Foucault’s Pendulum
Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

These pages: Foucault’s Pendulum

first page (here)

second page


William Weaver

index pages:

This novel is deeply connected to conspiracy theories of history (Templars, Rosicrucians, Jesuits, Masons, Satanists, etc.) and a wide variety of occult practices and esoteric philosophies. In conjunction with the latter, major divisions are labeled with names of the nodes (Sephirot) of the kabbalistic Tree of Life. For my own amusement, I have added to these Hebrew names:
Foucault’s Pendulum

Translated from the Italian by
William Weaver

Copyright © 1988 Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri Bompiani,
Sonzogno Etas S.p.A., Milano

English translation copyright © 1989 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.

KETER (Crown)

The sphere, hanging from a long wire set into the ceiling of the choir, swayed back and forth with isochronal majesty.

I knew—but anyone could have sensed it in the magic of that serene breathing—that the period was governed by the square root of the length of the wire and by π, that number which, however irrational to sublunar minds, through a higher rationality binds the circumference and diameter of all possible circles. The time it took the sphere to swing from end to end was determined by an arcane conspiracy between the most timeless of measures: the singularity of the point of suspension, the duality of the plane’s dimensions, the triadic beginning of π, the secret quadratic nature of the root, and the unnumbered perfection of the circle itself.

The Pendulum told me that, as everything moved—earth, solar system, nebulae and black holes, all the children of the great cosmic expansion—one single point stood still: a pivot, bolt, or hook around which the universe could move. And I was now taking part in that supreme experience. I, too, moved with the all, but I could see the One, the Rock, the Guarantee, the luminous mist that is not body, that has no shape, weight, or quality, that does not see or hear, that cannot be sensed, that is in no place, in no time, and is not soul, intelligence, imagination, opinion, number, order, or measure. Neither darkness nor light, neither error nor truth.
2 Was it worth the trouble of going through the Encyclopédie, the Enlightenment, and the Revolution to be able to state that merely curving a mirror’s surface can plunge a man into an imagined world? For that matter, a normal mirror, too, is an illusion. Consider the individual looking back at you, condemned to perpetual left-handedness, every morning when you shave. Was it worth the trouble of setting up this hall just to tell us this? Or is the message really that we should look at everything in a different way, including the glass cases and the instruments that supposedly celebrate the birth of physics and enlightened chemistry?
HOKHMAH (Wisdom)

Diotallevi and Belbo, both from Piedmont, often claimed that any good Piedmontese had the ability to listen politely, look you in the eye, and say “You think so?” in a tone of such apparent sincerity that you immediately felt his profound disapproval. I was a barbarian, they used to say: such subtleties would always be lost on me.

“Barbarian?” I would protest. “I may have been born in Milan, but my family came from Val d’Aosta.”

“Nonsense,” they said. “You can always tell a genuine Piedmontese immediately by his skepticism.”

“I’m a skeptic.”

“No, you’re only incredulous, a doubter, and that’s different.”



BINAH (Understanding)

To enter a university a year or two after I968 was like being admitted to the Académie de Saint-Cyr in I793: you felt your birth date was wrong. Jacopo Belbo, who was almost fifteen years older than I, later convinced me that every generation feels this way. You are always born under the wrong sign, and to live in this world properly you have to rewrite your own horoscope day by day.

Not that the incredulous person doesn’t believe in anything. It’s just that he doesn’t believe in everything. Or he believes in one thing at a time. He believes a second thing only if it somehow follows from the first thing. He is nearsighted and methodical, avoiding wide horizons. If two things don’t fit, but you believe both of them, thinking that somewhere, hidden, there must be a third thing that connects them, that’s credulity.



8 As long as you remain in your private vacuum, you can pretend you are in harmony with the One. But the moment you pick up the clay, electronic or otherwise, you become a demiurge, and he who embarks on the creation of worlds is already tainted with corruption and evil.




“There are four kinds of people in this world: cretins, fools, morons, and lunatics.”

“And that covers everybody?”

“Oh, yes, including us. Or at least me. If you take a good look, everybody fits into one of these categories. Each of us is sometimes a cretin, a fool, a moron, or a lunatic. A normal person is just a reasonable mix of these components, these four ideal types.”


“Potio-section, as everybody knows, of course, is the art of slicing soup. No, no,” he said to Diotallevi, “It’s not a department, it’s a subject, like Mechanical Avunculogratulation or Pylocatabasis. They all fall under the heading of Tetrapyloctomy.”

