Always Narrating: The Making and Unmaking of Umberto Eco
By Costica BradatanMarch 9, 2020
And yet, at the same time, Italians savagely mock it. Sometimes the most serious of Italians, like Umberto Eco (1932–2016), and at important events such as La Milanesiana, a festival of culture and ideas founded in 2000, and held annually in Milan ever since. Between 2001 and 2015, Umberto Eco was invited 12 times to give the lectio magistralis there. He was, after all, one of most distinguished milanesi in the city’s recent history (albeit one made, not born), having used Milan as the setting for some of his most successful novels. The first and most substantial of the magisterial lectures he presented, “Sulle spalle dei giganti,” gave the title to the volume in which they were collected, soon after his death. The book is now available in Alastair McEwen’s English translation as On the Shoulders of Giants (Harvard University Press, 2019). Much of it engages with dietrologia. Indeed, for most of his career, Eco waged a relentless war against that most Italian of sciences. He had great fun mocking conspiracies; sometimes, he went as far as to invent plots and plotters only to demolish them. For throughout his mature work Eco is on a quest for real meaning, which makes him so relevant for our times.
On the Shoulders of Giants may be a striking, if unorthodox illustration of Eco’s own notion of opera aperta (open work). For all its impressive scholarship and the breathtaking range of the topics covered, On the Shoulders of Giants, in an important sense, is an open, incomplete project, and it’s up to the individual reader to “finish” it. As we become immersed into Eco’s book, we often find ourselves imagining what his performance must have been like. For the lectures were not just some neutral transfer of information, but were meant to be performed before an audience. They were intended to elicit a certain emotional response from the milanesi gathered there, to remind them of the bond between them and the speaker, to create and maintain an intellectual community. When, during his first lecture, Eco said that “Medea is hardly someone who will have a nursery school named after her” or when, in the same lecture, touching on the origin of Noah’s conflict with his son Ham, Eco admitted the father was “having a little wine after all that water,” there must have been smiling and giggling and audible joy in the audience and, therefore, some affection born, some love manifested, none of which gets to the reader. And so, if the book is to be complete and our reading rewarding, we have to put that joy back in there. It is up to each one of us to come up with our own Eco.
Throughout the almost 300 pages we discover an Eco in his natural habitat: among his own, tra amici, enveloped by their loving gaze, admiration, and complicity. An Eco at ease, relaxed, comfortable with himself. A joy to watch — and to reconstruct. The man proves a rare human spectacle: at once immensely erudite and genuinely humble; aware of his intellectual stature and yet self-deprecating; creator of sophisticated literary and intellectual worlds, and yet a strikingly unpretentious mind. “Losers, like autodidacts, always know much more than winners,” he had written in Numero Zero (2015). “If you want to win, you need to know just one thing and not to waste your time on anything else […] The more a person knows, the more things have gone wrong.” How can you not love him?
Eco doesn’t hesitate to show himself to his listeners and readers as he really is: self-doubting, perplexed, vulnerable. Especially vulnerable. The book itself carries the visible mark of this vulnerability. The 12th and final lecture included in the volume, “Representations of the Sacred,” was prepared for La Milanesiana’s 2016 edition. Eco finished writing it, but could not deliver it. He had been suffering from cancer for the last two years. Death, having watched over his shoulder as he was laboring over those things divine and otherworldly, must have run out of patience, and eventually struck. And you can see traces of the strike in the book, and its abrupt ending. Quite a performer, the grim reaper.
There is a performance of another kind in On the Shoulders of Giants. In these series of conferences, Eco revisited some of the topics he had been working on for most of his career (beauty, ugliness, and truth, for example) and, in the process, he came up with some very fine, stand-alone essays such as “Beautiful Flame” and “On Some Forms of Imperfection in Art.” More important, however, the series weaved together several major thematic threads that Eco had been following for most of his scholarly life. His whole career as a philosopher, novelist, and public intellectual had been structured by an effort to address some difficult questions: How much can we know? Why do we tell stories? What is the role of secrecy in human affairs? And why do we always need to believe in something — in God, The New York Times, or the latest conspiracy theories? In Eco’s work, these inquiries tend to blur into one and the same issue — the vexed question of meaning, which fueled his creativity, shaped his biography, made him who he was.
