Please explain Foucault's Pendulum to me

I pored over the first 200 pages of this book, trying to find translations and definitions of the various names, quotes and terms. I gave up when I could not see the connection between the quotations and the narrative. I understand that the quotes were from people mentioned in the book, various authors and members of secret societies. However, I never did quite grasp the applicability of the specific quotes, especially since the gist was covered in the text of the chapters.

So then I decided I would just try to follow the story, hoping to learn more about the characters and the mysterious Plan. Now I am at the end (about 50 pages to go) and I see that there are certain characters to whom I should have paid more attention (Lorenza/Sophia, the supposedly fictional Kelley) but the references applied to these characters were lost in the sea of all the other references. Now I cannot remember the significance of the “saint and the prostitute”. Plus, I thought Kelley was a character Belbo made up. If that is true then I see now how all of these characters (I’m speaking of the ones who attended the rite in the Museum) have come to believe in the Plan. Is that all there is to it? Is there something about these characters that would make the ending of the book more interesting? Also, my hope was that the Plan would be a bit more compelling – that the birth of the Plan would be more of a lightbulb moment for the characters but it did not come across that way in the book. It was more like I was reading and reading and reading and then realized; Oh hey, now they are talking about the Plan. I really was paying attention, I swear.

Another thing that bothers me about the writing style is those damn quotations at the beginning of each chapter - they interrupted the story. I’ve not seen this approach as a literary device and I am wondering what the purpose is. I first noticed it when I finished Chapter 19 and thought to myself “OK, that is the end of that piece of the story, what’s next?” and then I read the quote at the beginning of Chapter 20, let it digest a bit and then started on the text of Chapter 20. But the first sentence of Chapter 20 picked right up from where Chapter 19 left off. Why stick a quote in the middle of the narrative?

Also, there is a lot of foreign language in the book. I feel like some of the foreign phrases and dialogue here were critical. Again, these feel like an interruption in the narrative. Was I supposed to try and translate these phrases?

The other thing that baffles me is why Eco thought we would remember small details about the first few chapters. He does remind us that about 500 pages of this book are a flashback that Casaubon is narrating while in the museum. But was I supposed to remember his descriptions of the minutiae of the museum?

I like to read and I do not read just to pass the time. I want to take something away from the story or meet an interesting character. The reason I read this book is because it was our book club’s selection for this month. In the spirit of the book club (i.e., exposing myself to books that I would otherwise not choose for myself), I decided I would finish the book. And even though I knew that I would not enjoy the subject matter (secret societies, Templar Knights, the Holy Grail, blah blah blah), I thought at least there might be a good story in there.

What am I missing?

Nuthin’. You ain’t missin’ nuthin’.

I too suffered through that lousy excuse for a cohesive story. I don’t remember a damn thing about it. Esoteric, wordy, complex, foreign, or otherwise unreadable works are not usually a problem for me. Boring books are an exception, and I think this may be a reason for my diagnosis of “that book sucked.” It’s possible that the book suffered from bad translation, but I’m being generous.

If you want to learn more about the story (which sounds much cooler in synopsis), see:

Well, for once, I have to agree with Wikipedia

All the books by Eco that I have read so far (Pendulum, Name of the Rose, Baudolino) have a cohesive story. To a point. However, Eco seems more interested in studying ideas and themes and uses the story as a medium to convey his thoughts.

The Pendulum does (I think) convey his idea pretty well. And it is one of the reasons why I read “The DaVinci Code” like an action/adventure flick and can completely disregard the so-called conspiracy it describes.

Baudolino is, if you read it superficially, a medieval story (set in the time where Constantinople was sacked by the Crusaders) that doesn’t make much sense. But the way I understand it, it is a depiction of how people are marked by the beliefs of their time.

Bah, haters!

I see Eco novels as being written on two levels: a story, and a metanarrative that is usually getting some point across about habits of mind or epistemology or such.

Name of the Rose: A) Murder mystery, B) study of a transition from Aquinas’ scholasticism to Baconian empiricism or something along those lines. What if one wrote a ‘logical’ mystery, but the logic was something totally different from what we’re used to in our post-Descartes, post-Newton, post Occam world? Does the ‘detective’ come to a conclusion based on what we would understand as being precisely the wrong reasons?

