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The lmaginary Universe of Umberto Eco:

JoAnn Cannon
MFS Modern Fiction Studies, Volume 38, Number 4, Winter 1992, pp.
895-910 (Article)
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press
DOI: 10.1353/mfs.0.1388
For additional information about this article
Access provided by University of Zagreb, Faculty of Philosophy (22 Jun 2014 19:00 GMT)
JoAnn Cannon
In the Introduction to The Role of the Reader Umberto Eco argues that
a model reader is inscribed in the open work by its author. "An author
can foresee an 'ideal reader affected by an ideal insomnia' (as happens
with Finnegans Wake) able to master different codes and eager to deal
with the text as with a maze of many issues" (9). Umberto Eco would
seem to be not only the ideal "model reader" but the only empirical
reader whose competence is sufficiently encyclopedic to do justice to The
Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum. Each of Eco's novels is in fact
a vast maze, a tangled web of arcane references, coded messages, met-
aphysical speculation, and historical trivia which only the author can
successfully unravel. On the other hand, Eco's assertion that the author
should die after his work is complete, in order not to block the path of
the text,2 acts as a kind of challenge to the reader to fix upon an
"unauthorized" interpretation of the text.3 Whether we pose as model
readers, following the paths of a "faithful" reading predetermined by
the author, or whether we decide to break new, uncharted ground, the
interpretive paths we may follow seem endless. It has become something
of a convention to open an essay on The Name of the Rose by inventorying
the numerous if not infinite ways in which the text might be read.4 No
matter what approach the critic chooses, she makes it clear that the
reading in question is in no way privileged, that it "forecloses no others"
(Artigiani 64). The critic who may seem to "go too far" with Eco's
Modern Fiction Studies, Volume 38, Number 4, Winter 1992. Copyright by Purdue Research Foun-
dation. All rights to reproduction in any form reserved.
text forestalls any objections by belittling the effort as a "monstrosity
. . . doodled in the margins of [the author's] manuscript" (Mackey 39).
If the critic chooses to deconstruct the novel, "to read the text against
its own conscious assertions," looking for the point where the author is
not in control, she must ask whether this particular strategy is not already
foreseen in the text.
Foucault 's Pendulum elicits from the critic precisely the same perplexity
as Eco's first novel. Is it the critic's job to reconstruct the references on
which this compendium of arcane knowledge is based? Should one read
the novel as an autobiographical projection of the author or as an
exemplification of the author's theories? I have envisioned a somewhat
hybrid approach to Foucault's Pendulum, an approach which I will elaborate
in the following pages. I will examine the central theme of the novel
first in the context of the sociopolitical upheaval of post war Italy arid
then in the light of Eco's numerous theoretical works. Finally I will
locate the point where we may begin to unravel the text through a
reading which could be called deconstructive. Without deciding whether
this is a moment of ambiguity or irony that is inscribed in the text or
whether it is instead a moment of blindness (and, of course, insight), I
point to the way in which Foucault's Pendulum puts into question Eco's
theoretical work.5
No reading o- Foucault's Pendulum can do justice to the novel without
situating it in the sociopolitical climate from which it emerged. The
novel unsparingly satirizes the Italian political scene of the last decades.
Foucault's Pendulum confronts head on events that in The Name of the Rose
were dealt with indirectly and allegorically. It will be remembered that
Eco's first, historical, novel is prefaced by a note informing the reader
that the text is a translation of a manuscript which first fell into the
author's hands in Prague in 1968, six days before the Soviet invasion.6
Although the authorial note claims that the story is "gloriously" lacking
in any relevance to contemporary Italy, the dust jacket of the Italian
edition of the novel gives the lie to this disclaimer. Jorge da Burgos'
fanatical belief in Truth with a capital "T" allegorizes, among other
things, the political fanaticism of the Red Brigades. Through his fictional
alter ego, William of Baskerville, Eco denounces the devotion to a political
absolute which led Italy into the bloodstained "anni di piombo." These
issues, which are dealt with only implicitly in Eco's historical novel, take
center stage in Foucault's Pendulum. The real narrative time of Eco's
second novel extends from the period of revolutionary zeal of the late
sixties to the fanatical terrorism of the seventies to the political disen-
chantment of the eighties.
