Progenitor of Modern High and Low

RIP Umberto Eco.

It was amusing to look at Foucault’s Pendulum again. At one point this was one of my favorite books, but when I got a little older I realized that Eco was trying too hard.

Pendulum predates the similarly themed The Da Vinci Code by over fifteen years. The Da Vinci Code is poorly written, yet in some basic way Dan Brown delivers proper escapism in a way that Eco can’t. In particular, the opening chapters of Pendulum are obtrusively dry and academic. When the narrator finally settles in to tell a juicy history of the Templars, the book gets a grip and surges forward.

“Juicy” could mean low brow, “academic” could mean high brow. Eco was ahead of his time when trying to combine the two. I remember being stunned by “Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertexual Collage” from Travels in Hyperrality in about 1990. However, that essay doesn’t hold up in the era of the information superhighway. Compared to TV Tropes and Idioms, Eco’s attempt to anthologize genre references is a rusted Model T in Grampa’s backyard.

Despite reservations, Foucault’s Pendulum definitely has something, perhaps especially in terms of the existential ending. I formerly thought that was the weakest part of the book but now  I have enough life experience to understand it better.

Eco’s first bestseller The Name of the Rose continues to charm. While Foucault’s Pendulum is like a modern chase or conspiracy thriller, Name of the Rose is simply an Agatha Christie-style mystery, which proves to be an easier trope to bend to scholarly pursuits. The historical detail and philosophical perspective is shamelessly academic from the first page to last, and the reader receives an amusing and digestible education hung on the conceit of amateur detection.

Eco’s interview with Lila Azam Zanganeh for the Paris Review is a joy throughout.