Foucault's Pendulum (original title: Il pendolo di Foucault) is a novel by Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco. It was first published in 1988; the translation into English by William Weaver appeared a year later.
Foucault's Pendulum is divided into ten segments represented by the ten Sefiroth. The novel is full of esoteric references to the Kabbalah, alchemy and conspiracy theory, so many that critic and novelist Anthony Burgess has suggested that it needed an index. The title of the book derives from an actual pendulum designed by the French physicist Léon Foucault to demonstrate the rotation of the earth.
As Belbo, Diotallevi and Casaubon become increasingly obsessed with The Plan, they sometimes forget that it's just a game. Worse still, when adherents of other conspiracy theories learn about The Plan, they take it seriously. Belbo finds himself the target of a very real secret society that believes he possesses the key to the lost treasure of the Knights Templar.
There are a number of sub-plots woven into the grand theme of The Plan. Belbo's obsession with the plan is justified by his experiences as a child in a World War II torn Italy, his unrequited love for the mercurial Lorenza Pellegrini, and his desire to absolve himself from his constant sense of failure. Against the backdrop of the Templar Plan for world domination, the novel brings out the credulity inherent in all people.
The book opens with the narrator, Casaubon (his name refers to classical scholar Isaac Casaubon, and also evokes a scholar character in George Eliot's Middlemarch) hiding in fear after closing time in the Parisian technical museum Musée des Arts et Métiers. He believes that members of a secret society have kidnapped his friend Jacopo Belbo and are now after him.
Most of the novel is then told in flashback as Casaubon waits in the museum.
Casaubon had been a student in 1970s Milan, working on a thesis on the history of the Knights Templar while taking in the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary activities of the students around him. During this period he meets Belbo, who works as an editor in a publishing house. Belbo invites Casaubon to review the manuscript of a supposedly non-fiction book about the Templars. Casaubon also meets Belbo's colleague Diotallevi, a cabalist.
The book, by one Colonel Ardenti, claims a hidden coded manuscript has revealed a secret plan of the medieval Templars to take over the world. This supposed conspiracy is meant as revenge for the deaths of the Templar leaders when their order was disbanded by the King of France. Ardenti postulates that the Templars were the guardians of a secret treasure, perhaps the Holy Grail of legend, which he postulates was a radioactive energy source. According to Ardenti's theory, after the French monarchy and the Catholic Church disbanded the Templars on the grounds of heresy, some knights escaped and established cells throughout the world. These cells have been meeting at regular intervals in distinct places to pass on information about the Grail. Ultimately, these cells will reunite to rediscover the Grail's location and achieve world domination. According to Ardenti's calculations, the Templars should have taken over the world in 1944; evidently the plan has been interrupted.
Ardenti mysteriously vanishes after meeting with Belbo and Casaubon to discuss his book. A police inspector, De Angelis, interviews both men. He hints that his job as a political department investigator leads him to investigate not only revolutionaries but also people who claim to be linked to the Occult.
Casaubon has a romance with a Brazilian woman named Amparo. He leaves Italy to follow her and spends two years in Brazil. While living there, he learns about South American and Caribbean spiritualism, and meets Agliè, an elderly man who implies that he is the mystical Comte de Saint-Germain. Agliè has a seemingly infinite supply of knowledge about things concerning the Occult. While in Brazil, Casaubon receives a letter from Belbo about attending a meeting of occultists. At the meeting Belbo was reminded of the Colonel's conspiracy theory by the words of a young woman who was apparently in a trance. Casaubon and Amparo also attend an occult event in Brazil, an Umbanda rite. During the ritual Amparo falls into a trance herself, an experience she finds deeply disturbing and embarrassing. Her relationship with Casaubon falls apart, and he returns to Italy.
On his return to Milan, Casaubon begins working as a freelance researcher. At the library he meets a woman named Lia; the two fall in love and eventually have a child together. Meanwhile, Casaubon is hired by Belbo's boss, Mr. Garamond (his name refers to French publisher Claude Garamond), to research illustrations for a history of metals the company is working on. Casaubon learns that as well as the respectable Garamond publishing house, Mr. Garamond also owns Manuzio, a vanity publisher that charges incompetent authors large sums of money to print their work (rendered "Manutius" in the English translation, a reference to the 15th century printer Aldus Manutius).
Mr. Garamond soon has the idea to begin two lines of occult books: one intended for serious publication by Garamond; the other, Isis Unveiled (a reference to the theosophical text by Blavatsky), to be published by Manutius in order to attract more vanity authors.
Belbo, Diotallevi and Casaubon quickly become submerged in occult manuscripts that draw all sorts of flimsy connections between historical events. They nickname the authors the "Diabolicals", and engage Agliè as a specialist reader.
