Book Review - Foucoult's Pendulum

ICSA Today, 10(2), 2019, 14-16

Foucault’s Pendulum: When a Novel Enhances the Healing Process

By Umberto Eco

(Translated from the Italian by William Weaver)

Reviewed by Joe Szimhart

New York, NY: Ballantine Books. (1988;1990, US edition). ISBN-10: 9780156032971; ISBN-13: 978-0156032971 (paperback). $15.29 ( 533 pages.

When I first read Foucault’s Pendulum nearly twenty years ago, I was already an Umberto Eco fan. The Name of the Rose (1980) was Eco’s debut novel: an international best seller that was later made into a critically acclaimed film starring Sean Connery. Professor Eco had a way with words during his productive life—he died in 2016 at age 84: He was a semiotician (someone who studies signs and symbols), literary critic, philosopher, and medieval scholar. Foucault’s Pendulum combines Cabala (sic), numerology, occultism, Jesuits, detective thriller, secret societies, love affairs, comical quips, magic, skepticism, and a spiritual quest into a cosmic brew called “the Plan” concocted by three frustrated but creative editors who work for a zany publisher that specializes in esoteric topics. The action takes place mainly in Italy, France, and Brazil.

My second reading of the book was well worth it. I laughed out loud again at forgotten, clever one-liners while working my way through one plot twist after another generously fed by actual if obscure historical events. All religion is put to the test, ending in mysteries we cannot humanly know; yet we encounter a cast of occultists and psychics who pretend to know. Eco not only knows his occult territory—he also interprets mystical secrets in ways that occultists might admire. But Eco goes much further and deeper. By comparison, novelist Dan Brown of The Da Vinci Code fame could have been one of the dilettante authors ridiculed by Eco’s characters.

Foucault’s Pendulum put some icing on my recovery cake after I rejected a host of theosophy-based groups and gurus peddling ancient gnosis and psychic power techniques. There is a lot to digest in this novel that can be read from a host of angles: from pure entertainment, to philosophy, to comparative religion. For those of us who explored Theosophy, Freemasonry, fascism, Rosicrucians, and alchemy, Eco’s story is familiar territory. For those without knowledge of occult topics and secret societies, the novel can be heavy reading, with many pauses to look up the history of the Templars, Candomblé, Gnostics, Ismailies, St. Germain, Cagliostro, Madame Blavatsky, Aleister Crowley, and so on.

The story is divided into sections headed by 10 aspects of the Jewish Cabala: From Keter through Malkhut. Foucault’s Pendulum exposes scams that bait the vanity of untalented authors who are willing to pay handsomely to be published. While plotting “the Plan,” the three protagonists, Belbo, Diotallevi, and Casaubon, utilize their encounters with the Diabolicals, their label for the naïve-if-serious authors of mystical treatises. The editors employ a new computer program named Abulafia that helps them rearrange data for their Plan. Again, this is in the mid-1980s prior to the Internet era. The editors merely want to play a game with occultists who promote grand schemes meant to govern the progress of humans. My old cult, Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT), had a similar plan that warned of evil conspiracies headed by invisible black magicians. CUT’s plan included collusion with the good guys in the Great White Brotherhood (GWB) of secret adepts. Comte de Saint-Germain is the key adept in the novel, as he was in my old cult’s GWB scheme; thus, the familiar territory. As to “the Plan,” the occultist and theosophist Alice A. Bailey (1880–1949) devised her own Plan (she also called “the Plan”) in her channeled series of teachings from the mysterious adept she named “the Tibetan.” Neither Bailey nor the Tibetan are mentioned in Foucault’s Pendulum, but a host of concurrent occult groups are.

Throughout this crazy story, we encounter sane remarks through Lia, Casaubon’s lover; but the central thesis is this: Be careful when you make up (reveal) crazy stuff about God and why the Demiurge created the universe because you may attract a following of true believers who will hold you to your story. They might even kill you if you renege on the promised final secret of life (because no one really knows). The comic conclusion by the three protagonists is this: Everyone but them seems to secretly be a Templar, Gnostic, psychic, adept, or magician who believes that he holds the truth behind what drives the human mystery. The connections they find are everywhere. 

