The obsessed or distracted scholar, who knows so much about the cosmos in general that he doesn’t see what’s under his nose, is an ancient figure of fun. Thales of Miletus was the first. The foremost astronomer of his age, he was walking home one night with his eyes fixed on the constellations when he stumbled and fell into a ditch. From the shadows where she was watching, a kitchen wench of Miletus saw the philosopher’s pratfall and giggled “teehee.” The tinkle of her laughter has resounded down the ages—the twenty-five centuries—ever since.
Big thinkers are subject to big obsessions. Their eyes are fixed on the positive evidence, and oblivious of everything else; their busy minds expand theories, extrapolate hypotheses, and invent logical structures, perhaps scenarios, even plots, at stroboscopic speed. Common sense, at the exalted level of their thinking, they’re entitled to disregard. It’s their business to grasp at straws and make cathedrals out of them. Especially nowadays, when paranoia is openly proclaimed the only secure guard against delusion, literature has exploited a long list of visionary crackbrained narrators whose double-focused awareness of symbol behind surface makes rich grist for fiction’s ironic mill. Kafka, Borges, Nabokov, Hesse, Gadda, Bellow, and Arno Schmidt are only the first names of a long list; their literary ancestry reaches back through Nerval, Novalis, and Hoffmann to Doctor Pangloss, Monsieur Panurge, through cabalists, alchemists, mages, and charlatans beyond number toward the Gnostics, the Zoroastrians, and the miscellaneous mystical fabulators of the Hellenistic Mediterranean basin. From taking a collector’s interest in the varicolored species of distracted scholar, it’s only a short step to sounding like one of the breed oneself.
Obsession is the first premise of Umberto Eco’s second novel, Foucault’s Pendulum. It is an encyclopedist’s black comedy, sprawling across close to a millennium, from the first crusade to last year, and wandering around at least three continents. In mere physical dimensions, it’s surely close to a world’s record shaggy-dog story. Like his Renaissance forebear, Rabelais, Eco never uses one word where fifty will do, never hesitates to provide all the circumstantial preliminaries of a basically simple process. When the pace slows or the scenery turns drab, he resorts for extended periods to Steven Spielberg special effects, to pastiche, parody, and Grand Guignol. Best of all, he doesn’t take himself too seriously; in the midst of his most macabre scenes, there’s a continual flow of high spirits that raises this second novel well above (as it seems to me) the first one, The Name of the Rose. Not that both books don’t have their longueurs. Professor Eco is a word man, and when his always incipient logorrhea takes over, there’s nothing to do but step aside and let the spate run its course.
Without giving away too much of the story (which in any case has to be straightened out if a summary of it is …