Back when the craptacular DaVinci Code was all the rage, I practically made a hobby out of complaining about that book, and someone who heard my complaining suggested that I read Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum as an antidote. Now, years later, I’ve finally done it, and I have to say that Dan Brown has nothing on Eco. Where Brown dabbles, Eco digs. Where Brown plants little puzzles, Eco builds labyrinths. Where Brown gets taken in, Eco finds the flaws. In a sense, Foucault’s Pendulum, written in the late 1980s, is a critique of the very kind of conspiracy-mongering that Brown promulgated years later.
Foucault’s Pendulum weaves together the stories of such groups as the Knights Templar, the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons, the Cathars, the Cabalists, and the Jesuits to create one grand conspiracy myth that connects everything. The three main characters, Casaubon (the narrator), Belbo, and Diotallevi, are editors who begin as dabblers in esoteric conspiracy stories. At first, they realize that these ideas are not to be taken seriously:
“Any fact becomes important when it’s connected to another. The connection changes the perspective; it leads you to think that every detail of the world, every voice, every word written or spoken has more than its literal meaning, that it tells us of a Secret. The rule is simple: Suspect, only suspect. You can read subtexts even in a traffic sign that says, ‘No littering.’”
“Of course. Catharist moralism. The horror of fornication.”
To demonstrate this point, Belbo concocts an esoteric significance for the design of an automobile engine:
The supreme engine lives by an alternation of intake and exhaust. A complex, divine respiration, a cycle initially based on two units called cylinders (an obvious geometrical archetype), which then generate a third, and finally gaze upon one another in mutual love and bring forth the glory of a fourth.
As the three men become more immersed in these theories, they begin to find it more difficult to dismiss the connections they are seeing and making as completely artificial constructions. They also find that the devotees of these ideas are unwilling to let them keep their knowledge, whether it’s true or not, to themselves.
There’s a lot about this book to enjoy. Conspiracy theories are fun to read about, and Eco doesn’t seem to take these ideas especially seriously. He does, however, sometimes pile on too much information and too many esoteric terms, and it was hard to figure out which names and places and groups were actually important to the central plot. Eventually, I decided that the sheer volume of information was sort of the point and that the details weren’t really important. To try to get it all to make sense would just lead to madness, which is perhaps what Eco is getting at.