Review of Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco
by Umberto Eco
I read a lot, and the people around me are used to seeing a new book in my hand every day or couple of days. Naturally, they ask me what I'm reading, usually in a way that implies I should divulge more than just the title and the author, which are plainly visible on the cover. How do I respond when I'm reading something so sublime and transcendental as Foucault's Pendulum? It defies ordinary description of plot, because Umberto Eco has again unified his narrative with his themes and characters to create a complex masterpiece. Even the hook on the back of my paperback edition doesn't do it justice.
At its core, Foucault's Pendulum is a fable about conspiracies. It is a cautionary tale that demonstrates what happens when people begin to believe in conspiracy theories; lending credence lends life, which can have unfortunate consequences for everyone involved. The main characters begin as sceptics, working for a publishing house that's allied with a vanity press, who begin constructing a fictitious Plan by connecting seemingly-disparate historical facts. When organizations and individuals begin showing up seeming to be acting in accordance with this Plan, however, our protagonists realize that if you make up a Plan, even a false one, someone might try to execute it.
This book is not about conspiracy theories though. It has been compared to The Da Vinci Code, and of course there are similarities; both books deal with Templar mythology, for instance. Foucault's Pendulum is so much more though. It isn't a mystery about a conspiracy theory; it's a mystery that looks into the effects of conspiracy theories on otherwise rational, scholarly people. The narrative parallels the characters' journey in its own structure, beginning with a strong foundation in logical principles and eventually transforming into a very spiritual, emotional text.
We have so many books based on the premise that such and such conspiracy theory is actually valid. Here, the theories are all fictitious; it begins as a harmless game among three people determined to mock conspiracy theories and the obsession with finding hidden meaning through occultism. The theory only becomes real because people begin believing in it; they begin seeing meaning where before there was nothing, no relationship. Characters emerge, ones we're familiar with from prior in the book, who appear to have a part in this Plan and think it has been in operation for centuries. These characters are in some ways created by their fellow characters (our protagonists); Foucault's Pendulum is very meta-authorial in that respect, much like Sophie's World.
Eco gives us an unreliable narrator so that we're forced to think critically about the story we're given and wonder how much is true and how much may be the feverish imaginings of an unbalanced, misguided mind. The narrator is named Casaubon, and I'm very glad I read Middlemarch before reading this book. Casaubon is sort of like his namesake from Middlemarch, who devotes his life to the syncretic task of unifying human myths. In Foucault's Pendulum, Casaubon and his friends Belbo and Diotallevi sift through the slush of conspiracy lunatics ("Diabolicals") to compile a master theory, a Plan, spun around the framework of the dissolution of the Knights Templar. As they come to believe in the reality of their own Plan, the world around them changes, becomes darker and more sinister. All conflicts in this book, even the external ones, are ultimately internal, created from our characters' own imaginations. The fact that some of these internal conflicts manifest externally, through the antagonism of rivals like Colonel Ardenti or Agliè, gives the story plenty of variety.
In between, we get glimpses of Belbo's childhood in rural Italy, and Eco mentions both historical and contemporary Italian politics. As an outsider, I found this part of the book fascinating, since I'm totally unfamiliar with Italian history or even how its citizens were affected by the rise of fascism and their time under Mussolini. That's what I like so much about Eco: he reminds me that I'm steeped in my own ignorance, but he doesn't condescend me for it. Instead, he forces me to meet him on his intellectual level.
One thing that makes Foucault's Pendulum so transcendental is the fact that it's rife with allusions to medieval and Enlightenment history and philosophy, arcane rituals and religions, and other esoteric and occult phenomena. You'd practically need a degree in these areas (like Eco has) to understand it all without a reference book; I don't, and I admit I got lost at times. Almost every page is filled with this historical references, particularly when Casaubon, Belbo, and Diotallevi are thick in their discussions of the Plan. Consider that for a moment: I got lost in the historical detail of the book, yet I'm still giving it five stars. That's how good it is; even its flaws are strengths.
Still, the tendency of this text toward tones academic will turn some people off the book. It may not be for everyone. If you find yourself reading my review and thinking, "Hmm, this sounds like it is right for me," however, don't wait. Go out and get this book now. Read it, and then read it again--I will, some day, because Foucault's Pendulum is one of those books where you need to read it through several times to grasp its complexity. And every reading will be its own reward, as reading should be.