Sunday, November 18, 2007

Nonfiction: Misreadings

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.