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FOUCPEND.REV A REVIEW OF _FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM_ BY UMBERTO ECO In his latest book, _Foucault's Pendulum_, Umberto Eco explores the Western esoteric traditions. Though not apparently an adherent, he is clearly immersed in the history of those paths. Anyone who read his previous novel about heresy in the Middle Ages, _The Name of the Rose_, will know him to be a man of great erudition. He has studied both heresy and esoteric traditions extensively. One cannot fault him, however, simply for not being a believer, and his scholarship shows some respect for the ideas that nurture many. The plot is interesting, though uneven in its development. He starts by describing how the narrator, an editor in a small Italian publishing house, hides in a Paris museum after dark to await a gathering of a secret fraternity who has kidnapped his friend and colleague. He then leads the reader through a recollection of how this came about. In brief, the publishing company decides to publish a series of books on the occult and the protagonists are assigned as editors for this series of books. The narrator, Causubon, his friend Belbo and another colleague, Diotalevi, a non-believing Jewish student of Kabbalah, decid they can collectively write a better book than any of the authors whose manuscripts they solicit or receive. They resurrect a thread of a Secret Plan of the Knights Templar fed to them years ago by an eccentric and mysterious Col. Ardenti. He told them how he discovered part of the secret of the Knights Templar, and asked their help in publishing a book on what he knew so as to draw out anyone who knew the remaainder of the Secret Plan. They add to this thread a chain of associations that brings in Rosicruciansim, Hermetic magic, witchcraft, Kabbalah, St. Germaine, the Masons, the neo-Templars, the Assassins, and a host of other movements and ideas. These thorough modern and secular editors don't really believe in the occult, or even mainline spirituality. But soon they become so immersed in the process of creation so as to believe their own creation. More importantly, others believe it. The mysterious "Tres" organization seeks to get the Secret Plan and winds ups kidnapping Belbo in order to extract from him the secret. How the plot climaxes and resolves, I will leave for each reader to discover. As a novel, it builds quickly through the first several chapters, drags throughout much of the development, and picks up more energy as it comes to a close. As a mystery novel it is a heavy read, but for anyone with interest in and a knowledge of the history of the Western esoteric traditions, it goes much quicker and provides a wealth of new learning. By profession Eco is a teacher of semeiotics, the science of understanding how signs and symbols work. His work, therefor, has to be understood in light of his interest in the meaning and use of an esoteric symbol system. In the end, he concludes that the symbol systems of the Western esoteric traditions come up lacking in the face of the orthodox Christian path, which though containing mysteries is much less demanding and confusing. Eco is like many intellectuals; too caught up in the world of ideas and the relativism that comes with it to be a complete believer. Yet he seems to yearn for the ability to wholeheartedly believe in some system that would give him transcendence. The narrator, Causubon was on the fringe of the turbulent left-wing politics of Italy in the 60's and 70's. His friend Belbo struggles with his life-long pattern of never seizing the moment, but always living life indirectly and cautiously. He has edited others writings rather than take the risk of his own creative effort. Finally, through the creation of the Plan Belbo finds the courage he has always avoided. Diotalevi also finds in the project a path to renewed commitment to Kabbalah. Causubon gets immersed in the plan and almost looses his sense that it is his creation rather than an external reality; it is only his very earthy girlfriend and the birth of their child that grounds him back in concrete and mundane reality. In the end, all three meet tragic ends, and the ultimate message is that involvement in the occult or esoteric spirituality is fundamentally dangerous. Perhaps one should expect unhappy endings in mystery and adventure novels. But this reader is left with the distinct impression that Eco, by his scholarly distance from a commitment to heretical and esoteric systems, views them as so many weird and beautifully iridescent butterflys stuck on pins in the collection of an entomologist. His fundamental question, however, deserves serioius consideration despite his unfavorable answer from the point of view of those who believe in the Western esoteric traditions. The Plan is constructed by weaving a web of associations among elements that originally appear unconnected. The web, once constructed, leads to associations not previously seen, and ultimately, allows everything to be connected with almost everything else. Eco finds this somewhat suspicious--if everything is connected or can be connected, then no connection is meaningful--if everything is true, nothing is true. Since associations and correspondences are so important to many of the paths within the Western esoteric traditions, practitioners must guard against unlimited linkages and fuzzy correspondences. But what criteria for selection exist when the method emphasizes an intuitive approach. In other words, how does one verify connectioins that may be intuitively perceived. At the human level there is a strong temptation to take one's perceptions as valid on their face, or to take on authority the perceptions of one's teacher, or at its worst, to uncritically believe almost anything that bears the label of occult/esoteric/New-Age. Left-brain thinking has its value as a corrective for over-inclusive right-brain perceptions of the "big picture." Eco doesn't believe that such discrimination is possible. Maybe paranoia, madness and death will not be the end result for all who walk the paths, as it was for the protagonists in this novel, but an associational net with not boundaries or restrictions can still be a dangerous, or at least unprofitable tool. In summary, I found the book fascinating, if for no other reason than it tantalized me with new bits and pieces of history of esoteric paths. Eco could trim much of the book for a better, faster paced novel, without sacrificing development of his main themes. It is a long book, and a dense read at times. The point of view does not in the end favor the Western esoteric traditions, but there is enough fairness and scholarship to make one wonder if Eco is not a disappointed believer, or at least someone who found the path attractive enough to want to believe in it. If only .... January 11, 1990


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