Foucault's Pendulum

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Entertaining, erudite, enigmatic, and encyclopedic, Foucault ’s Pendulum (chosen by The New York Times Book Review as one of the Best Books of 1989) proves a more than worthy successor to Italian semiotician Umberto Eco’s immensely—and surprisingly—popular first novel, Il nome della rosa (1980; The Name of the Rose, 1983). In both, Eco creates intricately woven narrative palimpsests, overlaying medieval material with contemporary preoccupations, including and especially the study of signs. Foucault’s Pendulum reads like the odd offspring of Jorge Luis Borges and James Joyce; it reads, in other words, like one of those novels Borges chose not to write, choosing instead to assume their existence, an assumption which then freed him to write his ficciones as if they were glosses on imagined but entirely nonexistent texts and worlds. The relationship between the factual and the fabricated in Borges’ work is unsettling in that it first highlights and then erases the line separating them. The same may be said of Eco’s work; this novel not only takes its title but also quite literally depends from a quite real, historically verifiable object—the pendulum with which (in 1851) Jean- Bernard-Léon Foucault demonstrated the earth’s axial rotation by suspending, from a wire attached to a fixed point, a weight that was kept oscillating in a clockwise motion by the force exerted by magnets placed below. Foucault’s Pendulum follows a similar course, tracing its own oscillating path, demonstrating the principles not of physics but of semiotics and doing so in a way that is far less fixed in its point of origin. (Eco’s pendulum, for example, is not even the one referred to above but a smaller copy installed four years later in the Observatoire des Arts et Metiers in Paris.) That the novel should oscillate in ironic counterpoint to the very certitude (religious as well as scientific) to which the pendulum was presumed to give witness is very much to the novel’s point, for the spirit that presides over Foucault’s Pendulum is not that of the French physicist but is instead Hermes, “inventor of all trickery, god of crossroads and thieves

[and] the creator of writing.” Trickster, thief (plagiarist), writer: This is the triune power in whose impish and ambiguous image the novel is made.

Undoubtedly, a doctoral student in search of a dissertation topic will try to track down and explain the importance of each of the novel’s numerous sources: For the 120 chapter epigraphs alone, there are 120 different sources, ranging from a “page suppressed in later editions” of Le Diable amoureur (1772), by Jacques Cazotte, to “The Metterling List” from Getting Even (1971), by Woody Allen, to an excerpt from a letter written by a physicist at Columbia University, presumably to Eco, but which the novel’s narrator claims was sent to one of the novel’s characters in reply to the character’s query. The desire not only to read but to master (dominate?) Eco’s novel is not only what the narrative both invites and resists, but also what the novel warns against. Unlike Foucault’s pendulum, Eco’s novel has no fixed point around which the narrative whirls. Rather, it is a mirror that distorts rather than represents, a multicursal labyrinth that leaves the reader to discover that he is what lies at the labyrinth’s center. Foucault’s Pendulum is (to borrow still another of the novel’s numerous tropes) a mosaic, “a monstrous hybrid,” a narrative pinball machine in which the goal of the author and reader is to keep the game going as long as possible, a medieval ars combinatoria, a cabalistic “calculation of permutations” played on a personal computer. Postmodern in technique and implications, Foucault’s Pendulum is decidedly—but ironically—premodern in structure; the 120 chapters are divided into ten parts, corresponding to the ten Cabalistic spheres, or sefiroth, starting with Keter, the primal void, and ending with Malkhut, the kingdom of the earth. As with most else in this novel, however, the structure proves deceptive. Against it and the linear progression it implies, Eco posits the circular pattern of the novel’s narrative frame; he plays the tale that is told against the tale of its telling.

The novel’s narrator—and therefore the hero of its telling, perhaps of its tale as well—is Casaubon, a graduate student in philology at the University of Milan during the student unrest of the early 1970’s, who (largely by chance) comes to write a history thesis on the trial (and demise) of the Knights Templar. Although a tenacious (but entirely disinterested) researcher, he does not know, until told, of his namesake in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch (18714872), an elderly scholar unredeemed by love. Eco’s Casaubon (perhaps named Paolo, since his girlfriend calls him “Pow”) spends a few years in Brazil, “that land of age-old unbridled hybridization,” returns to Milan, and sets up shop as a Sam Spade of learning, the owner-operator of “a cultural investigation agency.” At this point, he also resumes his acquaintance with Jacopo Belbo, nearly fifteen years his senior. Like nearly all the novel’s characters, Belbo is not what he appears to be. Outwardly contemptuous, he is inwardly melancholy (or so Casaubon comes to believe), a man who (again as Casaubon reads him), having failed to become one of history’s protagonists, uneasily accepts the role of mere spectator: an editor of others’ manuscripts by day, a prolific author of computer files by night. The novel reproduces a number of these files verbatim but always in a way that precludes the reader’s gaining access to Belbo aside from the mediating and potentially distorting influence of Casaubon’s larger narrative. In the beginning was the word, but subsequently all words are necessarily—even if covertly—contextualized and intertextualized: They are framed, like the novel itself

Belbo has named his computer Abulafia, presumably after Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia, one of the founders of the Spanish Cabala in the thirteenth century. Is this nomination to be read as an homage to or as a joke on the medieval Cabalist? Apparently it is both, the latter masking the former, if Casaubon is correct in believing that the files compose “a horrible final mosaic” that the disillusioned Belbo constructed out of a combination of despair and nostalgia-nostalgia...

