Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum and the rewriting of history
Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco is one of my favorite novels. I read it first in high school, in Romanian, and then spent countless hours discussing it with my desk-mate and fellow-bookworm Iuliana. I read the novel again in English during my MFA program at Goddard. I wish I knew more Italian so I could read the book in its native language.
So who is Umberto Eco? For Europeans, he is a very famous philosopher, semiotician, medievalist, aesthetician, and novelist. I’m not sure how well-known he is in the US though. Born in 1932 in Italy, Eco is one of the most erudite contemporary writers. He brought to his literary fiction a wealth of knowledge from his background as a philosopher and semiotician as well as from his work on literary theory. The writers Umberto Eco admires the most are James Joyce and, not surprisingly, Jorge Luis Borges.
In Part I of this series, I talked about Borges’s Ficciones, and one story in particular, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” In this detective-like story, the narrator discovers a secret global organization whose work is to imagine a fictional culture, in a fictional country, on a fictional planet. As the details of the plan become available, the fictional Tlönian universe becomes real on Earth, with people adopting its alien culture, with alien artifacts showing up in our world, to the point that our planet is turning into Tlön.
Reading Foucault’s Pendulum after reading Borges makes you wonder if Eco’s novel was based on Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” In “Borges and My Anxiety of Influence” (part of the On Literature collection), Eco writes, alluding to the same phenomenon of literature influencing the real world that Borges wrote about:
“Only when my novel was far advanced did I reread “Tlön,” where Borges talks of the Rosicrucians—as he often did, taking information at second hand (from De Quincey) and yet understanding everything about it better than scholars who have dedicated their whole lives to the subject. (…) But who can deny that from the time I read “Tlön” so many years previously, the word “Rosicrucian” might have lodged in some remote corner of my brain, so that decades later (…) it reappears thanks also to a Borgesian memory?” (pp. 125-126)
Published in 1988, Foucault’s Pendulum is Umberto Eco’s second novel after his international success The Name of the Rose (1980). In his book, Eco puts forward the idea that our own world is no different than the quantum reality explained in Heisenberg’s principle of indetermination: the observer takes part in the experiment, alters it, and thus creates a different reality that may even precede its source.
In Foucault’s Pendulum, three editors at an obscure publishing house in Milan that also doubles as a vanity press, following their fascination with secret societies, arcane symbols, and hidden history, and also being bored with their real lives, set out to invent a six hundred year-old plan that the Templar Knights could have devised (but didn’t) in order to take over the world at the end of the millennium. Jacopo Belbo is a repressed writer who never managed to create anything of his own and whose life is controlled by an assortment of childhood fears. Diotallevi is a gentile who wishes to have been born a Jew and who compensates for it by studying the Kaballah and immersing himself in the reading of the Torah. Casaubon is the narrator. He wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the Templars and thus is able to provide the other two with much of the knowledge needed to create the so-called Templar Plan. In their time, their using a personal computer to scramble the input data into surprising new patterns is quite wonkish.
The trigger for this enterprise is a note left by one Colonel Ardenti with Jacopo Belbo a decade before. It all starts as an accident, a joke trying to outdo Colonel Ardenti’s obsession with secret plans. As Casaubon confesses, “the idea is not to discover the Templar’s secret, but to construct it.” (p. 383)
The Plan grows from its initial focus on the Templars to include other religious and esoteric groups such as Jesuits, Shiite Assassins, Masons of different rites, etc., various political doctrines such as Nazism, Communism, anti-Semitism, American capitalism, and even different regions of the world such as the Caspian Sea, the South of France, Scotland, the Russian Tsarist Empire, Jerusalem, Bulgaria, etc. It engulfs more and more historical personalities such as kings, queens, tsars, popes, philosophers, writers, culminating with the fantastical presence of the Comte of Saint-Germain, who was rumored to be immortal and to have lived in Jesus’ time.
Lia, Casaubon’s sensible partner, unravels the Plan with a simple explanation: the cryptic note that Colonel Ardenti interpreted as a message about the six steps in a Templar plan to reveal a secret that would offer power over the entire world is nothing but a laundry list belonging to a merchant that delivered roses in the town of Provins on the day of a peasants’ feast. Lia’s summary of the work the three editors put in their Plan exposes how such a fabrication can get a grip on people, to an effect none of its creators intended. Lia’s words are Eco’s psychological analysis of the humans’ need to create their own interpretations and also his indictment of the tendency to live by such interpretations:
“Your plan isn’t poetic; it’s grotesque. People don’t get the idea of going back to burn Troy just because they read Homer. With Homer, the burning of Troy became something that it never was and it never will be, and yet the Iliad endures, full of meaning, because it’s all clear, limpid. Your Rosicrucian manifestoes are neither clear nor limpid; they are mud, hot air, and promises. This is why so many people have tried to make them come true, each finding in them what he wants to find. In Homer there’s no secret, but your plan is full of secrets, full of contradictions. For that reason you could find thousands of insecure people ready to identify with it. Throw the whole thing out. Homer wasn’t faking, but you three have been faking. Beware of faking: people will believe you. People believe those who sell lotions that make lost hair grow back. They sense instinctively that the salesman is putting together truths that don’t go together, that he’s not being logical, that he’s not speaking in good faith. But they’ve been told that God is mysterious, unfathomable, so to them incoherence is the closest thing to God. The farfetched is the closest thing to a miracle. You’ve invented hair oil. I don’t like it. It’s a nasty joke.” (pp. 540-541)
While the three editors work on their creation, the Plan starts bleeding into their own reality. First Diotallevi develops cancer. His explanation on his deathbed is:
“the cells no longer obey. I’m dying because I convinced myself that there was no order, that you could do whatever you liked with any text. I spent my life convincing myself of this, I, with my own brain. And my brain must have transmitted this message to them. Why should I expect them to be wiser than my brain? I’m dying because we were imaginative beyond bounds.” (p. 567)
Belbo talks about the Plan to a self-proclaimed Comte de Saint-Germain. The entire world of Diabolicals (people interested in the esoteric that the vanity press publishes or deals with) awakens and begins following the Plan. There is no way to stop them. Belbo is killed in a ritual sacrifice by the mob demanding his secret—a secret which doesn’t exist. The message of the novel can be summed up in Casaubon’s words:
“But if you invent a plan and others carry it out, it’s as if the Plan exists. At that point it does exist” (p. 619).
