Umberto Eco's book Foucault's Pendulum will
fascinate and dismay students of the Western esoteric tradition, for
in it he serves up a veritable smorgasbord of hermetic dishes and
exotic tidbits from gnosticism, alchemy, cabala, theosophy, Masonry,
Rosicrucianism, magick, and modern science. However, lest you think
that the immense effort and energy he has expended in researching and
writing about these subjects has been dedicated in the spirit of
sincere inquiry, let me disabuse you of that unfounded hope. The book
is a global, reckless and brutal attack on metaphysics and
gnosticism. It does, however, also have its merits: e.g., Eco's
send-up of occult pretentiousness reaches hilarious proportions when
it really hits the mark. Generally, the plot is intriguing and the
characters quite engaging.
In this book, Eco puts the Western esoteric tradition on trial, and like the Grand Inquisitor he is prosecutor, judge and jury. By bringing to light the seamy and unsavory sides of occultism and in particular, its connections to fascism, he does an important service. His critiques of the lack of intellectual rigor and ethical integrity, of the associative and circular thought processes, and of the mindless repetition of fantasies from book to book until they crystallize as revealed truths are just and salutary with respect to the legion of third- and fourth-rate authors in this field. These criticisms are important and need to be brought forward, however, the malevolence underlying his criticism shadows what are otherwise good points. What is most harmful and unethical is his tarring of all metaphysical thought or practice with the same brush -- his refusal to discriminate the beneficent from the malevolent. The net result, calculated and deliberate, is to leave the impression that all the elements within these diverse traditions are dedicated to seeking power and worshiping Evil.
Nowhere is any mention made of the general purpose of authentic metaphysical schools, orders, or traditions -- to guide individuals through preparatory physical and spiritual self-purification to commitment to a lifetime's quest for self-knowledge, the development of character, and graduated advances in the evolution of consciousness, leading ultimately, to liberation.
Having massively forcefed himself such a great
variety and quantity of material from the diverse and often
fragmented remains of the above-mentioned traditions, some of which
are highly potent and psychically charged, Eco exhibits the primary
symptom of a critical case of spiritual indigestion - mental
The book contains a hodgepodge of distortions, slanders and half-truths about these various traditions. It is disturbing to see such a blatantly prejudicial and demeaning approach to the subjects adopted by an author of Eco's standing.
Unfortunately, no matter how ill-founded or parti pris are his viewpoints and opinions, the author's fame and power, his cleverness and display of erudition will lend them plausibility and credence in the minds of the general readership. In Foucault's Pendulum, most readers will find themselves in a true terra incognita, lacking the background to be able to discriminate factual truth from falsehood or to discern the disreputable smearing tactics to which he stoops. Truly, this book exemplifies a frightening form of literature -- literature as disinformation. In short, be put on notice: a new witch hunt may have just been triggered by the Bolognese sage of semiotics.
This hatchet job is carried out within the context of a very engagingly written book, the more's the pity. His characters are sixties' Italian-style babyboomers, who never made the transition to Yuppiedom. Belbo, the anti-heroic protagonist is a writer manque who lost his self-esteem as a kid and has spent the rest of his life, frustrated and alienated, working as a quasi-editor for Garamond, a pseudo-academic press. Though at first appearing to be a charming, if somewhat neurotic, fellow, his secret writings on his computer "Abulafia," evidence a serious dementia and a lurid and self-aggrandizing imagination that show him to be far more "diabolical" than many writers of occult rubbish, who are often innocuous, if somewhat dotty.
Diotallevi is a sensitive, ascetic type, an endearing will o' the wisp fellow who, orphaned from infancy, is convinced by his all consuming passion for cabala that he comes from Jewish ancestry.
Casaubon is the narrator. After earning his doctorate with a thesis on the Knights Templar, he creates a sort of literary detective agency for sussing out material on arcane subjects. Styling himself as the Sam Spade of culture, he is hired by Belbo at Garamond to do picture research for a coffee-table book, The Wonderful Adventure of Metals.
Eco's treatment of women is ultimately conservative. Lorenza Pellegrini is meant to portray an incarnation of the gnostic Sophia, the exiled bride and mother of the Demiurge, described as follows in the Nag Hammadi gospels: "For I am the first and the last. I am the honored and the hated. I am the saint and the prostitute." Lorenza is sketched as seductive and unattainable, the wild and undomesticatable female. However, this depiction is a trivialization of the Sophia archetype, for she betrays no symptom of wisdom or learning -- and appears to be more a commonplace allumeuse than a muse. Although clearly intrigued by, and sympathetic to, this archetypal-tease, Eco condemns her to be duped and destroyed by the powers of darkness, while Lia, who is isomorphic with the archetype of the "good," tame woman, the nourishing child-bearer, possesses an intelligence founded in earthy common sense capable of debunking and demystifying, for she herself embodies the authentic mystery of birth.