Baudolino-- again like Pendulum a ‘unreliable narrator’ technique and apparently a road trip story, but at the same time, if you’ve read Pliny and John Mandeville you think “ohhhh” and see the metajoke and see that the whole mode of narration is a study in the thought-processes of people at a time that is not now.

Pendulum-- unreliable narrator. . . or not? Is he actually correct in the end? Is this a real cult? Is it a wannabe cult with no real connection? Is he perceiving a plot, but not actually the plot that is there, which is something else?

Now, if you don’t like meta-stuff, it might not be your cup of tea. I love overly-metacrap like Calvino and Borges and Eco. Not many people do. That’s cool. How Eco ends up on bestseller lists I’ll never know.

On the first reading, I hated Pendulum until ten pages before the end. But I was spurred on to that point by a close friend with whom I have many artistic and aesthetic sympathies. When I did get to the end, it was the first time I’d ever turned back to page 1 and started again. I’ve read it now perhaps a dozen times, and keep on finding more of the plot each time. All on the meta-something level capybara mentions.

I struggled my way through that book, and while there were some interesting tidbits, the net result for me was one gigantic “whoosh”.

The back cover of my copy says:

On a lark, the [three] editors begin randomly feeding esoteric bits of knowledge into an incredible computer capable of inventing connections between all their entries. What they believe they are creating is a long, lazy game- until the game starts taking over."

I totally don’t remember anything like that, but it could have been buried in all the confusion.

At least it added one word to my vocabulary, “hermetic” which appears at least twice on every page.

Having just re-read the book after twenty years, prompted by a wonderful day in the actual Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris recently, I suppose I should wade in. I’ll preface the following by saying that I think the book is flawed as a novel - much more so than The Name of the Rose - and certainly demands a lot of the reader, but I do like it.

When the book came out there was a serious review, in I believe the TLS, that suggested that Eco couldn’t expect any reader to really read many of the passages in the novel. For a start, there are those several pages at the end of chapter 5. Personally, I think this is the way to take the novel - stretches of it are just there to give the texture of obsessional detail. Dig into them and they are usually interesting, but you can equally skim over them.

Yes and no. Edward Kelley was very much a real person and Eco is expecting his ideal reader to know that. Within Belbo’s apparently fictional narrative there’s the suggestion that the name was a pseudonym, as part of the whole tangle of identities involving Bacon, Shakespeare, Dee, Kelley and Cervantes.

Again, yes and no. It’s a possible interpretation that the attendees in the nave are members of the pre-existing grand conspiracy stumbling through European history who think that the three heroes have discovered much of this story and - more importantly - the parts they themselves don’t know. However, I’ve always taken the deeper interpretation to be that in creating the Plan as a joke interpretation of history they have altered reality and events thereafter incorporate their fantasy. That’s in keeping with my take on parts of The Name of the Rose:

The unfolding series of events in the monastery is heavily influenced by the theories the monks, including William of Baskerville, spin around them by way of explanation. Murders are arranged to fit the current “solution”, so that the detective is never a passive figure solving a static puzzle. The very activity of trying to solve the mystery changes the mystery.

Hence the significance of the pendulum as a symbol: in the unstable flux of reality, it points to something fixed and reliable. (Granted the novel misrepresents the physics here, but I suspect Eco knew this.)

Personally, I thought the gradual slide into their generation of the Plan was rather well done. Admittedly, it surprised me on re-reading how late in the book this happens.

They’re clearly partly Eco showing off: he’s pointing out that he has really waded through vast swathes of old nonsense. Frankly, I tend to skip them, but they do usually form an ironic commentary on the main narrative. For instance, the juxtaposition of the quote at the start of chapter 66 and Diotallevi’s comment below is surely a joke. His comment is not just directly part of the ongoing conversation, it’s indirectly a comment on the quoted passage - and hence Eco muddying the distinction between what his character says within the story and what he’s saying as the author.

We are talking about an author who “explained” the title of his first novel by including an untranslated piece of Latin as the final sentence of it.

