Foucault's Pendulum

Geoffrey Sauer

Humanitas: 12 February 1990

'Listen, Jacopo, I thought of a good one: Urban Planning for Gypsies.'
'Great,' Belbo said admiringly. 'I have one, too: Aztec Equitation.'
'Excellent. But would that go with Potio-section or the Anynata?'
'We'll have to see.' Belbo said. He rummaged in his drawer and took out some sheets of paper. 'Potio-section...' He looked at me, saw my bewilderment. 'Potio-section, as everybody knows, is the art of slicing soup. No, no,' he said to Diotallevi. 'It's not a department, it's a subject, like Mechanical Avunculogratulation or Pylocatabasis. They all fall under the heading of Tetrapyloctomy.'
'What's tetra...?'
'The art of splitting a hair four ways. Mechanical
Avunculogratulation, for example, is how to build machines for greeting uncles.' (74)


The above quotation seems an apt microcosm of Foucault's Pendulum: at once amusing, bewildering, ironic, exceedingly intellectual, and eminently unlikable. Umberto Eco's novel, only released in an English hardcover late last year, is a second expedition into the novel form by the Italian scholar and acclaimed author of The Name of the Rose. This adventure is an detective story about a search for the center of an ancient, still-living conspiracy of men who seek not merely power over the earth but over the psychic, 'telluric' powers of the earth itself, and who in the end draw their pursuers into a circle (a pentagram?) where discovery of the truth is lethal. The story is inordinately difficult to follow -- its encyclopedic richness of historical detail breaks any smooth transparency of prose -- but it is not meant to be easy. Neither was The Name of the Rose, which became a bestseller, even if one wonders how many actually read all of it. Foucault's Pendulum will almost certainly achieve recognition as well, for it is a complex artifact of Eco's postmodern aesthetic at work in a traditional literary form: in this case like his first novel, the detective thriller.
Eco is an active scholar, and forges links between his academic and popular works. In a 1988 essay 'Dreaming of the Middle Ages,' the Italian identified ten types of nostalgic neo-medievalism. Number nine he labelled the Middle Ages of Tradition, 'an eternal and rather eclectic ramshackle structure swarming with Knights Templar, Rosicrucians, alchemists, and Masonic initiates;' that passage seems a prophetic formula for Foucault's Pendulum -- itself the celebration of the attempt to rediscover that world. If nothing else the work is undeniably 'eternal': the only reason the volume doesn't reach seven hundred pages is because Eco declines to finish it properly. It isn't even really a novel in the strict sense of the word, more a sort of formidable gathering of information, delivered playfully by a master manipulating his own invention -- a long, erudite (if often dry), joke.


The novel as narration is put into the mouth of Causaubon, a scholar who writes his doctoral dissertation on the Knights Templar, and establishes himself a business in Milan, styling himself a kind of Sam Spade of information (a 'regular Joe' Mycroft Holmes? a lean, married, Nero Wolfe?). For a price, he will track down any fact -- even though he seems to know everything already (except that he is named for the scholar of George Eliot's Middlemarch, who also knew everything though it did him no good). He accepts a job as consultant for the Garamond Press, and joins Jacopo Belbo (a commonsensical Piedmontese companion) and Diotallevi (an ex-foundling Piedmontese, who fancies himself Jewish). These three spend most of their time drunk or bored, creating parodic word-games, and ridiculing anyone who takes himself seriously. Belbo's favorite sentence he saves for pretentiousness, 'Ma gavte la nata,' which means something like 'take the cork out [of his ass] and let the wind out.'
These three -- 'clowns' is perhaps the best word for them -- in their research for a book entitled The History of Metals, advertise for manuscripts about the diabolical histories of secret societies. If the story so far seems to veer a bit, just wait -- it gets better. They decide as a game to feed all the hermetic plots that ever were into their computer. The results go beyond even paranoid fantasy: the unexplained phenomena of history, they find, can be fitted into a single, cosmic plan that embraces opposites, provide better interpretations than orthodox history has of certain past events, and reveals the greatest secret of history. What every major society of Europe, from the thirteenth century onward, has wanted -- Templars, Rosicrucians, Masons, Jesuits, even Nazis, we discover -- is control of the Earth's 'telluric currents,' the psychic forces which control the land, seas, and skies.
The pre-Celts built Stonehenge; the Gothics erected immense cathedral spires; Eiffel contrived his tower. Why? 'What need did Paris have of this useless monument? It's the celestial probe, the antenna that collects information from every hermetic valve stuck into the planet's crust!' This, the ultimate conspiracy, synthesizes all possible conspiracies -- though the list is so comprehensive one wonders precisely who they're plotting against. No matter. A plot is a structure, a semiotic fabrication. Umberto Eco is a professor of semiotics, a grand master of codes, signs, and hidden meanings. The obsessiveness of the three Italians becomes contagious, and soon no single fact seems innocent.
What is truly remarkable is how compelling 'the Plan' can seem, though the reader knows it to be false. It cannot be true; we watch, as the word processor groups together facts with its random number generator -- any resulting coherence must surely be accidental. And reading the novel, it is possible to watch the three become obsessed and irrational, fabricating unlikely 'ifs' in order to fit missing pieces. One feels exhausted when the puzzle's last pieces are fitted into place.

