Foucault’s Pendulum is a book that changed my life. I partly have my brother to thank for that, because he knew how to shut the hell up.
Unfortunately I can’t do the same for you, otherwise this would be a short article. But if you have always wondered whether occult and supernatural conspiracies might have a grain truth to them, then go read it now.
(Spoiler alert: They don’t.)
Umberto Eco was an Italian novelist… Actually, he was more than that. He was an acclaimed professor, philosopher, semiotician, and literary theorist who wrote children’s books, adult novels, academic texts, essays and more. But most of us know him as the guy who wrote In the Name of the Rose, which was turned into a movie starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater.
He also wrote Foucault’s Pendulum, and the reason it had such a strong effect on me was twofold: First off it was because my brother tricked me: he didn’t let me in on the joke behind it. He just told me, read the book.
You see, we shared an interest in historical conspiracies and the “what if?” idea of them possibly being real. We even roleplayed adventures with those kinds of stories as the basis. But being a young teenager, I was probably in danger of falling down the rabbit hole of taking these things a bit too seriously. Maybe he recognized that when he gave me his copy to read.
At first, I was annoyed that many of the passages that started before each chapter were untranslated. I wondered to myself “What am I missing? What hidden meaning is in this text? Where can I get a translation?” I asked my brother if he knew and he just smiled and told me to keep reading, it would all make sense by the end.
And it did. By the end, I realized just how unimportant it all was.
Foucault’s Pendulum is perhaps the best deconstruction of conspiracy and myth I’ve come across, wrapped up in an engaging character driven novel. It demonstrates our desire to find patterns and deeper meaning in things which in reality amount only to the background noise of life. More importantly, it’s a story about how that desire can destroy you, even unintentionally.
It centers on three vanity publisher employees who, after dealing with so many crackpot conspiracy theory manuscripts, decide to invent their own. “The Plan” starts off as a joke, an intellectual exercise that grows in complexity, even utilizing a computer to create random connections between everything.
The three eventually become obsessed with The Plan, but the real danger comes from elsewhere. Others find out about it, and they believe it’s real. To them, The Plan must be real—it knows the conspiracies even better than they do! And they’re willing to do anything to force its creators to reveal the truth behind it.
What caught me off guard about this story was a belief I carried in with me—I had assumed there would ultimately be some kind of “truth” to be revealed within its pages. And I suppose there was, just not the kind I had expected.
But I said there were two reasons this had such an impact on me. The other was because of the time I read it in. The internet didn’t exist yet, and this meant I grew up watching shows like That’s Incredible! and In Search of. I didn’t have easy access to a counterpoint that could shed light on things. If anything, TV tried to make things worse, promoting book series like Mysteries of the Unknown from Time Life (with their catchy slogan: Read the Book!).
Foucault’s Pendulum gave me an early dose of scepticism that I sorely needed. It familiarized me with concepts that I didn’t even fully understand until later on in life, such as pattern recognition. I began to see just how easy it was to turn anything into a mysterious wonder—the mystical mathematical connections people have made regarding the pyramids of Giza can just as easily be applied to a telephone booth.
Today, with the internet, we find ourselves bombarded with conspiracies—from classic shadowy threats such as the Templars and Freemasons to new ones we create just in time for the next election. The process of legitimizing false information used to take decades, even centuries. It sometimes took that long for the lies to be repeated and reprinted enough to gain strength. Now it takes only days or weeks as sites reinforce their delusions, referencing each other’s articles in an endless Mobius loop. Or, as Eco himself put it:
“Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community. Then they were quickly silenced, but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It’s the invasion of the idiots.”
Fortunately, we also have the means to debunk those idiots. To cite sources and find the truth behind outlandish claims.
The problem is we ONLY have the means. What too many of us lack is the desire. But Foucault’s Pendulum ignited that spark of desire in me. Will it do the same for you?
Read the book.
Originally Published in KODT #243