Eco’s opening lecture goes to the heart of the matter, and what should be our first scholarly commandment: be humble, above all. For, when all is said and done, we don’t amount to much. If we seem to know a bit more than those who came before us, that’s just an optical illusion. If anything, we probably know and are worth less. Small though we are, however, we happen to sit on their shoulders, which sometimes makes us see better than they did. We don’t deserve any special praise for being there, it’s just historical luck. Eco quotes John of Salisbury, who pointed to the possible origin of the trope: “Barnard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants, and so we can see farther than they, not because of our sharper sight or greater stature but because we have been raised higher by their great size.”
Humility is often thought of as a behavioral virtue — a matter of how we relate to God or to our neighbor. But it should also be an epistemic virtue — about how we relate to what we can — and cannot — know about the world, ourselves, and others. Any self-reflecting scholar sooner or later reaches a point where, for all her knowledge and understanding, she realizes the immensity of that which she can neither know nor understand. Indeed, the more insightful she is as a scholar, the more terrifying the dimensions of all that ignorance and incomprehension. Dwarfism is the natural condition of the scholar honest with herself.
This revelation is often prompted by a very specific space: the library. Surrounded by shelf after heavy shelf of “giants,” we may feel crushed. Gradually, however, we become used to our crushed condition, and even attracted to the place; in time, our fascination with it grows and so does our compulsion to linger. We end up making the library our home, taking leave of the world. And before we know it, we end up in a seriously perverse relationship with the library.
Umberto Eco knew the situation only too well. He was enthralled with libraries, their sworn devotee and happy slave. Libraries fill his books. The best part of The Name of the Rose takes place in one, “the greatest library in Christendom,” whose absolute ruler, appropriately enough, is a monster and a deranged mind: Jorge de Burgos (Eco’s tender gesture toward Jorge Luis Borges, whom he greatly admired). Eco’s personal libraries were the stuff of legend; the one in Milan alone allegedly had around 30,000 volumes.
But the numbers, however big, are not the point. For what the library tells you is not that there is that much to read, but that there are no limits as to how much there is to know. The essence of the library is its limitlessness. The more time you spend in it, the more you realize that no time could ever be enough; no matter how hard you strive, you will never know it all. The revelation of your finitude comes with embarrassing pain. And when you have realized that you cannot live without that pain, your perverse relationship with the library has reached its climax. A “normal” relationship with a library would be no relationship at all.
To say, then, that Eco — or, for that matter, anyone like him — was a “voracious reader” would be to miss the point. If anything, he didn’t devour books, he was devoured by them. What a library primarily offers is not learning (you can get that online), but a sense of profound existential disorientation. The function of the library is not to give you answers, but to overwhelm you with ever more questions. You may go to the library for enlightenment, but all you do is get lost. “The library is a great labyrinth, sign of the labyrinth of the world,” Brother William of Baskerville observes in The Name of the Rose. “You enter and you do not know whether you will come out.” You walk in glowing with self-confidence, enamored of books, and you come out — if you ever do — all in shatters, the shadow of your former self.
And that’s the best part of it. For being shattered may be the finest thing to happen to you if you are on a quest for meaning, as Eco always was.
How, then, are we going to piece ourselves together again? You need a good story for that. Meaning is above all a matter of narrative. That’s why religion remains the best source of meaning ever devised by humans: a mature religion narrates everything into being, it makes things exist insomuch as it puts them into a story. Through an act of supreme narration, religion brings order to chaos, and meaning to a meaningless world. And since this has been done for a long time, the meaning thus produced is both authoritative and efficacious. In the West, this narrative understanding of meaning used to be so important that, in the Middle Ages, Christians looked at the world as though they were reading a book — the “book of the world” (liber mundi), they called it. As the same Brother William puts it, “[T]he whole universe is surely like a book written by the finger of God, in which everything speaks to us of the immense goodness of its Creator.”
