on September 12, 2002
Three editors go on a mental trek to rediscover and revise the history of the world based on the writtings of people who could be considered credible and others that could have zero credibility at all. As they do, they unravel a massive web of conspiracies orchestrated from the depths of history to the present day by innumerous secret societies and underground groups poised to control the world and take over. These "societies" often clashing amongst themselves and often figments of imagination of others (but how can we really know) take the three protagonists around the world as they search for more and more data to put together their story. And the more data that piles in the more the truth becomes a blur.
As the story spins, they, and we too, do not know which of their "facts" are real and which aren't. For some the devices are not available to test their authenticity, and for others, the suspicion lingers that strategically placed false information has been laid in their path to throw them off track.
But the worst element for the three investigators is the very real possibility that some of the "facts" could be mere inventions of their own brains! Thus, they constantly need to investigate themselves too to keep their story in check. But how easy, or rather, how feasible is that?
"Foucault's pendulum" is a book that spans over 650 pages, and a story that many people have found exhausting or even pointless. But if you had to attempt yourself to write a story with the outcome and the "moral" of this one then it would be very probable that you'd need a build-up as long and as "exhausting" as Ubmerto Eco here does.
Allthough i could agree with some that this incredible novel is at times "exhausting", i totally understand the need for its structure and length.
Eco deals with more than just a story here. The way we perceive reality and how we are sometimes led to perceive it is a topic that bears no borders. Which, probably explains why 100s of books have been written on the subject.
Is there a conspiracy by secret societies to control the world? Hmm, who are you to answer, and, if there is, why do you imagine that these "societies" would let you know? You are enlightened? Says who? And what if it's all in your brain? If it is indeed "all in your brain" how would you be able to know?
How much "knowledge" and how many "facts" rest in your cerebrum about which you cannot trace the track by which they got there? How much of the "history" you know and have been taught can you actually prove for yourself?
And even if you set out to prove it for yourself, could you?
How easy is it really to separate truth from lie? I say it's not that easy. And if it's not that easy, then, wouldnt those who hold power and know this too, try to use this little fact to their advantage?
Wouldn't they try to use that as a device to manipulate, brainwash, mislead and misguide, whole peoples for their dark goals? Common sense would dictate that yes, but then, if common sense is really "common" why is it so uncommon to begin with?
To cut a long story short, this is a tremendous book. Yes it demands your dedication, but for good reason. Yes, it might not be for everyone (and judging from other reviews i read) it obviously isn't but, so what? Good things are by definition not for everyone, especially in days like these where intraterrestrial intelligence is becoming more rare than the white eagle.
This incredible rollercoaster of a book takes you deep back with a time machine, thrusts you back...forward, plays with your mind, plays with its own mind, and climaxes in its last 100 pages to the question troubling us all:
what is real?
While you might attempt to think about it, excuse me while i go get paranoid.
Umberto Eco is without a doubt one of the sharpest thinkers of our time. But on second thought, who's to say??
on May 29, 2004
I agree wholeheartedly with the reviewer below who identifies Eco as an acquired taste, the reader's patience is rewarded with an intoxicating amount of fascinating information - nay - enlightenment. The book follows Eco's trademark style of writing intelligently and entertainingly.
It would not benefit the reader of this review if I attempted to summarise Eco's literary accomplishments in "Foucault's Pendulum", in fact it would be a disservice; instead, suffice to say that the subject matter the book is concerned with (Templars, numerology, Mein Kampf, Galileo, Stonehenge, connections between cross temporal events) is in itself absorbing and add to that, Eco's unique and simply wonderful storytelling technique, the reader is in for a genuinely enthralling experience - I will not be surprised if this book finds its way onto the reading lists of students of the social and political sciences. It is by no means reserved for the conspiratorially inclined amongst us, although ostensibly, that is why it was recommended to me in the first place. You have the benefit of reading a basic summary of the plot below in other reviews and it would be imprudent to judge the book's capacity by what you read here. In telling the story of three book editors' search for the truth, Eco packs in a tremendous amount of intricate detail on a number of subjects. The Sunday Times described the book as "...encompassing everything you ever wanted to know about practically anything...", this claim is not as absurd as it may sound. Eco's learned accounts that follows every diversion in the book (and there are numerous) are guaranteed to leave you feeling fulfilled once you have completed the book.