“What’s tetra . . . ?” I asked.

“The art of splitting a hair four ways. This is the department of useless techniques. Mechanical Avunculogratulation, for example, is how to build machines for greeting uncles. We’re not sure, though, if Pylocatabasis belongs, since it’s the art of being saved by a hair. Somehow that doesn’t seem completely useless.”

“All right, gentlemen,” I said, “I give up. What are you two talking about?”

“Well, Diotallevi and I are planning a reform in higher education. A School of Comparative Irrelevance, where useless or impossible courses are given. The school’s aim is to turn out scholars capable of endlessly increasing the number of unnecessary subects.”

Note (Hal’s):
It’s remarkable that a technique which appeared useless in the 1980s has turned out otherwise. I refer to Mechanical Avunculogratulation; sending an ecard to my uncle is now quite reasonable.

— end note



I3 Beards have always been masks (you wear a fake beard to keep from being recognized), but in those years, the early seventies, a real beard was also a disguise. You could lie while telling the truth—or, rather, by making the truth elusive and enigmatic. A man’s politics could no longer be guessed from his beard. That evening, beards seemed to hover on clean-shaven faces whose very lack of hair suggested defiance.



“But, really, you can read about the Templars anywhere. . . .”

“We prefer the oral tradition,” Belbo said.

“It’s more mystical,” Diotallevi said. “God created the world by speaking. He didn’t send a telegram.”

“Fiat lux, stop,” Belbo said.

“Epistle follows,” I said.

I9 I could easily be somewhere else now if I hadn’t been in Belbo’s office that day. I could be—who knows?—selling sesame seeds in Samarkand, or editing a series of books in Braille, or heading the First National Bank of Franz Josef Land. Counterfactual conditionals are always true, because the premise is false. But I was there that day, so now I am where I am.

“All the world’s follies,” he replied, “turn up in publishing houses sooner or later. But the world’s follies may also contain flashes of the wisdom of the Most High, so the wise man observes folly with humility.”

HESED (Kindness)

Amparo was steadfast in her faith. “The particular empirical event doesn’t matter,” she said. “It’s an ideal principle, which can be verified only under ideal conditions. Which means never. But it’s still true.”

I saw some votive offerings on the beach, little candles, white garlands. Amparo told me they were offerings to Yemanjá, goddess of the waters. We stopped, and she got out and walked demurely onto the sand, stood a few moments in silence. I asked her if she believed in this. She retorted angrily: How could I think such a thing? Then she added, “My grandmother used to bring me to the beach here, and she would pray to the goddess to make me grow up beautiful and good and happy. Who was that Italian philosopher who made that comment about black cats and coral horns? ‘It’s not true, but I believe in it’? Well, I don’t believe in it, but it’s true.”



30 “By the time he got back to Paris, the manifestoes had appeared, and he learned that everybody considered him a Rosicrucian. Not a good thing to be, given the atmosphere at the time. It also irritated his friend Mersenne, who was already fulminating against the Rosicrucians, calling them wretches, subversives, mages, and cabalists bent on sowing perverted doctrines. So what does Decartes do? Simply appears in public as often as possible. Since everybody can undeniably see him, he must not be a Rosicrucian, because if he were, he’d be invisible.”

“An initiate is not the same as a mystic. Being an initiate—having an intuitive comprehension of what reason cannot explain—is a very deep process; it is a slow transformation of the spirit and of the body, and it can lead to the exercise of superior abilities, even to immortality. But it is secret, intimate; it does not show itself externally; it is modest, lucid, detached. That is why the Masters of the World, initiates, do not indulge in mysticism. For them, a mystic is a slave, a site of the manifestation of the numinous, through which site the signs of a secret can be observed. The initiate encourages the mystic and uses him as you might use a telephone, to establish long-distance contact, or as a chemist might use litmus paper, to detect the action of a particular substance. The mystic is useful, because he is conspicuous. He broadcasts himself. Initiates, on the contrary, are recognizable only to one another. It is they who control the forces that mystics undergo. [...] Mysticism is a degenerate form of contact with the divine, whereas initiation is the fruit of long askesis of mind and heart. Mysticism is a democratic, if not demagogic, phenomenon; initiation is aristocratic.”

