Foucault’s Pendulum – Umberto Eco

True esotericism does not fear contradiction.

People are starved for plans. If you offer them one, they fall on it like a pack of wolves. You invent, and they’ll believe. It’s wrong to add to the inventings that already exist.

Foucault’s pendulum, this novel’s eponymous device, swings in the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers in Paris and one theory holds that, with the right map, its movements will reveal the navel of the world and allow the user to access ultimate power. But this is only a conspiracy theory, right?

Foucault’s Pendulum is narrated by Casaubon, whose doctoral dissertation was on the historical facts surrounding the Knights Templar, though he insists that everything after the trial of Jacque de Molay belongs in the realm of myth. After graduating, Casaubon goes to work for press in Milan with his fellow editors Belbo and Diotallevi that specializes in the work of self-funded authors—-the realm of obsessives and those who see conspiracies at every turn. One of their potential authors is Colonel Ardenti, who claims to have discovered a message, in code, of course, concerning a Templar plot for world domination that spans centuries. But that contract falls through when Ardenti disappears.

Life happens and years go by, including a sojourn in Brazil for Casaubon, but around every corner is evidence of Ardenti’s Templar plot. By the 1980s all three editors are back in Milan and starting a division of the press that specializes in the occult. Years of reading books on cabala, conspiracies, and the occult has them seeing ever more evidence for the Templar plot until they decide to start feeding facts into a computer that will generate connections between disparate pieces of evidence. What they discover is a grand conspiracy that has been ongoing in its current iteration for more than six hundred years, but has been the principle motivator of world events for far longer.

Most of Foucault’s Pendulum‘s narrative takes place in the imagination of the three editors as retold by Casaubon. Nevertheless, the breadth of their knowledge makes the unfolding of the plot an intellectual tour de force, finding even the most improbable connections.

There was, however, one plot point that did not hold up for me: the computer. Set in 1990, the computer of Foucault’s Pendulum is touted as advanced (since Belbo was an early adopter) and capable of finding connections between any facts, but those data points must be manually entered. The editors use a few locked points (that the Templar plot is real) and call upon the computer to spit out connections to their inquiries. My issues with this plot point are two, one in terms of how the book aged and one in terms of the book itself.

First, the idea of a computer that can process information and return answers is all well and good, but I think that it has aged poorly simply in terms of the computing power currently available and the huge amount of data available through the internet. Similar ideas are at play in, for instance, the t.v. show Person of Interest, but on a more modern scale. This is not to discredit Foucault’s Pendulum, but rather to say that the device seems somewhat quaint at this point.

Second, and more pertinent to the plot of Foucault’s Pendulum is that the editors believe that the computer is producing connections in response to their questions, but answers are always oblique, requiring interpretation. This is probably Eco’s intention, meant to demonstrate a fatal flaw from the outset. The willful ignorance that makes up a significant portion of the plot would have bothered me less had it entirely been the result of human error, but the insertion of a technological wizard behind the curtain struck me as a relatively weak red-herring.

I really liked Foucault’s Pendulum overall. It was a stimulating mystery that also serves as a profound meditation on the foibles of human imagination and power of belief. The novel sprawls out, and only accelerates as it nears the conclusion, but this is necessary since the big reveal relies on a lifetime of accumulating evidence. I might have wished for just a bit more at points, but that should not detract from what is, ultimately, an immensely impressive novel.

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Next up is Philip K. Dick’s Dr. Futurity.

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