Monday, June 20, 2005

Blogger Book Group: Foucault's Pendulum

Today was the date I suggested for my bright idea of blathering on about Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco. Irritatingly, I'm a lot busier than I thought I'd be and yesterday was so nice and sunny I spent it outside rather than indoor planning anything - and I lent my copy of the book to someone a couple of weeks ago so haven't got it to check stuff with. So I have no idea if this'll work. Still, if you fancy blathering on about Templars, Rosicrucians, and secret plots to take over the world, feel free to chip in. If anyone's still up for it I'll see you in the comments - I imagine this may go on for a few days though...


Blogger Nosemonkey said...

So then, anyone an expert on Hebrew mysticism and fancy explaining the significance of the book's division by the emanations of the Sefirot?

Or is that a tad too heavy to get into at the start? should we start by a comparison between it and The Da Vinci Code? i.e. FP = decent, DVC = crap?

Or does no one care?

6/20/2005 11:23:00 am  
Anonymous Katie said...

Actually, it was unavailable in English in Paris. I would have still been reading it in November had I bought it in French. I got Belle and Sebastians' complete EP collection instead. Sorry. Next time?

6/20/2005 12:26:00 pm  
Blogger Andrew said...

And irritatingly, I'm only 3/4 of the way through it. Still, it's great so far. Not sure I can contribute much because of that, and the Hebrew cabbala stuff went waaaaay over my head.

6/20/2005 01:04:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Well, according to the Wikipedia page on the book, Anthony Burgess reckoned it needs an index. Sounds fair to me.

For all my attempts to work out the Sefirot thing I can't quite work it out. You end up finding explanations like this, "The first sefirah is called the Crown, since a crown is worn above the head. The Crown therefore refers to things that are above the mind's abilities of comprehension", but that - perhaps ironically - only adds to my confusio.

There's blatantly some significance but I keep getting all the different ones confused and then get utterly lost. I'm also trying to work out if the little bits of historical distorion here and there are deliberate - to underline the insanity of "The Plan" and the diabolicals - or merely mistakes/for simple narrative/character enhancement.

I'm also trying to work out if I really should learn Italian to get the most out of Eco...

6/20/2005 01:24:00 pm  
Anonymous Paul Robinson said...

I'm afraid, I can't stand this book. I never read the Da Vinci code, and I'm an avid Fortean, so maybe my slant on it is different to others.

What got me was the outrageous pretentious nature of Eco's writing, the characters, the dialogue, the plot, everything. It was just oozing with patronising snobbery. I'm also not entirely clear on Eco's motivation for writing. It is suggested that this is a grand satire even more subtle than DVC, but I just think this is an excuse for Eco to show off the fact he's read a lot of very poor quality books - the type published by companies he satirises within FP.

The end however, is mildly satisfying. I won't go into that here as it may spoil the book for some.

Probably not what you're after, but really, it's the most annoying book I've ever read.

6/20/2005 04:18:00 pm  
Anonymous Sharon said...

Oozing with snobbery? Well, quite. That's sort of missing the point, and confusing the writer with the characters: these 3 people - the narrator most of all - are pompous, pretentious snobs who look down their noses at the entire world. They think that paranoid conspiracy theorists are people - other people, stupid people, not like them, of course - who you can simply laugh at, play games with. (And because our trio are educated and clever as well as dumb, their jokes are very good and their games very elaborate.) Umberto Eco, on the other hand, is being deadly serious.

6/20/2005 09:37:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

I'd go with Sharon on this, but take it a bit further.

Eco's narrative style's an interesting one. Casaubon in FP reads very similarly to the narrator at the very start of The Name of the Rose (the one who appears to be Eco himself, but who claims to have discovered and translated the manuscript which makes up the rest of the book and so must exist in some kind of fictional world beyond the main novel as well). But neither read like Eco in his non-fiction (although, admittedly, this could be due to the translator). There's a similar faux-authorial voice in The Island of the Day Before, and some of the short story/articles in Misreadings (or Diario Minimo, as I think the English title may vary) - especially "Industry and Sexual Repression in a Po Valley Society" and "The Socratic Strip", both effectively piss-takes of mid to late 60s post-Barthes / Foucault / Derrida / Bourdieu etc. academic writing.

