November 07, 2003


Posted by shonk at 02:57 AM in Words of Wisdom | TrackBack

I've been spending most of my free time the last couple days reading Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum and I thought I'd share an interesting passage on symbols. To give some context, the main character has been spending a lot of time reading occultist manuscripts and is discussing some of the themes with his girlfriend, Lia, as they lie in bed. Lia's analysis seems to me to be very perceptive, though it is probably more that of Eco the professor of semiotics than of Lia the character.

"Pow, archetypes don't exist; the body exists. The belly inside is beautiful, because the baby grows there, because your sweet cock, all bright and jolly, thrusts there, and good, tasty food descends there, and for this reason the cavern, the grotto, the tunnel are beautiful and important, it has to come from there, because you also came from there the day you were born, because fertility always comes from inside a cavity, where first something rots and then, lo and behold, there's a little man, a date, a baobab.

"And high is better than low, because if you have your head down, the blood goes to your brain, because feet stink and hair doesn't stink as much, because it's better to climb a tree and pick fruit than end up underground, food for worms, and because you rarely hurt yourself hitting something above - you really have to be in an attic - while you often hurt yourself falling. That's why up is angelic and down devilish.

"But because what I said before, about my belly, is also true, both things are true, down and inside are beautiful, and up and outside are beautiful, and the spirit of Mercury and Manicheanism have nothing to do with it. Fire keeps you warm and cold gives you bronchial pneumonia, especially if you're a scholar four thousand years ago, and therefore fire has mysterious virtues besides its ability to cook your chicken. But cold preserves that same chicken, and fire, if you touch it, gives you a blister this big; therefore, if you think of something preserved for millennia, like wisdom, you have to think of it on a mountain, up, high (and high is good), but also in a cavern (which is good, too) and in the eternal cold of the Tibetan snows (best of all). And if you then want to know why wisdom comes from the Orient and not from the Swiss Alps, it's because the body of your ancestors in the morning, when it woke and there was still darkness, looked to the east hoping the sun would rise and there wouldn't be rain."

"Yes, Mama."

"Yes indeed, my child. The sun is good because it does the body good, and because it has the sense to reappear every day; therefore, whatever returns is good, not what passes and is done with. The easiest way to return from where you've been without retracing your steps is to walk in a circle. The animal that coils in a circle is the serpent; that's why so many cults and myths of the serpent exist, because it's hard to represent the return of the sun by the coiling of the hippopotamus. Furthermore, if you have to make a ceremony to invoke the sun, it's best to move in a circle, because if you go in a straight line, you move away from home, which means the ceremony will have to be kept short. The circle is the most convenient arrangement for any rite, even the fire-eaters in the marketplace know this, because in a circle everybody can see the one who's in the center, whereas if a whole tribe formed a straight line, like a squad of soldiers, the people at the ends wouldn't see. And that's why the circle and rotary motion and cyclic return are fundamental to every cult and every rite."

"Yes, Mama."

"We move on to the magic numbers your authors are so fond of. You are one and not two, your cock is one and my cunt is one, and we have one nose and one heart; so you see how many important things come in ones. But we have two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, my breasts, your balls, legs, arms, buttocks. Three is the most magical of all, because our body doesn't know that number; we don't have three of anything, and it should be a very mysterious number that we attribute to God, wherever we live. But if you think about it, I have one cunt and you have one cock - shut up and don't joke - and if we put these two together, a new thing is made, and we become three. So you don't have to be a university professor or use a computer to discover that all cultures on earth have ternary structures, trinities.

"But two arms and two legs make four, and four is a beautiful number when you consider that animals have four legs and little children go on all fours, as the Sphinx knew. We hardly have to discuss five, the fingers of the hand, and then with both hands you get that other sacred number, ten. There have to be ten commandments because, if there were twelve, when the priest counts one, two, three, holding up his fingers, and comes to the last two, he'd have to borrow a hand from the sacristan.

"Now, if you take the body and count all the things that grow from the trunk, arms, legs, head, and cock, you get six; but for women it's seven. For this reason, it seems to me that among your authors six is never taken seriously, except as the double of three, because it's familiar to the males, who don't have any seven. So when the males rule, they prefer to see seven as the mysterious sacred number, forgetting about women's tits, but what the hell.

"Eight ... Eight ... give me a minute. ... If arms and legs don't count as one apiece but two, because of elbows and knees, you have eight parts that move; add the torso and you have nine, add the head and you have ten. Just sticking with the body, you can get all the numbers you want. The orifices, for example."

"The orifices?"

"Yes. How many holes does the body have?"

I counted: "Eyes, nostrils, ears, mouth, ass: eight."

"You see? Another reason eight is a beautiful number. But I have nine! And with that ninth I bring you into the world, therefore nine is holier than eight! Or, if you like, take the anatomy of your menhir, which your authors are always talking about. Standing up during the day, lying down at night - your thing, too. No, don't tell me what it does at night. The fact is that erect it works and prone it rests. So the vertical position is life, pointing sunward, and obelisks stand as trees stand, while the horizontal position and night are sleep, death. Al cultures worship menhirs, monoliths, pyramids, columns, but nobody bows down to balconies and railings. Did you ever hear of an archaic cult of the sacred bannister? You see? And another point: if you worship a vertical stone, even if there are a lot of you, you can all see it; but if you worship, instead, a horizontal stone, only those in the front row can see it, and the others start pushing, me too, me too, which is not a fitting sight for a magical ceremony. ..."

"But rivers..."

"Rivers are worshipped not because they're horizontal, but because there's water in them, and you don't need me to explain to you the relation between water and the body. ... Anyway, that's how we're put together, all of us, and that's why we work out the same symbols millions of kilometers apart, and naturally they all resemble eachother. Thus you see that people with a brain in their head, if they're shown an alchemist's oven, all shut up and warm inside, think of the belly of the mama making a baby, and only your Diabolicals think that the Madonna about to have the Child is a reference to the alchemist's oven. They spent thousands of years looking for a message, and it was there all the time: they just had to look at themselves in the mirror."

"You always tell me the truth. You are my Mirrored Me, my Self seen by You. I want to discover all the secret archetypes of the body." That evening we inaugurated the expression "discovering archetypes" to indicate our moments of greatest intimacy.

I was half-asleep when Lia touched my shoulder. "I almost forgot," she said. "I'm pregnant."

(Foucault's Pendulum, pp. 362-5)