Foucault’s Pendulum, by Umberto Eco
This book attempts to have its cake and eat it too, in a sense. On the one hand, this book is told from a very rationalist perspective and seeks to mock the way that so many people draw conspiratorial conclusions relating to organizations like the Masons, the Knights Templar, the Rosicrucians, and so on. On the other hand, this book depends for its plot on the violent actions of various Illuminati characters who appear to act in response to the mocking they get from the vanity press where the main characters work and profit off of the various groups of people trying to promote themselves as having solved some sort of esoteric mystery by peddling various myths of groups of thinkers that supposedly were seeking for power and influence over the world in an increasingly improbable but also wildly entertaining and somewhat troubling book. Eco is in good form here seeking to lovingly portray an odd group of misfits whose rationalist thinking does not prevent them from creating crazy speculations that, in the end, go way too far. And the fact that the narrator is somewhat unreliable only adds to the elements that the reader must take into consideration here.
As far as novels go, this one is a big one at more than 600 pages. And in addition to its size, the book itself is organized according to cabbalistic principles by which various esoteric thinking in Europe has been greatly encouraged. At its core, this book is about a group of friends, mostly male, but including the narrator’s various partners as well as one strangely unemotional woman. The book is told in a series of flashbacks and it begins near the end, from a time where one understands that what seemed at first to be harmless intellectual speculation has gone very much awry as it appears that some very deadly and dangerous people have taken the characters’ speculations and esoteric research all too seriously. And even those who do not take esoteric matters seriously will find much to be troubled by in the way that the authors examine the esoteric interests of Nazi Germany as well as examine the fault lines that exist between different esoteric traditions even as they find themselves caught in a web of being taken all too seriously as knowing secrets to the world where they are self-consciously aware of the joke about the complete hilarity of so many speculations about the knowledge and power of secret groups.
One of the more tragic aspects of this particular book is the way that it deals with the relationship between conspiracy theories and Judaism. The author points out that many of the various groups involved in supposed conspiracy theories were very hostile to other related groups, where Jesuits sought to stop the Bavarian Illuminati, where English and Scottish Masons quarreled over their connections to other groups, and where Russians stirred up anti-Semitic hostility for stuff that was really the responsibility of French enlightenment thinkers, and even discusses some of the reasons for the Nazi humiliation of Jews and the combined quest for esoteric knowledge and the hatred of rivals in that enterprise that exists within Europe and the Middle East. Of course, the author manages to make some excellent points about the divided house of esoteric groups, something I have researched a fair amount of, even as he gently mocks those who seek to make myths about the power of various esoteric thinkers in the contemporary world. Whether or not you appreciate this combination of both esoteric thinking being so conspicuously on display even as the author makes fun of what he is doing depends a great deal on your own interest in such matters.