It's almost like Eco has created an "Eco the novelist" persona to distinguish his fiction from his academia - and his fiction persona often seems to be an exaggeration of the worst excesses of academic style in exactly the way he parodies in Misreadings.

The relationship between reader, narrator and author is one of those things to which Eco always seems to return - Baudolino, with the entire book being narrated by a self-confessed liar, being perhaps the most extreme, although his latest - narrated by a guy who's lost his memory of everything except the books he's read (like a high-brow Memento by the sound of things) could top it.

As such, his fiction style often seems meant to be pretentious, so that the reader can mock the nonsense and intellectual leaps the narrator is making. It's almost like a game - the reader doesn't have it all presented on a plate - they have to work out what parts of what the narrator is saying are reliable, and at the same time step back and try to see, from what the narrator is saying, more than the narrator themself has the knowledge or ability to see.

Of course, if you don't like the narrator's style, that's entirely understandable and fair enough. But I think it is often part of Eco's point to make the narrator a bit of a dick.

6/20/2005 11:05:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


6/21/2005 01:15:00 am  
Blogger eulogist said...

Paul Robinson:
It is suggested that this is a grand satire even more subtle than DVC [...]

Er, DVC, subtle? My impression was that it was more of a parody of itself, but in an entirely unintentional way. There is a lot of suspense in it, yes, so you do continue reading, but at times my cliché allergy played up so badly that I almost had to stop. But I may have misread Brown's subtlety then.

Did like FP though, a lot. Fascinated when I was reading it. But that is quite a few years ago, so not sure if I can help Nosemonkey on the Sefiroth. Am not much of a kabalist either...

6/21/2005 01:32:00 pm  
Blogger Tony said...

In Foucault's Pendulum, Eco explores the power of the Word, which is a central idea in Hebrew religion (and Christian), and in the Jewish spirituality / mysticism of Kabbalah. Casaubon and his allies don't take this seriously, think it's all a game, but at the end Diotallevi realises this flippancy about words (which postmoderns call text) is what's killing him: "I'm dying because I convinced myself that there was no order, that you could do whatever you liked with any text."

The Israelite prophets in Old Testament times received a revelation from God and passed it on to their hearers as a word (dabhar) that was performative: it brought about what it declared. In terms of modern writing, that would be like a cookery book that physically nourished you, a diet book that made you slimmer, even a self-help book that actually changed you.

Eco's equivalent is a novel about paranoia that makes you paranoid. You start off reading this guff about Templars and global conspiracies, and it's just ridiculous, laughable. But a point comes somewhere in the narrative (or text) - and it would be interesting to measure where, and indicative of the reader's mental state - when you suddenly catch yourself thinking: Suppose it's all true?

Semiotics = the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation. Or, in the terms of the novel, it does exactly what it says on the tin. The paranoia of the text becomes the paranoia of the reader of the text.

6/21/2005 10:24:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Tony - that's also because, let's face it, conspiracies are cool. Hence the popularity of The X-Files, The Da Vinci Code, etc. etc. When you're presented with such an overwhelming level of information on insanely obscure subjects, as here, the very unfamiliarity combined with the details lends an extra air of credibility. And - as the characters in the book discover - when you start thinking "wouldn't it be cool if..." you're halfway to being one of the conspiracy theorists.

I especially love how at various points they acknowledge that the original document on which everything is based could be nothing more than a shopping list, but they continue with their nonsense nonetheless, thinking it's all harmless fun. (There's probably a witty political comparison to be made there...)

