Novel * Umberto Eco * ALL the Conspiracies * 1988
I’m probably never going to read The Da Vinci Code. I tried once. I got like four pages in, my brain glossed over and all I could see was the word “nope!” I know this makes me a hopeless snob, but bad prose just grates against my brain, and Dan Brown writes some truly bad prose. And of course who cares because he’s a bajillionaire and everyone’s read his books and whatever. The reason for that book’s great success is not because the author is actually good at his job, it’s because there was something within that story that resonated with a good many people at that particular time. Despite not having read it, a phenomenon like The Da Vinci Code seeps into the general consciousness, so it’s pretty clear that the kernel within the story is this: reality is not what it seems.
Umberto Eco’s novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, tackles many of the same themes and is generally referencing same kinds of ideas that The Da Vinci Code popularized 15 years later. It’s also a much better book, which I base entirely on being able to get through more than four pages before setting it down in prim, snobbish disdain. This is not to say that Foucault’s Pendulum is without flaws, of course. The main issue I had getting through this – and it took a good deal longer than most of the books I read – is the density of the material. There are a lot of references to things I know little about. These aren’t just glib references or brief asides, either. All the historically based secret societies and occult practices and other fringe knowledge that I recognize from pop culture but have never really got into are mentioned, and then expounded upon in great detail by Eco.
The conspiracies and secret societies and the occult are all here, and at the same time are being made into a long, complicated joke by Eco. The Knights Templar, and the Holy Grail, and the Assassins, and the Illuminati, and the Freemasons, and the Jesuits, and a bunch of other groups that I’ve not yet run across in an Assassin’s Creed game all show up and are given detailed histories. Where pop culture stories like the aforementioned videogame or The Da Vinci Code or, heh, National Treasure use some of those names as a launching pad for fun, silly, nonsense, Foucault’s Pendulum digs deep into the history and background of all these things. Despite this attachment for historical veracity, Eco is still writing a satire here. Despite spending pages upon pages discussing the historical background of the Knights Templar, the idea that their descendants are still around dictating world events are treated as ridiculous. The characters within the story feel the same way, at first, but as they keep digging they eventually become swayed by their own strings of nonsense.
There’s a narrative here, alongside and at times underneath all of the history and philosophy and religious theorizing. The story centers on two major characters, the narrator Casaubon, who is a historical scholar, and his collaborator and friend Belbo. There’s a third guy, but he doesn’t seem to be as vital to the story so for the sake of simplicity we’ll leave him aside for now. Belbo’s a weird dude. He has a passion for creating fiction but refuses to write because he thinks he’s unworthy, so he just hangs out in dive bars, moons over unattainable women, and drinks. Casaubon is also a weird guy, but since he’s the narrator he comes off as the more grounded one. Most of the story is told in flashback form, which can be disorienting when the story snaps back to the present, or skips forward in time (although not quite so far at the actual present), especially when combined with the constant, almost didactic nature of the historical and occult references.
The basic idea of the story is fairly straightforward. These three buddies, while slinging around archaic knowledge about stuff like the Templars, start getting into the conspiracy theories and the attendant secret societies that surround them. At first it’s all hilarious. After all, these are serious-minded (for the most part) historians, scholars, and writers. Then, as a joke, they decide to start injecting their own conspiracies into the world, which they call The Plan. This is all based on totally random connections aided by a computer program designed to randomize information. Once the “connections” are made, the three jokers concoct ridiculous narratives to go alongside them. Oh, you cards. Thing is, they get caught up in their own creation. They become obsessive and strange. Then to add further problems, people who really do take all this seriously, decide that The Plan is real and come after the three scholarly knuckleheads. And who are they to say that their seemingly random connections weren’t real after all?
