templar and a mysterious power source greater than an entire atomic arsenal. It’s a game, and an intellectual challenge, and a way to stave off the boredom of their work. But when the Plan they create out of nowhere soon starts to take on a life of its own, the three men get increasingly caught up in the nonsensical story they’ve bashed together. And they will soon discover that there are more than a few people out there who are eager to believe in the greatest conspiracy theory of all time — and will do anything to ensure that the Plan comes to fruition.

Foucault’s Pendulum, first and foremost, isn’t a reference to philosopher Michel Foucault. It’s a reference to the physics experiment designed by French physicist Léon Foucault; specifically, the one located at the Musée des arts et métiers in Paris. That said, the book does for the suspense thriller what Eco’s The Name of the Rose did for the period detective story: it faithfully follows all of the standard elements of the genre while simultaneously giving you a crash course in world history, classical and occult literature, crosscultural studies, and heaven knows what else besides. It’s by no means an easy book to read — I freely admit that there were entire chapters where names and literary references were completely lost on me and I had to piece together the characters’ train of thought as best I could — but Eco does a fine job explaining the crucial plot points and information in a way that doesn’t make it sound as if he’s talking down to the readers. And while I didn’t find the characters as engaging as those in The Name of the Rose, they’re still carefully drawn and interesting to follow. The story takes time to unfold and set up, and the Plan isn’t introduced until almost two-thirds of the way through the book, but the build-up is absolutely necessary to give the reader a sense of place in the story and a slightly more distanced perspective on the madness that brings the plot to its conclusion.

Perhaps the most important point that Eco makes in this book about conspiracy theories is that conspiracy theories (no matter how small at the outset) are by their very nature insidious, all too adept at getting under your skin and completely skewing your view of reality. Even the three editors are not immune to the power of conspiracy theories, even though they are fully aware that they’ve made the whole thing up as part of a silly game. As Causabon notes bitterly, on reflection, ‘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.’ There’s a very clear warning in that comment, one that I definitely had to keep in mind as I read this book — and one which I have a feeling I’ll keep in mind for some time to come when looking at historical and literary connections.

One comment

  1. […] To Bed With a Trollope Being a collection of book reviews and recommendations, along with the occasional observations of a contemporary historian, editor, writer, and bibliophile. « Never Again: Britain 1945-51 by Peter Hennessy Travels in Hyperreality, How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays, and On Literature by Umberto Eco 15 January 2008 For today, here’s a handful of short reviews — three collections of essays and other short pieces by Umberto Eco, Italian professor of semiotics and author of The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum. […]

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