Umberto Eco

Interpreter of cultures

Print edition : April 01, 2016

Umberto Eco was often accused of being "pseudo-cerebral" in his writings. Photo: JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP

In Umberto Eco’s (1934-2016) death, the world has lost a semiotician who blended scholarship with pop iconography, an intellectual who believed in producing new knowledge in a creative manner, and a brilliant academic and writer.

IT is not easy to straddle two different worlds and be successful in both. The ease with which Umberto Eco performed this balancing act is remarkable, as both the worlds he straddled—academia and literature —could be demanding. Even more remarkable is his status as a “global superstar in both highbrow and popular cultural circles”.

Umberto Eco was born as the son of Giovanna and Giulio Eco in Alessandria, a small city in the Italian region of Piedmont. His father was an accountant in a metalworks factory and his mother was an office worker there. Eco spent his early years in Turin. As a child, he would spend many hours in his grandfather’s cellar reading comics and books by Jules Verne, Marco Polo and Charles Darwin.

Soon after the Second World War, Eco joined a Catholic youth organisation and eventually became its national leader. But he resigned in 1954 following protests against the conservative policies of Pope Pius XII. It was an incident that made him question his faith. Eco was part of a progressive faction of the youth organisation, which came into conflict with the right-wing faction that enjoyed papal protection. Eco’s faction was accused of heresy and communism and its members came under fire from the official newspaper of the Vatican.

In 1954, Eco graduated from the university in medieval philosophy and literature. His first published book, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas (1956), was written when he was undergoing military service. It explored how the medieval thinker Aquinas reworked classical ideas of art and beauty in the light of Christian theology and developments in metaphysics and optics in the 13th century. After completing his education, Eco worked as a journalist in Milan. His job included editing cultural programmes for Italy’s state-owned RAI television network. In 1959, he was appointed senior non-fiction editor for a Milan-based publisher called Bompiani. He held this job until 1975. In Milan, Eco met many avant-garde writers, musicians and painters. In 1963, he, along with some like-minded experimentalists, including Edoardo Sanguineti, Elio Pagliarani, and Nanni Balestreni, founded Gruppo (Group) 63, an Italian literary movement that opposed “conservatism” in the arts. Its aim was to renew the substance and form of literary language in radical ways. The values of contemporary society, especially its rampant consumerism, were challenged by the group, which sought to restore the “primacy of the imagination” in aesthetic discourse.

In 1966, Eco became professor of semiotics at Milan Polytechnic, and two years later he published The Absent Structure, which accompanied his earlier text The Open Book (1962). Meanwhile, he had also begun writing on cultural issues in several national publications. He wrote a humorous column on popular culture and politics every week, called “La Bustina di Minerva”, for L’Espresso magazine. This made him a familiar figure among the Italian public.

The articles he wrote for the column were later published in English as Faith in Fakes, Travels in Hyperreality (1986) and How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays (1994). His choice of topics was eclectic. He wrote on subjects as varied as pre-Raphaelite forgeries, counterfeit Louis Vuitton handbags, the World Cup and the United States porn star and vice-presidential candidate Marilyn Chambers. As Ian Thomson puts it: “This is what Eco did best: applying literary judgment to ephemera.”

In 1971, Eco became the first professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, Europe’s oldest university. In his lectures, he examined many iconic elements of popular culture such as James Bond novels, Mad comic magazine as well as photographs of the Hollywood actress Marilyn Monroe. The French essayist and “counterculture guru” Roland Barthes was an important influence on Eco. He has also written many parodies and spoof sequels to famous novels.

In Italian academia, there is a tradition of university professors contributing to public debate. Eco was quite happy to do so, even declaring that journalism was his “political duty”. He also stated that it was his job as a scholar and citizen “to show people how we are surrounded by messages”. This places him in the company of other academics who also moonlighted as media commentators such as Susan Sontag and Marshall McLuhan. And like them, he was often accused of being “pseudo-cerebral” in his writings. Sample these lines from one of his essays, where he talks about the figure-hugging comfort of his Levis jeans. “Well, with my new jeans life was entirely exterior: I thought about the relationship between me and my pants, and the relationship between my pants and the society I live in … I had achieved epidermic self-awareness.”

Novelist at 48

Eco wrote seven novels in all. He was 48 years old when he penned his first novel, The Name of the Rose, an investigative thriller set in a 14th century Italian monastery. It brought him global renown. The detective in the novel is a monk named William of Baskerville, possibly a tribute to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and its fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes. The narrator of the novel is a young novice who assists William with his investigation into the strange murders of monks in a monastery. The motive behind the murders is to prevent the world from knowing the existence of a long-lost philosophical treatise on humour by Aristotle. The murderers believe the book is an instrument of the devil. The Name of the Rose was originally published in Europe in 1980. It sold more than 10 million copies in about 30 languages. It inspired a Hollywood adaptation in 1986 directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, starring Sean Connery. Although entire chapters in the book featured esoteric discussions on Christian theology and heresies, readers lapped it up.

