I just finished my third or fourth reading of Umberto Eco‘s classic esoteric suspense thriller and sublimely wacko-satirical thought experiment, Foucault’s Pendulum.
First published in 1988 in Italian, Foucault’s Pendulum tells the story of three editors at the fictional Garamond Press in Milan (and its aptly named vanity press twin, Manutius Press), who are brought an esoteric manuscript purporting to include a secret coded Message regarding the fabled Knights Templar and their alleged centuries-spanning occult Plan.
(Here be potential but necessary Spoilers – Caveat Lector!)
The Message is highly ambiguous—imagine a purposefully vague Nostradamus quatrain written in a medieval version of Morse Code. All very obscure and essentially unfathomable. (The ultimate real meaning of the message, sussed out by the narrator’s partner, features in one of the best, and most painfully funny. scenes in the book.)
Of course, if you are an Initiate or an Adept, or even just a Dabbler in Things Esoteric, there can be little doubt in your mind, given the myriad conspiracy theories that have grown like monstrous fungi in the shadows surrounding the Templars’ shocking destruction in 1312, and their subsequent (also much theorized) morphing into this or that Secret Society, that the Message speaks of The Plan—a Plan to bring about the complete transformation of the world, its religion, and its government.
Pinky: What are we doing tonight, Brain?
The Brain (in an Orson Welles voice): Same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try to take over the World!!!
Our three heroes, Casaubon (the narrator), Diotallevi, and Belbo, are all highly educated men—far too intelligent and well-read to swallow the often hysterical nonsense served up to them on a daily basis by their “Diabolicals,” as they refer to their vanity press clients, willing to plunk down small fortunes to get their occult manuscripts published.
But it happens that our heroes share one distinct characteristic, which, as we shall see, serves as a sort of shared Tragic Flaw: Confident of their own superior skepticism, Casaubon, Diotallevi, and Belbo relish their jobs a little too much. They spend long hours deep-diving down their Diabolicals’ rabbit holes, all while making terrific fun of them.
All well and good, until the purveyor of the aforementioned Message turns up missing, and the three, in a fit of enthusiasm, embark on a secret game, their own little version of the alchemical Great Work. On a lark (or a Larp, as they say nowadays on the darker side of the web) the three manufacture, amongst themselves, what is intended as a wonderfully outrageous Private Cosmic Joke.
Their very own Plan.
As Casaubon puts it, their goal becomes “not to discover the Templars’ secret, but to construct it.” To concoct their very own version of the alleged Templar Plan, to be fleshed out with every tidbit of arcane lore that ever crossed their editorial desks.
And that’s a lot of material.
The Mother of all Conspiracy Theories
There follows a dizzying series of confabs among the three in which they cook up an intoxicating Witch’s Brew—a soup-to-nuts occult smorgasbord taken from every alt-theory ever written by homo hermeticus or printed by Manutius Press.
Readers will either love these heady dialogue-driven scenes, decorated as they are with words like “hylic” and “hieratic,” and redolent with references-in-passing to every alleged mystic or magician who ever took quill to parchment during the last two thousand years, or else, in utter frustration and confusion, they will toss the seven hundred page book at the nearest wall.
For me, it’s been a page-turner every time. I just wish there were a hundred pages or so of footnotes. You know, like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.
Among the morsels included, or at least considered for inclusion in this omnium-gatherum they call The Plan are the following, and this is far from an exhaustive list:
- the claims by just about every secret society imaginable, from Freemasons to Rosicrucians, to be the true spiritual descendants of the Templars. (In fact, the three come up with their very own inside-joke of a group name for themselves.)
- The curse of Templar Jacques de Molay, burnt at the stake.
