Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Abu Laugh At You

How on earth could I have gone this long without reading "Foucault's Pendulum?"  I would have LOVED this book when I was in high school!  I mean, I love it now, but high school was the height of my craze with the Illuminati and secret societies in general.  And Foucault's Pendulum is even denser in secret societies than, say, Illuminatus!  Unlike Illuminatus!, FP is unquestionably Good Literature, and it probably would have done me a lot of good.

My head is still kind of spinning, which I believe is sort of the point of this book.  It's positively dizzying.  Let me recap with some


So... plot summary time.

The narrator and main character, Casaubon, is a university student in Italy.  He is writing his graduate thesis on the Templars, and runs into a man named Belbo, who edits books for a small press.  Casaubon complains about how difficult it is to do research on the Templars, because there are so many crazy theories out there about them: for centuries, people have been convinced that the Templars were plotting to overthrow the state, and/or worshipping Satan, and/or protecting the Grail, and a whole host of other wild theories.

Belbo asks Casaubon to listen in on a person who is pitching a new book on the Templars to the publisher.  This man has found an ancient text, decoded it, and found in it the rough outlines of a grand Templar plot.  Spanning centuries, the note speaks of meetings to be held every 120 years, culminating in the 1940s, at which point they will rule the world.  The man is hoping to publish the information he has in the hopes of flushing out others who may be able to supply other pieces of the puzzle.  They decide that he's nuts and politely let him down.

Later that night, the man is found strangled in his hotel room.  By the time the police arrive, the body has disappeared.  Belbo and Casaubon are brought in for questioning, and they cooperate, although they don't discuss the details of the man's Templar plot.  Also questioned is another employee of the publisher named Diotavelli, an Italian who's convinced that he's Jewish; he is obsessed with cabala.  The three of them (Casaubon, Belbo, and Diotavelli) make an unspoken pact to not get further involved, and let it lie.

Casaubon graduates and follows a girlfriend to Brazil, where he encounters a variety of mystical cults and rituals.  Introducing him to this supernatural world is a man named Aglie, who claims to be the Comte Saint-German, a character hundreds of years old.  Casaubon is fascinated by this magical aspect of existence, though he doesn't feel a part of it.  His girlfriend does feel involved, and is repulsed by it, and they eventually separate.

Casaubon returns to Italy, where his prodigious researching ability lands him a job with Garamond, the publishing house where Belbo and Diotavelli work.  In addition to their scholarly work, Garamond also runs a vanity self-publishing operation that's essentially a scam - gullible people pay to print thousands of copies of their books, when only a couple hundred are actually printed to impress their friends.  Garamond hits upon a grand idea: start a scholarly series on the history of magic and rituals, which will surely sell well in the burgeoning occult market.  Because this will bring all the crazies (henceafter known as Diabolicals) out of the woodwork, it will also provide Garamond with a slew of victims for the self-publishing scam.

The three friends are soon working full-time on the magic books, and become increasingly obsessed with the complicated world of conspiracy theories.  They learn an incredible amount about the history and speculation regarding the Templars, Rosicrucians, Knights of the Gartar, Bavarian Illuminati, Alumbrados, Freemasons, the Scottish Rite, the Golden Dawn, Assassins, and more.  They recruit Aglie, now living in Italy as well, who is connected with secret societies of all sorts, although he doesn't profess to actually believe any of them.  Aglie takes them to see an initiation rite and various other occult practices.

Eventually, the three friends decide to start a game.  They've noticed that all the Diabolicals' ideas are essentially the same.  Nobody ever thinks of anything new, they just re-combine the same elements over and over in different configurations.  Some will write that the Rosicrucians were secretly the heirs of the Knights Templar; others will write that similarities between the two groups prove that the Rosicrucians actually predate the Templars, and that the Templars were carrying out a more ancient plot. 

Belbo has bought a computer, which he named Abulafia in honor of the cabalist.  He writes a program which will combine random nouns from a set of existing theories that they feed it, and come up with conspiracy theories of its own.  They call this evolving super-theory "The Plan," and enthusiastically document a fake history that "proves" their theory.

As the book goes on, they grow increasingly obsessed with The Plan.  Eventually they even tie it in to the Holocaust, the Russian Revolution, and other major historic events.  Diotavelli grows ill.


