By strange coincidence, on Friday I finished Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum and the next day I woke up to the news of his death at 84 years old. I really enjoyed the novel (his second, published in 1988) and wanted to explore my reactions and lessons I drew from it. I’m going to cover real plot spoilers, so don’t read on if that’s not your thing.
The book’s plot follows a narrator, Casaubon, and two of his colleagues at a publishing house where they’ve been publishing books on the occult and similar subjects. As a joke and a lure to attract more of these authors, the protagonists fabricate an elaborate Plan that weaves together many of the crazy threads they find in the manuscripts sent to them. For many years they had mocked the conspiracy theories they found in these manuscripts until finally, with the creation of their own Plan and evidence of murder and death threats regarding it, they begin to believe in it themselves, and it becomes their undoing.
In part, Foucault’s Pendulum is a critique on those who would take history, stories, and literature too seriously in their quest to find connections and interpret hidden reasons and intentions behind events. So it should be with a sense of irony that any of us attempt to read more into Eco’s work, probing beneath the surface, but nonetheless, as we’ll discuss, this kind of process can be very rewarding and is ultimately a key to innovation and the improvement of our real understanding of the world.
The biggest metaphor that runs wholly throughout the novel is that of the pendulum. The pendulum is obviously important on the surface: the novel’s title comes from the invention of Léon Foucault, whose device was the first to demonstrate the earth’s rotation without relying on celestial observation. His instrument is basically a large pendulum, big enough that its path can be easily traced and observed for slight changes as the earth rotates throughout the day. Casaubon, lost in a sea of conspiracy theories and falsehood, fetishizes Foucault’s invention as a demonstration of a fixed point of reference. Wobbling around in the multitude of false connections he and his partners have made, Casaubon longs for the ability to look up and see himself attached to something fixed. Casaubon’s observations reveal the obvious fragments of what Eco is trying to tell us: that we can look for fixed points of truth when lost, that we long for that fixed point in the universe to tell us we’re okay, or that science may hint at where we can find truth and fixed points in life.
But that only scratches the surface! I don’t know of anyone who has really examined all the ways in which you can spot a pendulum operating throughout Eco’s work. There are several in the plot structure alone: from how the first and last few chapters take place in the Conservatoire, with the bulk of the plot in the middle; Casaubon’s time in Brazil, where he escapes from his occult readings, only to be interrupted by a ritual that preempts his return to Milan; as well as Casaubon’s back and forth between his work on the Plan and his relationships and wife’s pregnancy.
Examples of the pendulum throughout the novel Foucault’s Pendulum.
Beyond the concrete plot movements, our protagonists are constantly struggling with the choice between two opposite sides of a pendulum: to believe or disbelieve a theory, to decide whether a claim is truth or conjecture, to trust a surface explanation or seek hidden meaning, and whether to act with bravery or cowardice. For much of the book our heroes swing back and forth between decisions on either side of this spectrum, but inevitably their aggregate choices begin to favor one side, setting them on their spiral towards doom.
Sensing their compounded failure, the protagonists desperately seek an out. It’s here that Eco introduces one of his best jokes in the book and one of the most important semiotic concepts: the power of no.
Early in the book Casaubon attempts to access his colleague’s computer, which is password protected behind the very specific phrase “Do you know the password?” After a few hours of trying the most clever combinations of words and phrases he’s sure his friend would use, out of exasperation Casaubon decides to answer the phrase literally, with NO. This ends up being the password and is a key mirror to the final moments of the book.
The Plan, invented by Casaubon and his colleagues, once heard by the various crazies and devout occultists across Europe, sends these lunatics into a frenzy over getting access to the secret weapon the Plan is said to reveal. In their final moments, as they are interrogated and face murder by these occultist lunatics, the protagonists realize they still have the power to use no. “Do you have the secret location of the weapon?” “No.”
“No” as a source of inertia for getting to the other side of the pendulum.
No is important to Eco for two reasons, the first is its power to restore agency in someone who feels they have no control. Casaubon and friends, in their search for outside sources of truth and reference, decide they must accept any theory or connection, no matter how far fetched. Their personal lives devolve similarly, as they accept whatever happens to them with indifference. It’s only through their rediscovery of rejection and saying no that they realize they can swing back to a position of agency and personal standing. By rejecting the Plan and saying no to the occultist’s query, they are able to reassert their position and identity as non-occultists.
The second way in which no is important to Eco is in how concepts acquire meaning through defining what they are not. This is the via negativa sense, the idea from theology where you attempt to define God by reasoning about what (s)he is not. No is used to disconnect concepts from others, to break connections and to establish boundaries. It’s key to determining which side of the conceptual pendulum you are on.
Eco’s life is a bit of a pendulum in its own right: his writings go back-and-forth between academic publications and popular fiction. If we leave the world of Casaubon and look to Eco’s work in semiotics, we quickly find references to the same challenges he presents in the novel.
In his chapter of the book The Sign of Three, Eco delves into the various processes of abduction. Abduction is likened to the process of hypothesizing, or guessing, about the cause of an event after one has observed the result. When working in a process of abduction, you entertain possible worlds that may differ from experience: “…abductions… are world-creating devices” (pg 214).
Eco goes on to give examples of the detective or scientist that operate through abduction, highlighting the different incentives for each in their respective domains. The homicide detective, in trying to find who-dun-it, is able to entertain a wide variety of hypotheses in their process of finding the killer. We encourage detectives to consider and not overlook any possible suspect or explanation.
In contrast, scientists may find a very different tolerance for conjecture in their domain. The further their theories deviate from accepted dogma, the more they’ll find difficulty in funding their theories. Science and human progress depends on radical new ideas, but it can be very hard to determine when it’s a good bet and worth proving out.
“Scientific discoveries, medical and criminal detections, historical reconstructions… are all cases of conjectural thinking.” (The Sign of Three, pg 205)
Eco doesn’t paint much of the bright side of conjecturing and world-creation in Foucault’s Pendulum. But we find elsewhere in his work the nod towards the benefits of this process, especially for those at the boundary of some important field or line of inquiry.
Progress everywhere depends on the back-and-forth between truth and conjecture, between hypothesis and verification. If we are to advance our present reality, we must suspend disbelief and entertain alternative worlds. But this is not a one-way process. It requires a delicate balance and teeter-totter, and a consciousness of the consequences.
If you’re a scientist working on a new theory, or an entrepreneur entertaining a new business idea, you would do well to read Foucault’s Pendulum for an instructive lesson in the process and consequences of letting your hypotheses run away from you.
RIP Umberto Eco (1932 – 2016)