For all his youthful attachment to Catholicism, Eco stopped believing later in life. Tongue firmly in cheek, he would always thank a great Catholic figure — Saint Thomas Aquinas — for having miraculously healed him of his faith in God. The angelic doctor taught him how to use his mind, rigorously, to reconcile reason and faith; but Eco must have taken the rigor a bit too far, for the two ended up irreconcilable in his mind. Even though he couldn’t take the beaten path of religion, the old recipe was still there; all Eco had to do was to dust it off and adopt it for personal use. No matter how lost or disoriented, he could always narrate himself back into being. He took up novel writing late in life (at 48), but, as he liked to say, whether he was writing about semiotics or philosophy, aesthetics or medievalia, whether he was working on scholarly books or essays, newspaper columns or other occasional writing, he was “always narrating.” He was a born storyteller, and going professional didn’t change his intellectual life too much.
In this respect, there was quite a bit of Baudolino in Eco. This protagonist of Eco’s novel by the same name, who is said to hail from Eco’s native Alessandria in Piedmont, was born with two gifts: he could make up stories at the drop of a hat, and he could pick up foreign language on first hearing it. For both alessandrini, it is hard to distinguish living your life from narrating it: the two always mirror and enrich each other. “I felt I was alive only because in the evening I could tell what had happened to me in the morning,” observes Baudolino. Like any storyteller worth his salt, Baudolino is un gran bugiardo — a shameless liar — yet in this business truth and lies are always complicated matters. “When you say something you’ve imagined, and others then say that’s exactly how it is, you end up believing it yourself,” he notices. If a community of readers swears on the truthfulness of your account, what can you, a poor author, do? Indeed, what looks like fiction may under certain circumstances feel more painfully real than reality itself. When Baudolino loses his notebooks during his escape from the fictitious Kingdom of Prester John, his pain is unbearable, even though it is only imagined: “It was like losing life itself.”
As we read Baudolino, we realize that what Eco offers us here, as he does elsewhere, is not only an absorbing novel, but also some serious philosophizing on the de-realization of reality through storytelling, the ontological status of fiction, and the role of narrativity in the human quest for meaning. Eco’s literary output may be uneven, with some novels better than others, but this line of thinking, which extends throughout his work, all the way to On the Shoulders of Giants, remains compelling.
The advice that Otto of Freising (a real person) gives the young Baudolino may be read as Eco’s personal credo when it came to negotiating the complicated boundaries between fiction and reality:
If you want to become a man of letters and perhaps write some Histories one day, you must also lie and invent tales otherwise your History would become monotonous. But you must act with restraint. The world condemns liars who do nothing but lie, even about the most trivial things, and it rewards poets, who lie only about the greatest things.
Eco followed Bishop Otto’s exhortation with much gusto. There was something sensual, even hedonistic in the way he approached storytelling. He would often feel sorry — tongue in cheek, again — for those industrious fiction writers who come up with a new novel every year or two. “They lose the pleasure of spending six, seven, eight years to prepare a story,” he said. For to tell a story, as Eco writes in the postscript to The Name of the Rose, “you must first of all construct a world, furnished as much as possible, down to the slightest detail.” For him, that was the best, the most enjoyable part of novel writing, the supreme form of jouissance, which he sought to prolong as much as he could. (It took him some eight years to finish Foucault’s Pendulum.)
And for good reason, because there is so much to do. “I need to know the number of steps in a staircase in order to make my character climb up,” Eco said in an interview. He needed to know everything. If he wanted to poison a monk in a story, he had to see his face first. If a character was involved in a traffic accident, he had to see the blood spilled on the road, experience the mess, feel the panic. Eco had to see and hear and smell everything that his characters saw and heard and smelled. He would use their voices: The Name of the Rose is written in the manner in which medieval writers wrote (he used his expertise as a medievalist to reconstruct medieval turns of phrase and modes of address). And their eyes: Eco traveled to and spent some time in the South Pacific to experience what the hero of The Island of the Day Before must have gone through there. You de-realize reality only when you completely recreate it.