The three editors start to develop their own conspiracy theory, "The Plan", as part satire and part intellectual game. Starting from Ardenti's "secret manuscript", they develop an intricate web of mystical connections. They also make use of Belbo's small personal computer, which he has nicknamed Abulafia. Belbo mainly uses Abulafia for his personal writings (the novel contains many excerpts of these, discovered by Casaubon as he goes through Abulafia's files), but it came equipped with a small program that can rearrange text in random. (Compare with the game of Dissociated Press and Ramon Llull's Ars Magna.) They use this program to create the "connections" which inspire their Plan. They enter randomly selected words from the Diabolicals' manuscripts, logical operators ("What follows is not true", "If", "Then", etc.), truisms (such as "The Templars have something to do with everything") and "neutral data" (such as "Minnie Mouse is Mickey Mouse's fiancée") and use Abulafia to create new text. A listing of the program is given (in BASIC.)
Their first attempt ends up recreating (after a liberal interpretation of the results) the Mary Magdalene conspiracy theory central to The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Casaubon jokingly suggests that to create something truly new Belbo must look for occult connections in non-obvious contexts, such as by linking the Kabbalah to a car's spark plugs. (Belbo actually does this, and after some research concludes that the powertrain is a metaphor for the Tree of life.) Pleased with the results of the random text program, the three continue resorting to Abulafia whenever they reach a dead-end with their game.
"The Plan" evolves slowly, but the final version involves the Knights Templar's coming into possession of an ancient secret knowledge of energy flows called telluric currents during the Crusades. The original Knights Templar organization is destroyed after the execution of Jacques de Molay, but the members split into independent cells located in several corners of Europe and the Middle East. As in Ardenti's original theory, each cell is given part of the Templar "Plan" and information about the secret discovery. They are to meet periodically at different locations to share sections of the Plan, gradually reconstructing the original. Then they will reunite and take over the world using the power of the telluric currents. The crucial instruments involved in their plan are a special map and the Foucault pendulum.
While the Plan is quite far-fetched, the editors become increasingly involved in their game. They even begin to think that there might really be a secret conspiracy after all. Ardenti's disappearance, and his original "coded manuscript", seem to have no other explanation.
However, when Casaubon's girlfriend Lia asks to see the coded manuscript, she comes up with a mundane interpretation. She suggests that the document is simply a delivery list, and encourages Casaubon to abandon the game as she fears it is having a negative effect on him.
When Diotallevi is diagnosed with cancer, he attributes this to his participation in The Plan. He feels that the disease is a divine punishment for involving himself in mysteries he should have left alone and creating a game that mocked something larger than them all. Belbo meanwhile retreats even farther into the Plan to avoid confronting problems in his personal life.
The three had sent Agliè their chronology of secret societies in the Plan, pretending it was not their own work but rather a manuscript they had been presented with. Their list includes historic organizations such as the Templars, Rosicrucians, Paulicians and Synarchists, but they also invent a fictional secret society called the Tres (Templi Resurgentes Equites Synarchici, Latin for the nonsensical "Synarchic Knights of Templar Rebirth"). The Tres is introduced to trick Agliè. Upon reading the list, he claims not to have heard of the Tres before. (The word was first mentioned to Casaubon by the policeman De Angelis. De Angelis had asked Casaubon if he has ever heard of the Tres.)
Belbo goes to Agliè privately and describes The Plan to him as though it were the result of serious research. He also claims to be in possession of the secret Templar map. Agliè becomes frustrated with Belbo's refusal to let him see this (non-existent) map. He frames Belbo as a terrorist suspect in order to force him to come to Paris. Agliè has cast himself as the head of a secret spiritual brotherhood, which includes Mr. Garamond, Colonel Ardenti and many of the Diabolical authors. Belbo tries to get help from De Angelis, but the brotherhood has blackmailed him.
Casaubon receives a call for help; he goes to Belbo's apartment, and reads all the documents that Belbo stored in his computer, then decides to follow Belbo to Paris himself. He decides that Agliè and his associates must intend to meet at the museum where Foucault's Pendulum is housed, as Belbo had claimed that the Templar map had to be used in conjunction with the pendulum. Casaubon hides in the museum, where he was when the novel opened.
At the appointed hour, a group of people gather around the pendulum for an arcane ritual. Casaubon sees several ectoplasmic forms appear, one of which claims to be the real Comte de Saint-Germain and discredits Agliè in front of his followers. Belbo is then brought out to be questioned.
Agliè's group are, or have deluded themselves to be, the Tres society in the Plan. Angry that Belbo knows more about the Plan than they do, they try to force him to reveal the secrets he knows, even going so far as to try and coerce him using Lorenza. Refusing to satisfy them or reveal that the Plan was a nonsensical concoction, his refusal incites a riot...during which Lorenza is stabbed and Belbo is hanged by wire connected to Foucault's Pendulum. (The act of his hanging actually changes the act of the pendulum, causing it to oscillate from his neck insteal of the fixed point above him, ruining any chance of displaying any correct location the Tres meant to find.)
