Foucault's PendulumFoucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Umbert Eco has been described as the thinking man’s Dan Brown, a master of modern conspiracy narrative featuring secret societies, cryptic serial murders, Biblical mysteries, Templars, Illuminati, threatening technologies and the moving shadow of inexplicable historical forces mysteriously at work, enhanced and dialated also by serious discussions of the nature of God and His invisible shaping hand in human history, Revelations, semiotics and signs, intellectual puzzles and riddles, the nature of art, texts & textuality, mind, soul, spirituality, good & evil, and an exploration of order, absurdity and meaninglessness in life and world history.

Eco’s books, such as “Foucault’s Pendulum” and “The Name of the Rose” are seen as founding and grounding the genre of the Conspiracy Thriller Mystery, popularized recently in print and film with Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons” and epitomized by such masterpieces as Thomas Pynchon’s epics, “Gravity’s Rainbow,” “The Crying of Lot 49,” and “Against the Day,” featuring esoteric conspiracies varying from the hidden hand of The Illuminati, Templars, Freemasons, Opus Dei, the Phoebus Conspiracy, Arch-Capitalists, Synarchists, Tri-Lateralists and International Bankers, to the advent of the Anti-Christ and fulfillment of the End-Days of Revelation.


The Conspiracy Thriller (or Paranoia Thriller) is a subgenre of more general thriller fiction. The protagonists of conspiracy thrillers are often journalists or amateur investigators who find themselves (often inadvertently) pulling on a small thread which unravels a vast conspiracy that ultimately goes “all the way to the top.” The complexities of historical fact are often recast as a morality play in which bad people cause bad events, and good people either identify and defeat them in the typical Hollywood ending, or alternatively are inevitably crushed by the entrenched secretive power elite of a malign or absurdist history which the “little people” remain powerless to change. Conspiracies are often played out as “man-in-peril” (or “woman-in-peril”) stories, or yield Quest narratives similar to those found in whodunnits and detective stories.

A common theme in such works is that characters uncovering the conspiracy encounter difficulty ascertaining the truth amid deceptions and diabolical riddles: rumors, lies, propaganda, and counter-propaganda build upon one another until what is conspiracy and what is coincidence become entangled. Many conspiracy fiction works also include the theme of secret history.

Modern classics of the Conspiracy Thriller Mystery genre include John Buchan’s 1915 novel “The Thirty-Nine Steps,” which weaves elements of conspiracy and man-on-the-run archetypes. Graham Greene’s 1943 novel “Ministry of Fear,” rendered in film by Fritz Lang in 1944, combines all the ingredients of paranoia and conspiracy familiar to aficionados of the 1970s thrillers, with additional urgency and depth added by its wartime backdrop.

One of the first science fiction novels to deal with a full-blown conspiracy theory was Eric Frank Russell’s “Dreadful Sanctuary” (1948). This deals with a number of sabotaged space missions and the apparent discovery that Earth is being quarantined by aliens from other planets of the Solar System. However, as the novel progresses it emerges that this view is a paranoid delusion perpetuated by a small but powerful secret society. The “Men in Black” series also transforms the locus of the hidden conspiracy against the ordinary folk to a supranational government nexus with extraterrestrials.

Conspiracy fiction in the US took off in the 1960s and 1970s in the wake of a number of high-profile scandals and cryptic controversies, most notably the Vietnam War, assassinations of John & Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the Nixon Watergate scandal. Several fictional works thus explored the clandestine machinations and conspiracies lurking beneath the seemingly orderly fabric of political life. American novelist Richard Condon wrote a number of conspiracy thrillers, including the seminal brainwashing classic “The Manchurian Candidate” (1959), and “Winter Kills,” which was made into a film. “Illuminatus!” (1969–1971), a trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, is regarded by many as the definitive work of 20th-century conspiracy fiction. Set in the late ’60s, it is a psychedelic tale which fuses mystery, science fiction, horror, and comedy.

Philip K. Dick wrote a large number of short stories where vast conspiracies were employed (usually by an oppressive government or other hostile powers) to keep the common people under control or enforce a given agenda. Other popular science fiction writers whose work features conspiracy theories include William Gibson, John Twelve Hawks, and Neal Stephenson.

John Macgregor’s 1986 novel “Propinquity” describes an attempt by a modern couple to revive the frozen body of a gnostic medieval Queen, buried deep under Westminster Abbey. Their attempt to expose the feminine aspect of Christianity’s origins results in fierce Church opposition and, eventually, an international manhunt.