Reality, that’s who to say. In the case of Foucault’s Pendulum, the viewpoint of reality is given over to Casaubon’s special lady, Lia. She doesn’t show up much, and she doesn’t have very many lines. However, her role is still pretty important. While Casaubon is slowly falling under the spell of his own creations, she remains with him – pregnant with his child – to point out just how extremely stupid all of this is. Not only that, she’s the first person to point out the possible danger involved with these kind of conspiracy theorists. As Casaubon, and to a greater extent Belbo (since he does not have a reality-anchor like Lia in his life), become more obsessed with their material and more convinced of its truth, their overall health begins to suffer. The third guy, Diotallevi, who I’ve totally glossed over, is eventually diagnosed with cancer, which of course he blames on The Plan and the uncovering of dangerous knowledge. Eventually this danger ends up consuming all of them.
What started out as a joke become deadly serious for a modern secret society which calls themselves Tres, which was a random creation of our trio of brilliant idiots. Belbo went too far, pulled too much out of thin air, and was too convincing. He convinced these occultists that he had a great secret, a map, which would point to a crazy Templar treasure which would allow this entirely made-up secret society to rule the world. Rather than admit that all this was total fiction, Belbo eventually runs afoul of these guys, gets kidnapped, and is eventually killed in a super-weird scene involving the titular Pendulum. Casaubon witnesses the whole thing, is then certain that he’s next, and bounces. The novel ends with Casaubon hiding in Belbo’s childhood home waiting for the pack of occultists to show up and murder him. At no point does Casaubon consider going to sane Lia, back in reality. Instead he claims understanding, and waits for the death which may or may not (probably not) be coming.
This is the point where I confess that I do not understand everything which Eco is doing. A lot of text and time is spent describing Belbo’s childhood and his subsequent dysfunctional mode of living and avoiding relationships. I assume there’s a good deal of symbolism (about a trumpet in particular) that didn’t resonate with me. Then there’s Foucault’s Pendulum itself, which I’m told is a “simple” experiment that I don’t understand at all that proves physics or something. Please don’t come to me for science. I think what it does is show the rotation of the Earth, although Casaubon is over here telling me that the Pendulum is attached to the focal point of the universe or some shit, which seemed like mystical nonsense to me until I looked up the Wikipedia article and now I’m looking at something called an inertial frame of reference within the context of Mach’s principle and I understand none of this, and since this is all way over my head, I could easily make my brain hurt less by just inventing explanations to make myself feel better.
Humans are not that great at complexity. We’re even worse at accepting the meaningless and the random. The more people who inhabit the earth, the larger the social structures must become to accommodate them, and the more impersonal the world feels. These massive, abstract systems move at their own pace and of their own accord. Individuals, even powerful ones, begin to matter less and less. Events happen and the aftermath which follows seems to unfold for no discernable reason, other than to sow chaos in a world with nothing even resembling a unified vision present to provide solace. Stories which seem to make plausible connections between these events or recognizable individuals have a great soothing power to them. If there’s a Plan in place, no matter how diabolical, at least we can rest assured that someone, somewhere, knows what the fuck they’re doing. That’s why conspiracies are so compelling.
In the case of Foucault’s Pendulum, the entire history of Europe is pushing society towards some great fulmination of secret plans and machinations over the centuries. There’s an entire secret world slowly unspooling unknowable but sacrosanct plans in order to exact control of a society that’s falling apart on the surface. When the time is ripe, the conspirators will emerge from the mists of time and implement their master plan to put humanity back on the straight and narrow. Of course, what’s weird about this is that most of these secret societies and conspirators are depicted as evil, and many of the most fervent believers in these stories are worried for the freedom of chaos. However, that’s a paradox endemic to the concept of conspiracy. These stories, be it 9/11 truthers or those waiting for the Knights Templar to return, are a comfort in their simplicity and as evidence that world events happen for a clear reason. They also present a focal point for animosity. It’s much easier to say “George Bush did 9/11” than work through the socio-political history and trends behind the actual event. This novel pushes back at this notion, while still illustrating the allure of such stories. In the end, none of the things The Plan were concerned with were real. However, real world consequences were born from the belief in them. Blind belief is the danger, not a secret cabal of mystical occult leaders.
Of course none of this means anything, because we all know the world is flat. Duh.