The vicissitudes of Italy in these years are filtered through the
consciousness of a disenchanted intellectual, Jacopo Belbo, who sports
the same birthdate and vital statistics as Umberto Eco. Born in 1932,
Belbo (like Eco) was eleven years old at the time of the Resistance
movement and, thus, was too young to take an active part in the partisan
struggle. Not only was Belbo cheated of the opportunity to participate
in the Resistance but also to write as a "participant observer" of the
experience that inspired a whole generation of Italian writers, including
Calvino, Vittorini, and Fenoglio.7 Belbo, an "autore mancato," has
given up his dreams to settle for editing the books of others. As a young
man Belbo had come close to acquiring a "war story" when he was
caught in cross fire and stubbornly refused to take cover. When his uncle
pulled him to safety moments before a bullet struck the exact spot where
he had been standing, Belbo lost his one opportunity to transcend the
role of spectator which history had allotted him. This adolescent dis-
appointment cast a pall of cynicism over his adult life. The one moment
when he had at least half-heartedly attempted to "believe" in something
was in 1968. Convinced that the student protest movement of the late
sixties represented the only possibility of redemption, Belbo had attended
the rallies, sit-ins and occupations:
it was a settling of scores, a time of remorse, repentance, regeneration. We had
failed and you were arriving with your enthusiasm, courage, self-criticism . . .
We had to be like you. . . . We stopped wearing ties, we threw away our trench
coats, and bought secondhand duffle coats. Some quit their jobs rather than
serve the Establishment. (200)
The possibility of redemption after the lost opportunity of the Resistance
proved to be an illusion. Toward the beginning of the novel, Belbo
describes to Casaubon, the university student whom he first meets in
the early seventies, his disappointment in the younger generation. He
particularly indicts the university students who betrayed their youthful
ideals either by selling out to the establishment or by gunning down
their opponents in the street.
Eco's vivid portrayal of the danger inherent in the black and white
certainty that led to Italian terrorism is coupled with a nostalgia for the
clarity of the Resistance. That nostalgia is particularly acute in Eco's
generation, which was denied active duty in that ferocious but also, at
least in retrospect, reassuring period of Italian history. Next to the black
and white, or rather red and black, certainty of the Resistance movement,
the events of 1968 and 1969 seem at best anti-climactic. The ideological
confusion of the seventies and eighties becomes even more bewildering
in contrast to a simpler time. In the days of the Resistance movement,
the birth of history for Belbo's generation, the "two opposing sides were
distinct, marked by their colors, red or black, without ambiguities,"
(272). In the postwar period, on the other hand, Italian politics has
sometimes seemed to be a Pirandellian game in which ideological dis-
tinctions blur and ambiguities abound.8 The blurring of ideological dis-
tinction known in Italy as "transformismo" and vigorously denounced
by Leonardo Sciascia led to the Propaganda Due Scandal of the eighties.
"Transformismo," endemic to Italian politics from the time of the
unification of Italy, took on the proportions of a national conspiracy as
politicians from the far right to the far left were shown to be exchanging
favors as members of a secret Masonic lodge (P Due).9 The Templar
conspiracy theory later developed by the protagonists of // pendolo mimics
in its labyrinthine complexity this secret Masonic network, which seems
to have extended into every sector of Italian society.
It is significant that Casaubon and Belbo, who initially meet at
Pilade's bar during the last stages of the student demonstrations, resume
their acquaintance precisely at this moment of extreme ideological am-
biguity. Casaubon begins to freelance for Garamond, the Milanese pub-
lishing house where Belbo and Diotallevi are employed. To while away
the time in this period of political confusion Belbo, Casaubon and
Diotallevi become co-conspirators in dangerous game, a search for an
absolute truth which for the three men begins as a pastime but becomes
an obsession. As they review manuscripts for Garamond's illustrated
history of the hermetic sciences, Casaubon, Belbo and Diotallevi are
gradually drawn into the irrational world described by the Diabolicals.
The three editors set out to construct a cosmic plot based upon the
axiom that the Templars have something to do with everything. They
begin to feed bits of information (apparently unrelated to the Templars)
into Belbo's computer, Abulafia. The editors' muse is a certain Colonel
Ardenti, an aspiring Garamond author who is convinced that the Tem-
plars possessed the secret of an immense source of power which would
allow them to control the Navel of the World. Calculating that it would
take six hundred years for the world to make the necessary technological
advances to harness that knowledge, the Templars kept the location of
the point secret. The pendulum's intersection with a ray of light from
the Chartres cathedral window will reveal the location of the critical
point upon a now missing map. Only by reassembling a message broken
up into thirty-six pieces and scattered throughout the world can the right
map be reconstructed.