While doing all these things — creating worlds, populating them, and ruling over them — a novelist, Eco must have thought, feels what God himself would have felt as he was bringing this world into being though his act of divine narration. Eco may have lost his faith in God, but never in storytelling. “Writing a novel is a cosmological matter, like the story told by Genesis,” he observes. Yet playing God is not without drama, when the player is a mere mortal — nor without danger, when he is not a believer.
In a short essay he published in 2004 (later collected in Turning Back the Clock), Eco talks of death, and what it means to him. “I am one of those people who don’t miss their youth,” he writes, “because today I feel more fulfilled than ever.” What exactly made Eco feel so accomplished, one may wonder. Surprisingly, perhaps, it was not the impressive body of literary and scholarly work he had produced (though, certainly, that was dear to him), nor the global fame that came with it (which sometimes bothered him). It was something dearer still — perhaps because it was so much more fragile: the story that was his own self. This is something that death not just unweaves, but leaves no trace of:
[T]he thought that all that experience will be lost at the moment of my death makes me feel pain and fear. The thought that those who come after me will know as much as I do, and even more, fails to console me. What a waste, decades spent building up experience, only to throw it all away. It’s like burning down the Library of Alexandria, destroying the Louvre, or sending the beautiful, rich, and all-wise Atlantis to the bottom of the sea.
The stories we make up, compelling though they may be, are just an expression of our inevitable failure to preserve the only story worth preserving: “[N]o matter how much I pass on by writing about myself, or just these few pages, even if I were a Plato, Montaigne, or Einstein, I can never transmit the sum of my experience.” There has rarely been a more painfully lucid writer.
In his will, Umberto Eco asked that there would be no conference or seminar dedicated to his work for 10 years following his death. In our world of noisy egos and self-promotion, such self-effacement is almost unheard-of — and tremendously refreshing. But more than just sheer humility, we should perhaps see here a healthy dose of realism: no commemorative seminars will ever resuscitate the self. If anything, they will only confirm its utter, irremediable passing. We die and our meaning dies with us.
Then again, perhaps we should be looking for meaning elsewhere. Perhaps meaning is something collective, larger than one’s private self, transcending and surviving it?
Philosophically, Foucault’s Pendulum is one of Eco’s most formidable novels, and probably one of the best philosophical fictions in recent memory. That so much about it remains mysterious makes its story all the more compelling. Three friends, working for a minor publisher in Milan — all three of them smart and imaginative, yet bored to death by the countless submissions they have to go though, many involving wild conspiracy theories — decide to have some fun and come up with their own conspiracy: “the Plan.” This would be the mother of all conspiracies, and the mockery of them all, because it would be nothing but a grotesque combination of all the existing secret plots. The method is simple because it’s the method of madness: throw anything in, no matter how crazy, and see what happens. If you truly want to find some secret meaning in things, you will. “Luck rewarded us,” notes Casaubon, the novel’s narrator, and one of the three protagonists, “because, wanting connections, we found connections — always, everywhere, and between everything.” Nothing is too far-fetched, too illogical. The wildest associations of ideas could be made to appear reasonable. Behind the most random, computer-generated combinations there can always be found some secret connection. Gradually, however, the Plan takes on a life of its own. Its demands grow: it needs to be fed with more and more details, it requires time and attention, the best part of the three friends’ lives. Their biographies become entangled with the Plan; what started out as their plaything ends up toying with them.
The Plan may have been conceived in jest, but this does not mean that the need it was meant to satisfy — our fundamental need for meaning — is not serious. And by doing what they are doing the three protagonists mock this need. Belbo, initially the most cynical of the three, realizes the cost: “[Y]ou have fallen into the trap […] You have dared to change the text of the romance of the world, and the romance of the world has taken you instead into its coils and involved you in its plot, a plot not of your making.” Be careful what stories you tell and what conspiracies you dream up.
Not because you may end up believing them, but — more importantly — because they may come after you with a vengeance, pull you into their plot, and turn you into a mere literary character and your life into a nightmare. When the Plan is leaked, the conspiracists — the Templars and the Masons, the Rosicrucians and the alchemists, all the crazies of Western Europe — believe it instantly. And they (“They,” in the novel) are willing to do anything — kidnap, murder, terrorism — to get the ultimate secret. Casaubon reflects:
We invented a nonexistent Plan, and They not only believed it was real but convinced themselves that They had been part of it for ages, or, rather, They identified the fragments of their muddled mythology as moments of our Plan, moments joined in a logical, irrefutable web of analogy, semblance, suspicion.
