The Dan Brown phenomenon 

 

Foucault’s Pendulum

Sometimes, the prototype is far superior to the actual product. And this may apply to the prototype of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”: Umberto Eco’s “Foucault’s Pendulum”.

Philip Coppens


As readable as “The Da Vinci Code” was (and according to some critics, of hardly any literary value whatsoever), as unreadable is “Foucault’s Pendulum”. Indeed, after the success of his “The Name of the Rose”, Eco stated that he endeavoured to make the first 50-60 pages of his novels as difficult as possible, creating an initiatory test for the reader, whereby few who had bought the book succeeded in actually reading the entire book. In Foucault’s Pendulum, published in Italian in 1988, once having passed this initiatory number of pages, the story remains difficult to follow, interspersed as it is with what seem to be irrelevant passages, little stories which add little if anything to the development of the plot.
“Foucault’s Pendulum” addressed what Eco had identified in the essay “Dreaming of the Middle Ages” as number nine out of ten types of nostalgic neo-medievalism: the Middle Ages of Tradition, “an eternal and rather eclectic ramshackle structure swarming with Knights Templar, Rosicrucians, alchemists and Masonic initiates.” A volatile, yet popular, cocktail, in which Dan Brown would later dip… picking one ingredient for each of his books. Eco threw them all in one work.

Brown’s infamous Grail quest begins in the Louvre with a bizarre assassination; Eco’s investigation to explain the true history of Western Europe begins in the same city, but in the Musée des arts et métiers. We will later learn that here too, a cruel, ritualistic murder has been committed, but at the start of the book, we focus on the enigmatic pendulum, which Eco immediately identifies as a place outside of the bonds of time… and space. “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.” It should thus be seen as a “point of creation” and immediately, we are confronted with the fact that the book is divided into ten segments, representing the ten Sefiroth; the book’s development thus mimics the creation of the universe by God, beginning with an act of creation out of nothingness… and that is what Eco has done with his first chapter.
It was apparently Eco who, at the age of twenty, heard about the pendulum from a professor of civil engineering and architecture at Cornell University. The instrument, a 28 kilo silver ball with a needle point, hangs by a wire from a fixed point on the ceiling sixty-seven meters above. The device was invented by Jean Bernard Lèon Foucault (1819-68) – hence the name – to demonstrate the rotation of the earth. In the novel, it is the main character Casaubon (named after Isaac Casaubon, a late 16th-early 17th century scholar), who is in Paris to witness this device. He is upset that the pendulum does not receive the required amount of respect from the tourists: “Above her head was the only stable point in the cosmos, the only refuge from the damnation of the panta rei, and she guessed it was the pendulum’s business, not hers. A moment later the couple went off – he, trained on some textbook that had blunted his capacity for wonder, she, inert and insensitive to the thrill of the infinite, both oblivious of the awesomeness of their encounter – with the One, the Ein-Sof, the Ineffable. How could you fail to kneel before this altar of certitude?” For Casaubon, he has found God.

It brings us to the end of the quest. But how did it begin? The answer: the Knights Templar. Eco knows it is a dangerous subject: “There are lunatics who don’t bring up the Templars, but those who do are the most insidious. At first they seem normal, then all of a sudden…”, as well as “Why is there all this talk about the Templars and nothing about the Knights of Malta?” A good question indeed.
Like so many before – and after – Eco uses the possibility that the Templars survived their arrest. Eco quotes: “After [Guillaume de] Beaujeu, the Order has never ceased to exist, not for a moment, and after Aumont we find an uninterrupted sequence of Grand Masters of the Order down to our own time, and if the name and seat of the true Grand Master and the true Seneschals who rule the order and guide it’s sublime labours remain a mystery today, an impenetrable secret known only to the truly enlightened, it is because the hour of the Order has not struck and the time is not ripe....”

