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Into the Eco Chamber

posted Jun 26, 2014, 5:52 PM by Timothy Vienne   [ updated Jun 26, 2014, 6:05 PM ]
Reading Umberto Eco is an unusual experience. This Italian philosopher-turned-novelist has developed a peculiar form of historical intrigue centered on the political machinations of the Catholic church. His first book, the Name of the Rose, delves into a murder mystery in a medieval abbey, while his third, Foucault's Pendulum, constructs an elaborate conspiracy theory about the Knights of Templar. I just finished Foucault's Pendulum, and was fascinated by Eco's elaborate historical imagination.

Eco is a scholar with parchment under his fingernails. When he writes about mystical medieval spiritual clubs, he is able to run through immense chains of connections of people and events with an astonishing ease. The Pendulum's focus on the Knights of Templar surrounds their supposed discovery of secret knowledge in Jerusalem during the Crusades. This esoteric insight into the power of the universe was passed down from generation to generation, although only those who are truly in the know ever grasp the mystery. In true conspiracy fashion, those who know, do not tell.

However, this book is not another attempt to weave a Catholic conspiracy a la Dan Brown. In fact, this book is more like the anti-Dan Brown: Eco does not conceal his contempt for the ludicrous machinations of the many who have labored to uncover secret meanings in the count of characters in Biblical texts or through botched attempts at alchemy and astrology. Rather, the networks of conspiracies serve as a proxy for Eco to talk about belief. Or perhaps, to use a philosophical notation, Belief.

The story follows Casaubon, an Italian PhD student who first studies the Knights Templar for his dissertation. It then follows his career as an independent researcher who takes a job at a press with an interest in vanity publications. The head of the company, a car salesman-esque publisher, wants to publish as many books as he can so long as authors pay for the books up front. The market for conspiracy theories concerning the Knights Templar is quite ripe, so the company starts its own line of self-published conspiracy works.

Causabon initially edits submitted manuscripts, then decides to come up with his own subversive plot in collaboration with two other employees of the firm. Yet their theory, which they call the Plan, grows larger than they anticipated: Causabon and another colleague become obsessed with the connections they find, even while they admit they concocted the theory from nothing. By the end of the book, the Plan creates reality when authentic conspiracy theorists believe the two men have stumbled on the secret of the Knights Templar, and go after them. The intricate layers of authenticity and falsehood are so dense by the end of the novel that it is difficult to tell fraud from authenticity. Or facts from belief.

Eco is a thoroughgoing postmodern thinker. He is one the one hand very skeptical of religion and yet is willing to acknowledge spirituality (at least of sorts). There are convincing portraits of demon possession in the book, which balances the cynical portrayal of the many characters who indulge in conspiracy theories. What is apparent in the Pendulum is that the conspiracy theory stands in for the larger idea of religion. Do we need to look to some higher source for knowledge about the world? Or is what we have here on earth enough?

Foucault's Pendulum represents an attempt by Casaubon to wrestle with this need for Belief, for a connection to the transcendent, and whether it is permissible to invent that connection even when there is no empirical evidence to defend it. The book does not offer an easy answer, although it suggests that truth is to be found in the reality of human relationships: the Plan pulls Casaubon away from his beloved wife and son, while the two human beings also interfere with his desire to live out the Plan.

A question C.S. Lewis poses in the Silver Chair would be most appropriate for Eco: what if the imaginary world is preferable to the real world? What does this say about the real world? Is the real world itself a construction? If it is, then on what basis do we discredit such conspiracy theories?

Thought-provoking questions from the Italian peninsula...