The Gift of the Metacyclosynchrotron

Finding tradition in revolution

It is impossible to conceal my delight in describing the PDF coming originally from the pen of signore professore dottore Umberto Eco, and now available for download from JSTOR. Reconstructed from notes once thought lost and written during his stint as a guest lecturer at Colombia’s School of the Arts discussing postcolonial film theory, it is the first posthumous publication of what one hopes and imagines will become numerous from such a prolific and dearly missed writer. For those who, like me, fetishize actual books of paper, we can only pray some independent publisher such as McSweeney’s or Little, Brown will produce such an edition.

As Eco himself has said, “Now, everyone is a writer but no one will read them.” The phenomenon he describes is essentially an escalation of the postmodern dilemma via the multitude of texts emanating from around the globe via the internet. Under these conditions which democratize the ability to write and publish, and with the accompanying proliferation of texts, there is also a corresponding erosion of textual authority, as well as a reduction in the credibility readers can attach to any given text, even including an inability to determine a work’s authenticity.

Nonetheless, after having thoroughly absorbed this book, it’s difficult to believe that its provenance could ever have been in any serious doubt. The work follows Foucault’s Pendulum (Il pendolo di Foucault)—and follows it not just in a chronological sense. Eco pursues the same major themes of his earlier work in writing The Da Vinci Code. Much like Jorge Luis Borges, an author both admired and often emulated by Eco, he delivers the plot in an almost offhand manner within Pendulum:

Jesus was not crucified, and for that reason the Templars denied the Crucifix. The legend of Joseph of Arimathea covers a deeper truth: Jesus, not the Grail, landed in France, among the cabalists of Provence. Jesus is the metaphor of the King of the World, the true founder of the Rosicrucians. And who landed with Jesus? His wife. In the Gospels why aren’t we told who was married at Cana? It was the wedding of Jesus, and it was a wedding that could not be discussed, because the bride was a public sinner, Mary Magdalene.

Unlike Borges, however, and much to our edification and enjoyment, Eco returns in this second novel to do full justice to the themes only touched on previously. Even the choice of titles for these two works bears some discussion.

If Foucault’s Pendulum was ambivalent and vacillating, the disaster-prone experiment of an obscure academician, The Da Vinci Code has been collated and made manifest as a complete and coherent system—and quite as masterfully as the titular Renaissance polymath (and of course the author thus identifies himself with Leonardo, since, as a semiotician, he is a master of signs and hidden meanings—in short, codes). And though the unravelling of the code is the matter of the book, this is done in due course and revealing all its glory.

In the light of this concluding installment of the tale of the hidden elect, we see the sidereal day which is taken by a Foucault Pendulum to complete its full rotation at the Pole (thus demonstrating the very earth’s rotational movement) become the timeline within which Robert and Sofie must penetrate the mystery of the forces that secretly govern the world.

Pendulum and Da Vinci begin in nearly the same place: a pair of Parisian museums—the Musée des Arts et Métiers and the Musée du Louvre, respectively. In the first, it is evening and Casaubon is looking for a place to conceal himself until after closing, while in the second the museum has already closed and it is night with Saunière running for his life. In both cases the perspective is that of one in mortal peril. And in fact, in both cases they are killed—implicitly just beyond its close in the first novel, and explicitly followed through on at the beginning of the next. Though he manages to flee the museum, Casaubon can’t throw off the evil forces pursuing him, and Saunière, too, bows to the inevitable, turning his own death into the first of many clues.

The lush descriptions opening both books can also be seen as complimentary as well; from the first:

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.

The imagery is continued in the second; the sinister chiaroscuro reflecting the coming descent into a world of dark conundra and omnipresent danger:

A telephone was ringing in the darkness—a tinny, unfamiliar ring. He fumbled for the bedside lamp and turned it on. Squinting at his surroundings he saw a plush Renaissance bedroom with Louis XVI furniture, hand-frescoed walls, and a colossal mahogany four-poster bed.

In particular, the transformation of ordinary things into threatening ones is echoed: In the case of the first, the pendulum: “bird’s head, spear’s tip, obverse helmet” And in the second, more subtly, the “unfamiliar” phone, the too-large bed, looming as if to fall upon and crush Robert. In general, there is a refining of the language; its descriptions are less overt, its symbolism more powerful and pure.

