(Translated by Alastair McEwen.)
University of Toronto Press, 2000, ISBN: 0802035337; Hardcover $19.95.
Here is the description from the publisher:
Translation is not about comparing two languages, Umberto Eco argues, but about the interpretation of a text in two different languages, thus involving a shift between cultures. An author whose works have appeared in many languages, Eco is also the translator of Gérard de Nerval’s Sylvie and Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de style from French into Italian. In this book he draws on his substantial practical experience to identify and discuss some central problems of translation. As he convincingly demonstrates, a translation can express an evident deep sense of a text even when violating both lexical and referential faithfulness. Depicting translation as a semiotic task, he uses a wide range of source materials as illustration: the translations of his own and other novels, translations of the dialogue of American films into Italian, and various versions of the Bible. In the second part of his study he deals with translation theories proposed by Jakobson, Steiner, Peirce, and others.
Overall, Eco identifies the different types of interpretive acts that count as translation. An enticing new typology emerges, based on his insistence on a common-sense approach and the necessity of taking a critical stance.
You may read more about this work at the University of Toronto Press Web site.
Sunday, November 18, 2007
(Translated by Alastair McEwen.)
Translated by James Fentress, Part of the “Making of Europe” Series.
1. Blackwell Publishers, 1995, ISBN 0-631-17465-6; Hardcover $52.95. Out of Print.
2. Blackwell Publishers, 1997, ISBN 0-631-20510-1; Paperback $26.95.
Part of the “Making of Europe” series edited by Jacques Le Goff. Here is the description from the book jacket:
The idea that there once existed a language which perfectly and unambiguously expressed the essence of all possible things and concepts has occupied the minds of philosophers, theologians, mystics and others for at least two millennia. This is an investigation into the history of an idea and of its profound influence on European thought, culture, and history.
From the early Dark Ages to the Renaissance it was widely believed that the language spoken in the Garden of Eden was just such a language, and that all current languages were its decadent descendants from the catastrophes of the Fall and at Babel. The recovery of that language would, for theologians, express the nature of divinity, for cabbalists allow access to hidden knowledge and power, and for philosophers reveal the nature of truth. Versions of these ideas remained current in the Enlightenment, and have recently received fresh impetus in attempts to create a natural language for artificial intelligence.
The story Umberto Eco tells ranges widely, from the writings of Augustine, Dante, Descartes, and Rousseau, arcane treatises on cabbalism and magic, to the history of the study of language and its origins. He demonstrates the intimate relation between language and identity and describes, for example, how and why the Irish, English, Germans and Swedes – one of whom presented God talking in Swedish to Adam, who replied in Danish, while the Serpent tempted Eve in French – have variously claimed their languages as closest to the original. He also shows how the late eighteenth-century discovery of a proto-language (Indo-European) for the Aryan peoples was perverted to support notions of racial superiority.
To this subtle exposition of a history of extraordinary complexity, Umberto Eco links the associated history of the manner in which the sounds of language and concepts have been written and symbolized. Lucidly and wittily written, the book is, in sum, a tour de force of scholarly detection and cultural interpretation, providing a series of original perspectives on two thousand years of European history.
1. Harvard University Press, 1994, ISBN 0-674-81050-3; Hardcover $19.95.
2. Harvard University Press, 1994, ISBN 0-674-81051-1; Paperback $14.00.
In this book, Umberto Eco shares with us his Secret Life as a reader - his love for MAD magazine, for Scarlet O’Hara, for the nineteenth-century French novelist Nerval’s Sylvie, for Little Red Riding Hood, Agatha Christie, Agent 007 and all his ladies. We see, hear, and feel Umberto Eco, the passionate reader who has gotten lost over and over again in the woods, loved it, and came back to tell the tale, The Tale of Tales. Eco tells us how fiction works, and he also tells us why we love fiction so much. This is no deconstructionist ripping the veil off the Wizard of Oz to reveal his paltry tricks but the Wizard of Art himself inviting us to join him up at his level, the Sorcerer inviting us to become his apprentice.
You may read more about this work at the Harvard University Press Web site.
Cambridge University Press, 1992, ISBN 0-521-42554-9; Paperback $23.00.
Originally a series lectures delivered in English at Cambridge University (for the same program that originated the “Six Walks” lectures below), Interpretation and Overinterpretation collects these under the editorship of Stefan Collini. It contains an introduction, Eco’s lectures, three papers responding to Eco’s arguments and a final response from Eco. Here the description from the back of the book:
Umberto Eco, international best-selling novelist and leading literary theorist, her brings together these two roles in a provocative discussion of the vexed question of literary interpretation. The limits of interpretation – what a text can actually be said to mean – are of double interest to a semiotician whose own novels’ intriguing complexity has provoked his readers into intense speculation as to their meaning. Eco’s illuminating and frequently hilarious discussion ranges from Dante to The Name of the Rose, from Foucault’s Pendulum to Chomsky and Derrida, and bears all the hallmarks of his inimitable personal style.
Three of the world’s leading figures in philosophy, literary theory and criticism take up the challenge of entering into debate with Eco on the question of interpretation. Richard Rorty, Jonathan Culler and Christine Brooke-Rose each offer a distinctive perspective on this contentious topic, contributing to a unique exchange of ideas between some of the foremost and most exciting theorists in the field.
The chapters of the book are as follows:
Introduction: “Interpretation Terminable and Interminable,” by Stefan Collini
1. “Interpretation and History,” by Umberto Eco
2. “Overinterpreting Texts,” by Umberto Eco
3. “Between Author and Text,” by Umberto Eco
4. “The Pragmatist’s Progress,” by Richard Rorty
5. “In Defence of Overinterpretation,” by Jonathan Culler
6. “Palimpsest History,” by Christine Brooke-Rose
7. “Reply,” by Umberto Eco
Notes on the Contributors Index
You may read more about this work at the Cambridge University Press Web site.
1. Indiana University Press, 1990, ISBN 0-253-31852-1; Hardcover $35.00. Out of print.
2. Indiana University Press, 1990, ISBN 0-253-20869-6; Paperback $17.95.
Originally published in 1990 as I limiti dell’interpretazione. Here is the publisher’s description:
In this new collection of essays, Eco focuses on what he calls the limits of interpretation, or, as he once noted in another context, “the cancer of uncontrolled interpretation.” Readers of Eco’s other work will find here all the ingredients with which they have become familiar–vast learning, an agile and exciting mind, good humor and a brilliance of insight
You can read review extracts at the Indiana University Press Web site.
Yale University Press, 2002, ISBN: 0-300-09304-7; Paperback $12.95.
Originally published in 1959 as Sviluppo dell’estetico medievale and revised in 1987 as Arte e bellezza nell’estetica medievale, this work was translated into English in 1985. In 2002, Yale University Press placed it back in print. Here is the description from the publisher:
In the first English translation of this authoritative, lively book, the celebrated Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco presents a learned summary of medieval aesthetic ideas. First published twenty years ago and now translated into English for the first time, the book juxtaposes theology and science, poetry and mysticism, in order to explore the relationship that existed between the aesthetic theories and the artistic experience and practice of medieval culture.
You may read more about this work at the Yale University Press Web site.
(Translated by Hugh Bredin.)
Harvard University Press, 1988, ISBN 0-674-00676-3; Paperback $19.95.
Eco’s first book, this treatise on the medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas was originally published in 1956 as Il problema estetico in San Tommaso and revised in 1970 for a second edition titled Il problema estetico in Thommaso d’Aquino, which also contained some material from Sviluppo dell’estetico medievale. It was translated into English in 1988 for Harvard UP.
Here is the introductory note from the back cover of the book:
The well-known Italian semiotician and novelist Umberto Eco discloses in this book to English-speaking readers the unsuspected richness, breadth, complexity, and originality of the aesthetic theories advanced by the influential medieval thinker Thomas Aquinas. Inheriting his basic ideas and conceptions of art and beauty from the classical world, Aquinas transformed or modified these ideas in the light of Christian theology and the developments in metaphysics and optics during the thirteenth century. Setting the stage with an account of the vivid aesthetic and artistic sensibility that flourished in medieval times, Eco examines Aquinas’s conception of transcendental beauty, his theory of aesthetic perception or visio, and his account of the three conditions of beauty – integrity, proportion, and clarity – that, centuries later, emerged again in the writings of the young James Joyce. He examines the concrete applications of these theories in Aquinas’s reflections on God, mankind, poetry, and scripture. He discusses Aquinas’s views on art and compares his poetics with Dante’s. In a new chapter added to the second Italian edition, Eco examines how Aquinas’s aesthetics came to be absorbed and superseded in late medieval times and draws instructive parallels between Thomistic methodology and contemporary structuralism. As the only book-length treatment of Aquinas’s aesthetics available in English, this volume should interest philosophers, medievalists, historians, critics, and anyone involved in poetics, aesthetics, or the history of ideas.
The chapters of the book are as follows:
I. Aesthetics in Medieval Culture
II. Beauty as a Transcendental
III. The Function of Nature of the Aesthetic Visio
IV. The Formal Criteria of Beauty
V. Concrete Problems and Applications
VI. The Theory of Art
VII. Judgment of the Aesthetic Visio
You may read more about this work at the Harvard University Press Web site.
Translated by William Weaver
1. Harcourt Inc., 2001, ISBN 0-15-100690-3; Hardcover $27.00.
2. Harcourt Brace & Company, 2003, ISBN 0-15-602906-5; Paperback, $15.00.
Review by Allen B. Ruch [source]
“Lying about the future produces history.”
Near the end of Baudolino, a twelfth-century historian asks advice from a fellow Byzantine, a philosopher named Paphnutius who was blinded as punishment for the failure of his inventions to perform on command. The historian is writing an account of the ongoing sack of Constantinople during the dissipated Fourth Crusade, and is surprised by the inventor’s suggestion to omit certain details from his narrative: “Yes, I know it’s not the truth, but in a great history little truths can be altered so that the greater truth emerges.” Seeing the wisdom in this, the historian nonetheless laments the loss of a beautiful story; but the blind man assures him that one day, sooner or later, a greater liar than them all will restore the tale.
The year is 1204, the historian in question Niketas Choniates, the book The Sack of Constantinople, and the omissions all concern the exploits of a fellow named Baudolino. And of course, a quick flip through its pages will reveal that Master Niketas heeded his friend’s advice – there is no mention of Baudolino; nor are there any references to his quarrelsome companions, the true cause of the death of Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, a lucrative campaign to propagate fake holy relics, a convoluted quest for the Holy Grail, or a tale of unfulfilled love on the borders of utopia. (Trust me, I checked the copy I always keep on hand. Feel free to check yours, too.) As the blind man predicted, a greater liar has indeed come along, one so full of falsehood that he’s inscribed predictions of his own arrival into the very pages of the story itself.
In this, his fourth novel, professional liar Umberto Eco spins the yarn of Baudolino, a fellow artificer hailing from Eco’s hometown of Alessandria and possessing more than a bit of the author’s personality. Like Eco, Baudolino is a master of many languages, has a passion for history and politics, takes pleasure in a good meal, and tempers idealism with a wry sense of humor. Even both their origins are touched by a hint of mystery like a sly wink: Baudolino’s father is Gagliaudo Aulari, the legendary Alessandrian trickster who ended a siege by means of a deception involving his cow; Eco’s own grandfather claims to be a foundling, his last name a contraction of ex coelis oblatus, or “offered by the heavens.” (The book itself offers that the Holy Grail might be lapis ex coelis, or a stone fallen from heaven; perhaps a punning authorial watermark?) But most important of all, both Baudolino and Eco take delight in a good story.
