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.