Friday, August 5, 2011

Foucault's Pendulum

What do you get if you mix the Knights Templar, Nazis, the Cathars, the Freemasons, Rosicrucian, Kabbalah, Alester Crowley, and an immortal 18th century aristocrat?  "Foucault's Pendulum" is a really weird smoothie of every flavor of European mysticism, occultism, and not a small amount of college socialism.  This is a novel by Umberto Eco, probably the only man alive who can write novels steeped in Medieval lore and complex scholarship and somehow or another be widely read.  I suspect its because Umberto Eco, from name down, actually is a Medieval Italian character.  If Dante didn't find a place for Umberto Eco in the "Divine Comedy", he definitely should have.

"Foucault's Pendulum" at its core is a reaction to the centuries of occult conspiracy theories that have dominated Europe's intellectual underground.  Umberto Eco, through his characters, sets out to create a Grand Unifying Theory of Conspiracy, which they call more simply, "the Plan".  In modern America, the conspiracy theories mostly revolve around the Kennedy Assassination and UFOs, but this realm of paranoid insanity has gone back centuries revolving around secret societies, wacky religious orders, and of course, the Knights Templar.  The characters in this book decide immediately that anybody who writes about the Knights Templar are automatically insane, so eventually they decide to make the most insane Knights Templar theory.

Of course, to get that level of insanity, to even understand half the things that Umberto Eco is talking about, you better know your history.  You need to know the Crusades, you need to know the Byzantines, you need to know Kabbalah, and you need to know what the heck Foucault's Pendulum is in the first place.  This is a book you read sitting in front of your laptop, plugging in the dozens of obscure words you'll find.  At one point Eco used a word "Metacyclosynchrotron" - a word so bizarre and esoteric that it beat Google.  I still don't know what the heck a "Metacyclosynchrotron" is, and if anybody has a clue, feel free to prove you're smarter than me.  There aren't many books that left me proud that I was able to slug through them while almost completely understanding*, but "Foucault's Pendulum" was one of them.

I'm sorry to say this, but like most people, my first entry into understanding the Knights Templar comes from Dan Brown in his miserable sad piece of novel, "The Da Vinci Code".  "Da Vinci" means "of the town of Vinci", meaning that Dan Brown's book title actually is "The of Vinci Code", a title so garbled that it makes for a perfect metaphor for how bad that book is.  The funny thing is, Dan Brown is - as Umberto Eco personally pointed out in an interview - a character from "Foucault's Pendulum".  Actually the hidden plot of "The Da Vinci Code" is brought up in this book.  Word-for-word, the characters go through the idea that Mary Magdalene mothered Jesus's blood line, then they discard it for being too generic a theory.  So if Dan Brown isn't actually a complex prank created by Umberto Eco, his book is a complete theft.

The basic plotline here is that a group of three Italian book editors, men steeped in vast historical scholarship, run into silly conspiracy theories once too often.  They enjoy a few jokes at the expense of the poor theorists, even sit and listen to one obvious fraud for a full day just for the lulz.  Of the three main characters we have the narrator, Casaubon, the youngest and most grounded of the three.  He actually manages to get a few girlfriends, enjoys a long Brazilian adventure, and basically marries a woman and has a son.  Jacopo Belbo is probably the real main character.  Emotionally scarred from surviving WWII as a child, Belbo has a long failed relationship with a manipulative woman named Lorenza.  Belbo's personal writings make up probably a third of the novel, its a weird blog that fictionalizes most of the Plan and then is filled with other weird biographical ramblings.  Clearly he's funneling his years of literary and romantic frustrations into the Plan, which needless to say isn't healthy.  Finally there's Diotallevi, the least developed character by far.  He likes to pretend he's Jewish, and um... gets cancer.  I really don't know why Diotallevi is there other than to be a Third Musketeer.  All three characters take devising the plan a bit too far, though Belbo and Diotallevi go completely insane pretty fast.  Even the Narrator is Loony Tunes by the ending.  By creating the Plan, what should only be a complex practical joke, they all get way too into it, and then begin to emotionally break down.

Of course, I can say the same thing happens to Umberto Eco himself during writing this novel.  The Plan devours the plot just as much as it devours the lives of the characters.  Because so much of this book sadly is just endless endless details about how the Plan works.  Diotallevi, Belbo, and Casaubon all stuff everything but the kitchen sink into the Plan, from Nazis to Hassassins to the Enlightenment.  As a matter of fact, I don't know how Eco managed to miss getting Lee Harvey Oswald and Area 51 into his book.  He already takes up hours and hours of my time in paranoid conspiracy details.  The parody goes on way too long.  Eventually the actual conspiracy theorists start to hunt down the original three characters to find out the ultimate secret (because there has to be an ultimate secret).  However all that is thrown in the last hundred pages, basically an afterthought.  So much time is spent making the theory - pretty much only a McGuffin - but not nearly enough is shown working with the theory itself.  Some characters, such as Lorenza, don't get any real characterization at all, even when she's so important in Belbo's life.  When Eco is trying to write about how this Plan overwhelmed his characters, the Plan overwhelmed his book.

