The Limits of Interpretation
Interpretation and Overinterpretation
Six Walks in the Fictional Woods
How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays
At the beginning of Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum, there are two epigraphs. Every chapter of this book also has an epigraph, so these are particularly prominent—they come before everything else. One is a quotation from an occultist writer, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim. The other is from a contemporary logician, Raymond Smullyan: “Superstitition brings bad luck.” The quotations bring together two obsessions in which much of Eco’s work is involved, one with logical paradox, the other with obscure facts about Hermetic traditions, magical riddles, prophecies, the cabbala, and interpretations of history and nature according to complex, hidden, and often conspiratorial patterns.
As its many readers know, such things are themselves the subject of Foucault’s Pendulum. At its center is the idea of a vast trans-historical Plan, initiated by the Knights Templar and involving the Holy Grail, the Society of the Rosy Cross, numerological ratios, the Great Pyramid, Freemasons, the Seven Dwarfs, and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In the novel, the contemporary characters, Milanese publishers who get sucked into the world of this conspiracy, turn out to have been deluded; “the interpretative frenzy of my monomaniacs,” as Eco calls it in Interpretation and Overinterpretation, is checked when a young woman, more sensible than her friends, plausibly conjectures that the central document is a “laundry list,” as it is from then on unquestioningly called: though while it is a list, it does not seem to be a list of laundry.
However, even if the Plan turns out in the book, as in history, to be a myth, Eco does not think that nothing is left over from it. We are invited into the “excess of wonder” that leads the Hermetic interpreter on, and at the end of the novel there are some strange events to wonder at. Moreover, we are invited, by the existence of the novel and the material that Eco assembled in it, to wonder at the strange processes of “Hermetic semiosis” itself.
Eco sees quite clearly what is wrong with the principles of interpretation (mainly of texts, but also of events) that lead to the paranoid belief in the Plan. They permit everything, because any similarity or association, of the many different kinds that were exploited, as Eco explains, by the Renaissance “art of memory,” is enough to get them going; the plant called orchis can stand for the testicles (by similarity of shape), or the crow for the Ethiopians (by similarity of color), or the ant for Providence (by a hieroglyphic relation), and since, as Eco says, “from a certain point of view, everything bears relationships of analogy, contiguity and similarity to everything else,” by exploiting “a false transitivity” you can get anywhere from anywhere. As a result, there can be no final Hermetic secret:
Every object…hides a secret… The ultimate secret of hermetic initiation is that everything is secret…Hermetic thought transforms the whole…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.