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20 February 2016

Requiescat in Pace Umberto Eco

Beyond Hyperreality

 "Chi non legge, a 70 anni avrà vissuto una sola vita - aveva detto in passato - Chi legge avrà vissuto 5000 anni. La lettura è un'immortalità all'indietro".

Who doesn’t read, at 70 years old will have lived only one life—it was once said—He who reads will have lived 5000 years. Reading is immortality in reverse.
—Umberto Eco

For those like me who fumble for a sense of direction in a culture that seems so wasted, there are way finders who turn up (if you’re looking) along the way who give you just enough clarity, maybe even impetus, that you keep searching with a greater sense of orientation and optimism. Umberto Eco was one of those for me. Just after architecture school, enamored of Italy and what little I knew about the humanist renaissance, I read a review of Eco’s new novel, The Name of the Rose. Reading it I learned something—about the Middle Ages, about Aristotle and Thomism, about Franciscans vs. Benedictines—but I also saw an intellectual, a scholar, working through the craft of invention. It was so illuminating to see that highly self-conscious creative process in action; and it was something I found immensely useful as I worked on my own creative process.

While most of the American obituaries about Eco, who passed away yesterday, focus on his novels, his first novel led me to other writings of his, and I’ve found those (and I can’t claim to have read anywhere near all of them) to be brilliant intellectual bridges between modern issues and classical culture that only an Italian polymath like him could build. I had read Invisible Cities in college—de rigueur for architects circa 1980—and was just as enamored of Calvino as Eco. It’s no coincidence that Eco framed his Harvard Norton lectures to balance those that Calvino was supposed to have delivered at the end of his life—Calvino on writing (Six Memos for the Next Millennium), Eco on reading (Six Walks in the Fictional Woods). I recommend each of them highly, in part because the one on writing tells you a lot about how to read, and the one on reading not a little about how to write.

Eco was a scholar, critic, and author. As a critic he was withering on his native Italy, and while it’s hard to deny the verity of his criticisms, it should be said—and he never could have said it himself—that only Italy, and its really marvelous humanist high schools, could produce an Eco. In my experience he is not so much a titan as a type—he’s only the most famous of a kind of Italian intellectual that the country produces (or maybe, produced) in abundance. While I didn’t know him personally, I have known the type. And knowing them is like knowing their forebears (Pico della Mirandola, Egidio da Viterbo, Pietro Aretino, Daniele Barbaro, Giordano Bruno, Giambattista Marino, Giambattista Vico). Eco’s counterweight in contemporary Italy is Roberto Calasso (The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Tiepolo Pink), who has been less political than him but equally interested in the esoterica of Athanasius Kircher.

Eco may have been the greatest non-practicing Catholic thinker of the last half-century. He dialogued with and debated the Jesuit Cardinal Martini of Milan, and I suspect he longed for the relative certainty that faith affords. Instead, I remember him, around the time Foucault’s Pendulum came out, describing his worldview as “tragically optimistic”—because optimism was naïve, and a tragic view of the world was pointless. Who knows what he thought as he contemplated the end, but he has passed into another kind of immortality than the one reading affords, and it may finally make sense of things for him.

A brief Eco reading list beyond the novels:
Conversations About the End of Time, with Jean-Claude Carriere, Jean Delumeau, and Stephen Jay Gould
Serendipities: Language and Lunacy
Travels in Hyperreality
Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages