Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver
641 pages, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
Review score: *** out of *****

I have read Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum twice. I first read Foucault's Pendulum when it was published in English translation, in 1989. Like many readers I came to Foucault's Pendulum via Eco's earlier book The Name of the Rose which I enjoyed. After reading Foucault's Pendulum I gave the book away. I was disappointed with it. The book seemed to plod along. The plot seemed thin and best suited to a short story rather than a thick book. At the time I felt that the ending was not worth the long slog through the book.

I read Foucault's Pendulum twelve years later for the second time and I liked the book a great deal more. Perhaps it is that I'm older and more patient with the pace of the plot. Or perhaps I understood the plot more.

I came to read Foucault's Pendulum a second time by a sort of accident. My wife gave my a copy of Geoffrey Regan book Lionhearts: Richard I, Saladin, and the Era of the Third Crusade. The Knights Templar are mentioned in passing and I wondered what their history was. When I looked for books on the Templars and searched for "Knights Templar" on Google I found that there was a whole mythology around the Knights Templar. I did manage to find two non-occult books which provided a good introduction to the history of the Templar Order. I have briefly reviewed these books here

I remembered that various occult theories about the Knights Templar played a part in Foucault's Pendulum, so I checked the book out of the library and read it again.

Umberto Eco is not a easy read. This is not a stylistic issue, but rather that his books include vast amounts of information: history, obscure facts and rich background for the characters. Eco provides some explanation, but rarely enough. It is easy to feel lost in such a complex and rich tale. The plot of Foucault's Pendulum made more sense on a second reading once I knew something about the history of the Templars and the mythology surrounding them.

On the first reading the other theme that I was unfamiliar with is a historical figure who went by the name Comte de Saint-Germain. The Web was a huge help on the second reading. The Encyclopedia Britannica provides a brief sketch of the person who claimed to be Saint-Germain. The Britannica sketch does not mention that Saint-Germain claimed to be immortal. He also claimed alchemical talents involving jewels and the transmutation of base metal into gold.

As with the Templars, a whole mythology has grown up around Saint Germain. He is supposed to have been involved with Tibetan Buddhists as an "ascended master". See the Open Directory project page on Saint-Germain.

The great mystery of the Comte de Saint-Germain is that a little known Eighteenth Century confidence man should have been adopted by occult groups in the Twentieth Century. In the 1930s there was a group called the "I AM" which was supposed to be under "the daily direction of Saint Germain", who this group viewed as an "ascended master".

Apparently the "I AM" group is still around in some form. I live in Santa Fe New Mexico (a hotbed for New Age groups). While walking during my lunch hour on the Old Taos Highway I came upon a large white mansion, which looked like it had been built in the 1930s or 1940s. It was obviously not inhabited, but it had been maintained and I wondered who owned it. When I walked around the front, I saw a small sign that said that it belonged to the "I AM", which I had not heard of at that time.

Appropriating the beliefs of the largely dormant "I AM" group and coupling it with New Age channeling, Elizabeth Clare Prophet and her husband Mark L. Prophet claimed to be "channels" for Saint Germain. Apparently they "channeled" other ascended masters including Jesus and Buddha. Like many cults, Prophet's "Church Universal and Triumphant" degenerated into paranoia, bunkers in Montana and guns:

For instance, just before Mark Prophet's untimely death and afterwards, the members were required to buy survival equipment, gold and silver and guns because of a predicted collapse of the economy and the onset of a war.

From Cultic Studies Journal, a review of the book Lambs to the Slaughter: My Fourteen Years with Elizabeth Clare Prophet and Church Universal Triumphant by John J. Pietrangelo, Jr.

See also the profile on the Church Universal and Triumphant, Contemporary Issues and Conflicts published on the University of Virginia web page on religious movements

Templars, Comte de Saint Germain - another thread in Foucault's Pendulum is the Rosicrucians. The Rosicrucians apparently grew in part out of the mythology surrounding Christian Rosencreutz. See's sketch of the Rosicrucians. There is also something here about the "Rosy Cross". The Rosicrucian also claim to have a tie to Egyptian occult beliefs. Christian Rosencreutz is probably an invented character. But the story took on flesh and became a group with meetings and buildings in San Jose, California (the Rosicrucian's Egyptian Museum).

Not that the incredulous person doesn't believe in anything. It's just that he doesn't believe everything. Or he believes in one thing at a time. He believes a second thing only if it somehow follows from the first thing. He is nearsighted and methodical, avoiding wide horizons. If two things don't fit, but you believe both of them, thinking that somewhere, hidden, there must be a third thing that connects them, that's credulity.

Foucault's Pendulum, beginning of Chapter 7

The lunatic is all idee fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration, and by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars.