'Not bad, not bad at all,' Diotallevi said. 'To arrive at the truth through the painstaking reconstruction of a false text.' (459)

the pendulum as analog

Eco first heard about the pendulum (which swings in the Conservatoire des Arts et Mètiers in Paris) from a professor of civil engineering and architecture at Cornell University. The instrument, a twenty-eight kilo silver ball with a needle point, hanging by wire from a fixed point on the ceiling sixty-seven meters above, was invented by Jean Bernard Lèon Foucault (1819-68) to demonstrate the rotation of the earth; it swings perpetually, given momentum by the instability of the solid floor beneath it. The mechanism itself seems harmless, the confirmation of a comforting permanence, but turns sinister toward the end.
Causaubon becomes irritated early in the novel by the indifference of passersby to the pendulum's miracle:

"Above her head was the only stable point in the cosmos, the only refuge from the damnation of the panta rei, and she guessed it was the pendulum's business, not hers. A moment later the couple went off -- he, trained on some textbook that had blunted his capacity for wonder, she, inert and insensitive to the thrill of the infinite, both oblivious of the awesomeness of their encounter -- with the One, the Ein-Sof, the Ineffable. How could you fail to kneel before this altar of certitude?" (6)

The poetry of the pendulum is the poetry of Eco's novel, and of history itself. One writes a novel as Causaubon, Belbo and Diotallevi write their 'Plan' -- in order to rewrite history -- a history in which they then become a part. The pendulum, privileged, looms over the lunacy, scorn, and fear of the world because its point of attachment, alone in the universe, is fixed -- wherever you choose to put it. This 'centeredness' so desired by the cabalists' metaphysics, by Italian scholars' cynicism, of poetry and history are only possible because of the force which maintains the pendulum.
It takes over six hundred pages to get from our first view of the Pendulum to the last. These pages are crammed not with action but with information. I happened to be writing on fifteenth-century Venetian printers and was not surprised to find them there. If you want to know about the Gregorian calendar, or the theory that the Holy Grail is really St. Mary Magdalene, you will find it here. The book clearly needs an index. Perhaps Dr. Eco has already got his semiology students to work on it; as there was a little volume of metafiction to supplement The Name of the Rose, so may we expect something hermeneutic about its successor.
But in the meantime, all three of Eco's heroes discover with alarm that neither their parody nor their new-found Plan can protect them from a universe ruled simultaneously by both and neither. Diotallevi first is diagnosed as having cancer, and moralizes on his deathbed:

"And what are my cells? For months, like devout rabbis, we uttered different combinations of the letters of the Book. GCC, CGC, GCG, CGG. What our lips said, our cells learned. What did my cells do? They invented a different Plan, and now they are proceeding on their own, creating a history, a unique, private history. My cells have learned that you can blaspheme by anagrammizing the Book, and all the books of the world. And they have learned to do this now with my body. They invert, transpose, alternate, transform themselves into cells unheard of, new cells without meaning, or with meaning contrary to the right meaning. There must be a right meaning and a wrong meaning; otherwise you die. My cells joke, without faith, blindly."

Similarly Belbo meets an unpleasant fate, trapped by his own creation, the TRÉS conspiracy come to life and curious about his secret knowledge. In the Paris Conservatoire, at midnight, in the pendulum room, he confronts his fiction-turned-real.

'Now you will speak,' Aglie said. 'You will speak, and you will join the great game. If you remain silent, you are lost. If you speak, you will share in the victory....this night you and I and all of us are in Hod, the Sefirah of splendor, majesty, and glory; Hod, which governs ritual and ceremonial magic; Hod, the moment when the curtain of eternity is parted. I have dreamed of this moment for centuries. You will speak, and you will join the only ones who will be entitled, after your revelation, to declare themselves Masters of the World. Humble yourself, and you will be exalted. You will speak because I order you to speak, and my words efficiunt quod figurant!'
And Belbo, now invincible, said, 'Ma gavte la nata...'

The proximity of the pendulum's focus, the center of the universe, ennobles and melodramatizes both. Belbo is killed, magnificently, symbolically, hung by the wire of the pendulum. Causaubon's final monologue reflects the uncertainty with which he awaits his fate.

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