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.)