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.