In the last chapters of Foucault’s Pendulum, we pick up the pieces and come to a conceit. Intrigued? Read on.

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I am immensely grateful that Casaubon does not end the story in a bout of paranoid delirium. I may not be a veteran expert of all things literature, but I’ve seen stories like this told before where the implications of the narrative and some dark secret or conspiracy prove to be too much for the hero’s mind to take, or the tragic unraveling of everything they worked for leaves them a hollow shell of their former selves, unable to continue living in any real way. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either idea; they aren’t cliches that taint a story and in many cases (especially the latter instance), they work exceptionally well. But still, variety is nice, and giving Casaubon the ability to distance himself from what he’s wrought and re-examine what’s happened from a safe emotional distance provides a refreshing alternative which proves to be more realistic and less melodramatic, in addition to fitting the themes of the book better.

The conclusion that Casaubon comes to is not new, not exactly, especially since another fan of this book has clarified the emotions that Belbo felt in his last moments, that made him so eager to die and spite the conspirators at the conservatory. What this fellow reader put forth as a theory she recollected, the book here confirms as correct. It’s interesting how Casaubon concludes that even though the conspirators could and did end up physically killing Belbo, Belbo was the one who had the real power in this affair, holding the secret that they all prized, that they all wanted to keep to themselves, hostage.

I’ve also found the psychoanalysis of the conspirator’s motives (not the first time the story has brought this up) and the ultimate moral to be gained from this story to be interesting, because I think I’ve learned to rely on the opposite extreme. The conspirators try to blame all of their failings in life, and the failings of all human beings in general, on a massive conspiracy that’s always going according to Plan because they can’t deal with the alternative. By contrast, my first instinct is always to blame myself for all of the mistakes and misfortunes that I can, because I always feel guilty when I try to blame someone else (assuming that there’s always some reason they’re not really at fault) and I’m never really satisfied in just chalking it up to circumstance. More fortunately, I think I’ve learned how to appreciate the little things in life (or rather in fiction) without thinking that it needs an overarching secret to make it all worthwhile.

The closest I’ve ever come to obsessively seeking out a unifying truth to everything was when I tried to figure out a completely objective key for which examples of entertainment media were good and which weren’t, not realizing that there will always be some subjectivity and personal taste involved in judging those. I still like to ask friends questions about why they like or dislike something, especially if their opinion goes against others that I’ve seen online.

So yeah, this conclusion that Casaubon comes to is pretty much the book in a nutshell, which I like, because summarizing the themes of the story is what any good ending should do. The only question left is to find out more about Belbo, one last piece of information to make him fully understand his late friend and why his life ended the way it did. To that end, he visits Undisclosed, Italy, where Belbo grew up, and finally finds it. Oh, and Belbo’s crappy adolescent poetry. I too have written complete tripe at that age.

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The final incident from Belbo’s childhood recounted today is that of a funeral he attended for some locals who gave their lives in the struggle for freedom. I’m not sure what they were fighting for, given that everyone in the town regardless of political affiliation turned out to mourn them, but that’s beside the point. It all builds up to one moment, where Belbo, having volunteered to play trumpet in someone else’s stead, manages to sustain a note for so long that it feels like it stops time. This, Casaubon concludes, is the essence of truth: fleeting, spontaneous, and beyond the ability of words to describe and categorize.

Sometimes symbolism and elaborate analogies and details have to be pushed aside in order for simple moments like these to achieve their full effect. I know this because I enjoyed moments in the story like these so much more than the endless tedium of how every single solitary step of the Plan was brainstormed and formulated. But I’ll talk more about that later when it comes time for me to discuss all of my thoughts of the book at the end.

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This ending leaves a sour taste in my mouth. The story was going along so well and then it rings a bit false on the last three pages. I can live with Casaubon realizing that understanding everything there is to know isn’t going to make him happy. Getting what you want (or think you want) out of life isn’t going to make everything happy forever. There’s always going to be a temptation to learn more, and while I think that being willing to learn for the rest of your life in order to better yourself is a worthwhile goal, continuing to study obsessively to reach a point where you don’t need to learn any more is a nonsensical idea.

No, my objection lies in Casaubon leaving Paris not to return to his loving wife and darling son, who he earlier realized would give more fulfillment and meaning to his life than the Plan ever could, but to flee the conspirators he and his friends inadvertently inspired, presumably forever. In my humble opinion, the book has not earned this sad ending.

You could make the argument that the conspirators would also be targeting not just Belbo, but his friends, given that Garamond is one of them and he knew that Belbo socialized with Casaubon and Diotallevi a lot. And when I protest that action was only ever shown to be taken against Belbo, you might tell me that they didn’t need to do anything to Diotallevi, since he was already dying of cancer, and that Casaubon being hidden in Paris would keep them from doing anything to him that he would know about. Why would these conspirators take the chance that Belbo hadn’t told these friends about this secret that they wanted to get out of him? They did get their hands on Lorenza, after all. That’s fair enough, and I can’t disprove that.

But the ending still sits wrongly with me for a few reasons. Casaubon is regressing back into the paranoia that characterized him in the immediate aftermath of the Conservatory climax, thinking that the conspirators noticed him in Paris despite there being no actual narrative evidence to this effect. I was happy to see that he overcame that earlier, so this feels like Eco is just fucking with me at this point. Furthermore, it’s nice that Casaubon isn’t afraid of them and wants to be able to face them with no fear, spitting in their face like Belbo did, but Belbo didn’t have a wife and child to support! Casaubon is perfectly okay with being a deadbeat dad! Stones may “survive on their own”, but stones also don’t get emotional scars about how their father was never around to help them grow up! It’s truly sad that I have to leave this story resenting Casaubon like I did after Diotallevi was first hospitalized, because the book does so many other things well.

I’m just going to pretend that time passes after the end of this story, he sees that the coast is clear, and then he comes to his senses and reunites with his family. I don’t care how cliche and base it is. Lia deserves better.

—–

Foucault’s Pendulum is a fine book, filling a niche that has to my knowledge remained otherwise unoccupied, but I can’t give it my highest honors no matter how much I’d like to.

Leaving aside the matter of the disappointing final chapter, I have to address two main problems I had with this book. The first is one that I’ve touched on earlier, and that is the long stretch of tedium that is the sixth part of the book, Tiferet. Going by a very informal and sloppy calculation I made earlier, it takes up an entire 35% of the book, and all of this is spent focusing heavily on dry historical minutiae as opposed to anything that had made the rest of the book interesting. Readers who are already more interested in this field of study than most may not have reason to complain, but prior to this part the book felt like it explained the more advanced concepts it introduced well enough that a less educated reader could understand them. But in part six, the book gives up on this and dumps seemingly endless data to the point where it threatens to choke out the narrative for good.

The only possible justification of this is to present contrast by immersing the reader into the sensation of formulating the Plan. By making the actual formation of the Plan such a chore to read through, it’s entirely possible that Eco is purposefully training the reader to loathe the Plan in order to get them to accept the book’s themes that much more readily. After all, many anti-war movies run the risk of accidentally glamorizing war by being entertaining all the way through, and a potential (though divisive) solution to situations like this is suck every last drop of fun out of the idea of fighting a war. If this is what Eco meant to do, it’s interesting, and I can’t think of a better method to execute this, but I can’t really say I’m gung ho about it, either.

Finally, what kept my mood throughout the story at the level of a scientist’s calm and collected interest as opposed to being madly in love with the text itself is the old cliche of being too much thought and not enough emotion. The characters of this story, and the general prose style now that I think about it, are written in such a way as to make it all feel emotionally distant from the reader. I never felt like the people in the story were one hundred percent real, as opposed to vehicles that Eco wanted to use in order to explore themes and ideas. Once in a while I managed to get in tune with them, and in some cases rage against them, but for the most part the emotions in this story are muted. This comes down to a matter of taste, especially given the unconventional and intelligent subjects that Foucault’s Pendulum wants to address, but this isn’t my favorite kind of story, in the end.

That said, I would still recommend it, especially if you like history, satire, or both.

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