The phone company, don’t you know, killed Kennedy. Had there been a phone company at the time, it would have killed Lincoln too. Lincoln, a Rosicrucian, had a guy named Kennedy working for him. Kennedy had a guy named Lincoln working for him.
There’s no historical event on record that doesn’t admit the possibility of a conspiracy theory or, indeed, of a conspiracy. All we know for certain is that the world is governed by chaos, full of dark corners. Mysterious forces, inexplicable eruptions of the spirit, cruel fixations, and mad superstitions drive our history, our societies: Witness Hitler and the Inquisition and other manifestations of unseen powers.
This strange demimonde fueled the literary career of Umberto Eco, the Italian philosopher who died just shy of three years ago and who came onto the scene in 1980 with The Name of the Rose, a deliciously learned medieval murder mystery that has since inspired dozens of kindred novels, some good and some (think almost anything with “codex” in the title) not. Eco followed with a yarn that astonished a little less but that still drew on his deep learning, vast book collection, knowledge of medieval mysticism, and his own skepticism: Foucault’s Pendulum, which appeared in English in 1989.
Eco’s novel, whose title derives from the giant Parisian plumb line that illustrates the rotation of the Earth, centers on three editors at a Milanese publisher who pass their days by inventing oxymoronic courses for a projected School of Comparative Irrelevance. The narrator, Casaubon, a scholar who has written a searching book on the Knights Templar but can’t find a university job, and his colleagues Belbo and Diotallevi, all hardened cynics, view their editorial work as a kind of sacred mission that itself hints of conspiracy, calling it “like being God in plain clothes.”
A Col. Ardenti wanders in with a pitch to publish a history of the Knights Templars, a military order of monks enriched by the Crusades and crushed by papal order in the early 1300s—just the kind of thing that the doubtful Casaubon ought to savor. Ardenti is certain that the Knights Templars still exist and secretly rule the world, and, as if to highlight the point, Belbo and Diotallevi disappear. It is up to Casaubon to save the day, though it’s never really clear that he’s up to the job.
Guided by hints Belbo has hidden in his computer, Casaubon sounds the depths of one occult organization after another: Numerologists, Illuminati, Nazis, New Agers, Freemasons, and other swimmers in the “tellurian currents” present their bizarre worldviews, which only confuse Casaubon’s quest. Every one of them is suspect: “Historical materialism?” one of his advisers remarks. “An apocalyptic cult that came out of the Trier region.”
And so Casaubon wanders to a nicely twisted ending that bares the totalitarian fascination with secrecy, the fascist love for the occult, obsessions that define the will to power, mysticism become political. Given our own penchant for theories that attempt to make sense of such abundant and ubiquitous weirdness, Foucault’s Pendulum is timeless—and well worth reading in this anniversary year.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.