Why did Eco choose the Templars? He was clearly inspired by “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” – like Dan Brown… or perhaps one should say by the story of Rennes-le-Château and Gisors. Gisors, just west of Paris, is where Roger Lhomoy claimed to have discovered an underground cavity in which he believed the Templar treasure had been secreted. His claims drew the likes of Pierre Plantard to act as his “impresario”, which would soon evolve in Gérard de Sède writing a book on how the Templars were still amongst us. Most importantly, it would soon see the French Interior Minister André Malraux carry out secret excavations at the site, the results of which have never been made public, but which are part of a top-secret dossier, known as “le dossier Lazare” – the Lazarus File.
Eco transposes what in reality took place in Gisors, to Provins (east of Paris). Still, the story begins in Italy… In 1970s’ Milan, Casaubon is writing his thesis on the history of the Knights Templar. He encounters one Jacobo Belbo, who works as an editor for a publishing house, Garamond Press. Belbo invites Casaubon to review a manuscript about the Templars, by one Colonel Ardenti. The author is invited to come in for further discussion, where he claims to have made a discovery: a hidden coded document. Ardenti states that in 1894, two dragoons, Chevalier Camille Laforge of Tours and Chevalier Edouard Ingolf of Petersburg, visited Grange-aux-Dimes in Provins. What happens next is a clever assemblage of the story of Gisors and Rennes-le-Château: “In the crypt of Provins, Ingolf must have found a gold case studded with precious stones. Without a moment’s thought, he slipped it into his tunic and went back up, not saying a word to the others. At home, he found a parchment in the case. That much seems obvious. He went to Paris and contacted a collector of antiques […] but the sale of the case, even so, left Ingolf comfortably off, if not rich.” The story thus uses the key ingredients of Gisors and Bérenger Saunière to create the basis of Belbo and Casaubon’s quest.

Ingolf thus recovered a coded document. According to Ardenti, Ingolf mysteriously disappeared in 1935, but Ardenti found a copy of the coded parchment while going through Ingolf’s abandoned library. The parchment had two coded texts, in correspondence with the infamous coded parchments of Rennes-le-Château. For any doubters, Eco was definitely aware of “Holy Blood, Holy Grail”, as he uses an excerpt from it as the opening quote of chapter 66. Furthermore, chapter 13 for no apparent reason opens with “ET IN ARCADIA EGO”, a phrase made famous by the Rennes-le-Château researchers.

As with “The Da Vinci Code”, this coded parchment forms the backbone of the quest. In the novel, the code reveals itself to be:

a la . . . Saint Jean
36 p charrete de fein
6 . . . entiers avec saiel
p . . . les blancs mantiax
r . . . s . . . chevaliers de Pruins pour la . . . j . nc.
6 foil 6 en 6 places
chascune foil 20 a . . . 720 a . . .
iceste est l’ordonation
al donjon it premiers
it li secunz joste iceus qui . . . pans
it al refuge
it a Nostre Dame de l’altre pan de l’iau
it a l’ostel des popelicans
it a la pierre
3 foiz 6 avant la feste . . . to Grant Pute.

Ardenti reconstructs and translates the text as:

THE (NIGHT OF) SAINT JOHN
36 (YEARS) P(OST) HAY WAIN
6 (MESSAGES) INTACT WITH SEAL
F(OR THE KNIGHTS WITH) THE WHITE CLOAKS [TEMPLARS]
R(ELAP)S(I) OF PROVINS FOR (VAIN)JANCE [REVENGE]
6 TIMES 6 IN SIX PLACES
EACH TIME 20 Y(EARS MAKES) 120 Y(EARS)
THIS IS THE PLAN
THE FIRST GO TO THE CASTLE
IT(ERUM) [AGAIN AFTER 120 YEARS] THE SECOND JOIN THOSE (OF THE) BREAD
AGAIN TO THE REFUGE
AGAIN TO OUR LADY BEYOND THE RIVER
AGAIN TO THE HOSTEL OF THE POPELICANS
AGAIN TO THE STONE
3 TIMES 6 [666] BEFORE THE FEAST (OF THE) GREAT WHORE.

