Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

foucault's pendulum

A group of editors gets together to write a parody of a conspiracy theory. What if the parody ends up becoming perceived as the source of ultimate truth for an actual underground group that styles itself after the Templars and Rosicrucians?

The answer lies in the pages of Umberto Eco’s intellectual thriller Foucault’s Pendulum. In a way, the book is Dan Brown on steroids. Conspiracy theories abound in dizzying multitudes. Heretics, Knights Templar, Assassins, cabalists, Diabolicals, Masons, Jesuits, the Bavarian Illuminati, and the School of Night all become implicated in one giant Plan that spans centuries and has formed the very shape of history.

The editors at Garamond Press in Milan, Italy compose the Plan as a parody of a Templar plot that Colonel Ardenti believes he has uncovered from evidence found in Provins (Provence). However, as the editors mock Ardenti’s leaps in logic, their research into secret societies and the occult inspire them to create their own ultimate Plan.

However, the pastime, begun for the editors’ amusement, eventually begins to poison how the editors think. The Plan becomes real; life imitates art. And the central object that ties the created reality together—the thing that may reveal the greatest secret of all—is Foucault’s Pendulum, located in a Paris museum.

Though it was published in 1989, Foucault’s Pendulum continues to excite readers today. With the popularity of such authors as Dan Brown, author of The DaVinci Code and Angels & Demons (and his new thriller Inferno), interest in conspiracy theories and secret societies is running high.

Also, if reading Foucault’s Pendulum, you are reminded of the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise, you were not alone. In the Plan, Ismaili Assassins inspire the secret rites of the Templars, and dispense secret information to them about a powerful artifact with which they could control the world.

A Knight Templar.
A Knight Templar.

Perhaps Foucault’s Pendulum inspired Assassin’s Creed; perhaps Assassin’s Creed inspired Foucault’s Pendulum! After all, the programers were (obviously) Assassins themselves… And the only way to tell if someone really is an Assassin, is if they deny it.

Such is a sample of the kind of warped thinking into which the editors of Eco’s thriller fall. It combines the paranoid thought patterns of conspiracy theorists and witch hunters with the ars combinatoria, which seeks to interconnect all human knowledge. In Cabala, for example, passages of Hebrew scripture may be randomly combined with each other in order for new truths to emerge. In a similar way, the editors of Garamond Press enter statements of knowledge into a computer called Abulafia, which reconnects the entered statements randomly. Thus they emerge with a list, such as the following:

“The Templars have something to do with everything

What follows is not true

Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate

The sage Omus founded the Rosy Cross in Egypt

There are cabalists in Provence

Who was married at the feast of Cana?

Minnie Mouse is Mickey’s fiancée” (364).

The editors connect the random terms into a narrative and come up with the grand and exquisite claim that Jesus was actually married to Mary Magdalene and it was His marriage that was feted at Cana. In a clever way, Eco ridicules the exact same Templar conspiracy discovered in The DaVinci Code, which (coincidentally?) reveals the “truth” about Jesus Christ.

This is one example of Eco’s exploration of signs and symbols and how people connect them all together, even when no such connection exists objectively. It is the way that Garamond Press’ target audience, the Diabolicals, think.

I personally find Eco’s ideas fascinating, especially in the context of historical fantasy. In Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay discusses the philosophical implications of how desire influences how narratives of random historical events are told. These events become signs of a pattern, or signs of a plan to history’s unfolding. Eco shows how such plans may be interpreted from random data. Furthermore, he implies that in hyperreality, a universe where reality has largely been replaced by symbols and simulations of reality, the creation of such a plan in a spirit of fictitious play may have actual, historical consequences.

Umberto Eco, author of Foucault's Pendulum and The Name of the Rose
Umberto Eco, author of Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose

Eco explores these ideas because he is a semiotician, a scholar who studies the structure of signs and the processes in which they develop signification. For example, his most famous novel, the medieval mystery The Name of the Rose, explores how signs can be interpreted, or misinterpreted. In Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco explores similar themes. Symbols and signs have such a wide range of meanings that everything (a rose, a triangle in a Leonardo DaVinci painting, historical events) can be interpreted in hundreds or thousands of different ways.

Indeed, it would be a legendary meeting if it were possible for Eco to meet Dan Brown’s protagonist Robert Langdon, who is a symbologist, a professional who interprets the historical meaning of symbols. While Langdon sees a triangle in Leonardo DaVinci’s Last Supper and interprets it as a symbol for the sacred feminine, Eco would perhaps more closely analyze at the process of how Langdon came to make that interpretation. Perhaps Leonardo had intended to make a symbolic triangle. Then again, the triangle may have been a random shape that Langdon only perceived to signify something.

We see symbols everywhere, but where are the real ones? This is a mystery that Eco leaves ambiguous, to his credit. After all, life is much more interesting with symbols to interpret that do not have fixed meaning.

On the whole, Foucault’s Pendulum makes for an engrossing read. Irony, a concern with symbols, and plenty of lists: these signature features of Eco’s style combine to create a unique reading experience. As the Garamond Press editors formulate the Plan, scenes pass almost exclusively in dialogue-based exposition, but somehow, Eco makes it work. Do not expect Eco’s thriller to read like a Dan Brown novel, but expect it to be richer, to fascinate and challenge you intellectually.

And take care you don’t become a Diabolical while reading it.

Foucault's Pendulum, in Paris
Foucault’s Pendulum, in Paris

Photo Credits:

Foucault Pendulum:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foucault_pendulum

Foucault’s Pendulum cover:  http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17841.Foucault_s_Pendulum

Templar: http://boltzmann.wordpress.com/2006/04/27/a-templar-in-his-habit/

Umberto Eco: http://politics-prose.com/event/book/umberto-eco-prague-cemetery

Quotation taken  from  Harcourt paperback edition, translated by William Weaver.

Christopher Marlowe : An Elizabethan Assassination Conspiracy?

A famous portrait of Marlowe from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, painted in the year he may have become a spy for England
A portrait of Marlowe from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, painted in 1585, the same year he may have become a spy for England. Who killed him? But more importantly, why?

On 30 May 1593, Christopher Marlowe, illustrious author of such plays as Faustus, The Jew of Malta, and Tamburlaine, walked into the Deptford house of the widow Eleanor Bull. There, he encountered three men: Robert Poley, Ingram Frizer, and Nicholas Skeres. Marlowe never left the place alive: a knife wound in the eye dispatched him presently to the afterlife.

The question that has been buggering Elizabethan historians is, why?

The assassination of Marlowe has spawned countless hypotheses, many conspiratorial. What they teach in high schools is that Marlowe was murdered in a bar fight. However, closer analysis of events suggests that Marlowe’s death may have had to do with a little more than simply an excessive bar tab.

Historians such as A. D. Wraight in his book In Search of Christopher Marlowe and Curtis C. Breight in Surveillance, Militarism, and Drama in the Elizabethan Era have investigated the mystery behind one of literature’s greatest dramatists.

First, the witnesses.

The three men called to the witness box during the trial were all gentlemen. Robert Poley was a secret agent of some repute in the service of Queen Elizabeth. Nicholas Skeres served as a court messenger and was likely also an agent, having played a major part in the disclosure of the Babington Plot, which led to the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots. Ingram Frizer was a retainer in the service of Sir Thomas Walsingham II, before becoming joined to his son, also named Thomas, who was Marlowe’s patron. It was Ingram knife that was found lodged in Marlowe’s skull.

The evening seems to have begun pleasantly enough. They had dinner and walked in the garden, making business conversation. After their 6:00 supper, the coroner Willian Banby remarks that Ingram and Marlowe became involved in an inflamed argument “about the payment of the sum of pence, that is, le recknynge” (qtd. in Wreight 293).

Marlowe, lying on a bed in the room where they had supped, then drew a dagger and rushed at Ingram, whose back was against him as he sat at the table and the other men. Marlowe struck two wounds in Ingram’s head, an inch long and a quarter inch deep.

Ingram struggled against Marlowe to save his own life and, in the fight, reclaimed the dagger. The wound he inflicted in Marlowe’s right eye went in two inches, supposedly killing Marlowe instantly.

Mr. Banby’s story proves that Ingram acted “in the defense and saving of his own life” (293). Queen Elizabeth eventually pardoned Igram for his crime.

However, Wraight notes how unsatisfactory the testimony has been to scholars, ever since Dr. Hotson’s observation that Robert Poley and Nicholas Skeres may have lied to save the life of Ingram Frizer. What, after all, could explain how Marlowe, with the advantage of surprise, only managed to inflict two cuts to Ingram’s skull? Did Skeres and Poley merely stand back and watch? There is even medical evidence that says “a knife thrust two inches in depth into the brain would not result in instantaneous death, or necessarily death at all”! (296)

Furthermore, upon his release from prison, Frizier immediately re-entered the Walsinghams’ employment. Such forgiveness on the part of patrons was exceptional; other men, whether servants or gentlemen, found no such forgiveness after becoming prisoners of the state.

