First published in Italian in 1988, Foucault’s Pendulum is an eerily prescient novel by the philosopher and semiotician Umberto Eco, who passed away about a year ago. Despite its arcane exploration of ancient mystical societies, and academic protagonists, its analysis of conspiracies, conspiratorial thinking, and related phenomena feel uncannily familiar, as though he were anticipating the incomprehensible modern world of truthers, birthers, and Pizzagate.
The book focuses on a trio of underemployed scholars in modern Italy, who make ends meet by working at a small, vanity publisher focusing on esoterica and conspiracy theories. Mocking their authors (whom they refer to as “Diabolicals”), the protagonists amuse themselves by trying to weave every bit of nonsense together into a grand new theory of the history of the world.
Belbo, Causabon, and Diotallevi never quite let themselves believe their own tale, but remain dangerously entranced by the possibilities that they dream up. Their apparent knowledge brings them into increasing conflict with the Diabolicals themselves, who persistently believe that any denial of a conspiracy is only evidence of its potency.
The book is set in 1970s and 1980s Italy, a time of social upheaval known as the Years of Lead. The era saw significant terrorist activity from far-left groups such as the Red Brigades as well as far-right and neo-Nazi organizations like the National Vanguard. In a society torn apart not only by violence, but by fundamentally oppositional views of the world, Eco saw the potency of esoteric thinking: it not only offered truths that could not be doubted, but the promise that ultimately, someone, somewhere, was actually in charge. Even if it was all made up.
It is this aspect of the book which resonates so deeply in the 21st century, when the world again seems plunged into chaos, and truth itself recedes into the distance. The conspiracy theories that animate contemporary politics overlap with the many legends in Foucault’s Pendulum, but even more than such specifics, the temptation, power, and danger of these beliefs echo loudly.
The central conspiracy, at the heart of the novel, is the Plan (always capitalized) of the Knights Templar. The Templars were a chivalric order established in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the 12th century, after the First Crusade, to defend the Christian states in the Middle East. They were headquartered on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which gave them their name. They had a reputation for being ferociously brave warriors, but within a generation, Jerusalem had fallen, and the Templar strongholds in the Holy Land were lost.
The Order itself lived on in Europe until the early 14th century, when King Philip IV of France and his ally, Pope Clement V, ordered the arrest of Templar leaders. The last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, was burned at the stake in Paris in 1314, and the pope dissolved the order.
Although there is no evidence that the Templars survived this assault, the premise that they re-formed, in secret, has lurked in the public consciousness ever since. There is certainly some romance in the idea of the Templars as holy warriors and martyrs, but their infamy stems from their other activities.
As the rare organization with contacts in both Western Europe and the Middle East, the Templars established themselves as one of the first international banking organizations. This meant that the Templars were able to become phenomenally wealthy, owning land not only in Jerusalem but across Europe. Their position in Jerusalem also gave them access, supposedly, to holy artifacts and relics, including the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail. King Philip targeted them, not because of a personal or religious dispute, but because they were his largest creditor, and the Pope joined because they had assets worth seizing.
Of course, you can’t arrest an order of knights because you owe them money. Philip’s solution was an enormous frame-job, salacious enough to do the trick with enough truth to be believable. He accused them of heresy, denying Christ, and requiring initiates to spit on a cross. To this, he added sodomy: inventing a ritual where Templars were required to kiss each other on the anus. Finally, the Templars were accused of literal demon worship—apparently, they were required to pray to the idol of Baphomet, a bearded devil figure. Under torture, Templars would confess to all of these sins and more.
The drama of the Templars has been catnip for conspiracy theorists for 700 years, and Eco introduces us to this history by having his protagonists entertain a series of people with their own fanciful ideas of Templar survival, mixed with their own academic scholarship and skepticism.
The Plan is largely inspired by the work of one Colonel Ardenti, who wanders into their office looking for a book deal. Ardenti has a copy of a scrap of parchment, damaged but not quite to the point of illegibility. He argues that it is the outline of a grand Templar plot for revenge against those who wronged them-they will meet every 120 years, from 1344 to 1944, gathering pieces of a message that will let them construct some kind of mystical super-weapon, before achieving world conquest in 2000: 666 years after 1344.