The cosmic plot invented by the three editors in response to Ardenti's
mad but intriguing theories in many ways allegorizes the political situation
of the eighties in Italy. The Plan reads like the various conspiracy theories
which both entertain and dismay Italians as they are played out on the
front pages of the nation's newspapers. Just as commentators can explain
the recent political scene by assuming, perhaps correctly, that P Due
(the secret Masonic lodge) is involved in every aspect of Italian society,
from the Mafia to the Vatican to the highest levels of the government,
so the makers of the Plan in Eco's novel assume that the Templars had
something to do with everything. At the same time the cosmic conspiracy
reflects an understandable need for certainty, for a culprit, for an answer
to the question "Whodunit" in a time of bewilderment and perplexity.10
The pendulum of the title figures the unbeliever's nostalgia for certainty
which, Belbo argues, is typical of his generation. "The idea that every-
thing 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 dis-
appointment for breakfast, lunch, and dinner" (199-200).
The commitment to the present which is implicit in the ironic preface
to The Name of the Rose becomes explicit in Foucault's Pendulum. The novel
is firmly situated in the cultural context and historical particularity of
postwar Italy. The allure of the pendulum, the fixed point, must to
some degree be related to the numbing ambiguity of the Italian political
scene of the past decades. But it would be too simple to ground Belbo's
search for an absolute entirely in Eco's personal history or in the cultural
history of Eco's generation of Italian intellectuals. Eco himself locates
the search for absolutes in the postmodern Zeitgeist. Several of his recent
works reveal a fascination with the current "crisi della ragione" in its
various forms, from the crisis of classical reason, to the crisis of technology
and science to the crisis in historicism." The author suggests that the
response to that crisis may take two forms. One is to replace the concept
of classical reason with that of "reasonability" or weak thought.12 This
is clearly the response advocated by Eco's recent theoretical work and
allegorized in The Name of the Rose.13 Another response, one which Eco
perceives as quite common and consoling in our postmodern moment
of crisis, is escape into irrationalism.
Foucault's Pendulum reflects Eco's interest in the various forms of
"irrazionalismo" which have captured the human imagination from
ancient times to our postmodern present. Eco projects that interest onto
his fictional publisher Garamond, who senses that the current fascination
with the secret, the hidden, the occult, is evidence of a vast, untapped
market. Under the umbrella term Project Hermes, he decides to com-
mission two series on the hermetic sciences, one for the vanity press
Manuzio and one for the serious press Garamond. Garamond's decision
to back Project Hermes through a scholarly series is based on the same
intuition of a "crisis of reason" which Eco has repeatedly pointed out.
In an address delivered at the Frankfurt book fair in 1986, Eco cites
the boom in the sale of books dealing with alchemy, black magic and
the occult as evidence of a loss of faith in technology and science.14 It
is this loss of faith that helps to explain what Eco has called "the return
of the middle ages" both in popular culture and in serious scholarly
studies. As Eco describes the appeal of the Middle Ages and its antis-
cientific nature, we get a sneak preview of Foucault's Pendulum, replete
with "occult philosophy . . . swarming with Knights Templars, Rosi-
crucians, alchemists, Masonic initiates, neoKabbalists, drunk on reac-
tionary poisons sipped from the Grail, ready to hail every neo-fascist
Will to Power" (Travels in Hyperreality 61-85). Eco describes the contem-
porary Zeitgeist to the publishers gathered in Frankfurt by citing the same
passage from Chesterton which appears in the conclusion to Foucault's
Pendulum: "When men stop believing in God, it isn't that they then
believe in nothing: they believe in everything" (514).
Chesterton's intuition becomes a fitting epigraph to the protagonists'
cosmic plan. The plan devised by the three editors is all inclusive. Like
the philosophers of the imaginary universe in Borges's' "Tln, Uqbar,
Orbis Tertius" Eco's protagonists "know that a system is nothing more
than the subordination of all the aspects of the universe to some one of
them" (Ficciones 25). Beginning with the history of the Templars, the
editors devise a cosmic plot which includes and subsumes all of human
history. The editors playfully subscribe to Agile's idealistic, nineteenth-
century historicism. Rejecting the notion that history is "a bloodstained
and senseless riddle" Agli asserts:
there must be a Design. There must be a Mind. That is why over the centuries
men far from ignorant have thought of the Masters of the King of the World,
not as physical beings but as a collective symbol, as the successive, temporary
incarnation of a Fixed Intention. (261)
Agile's Templar conspiracy theory is a kind of parody of what
Lyotard calls a "grand rcit"a master narrative or metanarrative which
would give history meaning and closure.15 With a postmodern con-
sciousness of the dissolution of the master narratives, the editors none-
theless amuse themselves by creating "an immanent rationality of history."
