Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

The continued wanderings of a newly minted librarian

Eco, U. (1989). Foucault’s pendulum. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Well, I finally finished reading Foucault’s Pendulum! I had to; all books were due July 28th due to inventory. It has been a while since I finished it, but I have been quite busy and just couldn’t find the time to write about it.

I am quite glad I read the book, but did find it quite dense. The title refers to an experimental pendulum which was designed by Leon Foucault (a French Physicist). It demonstrates the rotation of the earth…a super tall pendulum which is free to oscillate in any vertical plane will change direction with time according to the Earth’s rotation. The actual pendulum is located in the Pantheon in Paris.

The book is divided into parts labeled with the 10 Sefiroth of Kabbalah. There are numerous references to the Kabbalah and so if one is not familiar with some of the terms one either must do some extra research or just plunge ahead knowing that they are Kabbalah terms and leave it at that. Be prepared to encounter not only a plethora of Kabbalah terms, but also references to alchemy and conspiracy theory especially as it pertains to ancient secret societies (Templar, Rosicrucian, Paulician, Synarchist, etc.).

The narrator is Casaubon, a graduate student in Milan who wrote his thesis on the Knights Templar. He becomes friends with and begins working with two editors: Jacopo Belbo, and Diotallevi (a cabalist). They are visited by an author, Colonel Ardenti, who claims to have broken a hidden coded message that speaks of the Templars’ secret plan to take over the world by controlling the flow of energy underground.

However, the next day Ardenti is dead (but then the body disappears). The three editors Casaubon, Belbo and Diotallevi start working on the problem of the secret message. In doing so, they become obsessed with secret societies and the inter-connectedness of everything. Belbo creates a program in his computer (Abulafia) which will take random sentences from the texts of manuscripts they have entered and spit them back, “finding” connections that were hidden. By rearranging texts and finding these connections they start to devise their own “Plan”. The Plan slowly develops but involves the Knights Templar obtaining secret knowledge during the Crusades about underground energy currents. After their leader, Jacques de Molay is executed the Knights Templar are disbanded. However the members split secretly into different groups scattered over Europe and the Middle East. The Plan (originally told by Ardenti) is that the each group has a part of the secret knowledge and every 120 years one group will meet with the next group on the “path” and hand over their part of the secret. After 600 years the whole secret will be revealed at a time when technology has advanced enough for the plan to be implemented.

The culmination will be when the Knights Templar are joined and take over world power by using the power of underground telluric currents. In order for this plan to work they need a special map and Foucault’s Pendulum. At a certain place and time the pendulum will point to a location on the special map.

The editors get quite wrapped up in this “game” of theirs, even when Casaubon’s girlfriend suggests that the coded message could be a delivery list and not a secret plan to pass down ancient knowledge. The editors continue with their game and in addition to historical orders (Templar, Rosicrucian,etc.) they add their own made up society, Tres (Templi Resurgentes Equites Synarchici). Belbo is quite excited with The Plan and shares it with an author who was helping them (Aglie). He claims never to have heard of the Tres before but gets angry with Belbo for not sharing the secret map. Belbo is framed as a terrorist and kidnapped and taken to Paris. Aglie has made himself the head of a secret brotherhood and has decided that they are the Tres in The Plan. They go to Foucault’s Pendulum in Paris at midnight on a certain day to perform a ritual. Belbo sent word to Casaubon that he has been kidnapped and will be taken to the museum in Paris with the pendulum. At the midnight meeting the brotherhood tries to get more information out of Belbo because they are angry he knows more about The Plan. Belbo refuses to give them information AND he refuses to tell them that The Plan is just nonsense he made up. A riot begins and Belbo is hanged by the wire of the pendulum causing it to swing differently and ruining any chance of seeing the “secret” location on a map.

Casaubon escapes through the sewers and ends up at a villa in the country where Belbo grew up. Meanwhile Diotallevi dies of cancer. So in the end, Belbo and Diotallevi die, and Casaubon is running for his life and hiding in an old building in the country trying to figure out what happened. Is it real? Are these invented conspiracy theories coming true? Casaubon figures it is only a matter of time before the Tres find him and he spends time reflecting on the meaning of things. He thinks about the time Belbo took them to this same village and told them about his childhood. Belbo had always wanted to play the trumpet but was never given the opportunity—he had to play the equivalent of a tuba. Then one day at a funeral, the trumpet player couldn’t go and Belbo got his chance to play the trumpet. He felt that that moment was something special. Casaubon decides that it was probably the highlight of Belbo’s whole life and that everything after that was, in a way, meaningless. The challenge is for us to figure out how to live and live well, when we have already “peaked”.

This idea seems to be a central message, but it is so buried by all the secret society plans that it is not noticed until the end. I suppose this is a problem we all need to face. What do you do when you feel that the best part of your life is behind you? How will Michael Phelps feel 20 years from now when he realizes that his “best” moments of achievement are behind him? How does the average person deal with the future when they feel that their crowning moment is past? These are ideas we all have to deal with as very few of us will die the moment after we have accomplished the greatest achievement of our lives. We will all look back on moments and think “wow, I don’t think I will ever feel that way again!” Perhaps we have had that perfect moment (even if to others it seems a small thing).

This whole idea is so buried in Foucault’s Pendulum that it is as if it is a coded message. One must wade through the whole book to understand the end, and yet that final question seems so remote from the actions which have been taking place throughout the novel.

This is a good book, but be prepared to wade through a lot of esoteric material.