A Rose by any other name

On a dusty bookshelf tucked away in the corner of a nondescript brick building, it sat, yellowed paper and bent spine. Printed in the early 80s, jacket art and overblown font signifiers of the time, newly translated from the Italian. Before the Sean Connery Hollywood adaptation. The Name of the Rose.

On the first handful of pages, an unnamed narrator discovering a lost text in a dusty european enclave, the written testimony of a monk from the 1300s. It’s a theme Umberto Ecco has embraced and highlighted in most of his work – discovered texts, reinterpretation, what of the *thing itself* is lost and gained in transition.

The tale itself a Sherlock Holmes mystery set in a medieval monastery. Adso of Melk, the young protag, accompanies his mentor William of Baskerville across the Italian countryside to an ancient monastery nestled in the mountains. It’s the time of two Popes, split between Rome and Avignon, and church politics play heavily on the workings of the plot. Soon after their arrival, monks start showing up dead of mysterious circumstances.

William fits the Sherlockian mold (Adso the Watson) as close as possible, and there are great scenes where the former bends over a murder scene in his handcrafted spectacles, sniffing out clues. Much of the book, however, is dedicated to obscure theological debates among the monks over minutia, references to the titles of long forgotten books, chants and songs never translated from Latin. It makes the reading a bit of a fractured experience, incredibly dry and long passages leavened with vivid accounts of murders or vicious tactics of the inquisition.

Heresy figures predominantly. Entire sects of monks are labeled heretics due to minor emphasis on the original Biblical text, in this case – Christ’s poverty. What were Christ’s true thoughts on possessions? “Render to Caesar”, of course, but what if the church *is* Caesar? Of course, the rich pope and priests in Avignon would want to legitimize property, if only to maintain lavish lifestyles in gold laden cathedrals. One character even speaks at length of the holy properties of various gemstones. Following all this, the poor monks, who wish little more than to live a life of service and transcribing tomes, are labeled holy or heretic, depending on the political alliances of their order (and are thus burned at the stake).

All this political infighting and background noise brings a hint of conspiracy to the murders in the monastery. Is it a vengeful assassin, enacting the killings to send a message (which appear to mirror God’s judgement from John’s Revelation)? William and Adso are forced to consider both physical and logical facts of the deaths (who was in the vicinity, what time of day), and the tertiary details (a dead monk was transcribing a certain book, was this heresy for a certain sect)?

As is Ecco’s forte, the rabbit hole goes ever deeper, all the way to madness. William and Adso explore the forbidden library, constructed as a labyrinth, tricked out with psychedelic incense and false passageways. Near the conclusion, Adso has a breakdown from exhaustion, envisioning a hellish feast where the entire cast of characters, along with Christ, the apostles, infamous bandits, even the popes commit any and all permutations of heresy. Everything sacred is violated, from communion and baptism on.

The final act of the book wraps everything up nicely (from a plot standpoint), but the open questions persist. If ideology becomes enforced with the rule of law (and punished by the sword and the stake), then everything can become heresy, punished at the whims of a capricious tyrant. If information is incomplete, is deductive reasoning useful, or does it lead to faulty conclusions? Should certain knowledge be taboo, locked away in hidden libraries, accessible only to the select few?

Ecco himself saw many of these nightmares come to pass in Italy during the 30s. Mussolini and the cult of fascism swept through the country. The intellectual elites elevated an ideology and in turn designated what (and who) was heretical. Mob rule, societal peer pressure, government backed thugs forced the common man to march in line. After Ecco died earlier last year, a phenomenal essay was republished on his experiences as a boy and thoughts on fascism’s roots.

The monks, castles and inquisitors of 700 years ago are but dust and fragments of text in lost books. But the root of that nightmare – inflexible ideologies, heretical pronouncements – are as fresh as newly transcribed parchment, the ink yet to dry.