The Thirty Years' War and the French Revolution, the Freemasons,
Rosicrucians, and Templars, the Arabs, Jesuits, and Jews all fit some-
where into the fantastic cosmic conspiracy. Even the greatest mystery
in human history, the "reason" for the Holocaust, is "explained" by
the cosmic plot.16
Like Project Hermes, the editors' cosmic plot is inspired by the
hermetic belief in the principle of universal analogy. This is the con-
stitutive feature of hermetic thought as defined by Umberto Eco in The
Limits of Interpretation. Eco's latest book argues forcefully against the
Hermetic approach in contemporary interpretation. In the key essay in
that volume Eco locates the limits of interpretation by contrasting un-
limited semiosis and hermetic drift. Eco takes issue with modern reading,
which invariably posits "the inexhaustibility of the sense of any text"
(20). He traces this interpretive strategy, whose most recent manifestation
is deconstruction, back to Renaissance Hermetism. Eco argues that
hermetic drift is not equivalent to the notion of unlimited semiosis first
advanced by Charles Sanders Peirce and repeatedly cited by the author
as a characteristic feature of his brand of semiotics. Although I will refer
the reader to the text for a detailed description of the difference between
unlimited semiosis and hermetic drift, the end result seems to be that
hermetic drift is based upon the idea that "interpretation has no criteria"
(6). Eco argues against that notion not only in this essay but throughout
The Limits of Interpretation. "In the Peircean line of thought it can be
asserted that any community of interpreters, in the course of their
common inquiry about what kind of object the text they are reading is,
can frequently reach an agreement about it. . . . [T]o reach an agreement
. . . does not mean either (a) that the interpreters must trace back to
the original intention of its author or (b) that such a text must have a
unique and final meaning. There are 'open' texts that support multiple
interpretations" (41). While hermetic drift in the case of text interpre-
tation suggests that any interpretation is valid, unlimited semiosis still
excludes certain readings. "Thus, even though using a text as a play-
ground for implementing unlimited semiosis, they can agree that at
certain moments the 'play of musement' can transitorily stop by pro-
ducing a consensual judgment" (42). Eco goes to some length to point
out that "responsible deconstructionists" from J. Hillis Miller to Derrida
himself recognize that not all readings are equally valid.17
Eco's insistence upon the imposition of limits of interpretation is
particularly interesting when considered in the light of his earlier the-
oretical work, particularly his 1962 Opera aperta. In that work the author
argued that the reader plays an active role in producing the meaning
of the text. The notion of the open work has often been interpreted as
a carte blanche; the phrase seems to suggest that texts are open to limitless
readings. In the introduction to The Limits of Interpretation, however, the
author maintains that this is a misreading which he has set out to correct.
After a period of what he sees as excessive deference to the rights of
the reader, rights which Eco himself was instrumental in defining, he
reasserts the rights of texts. The Limits of Interpretation is a cautionary
tale, warning against the allure of infinite readings.
The protagonists Foucault's Pendulum fall under the very spell which
is denounced in Eco's recent work. Casaubon, Belbo, and Diotallevi
read the liber mundi as an open work which is susceptible to infinite
readings. A driver's manual provides Casaubon with the pretext to
perform a brilliant three page exegesis showing that the automobile is
a metaphor of creation. The passage is reminiscent of an anecdote in
Stanley Fish's Is There a Text in this Class? Fish draws a frame around
an assignment with the last names of five authors and tells the class it
is a religious poem of the kind they have been studying. The interpretive
bravura of the students in the face of this assignment helps Fish make
his point: with the proper kind of attention, the reader creates poetry
(303-321). By the same token, with the properly "suspicious" state of
mind, Casaubon can find subtexts in a traffic sign or produce a mystical
interpretation of the phone book. And what is the proper mindset? "Any
fact becomes important when it's connected to another. The connection
changes the perspective; it leads you to think that every detail of the
world, every voice, every word written or spoken has more than its
literal meaning, that it tells us of a Secret. The rule is simple: Suspect,
only suspect" (314). As the plan comes to fruition, each of them is taken
by it in a different way. Belbo, whose apparent skepticism masks a thirst
for the absolute, is converted to the plan, Diotallevi corrupted by it,
Casaubon, who, thanks to Lia, is able to keep some distance, is merely
addicted. Midway through the novel Lia warns Casaubon against falling
into the "psychosis of synarchic plots." The one true answer, according
to Casaubon's Beatrice, is that there is nothing to understand: "Synarchy
is God" (266).