Casaubon escapes the museum through the Paris sewers, eventually fleeing to Belbo's countryside villa where he had grown up. It is unclear by this point how reliable a narrator Casaubon has been, and to what extent he has been inventing, or deceived by, conspiracy theories. Diotallevi eventually succumbs to his cancer. The novel ends with Casaubon meditating on the events of the book, apparently resigned to the (possibly delusional) idea that the Tres will capture him soon. And when they do, he will follow Belbo's lead, refusing to give them any clues, refusing to create a lie.
The book begins with a long quote in Hebrew, which comes from page seven of Philip Gruberger's book The Kabbalah: A Study of the Ten Luminous Emanations from Rabbi Isaac Luria with the Commentaries Sufficient for the Beginner Vol. II, published in Jerusalem by the Research Center of Kabbalah in 1973. The quotation translates into English as follows:
When the Light of the Endless was drawn in the form of a straight line in the Void... it was not drawn and extended immediately downwards, indeed it extended slowly — that is to say, at first the Line of Light began to extend and at the very start of its extension in the secret of the Line it was drawn and shaped into a wheel, perfectly circular all around.
Each of the following 119 chapters also begin with one or two quotes, mostly from esoteric books (including one quote from The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, which is mentioned in passing in the same chapter). One unusual quote (from Eco's private correspondence with renowned architect and engineer Mario Salvadori) describes the physics of a hanging victim as an approximation of a single and a double pendulum.
Belbo's writings are a recurrent theme throughout the book. The entire book is narrated in first person by Casaubon, with brief interludes from the files on Abulafia. These passages are often eccentrically written, and deal in most part with Belbo's childhood, his constant sense of failure, and his obsession with Lorenza. The interludes from his childhood serve as stark contrast to the mythical world of cults and conspiracies. Belbo is extremely careful to not try to create (literature), because he deems himself unworthy, although it becomes somewhat obvious that writing is his passion. This attitude of constant subconscious self-abasement fits in with the overall irony focused on in the book, considering that Belbo is eventually consumed by (re)creation of the Plan.
Casaubon is a scholar. While Belbo seeks inner peace, Casaubon's quest is of knowledge. The uncertainty of scientific knowledge and human experience is explored in his character, as he participates in various extra-natural events. His narratives abandon his strict realism and become increasingly inclined towards the supernatural as the novel progresses.
Mr. Garamond, whose primary business is selling dreams (through his vanity press outlet), comes to believe the fantasy world his authors weave. It is possible though, that he had always been a "Diabolical", and founded his publishing business to fish for information.
The following are some of the secret and not-so-secret groups that appear in Foucault's Pendulum:
The following are actually not involved with the Plan:
Foucault's Pendulum has been called the "thinking person's Da Vinci Code,. The parchment that sparks the Plan and its multiple possible interpretations, plays a similar role to the parchments in the Rennes-le-Château story propelled to global prominence by Brown's novel and, earlier, in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, from which Brown drew inspiration. Eco's novel, which predated the Brown phenomenon by more than a decade, similarly concerns itself with the Knights Templar, complex conspiracies, secret codes, the Holy Blood conundrum (if mentioned only in passing) and even includes a chase around the monuments of Paris. It does so, however, from a much more critical perspective: it's more a satire on the futility of conspiracy theories and those who believe them, rather than an attempt to proliferate such beliefs.
Asked whether he'd read the Brown novel, Eco replied with the following witty put-down:
I was obliged to read it because everybody was asking me about it. My answer is that Dan Brown is one of the characters in my novel Foucault’s Pendulum, which is about people who start believing in occult stuff.
- But you yourself seem interested in the kabbalah, alchemy and other occult practices explored in the novel.No. In Foucault’s Pendulum I wrote the grotesque representation of these kind of people. So Dan Brown is one of my creatures.
Eco was himself inspired by the great Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, in particular the latter's renowned short story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. Eco's earlier best-seller The Name of the Rose was similarly indebted to Borges - this time The Library of Babel - as Eco tacitly acknowledges by assigning a key role to a blind monk called Jorge de Burgos, named in homage to the blind Argentine.
Foucault's Pendulum is, above all, reminiscent, in its plot and preoccupations, of the anarchic science fantasy trilogy Illuminatus!, by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson which had acquired a cult following some 13 years earlier.
The novel also bears a number of similarities to Eco's own experiences and writing. The character of Belbo was brought up in, and refers to many times, the town of Piedmont in Northern Italy. In an article compiled in Faith In Fakes, Eco refers to his own visit to a Candomblé ceremony in Brazil, reminiscent of the episode in the novel, and also describes a French ethnologist, Roger Bastide who bears resemblance to the character of Aglié.