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Authors: eco umberto foucault

Eco: Foucalt's Pendulum

BOOK: Eco: Foucalt's Pendulum
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Umberto Eco

Foucalt's Pendulum

Only for you, children of doctrine and
learning, have we written this work. Examine this book, ponder the
meaning we have dispersed in various places and gathered again;
what we have concealed in one place we have disclosed in another,
that it may be understood by your wisdom
--Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim,
De occulta philosophia, 3, 65
Superstition brings bad luck.
--Raymond Smullyan, 5000 B.C., 1.3.8

That was when I saw the Pendulum.

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

I knew¡Xbut anyone could have sensed it in the
magic of that serene breathing¡Xthat the period was governed by the
square root of the length of the wire and by IT, 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 ir, the secret quadratic
nature of the root, and the unnumbered perfection of the circle

I also knew that a magnetic device centered in
the floor beneath issued its command to a cylinder hidden in the
heart of the sphere, thus assuring continual motion. This device,
far from interfering with the law of the Pendulum, in fact
permitted its manifestation, for in a vacuum any object hanging
from a weightless and unstretchable wire free of air resistance and
friction will oscillate for eternity.

The copper sphere gave off pale, shifting
glints as it was struck by the last rays of the sun that came
through the great stained-glass windows. Were its tip to graze, as
it had in the past, a layer of damp sand spread on the floor of the
choir, each swing would make a light furrow, and the furrows,
changing direction imperceptibly, would widen to form a breach, a
groove with radial symmetry¡Xlike the outline of a mandala or
pentaculum, a star, a mystic rose. No, more a tale recorded on an
expanse of desert, in tracks left by countless caravans of nomads,
a story of slow, millennial migrations, like those of the people of
Atlantis when they left the continent of Mu and roamed, stubbornly,
compactly, from Tasmania to Greenland, from Capricorn to Cancer,
from Prince Edward Island to the Svalbards. The tip retraced,
narrated anew in compressed time what they had done between one ice
age and another, and perhaps were doing still, those couriers of
die Masters. Perhaps the tip grazed Agarttha, the center of the
world, as it journeyed from Samoa to Novaya Zemlya. And I sensed
that a single pattern united Avalon, beyond the north wind, to the
southern desert where lies the enigma of Ayers Rock.

At that moment of four in the afternoon of June
23, the Pendulum was slowing at one end of its swing, then falling
back lazily toward the center, regaining speed along the way,
slashing confidently through the hidden parallelogram of forces
that were its destiny.

Had I remained there despite the passage of the
hours, to stare at that bird¡¦s head, that spear¡¦s tip, that
obverse helmet, as it traced its diagonals in the void, grazing the
opposing points of its astigmatic circumference, I would have
fallen victim to an illusion: that the Pendulum¡¦s plane of
oscillation had gone full circle, had returned to its starting
point in thirty-two hours, describing an ellipse that rotated
around its center at a speed proportional to the sine of its
latitude. What would its rotation have been had it hung instead
from the dome of Solomon¡¦s Temple? Perhaps the Knights had tried
it there, too. Perhaps the solution, the final meaning, would have
been no different. Perhaps the abbey church of
Saint-Martin-des-Champs was the true Temple. In any case, the
experiment would work perfectly only at the Pole, the one place
where the Pendulum, on the earth¡¦s extended axis, would complete
its cycle in twenty-four hours.

But this deviation from the Law, which the Law
took into account, this violation of the rule¡¦ did not make the
marvel any less marvelous. I knew the earth was rotating, and I
with it, and Saint-Martin-des-Champs and all Paris with me, and
that together we were rotating beneath the Pendulum, whose own
plane never changed direction, because up there, along the infinite
extrapolation of its wire beyond the choir ceiling, up toward the
most distant galaxies, lay the Only Fixed Point in the universe,
eternally unmoving.

So it was hot so much the earth to which I
addressed my gaze but the heavens, where the mystery of absolute
immobility was celebrated. The Pendulum told me that, as everything
moved¡X earth, solar system, nebulae and black holes, all the
children of the great cosmic expansion¡Xone 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,
quantity, 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.

I was roused by a listless exchange between a
boy who wore glasses and a girl who unfortunately did not.

"It's Foucault's Pendulum," he was saying.
"First tried out in a cellar in 1851, then shown at the
Observatoire, and later under the dome of the Pantheon with a wire
sixty-seven meters long and a sphere weighing twenty-eight kilos.
Since 1855 it's been here, in a smaller version, hanging from that
hole in the middle of the rib."

"What does it do? Just hang there?"

"It proves the rotation of the earth. Since the
point of suspension doesn't move..."

"Why doesn't it move?"

"Well, because a point...the central point, I
mean, the one right in the middle of all the points you's
a geometric point; you can't see it because it has no dimension,
and if something has no dimension, it can't move, not right or
left, not up or down. So it doesn't rotate with the earth. You
understand? It can't even rotate around itself. There is no
¡¥itself.' "

"But the earth turns."

"The earth turns, but the point doesn't. That's
how it is. Just take my word for it."

"I guess it's the Pendulum's business."

Idiot. Above her head was the only stable place
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¡Xhe, 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¡Xtheir first and last encounter¡Xwith the One, the
Ein-Sof, the Ineffable. How could you fail to kneel down before
this altar of certitude?

I watched with reverence and fear. In that
instant I was convinced that Jacopo Belbo was right. What he told
me about the Pendulum I had attributed to esthetic raving, to the
shapeless cancer taking gradual shape in his soul, transforming the
game into reality without his realizing it. But if he was right
about the Pendulum, perhaps all the rest was true as well: the
Plan, the Universal Plot. And in that case I had been right to come
here, on the eve of the summer solstice. Jacopo Belbo was not
crazy; he had simply, through his game, hit upon the truth.