The cosmic Plan grew out of the interpretation of a text presented
to Garamond by Colonel Ardenti as Ingolf's message of Provins. Ingolf's
message is, of course, written in a secret code which, when deciphered,
proves to be the transcription of a partially damaged parchment. By a
series of surmises, or abductions, the philologist/semiotician reconstructs
a text which deals with six knights appearing six times in six places
every one hundred twenty years. The Plan to which Casaubon, Belbo
and Diotallevi devote a year of their lives rests upon the assumption
that Ingolf's message charges these knights to carry out missions in
particular places every hundred and twenty years, beginning in 1344.
But, following her credo that the simplest, most economical explanation
is always the best, Lia elegantly demonstrates to Casaubon that the
message discovered in Provins was actually a laundry list.18
The misreading of the message of Provins dramatizes the pitfalls of
conjecture. The episode functions much like the conclusion to The Name
of the Rose, where Guglielmo correctly identifies the culprit by incorrectly
surmising that the murderer was following a plan based on the book of
Revelation. The Name of the Rose allegorizes the story of conjecture as
told in such studies as Semiotics and Philosophy of Language and The Sign
of Three. Like Guglielmo, Colonel Ardenti takes some interpretive risks.
Having already read in one of the histories of the Rosicrucians a theory
of the one hundred twenty years, he guesses that one of the incomplete
notations is "post 120 annos patebo." This in itself is not a bad strategy.
Indeed, as Guglielmo points out in The Name of the Rose, the first rule
of decoding a secret message is to guess what it means. But in this case
the Colonel's abduction is faulty. The notation transcribed as an "a"
and interpreted by Colonel Ardenti to mean "years" is actually the
equivalent of a cents sign and indicates the price of the order. Ardenti's
error, like Guglielmo's faulty abduction, comes to symbolize the basic
"fallibilism" that governs human knowledge.19
The distinction between Ardenti's interpretation and Lia's is spelled
out in The Limits of Interpretation. Although both characters base their
interpretations on a suspicion, it seems that Lia's suspicion is a "healthy"
one while Ardenti's is not. In a 1988 interview with Ferdinando Adornato,
Eco speaks of suspicion as a necessary component of the great scientific
discoveries such as Copernicus's intuition of heliocentrism.
All knowledge is based upon the exercise of suspicion. To suspect is important.
It is necessary, however, to distinguish between "healthy" and "sick" suspicion.
"Healthy" suspicion is one which lasts for only a limited period and one which
is made public. "Sick" suspicion on the other hand is one which creates an
infinite chain of suppositions which are all secret and are never proven. Semiotics
is the science which allows us to distinguish between these two types of suspicion.
Ardenti and Casaubon, who base their abductions on what Eco would
call "infinite interpretive drift" (Limits 28), have developed the wrong
kind of suspicion. Whereas Casaubon departs from a car manual and
reaches a cosmology, Lia departs from a cosmic plan and reduces it to
a laundry list. Yet it is Lia who is able to explain to Casaubon why he
is attracted to the play of musement in the first place. "Mankind can't
endure the thought that the world was born by chance, by mistake, just
because four brainless atoms bumped into one another on a slippery
highway. So a cosmic plot has to be foundGod, angels,devils. Synarchy
performs the same function on a lesser scale" (266). Foucault's Pendulum
is a tale constructed around what Eco might call an "obsessive idea"20
in this case the idea of a cosmic plot. In the address delivered at the
Frankfurt Book Fair in 1986, Eco suggests that contemporary culture has
inherited from gnosticism in particular the idea that man is a victim of
a cosmic plot. The notion of the cosmic plot figures prominently in the
work of such diverse writers as Chesterton, Popper, Pynchon, and Borges.21
Eco cites Popper's explanation of the origin of this notion both in the
Frankfurt address and in the novel: "The conspiracy theory of society
. . . comes from abandoning God and then asking: 'Who is in his place?' "
(Popper 123, qtd. in Foucault's Pendulum 511).
But perhaps more than any other writer, it is Borges who in his
ficciones has probed the attraction of the cosmic plot. Eco's reading of this
mtaphore obsdante in Borges might also be used to characterize Foucault's
Pendulum. "One is never confronted by chance, or by Fate; one is always
inside a plot (cosmic or situational) developed by some other Mind ac-
cording to a fantastic logic that is the logic of the Library" (Eco Limits
81). The fascination with the nonexistent plot in Foucault's Pendulum closely
parallels the fascination with the nonexistent planet of Tln in Borges'
Ficciones. "Why not fall under the spell of Tln and submit to the minute
and vast evidence of an ordered planet? Useless to reply that reality, too,
is ordered. It may be so, but in accordance with divine lawsI translate
inhuman laws which we will never completely perceive" (34). The
protagonists Foucault's Pendulum understand too late that their enormous
chess game offers mankind an irresistible consolation. "There can be no
failure if there is really a Plan. Defeated you may be but never through
any fault of your own. To bow to a cosmic will is no shame. You are
not a coward; you are a martyr" (513).