(The entire section is 2656 words.)


(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

FOUCAULT’S PENDULUM is not an easy read. Some readers may get lost in the attempt; many will have to go back over passages so as to keep clues clear. This is very much a philosophical mystery, maybe even a metaphysical mystery. Three editors from a publishing house in Milan, something of a vanity press, bored with rewriting the work of dilettantes, amuse themselves by fabricating a vast conspiracy. They are inspired by a certain Colonel Ardenti, who had come to them with what he thought was a coded message concerning a plot to control the Earth through the use of telluric energy, dating back to the medieval era and the heyday of the Knights Templar. When the Colonel disappears, the three editors decide to invent their own plots by feeding their computer named Abulafia with various scraps of hermetic thought.

FOUCAULT’S PENDULUM is a novel of information. Casaubon, the narrator and one of the editors, acts as the detective; Jacopo Belbo and Diotallevi, the other two editors, end up paying the ultimate price for the game they have helped create. Endless enigmas confront the reader as more and more random manuscript information is added to Abulafia: the secrets of the Great Pyramid, the Knights Templar, the Rosicrucians, Brazilian voodoo, the Nazis, and on and on. The Pendulum of the title comes from the invention of the nineteenth century French physicist Jean-Bernard-Leon Foucault, demonstrating the rotation of the Earth.

By the end of the novel,...

(The entire section is 447 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Foucault's Pendulum is narrated in the first person, albeit with occasional omniscience (thanks to Abulafia's files), by Casaubon. He...

(The entire section is 391 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In his fiction, Eco always runs the risk of exhausting his readers' patience with the labyrinthine complexity of his narrative, the sheer...

(The entire section is 381 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Barranu, Manuela. “Eco and the Reading of the Second Level.” In Illuminating Eco: On the Boundaries of Interpretation, edited by Charlotte Ross and Rochelle Sibley. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2004. Applies Eco’s concept of “second-level” reading to identify formal properties in the novel. Includes a time chart placing episodes of the plot in chronological order.

Bennett, Helen. “The Limitations of Openness: Foucault’s Pendulum and Kabbalah.” In Umberto Eco’s Alternative: The Politics of Culture and the Ambiguities of Interpretation, edited by Norma Bouchart and Veronica Pravadelli. New York: Peter Lang, 1998. Discusses the representation of Kabbalah in Eco’s novel and relates the text to Kabbalistic traditions of textual interpretation.

Bondanella, Peter. Umberto Eco and the Open Text: Semiotics, Fiction, Popular Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Chapter 6 summarizes Eco’s comments on “over-interpretation” and “paranoid interpretation” and discusses them in connection with Foucault’s Pendulum.

Farronato, Cristina. Eco’s Chaosmos: From the Middle Ages to Postmodernity. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 2003. Chapter 4 includes a section on readers’ complicity in crime, as presented in Foucault’s Pendulum. Chapter 7 continues the theme while considering Eco’s adaptation of the whodunit form.

Francese, Joseph. Socially Symbolic Acts: The Historicizing Fictions of Umberto Eco, Vincenzo Consolo, and Antonio Tabucchi. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2006. The chapter on Eco discusses his theory of reading. A section is devoted to Foucault’s Pendulum and the different kinds of reading that its characters demonstrate.

Hutcheon, Linda. “Irony-Clad Foucault.” In Reading Eco: An Anthology, edited by Rocco Capozzi. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. Discusses Eco’s response to Michel Foucault, the literary and cultural theorist.

Naparstek, Ben. “’I Invented Dan Brown.’” Jerusalem Post, December 13, 2007. Discusses Eco’s reaction to Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands. London: Penguin, 1991. Section 9 includes an essay on Eco’s fiction. Rushdie much prefers The Name of the Rose to Foucault’s Pendulum, which he finds “devoid of characterization” or humor.

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Eco's novel draws broadly on a now well-established tradition of thrillers that are rooted in meticulous detail and extensive research....

(The entire section is 188 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Like The Name of The Rose, Foucault's Pendulum provides a formidable display of Eco's erudition couched in the terms of a...

(The entire section is 103 words.)