Knights of the Word

Conspiracy theories abound these days. From the 2012 doomsayers, 9/11 truth squad, and the Obama birthers, even to those retro folks who think the moon landings were faked and there was a second (or third) shooter on the hill – secrets, cover-ups and prophecies are nothing new.

Umberto Ecco, in Foucault’s Pendulum, takes this rich raw material and turns it into a grand post-modern satire of all conspiracy theories.

The book opens in the darkened halls of the Paris Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers, after hours, looking up at Foucault’s Pendulum. “That was when I first saw the Pendulum. The sphere, hanging from a long wire set into the ceiling of the choir, swayed back and forth with isochronal majesty.” Our narrator is Casaubon, a scholar of the Knights Templar. He’s investigating the disappearance of his friend Belbo and rumors of a strange rite to take place at midnight.

“I knew – but anyone could have sensed it in the magic of that serene breathing – that the period was governed by the square root of the length of the wire and by PI, that number which, however irrational to sublunar minds, through a higher rationality binds the circumference and diameter of all possible circles. The time it took the sphere to swing from end to end was determined by an arcane conspiracy between the most timeless of measures: the singularity of the point of suspension, the duality of the plane’s dimensions, the triadic beginning of PI, the secret quadratic nature of the root, and the unnumbered perfection of the circle itself.”

As he waits, he recollects in extended flashbacks the path that brought him to this point – totally invested in The Plan.

Casaubon, Belbo and Diotevelli are three guys who work in a small Milan publishing house, specializing in historical texts. They continually receive crackpot manuscripts from all assortments of crazies, whom they label The Diabolicals. Somewhere between an intellectual game and a drunken pub past-time, they attempt to trump all the other theories in a meta-narrative encompassing all history, starting with the Knights Templar and a strange document found in the bowels of an old French fortress. This is The Plan.

The Plan moves from the Knights Templar to the Masons, the Hashishin and the Jesuits, Francis Bacon and the early devotees of the English Scientific Revolution, the Holy Grail, Kabbalah, Alchemy and even the Count St Germain, a mysterious figure of 18th century Europe said to possess immortality.

Foucault’s Pendulum has been called “a thinking man’s Da Vinci Code”, and I can see the comparisons to Brown’s inferior thriller, if it was tossed in a blender and re-assembled by algorithm. Cleverly, there’s actually a computer program in the book that does just that.

The writing itself is playful, rich, dense, and the references to obscure and mystical facts are almost overwhelming. But the mass of information creates a flow and a vernacular that blends together, and all the disjointed links of The Plan begin to make some sense.

By the end of the novel (back to where we started, witnessing a secret ritual in the Paris Museum), our narrator is thoroughly unreliable, and we’re left at a fork in the path of truth. Do we trust The Plan as truth, something Casaubon and his friends stumbled upon? Or do we take it for their original intention, a joke, and the very real consequences (kidnappings, secret societies, etc) are merely zealots yearning for a prophecy, and so giving The Plan life?

Deeper still is the question of truth in text. Written language is a sort of incantation, a dark art, where symbols and characters on parchment (or a screen) can enact very real changes in the minds of one or millions. The very same text can drive some to enlightenment and inner peace, and others to madness. Are there certain combinations of text that contain timeless secrets?

If History is written by the winners, and Truth can only be discerned by analysis of the facts (written text), how can we trust what we know about the world or civilization? In the depths of paranoia, Casaubon and his friends put forth the notion that in order to truly “know” you must throw out reason, throw out science and logic and trust what you “intuitively feel”. This is a dangerous and tricky notion, but does contain a sliver of truth – at least in relation to how humans believe. And why we create conspiracy theories.

Underneath all the thriller and conspiracy tropes, Foucault’s Pendulum is a post-modern novel. The narrative elements are pieces that illustrate intertextuality and the evolution of belief. It’s erudite and complex and very entertaining.

And who knows, maybe descendants of the Knights Templar are manipulating the global economy in a proxy war to reveal the resting place of the true Grail. You can never really know.