The nonexistent plan fabricated by Diotallevi, Casaubon, and Belbo
as a hoax begins to intrude upon reality. As is the case with the imaginary
planet, Tln, "humanity forgets and goes on forgetting that it is the
discipline of chess players, not of angels" (Borges 34). Agli and the
group of diabolicals whose esoteric submissions gave birth to Project
Hermes believe firmly that the Plan is real and that they are a part of
it.22 Agli lures Belbo to the Conservatoire des arts et mtiers in Paris
where they interrogate him as to the secret of the map that will reveal
the location of the "Navel of the World." But Belbo, having regained
his sanity, chooses not to cooperate in perpetuating the myth of the
Plan. His response to Agli and those who seek the Absolute, the secret
of the world, is "Ma gavte la nata" ["Take out the cork"]. To anyone
who didn't understand his favorite Piedmontese expression, Belbo would
explain that you say it to one who is too sure of himself. Remove the
cork stuck in his behind and he returns to the human condition. Belbo
dies a martyr to guard against the same fanatical certainty which char-
acterizes the villainous Jorge in The Name of the Rose.
Belbo refuses to bow to "nonmeaning" by taking refuge in illusory,
consolatory Plans. He rejects the idea that existence is so meaningless
that we must take refuge in the illusion of a search for its secret. At
the novel's conclusion Casaubon learns from Belbo's death the only
"secret" worth knowing:
There are no "bigger secrets," because the moment a secret is revealed, it seems
little. There is only an empty secret. A secret that keeps slipping through your
fingers. The secret of the orchid is that it signifies and affects the testicles. But
the testicles signify a sign of the zodiac, which in turn signifies an angelic
hierarchy, which then signifies a musical scale, and the scale signifies a relationship
among the humors. And so on. Initiation is learning never to stop. The universe
is peeled like an onion, and an onion is all peel. Let us imagine an infinite
onion, which has its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere. Initiation
travels an endless Moebius strip. (514)
This example of infinite slippage is a celebrated hermetic argument
refuted by Bacon.23 In The Limits of Interpretation Eco cites Bacon in his
own argument against hermetic semiosis (25).
The central theme of Foucault's Pendulum, indeed the moral of the
story, seems to be that this endless traveling along the Moebius strip is
fruitless and empty. The image of the infinite onion, the search for
secrets which in order to remain secrets must be "empty" secrets,
revealing nothing in an endless deferral, is clearly denounced in the
novel. Yet this negative image of the infinite onion, which has its center
everywhere and its circumference nowhere, corresponds to a positive
image often used by Eco. Borrowing from Deleuze and Guattari, Eco
uses the image of the rhizome, which has no center, no periphery, and
no exit, to characterize what he calls conjectural space.24 The rhizomatic
space of conjecture, which "can be structured but is never structured
definitively," has an unambiguously positive connotation in The Name
of the Rose. Recognizing the absence of a single truth, Guglielmo discards
structure for "structurability," reason for "reasonability." (Eco's notion
of "reasonability" is closely related to the idea of "pensiero debole"
[weak thought] advanced by Vattimo and Rovatti.25) That Eco would
choose the image of the onion/rhizome as the projection of all that is
wrong with the world seems highly problematic. All of the tidy distinctions
between unlimited semiosis and hermetic drift, good suspicion and bad
suspicion, respect for the text and deconstructive deferral and drift are
swept away with this choice. As much as Eco insists upon a clear
distinction between good and bad suspicion, in fact the two begin to
merge. Perhaps, in the practice of decoding semiotic messages, in the
exercise of conjecture, there may be a gray zone in which the threat of
deferral or drift is always present.
The shifting of this key image in Eco's novel reveals an ambiguity.
Is this a simple contradiction or a moment of "blindness and insight,"
a moment where the text begins to deconstruct the author's explicit
thematic concerns? The fascination with the occult, the guarding of
"empty" secrets, is labeled a sickness, a cancerous growth which in the
end claims Diotallevi's life. The novel in other words seems to dramatize
the danger of hermetic drift or excessive interpretation outlined in The
Limits of Interpretation. If we are to "respect" Eco's text at all,26 we must
concede that on a literal level the novel should be read as a cautionary
tale against the attraction of the game of uncovering "secret meanings
beyond the letter" (467).27 Yet much of the appeal of this book is in
watching the interpretive bravura of the protagonists. Is this not a sickness
of which Eco himself suffers?28 Despite his distaste for this kind of
autobiographical reading, Eco cannot be blind to the fact that Diotallevi,
Belbo, and Casaubon are so many authorial surrogates.29 Indeed, the
author has gleefully planted autobiographical tidbits in the identities of
Casaubon, Diotallevi, and particularly Jacopo Belbo. The games which
the three editors play cannot help but conjure up Eco the semiotician
as he skillfully deciphers texts, from James Joyce's' Ulysses to Charles
Schulz's Peanuts. Is Eco consciously satirizing the games he himself plays?