One day a man shows up at Garamond with a story of a parchment containing Templar secrets found in a cave at the turn of the century (if this is beginning to sound vaguely familiar, yes, it has all the earmarks of a parody of Holy Blood, Holy Grail and there are other clear signs of this intent scattered throughout the book). Manuscript in hand, this author is a repugnant ex-Nazi type, who tells a sordid tale of stealing the document from the innocent and unsuspecting daughter of the dead man who had made the discovery. The material is so explosive, he says, that he wants to rush into print with it to reduce the danger to himself as sole guardian of the information.
The Garamond trio would have dismissed him as just another cranky Diabolical, as they are fond of terming writers of books on metaphysical or esoteric subjects, had the police not contacted them the next day, investigating his alleged murder on the very night after he left them. This alleged murder remains unsolved for a number of years, and the situation lends some credibility to the man's claim that the information he possessed placed his life in danger. This and a number of other circumstances give rise to speculation and the triad's attempt to figure out the details of this Templar plot, a process which, ever more involving and intriguing, finally develops into a full-scale obsession. They appear to be on to something big -- nothing less than a complicated historical fugue of plot and counterplot between competing secret societies, each seeking the ultimate secret: the location of the underground chakra point in the earth's body, whose possession grants absolute world domination.
If this is beginning to sound to you like the plot for yet another edifying Return of Indiana Jones, you too, may feel offended that a man of Eco's intellectual influence, should trivialize and reduce the whole of Western esoteric spirituality and metaphysical philosophy, to a cartoon battle among the forces of darkness. But the book's wildly irresponsible climax surpasses even Hollywood at its worst for cheap sensationalism.
If it were only a comic-book adventure story -- fine -- but the fault is infinitely compounded and truly shocking because Eco presumes to involve and plays fast and loose with the reputations of great men and women, slandering the likes of Francis Bacon, John Dee, Robert Fludd and Elizabeth I, whose contributions have already influenced humanity for the past 400 years and will undoubtedly continue to be treasured.
Now I have made a rather serious charge with respect to Eco's ethics and it is incumbent upon me to substantiate it. Let me cite a particularly objectionable example, and one that is pivotal within the context of the his treatment of Francis Bacon. By mingling history with fiction, Eco grants himself the license (and also, the "out") to vilify and falsify. For example, Belbo's secret computer files give the confused impression that he is recalling past-life memories as Edward Kelly, John Dee's clairvoyant skryer. In these files, Belbo-Kelley makes himself out to be the true secret author of the Shakespeare plays, while Bacon is described as plotting to create a false historical trail that would make it look like he wrote them. Now this is not just good clean fun, because it commences a foul and libelous portrayal of Bacon which, continuing in the same vein, leaves an impression of an evil and power-hungry man, who, murdered John Dee, disloyally duped and abused Elizabeth I, and tried to steal the laurel crown of another author. In this there is a not even a grain of truth and, as with all lies, it makes repulsive and scurrilous reading. By the way, Eco libels Elizabeth with the same nonchalant disregard for the truth and one begins to catch the scent here of an ancient papist vendetta, an attempt to settle a very old score.
But that is only the beginning. Taking the theosophical and Freemasonic legend that Francis Bacon achieved the Great Work of alchemy, thereby attaining immortality, which enabled him to stage his death and reappear in Europe as Saint-Germain in the next century, he plays with this legend as a pivotal point of the novel. Count Aglie, a major character and the trio's adversary, is modeled after Saint-Germain and discreetly gives indications that such is his true identity. The leftist-oriented Garamond triad distrust this engaging aristocrat, all the more so because he fascinates and impresses their respective girlfriends with his gracious manner and interesting conversation and they assume that Aglie is an impostor, posing as the legendary Saint-Germain. However, the final impression the book leaves is that Aglie is indeed the 20th century incarnation of the Count de Saint-Germain.
The portrait of Saint-Germain, as Aglie, a living contemporary is, in part, well sketched; we recognize the refined, learned, charming raconteur, who describes scenes from past centuries with the vividness of an eyewitness participant. It is how Eco twists the character of Aglie that is libelous with respect to both Bacon and Saint-Germain. On the mere basis of a resemblance between the sound of two names, which moreover, are not uncommonly found, he makes the allegation that the Count de Saint-Germain-Ragozki was Pierre Ivanovitch Rachkovsky, head of Okhrana, the Czarist secret police, and the man responsible for launching the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Aglie is depicted as presiding Grand Master over a congress of secret society and ceremonial order heads which are shown, one and all, to be malevolent and murderous representatives of the dark forces. And here is an example of how Eco appears to be confused. He integrates the metaphysical concepts of master initiate -- immortality-reincarnation as apparent reality-structures within his story -- Aglie is the continuation of Bacon/Saint-Germain, he seems to imply. However, he labels anyone who pursues an understanding of, or believes in, such metaphysical concepts as diabolical and given over to the dark forces.
The application of one's intellectual gifts in the service of distortion and slander must surely rate right up there with the sin against the Holy Spirit. Let me give a specific example. Eco portrays Aglie as quoting Pontius Pilate, "Quid est veritas?" with an insouciance befitting a Nietzschian Superman who has passed "beyond good and evil." This is a layered reference, evidencing the subtle aspect of Eco's scholarship, because Francis Bacon, Saint-Germain's alleged earlier incarnation, begins his famous essay, "On Truth," with this very quotation. But the point of that essay is to deny, brilliantly and resoundingly, that truth is merely relative:
"What is truth? said jesting Pilate and would not stay for an answer. Certainly there be that delight in giddiness, and count it a bondage to fix a belief; affecting free-will in thinking, as well as in acting."