It is this love of storytelling that animates the entire novel, Eco’s most light-hearted and comedic work to date. Guided by Paphnutius’ wise implication that history is narrative, Baudolino operates on several levels at once, combining a picaresque adventure story with a fantastical flight of historical invention. At its heart, it is the story of Baudolino, a brash opportunist with leonine hair, a silver tongue, and a heart of gold. But this being an Umberto Eco novel, nothing is that simple, and Baudolino is layered with several degrees of narrative, none of which are particular trustworthy.
To begin with, the story is largely framed as a dialogue between Baudolino and Niketas Choniates. Meeting amidst the burning fires of Constantinople, the two men forge a friendship as Latin crusaders plunge the city into chaos, sacking its priceless treasures and looting its holy reliquaries. There, while hiding from the invaders and organizing their escape, Baudolino confesses himself to be an inveterate liar and proceeds to tell Master Niketas his life’s story – and quite a story it is, taking many days to unfold. Eventually Baudolino’s narrative catches up to their present predicament, after which the Byzantine assists him in solving an old mystery, bringing an unexpected closure to his new friend’s miraculous tale. Unlike Eco’s previous novels, however, Baudolino does not purport to be an unearthed manuscript, nor is it an immediate, first-person account. While the conversations between Baudolino and Master Niketas form the main text of the book, this very dialogue is itself narrated by an omniscient author unafraid to comment on the characters and their actions. The end result is a story within a story within a story, each level supplying additional falsehoods and distortions. (To call this an “unstable” or “unreliable” narrative would be kind!)
That is not to say the story of Baudolino is difficult to follow, only difficult to believe, which is half the point. Born in a chilly swamp and named for “the only saint who never performed a single miracle,” the young Italian sees (or believes he sees, for even Baudolino admits to being hazy on the distinction) occasional visions in the fog: unicorns, saints, German emperors, that sort of thing. From an early age, Baudolino discovers that his visions have the power to influence people, from superstitious peasants to great men searching for something to confirm their beliefs. One day he unknowingly encounters Frederick I Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor, and ingratiates himself to the warlord with a serendipitous lie. Taking leave of Gagliaudo, his cranky father, young Baudolino becomes something of an adopted son and junior consigliere to the Emperor. Time after time his audacious schemes play out in the Emperor’s favor, and soon Baudolino finds himself a trusted member of the imperial court, educated in Paris and studying with scholars such as Rainald von Dassel and Bishop Otto von Freising. Flitting back and forth between Paris and the Emperor’s various hot zones, Baudolino takes part in numerous political and ecclesiastical debates, imperial ceremonies, and military campaigns.
Throughout this often confusing panoply of medieval names, places, and events, Eco uses the character of Baudolino as a shuttle, weaving together diverse strands of history and legend into a unified tapestry – though one that reveals Baudolino’s signature deep in the pattern. Like Zelig, Baudolino is always attendant in the background of important events; though unlike Woody Allen’s character, Baudolino has the chutzpah to claim authorship, and does so with such casual familiarity and deadpan disavowal of his own genius that even Niketas is seduced into believing his tales. According to Baudolino, it is he himself who masterminds the political manipulations and legal subterfuges needed to legitimize Barbarossa’s reign, frees Bishop Otto from the chains of pessimism by accidentally erasing his “first draft” of the Chronica sive Historia de duabus civitatibus, establishes the myth of the Holy Grail as it would later be revealed to Wolfram von Eschenbach, and provides Gagliaudo with the idea of using his cow to save Alessandria. Baudolino even proves to be the true author of the celebrated correspondence between Abélard and Héloîse! (Unsent love letters originally intended for the object of Baudolino’s secret infatuation, they include “her” fictional replies, and were eventually swiped in Paris by some “dissolute canon.”) The book abounds with such playful revelations, and Eco rewards the attentive reader with dozens of historical ironies, amusing connections, and absurd conspiracies. As might be expected, Baudolino is also filled with wordplay and literary in-jokes: words are borrowed from Gulliver’s Travels, Borges’ wondrous Aleph is relocated to a stairway in the Coliseum, and not only is Rabelais’ great library of Saint-Victoire brazenly expropriated, but Baudolino is also at fault for the bogus volumes of Bede catalogued in Pantagruel! Eco even alludes to his own debut novel, The Name of the Rose, which claims to be the manuscript of a fictional fourteenth-century monk named Adso of Melk. Baudolino ends his first attempt at writing by complaining, “and as the man said my thumb akes” – presumably an anachronistic reference to Adso’s concluding, “It is cold in the scriptorium, my thumb aches.”
While these cheerful layers of intertextuality provide the novel its vertical depth, forward momentum is gained via Baudolino’s increasing enchantment with the kingdom of Prester John. A persistent legend of the Middle Ages, the kingdom of Prester John was believed to be a magical realm lost somewhere in the Orient, a land where a Christian King held sway, awaiting unification with his spiritual brothers in the West. The story gained some credibility through the periodic appearances of a letter purportedly from Prester John, addressed to various Western potentates and describing a kingdom overflowing with glittering treasure, sacred relics, and marvelous creatures. Sensing both the cultural need for such a powerful myth as well as its potential political use, Baudolino sees no harm in perpetuating the story, and he soon gathers a circle of like-minded “believers” who further embroider the tale with their own idiosyncratic threads. Naturally, it is Baudolino who writes the first and original version of the infamous letter, which is soon copied, altered, and dispersed by jealous rivals. Freed from imperial service by the mysterious death of Frederick, an aging Baudolino finally decides to put faith in his own powers of creation, and he leads his group of poets and philosophers on a quest to truly find the kingdom of Prester John. Numbering twelve, the travelers pass themselves off as the “twelve magi” of medieval legend, paying for their passage by selling counterfeit holy relics. As they journey into stranger and stranger lands, they pass the time in scientific discussion and theological debate. Like Dorothy’s crew “off to see the Wizard,” each of the travelers has his own personal reason to discover the kingdom of Prester John, a utopia they themselves have imagined into being.
It is here, however, that Baudolino reveals a deep and unfortunate flaw. While this journey sounds like fertile ground for complex characterization and rich literary discussion, Eco spends far too little time developing the individual personalities of his cast. As a result, most of Baudolino’s associates appear faceless and interchangeable, leaving the reader few points of access for emotional and intellectual sympathy. Even their debates too often ring hollow, and while a dazzling array of ideas are presented, few are followed through or explored with any real vigor. One hungers for the depth and intensity Eco brought to the characters and conversations of his other, more fleshed-out works, and even the competing heresies of Pndapetzim seem pale and thin when measured against the profound discussions of Rose and Pendulum. Missing here is the sense of an authorial intellect on fire, ideas fully brought into play and folded into a rich, textual density, characters that offer compelling studies in human experience. As in The Island of the Day Before, throughout much of Baudolino Eco bends his literary talents to describing the fantastic with startling realism, and elevating the mundane through poetic fabulism. While this certainly has its own rewards – the description of the Sambatyon, a river of flowing stone, is just stunning – the reader feels somewhat blocked at the surface of the text, skipping from idea to idea like a stone across water. The happy exception to this is found during scenes with Hypatia, a siren-like beauty who captures Baudolino’s heart and restores his spirit. A devotee of Gnostic thought, Hypatia has many fascinating notions about God, and her passionate beliefs inform the best passages in the book. (It may be telling that the author himself claims to have “fallen in love” with Hypatia.) It is here that Eco approaches the sublime, marrying the language of poetic rapture with the sheer joy of thought:
“God is the Unique, and he is so perfect that he does not resemble any of the things that exist or any of the things that do not; you cannot describe him using your human intelligence, as if he were someone who becomes angry if you are bad or worries about you out of goodness, someone who has a mouth, ears, face, wings, or that is spirit, father or son, not even of himself. Of the Unique you cannot say he is or is not, he embraces all but is nothing; you can name him only through dissimilarity, because it is futile to call him Goodness, Beauty, Wisdom, Amiability, Power, Justice, it would be like calling him Bear, Panther, Serpent, Dragon, or Gryphon, because whatever you say of him you will never express him. God is not body, is not figure, is not form; he does not see, does not hear, does not know disorder and perturbation; he is not soul, intelligence, imagination, opinion, thought, word, number, order, size; he is not equality and is not inequality, is not time and is not eternity; he is a will without purpose. Try to understand, Baudolino: God is a lamp without flame, a flame without fire, a fire without heat, a dark light, a silent rumble, a blind flash, a luminous soot, a ray of his own darkness, a circle that expands concentrating on its own center, a solitary simplicity; he is...is...” She paused, seeking an example that would convince them both, she the teacher and he the pupil. “He is a space that is not, in which you and I are the same thing, as we are today in this time that doesn’t flow.”
Powerful stuff, and one wishes for more of it. Having said that, Baudolino is still filled with enough invention, wonder, and erudition to fill a dozen lesser novels, and it’s pointless to criticize it for not having the same goal as his earlier works. After three labyrinthine novels of endless conversation and theoretical convolutions, who can blame Eco for having a little fun?
And Baudolino certainly is an enjoyable read. Although there are a few longueurs – the Emperor’s comings and goings are a bit tedious, and even Eco pokes fun at the difficulty of keeping tabs on all the squabbling city states – after the death of Frederick, Eco pulls out the stops, and the narrative unwinds in increasingly more unexpected directions. Additionally, Eco invests his tale with a dry humor and a sharp sense of irony – the world of Baudolino has a lived-in feel, and is often crude, bawdy, or vulgar, inhabited by pragmatic people who know to keep their heads down when the shit flies. Eco has often reflected that his Piedmontese heritage comes with a skeptical, no-nonsense outlook, and this is especially reflected in his Alessandrian characters. Men talk about sex in the rudest of terms, the cruelty of violence is barbed by black humor, and no character is allowed to overindulge in flights of fancy without soon falling flat on his ass. Dialogue is often terse, salted with laconic observations and earthy wit. After elaborating on a plan to lure invaders into a trap, one Alessandrian asks, “And where are you going to find the asshole who falls for it?” Of course, Baudolino knows just the asshole, and he could easily be a character from one of Eco’s previous novels – Baudolino is filled with peasants and low-brow servants getting one up on their betters. Later in the book, an Eastern ruler inquires about the fabulous wonders reputed to be found in the West, from trees that drip wine to cathedrals made of crystal. As Baudolino cagily confirms these exaggerations, his companion mutters, “Who’s been telling these people such whoppers?” The fact that this companion – who has been posing as a Biblical magus and is carrying one of six heads of John the Baptist – has been strategically spreading exactly such whoppers himself is not worthy of comment. Like a Pynchon novel, Baudolino celebrates the profane lives and “honest” cunning of the preterite, and if they can exploit, dupe, or take advantage of the elect, so much the better. These rough edges give Baudolino a feeling of authenticity, and even amidst its most fantastical passages, the reader feels anchored to a believable Middle Ages precisely because it feels so much like our own daily experience.
While Baudolino may lack the soaring prose, intense discussions, and convoluted density of Eco’s previous works, like all good comedy it presents an image of the world that we instinctively recognize as true. Like a Speculum Stultorum, or medieval Mirror for Fools, Baudolino catches humanity with our pants down, hands windmilling frantically to divert attention from our exposed privates as we shuffle offstage for a drink. And yet, burlesque is born from fondness, not contempt; we allow Baudolino to tease humanity because it genuinely loves humanity. As in all Eco’s work, cynicism never sours to nihilism, critique never bites down into mockery: there is a powerful argument for life in Baudolino, an argument for love, joy, persistence, and yes, even the transformative power of dreams. Like the writing of Gabriel García Márquez or Thomas Pynchon, Eco’s fiction balances Romantic self-expression with postmodern self-awareness, emanating from a place where both currents serve to energize each other. Although truth is seen as relative, the dangers of belief are exposed, and meaning is revealed as a construct, the reader is still asked to critically engage with the thriving multiplicity of the world and invest some faith in hopeful stories – Baudolino carries the message that the individual is free to discover meaning and to act with moral courage, whether in love or war.