I successfully finished the book on my second attempt. Failure the first time around is attributable to attempting to keep pace with and investigate every single new revelation the book made. By the time I had made a dent in the book, several weeks had passed and I had finished three other books and visited numerous websites and also a Templar church near the Strand area. This was all in the course of reading the first 200 pages. At the beginning, I was compelled to refresh my understanding of "Simple Harmonic Motion" and the relevant differential equations which govern the motion of a pendulum. Readers will be fascinated by different aspects of the book, depending on their individual interests and experiences and will be interested by all others. If it piques the reader's curiosity, they may wish to independently investigate aspects of this book further. This, however tempting, does slow one down but is worth it, the information picked up along the way will make for good story telling around a fire.
The key is to keep the pages turning and it will not be long before this becomes an effortless process. If you are a lawyer, charge the time you spend reading this to "knowledge management" or "general development". I might read it again, I suspect it's a bit like the God Father parts I & II - certain to notice things that I missed the first time around.
on March 2, 2004
Trying to encapsulate Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum into one idea is as difficult as trying to explain the history of the world in one sentence. The story is about three editors of a publishing house who attempt to formulate (or, perhaps, discover) a grand, cosmic, and secret Plan by connecting known pieces of history together. And if my understanding of the book is correct, then I would contend that the underlying theme is precisely what those editors are doing: connecting. Early on, Causaubon, who tells the story, tells us, "It was also the day I began to let myself be lulled by feelings of resemblance: the notion that everything might be mysteriously related to everything else" (139). At another point, Belbo, another one of the editors says, "I have letters that offer revelations on the connections between Joan of Arc and the Sibylline Books, between Lilith the Talmudic demon and the hermaphroditic Great Mother, between the genetic code and the Martian alphabet, between the secret intelligence of plants, cosmology, psychoanalysis, and Marx and Nietzsche in the perspective of an new angelology, between the Golden Number and the Grand Canyon, Kant and occultism, the Eleusian mysteries and jazz, Cagliostro and atomic energy, homosexuality and gnosis, the golem and the class struggle" (230). And finally, Causaubon explains, "But whatever the rhythm was, luck rewarded us, because, wanting connections, we found connections-always, everywhere, and between everything. The world exploded into a whirling network of kinships, where everything pointed to everything else, everything explained everything else..."(384).
As the three editors compile their information (originally only for a book on the history of metals), they research as wide a range of subject matter as can be imagined. They spend hours (or for Eco, pages) explaining histories of the Templar Knights, Rosicrucians, Masons, Jesuits, and every other secret society and conspiracy theory imaginable. Because they are convinced that every fact is somehow connected with every other fact, they recruit help from a rather unlikely source to make connections: Belbo's computer, Abulafia. Explaining history by connecting facts begins as a game until they start taking their "discoveries" too seriously. The outcome of their efforts follows naturally from their efforts.
Although many readers have been dissatisfied by the slow pace of the book, Eco does a masterful job in making his own connections and observations from actual history. Without a doubt, such a masterpiece would be impossible without an encyclopedic grasp not only of the facts of history but also of its consequences. Several lessons may be appropriately learned from this great work as well. I will mention only one here: simply, we are reminded to be wary of every new idea that purports to explain what we see around us. Dozens of conspiracy theories and cults claim to offer the one explanation for what has happened and is happening in the history of the world. And there is no shortage of dupes who accept and follow such explanations. In Foucault's Pendulum even a computer program spitting out responses to men who are playing a game lead people astray. Theories are propounded still, which are deduced from equally silly methods.
No, Eco's book is not for everyone. It moves slowly. The plot itself does not include much action. But in the end, those who persevere will be greatly rewarded.