". . . But howsoever these things are thus in men's depraved judgments, and affections, yet truth, which only doth judge itself, teacheth that the inquiry of truth, which is the love-making, or wooing of it, the knowledge of truth, which is the presence of it, and the belief in truth, which is the enjoying of it, is the sovereign good of human nature."
"Certain, it is heaven upon earth to have a man's mind move in charity, rest in providence, and turn upon the poles of truth."
In addition to the war chest of his literary
renown, his arsenal of weapons includes gamesmanship, deliberate
scholarly obfuscation, subtle intellectual and emotional
manipulation, and the classic disinformation technique of putting a
false spin on an atom of truth to really create confusion. Using the
ploy of invisibility (imitated, ironically, from the benevolent
invisibility of the 17th c. Rosicrucians), he shields his real
position, launching a full-scale guerilla attack against a hated
enemy - all Western forms of non-orthodox spirituality - without
daring to hoist his own standard in full view. Why?
Those readers who make it to the end, will be rewarded for their perseverence with at least some clarification. Much of the deliberate ambiguity, biplay and paradox have been resolved (although considerable confusion remains) and Eco enunciates his position and judgement with all the subtlety of a Mack Truck. Esoteric and metaphysical = Evil.
But wherever could Mr. Eco be coming from in this judgment? A few reproachful paragraphs in the last ten pages of the book give the game away, and make manifest from what quarter this blitzkrieg has been mounted: no surprises here - it could have been deduced. Who is the ancient and eternal enemy of Cathars, Templars, Protestants, Rosicrucians, Masons and Jews? - Who else but Roman Catholic orthodoxy:
"Hadn't Aglie spoken of the yearning for mystery that stirred the age of the Antonines? And yet someone had just arrived and declared himself the son of God, the son of God made flesh, to redeem the sins of the world. Was that a run-of-the-mill mystery? And he promised salvation to all, they only had to love their neighbor. Was that a trivial secret? And he bequeathed the idea that whoever uttered the right words at the right time could turn a piece of bread and a half-glass of wine into the body and blood of the son of God, and be nourished by it. Was that a paltry riddle? And then he lead the Church fathers to ponder and proclaim that God was One and Triune and that the Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son, but that the Son did not proceed from the Father and the Spirit. Was that some easy formula for Hylics? And yet they, who now had salvation within their grasp -- do-it-yourself salvation -- turned deaf ears. Is that all there is to it? How trite. And they kept on scouring the Mediterranean in their boats, looking for a lost knowledge, of which those thirty-denarii dogmas were but the superficial veil, the parable for the poor in spirit, the allusive hieroglyph, the wink of the eye at the Pneumatics. The mystery of the Trinity? Too simple: there had to be more to it."
And now we know why he had to disguise his
position so cunningly. If he had been upfront about it from the
beginning- that he was giving a fundamentalist Catholic critique of
gnostic, "heretical" or metaphysical traditions - who, pray tell,
would read the book or take it seriously? It really seems that this
book could be a sort of "put-up" job, an attempt to rebut Holy
Blood, Holy Grail by deflating it rather than taking it on
honorably and chivalrously.
Eco dedicates the book with two quotations. The
first, quoted with a snide mockery detectable only in retrospect, is
from Agrippa of Nettlesheim's De Occulta Philosophia:
"Only for you, sons of the doctrine and of wisdom, have we written this work. Study this book, ponder that which we have intentionally scattered and arranged in a few places; what we have hidden in one place we have manifested in another, in order that it could be understood from your wisdom."
The second, a blatant fabrication, purports to be
by one Raymond Smullyan, dated 5,000 B.C.: "Superstition brings bad
luck." It's an example of Eco's somewhat overly cute wit, but more
importantly, it does indeed sum up the malicious message of this
virtuoso's masterpiece of disinformation. 'Superstition' (a term Eco
apparently employs to include every possible spiritual path or
metaphysical inquiry outside of Roman Catholic Orthodoxy), leads to
The book seems designed to instill paranoia in the millions of people, who, disaffected and dissatisfied with the adequacy, or degree of quality, sincerity, or authenticity of their religious institutions and leadership, have sought spiritual enrichment and development through exploration of other traditions, either orthodox or esoteric. The means Eco uses are lies, intimidation, and the promotion of fear and insecurity by portraying dire consequences to seekers and questers. In the sheep within the fold, the book will instill alarm, prejudice, and misapprehension. The intent of the book can only be compared to certain recent productions of the American moral majority fundamentalists.
The liberal peppering of antisemitic innuendo and the denigration of Islamic Sufism are dishonorable stains and can only undermine the burgeoning and still fragile, spirit of ecumenicism among the world's religions which strives to promote mutual understanding, respect and tolerance as a sine qua non of world peace.
Copyright ©1989 by Deborah Belle Forman. Reprinted with permission from Gnosis #14, Winter 1989-'90