I may as well take the opportunity to add that, having re-read it, I think the common advice that readers of Dan Brown novels would be better off reading it is misguided. Yes, the novel is the witty intellectual romp through the territory and it does work as a satire of those who take this stuff seriously. But it’s also a baggy, shapeless affair that assumes that the reader is both in on the joke and on many of the references. I just don’t see anyone going from The Da Vinci Code straight to Foucault’s Pendulum and getting anywhere with it just on the basis of that advice.

It’s one of those books, like Ulysses, that you aren’t really supposed to understand. You’re just supposed to read it so you can tell all your friends you did. That way, you’ll seem smart. :wink:

But this book makes me feel dumb.

ETA: At any rate, it seems that based on the comments here and what I’ve read on line, I did get some of the salient points of the book. I think that perhaps this book just wasn’t my style.

It’s been many years since I read Foucault’s Pendulum. But I eat up “secret societies, Templar Knights, the Holy Grail, blah blah blah” with a spoon. Compared to Illuminatus, for example, FP was seriously lacking in sex & drugs. (I read this sort of thing for fun.)

There are some fine suggestions here. It seems as though you’ve made a serious effort to understand the book. When your club discusses it, I bet you won’t be the only one with questions.

One of the reasons I posted here before my book club meeting is that I am afraid no one else will have finished it. Last I heard from everyone, no one was making much progress and our next meeting is less than two weeks away. Hopefully the others will get into it enough to discuss some of my questions and contribute their own insights. It should be an interesting discussion.

Maybe it’s the translation. I read it in Italian and didn’t have any problem at all following the story. As for the writing style, Eco was going for a “postmodern” style, or something of that sort, putting together a story using fragments of other stories, and making the point that many books talk about other books and literary production mostly exists to talk about itself, and that’s fine as long as you remember it’s a game and a meta-game at the same time. When someone makes an abrupt shortcut from literature to the real world, like those that took the Big Secret Conspiracy seriously, then you suffer.

This is a recurring theme in Eco - even now.

Old Joke:
What do you get when you cross Umberto Eco with a mafia don?

A man who makes you an offer you can’t understand.
My undergrad Semiotics prof. told that one.

Doggone, I was hoping this was going to be about the physics of the pendulum, not some book.

I missed it when it first came out, but just gave it a try a few weeks ago. I gave up halfway through, not because it was challenging, but because it felt very stale and dated culturally and technologically. Conspiracy and secret society novels are at their best when they are speculative and make you fear for the future :slight_smile: Foucalt’s didn’t even feel slightly topical to today’s world, and I never became immersed in the plot or characters.

The first time I read it, I was utterly lost and confused – but persisted to the end because I won’t let something like a little confusion stop me! I came back to it recently, having spent the intervening years wading through a self-taught crash course in literary studies (that I needed to write my diss.) while also enjoying a bunch of fun reading of Templar lore and other arcana. The second time around was much easier. Much. There’s so much that Eco just assumes you know, that if you don’t you can get pretty fogged in.

Incidentally, I had a similar experience wading through late-19th and early-20th c. essays on Shakespeare’s plays for my research. I was coming at it as a neophyte in Shakespeare studies, whereas these writers knew a ton about Shakespeare – and assumed their readers did too. Several of these authors were almost impossible to follow until I did a bunch of other research and came back to them. But once I “got” it, I realized that their florid commentaries actually made some fairly insightful points and weren’t only intellectual masturbation.

I suspect Eco indulges in a similar literary tradition – probably because it amuses him to do so.

In Eco’s defense, though, that’s not what he was trying to do. In that sense, Foucault’s Pendulum sends up conspiracy stories by saying there might not be anything to fear - or maybe the only people worth worrying about are deluded morons, not scheming, all-knowing evil people.

I liked Foucault’s Pendulum, but I loved Illuminatus! It freaked me out when I was 14, but these days I find a lot of reasons for optimism in there.

I trudged through it two years ago and quite liked the challenge. I think I’ll try for Round Two someday.

I’ve never really understood the confusion with the thing, but that might be because I can see most of that stuff happening to me. Just kind of making my way, the only way I know how, but I always seem to be surrounded by people that would fit right in that book. It needs more aliens, tho. Probably need a certain mindset to fully appreciate it, there’s times I can’t even imagine re-reading it, and times that it’s a fun little diversion.

It helped being well versed in a lot of the stuff he babbled about, eventually I started skipping over the flashbacks and enjoyed it much more.