“The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown draws on conspiracy theories involving the Roman Catholic Church, Opus Dei and the Priory of Sion. Other contemporary authors who have used elements of conspiracy theory in their work include Margaret Atwood, William S. Burroughs, Don DeLillo, James Ellroy, Joseph Heller, Robert Ludlum, David Morrell and James Clancy Phelan.


Umberto Eco’s “Foucault’s Pendulum” (1988) features a story in which the staff of a vanity publishing firm bored with the third-rate novels,invent their own conspiracy for fun. They call this satirical intellectual game “The Plan”. The three become increasingly obsessed with The Plan, and sometimes forget that it’s just a game. Worse still, other conspiracy theorists learn about The Plan, and take it seriously. One, Belbo finds himself the target of a real secret society that believes he possesses the key to the lost treasure of the Knights Templar. Belbo, Diotallevi and Casaubon quickly become submerged in occult manuscripts that draw all sorts of flimsy connections between historical events and the unfolding of the plan. They nickname the authors of the “secret manuscript” they claim to have discovered the “Diabolicals”, and engage Agliè, a professional secret society expert as a consultant. They develop an intricate web of mystical connections, making use of Belbo’s small personal computer, which he has nicknamed Abulafia, uncovering hidden references to the Kabbalah’s Sefirot. Agliè in reality is a leader of a real secret society which becomes convinced that the fictional Plan is part of their own mission and they ruthlesssly take it over, torturing and ultimately killing Belbo to reveal the hidden keys to their destiny, and causing Casuabon, the sole survivor to run from their clutches.

Eco’s prior classic, “The Name of the Rose” is set in a Medieval monestery in which a series of murders unfolds, implicating heretical secret communistic religious sects and the Inquisition which pursues them, along with a witchhunt for the Anti-Christ on the eve of the expected Apocalypse. A Franciscan monk, William of Baskerville, takes on the role of a Medieval “Sherlock Holmes” to unravel the mystery, following clues and riddles until the story ends in tragedy with the entire monestery destroyed by fire at the hands of a spiteful reactionary monk. No “master conspiracy” is exists however, and history proves neither guided by the divine blueprint of Doom of Revelations nor the work of secret plotters, but rather the absurdist accidents of a disordered world.


“Gravity’s Rainbow,” often regarded a the greates American novel since WWII,also draws heavily on conspiracy theory in describing the motives and operations of the Phoebus and other industrial cartels as well as the cross-plotting of Allied and Nazi intelligence services in connection with the development of V1 and V2 ballistic missiles during World War II. Mysteries unfold from the arcane to the absurd, such as the hidden correlations of the Nazi V2 rocket impact points and the locations of the sexual couplings of the protagonist Slothrop, an American intelligence operative whose mind ultimately disintegrates as he hunts for the hidden secrets of Nazi missile technology across WWII Europe amid uncanny connections of sexual perversions, capitalist plots, and the absurdist destinies of the characters.

Pynchon’s earlier work, “The Crying of Lot 49” (1966) also includes a secretive conflict between cartels dating back to the Middle Ages. His late work, “Against the Day” presents a sometimes whimsical interweaving of technology as a driving force of history, the nefarious plotting of a secretive capitalist elite prior to WWI to dominate and control it, and occult secret societies, such as an idealistic scientific brotherhood operating a Zepplin fleet which contends with Russian and German rivals, then mysteriously travels through a an air tunnel from the North Pole to the Center of the Earth exploring occult technologies such as Tesla’s “Telluric Currents” which may offer unlimited energy. The idealistic scientific brotherhood gradually discovers that its secret leadership, innocently idealized, is controlled by ruthless capitalists out to control the technology shaping history.


The “True Believer” addict of conspiracy theories need not believe in God, but always believes in the Devil. Though anyone may enjoy the artistry and entertainment value of conspiracy novels, and there are real conspiracies, those of a more pronounced paranoid mindset are often convinced of dubious conspiracies’ truth, more often resulting from their underlying psychological needs than the hisorical truth of the subject matter. Such conspiracies ironically provide the clinically paranoid as well as the socially functional paranoid with the mental secuirty of a predictable, if malign, world. They justify his distrust of any relationships with perfidious others and offer a convenient excuse for selfish and self-centered withdrawal into the intellectually lazy bunker-mentality of “us against them” in which there is conveniently no need for moral obligations, tiresome human feelings and complexities regarding anyone outside onself and one’s own small circle within the seige-bunker, with the bonus of convenient “feel good” self-justification of regarding onself as an innocent, even heroic victim and martyr of malign forces, immune from the possibility of being a source of evil oneself, which is always projected conveniently outward onto some demonized “them.” In terms of economic class, it justifies the acquisitive middle-class in hoarding their own resources for the fight for survival of oneself and defensive withdrawal.

