Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco; drawing by David Levine

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 to make any sense), it can be taken as a premise that three jocose young fellows—Belbo, Diotallevi, and Casaubon—are working for a seedy vanity publisher in present-day Milan, Signor Garamond(!). Provoked by the number of occult and esoteric manuscripts that have to be read, the junior editors persuade the semiliterate Garamond to set up a division of the press that will specialize in hermetic books. Most of the materials, it is agreed, will be secondhand garbage, copied out of previous rehashes of ill-translated popularizations of thoroughly dubious work. No matter; anything fresh or original would upset a market that has been flourishing for years. The staler the stuff, the better for Garamond’s projected readership. And of prospective copy for those readers there is no end. There are so many writers turning out the stuff that some of them may even read one another’s copy. And in any event, between flattery, suasion, and sharp practice, they can all be made to pay for the printing of their own lucubrations.

Thus the piratical enterprise gets under way, in a spirit rather like that of Wells’s Tono-Bungay; but it is given a particular twist by the circumstance that Casaubon, for his doctoral dissertation, has investigated the history of the Knights Templar. At some length, but with the zest of an enthusiast, he recites the story. The chivalric order of the Knights Templar began in 1119 as a protective service for pilgrims going to and from the newly conquered Holy Land. For many interrelated reasons, the order grew and flourished mightily: grateful pilgrims gave donations, a kindly church remitted taxation, and the knights picked up from their intimate Saracen enemies some rather sophisticated commercial practices.

Whether they also picked up and brought back to Europe some fairly radical religious ideas is much debated; it’s not impossible, and there is some belated evidence to that effect. With the blessings of Saint Bernard, they certainly flourished in the Church and in the world—till the fall of 1308, when (for reasons and under circumstances that have been bitterly debated ever since), the French monarchy abruptly disbanded the order and arrested its grand master, Jacques de Molay. Some of the knights were executed, the rest dispersed; after several trials, Jacques de Molay was burned at the stake for repudiating previous confessions of heresy and blasphemy. Apparently that finished the order. Yet a tradition persisted of a group of crypto-Templars, possessing secret wisdom and enormous wealth. Sometimes they were thought to be disguised as Rosicrucians, sometimes as Freemasons; on occasion they were thought to be allied with heretical communities like the Cathari or the Brethren of the Free Spirit. At no time did they appear publicly. Yet was it not true that when Louis XVI went to the guillotine nearly five hundred years after the grand master went to the stake, someone climbed on the scaffold to shout, “Vengeance for Jacques de Molay!”? It was a cry that still echoed in the ears of William Butler Yeats in the full twentieth century.


This is the story told by Casaubon to his two fellow editors (or, as they soon take to calling themselves, his co-conspirators); and they proceed to build themselves a structure of correspondences and coincidences on the assumption that the old Templars not only survived into the twentieth century as an organized conspiracy but retained dreams of their ancient power. Only, over the centuries, some parts of their invaluable wisdom had been misplaced. It must now be recovered and reassembled, but by whom? The three conspirators, drawing on lavish contributions from manuscripts submitted for publication, but also rummaging through archives and covert cross-references in printed texts, pursue the evidences of this shadowy, transsecular wisdom. In conversation among themselves, they never abandon the formula that this is only a game, a fantastic imaginative invention—but in their heart of hearts they gradually come to believe their own absurdities.

For it all fits; on one level or another every bit of absurdity they can dream up fits with the previously established parts of their structure, confirming it as it confirms them. The law of obsession takes over; a random speculative fact fitted into their established speculative structure suddenly takes on a new luminous meaning. If there’s a gap in the structure, they look for the missing piece, and inevitably, miraculously, they discover it—all the while reassuring one another that they are proceeding by the strictest laws of scholarship. “Grant just one absurdity,” say the severe logicians, “and anything you want can be made to follow (sequitur quodlibet).”

