Thursday, January 31, 2013

Re-reads: Umberto Eco's FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM #OneBookAtATime

Um, if you haven't read this book, this post is probably going to make no sense to you whatsoever.

Every time I pick up Foucault's Pendulum again, I worry that this read is going to be the ever-looming Last Read, the occasion when I have to admit to myself that I have drained the last dregs of utility and enjoyment from this, my favorite of all novels ever. Or, worse, that I'm going to arrive at the point where I decide I have overrated it and feel like a fool. Or...

But here's the thing. This book is really the keystone of my intellectual life, the point of origin of all of the obsessions that have plagued and enriched it from the very first time I snuck it from my mother's nightstand, wondering if it was going to be as challenging and awesome as The Name of the Rose had been, at age 16.*

Oh yes, oh yes it was. I had picked up a bomb that was going to send shockwaves through the rest of my existence. Listen, I'm not exaggerating. Every single interest that consumes me (except outerspace and transhumanism, the only ones from my childhood that survived this encounter, really), I can trace back to something I encountered in this novel, was baffled by and had to follow up, or just thought was really wickedly funny. And yes, that includes entomology, I suspect, for even in my serious insect-phobic youth I was captivated by passages in which Eco described the bizarre mechanical and scientific apparatuses in the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers as the products of the nightmare of a deranged entomologist.

As an adult with some experience of the real world now, I know that I could have picked better role models for myself than Jacopo Belbo, Diotallevi and Casaubon.** The trio participates as little in actual life as they can, preferring to observe snarkily on the sidelines (well, Casaubon has a spell of actually experiencing things in Brazil, but then he is the young one of the three). And what snark, what glorious, glorious snark. The School of Comparative Irrelevancies alone, in which the three outline a whole imaginary curriculum of ridiculous or impossible subjects like "Crowd Psychology in the Sahara" and "Urban Planning for Gypsies" is still one of the funniest passages I've ever read, even though I know it line by line like a high school debate geek knows Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But the point is, I adopted as heroes a trio of skeptics and sneerers whose greatest fear would be to be thought of as believing in something. I have paid the price for that.

But I would not change a thing. I cannot imagine my life without a library full of texts on Christian heresies and Manichaeism, of Marsilio Ficino and Paracelsus and Carlo Ginsburg... and James Hillman and Ginette Paris and all the other tracers out of the history of ideas and crackpottery, all the attempts to understand how other people attempted to understand the universe, to fill in the gaps in our knowledge, with imagination if not with fact. The Nag Hammadi library is there. So is about a third of the Loeb classics offerings, collected from secondhand shops over the years (though I dug Greek mythology before FP, I wasn't nearly as into the philosophy and history of the Greeks and Romans before this). Listen, if I were to tie a piece of string to all of the books in my library that connect me back to Foucault's Pendulum, well, that room of my house would probably be solid twine.

But so, does it still stand up? I'm sure I cannot give an objective assessment at this point, but if standing up can mean still bringing meaning to me, then yes. For now I am much closer to Belbo's age than to Casaubon's, and his regrets make more sense to me, and his sense of emptiness is more nearly mine now. I think I am more courageous; I want to think Belbo has served me as a sort of self-defeating prophecy, as Robertson Davies' character of Parlabane became for me later on, a personification of the negative consequences of saying, to everything, "Do you really think so?" as a way of dismissing belief, squelching passion, preventing being taken in. Belbo who hummed literature so as to avoid creating any. Belbo who, more than either of the others, played a nasty joke at the expense of a pack of true believers that, honestly, pretty much demanded to be punked on just the epic scale the trio's Plan punked them, and wound up just as much the butt of it as the credulous seekers did when they took him all too seriously.

Funny enough, several of my closest friends (geographically and in my heart) are Templar seeker types like those the trio punks in this novel. And really, sometimes I don't know how they put up with me, because they bring out my Inner Belbo like nobody's business. But all the crazy paths my reading and studies have taken in emulation of Belbo and Diotallevi and Causabon have, I think, left me with enough of a command of the language of belief that we can still converse satisfyingly. My friends' belief is as sincere as my disbelief, but nobody's trying to convert anybody (I don't think...?) and we can all find humor (see also an old, old post from my old, old blog of mine in which we did just that one night at our favorite local dead animal dive bar in Saratoga, WY) in talking about it. I think. I mean, they still ask me out for drinks...

This is feeling more like Confessions of a Pretentious Skeptic Wanker than a post about my favorite novel, but I suppose it still says something about said novel that it got its hooks into me so very deeply. Part of it may have just been the timing; had I encountered it later in life I might have thought it merely extraordinarily good. I like to think I wouldn't roll my eyes at it, the way people who see Buckaroo Banzai or This is Spinal Tap for the first time too late in life always seem to do, to the unreasoning range of those of us who first saw those films as teenagers when you're supposed to. Heh.

*Little knowing that in not too many years time, I would be living in the orbit of Eco's translator, William Weaver, who joined the faculty at Beaudacious Bard College about halfway through my career there. I got to meet him a handful of times but never had the opportunity to take a class with him. But still, funny old world, innit? And at around the same time came Chinua Achebe, and I missed Caleb Carr by just a year or two.

**Oh, Casaubon. The Sam Spade of culture. Little did I know when I formed the ambition to be you that in just a decade or so you would be made surpassingly obsolete, not because, as I might have feared in 1986, nobody gave a crap about what you could find for them anymore, but because the internet would enable us all to do your job effortlessly! And Casaubon, just your name led me in so many directions... adopting the Renaissance philologist Isaac Casaubon as an sort of totemic hero and leading me to discover another of my all-time favorite novels, George Eliot's Middlemarch, because Casaubon.


  1. OK, that does it. I just got Moby Dick and Foucault's Pendulum down off the bookcase and added them to the pile of 40+ books by the bedside table. I am ashamed to say I never got around to reading either of them. I blame that on my education, which forced me to start reading hundreds of history books from age 18 onward. I barely survived.

    Confessions of a Pretentious Skeptic Wanker? No I would say Insights of Millennial Heretic - and really good ones at that. On fearing believing in something: that is the problem in a nutshell. You are damned if you do and damned if you don't.

    1. Oh. Moby Dick. Ugh. Just don't do it. FP by all means and enjoy but MD.


    2. Ok, thank you for a great review. I never really dealt with this book, possibly because of the Name of the Rose and the monks, as someone says below. I did see Eco speak at Oxford. Amazing talk. Changed the way I thought about things.

  2. I read The Name of the Rose last year and didn't really like it. Monks are ridiculous.

    BUT I have this one on my TBR pile, and I'm going to give Mr. Eco the benefit of the doubt and hope that I enjoy it more than TNotR.

  3. I read FP at a very impressionable age as well - probably 16 or 17 and found it to be the most difficult but brilliant novel I had ever read up to that point. It opened up a whole new world to me and I couldn't figure out whether what Eco was writing about was real or not and influenced my reading, and studies, ever since. I haven't re-read it in 20 years (although I read many other similar books) but am tempted now.


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