In the end, of course, Baudolino is just another story, and it can be read in many ways. Surely one reading suggests that Baudolino’s lies make history meaningless; but a deeper reading, perhaps, proposes that through narrative imagination we envision a better future. And if it doesn’t come true, what the hell – a greater liar will always come along.
Translated by William Weaver
1. Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995, ISBN 0-15-100151-0; Hardcover $25.00.
2. Harcourt Brace, 1984, ISBN 0-15-600131-4; Paperback $16.00.
Just as the style of Rose reflects the murky density of the late medieval period, and Foucault’s Pendulum reads like a paranoid romp through our fractured postmodern century, the narrative of Eco’s third book blossoms exquisitely outwards along numerous frills and ornamentations, a baroque construction rooted in the seventeenth century.
The Island of the Day Before, published in 1994 as L’isola del giorno prima, is the story of a man named Roberto, a chameleon-like and slightly eccentric Italian who finds himself shipwrecked, of all places, upon another ship. This abandoned vessel, the Daphne, is anchored near an island of stunning beauty; but Roberto is forced by his fear of the sun to avoid the daylight, devoting his time to exploring the strange vessel and penning melodramatic love letters to his “Lady.” During his reveries and periods of writing, he has the time to review his colorful life – his haunted childhood in Italy, his martial experience at the siege of Casale, his education in the decadent salons of Paris – a life to which he dearly wishes to return. But all is not lost; fortunately for Roberto, the ship provides a wealth of opportunities to stave off hunger and boredom, as it’s been thoughtfully equipped with a host of wonders from a room of clocks to an exotic aviary. Unfortunately for Roberto, however, the ship is less abandoned than he had initially thought. But who could this stranger be, this unseen Other who feeds the animals and reads Roberto’s journal while he sleeps? Is it his imaginary brother and evil double Ferrante? Is it another soul in search of the ultimate navigational secret? And just why was this unique craft abandoned anyway? What marvels await on the island?
This, Eco’s third novel, is yet another brilliant accomplishment. At heart, it is a tale of the seventeenth century, a dizzying time when science and reason were divorcing themselves from magic and superstition, when politics and religion were swirling with new currents, and the fires of Revolution and Enlightenment could be barely glimpsed in the distant mirrors of a Paris salon. Filled with a sense of ironic wonder and sly confidence, the story visits one remarkable character after another, allowing each to have their strutting say upon the stage of the narrative. Nature, Theology and Physics are discussed and virtually embodied by a lovable cast of wits and crackpots, lovers and scholars, inventors and inquisitors. All signs and signposts melt into an ambiguous stream of thought; languages are cobbled together as needed by bookish eccentrics, Aristotelian priests talk in Moral & Important Capitals, and the decadent wits destroy God and the State with their rapiers and epigrams, both equally pointed and deadly.
The story is told using a most ingenious framework: Eco (as the anonymous author) poses as the narrator, but he is merely reconstructing the original journal left behind by the quixotic Roberto. Taking this idea several steps farther than in The Name of the Rose, here Eco does not feel bound to faithfully duplicate the original manuscript. Like a modern Cervantes, he freely adapts his found text, offering his own commentary on how “we moderns” must look at certain situations in the novel, and occasionally chiding Roberto or offering amusing posthumous criticism. It is a wonderful idea, and it works extremely well, giving the story an inescapable glow of ironic humor.
Although The Island of the Day Before is more playful and lighthearted than Eco’s previous two novels, it is every bit as dense, serving as a cornucopia of unique images and intriguing ideas. The book is bursting with life, and again Eco makes his writing a platform for the discussion of language and philosophy; and by looking at the marvels and follies of the past with fresh and vigorous eyes, our own ideas and technology are given a new shine as well. Cleverly, Eco presents the science of the mid 1600s with all its “credibility” left intact, and spends many happy pages discussing the ramifications of arcane and esoteric geography, astronomy, physics, and chemistry. At a time when Galileo was only recently dead and Newton just an infant, Eco reaches into the playpen of now-discarded scientific ideas, taking a childlike delight in pulling out long forgotten concepts and investing them with a certain sense of authority, allowing them their place in the sun along with metaphysics and religion – indeed, often welding them indistinguishably together.
Translated by William Weaver
1. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988, ISBN 0-15-132765-3; Hardcover $33.00.
2. Ballantine, 1990, ISBN 0-345-36875-4; Mass Market Paperback $7.99
One of the most paranoid and complex novels written since Gravity’s Rainbow, Foucault’s Pendulum is a riveting account of one man’s voyage into the unknown; but whether he’s on a journey to enlightenment or a bad trip into a nightmare world of paranoia is a haunting uncertainty.
A conspiracy story on a grand scale, Foucault’s Pendulum was originally published in 1988 as Pendolo di Foucault, and draws from the same well often visited by Jorge Luis Borges, H.P. Lovecraft, Thomas Pynchon, Milorad Pavic, and Robert Anton Wilson. (Just as Eco’s novel would set the stage for the current generation of pop-historical thrillers such The Da Vinci Code.) Foucault’s Pendulum is set in a universe where fact mingles imperceptibly with fiction, where secret societies chart the true course of human evolution, and the occult exerts its subversive influence on reality in ways barely glimpsed by the average individual. Here the Templars and the Illuminati trade secrets in the darkened house of ignorance, and the lightbearers are only as trusty as their Ur-father, Lucifer.
Or it could all be an illusion.
A sprawling tale that connects the hermetic traditions of countless cultures across thousands of years, the actual plot begins simply in present-day Milan. Here, an Italian Colonel expresses his fears about a Templar conspiracy to a pair of editors named Belbo and Diotallevi and their friend Casaubon, a doctoral student and an expert on Templar history. (Belbo, the senior editor and proud owner of a new computer, is a loosely autobiographical character; he has an apartment in Milan and a summer house in northern Italy, smokes copious amounts of cigarettes, and enjoys whiskey. Although his adult life is different from his creator’s, many of Belbo’s childhood memories from Piedmont are drawn from Eco’s actual life.) Entertained by the sheer grandiosity of the Colonel’s cliché-ridden story, the trio’s amusement turns to consternation when the Colonel is soon reported missing. Perhaps he was not quite the crackpot he seemed?
The mystery of the Colonel’s disappearance tunes the trio more closely to occult wavelengths, and as they pursue their lives across the next several years, they notice more and more connections between various religious doctines, hermetic systems, and pseudo-historical conspiracy theories. From the Templars to the Rosicrucians, from lost underground cities to Brazilian Candomblé, everything seems to develop sinister interconnections. Eventually they are reunited in Milan, and as fate would have it, they are placed on a project to publish a series of books on esoteric lore. Their work plunges them even deeper into the telluric world of concealed truths, and soon they decide to synthesize everything they’ve learned into an apocryphal tale of their own, formulating one vast, all-encompassing Plan reflecting the secret history of the world. They are helped by a mysterious individual who claims to be immortal, as well as Belbo’s new computer, Abulafia. But as the Plan grows, the men find that it becomes harder and harder to ignore its many ramifications. Within time, the Plan assumes a life of its own, and as everything starts to fall apart at the seams, the men begin to question their own sanity – and perhaps the nature of reality itself.
It’s this inevitable descent into uncertainty and madness that Eco captures so masterfully, and Foucault’s Pendulum is filled with literary devices that mirror its arcane world. Using a framework loosely based on the Qabalah, Eco employs a wide range of elements that juxtapose the modern and the ancient, the supernatural and the scientific. Computer entries show the powers of modern technology while simultaneously crunching numbers for antique formulae. Flashbacks set the idyllic scenes of childhood against the painfully adult quest for identity. Sharp postmodern ironies stab through dense tapestries of gothic horror. The reader is taken on a disorienting ride through centuries of thought, ideas flashing by on every side, but somehow Eco manages to keep the focus on his characters. Indeed, after a while one feels all too close to the poor soul narrating this awful tale, this Casaubon whose final destiny is suggested at the very beginning of the book.
As in his previous novel, The Name of the Rose, Eco makes sure that his dazzling surface rests upon a firm foundation, and he seeks to actively engage the reader in a deeper play of ideas. From very early in the book, the reader is served with Pendulum’s underlying subject matter: the importance of symbols, the meaning of secrets, and the reality of universal truths. Using the wand of his esoteric narrative, Eco summons up several centuries’ worth of hermetic systems, alphabets, symbologies, and ciphers; and through the eyes of Casaubon and his associates they are examined, cross-referenced, deconstructed, refuted, discarded, resurrected and ultimately believed, rejected, or tabled for further discussion. Throughout this arduous process a few nagging questions arise, and it is here that the reader is truly challenged, forced to confront the central issues of the sprawling tale. Eco presents us with the notion that our symbols and alphabets are merely constructs, mirrors that reflect back only what meaning we desire to see. But if these devices are only containers for meaning, what then is meaning itself? Is meaning universal, relative, or completely artificial? How is meaning related to belief? Does our belief engineer our reality, or is it the exact opposite? Is belief a prison, or is it a form of ultimate freedom? What power have we placed in belief, in secrets, in mysteries? And what if the essence of something is concealed – does revelation await the diligent, or merely layers and layers of signifiers with no objective reality? Does the mystery of belief lie in the concealment of these “truths” to all but the devout? And if there is some kind of universal truth, how can it be realized in a universe guided by ostensibly random and meaningless principles? And given all this, what then is the difference between belief and madness, or between doubt and madness?
In one particularly brilliant chapter, Casaubon’s girlfriend uses common sense and a trust in simplicity to refute nearly the entire history of the occult, overturning countless hermetic secrets with a simple wave of her hand, reducing a network of conspiracies to the importance of a laundry list. In many ways, this chapter acts as an almost Borgesian refutation of the entire novel, and undermines any confidence we may have in an ultimate resolution. Like Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 or Darren Aronofsky’s film Pi, we are left suspended between two mutually exclusive systems of thought. As the novel progresses, these contradictions and attendant paranoias press deeper into the mind of the narrator, and as the plot accelerates towards the singularity established in the beginning of the book, the borderline between inspiration and insanity grows increasingly more tenuous – for both Casaubon and the reader. But just as the ending is reached, suddenly—
Translated by William Weaver
1. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983, ISBN 0-15-144647-4; Hardcover, $35.00.
2. Harcourt Brace: Harvest in Translation, 1984, ISBN 0-15-600131-4; Trade paperback $15.00. Includes Postscript to The Name of the Rose.
3. Folio Society, 2001, Hardcover, £27.50.
Originally published in 1980 as Il nome della rosa, Eco’s first novel has rapidly assumed the status of a modern classic. Set in a northern Italian abbey in the year 1327, The Name of the Rose is an engaging and unusually dense mystery, harmoniously combining many different elements into one seamless whole. The book is like a marvelous play, where philosophical discussion, theological debate, and scientific discourse interact brilliantly on the stage of historical fiction; a drama where a complex plot masked as a detective story pulls the reader into surprisingly dynamic relationships with a cast of metaphysical characters.
