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.

The Seven Madmen – Roberto Arlt

I read a lot, and believe me, all the books from Europe are full of the same current of bitterness and despair you speak of in your own life. Just look at the United States. Movie stars have platinum ovary implants; and there are murderers trying to beat the record for the most horrible crime. You’ve been around, you’ve seen it. House after house, different faces but the same hearts. Humanity has lost its ability to celebrate, to feel joy. Mankind is so unhappy it’s even lost God! Even a 300-horsepower engine is only fun when driven by a madman who is likely to smash himself to pieces in a ditch. Man is a sad animal who only rejoices in wonders. Or massacres. Well, in our society we’ll make sure we give them wonders–plagues of Asiatic cholera, myths, the discovery of gold deposits or diamond mines. I’ve seen it when we two talk. You only come alive when some fresh wonder is mentioned. It’s the same with everyone, criminal or saint.

He tried in vain to concentrate on the two projects he considered important: adapting steam engines to electro-magnetics, and the idea of setting up a dog salon where people could get their pets dyed electric blue, their bulldogs bright green, purple grey-hounds, lilac fox-terriers, lapdogs with three-toned photos of sunsets printed across their backs, little pooches with swirls like a Persian rug.

Set in 1920s Argentina, The Seven Madmen opens with the protagonist, Remo Erdosain, having a very, very bad day. An anonymous tip came in to the firm where he works as a collector alerting management to his skimming cash and he is given an ultimatum. Hunting for six hundred pesos to pay back the company, Erdosain reaches out to The Astrologer, a messianic revolutionary, whose friends willingly lends him the cash. Then Erdosain’s wife leaves him, and he is once again driven into the arms of the Astrologer. In the midst of this cadre Erdosain is inducted into the Astrologer’s plot to bring about a utopian society that will simultaneously liberate people and entirely dominate them. Rationalism, they believe, has enslaved people and destroyed their capacity for pleasure. In order to save the souls, society must regress; in order to take over society they need machine guns and chemical weapons.

The plan, such as it is, will be financed state-sanctioned brothels run by a pimp known as the Melancholy Thug until the mining operations under the guidance of the Gold Prospector and industry under Erdosain can get off the ground. However, to start the first brothel, they need start-up cash. As it happens, Erdosain knows that his wife’s cousin Barsut has inherited money and learns that Barsut was the anonymous informant who cost him his job. Revenge and utility go hand in hand as the revolutionaries decide to kidnap Barsut and take his money.

The Seven Madmen is a novel best described as feverish, in the vein of Dostoevsky or Gogol. The prose is hurried and at times barely coherent, as it flits between delusion, vision, dream, and reality. Its central tension is between enlightenment rationality and the human nature that they argue relies on miracles, wonders, and the divine to have purpose and happiness in life.

“There will be two castes in this new society, with a gap between them…or rather, an intellectual void of some thirty centuries between the two. The majority will live carefully kept in the most complete ignorance, surrounded by apocryphal miracles, which are far more interesting than the historical kind, while the minority will be the ones who have access to science and power. That is how happiness will be guaranteed for the majority, because the people of this caste will be in touch with the divine world, which today they are lacking. The minority will administer the herd’s pleasures and miracles, and the golden age, the age in which angels will roam among paths at twilight and gods are seen by moonlight, will come to pass.”

“But that’s a monstrous idea. It could never happen.”

“Why not? Oh, I know it couldn’t happen, but we have to proceed as if it were possible.”

The plotters believe themselves to taking on the noble burden of truth while they take up the mantle of power. They will give everyone else the gift of lies like those spun by the Astrologer that take on the substance of truth.

The Seven Madmen careens toward the start of their revolution, but ends before the plan can get off the ground. On one level this end point is indicative its incompletion, but on another, it offers the novel as precariously balanced between the broad revolution with cosmic importance and Erdosain’s intensely personal vendetta that he veils with delusions of grandeur. The resultant story is a brilliant study of the Buenos Aires slums, the revolutionary passions of 1920s Argentina, and wider movements (i.e. fascism) circulating at the time, but one that threatens to tip into madness.

I loved this book. It is not an uplifting vision of society, but it is in some small ways prophetic.

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Next up, I am finally reading Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, which I am enjoying much more than I did when I last tackled this book. It is certainly helpful that I am more familiar with a lot of its literary and philosophical references than I was the last time around.