on December 7, 2003
Three men in Milan, working in a small publishing house that produces works on the occult, the esoteric, and the downright bizarre, decide to recast world history in terms of a Plan. Why they do this is part of Eco's most unusual novel. FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM is not an action novel, though there are some gripping action passages; you do not find sex to any degree, nor is there much development of characters' psychology in the usual sense of that phrase. This is an enormous compendium, a vast vat of olive oil in which you may dip the bread of your curiosity. It is a semiotics text masquerading as a novel. Swirls of madness, esoterica, the weird, and the twisted logic of paranoid history fill the pages with a tongue-in-cheek talent that very few authors could manage. On page 386, the narrator-one of the three planners---says, "I believe that you can reach the point where there is no longer any difference between developing the habit of pretending to believe and developing the habit of believing." Eco's parody of occult writing borders on this itself. The three cross this boundary and realize their picture is true even though it was meant to be a parody. Did their efforts create the reality or was that reality extant all the time ? We witness the concoction of an insane explanation of European Man's activities over the last thousand years or more, an attempt to deny common sense and objectivity in favor of mysteries, plots, counter-plots, and secret cabals. The secret document which sends them off in these paroxysms of paranoid plotting could be one handed down from the mysterious Knights Templar of Crusader times. Or else, it could be a 14th century merchant's delivery list---hay, cloth, roses.
There is a well-known American artist, Joseph Cornell, who created works of art from small, unusual items placed in tiny pigeon-holes inside a large frame. Eco's work reminds me of that. Where else could you find, side by side, in an amazing soup of crazy ideas, such different things ? Rosicrucians. Hitler. the Holy Grail. Trumpet dreams and cabbage soup. Occultism run amok. The Druidic College of Gaul. Masonry. Numerology. The hollow earth theory. Shiism and the Assassins. Bacon, Shakespeare, and Cervantes and all their ghost writers. The Tsarist secret police. Ayers Rock (Uluru). Old maps. Kabbala of cars (the motor, axles, etc. as the Tree of Sefirot !) Macumba. Manifestoes. Sepulchres. Alchemy. Heresy. Immortality. Rare books. Luminous wheels in the sea. Enigmas. The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. Mages. Secret brotherhoods. Jesuits. Menhirs. Minnie Mouse. The golem. Greek migrations into Yucatan. Tauroboliastes. Telluric currents. Self-financed authors. Osmognosis. Queen Elizabeth I. The Gregorian calendar reform. And I'm just scratching the surface here. "History is a Master because it teaches us that it doesn't exist." I think this is a kind of pseudo-Zen dictum, but FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM will certainly give your brain a run for its money. Is history what we think it is? Why ? Maybe the book isn't for everyone. You need a bit of patience to wade through all the crazy theories, and rabid reasonings, trying to connect all the signs and symbols to the real world outside the book. As the characters muse early on, there are four kinds of people in this world---cretins, fools, morons, and lunatics. Let us add the fifth-those who can read FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM. I must be one of them.
on October 12, 2003
I consider myself to be fairly well-read and intelligent, but this book was a definite challenge. In a world of pre-packaged bestsellers (think Mary Higgins Clark, Danielle Steel), I found Foucault's Pendulum to be extremely refreshing. Having a BA in English Lit with a concentration in Medieval & Renaissance literature, I was suprised to find that I knew so little! I also kept a dictionary close at hand, learning new words with every page. However, I would be interested to know how much of the "historical" fact presented in the book is real, and how much of it is a creation by the author. Did all these sects exist, and if so, did they hold these theories? Also, I would have preferred an ending where the Plan was actually validated... I found Eco's ending to be morally viable but it left me feeling disappointed and flat. The editors had such a good Plan! All in all, if you're up for some serious intellectual reading, and don't mind a challenge, I strongly recommend this book. It's great for a rainy weekend.
on April 30, 2004
this book is one of those that manages to drift along on a lazy sea of really complex ideas. it's like if you were eavesdropping on the world's philosophers, a few romantic poets, the beatles and the rolling stones as they all got incredibly stoned- it drifts through lost loves and childhood daydreams, high ideals, mythology, and social comentary. by the time you come out the other side your head is swimming, but in a good way. however, don't read the last few chapters the night before an essay test! trust me, just...don't.
"Foucault's Pendulum" is packed full of esoterica, alchemy, Kabala, the occult, secret societies, conspiracy theories, alternative histories, the supposed "other side" of several well known historic figures, etc. This makes it difficult to take in several places. It is told mostly in flashback perspective but drifts easily into real time segments (still from the past as opposed to just a narration of past events) as the files on a computer are mined for information to fill in some details in the immediate and distant past in the life of one of the main characters.