Arguably the paranoia behind a conspiracy theorist’s obsession with mind control, population control, occultism, surveillance abuse, Big Business, Big Government, and globalization arises from a combination of two factors typifying such a personality, who: 1) holds strong individualist values and 2) lacks power. The first attribute refers to people who care deeply about an individual’s right to make their own choices and direct their own lives without interference or obligations to a larger system (like the government or human community,) but combine this with a sense of powerlessness in their own life, and one gets what some psychologists call “agency panic,” intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy to outside forces or regulators. When fervent individualists, especially the “New Poor” of the Global Economic Crisis still internalizing traditional values of self-reliance, or those otherwise threatened in their economic condition, job, social status or psychological security feel that they can no longer exercise their independence, they experience a crisis and assume that larger forces, alien and malevolent, are to blame for usurping this freedom, psychologically projecting a magnified enmity from their own state of felt helplessness.


My own contemporary and futurist epic, Spiritus Mundi, is a thriller driven by multiple conspiracy theories, and influenced by the traditional masterpieces of the Conspiracy Thriller Mystery genre such as those of Eco and Pynchon. It tells the story of social idealists engaged in an idealistic campaign to found a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, a globalized version of the EU European Parliament constituted as a new advisory organ for international democracy in the United Nations alongside the existing General Assembly and Security Council. Along the way the Campaign is infiltrated by an apparant Islamic terrorist conspiracy to set off a nuclear device in Jerusalem and counter-infiltrated by the CIA and MI6. As this conspiracy unfolds, it is revealed to be part of a greater geopolitical conspiracy of a concealed “New Axis” alliance of a rising China, Russia and Iran to execute a Pearl-Harbor-like sneak attack on the Middle-East oil reserves to sever the West’s oil jugular and seize dominance in Eurasia and the World. At the end of Book II of Spiritus Mundi, the onion skins of this conspiracy are further unpeeled to reveal a metaconspiracy led by a 23rd Century time-travelling War Criminal, Ceasarion Khannis, who, Terminator-like has returned to our present to ignite WWIII to change his own future world’s benign history in which the United Nations Parliamentary Assembly has brought about centuries of world peace and progress. He is pursued in time-travel, Terminator-like, by the 23rd Century Chief Prosecutor, Abor Linkin,who seeks to save his own history and bring Khannis back to his own time to face justice.

Like Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” and “Against the Day” the collision of these concrete conspiracies and the forces opposing them call to light potential hidden forces shaping human history, such as a benign spiritual evolution of the human spirit, embodied in the “Spiritus Mundi” reminiscent of Tielhard de Chardin’s and C.G. Jung’s “creative evolution” struggling in Yin/Yang opposition against their own nemeses, Entropy, the Freudian Death-Instinct Thanatos, and the spirit of negation.

Ironically, the very campaign for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly for greater democatic oversight of the United Nations and the system of global governance which lies at the center of the novel, an innovation enabling the UN to redress its “democratic deficit” and thereby better resist domination by the international financial elite or narrow geopolitical power intersts of the dominant nation-states, has often become the “demonized” irrational fixation of of certain paranoid tunnel-vision conspiracy theories of prominent right-wing critics. On the irrational right wing there exists a crusade against what such groups term “The New World Order,” a phrase assoicated with the elder President Bush. This is a supposed conspiracy by an internationalist elite, led by an unholy alliance such agents as the Tri-Lateral Commission, communists, the CIA, MI6 and other devious intelligence services, nefarious financial capitalists, the “godless liberal-internationalist establishment,” Rockefellers, Rothschilds, Kissingers and other Jews, multi-national corporations, world socialists, and last but not least, the Anti-Christ, to establish a “One World Government” which has its goal the destruction of America’s national sovereignty, Constitution and democracy, replacement of our sacred dollar with a worthless Globo-Euro currency, institution of universal, global and crushing taxation, replacement of God and all traditional religion with uniformist secular humanism or communist atheism, destruction of all individual freedom, privacy and the family to create a faceless uniform socialist universal proletriat to populate this Brave New World, all dominated by the false benign mask of a demonized United Nations, in reality a Trojan Horse for a universal internationalist totalitarianism, both socialist-communist in its intentions yet somehow still controlled by the hidden strings of a financial elite of Investment Banks, souless technocrats and cynical global power holders! In the more Biblical of these paranoid conspiracy theories, all of this serves to make the United Nations the throne of the Anti-Christ for the reign of pure internationalist evil on earth, from which we will presumably welcome the Aramageddon which will finally clease the Earth prior to Last Judgment and the initiation of the Reign of Christ over a perfect new creation, at least for God’s elect, who presumably include all good Christian Patriots!

