I’ve been racing through the last 300 or so pages of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. Part of it is because I just want to be finished with it – not that it hasn’t been enjoyable – 600-page books are very, very heavy, and I’m tired of dragging it around with me, both psychologically and physically. The plot has also finally picked up speed, 400 pages in and the momentum has built enough to be palpable in the narrative. I’m on the home stretch of the last 100 pages now, and I’m fighting off the fear of finishing the book, the anticipation of catharsis and anxiety of being set adrift in reality conspiring to slow me down.
Talking with a friend last night I found myself describing how I managed to fight my way through more pages than I thought possible of material that is completely beyond the scope of my knowledge.
In Foucault’s Pendulum, for those unfamiliar, Eco is retracing and reimagining – not so much inventing, as recombining – the literary history of Europe. Front and center are the occult mysteries of the Templars, the Rosicrucians, and then Francis Bacon, and the Freemasons, and on and on, passing through every possible text, historical moment. (My personal interests tend to reside not much earlier than the 20th century, which put me in the familiar position of letting each word of the story follow the next, without expectation or prediction, because each twist and clever allusion was entirely unexpected, hidden by ignorance.)
Eco’s story hinges on a particularly sumptuous a form of literary magic. A story based in the writings – all real – of the great minds of Europe, each one obsessed and compelled by esoterica and mysticism, all embroiled in secret societies and public denunciations and a practice of publishing which sent texts crisscrossing and contradicting each other and helplessly interconnected across Europe, he makes up very little. Instead, he sets a stage like the one he found himself, and sets his characters up to do what he, himself, is doing: reading, reading, reading, reading, and re-positioning the puzzle pieces to create a new, fantastic picture of history. His protagonists believe in the reality of what they read as much as Eco’s reader, as much as Eco himself. That is to say, not at all.
But slowly as they make their own fantastic story, they start to believe themselves. Each undergoes the transformation of the “psychiatrist who becomes fond of his patients, enjoying the balmy breezes that waft from the ancient park of his private clinic. After a while he begins to write pages on delirium, then pages of delirium, unaware that his sick people have seduced him.” (p. 370) But for the characters to weave a story that they can believe, Eco has to have woven that story. The book starts to cast its spell: if the fictitious characters begin to believe the story that they have written, has Eco begun to believe the story he has written? And what then of the audience? Are we, too, seduced by the tapestry that has been woven double before us?
Suddenly, where before we faced the soft focus of the reader cocooned in the story, we experience a dolly zoom and a momentary disassociation, watching ourselves read, Eco write, the protagonists scheme, and all the various and sundry of history believe. Unable to keep it in mind, the shot collapses back into itself and we turn the page.