Feb 202016
Umberto Eco


=By= Gaither Stewart

The Italian writer, intellectual, philosopher, semiologist, sociologist, university professor, Umberto Eco, sometimes referred to as the man who knew everything, died the evening of February 19 in his home in Milan at age 84. His numerous books ranged from a several, novels to a mass of wide-ranging intellectual books touching on most every aspect of the life of his times, plus countless academic papers and a weekly column for the leftwing Espresso magazine. His lectures at the University of Bologna became evens that no Italian intellectual could miss experiencing, four hundred persons fight for space. Books however were Eco’s life: “A person who does not read lives one life, of maybe seventy years; the reader lives 5000 years.”

I had the good luck of interviewing Umberto Eco in the year 2000, a text which however rings extremely current due to his long-range vision. His novel, The Name of the Rose of 1980 was the starting talking point, which however held little interest for him. “I hate it, my worst novel.” But since the book deals with medieval abbey libraries which he loves he warmed to that subject.

“The library was born according to a design that has remained obscure throughout all centuries,” says the Benedictine Abbot in Umberto Eco’s bestselling novel, The Name of the Rose, (the one he came to profess he hated, which I however doubt.). Only that librarian knows the contents of Eco’s mystical library, and his lips are sealed about the secrets contained in the great books.

“All truths,” says the Abbot, “are not meant for all ears; not all lies can be recognized as such by pious spirits. The book is a fragile creature,” he says, “it suffers from the use of time.”

So the library must defend that fragile book. It must defend itself, unfathomable, like the truth it hosts. Recalling that “monasterium sine libris est sicut mensa sine cibis,” Eco’s fourteenth century Abbot calls his Benedictine Order a “reserve of knowledge that threatens to disappear in fires, sackings and earthquakes.”

In the pre-printing press centuries described by Eco, monastery libraries were vital centers of knowledge. But they were shrouded in mystery because knowledge was already a dangerous thing. Monk scholars spent their time in the Scriptorum copying ecclesiastical books, illuminating, binding, and also preserving them. Monasteries like the thirteen original ones founded by Saint Benedict in the sixth century in the mountains near Rome were Europe’s major reserves of culture during the subsequent barbarian invasions.

After Umberto Eco’s novel described in such a mysterious manner life in a monastery library, I decided to visit some of them. The Santa Scolastica Monastery in Subiaco is the only one surviving of the original Benedictine monasteries. Today, it is concealed in that fabulous town of Subiaco, isolated in the mountains seventy kilometers from Rome. Then, its monks spent their time in meditation and copying books, while artists frescoed their church and chapels.

The arrival in Subiaco of two German printers from Mainz 550 years ago changed monastery life. Suddenly progress was in the air. The printing press was to end the work of illiterate monks who made the ink, prepared parchments from sheep skins, and bound the great books while the more learned copied books in artistic handwriting and artists illuminated the margins. But generally little is known about the role of Subiaco in the diffusion of the art of printing in the fifteenth century. History quickly passed it by.

The Germans, Arnoldus Pannartz and Conradus Sweynheym, were diligent. Neither Paris nor Rome—soon to become Europe’s great printing centers—had yet begun when the Germans built their presses in isolated Subiaco and produced Italy’s first printed book: the philosophical-ethical work, the Lattanzio. Written by 4th century convert to Christianity Cecilio Lattanzio, that book contains the first printed characters in Greek in the world—a type devised for its extensive quotes in Greek, all in mobile letters now called “Subiaco type.”

The book indicates Subiaco as the place of printing and is dated October 29, 1465.

The two monasteries of Santa Scolastica and the Sacro Speco, the Holy Grotto—where Saint Benedict lived—dominate medieval Subiaco. With its 100,000 precious volumes, the Santa Scolastica is one of the richest of Italy’s eleven great abbey libraries. Its books constitute a veritable cultural-literary-historical-mystical treasure.

I have employed here one of Eco’s favorite techniques and list here some of that library’s works: 320 manuscripts-codices of the tenth to seventeenth centuries that have never left the library, 2000 fifteenth century books, 14,000 of the seventeenth century, a tenth century collection of Psalms and an eleventh century explanation of the Bible, the handwriting of which served as the model for Humanists and for Subiaco’s printing characters four centuries later, a thirteenth century missal bearing the volume number 2001 indicating how big the library once was, and 280 incunabula—books printed between 1445 and 1500. (The word, by the way, comes from the Latin cuna, cradle, the cradle of the new art—the printing press.)