One would think such a self-contradictory hodge-podge of irrational fears, bugbears and mutually incompatible psychological projections were laughable and pathetic enough to fall of its own weight and stupidity. Unfortunately, for the psychologically addicted, who like playgoers exercises a powerful “willing suspension of disbelief” where any theory satisfies both their psychological needs and economic interests, such a theory has considerable appeal. Indeed, internal consistency, logic and objective evidence for such conspiracies are entirely unnecessay to the “True Believer” who merely needs confirmation of his or her own biases and fears. Assorted demonized “agents of evil” may be readily interchanged on any convenient occasion, with the Protean identity of the “Axis of Evil,” switched as quickly as the changing of a flat tire, being switched from subversive athiest communism, to Islamic Fundamentalism, to the “Godless Internationalist Elite” of the New World Order with complete ease. Unfortunately for the world, such paranoid conspiracy theories are often enough to move Congress to financially hobble the United Nations, magnified to the proportions of the Anti-Christ or International Big Brother in some right-wing circles, when in reality it possesses less than the budget and manpower of the New York City Fire Department while charged with maintaing world peace, prosperity and the well-being of the 7 billion humans on the planet utilizing resources and powers of trivial proportions.

In conclusion, I invite all of you to look into the masterpieces of Conspiracy Thriller Mystery fiction, including the works of Pynchon and Eco, and to check out the mysteries of Spiritus Mundi.

For a fuller discussion of the concept of World Literature you are invited to look into the extended discussion in the new book Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard, one of the principal themes of which is the emergence and evolution of World Literature:

For Discussions on World Literature and n Literary Criticism in Spiritus Mundi: http://worldliteratureandliterarycrit…

Robert Sheppard

World Literature Forum
Author, Spiritus Mundi Novel
Author’s Blog: http://robertalexandersheppard.wordpr…
Spiritus Mundi on Goodreads:…
Spiritus Mundi on Amazon, Book I:
Spiritus Mundi, Book II: The Romance

Copyright Robert Sheppard 2013 All Rights Reserved

View all my reviews

About robertalexandersheppard

Robert Sheppard , Author, Poet & Novelist Pushcart Prize fof Literature 2014 Nominee Professor of World and Comparative Literature Professor of International Law Senior Associate, Committee for a Democratic United Nations (KDUN) E-mail: Robert Sheppard is the author of the acclaimed dual novel Spiritus Mundi, nominated for the prestigious 2014 Pushcart Prize for Literature in two parts, Spiritus Mundi the Novel, Book I and Spiritus Mundi the Romance, Book II. The acclaimed “global novel” features espionage-terror-political-religious-thriller action criss-crossing the contemporary world involving MI6, the CIA and Chinese MSS Intelligence as well as a "People Power" campaign to establish a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly on the model of the European Parliament, with action moving from Beijing to London to Washington, Mexico City and Jerusalem while presenting a vast panorama of the contemporary international world, including compelling action and surreal adventures. It also contains the unfolding sexual, romantic and family relationships of many of its principal and secondary characters, and a significant dimension of spiritual searching through "The Varieties of Religious Experience." It contains also significant discussions of World Literature, including Chinese, Indian, Western and American literature, and like Joyce's Ulysses, it incorposates a vast array of stylistic approaches as the story unfolds. Dr. Sheppard presently serves as a Professor of International Law and World Literature at Peking University, Northeastern University and the State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) of China, and has previously served as a Professor of International Law and MBA professor at Tsinghua University, Renmin People’s University, the China University of Politics and Law and at the Law Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) in Beijing, China. Having studied Law, Comparative Literature and politics at the University of California, Berkeley (Ph. D.Program in Comparative Literature), Northridge, Tübingen, Heidelberg, the People’s College and San Francisco, (BA, MA, JD), he additionally has been active as professor of International Trade, Private International Law, and Public International Law from 1993 to 1998 at Xiamen University, Beijing Foreign Studies University, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Graduate School (CASS), and the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. In the US he serves as a Professor at Kean University, as well as having taught at Bergen Community College and Pillar College in NJ. Since 2000 he has served as a Senior Consultant to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Beijing and has authored numerous papers on the democratic reform of the United Nations system.
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