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Sunday, May 29, 2016

What I'm reading (#12)

"I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth."

So says Casaubon, the main character in Umberto Eco's tour de force novel Foucault's Pendulum.  It's a book I keep coming back to.  I've lost count of the number of times I've read it.  It's like watching one of those ball-and-track machines that you see at science centers -- you keep looking, trying to figure out how the intricate machinery fits together, how all of those gears and springs and pivots interlock to keep the balls rolling, but there's still something about it that looks like magic.  It's a trompe l'oeil for the intellect.

The story revolves around three cynical and skeptical book editors who work for Garamond Press, a publishing company that specializes in books about the paranormal.  Garamond caters to authors who write about such things as mysticism, astrology, divination, black magic, and the esoteric knowledge of such groups as the Templars and Rosicrucians.  The three editors don't believe in any of it; the books are a source of amusement to them, especially given that Garamond borders on being a vanity press, where the authors themselves are paying to see their work in print.

Then one of them comes up with a neat idea.  Over the years of reading reams of this stuff, they've gotten to know all of the tropes, all of the history, all of the lingo.  Why pay others to write books when they could skip the middleman and write one themselves?  Out woo the woo-woos, so to speak.  So they put their heads together and come up with a doozy of a plot -- that the Templars were executed by Philip the Fair of Burgundy not because they were heretics, but because they'd discovered the secret to an incredible source of magical power, and he wanted access.  After Philip broke up the Templars and burned Jacques de Molay and the other Templar leaders at the stake for refusing to reveal the secret, the knowledge went underground, and was passed word-of-mouth down to the present day.

And our three heroes have discovered it, and know how to access its phenomenal power.

Of course, they don't reveal the secret itself.  First, the whole idea is made up from beginning to end.  Second, they want to set themselves up for a sequel, if the endeavor turns out to be lucrative.  And the woo-woos themselves buy it -- not only literally, but figuratively.  They swallow the lie whole.  But it backfires when some of the head mystics kidnap one of the editors, and threaten to murder him if he won't reveal the secret of the Templars.

Which doesn't exist, remember?  But of course, the more he protests that there is no secret, the more convinced his captors are that he and his compatriots are hiding something, something huge.

That, of course, is only the beginning of the story.  How it plays out, how the gears interlock and turn and propel the characters through the novel, is something that has to be experienced first hand.  It's a brilliant inquiry into how we think, why we believe what we believe, and what motivates the human mind.  

And, if you're like me, it's a tale you'll come back to over and over again.

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