There are many opinions of this book, which is both rare and wonderful for a work basically so young. Its fanbase is very large, and includes mystery buffs, classical lit professors, postmodern fiction enthusiasts, science fiction and fantasy fans, mathematicians and linguists – rarely does one encounter a contemporary work with a readership so diverse. Some know it only from the film version with Sean Connery and Christian Slater; a decent movie, but as a faithful rendition of the novel, it is not without serious flaws. Some consider it an historical mystery, a literary whodunit touching on everything from God to toxicology, and to others it plays like a supernatural novel of the occult, filled with arcane references and sinister monks brooding in the shadow of the Apocalypse. To some it represents a modern refutation of the Medieval world-view, a semiological reply to the question of Universal Natures in the form of a Roman a clef. And then again, more than a few have tossed the book into the corner, discouraged by its clutter and unwilling to plow through the infamous “Adso admires the door” chapter.
So what exactly is all this about?
The novel opens with a few words from the “author,” if I may put that word into quotations; for Eco uses the time-honored literary device of disavowing authorship, claiming instead to have uncovered the manuscript of a 14th Century monk named Adso of Melk. After a few mandatory notes from Eco, the reader is immediately plunged into the mind of this aging monk, who has a story to tell about a certain memorable week from his youth....
Although related by Adso, the story centers around Adso’s mentor, an English Franciscan named William of Baskerville. A disciple of Aristotle and Roger Bacon, William is a man whose religious convictions dwell in coexistence with his love of philosophy and his penchant for investigative science. These “modern” views, which largely define his character and ensure the reader’s sympathy, are about to be thrown into stark relief against the darkest facets of the medieval mind set. The plot begins when William and his enthusiastic pupil are sent to a Benedictine abbey in Northern Italy. This abbey has been chosen to host an important but controversial theological meeting, and it is William’s assignment to lay the groundwork for a smooth transaction. But prior to beginning his investigation, a gruesome murder occurs, shocking the complacent monks and intriguing the ever-curious William. As he investigates the circumstances of the murder, he and Adso set forth on a journey through a convoluted labyrinth of intrigue, where every twist brings them in contact with the superstitions, beliefs, and political machinations that rule the brothers of this strange abbey. As the story unfolds against a background of escalating violence and increasing hysteria, William and Adso find themselves pulled into a widening vortex of tension that soon threatens to unwind the very fabric of their social universe. At the eye of the storm is a secret book hidden away like a deformed child in the attic, a semi-mythical work by Aristotle which heretically declares laughter as the only escape from the doctrine of Universal Truth....
Not only is the story a fascinating one, but the book is amazingly well written, and reads more like a tour-de-force from a master novelist than the fictional debut of a semiotics professor. Eco doesn’t merely describe the fourteenth century, he thrusts the reader into its heart, soul, and bowels, his prose resurrecting the medieval world around the reader’s dazzled senses. Like the labyrinthine library at the heart of the story, his prose reflects the convolutions of the age with all its conflicting worlds of thought. At times dense and dark, at other times exploding with illumination, the narrative captures the tensions and glories of an age posed on the brink of discovery, yet desperately clinging to the past. Every nuance and detail is lovingly rendered, from the stinking muck of a stable to the glorious illuminations of a manuscript, from the apocalyptic fervor of the willfully ignorant to the intellectual wonder invoked by a pair of spectacles. The characters are beautifully drawn, many slyly referring to personalities from literature, such as Jorge of Burgos, the irascible blind librarian, a tweak of the nose to Jorge Luis Borges. Bernardo Guidoni, the Inquisitor whose visit looms over the abbey like a coming plague, is drawn from history, as is the sad heretic Ubertino of Casale. Of course, the most remarkable character is William of Baskerville. Shining through the pages of the book like a beacon of clarity, banishing the darkness of ignorance with the light of reason, Brother William is an irresistible and unforgettable protagonist, possessed with Eco’s modern sensibilities and given a name that fairly twinkles with humor, sparkles of light flashed from Sherloccam’s razor wit.
This fondness for puns and allusion is not restricted to the cast of characters. The Name of the Rose is filled with puzzles, arcane references, and literary gamesmanship, from the realization of imaginary books to the witty mechanisms of the library’s lethal maze. Even its title is an enigma of sorts, and the source of speculation for several essays, including a “Postscript” by Eco himself (included in the Harvest paperback edition). The sense of play in The Name of the Rose is grounded by a deeper level of humor, a spiritual goodwill shielded from banality by a protective layer of irony. Although the novel depicts many tragedies and profound lapses of reason, it is neither unrelentingly bleak nor mired in existential despair. William – and, one senses, Eco – has a genuine compassion for his fellow man, and even when his anger flares or his patience fails, he can still embrace life with good humor, wry understanding, and a hard-won sense of balance.
A detective story and then some; there are as many valid ways to read this work as there are readers. A modern answer to the Middle Ages, a refutation of Universals and Absolutes, a celebration of the birth of the experimental method, a dialogue between personified ideals – all are valid frames of reference, and all have something to teach us about our own modern world. Eco is here a conjuror crossing time and space, using the long ladle of Aristotelian tradition to churn up the Middle Ages in his postmodern cauldron; and as the abbey teeters towards both revelation and destruction, we are invited inside to taste the heady brew.
Translated by Alastair McEwen
Rizzoli International Publications, 2004, ISBN 0847826465; Hardcover $40.00.
An illustrated book, The History of Beauty represents Eco in cultural/historical critic mode. Additional commentary is planned for the future; this is from the publisher:
What is beauty? What is art? What is taste and fashion? Is beauty something to be observed coolly and rationally or is it something dangerously involving? So begins Umberto Eco’s intriguing journey into the aesthetics of beauty, in which he explores the ever-changing concept of the beautiful from the ancient Greeks to today. While closely examining the development of the visual arts and drawing on works of literature from each era, Eco broadens his enquiries to consider a range of concepts, including the idea of love, the unattainable woman, natural inspiration versus numeric formulas, and the continuing importance of ugliness, cruelty, and even the demonic.
Professor Eco takes us from classical antiquity to the present day, dispelling many preconceptions along the way and concluding that the relevance of his research is urgent because we live in an age of great reverence for beauty, “an orgy of tolerance, the total syncretism and the absolute and unstoppable polytheism of Beauty.”
In this, his first illustrated book, Professor Eco offers a layered approach that includes a running narrative, abundant examples of painting and sculpture, and excerpts from writers and philosophers of each age, plus comparative tables. A true road map to the idea of beauty for any reader who wishes to journey into this wonderful realm with Eco’s nimble mind as guide.
Published by Harcourt, this volume contains five essays on themes of ethics and morality. According to Michael Spinella of Booklist:
Here Eco tackles difficult subjects with apparent ease in essays that, dealing with morality and ethics, touch every area of modern thought. His “Reflections on War,” written at the beginning of the Persian Gulf crisis, still resounds truthfully today. “On the Press” looks at the media and their influence on the world and one another. “Ur-Fascism” discusses the fascist regimes of Franco, Mussolini, and the Nazis, ending with the caveat that fascism, with its resurgence in the guise of militant new right-wing groups, isn’t at all a thing of the past. Through these and the other essays, Eco combines reflections on our shared history and his recommendations for a more favorable modernity in a manner that seems indisputable and brilliant.
Porta Ludovica reviewed this book upon publication – you may read the full review here.
Published by Harcourt Brace, this work – the English translation of 1997’s Kant e l’ornitorinco – is another collection of essays revolving around semiotics and philosophy. The publisher’s description is as follows:
How do we know that a cat is a cat? Why do we agree on calling the beast a cat? Interesting questions, but an even more intriguing question lies at the heart of all modern philosophy – how much of our perception of things depends on our cognitive ability and how much on linguistic resources? At this point semiotics becomes inextricably linked to epistemology, or cognition. In these essays, Umberto Eco explores in depth such subjects as perception, the relationship between language and experience, and iconism that he only touched on in A Theory of Semiotics. Forgoing a formal, systematic treatment, Eco engages in a series of explorations based on common sense, from which flow an abundance of illustrative fables, often with animals as protagonists. Among the characters, a position of prominence is reserved for the platypus, which appears to have been created specifically to “put the cat among the pigeons” as far as many theories of knowledge are concerned. In Kant and the Platypus, Eco shares with us a wealth of ideas at once philosophical and amusing.
David Hornbuckle reviews the book for The Modern Word:
In Kant and the Platypus, Eco reiterates and updates much of the research that he published in 1976 as A Theory of Semiotics. Platypus is marketed as a general interest book, but the content presumes of the reader a fairly intimate knowledge of philosophy of language and complex logic, particularly certain writings of Kant, Heidegger and Peirce, which, more than one pundit has noted, almost nobody understands. Eco himself has even been reported as commenting on the difficulty of reading this book warning, “Don’t buy it if you are not Einstein.” To make things more difficult, or perhaps as a strategy of intimidation, Eco uses Latin, Italian, French and German quotations liberally with no translation whatsoever.
The essential subject matter of the book is the relationship between the things we perceive and the words we use to communicate about those things, name them, and describe them. Eco suggests a number of categories of meaning based largely on a language user’s linguistic competence, cultural background and technical expertise, and he illustrates this theory with a number of colorful and charming anecdotes, many borrowed or extended from other philosophers.
The title comes from an analogy Eco uses throughout the book, postulating a problem that Kant might have had in classifying a platypus had he ever come across one in his lifetime. The problem, specifically, is a bit unclear. Eco is a fine writer and certainly well-read, but his interpretations of other philosophers are sometimes suspect. Even so, the points he wishes to illustrate tend to boil down to plain common sense for the most part.
Some readers might be irritated by Eco’s frequent references to his own previous work as well as references to his skirmishes with various other philosophers over the years. However, fans of Eco’s fiction and lighter essays will still appreciate the playful humor and broad eclectic knowledge displayed in his writing, provided they can follow the subject matter being discussed. (DH)
An essay written about his first novel, Postille a Il nome della rosa had its first incarnation as a lengthy journal article. It was later retitled Reflections on The Name of the Rose and bound in a small illustrated book; but recently it has regained its original name and is included in the “Harvest in Translation” paperback edition of The Name of the Rose. The essay explores the role of the reader in approaching the text, and it gives some amusing and informative anectdotes on the actual writing of the novel, shedding much light on Eco’s creative process.
Here is some commentary about the original work, sent in by Jonathan Key:
A wonderful little book. Eco even talks about the different types of labyrinth. There are also some neat illustrations, particularly of the labyrinth on the floor of the cathedral at Rheims, which is the basis for the library in the novel. It appeared on the jacket of the original Italian hardback, and on various other editions (e.g. embossed on the Russian hardback). Part of its appeal for Eco, I’m sure, is that it was obliterated by a Canon in the 18th century. It is thus sous rature as Derrida would have it, under erasure – necessarily destroyed but nevertheless still visible and usable. It is a classical maze, surprisingly, rather than a mannerist one. The library in the novel is essentially mannerist (in that the ultimate goal is the finis africae), and both types become superceded by the rhizomatic model of Deleuze and Guattari in Rose. So, the Rheims labyrinth has only one route. As Eco (or his editor) put it: “But if you unravel the classical labyrinth, you find a thread in your hand, the thread of Ariadne. The classical labyrinth is the Ariadne’s-thread of itself.” (p.57) This reminds me of the final exchange between Lönnrot and Red Scharlach in Borges’ “Death and the Compass,” which, of course, was a major plot source for Rose. Interestingly, while in the novel William uses mathematical analysis to solve the mannerist maze, the film has Adso solving it by use of an Ariadne’s thread. Eco’s comment would seem to associate the thread solution exclusively with the ’classical’ maze but this is misleading. ’Classical’ labyrinths were usually pictorial, like Celtic ones, and you certainly wouldn’t need a thread to find your way out – you just keep going. The minatour’s maze would have to be mannerist, with lots of dead ends, despite what Eco says. Hence the need for a thread. Besides, I’ve seen Knossos, and it is beatifully labyrinthine, with lots of steps, little corridors, sudden changes in direction, and poky little rooms. Mannnerist, for sure.