Hours after having revealed this to Belbo and Casaubon, Ardenti apparently commits suicide in his hotel room, though by the time the police arrive on the scene, the body has disappeared and Ardenti is labelled a conman, who has simply disappeared before being exposed as such.

All individuals involved largely forget and get on with their life, identifying Ardenti as one of so many strange people that seem to step over the publishing house’s front door, but whose project is never realised, largely because of character deficits in the author to be.
But two years later, Casaubon and Belbo are drawn back into the mystery and wonder whether Ardenti could have been genuine after all. Ardenti believed the coded parchment contained the outline of a secret plan, created by the Templars to take over the world and, in the process, revenge themselves for the deaths of their leaders when their order was disbanded by the King of France in 1307. But what is the Secret?
Their first attempt to resolve the Plan ends up recreating the Mary Magdalene theory central to “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” – and “The Da Vinci Code”. Eco is disdainful of this conclusion and believes the truth lies elsewhere. But where?

Soon, Casaubon and specifically Belbo become obsessed with “the Plan”. According to the Plan, after the Templars’ demise, some escaped and established six cells throughout the world. These cells have been meeting every 120 years at distinct places, passing on information about the Grail – i.e. the Secret. Ultimately, these cells will reunite to rediscover the Grail’s location in order to achieve world domination. That is the message of the coded parchment… they believe.
But according to Ardenti’s calculations, the Templars should have taken over the world in 1944. As that did not take place, evidently the plan had been interrupted. How? They believe it occurred because of calendar reforms that were not uniformly implemented in various European countries and it seems that various milestone meetings didn’t happen as a result of this – if not other contributing reasons also. As such, they suspect that the Rosicrucian pamphlets were actually a “cry” by one cell, to be heard by the other cells, asking them to get in contact with them.

“The Plan” slowly evolves and many of its details change as the story progresses. During the exposé – or invention – of the Plan, the team frequently run into dead ends. It is then that they rely on the help of their computer – much more an oddity in 1988 than today – whom they use, knowingly, as an oracle.
He will randomly conclude:
“Guillaume Postel dies in 1581.
Bacon is Viscount St Albans.
In the Conservatoire is Foucault’s Pendulum.”
which inspires them to continue to decode – or weave – the plan.
The final version involves the Knights Templar’s discovering secret energy flows – telluric currents – during the Crusades. The currents’ mother lode is the so-called umbilicus mundi, or “navel of the world”. By placing a special valve in the umbilicus mundi, they will be able to control the currents, to disturb and interfere with life anywhere on Earth, with vast blackmailing possibilities against entire nations. However, they cannot utilize the currents due to insufficient technology.

To test their conclusions, they send their revised history to one Agliè, an elderly expert who implies that he is the mystical Comte de Saint-Germain, a society figure of the 18th century who left people believing he was possibly more than two millennia old and present in Jerusalem during Jesus’ Passion.
To test his knowledge, they add a fictional secret society, the Tres, “Templi Resurgentes Equites Synarchici”, “Synarchic Knights of Templar Rebirth”. Agliè appears not to be the expert he claims, for he states he has vague memories of them. But rather than see it for what it is, instead, the researchers now begin to wonder whether Tres might indeed exist, because the name was mentioned to them also by policeman De Angelis, who investigated the Ardenti disappearance and who seems to be shadowing their research.

Then, one of them makes, it seems, a lethal mistake: Belbo goes to Agliè in person and not only tells him about the Plan, but adds that he is in the possession of a secret map. When he refuses to show Agliè the non-existent document, Agliè sets Belbo up as a terrorist suspect in order to force him to come to Paris. It emerges that Agliè has cast himself as the head of a secret spiritual brotherhood – perhaps the Tres, but definitely a brotherhood that seems intent on executing the Plan to its supposed conclusion: find point zero and achieve world domination. No-one knows whether this organisation has existed for centuries, or whether it has just been created, based on Belbo’s announcement, upon which Agliè wants to act: achieve world domination.