This novel left me with mixed feelings. It certainly has a winning premise: a group of three friends who work for a vanity press, board with their jobs and out of mockery of many of the occultists whose manuscripts they must proof and either reject or publish, concoct a meta-conspiracy theory centered around the Templars and the Rosicrucians and yet both predating and transcending them. This theory, known as the Plan, is constructed both by historical and hermetic research and by feeding seemingly disconnected facts into a computer (Abulafia) and seeing what groupings of datum it spits out. Certain folks get wind of the Plan and think these three have unearthed a real plot which holds the key to revealing the most powerful secret humanity has ever known - the way to harness the power of the earth's telluric currents and therefore control the world. Thus, the Plan takes on a life of its own and in so doing, endangers the lives of its creators. Though they know the plan to be their fiction, the main characters repeatedly get carried away by their work and second guess themselves, thinking that perhaps they have actually pieced together a true account of so much of what is unclear in the history of various secretive societies and people. However, I think that this premise could have been executed as a novel by developing the story (plot, characters, events) more and listing factoids less.
I can picture Eco's inspiration for Foucault's Pendulum possibly coming from his wondering how the authors of "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail" could have ever dreamt up such an incredible story with its numerous layers of unfounded assumptions and "leaps of logic" upon which they continually build their narrative; where the tenuous conclusions of one page become the foundational assumptions of the next page, upon which new tenuous conclusions are constructed.
The novel explores questions of truth and reality from a postmodern perspective. Is reality objective? Does it simply exist for us to discover or do we create/alter reality? Does our formulating and compiling of ideas change reality? Does something become real when we wish it so or when we experience it as such? In this story, the creators of the Plan watch a fictional organization of their own imagining, the TRES, rise up instantly and take on a life of its own after one of them shares some scattered details of their pseudo history with an enigmatic character widely connected to and yet critical of the broad and varied occult community. The three watch people take their fictional account for the truth and events are set in motion which are consistent with the Plan. I was reminded of some of the theories of speculative physics (multi-world theories and ideas like Quantum suicide) where our observation of the state of something may be understood to actually be the point at which the thing we observe becomes reality. For my time, I'd rather read essays on these questions than wade through this novel, knowing now what I didn't when I started.
One can see an underlying critique of meta-narratives in this novel. The three inventors of the Plan ended up creating something that others took for truth. What is to say that many of the narratives by which billions of people live their lives were not made up in similar fashion and became the received wisdom by which societies function and somewhere, someone is having a good chuckle over it...or not.
Some readers, upon reaching the end of the book, question whether or not the narrator is reliable and if he is even giving an accurate account of events. One can't truly know since the creation of the Plan itself has caused him to repeatedly question whether he and his two friends have perhaps not created it but instead discovered it. Sanity, living in the now, telling the actual from the made-up, is something that these three repeatedly wrestle with.
The book made me laugh out loud at points, especially early on, when two of the main characters are mocking the established academy and its penchant for creating fields of study that are ridiculously removed from reality. They also mock the occult authors who wish to publish through their vanity press, referring to them as the "Diabolicals". One senses that Eco views some of the ivory tower academic establishment and the crack-pot esoteric theorists as often being not that different from one another. One telling comment comes when he discusses the abandonment of the Christian narrative for secularism by scientists and philosophers and then says that it is those same people who attend séances, read tarot, and become members in secret societies like the Rosicrucians and the Masons, participating in all the rituals and rites and dabbling in magic and occult.
It is next to impossible to keep straight all the names, dates, places and societies mentioned in this book as the three formulate their plan. I found the sheer volume of arcane factoids to be overwhelming at points which is likely intentional. So many people, events and societies about which so little is known disorients the reader and makes one wonder along with the three planners if there are huge underlying purposes, plans and motivations of which the history textbooks are ignorant (or else all the curriculum publishers are indirectly controlled by the Masons or the Jesuits or the Rosicrucians in an effort to keep the vast majority of the race in blissful ignorance while they attempt to harness the power of the telluric currents). I concur with one reviewer who said that a directory of references would be helpful. Also, having a French-English and a Latin dictionary on hand would be helpful.