The library is housed in a twelth century Romanesque cloister, topped by a bell tower of 1052. A curiosity is the neo-classic church of Santa Scolastica by the architect from Bergamo, Giacomo Quarenghi, who at 25 years of age built this, his only church in Italy, before he was called to Russia by Catherine II to become the Bernini of St. Petersburg.

Sacro Speco, cut into the rocks, on various levels, nearly totally frescoed by eighth-thirteenth century artists, is one of the most spectacular and lesser known sites of Italy. An area of rugged mountains, narrow valleys, rushing waters, rocky cliffs and thick woods, Umberto Eco could have captured there the mysterious atmosphere of The Name of the Rose. Yet monks insist that there are no mysteries here, no intrigues, no romance. Just peace and silence.

Umberto Eco’s famous novel was at the top of the USA TopTen for months, sales around the world skyrocketed into many millions, and a film based on the work was made. The New York Times wrote of the phenomenon that “publishers should learn from this that the public is ready for something more than the usual prefabricated products.”

Literary critics around the world dissected The Name of the Rose, trying to solve the mystery of the novel’s extraordinary success. The book was labeled a historic novel, a theological thriller, a philosophic novel, a Gothic novel, a monumental exercise in mystification. The author was criticized for having concocted the book artificially at the planning table and was, therefore, assured of success from the start.

But then one Italian critic and an Eco admirer, Beniamino Placido, noted that the book was only apparently a trip into medieval culture; behind its historic design, he said, there blooms the history of the explosive tensions and the anxieties of the modern world.

Eco himself agreed: “The Middle Ages are a mirror for the present. We find there the roots of our problems, of our anguish, of our crises.” Besides, Umberto Eco has never believed in old convictions of inspiration and passion in art. “People have not yet learned that every work of art is a game played out at the worktable. Nothing,” he says, “is more harmful to creativity than the passion of inspiration. It’s the fable of bad romantics that fascinates bad poets and bad narrators. Art is a serious matter. Manzoni and Flaubert, Balzac and Stendhal wrote at the worktable. That means to construct, like an architect plans a building. Yet we prefer to believe that a novelist invents because he has a genius whispering into his ear.”

When his novel appeared, Eco had already written some twelve works, from the poetics of Joyce to How To Write A Dissertation. After having participated in a group of young, left-wing writers known as Gruppo 63, Italy’s major post-war literary movement, he was involved with major participants of the 1968 protest movement, many of whom later became the leaders of Italy’s left-wing terrorism. He, however, did not follow others into protest organizations or into politics.

When his novel appeared in 1980, Umberto Eco was already an internationally known scholar, a brilliant speaker and professor of semiotics, an expert on mass communications, essayist, journalistic writer, author, thinker; he was a super-gifted man with a fabulous memory. He was 48. Overnight he became a bestselling author. A rich author.

Like most foreign correspondents in Italy, I reported on the Eco phenomenon. But before the novel appeared I had never read more than a few of his journalistic articles and had never met him. After his success he stopped giving interviews—unless to the New York Times, Le Monde, or BBC. He agreed to a written interview with me—perhaps because we had a mutual friend in Milan—highlights of which I have reported here. However, it should be said that his typed answers were some fifteen pages long. If he belittles “inspiration,” Umberto Eco believes that the impulse to narrate is common to us all. “That’s why so many scientists and philosophers and critics, too, write novels. Not only those that we remember like Tolkien, Segal, Hoyle, Sartre, Asimov, and Harold Bloom who came from academia, but many others we’ve forgotten. I think that writing is a way of revealing the contradictions of life that one would like to resolve. Writing fiction, like poetry, means simply to display those contradictions but not necessarily to resolve them. In fact, the reader, through his interpretive cooperation, decides what the story means.

“I wrote The Name of the Rose simply because I wanted to. A good reason. First comes the desire, like the desire to make love. Then one sits down at the worktable and begins, I won’t say to write, but to play, to construct a possible world. The first year, after I got the desire, I didn’t write, I designed, I made a plan of the abbey, I sketched out the list of names, I even drew the faces of the characters. So I believe one writes a novel because of the desire to construct a world. And to communicate.”