Even though Diatovelli has great fun playing around with numbers with Ardenti and other diabolicals, showing the meaninglessness of coincidence when it's coincidences you're looking for (yet more potential political comparisons...), he eventually, thanks to the years of constant exposure to insanity, gets drawn into the trap of buying into the coincidences and extrapolations as much as the rest of them. Even Aglie, who's already almost bought into his own Saint-Germain myth but still seems to be aware of the absurdity despite decades amongst the madness, gets drawn in.

Is this the message of the book? The more exposure you get to nonsense, the more you believe it? This goes for the reader too - it's a long novel, and by the time you finish you'll normally have been exposed to its thinking for at least a few days, probably a few weeks - it's bound to sink in a bit.

It also, of course, applies to far more than mere occult nonsense - at which point, were I that way inclined, I'd probably kick off with quotes from Gramsci, Bourdieu, "cultural capital" and all the rest and launch into a lengthy discussion about the old "like breeds like" cliche. But as I'm nice, I won't.

(By the way Tony, I see you're a man of the cloth - how does Eco's theological stuff stand up? I don't suppose you can explain the Sefirot-based chapter structure, can you?)

6/21/2005 11:54:00 pm  
Blogger Tony said...

To answer (perhaps?) some of your questions, I'm left with more questions myself about the nature of knowledge and authority. What I mean is, I *loved* Name of the Rose, which is about stuff I reckon I know much more about: Rule of St Benedict, Church, theology etc. But when I first read FP I hated it (and re-reading it didn't improve things all that much, though I saw it through to the end), because I know very little about all this occultism, and I do 'know' that where it talks about religion it's nonsense. Interesting, and I've still to think through this.

On the Kabbalah and sefirot, I bought a book about this once but just couldn't make head or tail of it. Life's too short for mysticism and gnosis, when there's enough to occupy yourself with in what's revealed for the ordinary, unelite of us. Now that itself gives you all that stuff to think about: why is it that so many people need esoteric knowledge of Mystery? To me, what we see and hear and touch is mysterious enough. But there are some people who look at this and say, "Is that all there is to it?" and then demand the conspiracies or secret truths.

With this book on Kabbalah, I felt: This is so complex and peculiar, I don't want to spend time on it if it's not authoritative (and how would I know that?) When I read about Christianity, I'm involved enough to make up my own mind - whether I choose to read people I agree with, want to be stimulated by, or want to argue with. But with new esoterica, I have no benchmark or toehold, so I can't begin to engage with it.

6/22/2005 12:15:00 pm  
Anonymous TCO said...

An Amazon rip (I have not read it btw):

Relinquish the notion that this is either a) intellectually invigorating or b) intellectually intimidating. Its great swaths of seemingly interminable lists may try a reader's patience; they will not exercise his mind.
It helps a bit if you've studied French, but if you haven't you won't miss much. Similarly, toward the beginning we are confronted with the source code in the BASIC computer language for a small, crude, inelegant permutation algorithm. If you know BASIC, you'll immediately recognize how the algorithm works; if you don't know BASIC, it doesn't matter; the algorithm has nothing to do with the story. A more, shall we say, seasoned writer would have omitted it.

Let's cut to the chase. What is this bloated tome saying? It's saying that people have a tendency to see connections among unconnected things. It doesn't tell us why that is or shed any particular light on that tendency in any way. If the subject interests you, I suggest you read Carl Sagan's "The Dragons of Eden". "The Dragons of Eden" does tell us why that is, and it tells us how we can guard against it. ("The Dragons of Eden" is also much better written, more engaging, and more intellectually stimulating than "Foucalt's Pendulum".)

Why is "Foucalt's Pendulum" saying this? Possibly because its author, a structuralist, wants to satirize the philological contention that connotation and etymology matter. If so, he is presenting us with a grotesque caricature of a straw man.

What is the moral? In general, don't tempt fate. In particular, don't associate with grisly, squalid, thoroughly repulsive satanic cults. But you knew that already --I hope

7/03/2005 01:52:00 am  

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