When I researched this topic as a former member during the 1980s, I was astounded at how many dozens of groups I found that made grand conspiratorial plans that secretly ruled the world. And that was before the Internet! I was also surprised to find that most people believe they have psychic experiences and believe in spiritual powers. No one has yet been able to demonstrate those powers repeatedly under testable conditions. The novel indicates that any attempt to prove or explain the mystery of life will merely mimic the hated Demiurge of the Gnostics, that same Demiurge who created a flawed universe and flawed humans. In other words, every self-proclaimed Gnostic (one whose inner being knows the truth) is a liar.

Fine reviews of Foucault’s Pendulum are on line, so I am not about to compete with those here. My impulse for this review was to reflect on what this novel meant to me as a former member, and what value a novel might have for former members of different cults. An example for former members of abusive Christian churches could be The Rapture of Canaan by Sheri Reynolds (1995). For former members of ideal communities, The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993) is a good read; for defectors from political cults, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (2001); and for victims of Hindu-based cults, A River Sutra by Gita Mehta (1993).

Great novels transcend mere entertainment and titillation. Great novelists tend to dig deep into the human experience, explore moral and ethical issues, and offer characters who help us reflect on meaning in our lives. What I encountered in Foucault’s Pendulum was a brilliant exposition of the path I was struggling to resolve. I felt reassured that my critical perspectives were more than personal. And I felt more at peace with no firm resolution beyond what I can know. On second reading, I noticed at least a hundred annotations I had entered on blank back pages, and I added more. The novel keeps giving to me. 

Why the pendulum in Eco’s novel? Eco employs actual science and its influence on occultists throughout the novel. He is keen to report that many of our science heroes were fascinated by religion and the occult. Robert Boyle, an early genius with mechanical hydraulics, was on an alchemical quest. Sir Isaac Newton, whom Michael White called “The Last Sorcerer” in his biography by that title, was also an alchemist and tried to resolve religious mysteries about the end-times. Michel Foucault (1926–1984) was a social theorist who researched the relationships between knowledge and power, especially regarding social control. An actual pendulum designed in 1851 by Frenchman Léon Foucault (1819–1868) to demonstrate the earth’s rotation and oscillation is central to the novel’s plot. Thus, Eco’s title has many layers of meaning, as does science and social theory in the novel. Words are connected to words, ideas to ideas, until, as the protagonist muses, “…I began to let myself be lulled by feelings of resemblance: the notion that everything might be mysteriously related to everything else. Later … I converted this metaphysics into mechanics—and thus fell into the trap in which I now lie” (p. 139).

Casaubon was lying in the trap that he lied to create, namely the conspiracy called “the Plan.” There is an intriguing historical lesson here. Famously, poet William Blake said it this way:

I must Create a System, or be enslaved by another Man’s.

I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create. (Jerusalem)

While in college in 1969, I did my Theology minor, honors-course thesis on Blake’s cosmology. Blake was not completely honest about his “System.” He borrowed freely from Michelangelo, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Gnostic myth. Had he published through Eco’s fictional company in Foucault’s Pendulum, Casaubon would have called Blake a Diabolical who creates another private world under his creative control—another god ruling a flawed system. With that in mind, the question I came to ask while reading the novel was this: How open is the creator (Demiurge) to correcting his created flaws?

We should ask the same of any totalist cult leader.

About the Reviewer

Joseph Szimhart began research into cultic influence in 1980, after ending his 2-year devotion to a New Age sect. He worked professionally as an intervention specialist from 1986 through 1998. He continues to assist people with cult-related problems including consultations via phone and Internet. In 2016 he received an ICSA Lifetime Achievement Award at the Annual Conference in Dallas, Texas. Since 1998, he has worked for an emergency psychiatric hospital as a crisis caseworker. He maintains an art studio and exhibits professionally. His novel, Mushroom Satori: The cult diary was published in 2013.