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Raymond's Reviews #16

%T Foucault's Pendulum
%A Umberto Eco
%I Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
%D 1989
%O hardcover, US$22.95
%P 641
%G 0-15-132765-3

In The Name Of The Rose Umberto Eco demonstrated that a book exhibiting many of the diagnostic obsessions of Serious Literature could nevertheless be both a gripping read and accessible to those of us in the unwashed masses who've never taken a degree in higher literary persiflage. In Foucault's Pendulum, alas, the obsessions are still there but many of the qualities that made the earlier book special and accessible are not.

What's that you say? Why am I writing about this book in a column of SF & fantasy reviews? Well...actually, because I feel like it. But if you want a literary rationalization, you can consider genre SF and the sort of thing Eco writes to both depend on "cognitive estrangement", that is the use of plausible fabrications to displace the reader into a secondary world in which (and this is the crucial point) the rules are different from those of the consensus reality we experience daily; a sort of writing in in which an escalating series of shocks to our preconceptions is intended by the author. This is why litteratoors tend to lump the few SF novels they condescend to notice with the works of fabulists like Jorge Luis Borges, allegories like Apuleius's The Golden Ass, or the contemporary "magic realists".

And indeed, a major theme of both Rose and Pendulum is that, to the extent the humans live in an empire of words, the rules can be changed by anyone intelligent or insane enough to transvaluate those words.

The major characters in Pendulum are three intellectuals at a vanity-publishing firm that makes most of its money from verious sorts of occultists and a mass-market line of occult and conspiracy literature for the overly credible. As a joke, they compose an interpretation of history that recasts it as a struggle between secret societies struggling to regain the lost cosmic secrets of the Knights Templar. The joke, however, swiftly begins to assume a sinister reality, and people connected with it disappear mysteriously...

Perhaps I was spoiled for Pendulum by having read Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus trilogy, which handles much the same themes as Pendulum in a far zanier and more effective way. Eco's narrative loses considerable impact if the reader already knows about and has laughed at the hoary edifice of occult conspiracy theory, with its bizarre parade of magi, Assassins, revolutionaries, secret Masonic lodges, notional cities under the earth, world-girdling sinister plans and inspired madmen.

The book can be read as a lesson about how easy and dangerous it is to confuse Word with Reality (Eco even quotes Korzybski's famous admonition "The map is not the territory" in one of the later chapter headings). For the three, eventually, lose their sanities and themselves in "the Plan" -- and, because they are not the only ones seduced by their artifice, so do certain others. The book climaxes with a grisly ritual held beneath Foucault's Pendulum, one in which their words become flesh.

Eco's attempt afterwards at a grand philosophical summation of What It All Meant falls rather flat, though. Shea & Wilson aren't necessarily better weriters, but they are better psychopomps. Read Illuminatus before you bother with Pendulum, if you bother at all -- but, in any case, don't miss the marvelous discussion on page 378 and following, on the Kabalistic interpretation of automobile owners' manuals.

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Sat Feb 03 13:05:46 EST 1990

Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>