Stranger than Nonfiction

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“Chapter by chapter, we are reconstructing the history of the world,” Diotallevi said. “We are rewriting the Book. I like it, I really like it.” -Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

The game of reconstructing a tattered history begins with a tatter itself: a sheet of papyrus from 1344 upon which is written a set of instructions by and for the medieval Knights Templar. (I know you’ve all read the Da Vinci Code.) A copy of this sheet finds its way to Garamond Press in Milan, where editor/scholars Casaubon, Belbo, and Diotallevi have it forced upon them by a precocious manuscript writer who takes the papyrus at face value. The Templars, after being supposedly annihilated by the King of France, move their organization underground where they put together a centuries-long scheme to collect a treasure for the Templars and establish them as rulers of the world. The Plan, as the men of Garamond call this sheet, was supposed to come to fruition in 1944. It’s clear that this Plan has not come to pass, which means either the Plan was a fake, or something happened along the way to disrupt the Templar’s actions. In an exercise of intellectual might, they decide to play a game: what if the Plan is real? How was it to have been completed? And, in the end, why wasn’t it completed?

The game in Foucault’s Pendulum requires the three men to do nothing short of rewiring all of modern history. Indeed, all of ancient and Biblical history as well (Jesus is a Celtic allegory, the measurements of the Temple of Solomon contain God’s true name). Following their reciept of the Plan is an influx of conspiracy-theory manuscripts: Belbo, Casaubon, and Diotallevi assume, for the game’s purposes, that they’re all true. The procession of history carries on as usual; lightswitches flipped on as you walk down a hallway. What has changed are the reasons for the history; the circuitry behind the switches that links each one to the ones preceedng and following. History becomes ruled by symbols and magic, secret orders and secret alphabets, immortal men, the technologies of Atlantis, magnetic currents, secret masters who live thousands of miles beneath the Tibetan Himalayas; an entire esoteric culture that overlaps with everything we already know. Like a scribbled drawing, upon which is laid a sheet of tracing paper containing the most immaculate, elaborate, precision inks ever concieved.

Instead of editing the manuscripts of nutjobs, they become creators. All of this is great fun, of course, until some people start believing what they created.

Don’t they love you in mysterious ways? You say “Yeah but this is now and that was then.” Put a dollar into the machine and you’ll remember when. -M Ward, “Post-War”

Eco’s novel resonates so strongly with the reader because it’s not a book about history at all: it’s a book about psychology. It’s about how we constantly seek to recreate our pasts to justify our presents and futures. In one telling passage Casaubon, the book’s narrator, says “I don’t know if what I remember…is what happened or is only what I wished had happened, but it was definitely on that evening that the Plan first stirred in out mind, stirred as a desire…to transform into fantasized reality that fantasy that others wanted to be real.” Can a version of history become true if it’s believed enough? Memory is all too tenuous sometimes. I’m certain that in all of our minds there are memories that are completely synthetic; things we always wished had happened. We wished enough and they became true. And there is a far greater number of memories that have been modified in the years since the actual event. Just put some quarters in the jukebox, take a sip of beer, and think back…

History, although documented unlike many of our memories, is still subject to revision. Compare your middle-school Social Studies book to Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. There’s a lot we were never told and never would have been told (and would have gone through life content in never having heard it) if it weren’t for a few persistent individuals. Of course Zinn’s book has the potential for error as well; the reality lies somewhere in the continuum between Zinn and Social Studies.

We know he’s been absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons, and we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons. -Vice President Dick Cheney, March 16, 2003

I don’t know anybody in any government or any intelligence agency who suggested that the Iraqis had nuclear weapons. That’s fact number one. -Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, June 24, 2003

Perhaps what’s most astounding about the Plan is that when you read it–when I read it, at least–there exists the remote possibility that it could be true. I look at it and say “Sure, why not?” We think we understand the world, but we keep finding things that show us that we never really did, and maybe we never will. Humans crave faith, and they’ll give it not just to God but to anyone who presents them with a halfway believeable story. It’s frightening what we’ll accept as truth if it helps us sleep better at night.

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