The book held my attention at times but was never particularly fast paced. During the frequent points of inundation with arcane factoids, it was my sense of "where is this all going?", that kept me reading despite not being compelled. As one review stated, the book is "endlessly diverting". That is what I felt upon finishing the book - that I had been diverted. I would say this novel is diverting, quirky, experimental but not great. Contra those novels you just can't put down, I was actually tempted at points to pick up something else. I completely disagree with those who rate this novel better than "The Name of the Rose" (which shares some of the same characteristics: a personal narration of past events, full of historical facts, characters and discussion, centered around a (likely) fictitious text, a inconclusive conclusion rather than a resolution, etc.). If you only read one Eco novel, make it "Name of the Rose" and if you liked that novel, don't expect the same experience from this one. Though at times this novel challenged my principle of finishing every book I start (and I barely won at one point), I am glad that I completed it. I would not read it again, however, as one does with truly great novels. I'd give it 3.5 stars.
****Since writing this original review, I have read many of Jorge Luis Borges short stories and have a new appreciation for what Eco was attempting to do in Pendulum (as well as Name of the Rose). I believe he was trying to novelize some of the complex and philosophical experiments that Borges was playing with in short stories and fragments, especially interacting with ficticious authors, manuscripts and writers/readers creating or changing reality by the texts they create.****
on August 10, 2009
This book is an intellectual thriller drawing on conspiracy theories involving the Templars and other similar organizations, but is definitely not in the "Dan Brown" vein. The first time I tried to read this book I brought it on vacation, but found it to be much too heavy for vacation reading; a few months later I tried again and enjoyed it.
The story focuses on three men working for a small publishing house who essentially devise an ultimate conspiracy theory linking pretty much every secret society that ever existed. They start off doing it as a bit of a joke, but things turn much more serious, particularly when members of secret societies think they know more than they do.
The book is extremely well researched, and the plot has lots of twists and turns. I found some of the writing to be a bit too "wordy" - I'm not sure how much of that is from Umberto Eco and how much from the translator (it was originally written in Italian). It takes a bit of effort to read this book, but overall I think it is well worth reading.
on August 18, 2003
It has been many years since I have read this book, but while at the site to add it to my wish list, I dipped into the reader reviews and was surprised to find that so many people found it so boring or only accessible to those with "higher education."
I had been told about this book by my 14 year old brother, who adored it, and while spending my 18th year in Madrid as an exchange student came across a copy in Spanish. It was the only novel (besides required texts for school) that I read in Spanish that entire year, not being extremely fluent in the language. I absolutely loved it! I remember being swept away by the mysterious possibilities that the book suggests. Mind you, I had at this point only a high school education and very little knowledge of the people/places/things that Eco was writting about. I was, however, familiar with Eco having read the Name of the Rose so many times I had to buy a second copy as the first was dog-eared and loosing pages. I would opine that if you have a good imagination and are open minded to not knowing about absolutely EVERYTHING Eco discusses, you might really enjoy this novel, and perhaps even learn something (although you won't know if its real information or that created by Eco). Just let it take you where it wants to take you. Don't resist it for want of your perception of reason or likelihood or history.
on July 27, 2003
None should pick up this book thinking it will be accessible, unless one happens to be the sort who can, say, cruise through the Friday "New York Times" crossword in under half an hour. Eco consistently violates, in this work, what I normally consider to be the canons of good prose: He chooses long and difficult words over short and clear ones, includes copious foreign phrases (and sometimes whole paragraphs) in no less than three languages besides English, and peppers the text with obscure allusions and long expository monologues. Towards the end of the book he stops even bothering to put quotes around his narrator's paranoid historiographic treatises, and we must occasionally plow through pages at a time of straight theorizing.
However, there is a broader and more fundamental stylistic principle that justifies these excesses, in this case, which is that style should suit subject. And the subject of "Foucault's Pendulum"--enlightment through the pursuit of obscure and arcane knowledge--could not be better served than by a style which is itself a bit obscure and arcane. What's more, the protagonist's professorial penchant for polysyllaby serves an important dramatic purpose: If Causabon did not seem to us so intelligent, we probably would not follow him so willingly down the path of madness. But he does, and we do, and the effect Eco achieves at the end of it all is nothing short of exalting.
Think of the book itself, then, as a hermetic text, and as one with real secrets to unveil: Invest some effort, read with attention, and resign yourself to a bit of research here and there, and you will be well rewarded.