I was getting my hair cut the other day, when my hair stylist and I had this exchange (condensed):

Mike, Hair Grandmaster: So, are you fired up about the new Dan Brown book?
Me, Blogger and Humanitarian: Little bit, man. It should be fun, but whenever people I know get into his books, I wind up becoming a fact-checker for friends.
Mike: Like, what kind of fact-checker?
Me: OK, take Angels and Demons and the Illuminati thing.
Mike: But doesn't he say at the beginning that it's "factual"?
Me: Sure. It's factual. It existed. But not the way he says it did. 
Mike: How so?

Fast forward 20 minutes, and my haircut is done, but I'm still talking.

What I explained to Mike, in a nutshell, is that not knowing what's real makes Brown's book more exciting, and to be sure, his Illuminati are much more fun than the real one. In fact, all the conspiracy Illuminatis are light years more entertaining than the reality. The reality was that a bunch of Bavarians in 1776 got together to promote rational enlightenment thinking and peppered some of their rhetoric with proto-German nationalism. They probably never did anything more sinister than make friends read tracts about Natural Philosophy and occasionally drink a bottle of hock, walk up a mountain and sing German songs. Then they got banned eight years later.

The dissimilarities between Brown's Illuminati and the real one are pretty huge: they're founded centuries apart, and Brown's is explicitly anti-Church, while the real one was founded by a Jesuit. But this is dull stuff, and what's great about the group was that, even while it existed, its power, reach and purpose in public imagination was far greater than in reality. This is why you can hang almost any theory on them and have it work: people have misunderstood them for over two-hundred years.

It was while raving and jabbering about this to the guy who makes my head look normally-shaped that I realized how much I wanted him to read two books that take this concept and do more with it than Brown does.

The first, The Illuminatus! Trilogy, is arguably the granddaddy of conspiracist fiction. Written by Playboy magazine staffers Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson with the full weight of a research department behind them, it ties American, European, Illuminati, Freemason, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu and Discordian history together in a postmodernist pastiche that sabotages its own seriousness amid scenes of free love and free drug use. At a key moment, all the main characters question the reality of their existence by wondering if they're in a B-grade novel written by a couple of acidheads.

What Illuminatus! attempts to do is reconcile the unreconcilable, linking millennia of history and mysticism in something like a viable whole — or, really, a viable three wholes all fighting each other for domination of the world both physical and spiritual. The authors' attempts at these reconciliations have the fun side-effect of giving crash courses in pop-cultural history as well as many esoteric religious beliefs and historical events. It's a book where the Pentagon in Washington was created because its geometry prevents the emergence of the Lovecraftian ancient god, the Yog-Sothoth, into our reality; but, at the same time, it's a book you could learn a lot from.

This interesting educational phenomenon came to a creative and intellectual apotheosis in Umberto Eco's  Foucault's Pendulum, a semiotic examination of human understanding that gets crammed through a ripping story about conspiracy theories. Now, semiotics is really complex: suffice to say that it's a study of symbols and language and how those reflect and shape our understanding and the meaning of things.

This sounds like tedious stuff, but Eco makes it fantastically fun. In the book, a group of book editors are visited by an old soldier who gives them this vague and crazy book about the Knights Templar's plans to take over the world in revenge for their banishment in the fourteenth century. The soldier then mysteriously disappears. But, since these guys have read tons of conspiracy theory manuscripts, they figure they can cobble together a theory that's much better than the soldier's, so they start improving his "true" tale.

Eco is a fine scholar, and anyone reading the book can come away with decent starter knowledge of dozens of figures, events and religions. But what's most engrossing is how, as these men try to bridge gaps between known facts and figures, the easier it gets. They have determined that these events and people signify an overarching reality. They look at the data ahead of time, knowing that they have to get from Point A to Point Z and along the way reconcile contradictions and interpolate missing spaces to create a flawless secret history of the world.

In addition to providing all sorts of minor primers on history and religion, what Eco provides the reader is, in fact, a kind of backdoor examination of semiotics itself. We see these people assume that their understanding of facts alters what facts are, that words are suddenly plastic warping beneath a collectively shared understanding of what they mean. Worse, other conspiracy theorists get wind of what the editors are endlessly ratiocinating into existence, and they begin to believe it themselves. Historical noodling conversation turns into a legitimate thriller.