The merry mythplaiters of Milan have an unlimited appetite for absurdities; they accumulate them wholesale. The philosopher’s stone and the gift of immortality are only the beginning; they are easily woven into the Baconian theory of Shakespeare, the tomfooleries of Cagliostro or Madame Blavatsky, and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. All are façades or fronts for the machinations of the mysterious crypto-Templars. Metaphors, in service to the structure, are briskly converted to facts; because some surviving Templars perhaps went underground after 1314, modern descendants of the order are to be sought in cellars, catacombs, sewer lines, and subway systems.

Much of the ancient wisdom consisted in identifying lines of terrestrial force that secretly connect the sacred places of the earth, like Avalon, Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, the monastery-castle of Tomar in Portugal, the rock of the mosque of Omar in Jerusalem, and of course the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in Saint Martin des Champs, which houses Foucault’s pendulum, the device, originally two hundred feet long, that J.B.L. Foucault used in 1851 to prove the rotation of the earth. (The pendulum, as one source puts it, “continued to rotate in a single plane as the earth rotated beneath it, thus leaving a series of traces in the sand in all directions.”)

Everything fits. The great iron erection of the Tour Eiffel is a device for broadcasting rays of cosmic force over the earth; across the Seine the gaudy pipes and tubes of the Beaubourg (Pompidou) Cultural Center are accumulators and distributors of telluric energies coursing through a secret network burning with vital force. (If you’re a logical fussbudget, you may wonder why three of the great power centers of the worldwide network have to be placed within easy walking distance of one another in the heart of Paris; but that’s not the sort of vulgar common sense you’re encouraged to exercise in the great work of system building.)

So far the three accomplices have been nothing but a trio of amateur fantasists meeting occasionally in a back room to play a private game. But their hobby does not go long unnoticed. Under the guise of helping in their investigations, apparently commonplace but pertinacious personages start to infiltrate their councils, instruct them in secret proceedings, bring them into illuminate circles. They attend occult gatherings and are queried by an interested policeman. First one of their informants drops out of sight for entirely imaginable but not very explicit reasons, then another. Gradually it becomes clear to the unfortunate conspirators that they are becoming victims of their own cabal. What began as a private joke has convinced a lot of the miscellaneous crazies in the world, among them the “Diabolicals” who contribute to Garamond’s occult bookshelf, that there really is a world conspiracy to recover the ancient wisdom of the Templars, to assemble the missing parts of the sacred doctrine, and so to rule the world. (Under the cosmological and historical trappings, it is the basic Indiana Jones scenario. What frightens the original trio is not just that people swallow the story, but that they identify themselves as part of it.)


The danger of the joker position becomes clear when someone tries to assassinate Belbo and then succeeds in kidnapping him. Their adventures in the Walpurgisnacht they have stirred up, and the several ways they escape from it, are not for a reviewer to reveal; but the alert reader will not be surprised to hear through the latter pages of the book a remote tinkle of feminine laughter.

What does any of this have to do with the pendulum set up in Paris by the highly respected physicist J.B.L. Foucault? Its purpose, as I have noted, was to demonstrate the rotation of the earth, and that it did—still does, as a matter of fact, wherever a replica of it has been set in motion. But how do the Knights Templar connect with the somewhat diminished version of Foucault’s machine in the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in the old Paris church of Saint Martin des Champs? The connection is diaphanous, atmospheric—fictional, in a word. For Eco a museum of outdated technology is a louche and spooky place to set a story of Gothic intrigue, and the pendulum, as an object uniquely free of the earth’s motion, makes of St. Martin one of the world’s mysterious strong spots. Bonus points come from an unspoken association with the pit and the pendulum of Poe’s short story. But structurally it’s not a very tight joint.

No artist in miniature, Umberto Eco has provided in his new book an overflowing macédoine enriched with hallucinations, excursions, allusions, retrospectives, and parodies from other periods, places, and stylistic traditions. One price of this verbal richness is that the book doesn’t have much space to create characters: most of them are mere stencils. Another consequence of all the verbal richness is that the best way to read the book is fast. One of the major effects at which it aims is kaleidoscope; one doesn’t get, and shouldn’t try to grasp, a moment to assemble the pieces, run down a reverberation, or take in the richness of an overtone.

