Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Swinging with the Pendulum


I'm a little burned out on reading history right now, so I've selected a baffling novel called "Foucault's Pendulum" by Umberto Eco. It was an international bestseller in its day, which means that people all over the world bought the book and pretended they knew what the hell it was about. "Endlessly diverting ... intricate and absorbing," Time magazine called it, but then they probably had fact checkers to help figure out the hundreds of obscure references packed into every page.

It's been a long time since I've read a book where I didn't know every other word, which means A. I'm brilliant or B. I've been lazy bum who reads too much Philippa Gregory. I suspect the second. Since FP is supposed to be a thriller, and it promises a fair amount of mayhem, I'm going to take it on.

But since I don't have a scholar versed in philosophy and religion in my pocket (or even in my life, which might be a good thing), I have to go it alone with the help of Google. So far this morning I've learned the definition of sublunar (earthly), chthonian (relating to the underworld), chelae (claws), archons (evil forces) and much more. And I'm only to page seven. I had to look up the first word in the book "Kester," meaning crown in Hebrew.

(One of the things, I've learned, by the way, is to use dictionary.com, NOT thefreedictionary.com. The second site is totally wretched, with skimpy definitions and appalling ads. When I'm trying to improve my mind, the last thing I need are gross pictures of yellow teeth to advertise whiteners, or cartoon women squeezing their stomach fat. Please Lord, bring back the dancing mortgage people!)

Ahem! Back to FP ( no, I am not typing Foucalult's Pendulum over and over). I'm not sure why I'm reading this book, which I picked up at a preschool yard sale for $3.50 two years ago and have been trying to ignore ever since. It looks intriguing, I guess, and I know very little about theology and philosophy and the Knights Templar. One could argue this is a good thing and I'm just taking a short route to a permanent headache, and that's probably true. But it's a challenge, and I'm always one for challenges that have no physical risk or practical use whatsoever.

Plus, those first few pages have been kind of neat. He's got a nice turn for imagery, this guy. His description of the swinging pendulum in a Paris museum of machines and inventions was striking. "Here the pendulum is flanked by the nightmare of a deranged entomologist," he writes, comparing the skeletons of early airplanes, bicycles, autos and other machines to mechanical insects. The museum itself, the Conservatoire National des Arts et M├ętiers or Museum of Arts and Crafts, is housed in an ancient priory, Saint Martin Des Champs, and seems to foreshadow the violent conflict between art, science and philosophy.

I don't plan to blog exhaustively about this little project (really - you can relax now), but I might mention it once in a while. I leave you today with a neat quote I found while searching for the definition of simulacra:

What we want is not freedom but its appearances. It is for these simulacra that man has always striven. And since freedom, as has been said, is no more than a sensation, what difference is there between being free and believing ourselves free?


E.M. Cioran (b. 1911), Rumanian–born-French philosopher. "Strangled Thoughts," sct. 3, The New Gods (1969, trans. 1974).

(Oh, and by the way, the Pendulum is no longer at Saint Martin Des Champs. It's in the Pantheon now. )

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