Finally, The Plan is complete.  They have succeeded in unifying every crazy theory they have ever come across, along with one they invented on their own, the Tres.  In its full form, The Plan is roughly the following:
Telluric currents span the earth, and are responsible for storms, rain, earthquakes, and more.  The Templars discovered the one location on Earth where all these currents converge, the Navel of the World.  From this one spot, in theory, one could literally control the world - by manipulating the currents, they can cause land masses to rise and fall, cause famine or plenty, generally act like a god.
However, the Templars were not able to take advantage of this - the technology was not in place, and they had too many enemies.  So they agreed to dissolve, and split into six sections, scattered from Portugal to Persia.  Each group possessed a piece of information about a map to the Navel of the World.  By placing this map underneath a pendulum, and watching the lines that the pendulum traces, they would re-discover the Navel at a time when they could take advantage of it.
However, something went wrong.  The first meeting between the Portuguese and the English went fine, but before the meeting between the English and the French, the Gregorian calendar was introduced.  France had adopted it, but England had not yet, at the time of the second meeting.  In the resulting confusion, the meeting was missed.
At this point, The Plan seemed stuck.  There was no back-up plan, and outside of the specified time and location, each group had no way of contacting the other.  They decided to try and coax out the other side by releasing coded manifestos; these would appear to say one thing to ordinary readers, but true heirs of the Templars could read and understand what was meant.  Thus were the Rosicrucians born.
Eventually, with The Plan interrupted, each faction began to try to gain advantage for itself.  By directly stealing from the other factions, they hoped to get the map for themselves.  Against this backdrop, all history for the last 500 years can be explained.  Assassinations, wars, scientific advancements, everything is the result of a shadowy power struggle with the goal of reclaiming the telluric currents.

Belbo plays with Aglie by sharing the Plan and revealing that he, Belbo, saw the Map in a document from an anonymous contributor.  Belbo claims to have memorized the Map, and then destroyed it, not believing its contents.  Aglie not only believes - he REALLY believes, and embarks on a breathtaking plot of his own to force Belbo to share the secret.

This is actually where the novel begins - the bulk of it is told as sort of an extremely long flashback.  The world has now turned upside down.  The Plan, an entirely fictitious creation, has become real.  By providing a grand unified theory that ties together every crazy belief, they have inadvertently united all the crazies together, for the first time providing them all with a single goal, a coherent story that explains their place in the universe.  All they need is the map - something that does not exist.

Chilling.  Wonderful.  The climax is an incredible gothic piece of paranoia and dread.  When I read the first two chapters, I thought they were way too over the top and overwrought.  By the time the story returns to that point, and you have crawled inside the head of Casaubon, you completely understand why he thinks and behaves the way he does.  The final effect is a mixture of horror, pity, dread, and a touch of humor.  It's like little else that I've read.


Now, the comparisons...

This book is about secret conspiracies, but doesn't read like any other novels on the topic.  The others that immediately spring to mind are Illuminatus! and Crying of Lot 49 (not coincidentally one of my favorite books).  Illuminatus! takes the plot seriously, at least within the text.  "Crying" is so effective because it maintains a perfect edge of uncertainty through the entire book - there's never quite enough to convince Oedipa that it is true, but there's far too much to just dismiss it.  FP believes that the plots themselves aren't real, but the act of believing them or imagining them contains a power of their own. 

FP is also more explicitly mystical than the other books.  This is most explicit in the Brazil passages and the satanist sections, but the whole book is filled with similar details, from Baphomet to the mediums.  The Illuminati has a kind of subtle magic behind it, but is primarily manifested in political actions.  The Tristero have no magic, and have a sort of chilly technical sheen to their actions.

What I liked:

Abulafia was an excellent component in this book; I can't think of another book that has introduced a computer like this, and certainly not that's done it as well.  I cried out for joy when I saw that Eco actually included a BASIC program within the text of the book - so cool!  He perfectly captured the joy of creation and tinkering that I remember feeling when I first started playing with computers.  I feel like this is something that we've lost now.  In our current society, computers are so commonplace that they've become background... we often just notice them when they're irritating us.  Early on, computers were mysterious, arcane objects that were only accessible by the elite in specialized buildings.  FP is set during a brief and exciting cusp in history, after computers became common but before they became ubiquitous, and I love how he captures their fascinating appeal.

The overall sense of play in the book felt very invigorating.  I enjoyed the constant tinkering of the protagonists, and their dry sense of humor as they proposed ever more bizarre scenarios for each other's amusement.  The window into Belbo's writing career was similarly touching.  I have to say, when he tries, Eco makes a very convincing mediocre writer.  By far my favorite Belbo piece was the rambling piece that posited he wrote Shakespeare's plays, Shakespeare wrote Bacon's texts, Bacon wrote Spenser's poem, and on and on.  I've indulged in these sort of free-form exercises on my own sometimes, and his treatment was very convincing, especially the sudden and obvious anachronisms (from the Elizabethan Tower of London to Lorenza's pinball playing technique).

The overall cast of characters felt just about perfect - it was a good mix, with a few that you got to know extremely well, enough side characters to feel like they were living in a full world, but not so many that I ever got confused about who anyone was.  That last point is especially important for a book this long and this dense.  You ain't going to finish it in a single day, and fortunately Eco doesn't scatter around many minor characters who you're expected to remember when they pop back up weeks later.


I probably should have waited longer before writing this one up - my head is still kind of spinning - but in the moment, my response is that this is just an excellent book.  The subject matter fits a long-standing fascination of mine, and the excellent writing fits my highest standards.  It certainly isn't for everyone, but if you dig complex and funny works like Gravity's Rainbow, and especially if you enjoy mystery and history, this might be up your alley.  A dark alley full of cultists looking to sacrifice you, sure, but an alley nonetheless.

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