Already in the 1950s, Eco was writing about the Middle Ages; his university dissertation was on St. Thomas Aquinas. In the explosive 1960s he worked for the major Italian publishing house, Valentino Bompiani. One said then that at editorial meetings, his was always the last word. Eco half closed his eyes, drew on his pipe, and spouted a phrase that resolved matters. In those years he was busy with “signs” and mass communications and became Italy’s leading semiologist, all while he published his academic works. Even then anecdotes circulated that created a certain Eco image: Eco works twenty hours a day, Eco can quote from memory half of what he reads, Eco’s life is organized in a German way, he has an extraordinary ability to associate diverse things. He wrote me humorously that he also saves time by abbreviating interviews, then wrote those fifteen pages!

His success in the Chair of Semiotics at ancient Bologna University was immediate. His famous lectures were attended by 400 students, fascinated by his charisma. Narcissistic as he is, he responded by giving up to 250 lectures a year. Open to dialogue, he is by nature simultaneously ironic and academic. You never know, his friends say, if Eco is playing or working. He says he’s an academic spider. The Eco style is severe but marked by jokes, games and memory contests. He is described as a “thinking machine.”


Since semiotics is easily applicable to the Middle Ages, so rich in signs and a less complex society, I asked him about his fascination with that period and its importance for our world today.

“The fashion for the Middle Ages, the Medieval dream, cuts through all of European civilization. The Middle Ages were the crucible of Europe and modern civilizations: we’re still reckoning with things born then—banks and bank drafts, administrative structures and community politics, class struggles and pauperism, the diatribe between state and church, the university, mystic terrorism, trial based on suspicion, the hospital and the episcopate, the modern city, modern tourism, how one should respect one’s wife while languishing for one’s love—because the Middle Ages also created the concept of love in the West.

“We reconstruct classical antiquity excavating in the Roman Forum, one props up the Coliseum, cleans up the Acropolis; but they are not filled up again. Once rediscovered, they are only contemplated. But that which remains of the Middle Ages can be botched and one continues to re-utilize it as a container, putting something into it that is not radically different from what was there originally. I mean a bank is still a bank. And one adapts as one can Chartres or San Gimignano, but not to venerate them but to continue to live in them. You pay for a ticket to visit a Greek temple but you go to a mass in the Milan Cathedral.

“I mean to say here that the dream of the Middle Ages is acted out on that which can be adapted, not on that which can only be a museum.”

He seems to have views on everything that has happened since the Middle Ages. Umberto Eco’s ideas about libraries have often been quoted. He likes to muse on what a library should and should not be. He has said that he especially likes the Sterling Library at Yale—a neo-Gothic monastery, he calls it. He deplores the labyrinth-like libraries of Italy and advances theoretical organizational plans for an ideal library.

He describes how clothes condition man, recalling how “warriors in past centuries dressed in armor lived exteriorly, while monks had invented a dress—majestic, fluid, all of a piece—that left the body free and forgotten (inside and under!). Monks were thus rich in interior life, and filthy, because their bodies, defended by a dress that while it ennobled the body also liberated it to think and forget itself.”

His irony emerges in full force in his advice on “intelligent vacations”. Noting that people who are not criminals or terrorists are more exigent in their recreational reading matter, he made a series of proposals: for people who want to keep up with Third World problems he suggested the delightful Kitab al-s ada wa’l is’ad, by Abdul’l Al’Amiri, of which a critical edition of 1957 is available in Teheran. Or, the Zefir Yezirah; the Zohar naturally, for some good reading on the Cabalistic tradition. Or you can simply take along to the seashore Die Grundrisse, the apocryphal New Testament and some unpublished microfiches by the semiologist Peirce.

He reflects on how much it costs to write a masterpiece, from expensive works like Magic Mountain (sanatorium, furs, etc.) to Death in Venice (Lido hotels, gondolas and Vuitton bags) to cheap works like For Whom the Bell Tolls (clandestine trip to Spain, room and board furnished by Republicans, and sleeping bag with girl), or Robinson Crusoe (just embarkation costs).

I have listed Eco’s diverse subjects also to underline his predilection for lists. His subjects make up a long list. His mind catalogues, transforms and applies. I asked him why all those lists in The Name of the Rose.

“I’ve always loved the technique of the list. For many years I made a collection of examples and considered writing a book on the use of lists, from classic literature down to Joyce. Moreover, the list is a typical medieval descriptive strategy. Therefore, I used the list in this book because it is so medieval.

