Listening to a brief obituary of Umberto Eco at the weekend, there was a moment of annoyance when the speaker said Eco would be best remembered for his medieval mystery novel The Name of the Rose. Eco’s academic writings included philosophy, anthropology and semiotics, but, of course, the speaker was right, people are generally best remembered for the most popular elements of their work. However, when considering his fiction, at a time when the Internet is filled with conspiracy stories, and where the merchants of “mind, body and spirit” products are the mountebanks and snake oil salesmen of the 21st Century, Eco’s monumental novel Foucault’s Pendulum deserves a wider readership.
Foucault’s Pendulum satirically surveys the so-called secret societies and the occult. Casaubon, one of the central characters of the novel comes to a conclusion that would strangely find acceptance among those of us of a rationalist disposition. Eco’s character suggests that Jesus would have felt much in common with those of us who prefer the straightforward to the arcane, those who find the rational more convincing than the esoteric:
“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 promised salvation to all: you only had to love your neighbour. Was that a trivial secret? And he bequeathed the idea that whoever uttered the right words at the right time could turn a chunk 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 led 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.
But everything is not a bigger secret. There are no “bigger secrets,” because the moment a secret is revealed, it seems little.
Someone-Rubinstein, maybe-once said, when asked if he believed in God: ‘Oh, no, I believe … in something much bigger’. And someone else -was it Chesterton?-said that when men stop believing in God, it isn’t that they then believe in nothing: they believe in everything.”
The novel comes to a sad and frightening ending, the disciples of the esoteric cannot accept that there are no undisclosed secrets, like their First Century predecessors, they regard the one who declares things to be simple as a man worthy of death.
Perhaps, when the days of fundamentalism and irrationalism are past, Foucault’s Pendulum will be read as a parable of our times.