Sunday, April 3, 2011

Book Thievery #6: "Foucault's Pendulum" by Umberto Eco

"Foucault's Pendulum" is the book you ought to read if you enjoy conspiracy theories, but have surpassed the intellectual threshold required to disbelieve in them. It is part academic text, part satire, part really great all-around novel. Although there's probably no way for any writer to approach Eco's masterful knowledge of the occult sects and hermetic beliefs that swirl around in the Old World's cultural-intellectual heritage, the themes of Foucault's Pendulum bring into relief the social power and mental aesthetic that secret societies and conspiracy theories hold over the human mind. It is these themes that, I propose, we all start riffing off of right now.

1. The Knights Templar: Uh... yeah. The Templars occupy such an enormous part of the European cultic heritage that to do without them with be a life half-lived. Eco knows enough about the Templars to, within the confines of his story, make of them real people with real concerns and a very special kind of life - rather than just wild, heretical crusaders. But he also knows enough about the mysteries that still surround them to preserve - and even augment - their mystique. The Templars, as presented by Eco, are an awesome theme even if you're not writing modern occult thrillers; they're a fantastic template for any secret order, especially in a book of fantasy or science fiction. Wearing heavy metal in the desert heart, kundalinis arising, spitting on the cross and cavorting with the enemy: the clash of the obscene, the pious, and the antithetical is the genius of the Templar mystique.

2. The Old Man of the Mountain: Double yeah. The "hashishins" or assassins of the Shia Ismailis, with their fabulous and impenetrable fortress of Alamut, are the Muslim counterparts to the Templars: religious, but only to the degree necessary for power; esoteric, but not so much as to be close-minded or impractical; and awesome, indefatigable warlords. Their devotion to the cause is probably what most arouses our curiosity, and it is that kind of loyalty to a cause that cements the wonder of the conspiracist: obviously, they must be hiding something. An equally powerful template for your own secret society.

3. Cabala, Sefira, and Tetragrammatons: Due to the particularities of the language, Hebrew occultism has always had a special place in the world of the Initiates. The numerological-linguistic connection is fascinating, even if, rather than solving the riddle of the world, it seems to make it even more meaningless. But this kind of intricate system, a certain magic of words - a nomenclomancy, as it were - is fascinating. And the esoteric, secret nature of the knowledge is another thing to mimic when generating secret societies in your fantasy worlds.

It is all happening according to a plan...
Unless you're a serious scholar, it's going to be pretty hard to produce anything like what Eco has done with Foucault's Pendulum. But reading this book made me think deeply about the nature of the secret and mysterious, and how it holds such a sway over the thinking of so many people in the real world. Secret societies are actually an ideal element in the genre of speculative fiction, and if I take one thing away from this book, it will be the manipulation of this theme in my own work. The question is: will I portray them as real, all-powerful entities, or the dupes and charlatans of Eco's depiction?



  1. I hate secret societies. It goes against everything I've observed in and studied about people. Honestly, thus far in the real world, I've come to the conclusion that the less sophisticated a small group is, the more likely it is going to have some big crazy effect on the world. This is on account of chaos.

  2. I agree completely... in theory.

    In actual fact, I tend to be obsessed with things that I think are logically fallacious.