Translated by William Weaver
Harcourt Brace & Company, 1986, ISBN 0-15-691321-6; Paperback $15.00.
Travels in Hyperreality is a conglomeration of essays from previous works and columns. It is mostly based on 1983’s Sette anni di desiderio: chronache 1977 - 1983 (Seven Year’s of Desire), which is a collection of essays written about Italian political unrest, leading to a “religiosity of the unconscious, of the vortex, of the absence of a center, or radical difference, of absolute otherness, of fracture.” Hyperreality, however, includes several other essays taken from the earlier untranslated works Il costume di casa (1973) and Dalla periferia dell’Impero (1977) as well as a 1975 essay on the American subculture of hyperrealism called “Faith in Fakes.” This essay, retitled “Travels in Hyperreality,” is the longest work in the book, and provides the collection with a new name.
Obviously most of the essays concern themselves with modern culture and the currents and trends that helped to shape it, which allows Eco a platform to analyze such things as the media and the “global village” concept; but more than a few essays revolve around some of Eco’s favorite topics such as Aquinas and semiotics. In short, the range of topics is broad and eclectic as usual. The title essay tracks Eco as he journeys through American wax museums and theme parks in search of the American Ideal, commenting on the American fondness for kitsch and “authentic copies” in the absence of a profound historical tradition. Other subjects include a shrewd analysis of MacLuhan’s “the medium is the message” slogan, an irascible but thoughtful diatribe against spectator sports, a modern refutation of the ideology of the “romantic” terrorist, an analysis of the movie Casablanca as a cult phenomena laden with archetypes, and a series of essays which expostulate that our modern love of certain images and systems is a sort of “return to the Middle Ages.”
Many of the essays are actually quite humorous as well as insightful, and as usual Eco manages to serve up his ideas through a witty use of satirical analysis and overinterpretation coupled with a sly sense of irreverent and occasionally backhanded humor. The barbs are well fashioned, the commentary suitably wry, and the theory well-explained. A superior collection that certainly rewards a careful reading and a thoughtful re-reading.
Here is the introductory note from back cover:
Umberto Eco – novelist, semiotician, and cultural critic extraordinary – displays here the same wit, learning, and lively intelligence that delighted readers of The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum. Eco’s range is wide – from pop culture to philosophy, from the People’s Temple to Thomas Aquinas, from Casablanca to Roland Barthes.
The opening essay shows us the tireless and questing author travelling the length and breadth of America in search of places that probe the boundaries of realism, copies that promise more than the originals: wax museums, halls of fame, theme parks, zoos. “The Return of the Middle Ages” asks searching questions about our modernity; “The Global Village” moves from mass media to mass sports. Small gems abound, like “Lumbar Thought,” in which Eco considers how blue jeans shape the man.
The insights in these essays are acute, frequently ironic, and often downright funny. To quote the San Francisco Chronicle, Eco has “a great deal to teach all of us about the importance (not to mention the pleasure) of observation and criticism, those twin privileges – and, as he says, duties – of all thinking human beings.”
Edited by Robert Lumley
Indiana University Press, 1994, ISBN 0-253-31851-3; Hardcover $29.95. Out of print.
Originally published in 1964 as Apocalittici e integrati and revised in 1977. From Kirkus Reviews:
Teacher (Semiotics/Univ. of Bologna), editor, cultural commentator, and novelist (Foucault’s Pendulum, 1989), Eco offers refreshing commentary on cultural life, primarily in Italy, from the mid-1960s to the late ’80s, when intellectuals were especially alarmed by the emergence of a mass or pop culture. Dedicating his book to those he calls the “apocalyptics,’’ cultural elites who fear the destruction of their world by mass communication and popular entertainment, he offers historical surveys of key terms such as “culture,’’ “intellectual,’’ and “design,’’ bringing to these terms more inclusive definitions that embrace comic books, TV, popular music, and a whole range of experience that he includes in the idea of civilization. He recalls introducing his collection of Superman comics at a distinguished European conference of theologians and philosophers discussing mythography; republishes his famous essay from the New York Review of Books on Peanuts (the “microcosm,’’ the “primitive epic’’) for “humanists who do not read comic strips’’; and to prove that “the medium is not always the message,’’ he analyzes the official comic strips of the Chinese communist government. In lucid, persuasive, and artfully illustrated essays, Eco expands the range of what is acceptable as culture: television programs, computers, popular music, posters, the whole counterculture, anything that does not require paper made from trees, for, he concludes in a typically gnomic remark, “every new book reduces the quantity of oxygen.’’ Although Eco occasionally sounds foreign and anachronistic, he displays a universal sympathy and a comprehensive eye that ranges from Snoopy, who has “no hope of promotion,’’ to the “Genius Industry’’ – those poor eccentrics who believe themselves to be victims of their own originality, publishing and reviewing their own books. Eco is a true original – substantial, lucid, humane, and a great deal of fun. (Copyright ©1994, Kirkus Associates, LP.)
The following description has been reprinted from the back of the Flamingo edition of Apocalypse Postponed:
Apocalypse Postponed is the anguished portrait of Western culture on the brink of self-destruction, by one of the world’s foremost writers.
With consummate ease, Umberto Eco provides simultaneously both a perfect attack on and an apology for mass culture. Exploring such exotica as La Ciccilina, Charlie Brown, George Orwell, Fellini, Chinese and American comics, as well as appraising illiteracy, the state of counterculture and his own reaction to the media’s consumption of his work, he exposes contemporary mass culture both as mankind’s nemesis and its salvation.
The introduction explains that the essays have been chosen with these objectives:
1. To convey some sense of the development of Eco’s writing on cultural issues from the early 1960s to the late 1980s, documenting as well as re-presenting past works.
2. To focus on journalism and occasional essays.
3. To include historically significant pieces not previously translated (notably from Apocalittici e integrati).
4. To include material written about Italy and for Italians and which has tended not to be translated for that reason.
5. To communicate the wit and brio of Eco’s writing.
And finally, here’s the Table of Contents with some information on the various essays:
Part 1; Mass Culture: Apocalypse Postponed
1. Apocalyptic and Integrated Intellectuals: Mass communications and theories of mass culture 
2. The World of Charlie Brown
3. Reactions of Apocalyptical and Integrated Intellectuals: Then (1964)
4. Reactions of the Author: Now (1974 and 1977)
5. Orwell, or Concerning Visonary Power
6. The Future of Literacy 
Part 2: Mass Media and the Limits of Communication
1. Political Language: The use and abuse of rhetoric 
2. Does the Audience have Bad Effects on Television? 
3. Event as Mise en scene and Life as Scene-settings 
4. The Phantom of Neo-TV: The debate on Fellini’s Ginger and Fred 
Part 3: The Rise and Fall of Counter-cultures
1. Does Counter-culture Exist? 
2. The New Forms of Expression 
3. On Chinese Comic Strips: Counter-information and alternative
4. Independent Radio in Italy 
5. Striking at the Heart of State?
Part 4: In Search of Italian Genius
1. Phenomena of This Sort Must Also be Included 
1. Phenomena of This Sort Must Also be Included in Any Panorama of Italian Design 
2. A Dollar for a Deputy: La Cicciolina 
3. For Grace Received 
4. The Italian Genius Industry 
Porta Ludovica thanks Mark Brown and Guy S. Kaiser for some of this information. Guy also remarks, “Look for the early (first?) apperance of De Gubernatis in the last essay, the model for Manutius.”
Translated by William Weaver
Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993, ISBN 0-15-660752-2; Paperback $14.00.
Originally published in 1963 as Diario minimo and revised in 1975, this small book is a collection of writings culled from Eco’s monthly column in the Italian literary magazine Il Verri. The writings are essentially freewheeling and experimental pieces, most of them taking humorous swings at literary theory, anthropology, and cultural biases. The English translation was made in 1993 and contains a special preface which explains the background to some of the pieces.
Misreadings is a perfect name for this delightful little book, as it captures the spirit of many of the essays, in which an entirely misappropriate spin is placed on familiar subjects. Sacred cows are irreverently speared and offered up for dinner, overinterpretation and ivory tower intellectualism are toppled down and mischievously dragged through the dust of the “real world,” and parodies are allowed to expand to their most pompous and ludicrous horizons. Modern literary criticism is applied to classics like the Bible and Dante, banknotes and currency are evaluated for their artistic value, and the modern media is depicted covering such events as the voyage of Columbus. Eco deftly and humorously points out that for all our art, criticism, and science, we as human beings are still terribly limited in our understanding of each other and the world we create around us.
Here is the blurb from the inside cover:
In an upside-down Lolita, Umberto Umberto pursues a granny with “whitely lascivious locks.” Professor Anouk Ooma of Price Joseph’s Land University addresses his colleagues on recent archeological findings that shed light on the poetry of Italy before the explosion. Columbus’s landing in the New World is covered by television reporters, commentators, and guest experts. In addition, we are given a social and structural analysis of the art of striptease as performed by Lilly Niagara of the Crazy Horse; we are privy to in-house publisher reader’s reports, most of them unfavorable, on such submissions as The Odyssey, Don Quixote, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and the Five Books of Moses; and we hear a diatribe against the mounting tide of vulgarity in Greece, the new democratic “culture industry” of such upstarts as Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, not to mention public playing of the flute.
Umberto Eco pokes fun at the oversophisticated, overacademic, and overintellectual, and along the way has some penetrating comments to make about our modern mass culture and the elitist avant-garde in art and criticism.
This is a very enjoyable book, and it furnished the name for this web page as well – Porta Ludovica, from an essay that declared the impossibility of its existence in Milan.
(Translated by Martin McLaughlin.)
Harcourt, 2004, ISBN: 0-15-100812-4; Hardcover $26.00.
As the title suggests, this work is a collection of essays and lectures on the topic of literature. The book will be published in December 2004, after which Porta Ludovica will review the work more fully. The publisher’s description:
In this collection of essays and addresses delivered over the course of his illustrious career, Umberto Eco seeks “to understand the chemistry of [his] passion” for the word. From musings on Ptolemy and “the force of the false” to reflections on the experimental writing of Borges and Joyce, Eco’s luminous intelligence and encyclopedic knowledge are on dazzling display throughout. And when he reveals his own ambitions and superstitions, his authorial anxieties and fears, one feels like a secret sharer in the garden of literature to which he so often alludes. Remarkably accessible and unfailingly stimulating, this collection exhibits the diversity of interests and the depth of knowledge that have made Eco one of the world’s leading writers.
The table of contents provides a good summary of the topics addressed:
On Some Functions of Literature
A Reading of the Paradiso
On the Style of The Communist Manifesto
The Mists of Valois
Wilde: Paradox and Aphorism
A Portrait of the Artist as Bachelor
Between La Mancha and Babel
Borges and My Anxiety of Influence
On Camporesi: Blood, Body, Life
Les Sémaphores sous la Pluie
The Flaws in the Form
Intertextual Irony and Levels of Reading
The Poetics and Us
American Myth in Three Anti-American Generations
The Power of Falsehood
How I Write
buy this book at Amazon.com
By Adele J. Haft, Jane G. White, and Robert J. White, 1987.
University of Michigan Press 1999, ISBN 0-472086219; Paperback $14.95.
Review by Allen B. Ruch
Eco enthusiasts have reason to rejoice. Long overdue for a second printing, The Key to "The Name of the Rose" has been given a new life by The University of Michigan Press.
