Sunday, November 18, 2007

Fiction: Foucault’s Pendulum

Translated by William Weaver

1. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988, ISBN 0-15-132765-3; Hardcover $33.00.
2. Ballantine, 1990, ISBN 0-345-36875-4; Mass Market Paperback $7.99

One of the most paranoid and complex novels written since Gravity’s Rainbow, Foucault’s Pendulum is a riveting account of one man’s voyage into the unknown; but whether he’s on a journey to enlightenment or a bad trip into a nightmare world of paranoia is a haunting uncertainty.
A conspiracy story on a grand scale, Foucault’s Pendulum was originally published in 1988 as Pendolo di Foucault, and draws from the same well often visited by Jorge Luis Borges, H.P. Lovecraft, Thomas Pynchon, Milorad Pavic, and Robert Anton Wilson. (Just as Eco’s novel would set the stage for the current generation of pop-historical thrillers such The Da Vinci Code.) Foucault’s Pendulum is set in a universe where fact mingles imperceptibly with fiction, where secret societies chart the true course of human evolution, and the occult exerts its subversive influence on reality in ways barely glimpsed by the average individual. Here the Templars and the Illuminati trade secrets in the darkened house of ignorance, and the lightbearers are only as trusty as their Ur-father, Lucifer.
Or it could all be an illusion.
A sprawling tale that connects the hermetic traditions of countless cultures across thousands of years, the actual plot begins simply in present-day Milan. Here, an Italian Colonel expresses his fears about a Templar conspiracy to a pair of editors named Belbo and Diotallevi and their friend Casaubon, a doctoral student and an expert on Templar history. (Belbo, the senior editor and proud owner of a new computer, is a loosely autobiographical character; he has an apartment in Milan and a summer house in northern Italy, smokes copious amounts of cigarettes, and enjoys whiskey. Although his adult life is different from his creator’s, many of Belbo’s childhood memories from Piedmont are drawn from Eco’s actual life.) Entertained by the sheer grandiosity of the Colonel’s cliché-ridden story, the trio’s amusement turns to consternation when the Colonel is soon reported missing. Perhaps he was not quite the crackpot he seemed?
The mystery of the Colonel’s disappearance tunes the trio more closely to occult wavelengths, and as they pursue their lives across the next several years, they notice more and more connections between various religious doctines, hermetic systems, and pseudo-historical conspiracy theories. From the Templars to the Rosicrucians, from lost underground cities to Brazilian Candomblé, everything seems to develop sinister interconnections. Eventually they are reunited in Milan, and as fate would have it, they are placed on a project to publish a series of books on esoteric lore. Their work plunges them even deeper into the telluric world of concealed truths, and soon they decide to synthesize everything they’ve learned into an apocryphal tale of their own, formulating one vast, all-encompassing Plan reflecting the secret history of the world. They are helped by a mysterious individual who claims to be immortal, as well as Belbo’s new computer, Abulafia. But as the Plan grows, the men find that it becomes harder and harder to ignore its many ramifications. Within time, the Plan assumes a life of its own, and as everything starts to fall apart at the seams, the men begin to question their own sanity – and perhaps the nature of reality itself.
It’s this inevitable descent into uncertainty and madness that Eco captures so masterfully, and Foucault’s Pendulum is filled with literary devices that mirror its arcane world. Using a framework loosely based on the Qabalah, Eco employs a wide range of elements that juxtapose the modern and the ancient, the supernatural and the scientific. Computer entries show the powers of modern technology while simultaneously crunching numbers for antique formulae. Flashbacks set the idyllic scenes of childhood against the painfully adult quest for identity. Sharp postmodern ironies stab through dense tapestries of gothic horror. The reader is taken on a disorienting ride through centuries of thought, ideas flashing by on every side, but somehow Eco manages to keep the focus on his characters. Indeed, after a while one feels all too close to the poor soul narrating this awful tale, this Casaubon whose final destiny is suggested at the very beginning of the book.
As in his previous novel, The Name of the Rose, Eco makes sure that his dazzling surface rests upon a firm foundation, and he seeks to actively engage the reader in a deeper play of ideas. From very early in the book, the reader is served with Pendulum’s underlying subject matter: the importance of symbols, the meaning of secrets, and the reality of universal truths. Using the wand of his esoteric narrative, Eco summons up several centuries’ worth of hermetic systems, alphabets, symbologies, and ciphers; and through the eyes of Casaubon and his associates they are examined, cross-referenced, deconstructed, refuted, discarded, resurrected and ultimately believed, rejected, or tabled for further discussion. Throughout this arduous process a few nagging questions arise, and it is here that the reader is truly challenged, forced to confront the central issues of the sprawling tale. Eco presents us with the notion that our symbols and alphabets are merely constructs, mirrors that reflect back only what meaning we desire to see. But if these devices are only containers for meaning, what then is meaning itself? Is meaning universal, relative, or completely artificial? How is meaning related to belief? Does our belief engineer our reality, or is it the exact opposite? Is belief a prison, or is it a form of ultimate freedom? What power have we placed in belief, in secrets, in mysteries? And what if the essence of something is concealed – does revelation await the diligent, or merely layers and layers of signifiers with no objective reality? Does the mystery of belief lie in the concealment of these “truths” to all but the devout? And if there is some kind of universal truth, how can it be realized in a universe guided by ostensibly random and meaningless principles? And given all this, what then is the difference between belief and madness, or between doubt and madness?
In one particularly brilliant chapter, Casaubon’s girlfriend uses common sense and a trust in simplicity to refute nearly the entire history of the occult, overturning countless hermetic secrets with a simple wave of her hand, reducing a network of conspiracies to the importance of a laundry list. In many ways, this chapter acts as an almost Borgesian refutation of the entire novel, and undermines any confidence we may have in an ultimate resolution. Like Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 or Darren Aronofsky’s film Pi, we are left suspended between two mutually exclusive systems of thought. As the novel progresses, these contradictions and attendant paranoias press deeper into the mind of the narrator, and as the plot accelerates towards the singularity established in the beginning of the book, the borderline between inspiration and insanity grows increasingly more tenuous – for both Casaubon and the reader. But just as the ending is reached, suddenly—