A World of Speculation

Paranoid conspiracy theories are more prevalent than ever in culture and politics–vast right-wing conspiracies and left-wing fever swamps, billionaires with plans to “RULE THE WORLD” and chillingly suspicious corporations.

Only the initiated few know about the dire strategems, along with a lonely protagonist who accidentally discovers and fights against the overwhelming evil.

These stories–or theories–have in common wide nets of “secret” correspondences (secret in the sense of hidden in plain sight, because the lonely protagonists we find ourselves sitting next to on the airplane are always asking, “Have you ever heard of the Masons?” while the Masons are driving their Winnebagoes around with bumper stickers that say, “2B1 ASK1“) and, as Umberto Eco illustrates in Foucault’s Pendulum, at the heart of the secret is another secret, which, once it is laid bare, becomes a nothing, laughable. In fact, nothing may be even better than a real secret, because whereas anything can be debunked, nothing can’t.

In literature, the lonely protagonist occasionally defeats the conspiracy by exposing it, in which case it’s a tepid conspiracy, good for a one-hour TV drama at best. For the blockbuster, the protagonist must win by eluding the evil–as in the Bourne Identity, with the hint that the conspiracy lives to rise another day.

Conspiracies make for high-stakes drama with great potential for action and conflict, but they’re an odd social phenomenon, and I wondered where the idea came from, how long it’s been around, and why it appeals to us so strongly.

Saturday evening, Carl Olson gave a brief talk about a book he co-authored, The DaVinci Hoax. He told a funny story that captures the “fact” of the book: he has some friends, a couple, who work in a university, one in the theology department, one in art history. The art historian’s friends loved The DaVinci Code: Great story, they said, if you ignore the art parts. The theology faculty also loved the book: Great story, if you ignore the theology. But aside from the inaccurate art and wacky theology, aside from the astronomical promotional effort that would have made a bestseller out of the Bunkie, La., phone book, and aside from Dan Brown’s mediocre writing, what’s not to like?

Anyway, I asked Carl Olson where the conspiracy literature came from, and he said that the “conspiracy” groups came into their own in the Enlightenment–Masons, Illuminati, and so forth–extending up into the 19th century in America with the Transcendental movement, and obviously into the 20th century with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the Hal Lindsey believers (not that the Lindseyites are anti-Semitic, only that both they and the anti-Semites are convinced of great conspiracies), and so forth. If anything, it seems, the appeal of conspiracy has become greater in the waning years of the 20th century, and now conspiracy theories have entered the mainstream of Left politics, with Michael Moore, Pres. Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy (scary photo warning), and the Democratic presidential contender.

Foucault’s Pendulum posits that the competing conspiracies feed off each other, as their adherents make up lurid tales about the other groups, which connection-hungry individuals, looking for something bigger than themselves, then imitate. These are the people who don’t have the psychological makeup to play the lonely protagonist, or they may see themselves as the lonely protagonists who must band together against an evil so great that they need to become part of “Them” to combat it. To what extent was the Nazi movement a matter of Hitler and his followers joining, becoming, “Them,” and thus creating the next level of conspiracy mythology with its occult symbols and its aim at world domination?

The leader of the conspiracy in Pendulum is Count St-Germain, a mysterious character, suave, debonaire, rich, and persuasive, who purports to be immortal. (On another sidetrack, Count St-Germain may have been a model for the mysterious villain in Charles Williams’ Shadows of Ecstasy, which sheds new light on the book.) The “count” doesn’t, however, actually control anything–it takes all his energy to manage the other “diabolicals” (as Eco’s protagonists call the conspirators). But for all the talk about managing the inner workings of the world, there was no sense that the diabolicals controlled–or even participated to any great extent–in anything outside their own conspiracies.

Eco’s description of the world of the diabolicals fits the world as it actually works much better than the Da Vinci Code, The Book of Q, The Bourne Identity and their ilk. And the obligatory lecture at the center of it, in which a character explains how the world is actually organized, has the virtue of being both beautiful and short, unlike the head-banging tediousness of the “nonfiction” passages at the heart of The Da Vinci Code and The Book of Q.

Foucault’s Pendulum turns the conspiracy genre inside out. It’s the best and truest thing I’ve found on the paranoid conspiracy phenomenon and reinforces the “laughably pathetic” aspects of those who trust in the power of conspiracies–for good or ill.