Umberto Eco's monumental 1980 novel The Name of the Rose has an unusual history. The first work of fiction by the Italian professor of semiotics, it was not expected to be anything close to a best-seller. A long and multifaceted novel, it plunges readers directly into a Byzantine world of medieval politics and arcane religious intrigues, uses modern semiotic theory to inform much of the dialogue, and invests its cast of characters with multilayered allusions to historical and literary figures. Eco himself has admitted that the first hundred pages were deliberately opaque, a sort of semi-permeable membrane that allowed passage to only the most dedicated reader. But despite all this -- or, one hopefully thinks, because of this -- the book proved to be an international phenomenon, selling millions of copies and placing Professor Eco firmly in the literary limelight. The book also received additional attention in 1986, when it was made into a film starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater. This, perhaps more than anything else, turned countless new readers onto Rose, many of whom were startled to find the original a good deal more complex than the watered-down version they had seen on the screen. The novel has since taken its place as a contemporary classic, a work that for many readers has become a stepping stone from popular fiction into the world of modern literature.
Given both the difficulty of the work and its unusually broad audience, Rose was a book that cried out for an accessible guide to its many allusions and frequent use of Latin and other "dead" languages. That challenge was met by three scholars and fellow admirers of the novel: Adele Haft and Robert White of the Hunter College Classics department, and Robert's wife Jane White, chairman of the Department of Foreign Languages at the Dwight-Englewood School of New Jersey. Combining their talents in medieval history and Latin with their appreciation of Eco's work in semiotics, the three produced The Key to "The Name of the Rose." Published by Thomas Cahill and Company, the book stood as the only general guide to Rose until it was allowed to fall out of print. Though the guide became increasingly more difficult to acquire in the Nineties, Eco's novel kept selling more copies, and finally the University of Michigan Press decided The Key deserved a new audience.
And what a welcome decision that was. Simply put, this is a marvelous book, a wonderful resource for both the beginner and the Eco scholar alike. The writing style is fresh and very readable, striking the perfect balance between academic rigor and simplicity of use -- it tells you exactly what you need to know, often pointing out small jokes, interesting asides, and occasional inconsistencies.
The book is also attractively and intelligently designed, with each chapter headed by a distinguished title in Caslon Antique, followed by a witty Rose-like commentary on the chapter's contents. The work is divided clearly into four main chapters with a few helpful extras at the beginning and end. After a warm preface and introduction, Chapter One sets up the book with an essay on "Umberto Eco, Semiotics, and Medieval Thought." Knowing that their audience is expecting a guide to a novel and not a scholarly dissertation on Eco and his work, the authors keep this essay to the perfect length and include just the right amount of information. Umberto Eco's career is briefly outlined, which leads into a short but lucid discussion of semiotics, focusing on its relation to both the Middle Ages and the novel itself. The Middle Ages are presented as an "open work," a time between the classical period and the Renaissance where human intellect debated the very nature of meaning and representation. Aspects of the Middle Ages which are relevant to Rose are highlighted, including the influence of Aristotle, the concept of Universals, and the conflicts between logical reasoning and infallible ediction. Modern literary influences on the novel are brought into play as well, with emphasis on both Sherlock Holmes and Jorge Luis Borges. The essay concludes with some thoughts on the oft-pondered title of the novel.
Chapter Two is titled "A Brief Chronology of the Middle Ages," and lists events from 480 AD to 1367 AD that have relevance to the plot. This is followed by Chapter Three, "An Annotated Guide to the Historical and Literary References." Structured like an encyclopedia, these 58 pages comprise nearly a third of The Key, and provide notes on everything from Peter Abelard to the Williamites. Countless scholars, popes, saints and heretics are referenced, long with various sects, books, mythical places and fantastical beasts. The glosses and biographical sketches are concise, appropriate, and often touched with a dry humor; they have also been cross-linked to the rest of the book through boldface typing. Certainly the most amusing and informative part of the book, one doesn't even need to read Rose to enjoy this collection of anecdotes and characterizations.
Chapter Four, "Notes on the Text of The Name of the Rose," is the second most useful section of the book, and was in fact the reason the authors began this project -- to provide a translation the Latin passages. This chapter contains a complete annotation of all the non-English phrases in the novel, whether Latin, medieval German, Arabic, or even the Babel-esque mutterings of the wretched Salvatore. The annotations are easy to follow, with pagination for all three existing versions of Rose, and thoughtfully provide a recap of the original as well as the translation. What's more, some of the annotations come with highly illuminating notes, the best being an illustrated commentary on possible sources for Eco's central labyrinth.
The main text ends with a "Postscript," an essay intended for readers who have completed the novel. Here the authors set aside their glosses and engage in some speculation, discussing the Apocalyptic themes inherent in Rose as well as its enigmatic conclusion. The Key closes with three handy sections: a complete bibliography of Eco's work up to 1998, a bibliography of sources consulted in the writing of the guide, and some notes on the authors themselves.
I highly recommend The Key to "The Name of the Rose" to both new readers and those who are already familiar with Eco's great novel. It really is a small treasure, and while it may not be as indispensable as a guide to Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, the illuminations it provides for Eco's labyrinthine text are as engaging and clever as those drawn by poor Adelmo himself. [source]
buy this book at amazon.com
The city of Alexandria played host on 1 November to the renowned Italian novelist and scholar Umberto Eco, who gave a lecture in English, on varieties of literary and geographic memory, at the newly opened Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Al-Ahram Weekly publishes the complete text of the lecture.
"Before the invention of computers, poets and narrators dreamt of a totally open text that readers could infinitely re-compose in different ways. Such was the idea of Le Livre, as extolled by Mallarmé. Raymond Queneau also invented a combinatorial algorithm by virtue of which it was possible to compose, from a finite set of lines, millions of poems. In the early sixties, Max Saporta wrote and published a novel whose pages could be displaced to compose different stories, and Nanni Balestrini gave a computer a disconnected list of verses that the machine combined in different ways to compose different poems"
WE HAVE THREE TYPES OF MEMORY. The first one is organic, which is the memory made of flesh and blood and the one administrated by our brain. The second is mineral, and in this sense mankind has known two kinds of mineral memory: millennia ago, this was the memory represented by clay tablets and obelisks, pretty well known in this country, on which people carved their texts. However, this second type is also the electronic memory of today's computers, based upon silicon. We have also known another kind of memory, the vegetal one, the one represented by the first papyruses, again well known in this country, and then on books, made of paper. Let me disregard the fact that at a certain moment the vellum of the first codices were of an organic origin, and the fact that the first paper was made with rugs and not with wood. Let me speak for the sake of simplicity of vegetal memory in order to designate books.
This place has been in the past and will be in the future devoted to the conservation of books; thus, it is and will be a temple of vegetal memory. Libraries, over the centuries, have been the most important way of keeping our collective wisdom. They were and still are a sort of universal brain where we can retrieve what we have forgotten and what we still do not know. If you will allow me to use such a metaphor, a library is the best possible imitation, by human beings, of a divine mind, where the whole universe is viewed and understood at the same time. A person able to store in his or her mind the information provided by a great library would emulate in some way the mind of God. In other words, we have invented libraries because we know that we do not have divine powers, but we try to do our best to imitate them.
To build, or better to rebuild, today one of the greatest libraries of the world might sound like a challenge, or a provocation. It happens frequently that in newspaper articles or academic papers some authors, facing the new computer and internet era, speak of the possible "death of books". However, if books are to disappear, as did the obelisks or the clay tablets of ancient civilisations, this would not be a good reason to abolish libraries. On the contrary, they should survive as museums conserving the finds of the past, in the same way as we conserve the Rosetta Stone in a museum because we are no longer accustomed to carving our documents on mineral surfaces.
Yet, my praise for libraries will be a little more optimistic. I belong to the people who still believe that printed books have a future and that all fears à propos of their disappearance are only the last example of other fears, or of milleniaristic terrors about the end of something, the world included.
In the course of many interviews I have been obliged to answer questions of this sort: "Will the new electronic media make books obsolete? Will the Web make literature obsolete? Will the new hypertextual civilisation eliminate the very idea of authorship?" As you can see, if you have a well-balanced normal mind, these are different questions and, considering the apprehensive mode in which they are asked, one might think that the interviewer would feel reassured when your answer is, "No, keep cool, everything is OK". Mistake. If you tell such people that books, literature, authorship will not disappear, they look desperate. Where, then, is the scoop? To publish the news that a given Nobel Prize winner has died is a piece of news; to say that he is alive and well does not interest anybody -- except him, I presume.
WHAT I WANT TO DO TODAY is to try to unravel a skein of intertwined apprehensions about different problems. To clarify our ideas about these different problems can also help us to understand better what we usually mean by book, text, literature, interpretation, and so on. Thus you will see how from a silly question many wise answers can be produced, and such is probably the cultural function of naive interviews.
Let us start with an Egyptian story, even though one told by a Greek. According to Plato in Phaedrus when Hermes, or Theut, the alleged inventor of writing, presented his invention to the Pharaoh Thamus, the Pharaoh praised such an unheard of technique supposed to allow human beings to remember what they would otherwise forget. But Thamus was not completely happy. "My skillful Theut," he said, "memory is a great gift that ought to be kept alive by continuous training. With your invention people will no longer be obliged to train their memory. They will remember things not because of an internal effort, but by mere virtue of an external device."
We can understand the preoccupation of Thamus. Writing, like any other new technological invention, would have made torpid the human power which it pretended to substitute and reinforce. Writing was dangerous because it decreased the powers of mind by offering human beings a petrified soul, a caricature of mind, a mineral memory.
Plato's text is ironical, naturally. Plato was writing down his argument against writing. But he was also pretending that his discourse was told by Socrates, who did not write (since he did not publish, he perished in the course of the academic fight.) Nowadays, nobody shares Thamus's preoccupations for two very simple reasons. First of all, we know that books are not ways of making somebody else think in our place; on the contrary, they are machines that provoke further thoughts. Only after the invention of writing was it possible to write such a masterpiece of spontaneous memory as Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Secondly, if once upon a time people needed to train their memories in order to remember things, after the invention of writing they had also to train their memories in order to remember books. Books challenge and improve memory; they do not narcotise it. However, the Pharaoh was instantiating an eternal fear: the fear that a new technological achievement could kill something that we consider precious and fruitful.
I used the verb to kill on purpose because more or less 14 centuries later Victor Hugo, in his Notre Dame de Paris, narrated the story of a priest, Claude Frollo, looking in sadness at the towers of his cathedral. The story of Notre Dame de Paris takes places in the XVth century after the invention of printing. Before that, manuscripts were reserved to a restricted elite of literate persons, and the only thing to teach the masses about the stories of the Bible, the life of Christ and of the Saints, the moral principles, even the deeds of national history or the most elementary notions of geography and natural sciences (the nature of unknown peoples and the virtues of herbs or stones), was provided by the images of a cathedral. A mediaeval cathedral was a sort of permanent and unchangeable TV programme that was supposed to tell people everything indispensable for their everyday life, as well as for their eternal salvation.
Now, however, Frollo has on his table a printed book, and he whispers "ceci tuera cela": this will kill that, or, in other words, the book will kill the cathedral, the alphabet will kill images. The book will distract people from their most important values, encouraging unnecessary information, free interpretation of the Scriptures, insane curiosity.
During the sixties, Marshall McLuhan wrote his book The Gutenberg Galaxy, where he announced that the linear way of thinking supported by the invention of printing was on the verge of being substituted by a more global way of perceiving and understanding through TV images or other kinds of electronic devices. If not McLuhan, then certainly many of his readers pointed their finger first at a TV screen and then to a printed book, saying "this will kill that". Were McLuhan still among us, today he would have been the first to write something like "Gutenberg strikes back". Certainly, a computer is an instrument by means of which one can produce and edit images, certainly instructions are provided by means of icons; but it is equally certainly that the computer has become first of all an alphabetic instrument. On its screen there run words and lines, and in order to use a computer you must be able to write and to read.