Love for the Middle Ages

Eco’s love for the Middle Ages is a fascinating aspect of his work. He had said that he developed a passion for this period the way some people developed a passion for coconuts. In an interview with The Paris Review, he tried to explain it: “I would say that it’s because the period is exactly the opposite of the way people imagine it. To me, they were not the Dark Ages. They were a luminous time, the fertile soil out of which would spring the Renaissance. A period of chaotic and effervescent transition—the birth of the modern city, of the banking system, of the university, of our modern idea of Europe, with its languages, nations, and cultures.”

His second novel, Foucault’s Pendulum (1988), is about three editors who amuse themselves by inventing a conspiracy theory called “The Plan”, about a huge and complex plot to conquer the world by a secret order descended from the Knights Templar. What begins as a game, however, turns dangerous when outsiders come to know of it and mistakenly assume that the men have actually discovered a way to find the lost treasure of the Templars. It could be said that Eco was Dan Brown’s literary predecessor considering the fact that Brown has similar preoccupations. In fact, Eco famously declared that he had invented Brown, who was allegedly a character in Foucault’s Pendulum.

The Island of the Day Before (1994), Baudolino (2000), The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2005), The Prague Cemetery (2010) and Numero Zero (2015) are his other novels. The Prague Cemetery tells the story of a secret agent who “weaves plots, conspiracies, intrigues and attacks, and helps determine the historical and political fate of the European Continent”. It chronicles the rise of modern-day anti-Semitism. Numero Zero is a satire on Italy’s culture of kickbacks and bribes besides its legacy of fascism. Eco’s scholarly interests often permeate his novels, which is one reason why his novels are not an easy read.

He was aware that his books, with their dense prose and arcane concepts, were not for the average Joe. He confessed to being offended when people quizzed him about his books’ success despite their difficult content. “It’s as if they asked a woman, ‘How can it be that men are interested in you?’”

Although Eco had many admirers in the worlds of academia and literature, he often had to face criticism for being deficient in “either scholarly gravitas or novelistic talent”. The writer Salman Rushdie, too, did not mince words while reviewing Foucault’s Pendulum in The London Observer. He described the novel as “humourless, devoid of character, entirely free of anything resembling a credible spoken word, and mind-numbingly full of gobbledygook of all sorts”. Eco exacted sweet revenge on Rushdie when they were together on a literary panel in New York in 2008. He chose to read from the very book Rushdie had found so offensive! Such criticism did not ruffle Eco in the least, and he made his position clear as best as he could. “I’m not a fundamentalist, saying there’s no difference between Homer and Walt Disney,” he said in a 2002 interview, referring to his blending of scholarship with pop iconography.

But Mickey Mouse can be perfect in the sense that a Japanese haiku is. When L’Osservatore Romano, the newspaper of the Holy See, criticised Foucault’s Pendulum for being “full of profanations, blasphemies, buffooneries and filth, held together by the mortar of arrogance and cynicism”, Eco’s amused response was that two Catholic universities, Leuwen and Loyola, had bestowed honorary degrees on him recently.

Interpretative Semiotics

As a semiotician, Eco specialised in interpreting cultures through their signs and symbols. He was the founder of interpretative semiotics. He explains his theory in La struttura assente (1968, The Absent Structure), A Theory of Semiotics (1975), The Role of the Reader (1979), Semiotics and Philosophy of Language (1984), The Limits of Interpretation (1990) and Kant and the Platypus (1997). He also co-founded Versus: Quaderni di studi semiotici, an influential semiotic journal. To Eco, semiotics was a tool to unify the different levels of culture. Ian Thomson, a literary biographer, believes that there is no cultural artefact that is “too lowly or trivial for Eco’s analysis”. One of the world’s most celebrated public intellectuals, Eco believed that an intellectual was someone who was always producing new knowledge in a creative manner. By that definition, he argued, even a peasant who grafted into being a new species of apple was an intellectual, whereas a professor who repeated the same lecture throughout his life was not. “Critical creativity—criticising what we are doing or inventing better ways of doing it—is the only mark of the intellectual function.”

Literary award

Eco was the recipient of Italy’s highest literary award, the Premio Strega. He was named a Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur by the French government and was an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. On February 19, Eco passed away after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer. He is survived by his wife, Renate; son, Stefano; and daughter, Carlotta. His last book was a collection of essays called Pape Satan Aleppe.

Eco has written innumerable scholarly books, essays and columns on mass media and culture, semiotics, aesthetics and literary criticism. Among many other things, he is renowned for his idea of the “open work”, which argues that literary texts compose fields of meaning, instead of unequivocal, linear narratives of thought—making them more amenable to different interpretations. With his death, the world has lost a brilliant interpreter who helped us look deep into the things that surround us and find the meanings concealed within them.

Vasantha K. Krishnaraj is a writer based in Chennai.

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