Saturday, March 17, 2007

Umberto Eco

A recent e-mail question about Umberto Eco provoked the following response, which I'm storing here for later reference.

Well, I'm a big fan of Eco in all three of his guises: semiotician (and literary critic), novelist, and columnist. I'll paste one of his columns/essays into the end of this note.

Eco the Semiotician
For anyone who has about had it with modern literary theory, I highly recommend Eco's LitCrit works. He has given us back Intentionality -- although he agrees that the author's intent (intentio auctoris) is not the best guide to interpreting a text, he argues for the intention of the work itself (intentio operis). That is, he makes a credible argument that a work of literature is trying to communicate, and that the best method of interpretation is to try to listen to what the work WANTS to tell us and how it achieves (or fails to achieve) that intended communication.

For my money, far too much time is spent with tools like Deconstruction, which has, I have to admit, its uses. The ability to gain anthropological insight from literary texts is especially attractive to people who work with the ancient world. But I just know that some day at a conference some deconstructionist is going to ask me a question and I'm going to treat their question like a text and deconstruct it rather than answer it. This would make absolutely clear something that I believe about deconstruction: it's rude; useful at times, but essentially impolite.

[*he slips into a fantasy*

Question from the floor: I agree with your presentation overall, but wonder how you would distinguish between gendered issues and power issues in the Late Republican period.

Answer from the lectern: Notice that this very brief text, a questioning text, begins with a first person singular pronoun. This reveals the academic's self-involvement; she has given the self-referent a privileged position, and so privileges herself. Further...

*he comes back from the world of dreams*]

What was I saying? Oh, yes. The primary focus of deconstruction is on what the work gives away about the culture in which it was produced. This is fundamentally rude. It ignores what it trying to be said in favor of what the reader's agenda might be. It is a useful anthropological tool, but should not be the first, and never the only, tool brought to bear in interpreting a text. The first question should always be, "what is the message? what is being said?" And Eco has given us back the right to ask such questions.

The best introduction to his work in this area is a seven lecture series in which Eco gives the first three, three LitCritics from other schools respond, and Eco replies. It's a slim volume published by Cambridge UP entitled Interpretation and Overinterpretation. From there, take a peek at The Limits of Interpretation and his earlier work, The Role of the Reader.

Eco the Novelist
As for the novels, they are all very different. Easily the most accessible (and the only one made into a movie) is The Name of the Rose. A mystery set in a medieval abbey with riffs on Dante, assumed knowledge of theology and Classics, and footnotes in Latin. Look for the edition that has Postscript to the Name of the Rose in it. It's a nice essay.

If you're into conspiracy theories (like Dan Brown's ubiquitous book), Foucault's Pendulum might be the place to start. It is set in a modern vanity publishing house, but ranges throughout the late medieval and early Renaissance periods. Don't try to follow the evolving logic of the knights-templar-ridden plot; I think you're supposed to feel disoriented while thinking "that makes sense". If you read and like this one, try his non-fiction The Search for the Perfect Language.

The Island of the Day Before is set in the same age-of-exploration world as Dava Sobel's Longitude. It dabbles in alchemy and is a great introduction to the errors of courtly love. I used to have a sig from this one:

"He thought that he would become accustomed to the idea [of being orphaned], not yet understanding that it is useless to become accustomed to the loss of a father, for it will never happen a second time: might as well leave the wound open."
-Umberto Eco, Island of the Day Before, end of Ch.7

There are also Baudolino (which Otter once described as "Forrest Gump for Medievalists") and his memoir for an entire generation of Italians, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. (Which, for a change, does NOT turn out to be a father-quest.) For a long time, I had as my sig a line from Bishop Otto in chapter 4 of Baudolino:

"The world condemns liars who do nothing but lie, even about the most trivial things, and it rewards poets, who lie only about the greatest things."

Eco the Columnist
Eco used to write a weekly column for a local (to him) paper. Some of his best essays have been collected in several volumes. Travels in Hyperreality, which includes a great piece on the semiotics of wearing pants; Misreadings, the shortest and funniest if you have a background that includes lots of academic nonsense -- several good pastiches of scholarly papers here; and How to Travel with a Salmon, probably the best for a general audience. The entire essay that I'm going to paste in below is from that collection.