Foucault's Pendulum, end of Chapter 10

The three central characters in the book are Jocopo Belbo, Diotallevi and Casaubon. I don't think that we ever learn the first names of Diotallevi and Casaubon. It is Casaubon's voice that narrates the story. Casaubon meets Belbo in an bar one evening when he is in graduate school. Casaubon is writing his doctoral thesis on the trial of the Templars. Belbo works for an academic press, the Garamond Press, which occasionally attracts works from cranks and occultists. They come to call these people the Diabolicals. Belbo has one of these that mentions the Templars and invites Casaubon to come by Garamond Press and review it. At Garamond Casaubon meets Diotallevi, Bilbo's colleague.

Diotallevi claims to be a Jew and has a strong interest in numerology and Jewish mysticism. He has a vast store of cabalistic knowledge which is inserted at various points in the story, but we learn little about him. His purpose in the story seems to be to contrast meditative spirituality with occult beliefs. Diotallevi searches for knowledge, which in the end comes from within:

It's true that the Torah -- the visible Torah, that is -- is only one of the possible permutations of the letters of the eternal Torah, as God created it and delivered it to the angels. By rearranging the letters of the book over the centuries, we may someday arrive again at the original Torah. But the important thing is not finding, it is the seeking, it is the devotion with which one spins the wheel of the prayer and scripture, discovering the truth little by little.

Like the parabolic orbit of a pendulum, which gets a little smaller with each pass, the three characters, Belbo, Diotallevi and Casaubon are slowly drawn together.

While Casaubon is visiting Garamond Press, Belbo and Diotallevi are visited by a Colonel Ardenti, who they later find out was a Nazi SS collaborator and veteran of the French Foreign Legion. Ardenti brings them a manuscript that claims to be the "Templar Plan", involving, among other things the Holy Grail.

The Grail is a power source, the Templars were guardians of an energy secret, and they drew up their plan accordingly.

Although the association is not publicized, connected with Garamond Press is another publisher called Manutius. Manutius specializes in publishing "self financed authors". The Manutius vanity press is high profit and it the profit center of the Garamond/Manutius pair. Both are run by Signor Garamond, who is a sort of eminence gris in the story.

Belbo tries to send Colonel Ardenti off in the direction of Manutius. But before Ardenti can keep his appointment he disappears, perhaps as the result of murder. But Ardenti leaves his manuscript with Belbo.

At the center of Foucault's Pendulum is The Plan. Signor Garamond, seeing the profit to be had from publishing New Age books sets Belbo, Diotallevi and Casaubon, now working as a consultant for Garamond/Manutius, the task of creating a series of books on occult topics. They decide to use Ardenti's original work as a starting point for "The Plan", which describes a grand occult plot involving the Templars, the Rosicrucians, the illuminati and other occult groups all interwoven with factual history. Unlike many of the "Diabolicals", Belbo, Diotallevi and Casaubon are highly educated. In their hands The Plan takes on great richness. In the end, The Plan starts to suck them into its orbit - what starts out as pretending becomes belief. Others, the Diabolicals that Belbo, Diotallevi and Casaubon are satirizing with The Plan, become believers as well, to disastrous end.

The Plan was a joke by the educated on the ignorant: it was a work of intellectual arrogance. Diotallevi believes that by rearranging letters and words one can come closer to the true Torah. But the rearranging must be done as prayer, with a pure heart.

To manipulate the letters of the Book takes great piety, and we didn't have it. But every book is interwoven with the name of God. And we anagrammatized all the books of history, and we did it without praying.

The three authors of the plan have rearranged history and occult literature, tying it together with their own narrative as a joke. But it backfires on the creators: it becomes a golem that haunts them and takes them prisoner.

Hidden Plots and Associations in Italian Society and Politics

Translation is, perhaps, an impossible task. Or at least a task that is doomed to be incomplete. The translator tries to faithfully render the original work in another language. But what the translator cannot do is translate the cultural context of the work. For the foreign reader some dimension may always be missing.

In his excellent book The New Italians Charles Richards points out that Italian society is largely dysfunctional. You cannot get anything official done easily (e.g., renew a driver's license, get a marriage license or a building permit) without an "angel". Someone who has the power to help you out. As a result, much of Italian society and the exercise of power takes place behind the scenes.

When the cause of events is hidden, it naturally feeds a tendency in the society to believe in hidden plots and secret associations. This tendency is further reinforced in Italy by the fact that some of these secret societies, like the P2 Masonic Lodge, really do exist. In the case of the death of Robert Calvi (who was connected to a huge fraud involving Banco Ambrosiano and the Vatican Bank), which some believe was murder, there may have been an actual plot.

More recently, an Italian prosecuting judge charged 13 CIA agents with kidnapping an Egyptian in Milan in 2003. The Italian government denies that they knew in advance what the CIA was doing. So far there have been no "smoking guns" but I suspect that most people in Italy do not believe the Italian governments claims of innocence.

In this context, Faucault's Pendulum may have connections to its Italian readers that would be missed by a reader in the United States. Faucault's Pendulum is about plots and hidden meaning. In many ways this is the fabric of Italian society and politics.

Web References

Ian Kaplan, April 2001
Last revised: December 2004

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