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  • The Imaginary Universe of Umberto Eco:A Reading of Foucault's Pendulum1

In the Introduction to The Role of the Reader Umberto Eco argues that a model reader is inscribed in the open work by its author. "An author can foresee an 'ideal reader affected by an ideal insomnia' (as happens with Finnegans Wake) able to master different codes and eager to deal with the text as with a maze of many issues" (9). Umberto Eco would seem to be not only the ideal "model reader" but the only empirical reader whose competence is sufficiently encyclopedic to do justice to The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum. Each of Eco's novels is in fact a vast maze, a tangled web of arcane references, coded messages, metaphysical speculation, and historical trivia which only the author can successfully unravel. On the other hand, Eco's assertion that the author should die after his work is complete, in order not to block the path of the text,2 acts as a kind of challenge to the reader to fix upon an "unauthorized" interpretation of the text.3 Whether we pose as model readers, following the paths of a "faithful" reading predetermined by the author, or whether we decide to break new, uncharted ground, the interpretive paths we may follow seem endless. It has become something of a convention to open an essay on The Name of the Rose by inventorying the numerous if not infinite ways in which the text might be read.4 No matter what approach the critic chooses, she makes it clear that the reading in question is in no way privileged, that it "forecloses no others" (Artigiani 64). The critic who may seem to "go too far" with Eco's [End Page 895] text forestalls any objections by belittling the effort as a "monstrosity . . . doodled in the margins of [the author's] manuscript" (Mackey 39). If the critic chooses to deconstruct the novel, "to read the text against its own conscious assertions," looking for the point where the author is not in control, she must ask whether this particular strategy is not already foreseen in the text.

Foucault's Pendulum elicits from the critic precisely the same perplexity as Eco's first novel. Is it the critic's job to reconstruct the references on which this compendium of arcane knowledge is based? Should one read the novel as an autobiographical projection of the author or as an exemplification of the author's theories? I have envisioned a somewhat hybrid approach to Foucault's Pendulum, an approach which I will elaborate in the following pages. I will examine the central theme of the novel first in the context of the sociopolitical upheaval of post war Italy and then in the light of Eco's numerous theoretical works. Finally I will locate the point where we may begin to unravel the text through a reading which could be called deconstructive. Without deciding whether this is a moment of ambiguity or irony that is inscribed in the text or whether it is instead a moment of blindness (and, of course, insight), I point to the way in which Foucault's Pendulum puts into question Eco's theoretical work.5

No reading of Foucault's Pendulum can do justice to the novel without situating it in the sociopolitical climate from which it emerged. The novel unsparingly satirizes the Italian political scene of the last decades. Foucault's Pendulum confronts head on events that in The Name of the Rose were dealt with indirectly and allegorically. It will be remembered that Eco's first, historical, novel is prefaced by a note informing the reader that the text is a translation of a manuscript which first fell into the author's hands in Prague in 1968, six days before the Soviet invasion.6 Although the authorial note claims that the story is "gloriously" lacking in any relevance to contemporary Italy, the dust jacket of the Italian edition of the novel gives the lie to this disclaimer. Jorge da Burgos' fanatical belief in Truth with a capital "T" allegorizes, among other things, the political fanaticism of the Red Brigades...


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