As Casaubon attempts to fight off his feelings of trepidation in Pendulum, we get his internal dialogue:

You know what museums are, no one’s ever been devoured by the Mona Lisa—an androgynous Medusa only for esthetes—and you are even less likely to be devoured by Watt’s engine, a bugbear only for Ossianic and Neo-Gothic gentlemen, a pathetic compromise, really, between function and Corinthian elegance, handle and capital, boiler and column, wheel and tympanum.

Which, in addition to setting up a series of images of the neutered objects on display, also prefigures the imagery of Da Vinci, in which it is revealed that this same painting is actually the artist’s own self portrait, with its ambivalent gender reflecting the sacred union of male and female, its title an anagram pointing to the gods and goddesses of Ancient Egypt.

Once the museum has closed, Casaubon considers sleeping since he will have to wait several hours but discards the idea as too dangerous—or does he? What if he does sleep and then awakens as Langdon? It’s a trope Eco explores in The Cemetery of Prague (Il cimitero di Praga, also set in Paris), wherein there is an implication that Simone Simonini’s memory gaps, taken together with entries in his diary by the mysterious Abbé Dalla Piccola, mean that he sometimes wakes up in a different persona. A similar motif of another self also appears in The Island of the Day Before (L’isola del giorno prima), wherein Roberto becomes obsessed with the notional existence of his evil doppelganger, Ferrante. The timeline of the two novels bears out this reading: Casaubon tells us, “The Masters would not come until close to midnight.” And in Da Vinci, Langdon awakens close by, shortly after midnight when the last of the sénéchaux has been murdered.

Nonetheless, it is important to recall that while it is natural to identify Robert Langdon as a resurrection (or more accurately, renaissance, as we shall see) of Pendulum’s narrator, especially since he even styles himself a “private eye of learning”, Belbo is the tale’s real hero, who, together with Diotallevi has already been destroyed by the keepers of the plan at the opening of the book, and whose clues Casaubon subsequently follows to his own doom. That torch clearly passes from Jacopo Belbo to Jacques Saunière in Da Vinci, in his role as the keeper and revealer of secrets.

Again as with Borges, Eco borrows the trappings of genre fiction—in the case of this diptych, the thriller—in order to subvert it, as well as to raise deeper issues as a self-declared “public intellectual”. In this case, two of the most inflammatory scholarly and social issues of our time: the feminist/ post-feminist challenge to patriarchal authority; and the textual construction of meaning and value.

His first novel, The Name of the Rose (Il nome della rosa), too, is parodical and indeed deconstructive of genre fiction, with William of Baskerville being a clear reference, if not recontextualization, of Sherlock Holmes as a 12th century scholastic. Some have cited passages such as the following one as discrediting Eco’s authorship of Da Vinci because of their supposed literary ineptitude, but reread it is deliberate:

Captain Bezu Fache carried himself like an angry ox, with his wide shoulders thrown back and his chin tucked hard into his chest. His dark hair was slicked back with oil, accentuating an arrow-like widow’s peak that divided his jutting brow and preceded him like the prow of a battleship. As he advanced, his dark eyes seemed to scorch the earth before him, radiating a fiery clarity that forecast his reputation for unblinking severity in all matters.

In addition to being a clearly absurd sendup of the tropes and stylistic foibles of the genre he’s playing in, it is also a clear echo of Belbo’s writing in his play-within-a-play novel in Pendulum. Indeed, Da Vinci might be intended to be construed as that novel, which contains similar imagery:

Rodin, speaking in this way, becomes fearsome. All the bloodthirsty ambition, all the execrable sacrilege that had smoldered in the breasts of the Renaissance popes, now appears on the brow of this son of Loyola. I see clearly: an insatiable thirst for power stirs his impure blood, a burning sweat soaks him, a nauseating vapor spreads around him.

Eco’s selection of an American protagonist, at first somewhat jarring, fits with the location the book was written in, as well as his fascination with the culture of the New World which he documented in his essay collection, Travels in Hyperreality (Il costume di casa).

Then of course we have the time Robert is awoken: given as 12:32 AM, the first three numbers imply a simple sequence—the first code of the book—the second 2 is clearly really 2 x 2: 4, thus completing the sequence 1, 2, 3, 4. Not only is this the Pythagorean Tetractys, well known to Eco, that symbol is also used to describe the pendulum at the beginning of the earlier book (emphasis mine):

[…] the singularity of the point of suspension, the duality of the plane’s dimensions, the triadic beginning of π, the secret quadratic nature of the root […].