Are there differences between the first Gutenberg Galaxy and the second one? Many. First of all, only the archaeological word processors of the early eighties provided a sort of linear written communication. Today, computers are no longer linear in so far as they display a hypertextual structure. Curiously enough, the computer was born as a Turing machine, able to make a single step at a time, and in fact, in the depths of the machine, language still works in this way, by a binary logic, of zero-one, zero-one. However, the machine's output is no longer linear: it is an explosion of semiotic fireworks. Its model is not so much a straight line as a real galaxy where everybody can draw unexpected connections between different stars to form new celestial images at any new navigation point.
Click to view caption
Oedipus, (from a collage novel entitled Une Semaine de bonté), Max Ernst, 1934; The Massacre of the Innocents, Photocollage with gouache, Max Ernst, 1920
"Before the invention of computers, poets and narrators dreamt of a totally open text that readers could infinitely re-compose in different ways. Such was the idea of Le Livre, as extolled by Mallarmé. Raymond Queneau also invented a combinatorial algorithm by virtue of which it was possible to compose, from a finite set of lines, millions of poems. In the early sixties, Max Saporta wrote and published a novel whose pages could be displaced to compose different stories, and Nanni Balestrini gave a computer a disconnected list of verses that the machine combined in different ways to compose different poems"
YET IT IS EXACTLY AT THIS POINT that our unravelling activity must start because by hypertextual structure we usually mean two very different phenomena. First, there is the textual hypertext. In a traditional book one must read from left to right (or right to left, or up to down, according to different cultures) in a linear way. One can obviously skip through the pages, one -- once arrived at page 300 -- can go back to check or re- read something at page 10 -- but this implies physical labour. In contrast to this, a hypertextual text is a multidimensional network or a maze in which every point or node can be potentially connected with any other node. Second, there is the systemic hypertext. The WWW is the Great Mother of All Hypertexts, a world-wide library where you can, or you will in short time, pick up all the books you wish. The Web is the general system of all existing hypertexts.
Such a difference between text and system is enormously important, and we shall come back to it. For the moment, let me liquidate the most naive among the frequently asked questions, in which this difference is not yet so clear. But it will be in answering this first question that we will be able to clarify our further point. The naive question is: "Will hypertextual diskettes, the internet, or multimedia systems make books obsolete?" With this question we have arrived at the final chapter in our this-will-kill-that story. But even this question is a confused one, since it can be formulated in two different ways: (a) will books disappear as physical objects, and (b) will books disappear as virtual objects?
Let me first answer the first question. Even after the invention of printing, books were never the only instrument for acquiring information. There were also paintings, popular printed images, oral teaching, and so on. Simply, books have proved to be the most suitable instrument for transmitting information. There are two sorts of book: those to be read and those to be consulted. As far as books-to-be-read are concerned, the normal way of reading them is the one that I would call the "detective story way". You start from page one, where the author tells you that a crime has been committed, you follow every path of the detection process until the end, and finally you discover that the guilty one was the butler. End of the book and end of your reading experience. Notice that the same thing happens even if you read, let us say, a philosophical treatise. The author wants you to open the book at its first page, to follow the series of questions he proposes, and to see how he reaches certain final conclusions. Certainly, scholars can re-read such a book by jumping from one page to another, trying to isolate a possible link between a statement in the first chapter and one in the last. They can also decide to isolate, let us say, every occurrence of the word "idea" in a given work, thus skipping hundreds of pages in order to focus their attention only on passages dealing with that notion. However, these are ways of reading that the layman would consider as unnatural.
Then they are books to be consulted, like handbooks and encyclopaedias. Encyclopaedias are conceived in order to be consulted and never read from the first to the last page. A person reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica every night before sleeping, from the first to the last page, would be a comic character. Usually, one picks up a given volume of an encyclopaedia in order to know or to remember when Napoleon died, or what is the chemical formula for sulphuric acid. Scholars use encyclopaedias in a more sophisticated way. For instance, if I want to know whether it was possible or not that Napoleon met Kant, I have to pick up the volume K and the volume N of my encyclopaedia: I discover that Napoleon was born in 1769 and died in 1821, Kant was born in 1724 and died in 1804, when Napoleon was already emperor. It is therefore not impossible that the two met. In order to confirm this I would probably need to consult a biography of Kant, or of Napoleon, but in a short biography of Napoleon, who met so many persons in his life, a possible meeting with Kant can be disregarded, while in a biography of Kant a meeting with Napoleon would be recorded. In brief, I must leaf through many books on many shelves of my library; I must take notes in order to compare later all the data I have collected. All this will cost me painful physical labour.
Yet, with hypertext instead I can navigate through the whole net-cyclopaedia. I can connect an event registered at the beginning with a series of similar events disseminated throughout the text; I can compare the beginning with the end; I can ask for a list of all words beginning by A; I can ask for all the cases in which the name of Napoleon is linked with the one of Kant; I can compare the dates of their births and deaths -- in short, I can do my job in a few seconds or a few minutes.
Hypertexts will certainly render encyclopaedias and handbooks obsolete. Yesterday, it was possible to have a whole encyclopaedia on a CD-ROM; today, it is possible to have it on line with the advantage that this permits cross references and the non-linear retrieval of information. All the compact disks, plus the computer, will occupy one fifth of the space occupied by a printed encyclopaedia. A printed encyclopaedia cannot be easily transported as a CD-ROM can, and a printed encyclopaedia cannot be easily updated. The shelves today occupied at my home as well as in public libraries by metres and metres of encyclopaedias could be eliminated in the near future, and there will be no reason to complain at their disappearance. Let us remember that for a lot of people a multivolume encyclopaedia is an impossible dream, not, or not only, because of the cost of the volumes, but because of the cost of the wall where the volumes are shelved. Personally, having started my scholarly activity as a medievalist I would like to have at home the 221 volumes of Migne's Patrologia Latina. This is very expensive, but I could afford it. What I cannot afford is a new apartment in which to store 221 huge books without being obliged to eliminate at least 500 other normal tomes.
Yet, can a hypertextual disk or the WWW replace books to be read? Once again we have to decide whether the question concerns books as physical or as virtual objects. Once again let us consider the physical problem first.
Good news: books will remain indispensable, not only for literature but for any circumstances in which one needs to read carefully, not only in order to receive information but also to speculate and to reflect about it. To read a computer screen is not the same as to read a book. Think about the process of learning a new computer programme. Usually, the programme is able to display on the screen all the instructions you need. But usually users who want to learn the programme either print the instructions and read them as if they were in book form, or they buy a printed manual. It is possible to conceive of a visual programme that explains very well how to print and bind a book, but in order to get instructions on how to write, or how to use, a computer programme, we need a printed handbook.
After having spent 12 hours at a computer console, my eyes are like two tennis balls, and I feel the need of sitting down comfortably in an armchair and reading a newspaper, or maybe a good poem. Therefore, I think that computers are diffusing a new form of literacy, but they are incapable of satisfying all the intellectual needs they are stimulating. Please remember that both the Hebrew and the early Arab civilisations were based upon a book and this is not independent of the fact that they were both nomadic civilisations. The Ancient Egyptians could carve their records on stone obelisks: Moses and Muhammad could not. If you want to cross the Red Sea, or to go from the Arabian peninsula to Spain, a scroll is a more practical instrument for recording and transporting the Bible or the Koran than is an obelisk. This is why these two civilisations based upon a book privileged writing over images. But books also have another advantage in respect to computers. Even if printed on modern acid paper, which lasts only 70 years or so, they are more durable than magnetic supports. Moreover, they do not suffer from power shortages and black-outs, and they are more resistant to shocks.
Up to now, books still represent the most economical, flexible, wash-and-wear way to transport information at a very low cost. Computer communication travels ahead of you; books travel with you and at your speed. If you are shipwrecked on a desert island, where you don't have the option of plugging in a computer, a book is still a valuable instrument. Even if your computer has solar batteries, you cannot easily read it while lying in a hammock. Books are still the best companions for a shipwreck, or for the day after the night before. Books belong to those kinds of instruments that, once invented, have not been further improved because they are already alright, such as the hammer, the knife, spoon or scissors.
TWO NEW INVENTIONS, however, are on the verge of being industrially exploited. One is printing on demand: after scanning the catalogues of many libraries or publishing houses a reader can select the book he needs, and the operator will push a button, and the machine will print and bind a single copy using the font the reader likes. This will certainly change the whole publishing market. It will probably eliminate bookstores, but it will not eliminate books, and it will not eliminate libraries, the only places where books can be found in order to scan and reprint them. Simply put: every book will be tailored according to the desires of the buyer, as happened with old manuscripts.
The second invention is the e-book where by inserting a micro- cassette in the book's spine or by connecting it to the internet one can have a book printed out in front of us. Even in this case, however, we shall still have a book, though as different from our current ones as ours are different from old manuscripts on parchment, and as the first Shakespeare folio of 1623 is different from the last Penguin edition. Yet, up to now e-books have not proved to be commercially successful as their inventors hoped. I have been told that some hackers, grown up on computers and unused to browsing books, have finally read great literary masterpieces on e-books, but I think that the phenomenon remains very limited. In general, people seem to prefer the traditional way of reading a poem or a novel on printed paper. E-books will probably prove to be useful for consulting information, as happens with dictionaries or special documents. They will probably help students obliged to bring with them ten or more books when they go to school, but they will not substitute for other kinds of books that we love to read in bed before sleep, for example.
Indeed, there are a lot of new technological devices that have not made previous ones obsolete. Cars run faster than bicycles, but they have not rendered bicycles obsolete, and no new technological improvements can make a bicycle better than it was before. The idea that a new technology abolishes a previous one is frequently too simplistic. Though after the invention of photography painters did not feel obliged to serve any longer as craftsmen reproducing reality, this did not mean that Daguerre's invention only encouraged abstract painting. There is a whole tradition in modern painting that could not have existed without photographic models: think, for instance, of hyper-realism. Here, reality is seen by the painter's eye through the photographic eye. This means that in the history of culture it has never been the case that something has simply killed something else. Rather, a new invention has always profoundly changed an older one.
To conclude on this theme of the inconsistency of the idea of the physical disappearance of books, let us say that sometimes this fear does not only concern books but also printed material in general. Alas, if by chance one hoped that computers, and especially word processors, would contribute to saving trees, then that was wishful thinking. Instead, computers encourage the production of printed material. The computer creates new modes of production and diffusion of printed documents. In order to re- read a text, and to correct it properly, if it is not simply a short letter, one needs to print it, then to re-read it, then to correct it at the computer and to reprint it again. I do not think that one would be able to write a text of hundreds of pages and to correct it properly without reprinting it many times.
Today there are new hypertextual poetics according to which even a book-to-read, even a poem, can be transformed to hypertext. At this point we are shifting to question two, since the problem is no longer, or not only, a physical one, but rather one that concerns the very nature of creative activity, of the reading process, and in order to unravel this skein of questions we have first of all to decide what we mean by a hypertextual link.