Marlowe was also supposed to appear before the Privy Council—he may or may not have actually done so—on 20 May 1593, ten days before his death. The charges he was supposed to answer for included blasphemy. He later made his fatal journey to Deptford. The connection, or absence of connection, between his murder and these charges has never been proved.

Naturally, such anecdotes give rise to all kinds of theories.

Perhaps the juiciest theory is advanced by Dr. S. A. Tannenbaum, who claims that Sir Walter Raleigh had Marlowe silenced out of fear that he would confess to the atheism of those involved in the fabled School of Night. A face-saving gesture by a Machiavellian hermeticist.

A secret society speculated to have existed, the School of Night was centred around Raleigh and consisted of scientists, courtiers, and poets such as George Chapman, Thomas Harriot, and Marlowe. However, all other evidence seems to acquit Raleigh of conspiracy to commit murder. His noble personality and his lack of caring about his public image, Wraight says, suggests he would not stoop to whacking Marlowe, or using him as a scapegoat.

But could the assassination still have had a political motive?

There is convincing evidence to support the theory that Marlowe was a spy. In 1587, the Privy Council awarded Marlowe an MA from the University of Cambridge as a reward for serving his country in certain secret affairs. Waight says he might have been a spy since 1585. Later on, reports of Marlowe’s shady dealings include an attempt to falsify coinage in Flanders in 1592, where he was briefly arrested. He was suspected of siding with Catholics, but may have been attempting to penetrate the group associated with the Catholic plotter William Stanley as a double agent.

Might he have fallen in with Catholics again, shortly before his death?

Perhaps Marlowe’s patron Thomas Walsingham involved the trio of secret agents in a great conspiracy to eliminate the poet, and have each other pardoned according to a pre-arranged giving of false testimony. Or, we may imagine with a smile Marlowe’s hasty burial in the Deptford parish church as evidence that Walsingham had his agents replace Marlowe’s body with another corpse! Of course, Marlowe would have had to disappear, if he was going to write Shakespeare’s plays in total secrecy…

These conspiracy theories have a way of fogging the real evidence. Elizabethan England’s witch hunts, Puritan hearsay, and paranoia about Catholics, atheists, and “Machievels” played their part to create a paranoid society. Curtis C. Breight describes how Sir William Cecil, the Secretary of State, maintained a police state reminiscent of the McCarthy era, if the use of twentieth-century anachronism can be forgiven.

Similarities between both eras of Elizabethan espionage (including that of our present Queen) have also been drawn: James Bond’s MI6 origins had their origins under Sir Francis Walsingham and William Cecil’s intelligence networks. When spies are behind every corner, you have to careful what you say about your political or religious beliefs. And Queen Elizabeth, as ahead of the Church of England, represented both State and Church.

Cecilian England gives rise to one final theory about Christopher Marlowe’s death, one that may be as incredible as the others. It says that Cecil gave the order, because of Marlowe’s Catholic sympathies.

At the time, England was supporting the French king Henri IV against the radical Catholic League. The war was unpopular, necessitating the use of Protestant propaganda. Christopher Marlowe wrote a play called The Massacre at Paris, which told the story of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. On 23 August 1572, King Charles IX ordered the assassination of Huguenot (French Protestant) leaders in Paris, resulting in the deaths of anywhere between 5,000 and 30,000 souls. However, some scholars have argued that the play, told from the perspective of the Catholic Duke of Guise and Catherine de Medici, who act as Machiavellian characters, depicts the Protestants as no better than their Catholic foes.

Might it be likely that Marlowe was considered too much of a intellectual rebel?

Perhaps. We may never know, after all, what really happened to Christopher Marlowe after that supper in Deptford. What historians do confirm is that history is arguable. Whether we might personally believe in the conspiracies, or adopt a more grounded understanding of what happened, we each construct a narrative of events that may or may not represent the true course of history.

If one thing is certain about Marlowe’s death, it is that his disappearance has spawned many stories to fill the void of his absence. It is only human nature, after all, to find meaning to the unexplainable.

The sign over Marlowe's grave.
The sign over Marlowe’s grave.