Strangely, my favorite character by far was Lia, Casaubon's wife.  Lia, in only a few pages, blasts daggers right into the heart of the Plan.  Their one piece of supposed hard evidence, a weird list written hundreds of years ago, is shown to actually be a laundry list written by a French merchant years ago.  Then she points out exactly why the Plan is such a hateful joke:  people will actually believe it, and their faith in a false god will prove to be extremely dangerous.  Which is true because Casaubon ends up a fugitive and Belbo himself gets executed with Foucault's Pendulum being used a noose in a complex piece of symbolism.

Where Eco shines best is his ability to make places and people come alive.  I may have been born after the Cold War, but thanks to Eco's masterful writing techniques - even after their dilution into English - I can safely say that I have lived through young college Italian socialism in the 1960s.  And I've even been the heart of Brazilian occultism.  Sadly too many of those talents are wasted on creating the Plan... the details of which are ultimately inconsequential to the book itself.  Notice that I didn't even try to describe the Plan itself but still am able to comment on the book?  Oh well, it was a wild read at least.

And we can all be thankful that "Foucault's Pendulum" has nothing at all to do with Michel Foucault, the lord of post-modernism.  I don't care for modern architecture, I can't stand modern art, but post-modernism is pure evil as far as I'm concerned.  Let's not get into it.

Though the real question is:  why am I reading "Foucault's Pendulum" and not "A Dance with Dragons"?  Well, the answer to that is that I had to start reading "Foucault's Pendulum" in the Holy Land, purely out of badassness's sake.  I finally finished this book just now, so "A Dance with Dragons" will be the next book.  I'm on page 600, it won't be long now.

* "Atlas Shrugged" is one book that I did fight to get through, and ultimately, I'm not particularly proud that I read it either.


  1. "Metacyclosynchrotron" is a neologism and play on words. Both a cyclotron and a synchrotron are types of particle accelerators: specifically, ones which accelerate particles in circles. The word "meta" you should know, so it conjures up images of an abstraction of another idea that is mixed, collided and created.

    This is entirely conjecture on my part, but I think I may be near the mark. ;)

  2. ^Damn it, you beat me to it!

    What the heck kinda context can such a word even appear in the first place? I mean, are the main characters attampting to toss in theoretical metaphysics into the mix? Or is it just a deliciously fanciful peice of symbolism. I might pick up this book just so I can find that word "Metacyclosyncrotron".

    Hehe, that's a cool word.
    I reckon I might name my new fish that.

  3. I see Blue is still emotionally scarred by his experience with Rand. It's a sign of mental health really.
    Since I liked The Name of the Rose, I'll probably read that book at some point. First, I need to make myself literate in conspiracy theories.

  4. Blue, when , in A Dance With Dragons, you encounter Yezzan, give him the voice of Futurama's Hedonism-Bot. Fits him like a glove.

  5. "Metacyclosynchrotron" Mr.Blue is a random word that smart folk use to seem like their a lot smarter then you will ever be and that we low peasants shouldn't understand the high class language because we didn't write a book in which we can put gibberish words like that into it just for the reason above.

  6. @TriforceHermit: It's simply a pun on metaphysics, and a rather good one, at that, which would fit in the context. I'd be willing to bet that Eco made it up himself, so I don't know who these "smart folk" are. Besides, Eco has no need to seem smarter than we are - he is ;).

  7. @Yuan: Wow, do you need to correct me on something else are all good to go? I could care less about what it means, probably nothing if even Google doesn't have it, it is probably made up. And what I'm trying to get across is that he choose all these unknown words just to make us think he is smart and even made one that Google doesn't have a description for just sound smart, see it worked on you, and if he is smarter then us, its just in that general area of learning, we could be smarter then him in other areas.

  8. It's a play on, and please forgive me if I don't nail the spelling on this off the top of my head, but it's from the Greek, "metacyclosyuklotron," which I learned from browsing through the OED (and what I was Googling when I found this discussion), which pertains to some theological notion of the secret, 100th name of God, the context for which wasn't included in the dictionary entry but, given the apophatic naming conventions of Islam's "99 names of God," is most likely from some Greek commentary on Muslim theology, though I recall something similar in one of Louis Jorge Borges stories. Oddly, this means that Eco's funny dvandva play on word's neologism does crop up on Google, but the term which inspired it doesn't. And I don't have a subscription to the OED Online, so I can't search there, but I remember it being in the printed version when there were 22 main volumes with 2 addenda.

  9. Came here to applaud. I am applauding.