I was reading a scholarly thesis about Austria’s history of energy engineering and politics. Our only nuclear power plant was built and ready to go at the end of the 1970s. Only after it was completed a referendum was held, and 50.5% of voters decided against ever putting it into operation. The plant turned into a unique industrial tomb, monument, and training site – and much later into a location of a photovoltaic power plant. If this would be discussed on social media, many commentators would confidently shoot their one-liner comments. But the scholar of history treads carefully. Nearly every sentence has its footnote. No strong opinions, but very cautious chains of reasoning. Just answers to clearly defined, non-provocative research questions.

This could have been the whole content of this blog post. Sober texts do not get enough appreciation. What prompted me was: This text clashed violently with something else in my short-term memory. I took a break from reading the dense thesis, and randomly followed links in forums – discussions about that evil virus. Threads were possessed by spirits in polar opposition to the thesis. Theories about Them, sinister rulers of the pharmaceutical empire who conspire to force evil vaccination on all us. Obvious connections with a certain to-be-implemented mobile communications standard. How the involvement of tech entrepreneurs funding life science research proves it all. Just watch the video.

Since the virus outbreak I am in the habit of re-reading my favorite books. Foucault’s Pendulum is the book of choice here – Umberto Eco’s 1988 novel on conspiracy theories. If Templars, Rosicrucians, The Holy Grail, and so on sound familiar: Foucault’s Pendulum predates The Da Vinci Code by many years. When Eco was asked about Dan Brown’s books, he said: “Dan Brown is one of the characters in my novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, which is about people who start believing in occult stuff.”

Three researchers at a publishing house get immersed in the world of the occult and the esoteric after a mysterious Colonel tries to sell them his conjectures about the Templars’ secrets. The cynical intellectuals think they debunk and deconstruct it all: They invent The Plan for fun – the mother lode of all conspiracy theories. They re-write the history of the world, of science, of literature: From Francis Bacon to the Eiffel Tower – everything is connected with everything else, pointing to and meaning something else. They even use random snippets of existing theories, to be re-arranged by a computer – not unlike the way I create search term poetry.

The alleged secret of the elusive societies is to re-discover a point on a yet-to-be-reconstructed map, revealed by the shadow of the tip of that pendulum. The location indicates the origin of Telluric Currents, the source of human omnipotence and of infinite energy. Like the resources the Star Trek crew need to find to re-fuel their warp cores, but sacred. Eco did not use that exact metaphor, but he may have liked it. He, erudite polymath, makes a lot of references to popular culture without disdain – from Mickey Mouse to Raymond Chandler.

My random parallel reading about the history of nuclear energy and the fabricated history of the Templar Knights cannot be a coincidence. If hyperboloid cooling towers aren’t thinly veiled symbols of a cult, I do not know what is. Zwentendorf did actually not have a hyperboloid but a boring cylinder – but exactly that might have been a symbol in its own right. Just as the men denying to be Templars obviously always were.

Eco’s protagonists want to bait and tease the true adepts of The Dark, and The Plan backfires horrendously. They have triggered diabolic adversaries, awakened dark powers – including and above all the ones from within themselves. As Eco notes their fate is similar to the spies who start to believe in their undercover mission – at a certain point the habit of pretending to believe (“ironically”) becomes believing. Spoiler: Two of the three die – possibly. You do not know if the third one is a reliable narrator, you do not know if he will survive. He might have deconstructed the deconstruction in the end, noticing that the most valuable, the unspeakable, the mystical … just is what it is, without pointing to anything else. And it might be quite an everyday, anticlimactic experience.

This review appreciates that Foucault’s Pendulum is also a funny book full of jokes “at the expense of exploitative publishers and pompous intellectuals”. It is not the book for the smug nerds and scientists to sneer at the credulity of the dumb masses. Belbo, Diotallevi and Casaubon are well-educated poster boys of scepticism. I have gathered my own anecdata through the years: Learned people of science, numbers, and hard data are not at all immune to conspiracy theories. The theories may need contrived meta twists to appear intellectually appealing, but when the mystical virus finally infects the super rational, the progression of the disease is particularly virulent.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. I love getting pointers to good books. I’m bored with a lot of the popular novels and am reading classics. Foucault’s Pendulum just got added.

    My absolute favorite of this type is Our man in Havanna by Graeme Green. A cash strapped vacuum cleaner seller invents a spy story that gets picked up by London MI6 who pay him to investigate. He accepts the money and spins a deep Cold War plot that slowly becomes reality.

    That’s the only problem with conspiracy theories – when people like Trump make them come true.

    Great post – thanks!

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks a lot – also for your pointer to Graham Greene!

  2. Nicely done! Reading this it occurred to me that you might love the book I’m reading now. The author comes across as a little smug and self righteous but he brings evidence! Surprising, enlightening and, above all, hopeful. Instead of a link to the book I’m including the link to Goodreads and you can decide for yourself! Stay safe!

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Maurice! But I think I currently prefer to slowly read your book (two chapters so far, and I am enjoying it) :-) I am also leaving that link here for other readers! Thanks for sharing it publicly!

      As for contemporary non-fiction books in the “smart commentary” genre ;-) … I’d rather be tempted to re-read what current commentators have written decades ago – to check if they typically really had been “right” in the long term. Or if the topics they have chosen have really been relevant in the long run. E.g. I read too many analyses by people who never had a pandemic on their agenda in the past, but now they know everything about what this crisis will mean *in the future*.

      Re-reading Eco I feel this distinction between knowledge/facts/data and true erudition again. “Smug” and “self righteous” might turn me off as I am remembered that really wise people could definitely be modest and pleasant. I suppose, they might be noticed less today as they are not that good at self-marketing.

      1. Sounds like an excellent idea. And. I am so very happy that you’re reading the book. It’s actually the first of seven, spanning 1925 to the present. Currently halfway through the fifth which is set in 1992.

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