Reality is thus invaded by the creation of a handful of obsessed minds, and the past is rewritten as if the effect is the cause. Lia again focuses the attention back to the urgency of the warning:
“People are starved for plans. If you offer them one, they fall on it like a pack of wolves. You invent, and they’ll believe. It’s wrong to add to the inventings that already exist.” (p. 618)
In his novel, Umberto Eco points to the example of the Holocaust that started with The Protocols of Zion, a work of fiction plagiarized at the beginning of the twentieth century by a Russian officer from a story written by one Maurice Joly in 1864. In Joly’s story, Montesquieu and Machiavelli talk about plots to take over the world. This creative exercise ends up becoming fact for anti-Semites and, millions of victims later, The Protocols of Zion is still considered valid by hundreds of millions worldwide. The taxidermist A. Salon, one of the Diabolicals, gives voice to that fallacy in the novel. The reality created by The Protocols of Zion ends up inhabiting the real world and fiction becomes history.
“Why write novels?” Belbo asks himself. “Rewrite history. The history that then comes true” (529).
Umberto Eco’s preoccupation with fiction versus reality goes beyond just one of his novels. In the early 1989, he wrote the preface of L’Idea Deforme, a clear indictment of the abusive interpretation of Dante Alighieri in whose works many exegetes read twisted plots and deep secrets. Then, on November 5, 1989 in New York, with the occasion of the American launching of the English translation of Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco explained that he wrote more than six hundred pages of fiction with the purpose of condemning the abuses of over-interpretation present in any semiotic system, especially in literature itself.
In an article entitled “Umberto Eco and the Library of Alexandria,” Ioan Petru Culianu, a professor at the University of Chicago and an authority in the history of secret societies (Eco had positively reviewed Culianu’s book, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance in 1987), gives a synopsis of the novel and crystallizes its complex message. Culianu explains that Foucault’s Pendulum is only another try in Eco’s work to dissociate himself from those scholars who eagerly accept any interpretation of the written word as valid. Although that was the initial idea behind Foucault’s Pendulum, Culianu explains, the novel ends up proving the contrary: any interpretation ends up creating its own reality, and thus it becomes valid in that context.
The base metaphor of Eco’s novel, Culianu argues in his article, is that when an alternative reality is concocted, even by a mere handful of deranged brains, that reality creates reasons to keep itself alive to the point where it generates a “fixed spot” in the entire universe: the spot where Foucault’s pendulum hangs from. And how is it possible for the world to have so many fixed points, so many centers? Eco makes sure to show that each human group has its own center and, when it acts from that narrow perspective, it creates an absurd situation from the point of view of humanity as a whole, a situation that tends to rectify itself. This is why, Culianu explains, the main characters are punished in the end (Diotallevi dies of cancer, Belbo is killed by the crazy Diabolicals in a ritual human sacrifice, and Casaubon is still waiting for those whom he invented to come and take him on a trip of no return), because the reality they invented, once touched by another group of people with its own “fixed spot” in the Universe, becomes noxious; it takes its own form, evolves, and finally threatens its creators with annihilation.
The coup de grace in Eco’s novel doesn’t come from the Diabolicals’ taking the Plan for what it isn’t, but from one of the Plan’s creators himself following in their footsteps.
“Belbo decided to take the universe of the Diabolicals seriously, not because an abundance of faith, but because of a total lack of it. (…) Humiliated by his incapacity to create (…), he came to realize that by inventing the Plan he had actually created.” (p. 530)
When that happens, there is no witness left to unveil the fallacy. Rationing such as the one below:
“Simple enough, if there was really a plan. But how could there have been? Since we invented ‘the Plan’ ourselves, and only much later was it possible for reality not only to catch up with fiction but actually to precede it, or, rather, to rush ahead of it and repair the damage that it would cause.” (p. 171)
…is no longer possible.
Next: How Borges’s and Eco’s warnings came true with the publishing of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
Previous: Jorge Luis Borges’s Ficciones and the mixing of fiction and reality.