The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
, Ted Gioia reviews
Foucault's Pendulum
Umberto Eco.
Foucault's Pendulum
by Umberto Eco

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Just as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980)
anticipated Dan Brown’s 2003 bestseller
The Da Vinci Code,
so did Eco’s follow-up book
Foucault’s Pendulum  (1988) point
the way to Brown’s
The Lost Symbol  
(2009).  I am tempted to construct a
conspiracy theory to explain the con-
vergence in the efforts of these two
authors, who are themselves so obses-
sed with conspiracy theories.  For a
start, I suspect the Masons are involved
here—along with the Rosicrucians, the
Jesuits, the Knights Templar, and
maybe the Trilateral Commission as

Eco was unable to match the commercial
success of his debut novel with
.   But who could blame him?
The Name of the Rose  sold a reported fifty million copies
worldwide, and served as the basis for a movie, a video game,
and at least three different board games.  For all I know, Eco
has also made money from baseball caps and coffee cup
licensing, and may be negotiating a theme park ride at Euro
Foucault’s Pendulum  got none of that, not even a
lousy T-shirt.  

But make no mistake, Umberto Eco's second novel is just as
brilliantly conceived and intricately plotted as its predecessor,
and comes equipped with even more historical pageantry and
philosophical speculations.  As with
The Name of the Rose,
this book is ostensibly about books, and the troubles they can
cause.   I know, such a bookish premise hardly seems like a
promising start for an adventure story, but don’t
underestimate Doctor Eco, who previously showed that even
medieval eschatology could inspire as much action and
intrigue as a Lost Ark or missing horcrux.

Eco's three protagonists work in the publishing industry,
where their efforts increasingly focus on trashy books filled
with mad occult speculations and conspiracy theories.  They
have nothing but contempt for the authors of these works, but
out of sheer boredom, they begin constructing their own half-
baked conspiracy theory—which they refer to as
the Plan with
a capital P.  At first, the Plan is merely a private joke and idle
entertainment, but increasingly they work at it in earnest.   

Our narrator, Dr. Causabon, is the driving force of the cohort,
and a specialist in the Knights Templar, the Christian military
order that flourished during the Crusades but was brutally
repressed at the start of the fourteenth century.  Most
historical accounts assume that the Templars ceased to exist
after the execution of the order’s Grand Master Jacques de
Molay, who was burnt at the stake on March 18, 1314.  But
alternative theories hint at the survival of the Templars, even
until modern times, perhaps under the guise of freemasonry or
some other ‘cover’ organization.  

Causabon is a scholar with little sympathy for the mystics and
cranks who obsess about such matters—at least initially.  But
gradually he finds himself dragged into their ranks.  Midway
through the book he begins to fantasize about himself as a kind
of intellectual Sam Spade.  “I had a trade after all,” he decides.  
“I would set up a cultural investigation agency, be a kind of
private eye of learning.”  He even rents an office, which
resembles something out of a Raymond Chandler novel or film
noir thriller.  Yet this glamorous pursuit—think of Causabon as
Bogart with an esoteric Ph.D.—is just a another stage on a
downward spiral towards a loss of intellectual integrity and a
mind-boggling credulity.  In time, Causbon is the one who
needs to seek out specialists in their own offices… in order to
find out whether he has gone leave of his senses.

A reader familiar with author Eco's background in semiotics
and literary theory can’t help wondering whether he is making
fun—or, perhaps more to the point, launching a fierce
epistemological attack—on the deconstructionists and critics
who have taken over the humanities in recent decades.   No,
the Foucault in the novel’s title is not Michel Foucault, but
rather 19th century physicist Léon Foucault, but the trendy
theorists of postmodernism are implicitly taken to task here.  
Eco builds up elaborate structures of interpretation only to
allow them to come crashing to the ground, while the real and
tangible ultimately reveal their primacy over that which is
merely conceptual.  What an odd turn of events for an author
who was an intellectual first—and is still closely associated
with this same post-modern tendency—and only later a

For a novel that operates primarily at the level of conjecture
and hypothesis, Eco finds opportunities to incorporate enough
elements of traditional mystery and adventure stories to keep
his readers deeply engaged in the proceedings.  Causabon and
his publishing house colleague Jacopo Belbo receive a visit
from an author, going under the name of Colonel Ardenti, who
relates a fanciful story about a encoded document, which the
Colonel has managed to secure and decipher. The resulting
message provides a roadmap to a grand secret to be revealed
to a group of Templar initiates over a period of hundreds of
years, culminating in the 20th century.   This account, easy
enough to dismiss as the ravings of a madman, takes on some
credibility when the police show up soon after and relate that
Ardenti was apparently murdered in his hotel following the
meeting, and—even more puzzling—the body immediately
disappeared before the authorities arrived.    

We are now on the familiar turf of the pulp fiction novel.  But
Eco is reluctant to play that game—at least not in the clichéd
ways of the past—and  signals from the start that he will not
make matters too easy for the casual reader.  In just the first
fifteen pages of
Foucault’s Pendulum, he relies on an arcane
vocabulary (in English, the word choices include
hydrargyrum, chthonian, demiurge, proglottides, ogives,
plerome, and ogdoades).  You won’t find those in Stephen King
or Mitch Albom.    For example, if you walked into a room in a
museum that showcased cars and airplanes, would you
describe it thus:  “You enter and are stunned by a conspiracy
in which the sublime universe of heavenly ogives and the
chthonian world of gas guzzlers are juxtaposed”?  You would,
apparently, if you were Umberto Eco.  

It’s not always such slow going.  At various points in the course
of this novel, the reader is allowed to watch a candomblé
possession rite in Brazil, travel through the sewers of Paris,
and get an education on 700 years of sinister schemes and
secret societies.  Eco also superimposes a second plot on this
arcane spectacle, one that focuses on the choices between
heroism and cowardice made by villagers in the closing days of
World War II.  If they ever make
Foucault’s Pendulum into a
film, the director will probably omit this entire interlude.  But
the reader would do well to pay close attention, since its
almost Aristotelian focus on choice, responsibility and simple
virtues is not a haphazard addition to the novel, but a clear
statement by the author of the alternative to the
deconstructive, quasi-academic inward focus of the rest of the

By the same token, one of the most telling set pieces in this
story arrives when Causabon’s girlfriend debunks the Plan, the
grand conspiracy theory hatched over a period of months.  
After a little bit of research, she presents a convincing case
that the secret Templar document that started it all is really
just a shopping list.  Of course, such a pedestrian
interpretation can’t be allowed in an ordinary novel of intrigue
and adventure, and our obsessive occultists refuse to accept
it.  The reader is free to do so as well.  But Umberto Eco is no
ordinary novelist, and it would be like him to construct one of
the most grand and complicated plots in modern fiction, and
then work just as hard to undermine it.  
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