But while I have thus far focused on the continuity between the two books, there is also a seismic shift that’s worth noting: Casaubon’s is the point of view of a cynical academic who sees all religion as a turning away from the Enlightenment values in which he believes and toward irrationality. Da Vinci’s Langdon, while steeped in similar ivory tower-values and scepticisms sees the defeat of Christianity and return toward the primal religion of the Sacred Feminine as both just and desirable. The perspective of the first novel is made clear in this passage:

[…] in an enormous case in the rear, life-size and three-dimensional, a lion attacked by a serpent. The apparent reason for this piece was its medium, that it was made entirely of glass; but there had to be a deeper reason. Where had I seen this figure before? Then I remembered that the Demiurge, Yaldabaoth, the first Archon, odious creation of Sophia, who was responsible for the world and its fatal flaw, had the form of a serpent and of a lion, and that his eyes cast fire.

Striking in particular, is the transformation from a dreadful and ancient Sophia, imperfect creator of an imperfect world to the second book’s Sophie, who embodies of the lineage of Christ as well as the Sacred Feminine. Where the first novel selects some of the tropes of the romantic embrace of the anti-patriarchal, such as the kabbalah and alchemy, in addition to delving farther afield into Afro-Cuban mysticism unsullied by European hands, the second taps into a different vein, one explored by many writers—two in particular emulated by Eco: Shelley and Hugo—that of Gnosticism, a tradition that largely managed to avoid subsumption by Christianity.

Both novels are interrogations of Christianity via elements of Romantic literature, driven principally by the perceived complicity of the Church with the injustices and depredations of early industrial society. They succeed in isolating the fundamentally theological and symbolic nature of the contest, echoing recent Romantic theory in their restatements of the centrality of religious conflict to the literary mode’s rhetoric.

In Da Vinci, however, Eco raises a tripartite claim: that primordial human religions featured a Goddess, their societies were matriarchal, and the Sacred Feminine remains instinctual among all people. Further, because of the presence of these underlying elements at odds with our supposed values, our culture has been, and remains, in continuous conflict and crisis, and may remain so until we fully understand these essential truths and work to properly reconcile the human and the divine.

When Tokyo Moved West

How the megapolis got its modern shape (Taishō, Part 2B)

Among many other changes ushered in by the Taishō (大正時代, 1912–26) era, increasing industrialization caused a huge shift in Japan’s population away from rural areas and into urban centers, and none more so than the city itself, which naturally needed to expand to accommodate the influx of people, and changed to assume much of the form we recognize today. The growth also shifted traditional centers within the city toward the west, was to continue on into the postwar growth of areas such as Shibuya (渋谷) and Shinjuku (新宿).

While Nihombashi had been the center of commerce in Edo era and remained so through the Meiji period (江戸時代, 1603–1868 and 明治, 1868–1912), with the sudden and massive growth in Taishō, other areas naturally began to sprout as well. Retail sales remained largely centered in Nihombashi, in particular at massive new department stores such as Mitsukoshi (三越) and Shirokiya (白木屋), but other areas came to be the centers for other activities. The former still has its main branch in Nihombashi, while the latter’s setbacks due to the earthquake and war were less recoverable, though it still has a few stores, including its headquarters in Honolulu. Marunouchi (丸の内) and Ginza (銀座) blossomed as districts for business and pleasure respectively.

Marunouchi, a district I mentioned as the location for the first biru, was the smallest of these moves—essentially from one side of Tokyo Station to the other. Nihombashi sits just to the east of the station, while Marunouchi grew just to its west. The area, a filled-in portion of Tokyo Bay, had been purchased from the Meiji government in 1890 by the Mitsubishi company (三菱), being known for a while as the Mitsubishi Meadow (三菱ヶ原, Mitsubishigahara). The name Marunouchi attests the area’s origin as part of the castle’s fortifications, as it means “within the circle” (i.e., of walls).

Things began to change in Taishō, and in addition to headquartering their own company there, Mitsubishi began to develop the area for other businesses as well. In particular, the major banks moved in and the Tokyo Station building I discussed previously was notably built on the Marunouchi side of the station. The Mitsubishi group still owns much of the area today, and Japan’s top three banks remain headquartered there. Marunouchi also presents a stark contrast between old and new, with the moat separating feudal Japan from the skyscrapers of one of the largest business districts in the world.

Nearly due south of Marunouchi, what was to become Ginza was a neighborhood of tightly packed wooden buildings, much like the rest of the Edo-period city. What cleared the way for the area’s growth in the new era, was not a grand plan, like the Haussmannization of Paris, but a fire.

