Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Review: Foucault’s Pendulum

Today, conspiracy, the joy of Umberto Eco and the horror that is Dan Brown.

Review: Foucault’s Pendulum – Umberto Eco

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves that we are underlings.”
                                               Julius Caesar

‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ is the second novel by Italian writer, Umberto Eco. Originally published in Italian in 1988, eight years after his debut, ‘The Name of the Rose’, an English translation came out the following year.

The novel centres around three researchers at a publishing house, Belbo, Diotallevi and Casaubon, the book’s narrator. Partly out of boredom, partly from their boss’s plans to cash in on the public’s appetite for occult books by releasing a series of volumes on the subject, the trio invent their own grand unified conspiracy theory. ‘The Universal Plot’ or ‘The Plan’ encapsulates many of the standard conspiracy tales that have only increased in popularity with the onset of the Internet Age.

Thus, as their obsession grows and ‘The Plan’ becomes ever more convoluted, it draws into itself alchemy, kabala, Hollow Earth theories and the search for the Umbilicus Telluris or Navel of the World. It also implicates the usual suspects, the Illuminati, the Rosicrucians, the Masons and the Knights Templar. The men start to believe their own bullshit, reading too much into things, making connections that don’t exist, mistaking coincidence for design. They also attract the attention of shadowy forces who believe that ‘The Plan’ is for real.

The pendulum from which the novel takes its name is a weighed length of string, fixed to a single point in space in such a way that it remains stationary as the Earth spins around it. As the novel opens, Casaubon has hidden himself inside a periscope in the ‘Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers’ in Paris, where one version of the pendulum is on display, waiting for nightfall. As he does so, he recounts the journey which has led him to this point, from an undergraduate researching the Knights Templar, where he meets Belbo and Diotallevi, two fellow patrons of his local bar, to his emigration to Brazil and return to Italy, taking up a job at the publishing house, via a stint as a literary private detective. Finally, through a narrative web that draws in many strands, we discover why Casaubon is hiding inside a periscope and how, ultimately, it all comes back to Foucault’s Pendulum.

Umberto Eco’s novel is a cautionary tale on the tenuous nature of conspiracy theories. How people can see patterns where there are none and how so many of us want desperately for there to be a grand order to society, to the universe in general, because we find it hard to cope with the thought that this might all be random and devoid of meaning. Must easier to believe that the Illuminati are running everything. Or the Masons. Or some other version of World Government. I’ve known people who think that every time they see a triangle, it’s proof of the hand of the Masons. Or draw huge significance from Microsoft Word’s spellchecker not recognising the word, Illuminati. Ok, so I made that last one up, but it’s just as batty as anything else I’ve heard on the subject.

What always happens with any conspiracy theory is that they approach a vanishing point, a state of exponential increase until the conspiracy grows to encompass everyone except the one exposing the conspiracy. The conspiracy theorist likes to think of himself as Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) in ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’, when in reality he’s more like Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney) in the Deep Space 9 episode, ‘Whispers’. You’d think that if the world really was controlled by a shadowy cabal of politicians and business leaders, it would be run a little better than this. I don’t believe in world government for the same reason I don’t believe in God, because the planet and universe behave in exactly the way one would expect if no one was in charge. It’s the principle of Occam’s Razor, the simplest explanation is usually the right one. That should be an end to matters.

Conspiracies also present us with a scapegoat for our own failings. I’m sure that a study of professionals at the top of their field would reveal very few who believed in UFOs, 9/11 as an inside job, world government or the unlimited reach of the Masons/Illuminati/insert organisation as desired. I’m sure that there are (not so) secret societies that have some influence in the world, like the Bilderberg Group or the World Economic Forum (currently meeting in Davos, Switzerland), but their influence is overstated.

The reason the world is in this state is the same reason it had always been in this state, because human beings in all the various strata of society are competitive creatures. The most powerful are no different than the rest of us, in fact they’re even more likely to sell each other out. You only have to look at the history of any major religion to see how quickly unity gives way to schism. The sign of growing maturity is that you cease to see conspiracy everywhere and start instead to see incompetence. I personally believe there was a cover up surrounding the 9/11 attacks, but a cover up to conceal Bush and Cheney’s incompetence rather than their involvement. Truth is prosaic, but no less disturbing for its banality. We invent urban legends and conspiracies that we are powerless to prevent in order to distract us from the real world problems facing us that we are too apathetic to do anything about.

Foucault’s Pendulum has been described as “the thinking man’s Da Vinci Code”, which seems unfair when you consider that ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ predates the Dan Brown ‘novel’ by fifteen years. Umberto Eco said that he was compelled to read the Da Vinci Code because so  many people asked him about it, describing Dan Brown as, “one of the characters in my novel... I wrote the grotesque representation of these kind of people. So Dan Brown is one of my creatures.” I tend to agree. I believe the success of Dan Brown to be a conspiracy of the illiterate to destroy both fiction and the publishing industry.

As well as being a cautionary tale on conspiracy theory, ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ is a cracking read and a thriller par excellance. Of all the novels that I read in the last twelve months, ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ is easily the best. Then, any author who can have a subtle dig at anti-Shakespeare-as-author conspiracies by having seventeenth century characters writing lines from ‘Finnegans Wake’ is bound to give me a literary hard on. Umberto, you had me at ‘riverrun’.

That’s just me. For everyone else I say:

Away with conspiracy, away with apathy, away with Dan Brown.

You’re worth so much more than that.

Chose action. Chose literature. Chose ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’.

Get it done.

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