Of course, both Illuminatus! and Pendulum provide lots of avenues for confusion. I probably spent hours in college explaining what people should and should not take literally from these books. In fact, a good idea is to read both and spend an evening afterward with Wikipedia, setting yourself straight. One should do this with Brown as well.

As said, his books make for very entertaining reading, but I really encourage anyone who enjoyed them for their history or conspiracism to check out these works, too. Brown writes a great thriller, but so do Shea and Wilson, and so does Eco. What they add to the process, though, is not only greater research and greater intellectual dives down the rabbit hole, but also a look at what that process means for us as readers, thinkers, even historians. Shea and Wilson might have been acidheads writing a drug and sex romp that riffed off pop-culture, but they were also breaking down culture in the process and questioning how and why it was built in the first place. Eco takes this questioning to its furthest extent yet, questioning how language itself becomes reality, how faith in the conspiracy makes it almost as veritable to an individual as fact.

Illuminatus! reads like some students having waaaaay too much fun at school. Foucault's Pendulum reads like the wily professor taking his unruly and imaginative students to school with a mighty wallop of knowledge and a wonderfully impish wink.
Message Edited by L_Monty on 08-06-2009 04:41 PM
Comments
by Blogger Albert_Rolls on ‎08-06-2009 08:22 PM
Nice job on Eco, the only figure in your trio that I've read, but I'll look up Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson on your recommendation. 
by Blogger Albert_Rolls on ‎08-06-2009 08:37 PM
I guess there are four figures even if there are only three novels. Oops.
by Moderator Melissa_W on ‎08-07-2009 02:20 PM
Ok, so I had to go out and get Foucault's Pendulum....you made it sound really worthwhile :smileytongue:
by Blogger L_Monty on ‎08-13-2009 01:28 PM

Melissa, should I assume you've already finished it? You've already had the book for at least three days now, right? :smileytongue:

 

Albert, I hope you enjoy it, but please bear in mind that there's a very heavy pulp strand throughout. I figured you'd pick up on that with "Lovecraft" and "pop-culture," but I can't stress enough the goofing acidhead element to it. I think the book is really an odd man out in almost any discussion. It's got too much sex and drugs to be thought of as really intellectual, but it's way too full of ideas for the audience who reads it just for the sex, drugs and Lovecraft. I think it's probably doomed to be over- and under-estimated by most readers, depending on what draws them to it.

 

Also, thanks for the good word on Eco. I always feel a little out of my depth with him, I guess. I read and enjoyed the book before I got to college and figured out what all this post-modernism stuff was, so you can imagine how much of a "wow, I really missed that!" feeling I must have had going back and looking at it again later. For some reason, I've imported that feeling with me to all Eco, and I still can't shake it even knowing as much history as there is in Pendulum already.

by Blogger Albert_Rolls on ‎08-13-2009 02:42 PM
I'm very comfortable with the acidhead stuff, if only for nostalgic reasons, and I am an absorber of pop-culture, even if I'm a bit passive about it. Really drugs, sex, and too many ideas seems perfect to me. I was a late starter and didn't read many intellectual books in high school, unless you count the books the Krishnas gave me in downtown Houston. (I had an obsession with cults, wanted to see if my mental abilities could save me from being sucked into them, though I have to admit it was my unwillingness to abandon my vices that really turned me off the people trying to convert me.) What really got me interested in The Illuminatus was the idea of students having way too much fun: that's what students, as well as professors, should be doing.
by Moderator Melissa_W on ‎08-13-2009 03:48 PM

Ummm....I haven't finished it yet because I had to read The Girl Who Played With Fire and The PIckup :smileytongue:

 

But I have read that first short chapter over about 5 times - the meditation on the motion of the pendulum and it's course.  Wow.

by PoeBoy on ‎10-25-2009 11:42 AM

If this is really the historical section, I have a recommendation for a recent novel--David Chacko and Alexander Kulcsar's GONE OVER.  For an unbiased review (not the usual Friends and Family that often appear), follow this link: http://openlettersmonthly.com/blog/microreview-gone-over/

 

You'll want to thank me.

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