Fires were all too common among the Edo buildings, because of the crowding, as well as the building materials, which were mainly wood and paper. Smallish blazes were so common there was a saying that, “Fires and fights are the flowers of Edo”.¹ But in 1872, a large one gutted most of Ginza. The Meiji government saw an upside to this and decided to rebuild the area as a Westernized model of modernization, which came to be known as the “Bricktown” (煉瓦街, Rengagai). The main planner of the Ginza Bricktown was expatriate Irish architect, Thomas Waters, who had somehow managed to build a career in Japan even before Japan’s opening to the West. By the time of his work in Ginza he was employed as Surveyor-General and foreign advisor to the Meiji Government. Nonetheless, by 1878, he too fell prey to souring attitudes toward foreign designers and left seeking better fortunes elsewhere.

Waters did see the Bricktown through to its completion in 1875, but it was hardly a smashing success. The Georgian-style buildings were an impressive sight, but while the brick construction did provide a decent amount of fire resistance, it was not well suited to the humid environment of Japan and they tended to be quite damp and prone to mildew. This meant few people were willing to pay the high asking prices, and many of the buildings stood empty.

The broad main thoroughfare of Ginza Dōri (銀座通り), initially mainly for foot traffic, was restructured to include streetcar and automobile traffic as well. This was essentially a road-building pilot for the country, and it was decided that wooden blocks would be used with the interstices filled with asphalt. The experiment can only be called an abject failure: when it rained—as it frequently does in Japan—the blocks floated away, and when it was hot, the asphalt melted. While the areas for pedestrians and vehicles were clearly delineated by the willows the district came to be known for, cars and trolleys vied for right of way in a street without lanes for each marked out. In the end, the street caught fire, thus bookending Taishō Ginza between conflagrations.

The new brick buildings worked as advertised at least in this regard and the blaze only the blaze seems to have only affected the street, which was replaced with a more conventional one afterwards. As for the willows, even though they remain strongly associated with the area—there is an annual willow celebration—a typhoon had severely damaged them even before the street fire, and they had been replaced with hardier ginkgos.

The Tokyo subway, now so central to the city’s identity also began, if not in Ginza proper, with the Ginza Line (Ginza-sen, 銀座線). It was the result of a 1914 visit to London by businessman Noritsugu Hayakawa (早川 徳次). He saw the need for a system like the Underground, which was to become the first subway in East Asia.

The source of inspiration, and also the builders of the world’s first subway, the UK also provided experts to get the project underway. Some eclecticism was shown when it came to the cars, which were built on the boxy lines of New York’s rather than the Tube’s cylindrical model.

At its 1927 opening, the subway was only the portion of the modern Ginza line that stretches from Ueno (上野) to Asakusa (浅草). It was too short to be useful, falling well short of its aim to run through Ginza and end at Shimbashi (新橋), which had a station already serviced by other trains and so making a sensible terminus. Nonetheless, the novelty of the subway seems to have won out, as people would wait sometimes as long as two hours to travel along the five minutes of track. Just as the city itself, the line continued to extend westward, and its modern terminus is now Shibuya.

This tale of the difficulties in getting around in the rapidly swelling city is far from unique. Tanizaki Junichirō (谷崎 潤一郎) wrote of the poor state of the roads, and related the following of the overburdened streetcar system:²

For the general populace there was no means of transport but the streetcar. Car after car would come by full and leave people waiting at stops. At rush hour the press was murderous. Hungry and tired, the office worker and the laborer, in a hurry to get home, would push their way aboard a car already hopelessly full, each one for himself, paying no attention to the attempts of the conductor to keep order […]. The crowds, a black mountain outside a streetcar would push and shove and shout […]. They put up with it because they were Japanese, I heard it said, but if a European or American city were subjected to such things for even a day there would be rioting.

The crowding he refers to meshes with our modern image of the city, but it seems to have been still more extreme, and there is an orderliness and etiquette involved in ridership today even under extreme conditions. Obasan seem to be the sole exception—they routinely throw elbows and stamp on insteps to get to the coveted seats beside train doors. The phenomenon inspired the term obatarian (オバタリアン), a punning portmanteau of おば (oba, “middle-aged woman”) and the Japanese title, Battalion (バタリアン), of the film The Return of the Living Dead.

Returning to Ginza, by the late Meiji period, the Ginza began to come into its own with the advent of bazaars in the area. The forerunners of modern department stores, these large, multi-story buildings housed a large number of small shops selling goods such as toys, stationery, and books. By 1902 there were seven such bazaars in Ginza.

