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.

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