But if you invent a plan and others carry it out, it’s as if the Plan exists.
People are desperate for meaning — any kind of meaning — and this is precisely what makes conspiracy theories not just possible, but also dangerously contagious.
Foucault’s Pendulum offers a phenomenology of the conspiratorial mind, and that’s why, of all Eco’s novels, it may be the most relevant for today’s reader. With this novel, Eco brings forth a cluster of topics that will remain always close to his heart: conspiracies and conspiracists, secret societies and secret agents, forgers and con artists. At least two lectures in On the Shoulders of Giants touch on this thematic cluster, and so does much of Eco’s journalism and scholarship, not to mention his fiction (The Prague Cemetery and Numero Zero are about almost nothing else). While poking fun at conspiracists, in good Italian tradition, Eco gestures toward a more serious issue: the great crisis of meaning affecting us today, with devasting effects and no end in sight.
“When religion fails, art provides,” observes Belbo, as though in passing, but in fact pointing to the root cause of this crisis. Eco thinks that our crisis of meaning stems from one of the main by-products of modernity: radical secularization. Conspiratorial thinking is ultimately about displaced faith. In Foucault’s Pendulum, as elsewhere, he engages with Karl Popper, for whom the “conspiracy theory of society” was born of “abandoning God and then asking: ‘Who is in his place?’” Whatever imperfections philosophers may have found in the old notion of God, it served reasonably well as an authoritative source of meaning — social and epistemic, individual and collective, for the poor and for the wealthy, in this world and the next. It brought about a sense of cosmic order, and a measure of mental comfort.
That’s why when that order vanished, it was as though it took away with it the very ground from under people’s feet. Nietzsche talked of the “death of God” as an event of catastrophic proportions. To come up with a new source of meaning, of a similar authoritative power, would take nothing less than an Übermensch for him. But the Übermensch has never come, and what we’ve got instead is a continuing crisis. The West will not solve anything — rampant inequality, climate change, generalized lack of human empathy — unless it comes to understand the true dimensions of this crisis, and finds a way out. One of the finest accomplishments of Foucault’s Pendulum lies in its portrayal of the complete, murderous devastation that meaninglessness can bring.
Eco confronts the issue with no safety net, without the comfort that traditional faith could bring about. He lost his youthful faith never to find it again, and he had to face the meaninglessness of it all on its own terms:
[S]ince I believe that our world was created by chance, I have no difficulty believing that most of the events that have racked it over the course of thousands of years, from the Trojan War to the present day, have happened by chance or through the concurrence of a series of human follies.
It’s precisely the notion that our world was created “by chance” — and that everything happens that way — which most people find intolerable. If God no longer serves as a source of meaning, then anything — or, rather, everything — would do. Eco loved to quote an aphorism often attributed to Chesterton: “When people stop believing in God, it’s not that they no longer believe in anything, it’s that they believe in everything.” Yet to believe in everything spells serious trouble, as we start to understand now. When people are “starved for” meaning, as a character remarks in Foucault’s Pendulum, they will consume even the most incredible of conspiracies. “If you offer them one, they fall on it like a pack of wolves. You invent, and they’ll believe.” As our president seems to know only too well, no matter how crazy the stories you fabricate, people will gorge on them. For you can deprive people of their possessions and of their freedoms, but you cannot deprive them of the one thing that makes their lives worth living: meaning. As someone once said, people will gladly suffer, and suffer terribly, as long as they know why they suffer.
Dietrologia may have appeared in Eco’s homeland, but it’s now turning fast into an epidemic. Italians of an older generation could afford to make fun of it, as they did of many things. But today dietrologia seems to have become a joke on us. We are all dietrologi, and we are in bad need of a cure.
Costica Bradatan is the author, most recently, of Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers. He serves as the religion and comparative studies editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
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