The other element that cemented the status of Ginza in the Taisho was the opening of Café Printemps in 1911. A painter named Matsuyama Shozo, who had returned from studying abroad in Paris, wanted to reproduce the atmosphere of the cafés there. Matsuyama succeeded; people from the art world, such as painters and poets, as well as others who had been abroad, came there to socialize. The Café was quickly followed by imitators like Café Paulista, Café Lion, Café  Tiger, etc., all venues to see and be seen.

Ginza became what is known as a sakariba. Made up of the words 盛り (sakari) “height” and 場 (ba) “place”, it might be directly translated as “amusement quarter”. Even this term was changing in Taishō, moving toward its modern meaning as a place with crowds, neon lights, and dozens of small drinking establishments.

The Edo-period origins of the sakariba were actually of three types: open outdoor spaces where people could gather in times of disaster along riverbanks, etc. and which in good times could be used by those offering attractions and vendors; areas outside of temples, where similar activities occurred, such as Asakusa; and red light districts such as Yoshiwara (吉原). Ginza was the first of a new breed, according to Japanese studies professor Sepp Linhart:³

Ginza’s rise to preeminence […] mirrors the shift from entertainment catering to the old Tokugawa middle class of small businessmen and artisans to the new middle class of salaried white collar workers and professionals.

While it may seem strange, the crowdedness of these areas is part of the allure for the Japanese. Again from Linhart:⁴

What for many Europeans may be something quite unpleasant, seems to be for Japanese an enjoyable setting. Many Japanese […] simply cannot fall into a relaxed, leisurely mood if a sakariba is not full of people. They are disappointed if too few people are there […].

Japanese sociologist ikei Nozomu (池井 望) even coined the term zatto no miryoku—“fascination of the crowd” (雑踏の魅力) to describe this element of the appeal of the sakariba.⁵

In any case, the appearance of the busy aspect of these districts seems to have corresponded to Ginza’s rise: Trendy shopfronts and innumerable cafes came to characterize the area, but, as previously noted, Ginza wasn’t really a retail center, it was one for window shopping and idling. Mobo and Moga flocked to the area, but mostly just to see and be seen—to be part of the crowd. The activity was so specific to these people and this area, that it was called gimbura: “wasting time in Ginza” (銀ブラ), derived from Ginza and ぶらぶら (burabura) “wandering aimlessly”. Fashionable attire was part of the gimbura scene, and single men could remove the awkwardness of strolling alone by hiring a “walking stick girl” (sutekki gāru, ステッキ ガール) for two yen to accompany them.

Even in the days of the Rice Riots, Kafū Nagai (永井 荷風, the pseudonym of Japanese writer Nagai Sōkichi, 永井 壮吉) detected a certain air of leisureliness among the dissidents in Ginza:⁶

I heard later that the rioting always occurred in the cool of evening. There was a good moon every evening during those days. Hearing that the rioters gathered menacingly before the houses of the wealthy when the evening had turned cool and the moon had come up, I could not put down a feeling that there was something easy and comfortable about it all. It went on for five or six days and then things returned to normal. On the night of the return to normal, it rained.

As Tanizaki noted with some bitterness of the era, “Old Japan had been left behind and new Japan had not yet come.”⁷ Many of the forms we associate with Tokyo as well as Japan emerged during Taishō, but as we have seen, many were only rough prototypes. The earthquake, economic depression and WWII would ruin the chances for some of them to reach perfection, but others would eventually come to define modern Japan.

Read Subsequent Articles in this Series

Part 3A: Asakusa Movies

Part 3B: Asakusa Opera

Part 4: The Mysteries of Zūja-Go

Read Previous Articles in this Series

Part 1: Japan’s Turbulent Taishō

Part 2A: Epochal Architecture


  1. In Japanese, the saying runs: 火事と喧嘩は江戸の華, (kaji to kenka wa Edo no hana).
  2. Quoted from Edward Seidensticker, Low City, High City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake: How the Shogun’s Ancient Capital Became a Great Modern City, 1867–1923, 1983, which I have consulted throughout.
  3. In “Sakariba: zone of ‘evaporation’ between work and home?”, Interpreting Japanese Society: Anthropological Approaches, Joy Hendry, ed., 1998.
  4. Ibid.
  5. In 「盛 り場行 動. 論-空 間 と娯楽」 (“Behavioral Theory of the Sakariba: Theory Space and Entertainment”), 1973.
  6. Seidensticker, 1983.
  7. Ibid.