“It is mental as opposed to carnal?”

“In a sense.”

GEVURAH (Discipline)

“God blows the world as you would blow a glass bubble, and to do that He takes a deep breath, holds it, and emits the long luminous hiss of the ten Sefirot.”

“A hiss of light?”

“God hissed, and there was light.”


“But the lights of the Sefirot must be gathered in vessels that can contain their splendor without shattering. The vessels destined to receive Keter, Hokhmah, and Binah withstood their magnificence, but for the lower Sefirot, from Hesed to Yesod, light was exhaled too strongly in a single burst, and the vessels broke. Fragments of light were spilled into the universe, and gross matter was thus born.”

I once thought it was necessary to have a theory, and that my problem was that I didn’t. But nowadays all you needed was information; everybody was greedy for information, especially if it was out of date.
I had a strict rule, which I think secret services follow, too: No piece of information is superior to any other. Power lies in having them all on file and then finding the connections. There are always connections; you have only to want to find them.

Whoever reflects on four things, it were better he had never been born: that which is above, that which is below, that which is before, and that which is after.
    —Talmud, Hagigah 2.I

“The Pendulum. Foucault’s Pendulum.”

And then he described it to me, just as I saw it two days ago, Saturday. Maybe I saw it the way I saw it because Belbo had prepared me for the sight. But at that time I must not have shown much enthusiasm, because Belbo looked at me as if I were a man who, seeing the Sistine Chapel, asks: Is this all?

“It may be the atmosphere—that it’s in a church—but, believe me, you feel a very strong sensation. The idea that everything else is in motion and up above is the only fixed point in the universe . . . For those who have no faith, it’s a way of finding God again, and without challenging their unbelief, because it is a null pole. It can be very comforting for people of my generation, who ate disappointment for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

“We, with our penitential pilgrimages to Buchenwald, refused to write advertising copy for Coca-Cola because we were antifascists. [...] But you, to avenge yourselves on the bourgeoisie you hadn’t managed to overthrow, sold them videocassettes and fanzines, brainwashed them with Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. You’ve made us buy, at a discount, your copies of the thoughts of Chairman Mao, and used the money to purchase fireworks for the celebration of the new creativity. Shamelessly. While we spent our lives being ashamed. You tricked us, you didn’t represent purity; it was only adolescent acne.”

“Wherever you put it, Foucault’s Pendulum swings from a motionless point while the earth rotates beneath it. Every point of the universe is a fixed point: all you have to do is hang the Pendulum from it.”

“God is everywhere?”

“In a sense, yes. That’s why the Pendulum disturbs me. It promises the infinite, but where to put the infinite is left to me. So it isn’t enough to worship the Pendulum; you still have to make a decision, you have to find the best point for it. And yet . . .”

“And yet?”

“And yet . . . You’re not taking me seriously by any chance, are you, Casaubon? No, I can rest easy; we’re not the type to take things seriously. . . . Well, as I was saying, the feeling you have is that you’ve spent a lifetime hanging the Pendulum in many places, and it’s never worked, but there, in the Conservatoire, it works. . . . Do you think there are special places in the universe?”


“Isn’t it said that history is a bloodstained and senseless riddle? No, impossible; there must be a Design. There must be a Mind. That is why ovr the centuries men far from ignorant have thought of the Masters or the King of the World not as physical beings but as a collective symbol, as the successive, temporary incarnation of a Fixed Intention. An Intention with which the great priestly orders and the vanished chivalries were in touch.”

“Do you believe this?” Belbo asked.

“Persons more balanced than d’Alveydre seek the Unknown Superiors.”

“And do they find them?”

Agliè laughed, as if to himself. “What sort of Unknown Superiors would they be if they allowed the first person who comes along to know them?”


I had always thought that doubting was a scientific duty, but now I came to distrust the very masters who had taught me to doubt.

I said to myself: I’m like Amparo; I don’t believe in it, yet I surrender to it. Yes, I caught myself marveling over the fact that the height of the Great Pyramid really was one-billionth of the distance between the earth and the sun, and that you really could draw striking parallels between Celtic and Amerind mythologies. And I began to question everything around me: the houses, the shop signs, the clouds in the sky, and the engravings in the library, asking them to tell me not their superficial story but another, deeper story, which they surely were hiding—but finally would reveal thanks to the principle of mystic resemblances.

text checked (see note) Dec 2020

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