Foucault’s Pendulum, an excerpt

(by Umberto Eco)

“This is Diotallevi,” Belbo said, introducing us.

“Oh, you’re here to look at that Templar thing. Poor man. Listen, Jacopo, I thought of a good one: Urban Planning for Gypsies.”

“Great,” Belbo said admiringly. “I have one, too: Aztec Equitation.”

“Excellent. But would that go with Potio-section or the Adyn-ata?”

“We’ll have to see,” Belbo said. He rummaged in his drawer and took out some sheets of paper. “Potio-section…” He looked at me, saw my bewilderment. “Potio-section, as everybody knows, of course, is the art of slicing soup. No, no,” he said to Diotallevi. “It’s not a department, it’s a subject, like Mechanical Avunculogratulation or Pylocatabasis. They all fall under the heading of Tetrapyloctomy.”

“What’s tetra…?” I asked.

“The art of splitting a hair four ways. This is the department of useless techniques. Mechanical Avunculogratulation, for example, is how to build machines for greeting uncles. We’re not sure, though, if Pylocatabasis belongs, since it’s the art of being saved by a hair. Somehow that doesn’t seem completely useless.”

“All right, gentlemen,” I said, “I give up. What are you two talking about?”

“Well, Diotallevi and I are planning a reform in higher education. A School of Comparative Irrelevance, where useless or impossible courses are given. The school’s aim is to turn out scholars capable of endlessly increasing the number of unnecessary subjects.

“And how many departments are there?”

“Four so far, but that may be enough for the whole syllabus. The Tetrapyloctomy department has a preparatory function; its purpose is to inculcate a sense of irrelevance. Another important department is Adynata, or Impossibilia. Like Urban Planning for Gypsies. The essence of the discipline is the comprehension of the underlying reasons for a thing’s absurdity. We have courses in Morse syntax, the history of antarctic agriculture, the history of Easter Island painting, contemporary Sumerian literature, Montessori grading, Assyrio-Babylonian philately, the technology of the wheel in pre-Columbian empires, and the phonetics of the silent film.”

“How about crowd psychology in the Sahara?”

“Wonderful,” Belbo said.

Diotallevi nodded. “You should join us. The kid’s got talent, eh, Jacopo?”

“Yes, I saw that right away. Last night he constructed some moronic arguments with great skill. But let’s continue. What did we put in the Oxymoronics department? I can’t find my notes.”

Diotallevi took a slip of paper from his pocket and regarded me with friendly condescension. “In Oxymoronics, as the name implies, what matters is selfcontradiction. That’s why I think it’s the place for Urban Planning for Gypsies.”

“No,” Belbo said. “Only if it were Nomadic Urban Planning. The Adynata concern empirical impossibilities; Oxymoronics deal with contradictions in terms.”

“Maybe. But what courses did we put under Oxymoronics? Oh, yes, here we are: Tradition in Revolution, Democratic Oligarchy, Parmenidean Dynamics, Heraclitean Statics, Spartan Sybaritics, Tautological Dialectics, Boolean Eristic.”

I couldn’t resist throwing in “How about a Grammar of Solecisms?”

“Excellent!” they both said, making a note.

“One problem,” I said.

“What?”

“If the public gets wind of this, people will show up with manuscripts.”


This passage stuck with me for both its fantastic vocabulary and its critique of the absurdity of higher education (especially the more ‘niche’ sub-subjects). 

Decided to repost it for posterity, with links out to many of the words new to me.

Full text here, this book was an incredible read and I highly recommend it to anyone.

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