- the Assassins, the Old Man of the Mountain, Alamut, and Baphomet
- Marienburg and the Teutonic Knights
- Agarttha, Saint Yves d’Alveydre, Synarchy, and the King of the World
- The forgery of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion
- The Invisible College
- Adam Weishaupt and The Bavarian Illuminati
- The Priory of Sion and the Merovingian descent from Jesus & the Magdalene
- the Gnostic Sophia
- The Holy Grail and the Philosopher’s Stone
- that immortal Adept, the Comte de Saint-Germain, still among us
- Theosophy and Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled
- Vril, Thule, the Hollow Earth, telluric currents, and the Nazi Occult
- Hermes Trismegistus—”As Above, so Below”
- Guillaume Postel, Martinism, the Jesuits, and Joseph de Maistre
- The Cathars
- The Man in the Iron Mask
- Cthulhu & his minions
- The Shakespeare Identity Question
- John Dee, Francis Bacon, arcane maps, and New Atlantis
- (Speaking of) Atlantis (or is it Mu? Or aliens?) as the origin of…just about everything, including Ascended Masters, the 36 Invisibles, all religion and science…
- and finally, Foucault’s Pendulum
I could go on, and on and on and on, but you get the picture.
The point is, “everything is connected” in this strange world of grand Conspiracy.
Specifically, to the Templars. And their Plan.
The brain-child of these three is brilliant and tremendous fun, but, as it falls out, also deadly.
For starters, the three, each in his own way, becomes obsessed with The Plan. Just like the “Diabolicals” they profess to mock. And each ends up stumbling down the very rabbit hole they themselves have dug, with excruciating consequences.
As Diotallevi, the Cabalist, puts it:
We’ve sinned against the Word, against that which created and sustains the world. Now you are punished for it, as I am punished for it….Rearranging the letters of the Book means rearranging the world….To manipulate the letters of the Book takes great piety, and we didn’t have it. But every book is interwoven with the name of God. And we anagrammatized all the books of history, and we did it without praying….So we attempted to do what was not allowed us, what we were not prepared for. Manipulating the words of the Book, we attempted to construct a golem.
Like Dr. Frankenstein, the protagonist of another modern myth about the consequences of mucking about with powers beyond our human understanding or control, Casaubon, Diotallevi, and Belbo discover, on their own skins, that the creature they have let loose upon the world—The Plan—is a monster. A Golem that takes on a life of its own and turns on its creators.
The Most Dangerous Game
By way of a series of missteps, the secret Plan, meant to be a joke, a game, a mere puzzle for three over-educated men paid to read books, is mentioned in a fit of pique to someone who takes the whole thing very seriously indeed. Soon every “Diabolical” connected to Manutius Press is after the secretum secretorum of the Plan, and our three protagonists, and those they love, find themselves in mortal danger.
As Belbo writes on “Abulafia,” his first-gen desktop computer, whose algorithms have helped concoct The Plan:
,,,but you have fallen into the trap: you, too, are trying to leave footprints on the sands of time. You have dared to change the text of the romance of the world, and the romance of the world has taken you instead into its coils and involved you in its plot, a plot not of your making.
Seems to Me I’ve Heard This Song Before…
The amazing thing to me, as I reread Foucault’s Pendulum this time around, was how weirdly contemporary it all sounded.
Not to mention, prescient.
So speaking of The Plan, I began to do a bit of rabbit-hole digging on my own.
a Dickensian wren
I’m intrigued!! I really need to read this book. And how “applicable”!
It’s challenging, but well worth it. I love it more each time i read it.
Wow. This commentary is filled with tongue-in-cheek delight at the gulliblity of people seeking secred knowledge and related power . . . and chilling understanding of the consequences of toying with the sacred.
Thanks much! It’s written in a clever, engaging way, with helpful images–such as “Pinky and the Brain” and the conjuring of Golem!
And, Cloister Conspiracy–another set of Weird Sisters!!!
Love the passage that opens, “We’ve sinned against the Word . . . .” Not praying, manipulating, playing, toying. God is no one’s fool.
Thanks much for this, and I am very much looking forward to the next installment!
P.S. I’d love to hear your “take” on “the romance of the world.”
“And the Word was God,” n’est-ce pas? Not something to be trifled with.