Casaubon follows Belbo to Paris, after hearing what Casaubon has interpreted as a call for help. He goes to the Conservatoire and its pendulum, where he locks himself in for three nights and at the appointed hour, sees people gather around the pendulum for an arcane ritual. As the ritual progresses, Casaubon sees several ectoplasmic forms appear, one of which claims to be the real Comte de Saint-Germain, discrediting Agliè in front of his followers.
Agliè’s group tries to force Belbo to reveal the secrets he knows, but refusing to do so, Belbo is hanged by a wire connected to the Foucault pendulum – the Pendulum becoming his Cross, the Conservatoire his Golgotha.
“The Da Vinci Code” has a famous car chase through the streets of Paris; Casaubon has witnessed the murder of his friend, but his presence is not uncovered. As such, he flees through the Paris sewers on foot, until he is able to leave France and arrive not in England, then onto Scotland as is the case for Langdon, but in Italy, where he writes down the details of his life and the Plan, in the full knowledge that Tres will soon locate and capture him.

But not everything may appear to be what it seems. With the Plan’s outline largely complete, one member of the research team was diagnosed with cancer. With few time remaining to live, he warns Belbo and Casaubon not to devote time to this madness, but neither heed his warning.
The next attempt to bring the two researchers out of their reverie is attempted by Lia, Casaubon’s partner and mother to his newborn child. She uses a tourist guide of Provins to argue that the coded parchment is in fact nothing more than a merchant’s list of orders:

In Rue Saint Jean:
36 sous for wagons of hay.
Six new lengths of cloth with seal
to rue des Blancs-Manteaux.
Crusaders’ roses to make a jonchee:
six bunches of six in the six following places,
each 20 deniers, making 120 deniers in all.
Here is the order:
the first to the Fort
item the second to those in Porte-aux-Pains
item to the Church of the Refuge
item to the Church of Notre–Dame, across the river
item to the old building of the Cathars (another name for Popelicans)
item to rue de la Pierre-Ronde.
And three bunches of six before the feast, in the whores’ street.

Belbo agrees this is the most logical explanation, is probably the right interpretation, but remains convinced that despite this, the Plan is nevertheless real. Why? Because even though their initial data has been totally discredited, their combined efforts have been able to uncover the secret undercurrent that was present in Western Europe – the Plan. “Not bad, not bad at all,” one of the supporting characters says who is also confronted with their research. “To arrive at the truth through the painstaking reconstruction of a false text.”
Even though they are convinced that the Plan is real, that there is a secret brotherhood out there (Tres being the equivalent of the Priory of Sion – both of whom are fabricated secret societies with synarchic overtones), what the actual nature of the Secret is, no-one in the end is too sure about, despite widespread speculation and a series of theories put forward by the team. At one point they consider that “there exists a secret society with branches throughout the world, and its plot is to spread the rumour that a universal plot exists.” Perhaps it is an empty secret… that the secret is that there is no Secret, like when their computer asks the user “Do you know the password?” The answer – and password – being “no”.

But is it all real? In Paris, Casaubon visits a psychiatrist, who gets to hear the entire story that we are told. The psychiatrist concludes that Casaubon is crazy – mentally insane. And that may indeed be the case. For he may have imagined Belbo’s ritual murder and may merely have spent lonely nights, locked inside the conservatoire, hallucinating, as madmen are prone to do. His obsessive devotion to researching the Plan may have made him loose his sanity. And it may explain why the book we have – which is not so much Eco’s, but Casaubon’s – contains so many irrelevant passages, printouts of nonsensical essays written by Belbo, which Casaubon has extracted from their oracle, the computer. These inserted passages add nothing to the larger story, but somehow, and only in Casaubon’s mind, do they seem to be logical and integral to the Plan. For anyone else, they are totally irrelevant.
And thus, we find Casaubon hiding somewhere in Italy, in the expectation that Tres will soon kill him too. It is the classic story of the conspiracy theorist, who may or may not have stumbled upon a gigantic conspiracy that he is trying to expose. But in the end, the conspiracy theorist so often believes that “they” will do their utmost to silence him… and prevent the truth from coming out. Though they may be out to get you, you could still be paranoid.