But first, my favorite take on postmodernism, from the PttNotR. Enjoy.


~~~Begin Quotation 1~~~

Umberto Eco on postmodernism:
But the moment comes when the avant-garde (the modern) can go no further, because it has produced a metalanguage that speaks of its impossible texts (conceptual art). The postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognizing that the past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction leads to silence, must be revisited: but with irony, not innocently. I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot say to her, "I love you madly," because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say, "As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly." At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly that it is no longer possible to speak innocently, he will nevertheless have said what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her, but he loves her in an age of lost innocence. If the woman goes along with this, she will have received a declaration of love all the same. Neither of the two speakers will feel innocent, both will have accepted the challenge of the past, of the already said, which cannot be eliminated; both will consciously and with pleasure play the game of irony.... But both will have succeeded, once again, in speaking of love.
Postscript to The Name of the Rose [Harvest combined edition 1994] 530-1
~~~~End Quotation 1~~~~

~~~Begin Quotation 2~~~

"How to Justify a Private Library" from How to Travel with a Salmon & other essays (HBJ 1994) by Umberto Eco

Generally speaking, from my childhood on, I have been always subjected to two (and only two) kinds of joke: "You're the one who always answers" and "You resound in the valleys." All through my early years I believed that, by some strange chance, all the people I met were stupid. Then, having reached maturity, I was forced to conclude that there are two laws no human being can escape: the first idea that comes into a person's mind will be the most obvious one; and, having had an obvious idea, nobody ever thinks that others may have had the same idea before.

I possess a collection of review headlines, in all the languages of the Indo-European family, going all the way from "The Echo of Eco" to "A Book with Echoes." In the latter case I suspect the printed headline wasn't the first idea that came into the subeditor's mind. What probably happened was this: the editorial staff met, they debated some twenty possible titles, and finally the managing editor's face lighted up and he said, "Hey guys, I've had a fantastic idea!" And the others responded, "Boss, you're a devil! Where do you get them?" "It's a gift," he must have replied.

I'm not saying that people are banal. Taking as divine inspiration, as a flash of originality, something that is obvious reveals a certain freshness of spirit, an enthusiasm for life and its unpredictability, a love of ideas--small as they may be. I will always remember my first meeting with Erving Goffman, whom I admired and loved for the genius and penetration with which he could identify infinitesimal aspects of behavior that had previously eluded everyone else. We were sitting at an outdoor café when, looking at the street after a while, he said, "You know something? I believe there are too many automobiles in circulation in our cities." Maybe he had never thought this before because he had had far more important things to think about; he had just had a sudden epiphany and still had the mental freshness to express it. I, a little snob infected by the Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen of Neitzsche, would have hesitated to say it, even if I thought it.

A second shock of banality occurs to many people in my condition--that is, people who possess a fairly sizeable library (large enough in my case that someone entering our house can't help but notice it; actually, it takes up the whole place). The visitor enters and says, "What a lot of books! Have you read them all?" At first I thought that the question characterized only people who had scant familiarity with books, people accustomed to seeing a couple of shelves with five paperback mysteries and a children's encyclopedia, bought in installments. But experience has taught me that the same words can be uttered also by people above suspicion. It could be said that they are still people who consider a bookshelf as a mere storage place for already-read books and do not think of the library as a working tool. But there is more to it than that. I believe that, confronted by a vast array of books, anyone will be seized by the anguish of learning, and will inevitably lapse into asking the question that expresses his torment and his remorse.

The problem is that when someone says, "Eco? You're the one who always answers," you can reply with a little laugh and, at most, if you want to be polite, with "That's a good one!" But the question about your books has to be answered, while your jaw stiffens and rivulets of cold sweat trickle down your spine. In the past I adopted a tone of contemptuous sarcasm. "I haven't read any of them; otherwise, why would I keep them here?" But this is a dangerous answer because it invites the obvious follow-up: "And where do you put them after you've read them?" The best answer is the one always used by Roberto Leydi: "And more, dear sir, many more," which freezes the adversary and plunges him into a state of awed admiration. But I find it merciless and angst-generating. Now I have fallen back on the riposte: "No, these are the ones I have to read by the end of the month. I keep the others in my office," a reply that on one hand suggests a sublime ergonomic strategy, and on the other leads the visitor to hasten the moment of his departure.
~~~~End Quotation 2~~~~

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