Notice that if the question concerned the possibility of infinite, or indefinite, interpretations on the part of the reader, it would have very little to do with the problem under discussion. Rather, that would have to do with the poetics of a Joyce, for example, who thought of his book Finnegans Wake as a text that could be read by an ideal reader affected by an ideal insomnia. This question concerns the limits of interpretation, of deconstructive reading and of over-interpretation, to which I have devoted other writings. No: what are presently under consideration are cases in which the infinity, or at least the indefinite abundance of interpretations, are due not only to the initiative of the reader, but also to the physical mobility of the text itself, which is produced just in order to be re-written. In order to understand how texts of this genre can work we should decide whether the textual universe we are discussing is limited and finite, limited but virtually infinite, infinite but limited, or unlimited and infinite.
First of all, we should make a distinction between systems and texts. A system, for instance a linguistic system, is the whole of the possibilities displayed by a given natural language. A finite set of grammatical rules allows the speaker to produce an infinite number of sentences, and every linguistic item can be interpreted in terms of other linguistic or other semiotic items -- a word by a definition, an event by an example, an animal or a flower by an image, and so on and so forth.
Take an encyclopaedic dictionary, for example. This might define a dog as a mammal, and then you have to go to the entry mammal, and if there mammals are defined as animals you must look for the entry animal, and so on. At the same time, the properties of dogs can be exemplified by images of dogs of different kinds; if it is said that a certain kind of dog lives in Lapland you must then go to the entry on Lapland to know where it is, and so on. The system is finite, an encyclopaedia being physically limited, but virtually unlimited in the sense you can circumnavigate it in a spiral-like movement, ad infinitum. In this sense, certainly all conceivable books are comprised by and within a good dictionary and a good grammar. If you are able to use an English dictionary well you could write Hamlet, and it is by mere chance that somebody did it before you. Give the same textual system to Shakespeare and to a schoolboy, and they have the same odds of producing Romeo and Juliet.
Grammars, dictionaries and encyclopaedias are systems: by using them you can produce all the texts you like. But a text itself is not a linguistic or an encyclopaedic system. A given text reduces the infinite or indefinite possibilities of a system to make up a closed universe. If I utter the sentence, "This morning I had for breakfast...", for example, the dictionary allows me to list many possible items, provided they are all organic. But if I definitely produce my text and utter, "This morning I had for breakfast bread and butter", then I have excluded cheese, caviar, pastrami and apples. A text castrates the infinite possibilities of a system. The Arabian Nights can be interpreted in many, many ways, but the story takes place in the Middle East and not in Italy, and it tells, let us say, of the deeds of Ali Baba or of Scheherazade and does not concern a captain determined to capture a white whale or a Tuscan poet visiting Hell, Purgatory and Paradise.
Take a fairy tale, like Little Red Riding Hood. The text starts from a given set of characters and situations -- a little girl, a mother, a grandmother, a wolf, a wood -- and through a series of finite steps arrives at a solution. Certainly, you can read the fairy tale as an allegory and attribute different moral meanings to the events and to the actions of the characters, but you cannot transform Little Red Riding Hood into Cinderella. Finnegans Wake is certainly open to many interpretations, but it is certain that it will never provide you with a demonstration of Fermat's last theorem, or with the complete bibliography of Woody Allen. This seems trivial, but the radical mistake of many deconstructionists was to believe that you can do anything you want with a text. This is blatantly false.
Now suppose that a finite and limited text is organised hypertextually by many links connecting given words with other words. In a dictionary or an encyclopaedia the word wolf is potentially connected to every other word that makes up part of its possible definition or description (wolf is connected to animal, to mammal to ferocious, to legs, to fur, to eyes, to woods, to the names of the countries in which wolves exist, etc.). In Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf can be connected only with the textual sections in which it shows up or in which it is explicitly evoked. The series of possible links is finite and limited. How can hypertextual strategies be used to "open" up a finite and limited text?
The first possibility is to make the text physically unlimited, in the sense that a story can be enriched by the successive contributions of different authors and in a double sense, let us say either two-dimensionally or three-dimensionally. By this I mean that given, for instance, Little Red Riding Hood, the first author proposes a starting situation (the girl enters the wood) and different contributors can then develop the story one after the other, for example, by having the girl meet not the wolf but Ali Baba, by having both enter an enchanted castle, having a confrontation with a magic crocodile, and so on, so that the story can continue for years. But the text can also be infinite in the sense that at every narrative disjunction, for instance, when the girl enters the wood, many authors can make many different choices. For one author, the girl may meet Pinocchio, for another she may be transformed into a swan, or enter the Pyramids and discover the treasury of the son of Tutankhamen.
This is today possible, and you can find on the Net some interesting examples of such literary games.
AT THIS POINT one can raise a question about the survival of the very notion of authorship and of the work of art, as an organic whole. And I want simply to inform my audience that this has already happened in the past without disturbing either authorship or organic wholes. The first example is that of the Italian Commedia dell'arte, in which upon a canovaccio, that is, a summary of the basic story, every performance, depending on the mood and fantasy of the actors, was different from every other so that we cannot identify any single work by a single author called Arlecchino servo di due padroni and can only record an uninterrupted series of performances, most of them definitely lost and all certainly different one from another.
Another example would be a jazz jam session. We may believe that there was once a privileged performance of Basin Street Blues while only a later recorded session has survived, but we know that this is untrue. There were as many Basin Street Blues as there were performances of it, and there will be in future a lot of them that we do not know as yet, as soon as two or more performers meet again and try out their personal and inventive version of the original theme. What I want to say is that we are already accustomed to the idea of the absence of authorship in popular collective art in which every participant adds something, with experiences of jazz-like unending stories.
Such ways of implementing free creativity are welcome and make up part of the cultural tissue of society.
Yet, there is a difference between implementing the activity of producing infinite and unlimited texts and the existence of already produced texts, which can perhaps be interpreted in infinite ways but are physically limited. In our same contemporary culture we accept and evaluate, according to different standards, both a new performance of Beethoven's Fifth and a new Jam Session on the Basin Street theme. In this sense, I do not see how the fascinating game of producing collective, infinite stories through the Net can deprive us of authorial literature and art in general. Rather, we are marching towards a more liberated society in which free creativity will coexist with the interpretation of already written texts. I like this. But we cannot say that we have substituted an old thing with a new one. We have both.
TV zapping is another kind of activity that has nothing to do with watching a movie in the traditional sense. A hypertextual device, it allows us to invent new texts that have nothing to do with our ability to interpret pre-existing texts. I have tried desperately to find an instance of unlimited and finite textual situations, but I have been unable to do so. In fact, if you have an infinite number of elements to play with why limit yourself to the production of a finite universe? It's a theological matter, a sort of cosmic sport, in which one, or The One, could implement every possible performance but prescribes itself a rule, that is, limits, and generates a very small and simple universe. Let me, however, consider another possibility that at first glance promises an infinite number of possibilities with a finite number of elements, like a semiotic system, but in reality only offers an illusion of freedom and creativity.
A hypertext can give the illusion of opening up even a closed text: a detective story can be structured in such a way that its readers can select their own solution, deciding at the end if the guilty one should be the butler, the bishop, the detective, the narrator, the author or the reader. They can thus build up their own personal story. Such an idea is not a new one. Before the invention of computers, poets and narrators dreamt of a totally open text that readers could infinitely re-compose in different ways. Such was the idea of Le Livre, as extolled by Mallarmé. Raymond Queneau also invented a combinatorial algorithm by virtue of which it was possible to compose, from a finite set of lines, millions of poems. In the early sixties, Max Saporta wrote and published a novel whose pages could be displaced to compose different stories, and Nanni Balestrini gave a computer a disconnected list of verses that the machine combined in different ways to compose different poems. Many contemporary musicians have produced musical scores by manipulating which one can compose different musical performances.
All these physically moveable texts give an impression of absolute freedom on the part of the reader, but this is only an impression, an illusion of freedom. The machinery that allows one to produce an infinite text with a finite number of elements has existed for millennia, and this is the alphabet. Using an alphabet with a limited number of letters one can produce billions of texts, and this is exactly what has been done from Homer to the present days. In contrast, a stimulus-text that provides us not with letters, or words, but with pre-established sequences of words, or of pages, does not set us free to invent anything we want. We are only free to move pre-established textual chunks in a reasonably high number of ways. A Calder mobile is fascinating not because it produces an infinite number of possible movements but because we admire in it the iron-like rule imposed by the artist because the mobile moves only in the ways Calder wanted it to move.
At the last borderline of free textuality there can be a text that starts as a closed one, let us say, Little Red Riding Hood or The Arabian Nights, and that I, the reader, can modify according to my inclinations, thus elaborating a second text, which is no longer the same as the original one, whose author is myself, even though the affirmation of my authorship is a weapon against the concept of definite authorship. The Net is open to such experiments, and most of them can be beautiful and rewarding. Nothing forbids one writing a story where Little Red Riding Hood devours the wolf. Nothing forbids us from putting together different stories in a sort of narrative patchwork. But this has nothing to do with the real function and with the profound charms of books.
A BOOK OFFERS US A TEXT which, while being open to multiple interpretations, tells us something that cannot be modified. Suppose you are reading Tolstoy's War and Peace: you desperately wish that Natasha will not accept the courtship of that miserable scoundrel Anatolij; you desperately wish that the marvellous person who is Prince Andrej will not die, and that he and Natasha will live together forever. If you had War and Peace on a hypertextual and interactive CD-ROM, you could rewrite your own story according to your desires; you could invent innumerable "War and Peaces", where Pierre Besuchov succeeds in killing Napoleon, or, according to your penchants, Napoleon definitely defeats General Kutusov. What freedom, what excitement! Every Bouvard or Pécuchet could become a Flaubert!
Alas, with an already written book, whose fate is determined by repressive, authorial decision, we cannot do this. We are obliged to accept fate and to realise that we are unable to change destiny. A hypertextual and interactive novel allows us to practice freedom and creativity, and I hope that such inventive activity will be implemented in the schools of the future. But the already and definitely written novel War and Peace does not confront us with the unlimited possibilities of our imagination, but with the severe laws governing life and death.
Similarly, in Les Misérables Victor Hugo provides us with a beautiful description of the battle of Waterloo. Hugo's Waterloo is the opposite of Stendhal's. Stendhal, in La Charteuse de Parme, sees the battle through the eyes of his hero, who looks from inside the event and does not understand its complexity. On the contrary, Hugo describes the battle from the point of view of God, and follows it in every detail, dominating with his narrative perspective the whole scene. Hugo not only knows what happened but also what could have happened and did not in fact happen. He knows that if Napoleon had known that beyond the top of mount Saint Jean there was a cliff the cuirassiers of General Milhaud would not have collapsed at the feet of the English army, but his information in the event was vague or missing. Hugo knows that if the shepherd who had guided General von Bulow had suggested a different itinerary, then the Prussian army would have not arrived on time to cause the French defeat.
Indeed, in a role-play game one could rewrite Waterloo such that Grouchy arrived with his men to rescue Napoleon. But the tragic beauty of Hugo's Waterloo is that the readers feel that things happen independently of their wishes. The charm of tragic literature is that we feel that its heroes could have escaped their fate but they do not succeed because of their weakness, their pride, or their blindness. Besides, Hugo tells us, "Such a vertigo, such an error, such a ruin, such a fall that astonished the whole of history, is it something without a cause? No... the disappearance of that great man was necessary for the coming of the new century. Someone, to whom none can object, took care of the event... God passed over there, Dieu a passé."
That is what every great book tells us, that God passed there, and He passed for the believer as well as for the sceptic. There are books that we cannot re-write because their function is to teach us about necessity, and only if they are respected such as they are can they provide us with such wisdom. Their repressive lesson is indispensable for reaching a higher state of intellectual and moral freedom.
I hope and I wish that the Bibliotheca Alexandrina will continue to store this kind of books, in order to provide new readers with the irreplaceable experience of reading them. Long life to this temple of vegetal memory.