But the fact is that it doesn't take long for
the experience of the Numinous to unhinge the mind.

I tried then to shift my gaze. I followed the
curve that rose from the capitals of the semicircle of columns and
ran along the ribs of the vault toward the key, mirroring the
mystery of the ogive, that supreme static hypocrisy which rests on
an absence, making the columns believe that they are thrusting the
great ribs upward and the ribs believe that they are holding the
columns down, the vault being both all and nothing, at once cause
and effect. But I realized that to neglect the Pendulum that hung
from the vault while admiring the vault itself was like becoming
drunk at the stream instead of drinking at the source.

The choir of Saint-Martin-des-Champs existed
only so that, by virtue of the Law, the Pendulum could exist; and
the Pendulum existed so that the choir could exist. You cannot
escape one infinite, I told myself, by fleeing to another; you
cannot escape the revelation of the identical by taking refuge in
the illusion of the multiple.

Still unable to take my eyes from the key of
the vault, I retreated, step by step, for I had learned the path by
heart in the few minutes I had been there. Great metal tortoises
filed past me on either side, imposing enough to signal their
presence at the corner of my eyes. I fell back along the nave
toward the front entrance, and again those menacing prehistoric
birds of wire and rotting canvas loomed over me, evil dragonflies
that some secret power had hung from the ceiling of the nave. I saw
them as sapiential metaphors, far more meaningful than their
didactic pretext. A swarm of Jurassic insects and reptiles,
allegory of the long terrestrial migrations the Pendulum was
tracing, aimed at me like angry archons with their long
archeopterix-beaks; the planes of Brdguet, Bleriot, Esnault, and
the helicopter of Du-faux.

* * *

To enter the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers
in Paris, you first cross an eighteenth-century courtyard and step
into an old abbey church, now part of a later complex, but
originally part of a priory. You enter and are stunned by a
conspiracy in which the sublime universe of heavenly ogives and the
chthonian world of gas guzzlers are juxtaposed.

On the floor stretches a line of vehicles:
bicycles, horseless carriages, automobiles; from the ceiling hang
planes. Some of the objects are intact, though peeling and corroded
by time, and in the ambiguous mix of natural and electric light
they seem covered by a patina, an old violin's varnish. Others are
only skeletons or chassis, rods and cranks that threaten
indescribable tortures. You picture yourself chained to a rack,
something digging into your flesh until you confess.

Beyond this sequence of antique machines¡Xonce
mobile, now immobile, their souls rusted, mere specimens of the
technological pride that is so keen to display them to the
reverence of visitors¡Xstands the choir, guarded on the left by a
scale model of the Statue of Liberty Bartholdi designed for another
world, and on the right by a statue of Pascal. Here the swaying
Pendulum is flanked by the nightmare of a deranged entomologist¡X
chelae, mandibles, antennae, proglottides, and wings¡Xa cemetery of
mechanical corpses that look as if they might all start working
again at any moment¡Xmagnetos, monophase transformers, turbines,
converters, steam engines, dynamos. In the rear, in the ambulatory
beyond the Pendulum, rest Assyrian idols, and Chaldean,
Carthaginian, great Baals whose bellies, long ago, glowed red-hot,
and Nuremberg Maidens whose hearts still bristle with naked nails:
these were once airplane engines. Now they form a horrible garland
of simulacra that lie in adoration of the Pendulum; it is as if the
progeny of Reason and the Enlightenment had been condemned to stand
guard forever over the ultimate symbol of Tradition and Wisdom.

The bored tourists who pay their nine francs at
the desk or are admitted free on Sundays may believe that elderly
nineteenth-century gentlemen¡Xbeards yellowed by nicotine, collars
rumpled and greasy, black cravats and frock coats smelling of
snuff, fingers stained with acid, their minds acid with
professional jealousy, farcical ghosts who called one another cher
maitre¡Xplaced these exhibits here out of a virtuous desire to
educate and amuse the bourgeois and the radical taxpayers, and to
celebrate the magnificent march of progress. But no:
Saint-Martin-des-Champs had been conceived first as a priory and
only later as a revolutionary museum and compendium of arcane
knowledge. The planes, those self-propelled machines, those
electromagnetic skeletons, were carrying on a dialog whose script
still escaped me.

The catalog hypocritically informed me that
this worthy undertaking had been conceived by the gentlemen of the
Convention, who wanted to offer the masses an accessible shrine of
all the arts and trades. But how could I believe that when the
words used to describe the project were the very same Francis Bacon
had used to describe the House of Solomon in his New Atlantis!

Was it possible that only I¡Xalong with Jacopo
Belbo and Dio-tallevi¡Xhad guessed the truth? Perhaps I would have
my answer that night. I had to find a way to remain in the museum
past closing, and wait here for midnight.

How would They get in? I had no idea. Some
passageway in the network of the Paris sewers might connect the
museum to another point in the city, perhaps near Porte St.-Denis.
But I was certain that if I left, I would not be able to find that
route back in. I had to hide somewhere in the building.

I tried to shake off the spell of the place and
look at the nave with cold eyes. It was not an epiphany now I was
seeking, but information. I imagined that in the other halls it
would be difficult to escape the notice of the guards, who made the
rounds at closing time, checking to see that no thief was lurking
somewhere. The nave, however, crammed with vehicles, was the ideal
place to settle in for the night as a passenger: a live man hiding
inside a lifeless vehicle. We had played too many games for me not
to try this one, too.

Take heart, I said to myself: don't think of
Wisdom now; ask the help of Science.

BOOK: Eco: Foucalt's Pendulum
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