Ardenti himself vanishes, and is quickly forgotten, and Belbo, Causabon, and Diotallevi goad each other into reconstructing the entire history of Europe in terms of the grand Templar plan, aided by a computer which randomizes information for them when they get stuck. They tie in the Jesuits, the Paulicians, Rosicrucians, Freemasons, Francis Bacon, the Assassins, and the Illuminati. Adding the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Plan becomes the justification for Hitler’s delusions and the pogroms of Czarist Russia.
It’s such a captivating story that the protagonists themselves start to forget that they invented it and their Diabolicals start repeating their own fabrications back to them. Eventually, self-proclaimed members of the Tres—a group entirely invented by Causabon—abduct Belbo and demand that he reveal everything he knows about the Plan, convinced that they can fulfill it and obtain the Templar superweapon. The revelation that old Ardenti dramatized a 19th century shopping list is completely ignored. All the great hidden forces of the world are in pursuit of a secret, but they don’t know this: that the only secret is that there is no secret. Belbo dies for this secret, strangled by the titular Pendulum at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris.
And it’s still true: There is no grand secret. And apparently, this fact is, itself, still secret. In a culture dominated by conspiracy theories, the only secret is the fact that nobody is in charge, nobody is masterminding daily events, and that ultimately, things just happen. Rather than accepting this fact, we continue a dogged pursuit of absent secrets, or else hide our own ignorance by claiming that we have discovered them. The justification is easy. As Eco puts it: “There can be no failure if there really is a Plan. Defeated you may be, but never through any fault of your own. To bow to a cosmic will is no shame. You are not a coward; you are a martyr.”
And so, our political culture becomes dominated by the Plan, in many different forms. The Templars rarely materialize in the fever swamps of Infowars and /pol/ and r/conspiracy, but the same accusations recur. Pizzagate is an obsession over invented sexual depravity, like the anal kiss of the Templars. Birthers see Barack Obama as a Muslim double agent. Alex Jones literally claimed that Hillary Clinton was a demon. George Soros stands for all the Elders of Zion, not just in the United States, but in Hungary, Macedonia, and Russia. Donald Trump sees a shadow government in every failure.
This is not merely fake news, but an actual danger to democratic governments, which are premised on open participation in civil society. If political opponents are not merely mistaken, but evil, elections are transformed into wars. The risks of defeat turn from bad policy choices to the rule of Satan himself, and ever more violence becomes acceptable.
These conspiracies emerge and proliferate because of the underlying unhappiness felt by many Americans and Europeans, who feel that their dreams have been denied. Trump and his cohorts overseas allow them to exchange failure for victimhood; to become vengeful martyrs. They promise to destroy the Plan, a Plan which never existed, because only such a powerful enemy could defeat the (self-imagined) honest, hardworking people who make up their base. Thus also do they excuse their own failures: if Trump is defeated, it’s only more evidence of the machinations of the Plan, not the frivolity of his proposals. Movies and video games are tools in political agendas, as many minds accuse dissenting reviewers as being, not only wrong, but shills and crooks. Gamergate festered on the believers’ conviction that they were about to unearth a grand conspiracy, which would explain all their frustrations. Never did it occur to them to look inwards to solve their unhappiness.
Pop culture will occasionally feint at unraveling conspiracy thinking, but it is far more interested in endorsing it, and rewarding the characters’ paranoia, rather than their skepticism. Fox Mulder is always right, Scully is always struggling to keep up. But complex dramas such as Westworld tease viewers with symbolism, allusion, and foreshadowing, encouraging them to look deeper, and grander, while rejecting coincidence.
Our critical thinking skills become more important daily, in a world that is increasingly haunted not only by lies, but by falsehoods which are deeply believed by their proponents. Eco, who has otherwise written extensively on resisting fascism, offers a guide.