At a given moment, even a careful reader may not be able to tell whose consciousness he is following; and there are too many verbal byways and offshoots to explore them all. Okay, so Belbo’s computer, which is summoned up to recite sections of the narrative or just to play games, is named Abulafia after a Spanish cabalist of the Middle Ages, and the A of Abulafia is required to give the Milan conspirators initials representing the first four letters of the alphabet. But this is squeezing the juice out of a dried fig. Eco is a joker, a constant joker, but his jokes, like most good ones, have something childish and rowdy about them; they’re open, not cryptic. So far as I can make out, there’s very little in Foucault’s Pendulum akin to the semiotic overtones that provoked a good deal of portentous analysis of The Name of the Rose. Like the movies of Ingmar Bergman, which also suggest many “profound” speculations but which fade overnight into a memory of impressive commonplaces, the novel of Umberto Eco is a structure of impressionistic illusions. Or would be, if it weren’t for the blessed injection of a blunt, tough sense of humor.

The mimetic range of Eco’s verbalizations can only be suggested by quotation. When Belbo’s computer Abulafia is unlocked by Casaubon to roam the fields of free electronic association, he pours forth a line of far from artless gabble:

This is better than real memory, because real memory, at the cost of much effort, learns to remember but not to forget. Diotallevi goes sephardically mad over those palaces with grand staircases, that statue of a warrior doing something unspeakable to a defenseless woman, the corridors with hundreds of rooms, each with the depiction of a portent, and the sudden apparitions, disturbing incidents, walking mummies. To each memorable image you attach a thought, a label, a category, a piece of the cosmic furniture, syllogisms, an enormous sorites, chains of apothegms, strings of hypallages, rosters of zeugmas, dances of hysteron proteron, apophantic logoi, hierarchic stoichea, processions of equinoxes and parallaxes, herbaria, genealogies of gymnosophists—and so on, to infinity.

That’s giving the old Renaissance concept of copia a whole new dimension.

Or note the boldness and intimacy with which Eco flings himself into a hallucinatory fantasy dictated by the disintegrating Belbo to his machine. Starting from the ironic assumption that he is Shakespeare’s editor rewriting a first draft of Hamlet, he plunges through Conrad’s adventure story into the maelstrom of history lashed to a foam by the character’s overwrought brain.

Why not set it in Denmark, Mr. William S.? Seven Seas Jim Johann Valentin Andreä Luke-Matthew roams the archipelago of the Sunda between Patmos and Avalon, from the White Mountain to Mindanao, from Atlantis to Thessalonica to the Council of Nicaea. Origen cuts off his testicles and shows them, bleeding, to the fathers of the City of the Sun, and Hiram sneers filioque filioque while Constantine digs his greedy nails into the hollow eye sockets of Robert Fludd, death death to the Jews of the ghetto of Antioch, Dieu et mon droit, wave the Beauceant, lay on, down with the Ophites and the Borborites, the snakes. Trumpets blare, and here come the Chevaliers Bienfaisants de la Cité Sainte with the Moor’s head bristling on their pike. The Rebis, the Rebis! Magnetic hurricane, the Tower collapses, Rachkovsky grins over the roasted corpse of Jacques de Molay.

Some of these allusions are common knowledge, some can be supplied from other parts of the novel, some are altogether private. The associative connections are mostly arcane. No matter. Discursive expository prose is the common mode of plain sense, but not here. The scene is high tension. Because Eco knows something about the flickering pace of the electronic media, the suggestive powers of swift juxtaposition, he is not bound to statement.

The Name of the Rose was complained of because the exposition got in the way of the narration, and of other fictional values as well; readers were even heard of who failed to stay the distance. Eco’s best friend would hardly deny that in Foucault’s Pendulum he got all the mileage there is out of a single wiredrawn jape. Knowing all there is to know about the occult is knowing a lot that’s not worth knowing in the first place. But most entertainments in our blasé world depend on a precarious suspension of disbelief. Umberto Eco, if not a mage, is a juggler with lots of moves and an almost hypnotic line of patter. It’s a good show, which from time to time almost persuades you to forget the sorcerer’s warning against taking it seriously.

This Issue

November 9, 1989