“In the tendency of the list there is something even more important: it is typical of both primitive epochs and overly cultivated epochs. When one doesn’t yet know, or one no longer knows what is the form of the world, instead of describing a form, one lists its aspects. One proceeds by aggregation instead of by organization. In substance, my character Adso in The Name of the Rose does not understand well what is happening nor what has happened; therefore, he lists what he sees or what he hears, and what he believes to have seen—and he knows only because he has heard or read other lists.”

Apparently Umberto Eco is the intellectual per se. He is considered such in Italian and in international society. His analogy between the intellectual and the critic is a cogent reflection of the role he sees for himself in society. “I often say that the intellectual is something like Italo Calvino’s Baron Rampante: he sits in the trees but follows and criticizes things, thus participating in the events of his era. The intellectual’s participation in political life is a critical activity that sometimes can assume forms of apparently disinterested research, even if as a private citizen he can be both committed in public life and able to put his knowledge at the disposition of a party or a group. But his true intellectual function is exercised not when he speaks for his party or group but when he speaks against it. It’s easy to criticize enemies. The problem is to criticize friends. “The role I would like to play is of one who through his analyses signals something that is not functioning, in areas where too little has been said.

“Yet, I try to remember that while society needs its poets and wants to hear their opinions, it’s however a false position. Poets speak through their works and are worth little at conferences where they usually say stupid things. My success as a novelist gives me a halo of authority but when I do agree to speak I try to speak as an essayist not a novelist.”

Finally one must speak with Umberto Eco about power relationships, which he claims were the background for The Name of The Rose. “The role of European intellectuals was a powerful one in the post-WWII era. Europe was coming out of war and Fascism and was politically divided down the middle between progressives (Socialists and Communists) and Conservatives (Fascists and Christian Democrats). Progressive intellectuals were at the heart of the protest movements of 1968 in Italy, France and Germany. The question of power was paramount.”

Eco says that Michel Foucault elaborated the most convincing notion of power—pouvoir or potere—in circulation. “Power is not only repression and interdiction but is also incitement to speak and the production of knowledge. Secondly, power is not one single power. It is not massive. It is not a unidirectional process between one entity that commands and its subjects. Power is multiple and ubiquitous. It is a network of consensuses that depart from below. Power is a plurality. Power is the multiplicity of relationships of strength. For the semiologist, language is always closely linked to power.”

Eco’s theory is “that the criticism of power has degenerated because that criticism has become massive. Mass criticism of power spawned ingenuous notions that power—the system—had one center, symbolized by the evil man with a black mustache manipulating the working class.” As an example of the misunderstanding Eco recalls the theorists of European terrorism who wanted to strike at the heart of the state.

“The danger,” Eco says, “is confusing power and force. Force is causality. And causality is reversible. That reversal is called revisionism. On the other hand, to change power is to make a revolution. For example, man decides that woman will wash the dishes—a symbolic relationship of force based on the consensus of the subject. That relationship is changed if the woman refuses to wash the dishes—that is revisionism. Compromises are revisionistic. Revolution, however, is the sum total of a long series of revisions, the violent overturn of progressive revisions. Society becomes a universe devoid of a center. Everything is periphery. There is no longer the heart of anything. Only romantic terrorists of the Red Brigades thought that the state had a heart and that the heart was vulnerable.

“On the other hand, multinational empires exist today. They are not an invention of protesters or terrorists. I don’t want to moralize and say that multinationals are bad. They are the form that modern industrial organization has taken in capitalistic society. It’s also true that multinationals are always disturbed by local events and local political decisions. Look at what happened in Chile. And now in many places. This is one of the problems of our times. Don’t ask me for a solution. I just note it.”

Gaither Stewart
Rome, Italy

gaither stewart

A veteran journalist, essayist, and internationally recognized novelist, Gaither Stewart serves as The Greanville Post European correspondent. His latest novel is Time of Exile (Punto Press), third volume in his Europe Trilogy, of which the first two volumes (The Trojan Spy, Lily Pad Roll) have also been published by Punto Press. These are thrillers that have been compared to the best of John le Carré, focusing on the work of Western intelligence services, the stealthy strategy of tension, and the gradual encirclement of Russia, a topic of compelling relevance in our time. He makes his home in Rome, with wife Milena. Gaither can be contacted at gaithers@greanvillepost.com.

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