How do we account for the slippage between the "good" image of the
rhizome and the "bad" image of the infinite onion?
Let us defer the question of whether the novel is truly blind to its
own insights or whether it is a conscious allegory of blindness and insight.
Let us consider instead the conclusion of the novel. According to Ca-
saubon, Belbo's initial embracing of the Plan was not due to faith but
lack of faith. His refusal to humor the Diabolicals and his rejection of
the Plan is instead due to a rediscovery of meaning. Casaubon believes
that Belbo in the end finds "qualcosa che ha pi senso del resto" (494)
["something that has more meaning than the rest" (516)]. Casaubon
visits Belbo's country home where he discovers a "Key Text" in the
cupboard. The text tells of Belbo's moment of boyhood glory when he
is asked to play the trumpet at the funeral of two fallen partisans. Only
at the end of his life did Belbo realize that the moment when he held
the long final note was his moment of glory, his opportunity, his Truth.
You spend a life seeking the Opportunity, without realizing that the decisive
moment, the moment that justifies birth and death, has already passed. It will
not return, but it wasfull dazzling, generous as every revelation . . . that
moment, in which he froze space and time, shooting his Zeno's arrow, had been
no symbol, no sign, symptom, allusion, metaphor, or enigma; it was what it
was. It did not stand for anything else. At that moment there was no longer
any [deferral],30 and the score was settled, (525)
The glorification of the non-semiotic from the pen of a semiotician,
a masterful decipherer of symbols, signs, symptoms, and allusions, is,
to say the least, striking. Belbo's desire of "the thing itself," a desire
of presence which Derrida has taught us is characteristic of Western
metaphysics, is denied by the very notion of the sign. For the condition
of possibility of the sign is deferral, "putting off into the future any
grasping of the 'thing itself" (Atkins 17). Why does the novel end with
this glorification of a presemiotic moment? While Eco is on the one
hand satirizing the notion of loss or absence implicit in the Derridean
notion of sign, he also seems to share Belbo's desire of presence.
If Eco's theory were faithfully mirrored in his novel, this glorification
of the non-semiotic would not be the logical conclusion. It is interesting
that the conclusion of the novel does not reinforce the distinction in The
Limits of Interpretation between unlimited semiosis and hermetic drift,
between good suspicion and bad suspicion that is made when Lia correctly
interprets the message of Provins as a laundry list. Belbo's final choice,
and the lesson Casaubon learns from that choice, is not between good
and bad suspicion, creative abduction and hermetic drift, but only be-
tween bad suspicion, the search for secrets on the one hand, and on the
other a presemiotic or non-semiotic moment of glory whose "presence"
cannot be evoked by any sign.
The lack of perfect complementarity between Eco's theory and his
second novel is one of the most intriguing aspects of Foucault's Pendulum.^1
The "loose ends" I have pointed out make this book not simply a
primer of semiotics but a fictional text. On the dust jacket of // nome
della rosa Eco has written of his decision to write his first novel: "Se ha
scritto un romanzo perch ha scoperto, in et matura, che di ci di
cui non si pu teorizzare, si deve narrare." ["If he has written a novel
it is because he has discovered, upon reaching maturity, that what we
cannot theorize about, we must narrate" (my trans).]32 Foucault's Pendulum
fits this description much more than Eco's first novel. While The Name
of the Rose allegorizes or exemplifies Eco's theory, Il pendolo problematizes
it. The novel reminds us that the questions raised in Eco's theoretical
works cannot be tidily resolved. In our reading of the book of the world
the distinction between interpretation and use, between good suspicion
and bad suspicion, between creative abduction and hermetic drift, is not
always so easy to discern. We can never be assured that our search for
understanding is not an endless journey along a Moebius strip. This is
why, despite his ardent defense of "reasonability," Eco understands
quite as well as Borges the fascination with the irrational.
A brief version of this paper was delivered at the annual meeting of the American
Association of Italian Studies in April 1992 at the University of North Carolina.
See Postscript to "The Name of the Rose" (7), Indeed, Eco maintains that an author's
favorite readings are readings he had not foreseen.
As Rocco Capozzi points out, however, each time the frustrated critic thinks (s)he
has found a new interpretive key to Eco's work, s(he) runs across a reference to that
author or title in one of Eco's own essays or interviews (236, n. 31).
See for example Walter Stephens, Robert Artigiani, and Theresa Coletti.
See Atkins (24-25) for a clear and concise characterization of these two choices.
This was also the moment when the Italian communist party broke with the Soviet
communists to form its own brand of Eurocommunism.
Of course it should not be forgotten that Eco, like the other experimentalist writers
of the Gruppo 63, had decisively broken with neorealism. Thus, there is a certain amount
of irreverence in Eco's treatment of the Resistance as the ultimate literary theme,
See Sciascia's "Nota" appended to // contesto (121).
See Denis Mack Smith (175) for a discussion of transformismo beginning in the post
unification period.
One culprit in the P Due Scandal seems to be Licio Gelli, the head of the secret
Masonic lodge. Gelli's connections to the Vatican and to the Italian political establishment,
particularly Andreotti, have never been fully understood. See Luigi Malerba's // pianeta
azzurro for a highly fictionalized account of this murky scandal.
See "The Crisis of the Crisis of Reason," in Travels in Hyperreality .
For a brief but informative overview oipensiero debole see Stefano Rosso, "Postmodern
See Eco "Horns, Hooves, Insteps" and "Antiporfirio" in The Sign of Three. See
also Cannon, Postmodern Italian Fiction and De Lauretis, Umberto Eco.
This keynote address was delivered by Eco at the Frankfurt Buchmesse on October
6, 1986, and later published in Alfabeta as "L'irrazionale ieri e oggi."
See Jean Franois Lyotard for his characterization of postmodernism as the period
of the dissolution of the master narratives.
Belbo maintains that the "incredible bureaucracy of this genocide," the strip
searching, the sorting and storing of clothes, only makes sense if the Nazis were looking
for something, the map that would allow Hitler to determine the exact point under the
earth's concave vault where the telluric currents converged. This episode has sparked
accusations of anti-Semitism from some reviewers. It should be remembered, however,
that the pain Diotallevi experiences as Belbo expounds his mad theory reflects the author's
perception of the obscenity of any theory purporting to "explain away" the holocaust.
See The Limits of Interpretation, particularly Chapter Three, where Eco argues that
although "it is very difficult to decide whether a given interpretation is a good one, it is,
however, always possible to decide whether it is a bad one" (42),
See The Limits of Interpretation (5) for a discussion of the virtues of the simple or
economical hypothesis.
See The Sign of Three (218) for a discussion of Peirce's idea of fallibilism.
20See Postscript to "The Name of the Rose" (81).
I am grateful to my colleague Peter Hays for pointing out this similarity between
Eco's work and Pynchon's.
Again there is a parallel to The Name of the Rose. Agli falls captive to the cosmic
conspiracy theory just as Jorge da Burgos believes that he is part of a nonexistent plan
based on the Book of Revelation.
In Parasceve ad Historiam Naturalem et Experimentalem Bacon raises an objection to the
celebrated Hermetic argument, based on the fact that "the plant orchis has the same form
of human testicles." Eco cites Francis Bacon's discussion of hermetic semiosis in The Limits
of Interpretation (29).
See Postscript to "The Name of the Rose" (57).
The image used by the debolisti to describe the always provisional, often fallible,
traveling along the cluster of messages is the image of the net. See Gianni Vattimo,
"Bottle, Net, Truth, Revolution, Terrorism, Philosophy" (24).
See Chapter Three of The Limits of Interpretation for a discussion of respect for the
rights of the text and an explanation of the distinction between use and interpretation.
Rocco Capozzi argues that the denunciation of hermetic interpretive practices is
quite explicit in Eco's novel (227).
Eco makes no secret of the fact that he has in his private collection about 1500
volumes on the occult! See interview with Adornato.
In Postscript to "The Name of the Rose," Eco treats with disdain the idea that an
author identifies with a particular character and suggests that authors identify with the
I have translated the Italian "rinvio" as "deferral" rather than "deferment," the
term used in the William Weaver translation. "Deferral" is the term which Eco uses
repeatedly in The Limits of Interpretation and which captures all that is wrong with hermetic
In his essay on The Name of the Rose, Walter Stephens was the first to formulate
the question of the degree of complementarity between Eco's theory and his fiction in
precisely these terms,
This statement appears only on the dust jacket of the first Italian edition of the
novel; it does not appear in the English translation .
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