On Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco passed away just over two weeks ago, and I have spent much of that time thinking about his life and career. He died on the same day as Harper Lee. I won’t debate their relative importance; what each contributed to literature was too different from the other to make such evaluations. But Lee’s body of work was the more well known to the general public, and the tributes to her more common, and Eco certainly deserves equal due.
Eco was rare in a number of senses, not the least of which was his dual threat talent as both a novelist and a theorist (the only modern day writer I can think of who might compare would be Robert Penn Warren, who helped to invent New Criticism, wrote one of the great American novels – All the King’s Men – and managed to snag a Pulitzer for poetry). Eco is one of those most responsible for the spread of poststructuralism and the development of postmodern theory, producing some of the foundational texts in these fields, including 1975’s “Travels in Hyperreality.” His novels, including The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, and The Prague Cemetery demonstrate a remarkable breadth of knowledge, from medieval studies to Italian political history to comic books, but always under the aegis of damned entertaining stories.
My personal favorite Eco work is Foucault’s Pendulum, a novel that helped spark my enduring interest in postmodernism and set me on the path to graduate school and a career in academics. I used to struggle to explain the book’s plot – some time long ago I remember reading in The New York Times or some equally prestigious publication that FP was one of those books that people love to buy (it was on the bestseller list for a time) and put on their shelves, but never actually read. Then Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code came out, and suddenly I had a framework for talking about FP. Much like Brown’s novel, FP involves uncovering a vast conspiracy, a conspiracy hidden in the great literature, art, and music of the past two thousand years. Brown’s book, in fact, remained on best seller lists far longer than Eco’s, and the reason why is telling: The Da Vinci Code ultimately endorses the conspiracy at its heart. At the end of Foucault’s Pendulum, on the other hand, we are left to wonder if a conspiracy exists at all or if, rather, the central characters have invented it by over-interpreting the signs. That’s a frustrating position to leave the reader in, but it highlights the difference between popular works that tap into the postmodern condition and academic books that explore that same condition.
One of the hallmarks of the world we inhabit is an overflow of information. The internet’s purpose, for example, is to provide us with literally infinite amounts of information at essentially instantaneous speeds. And when I say “literally,” I mean it: there is now enough information available in the “system” to prove JFK was the victim of a conspiracy. Of course, there’s also enough information available in the “system” to prove Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. In such a circumstance, both become equally true, or, if you like, equally untrue. Reality fades entirely and only information remains, information that can ultimately be used to fashion any “reality” you might fancy.
Most of us find this situation all but un-endurable, and in its face we invent complicated coping mechanisms. We cling desperately, for example, to anything that holds out the prospect of the real, and we viciously denounce anything that turns out to be a lie. What happened when Oprah’s book club pick, A Million Little Pieces turned out to be “fiction”? Oprah and her audience were outraged, calling Frey on the carpet to account for his deception and subjecting him to public shaming. Jean Baudrillard – one of Eco’s contemporaries – argued that the whole function of Disneyworld was to be so absolutely fake that when we came out of it the world felt “real” in comparison.
But another coping strategy we employ is to force these massive amounts of information to make some sort of sense, most often by inventing vast conspiracy theories, theories that offer us pathways through that information. The JFK assassination, 9/11, UFOs – these are the salves to our feelings of utter lost-ness and confusion. Even the current political cycle bears out this desire for meaning, with so much of the U.S. population drawn to candidates who ascribe simple blame and offer simple solutions – Wall Street has created all our problems; Obama has ruined our country; a flat tax will solve everything; universal health care will give everyone in the country security. I’m not suggesting these ideas are false; but all of them express a deep frustration with nuances and the complicated information associated with day-to-day running of the largest government in the world.
What is The Da Vinci Code but another of those appealing conspiracy theories, another path through all this information? The novel’s success rests on its ability to provide an answer, to connect dots, to force information to make some kind of recognizable pattern. Foucault’s Pendulum, and I think Eco himself, stands in opposition to such easy answers, recognizing our tremendous desire to create them, but ultimately frustrating that desire, not by pointing out that they can’t be found, but by demonstrating that in this new world the distinction between truth and un-truth no longer has meaning.
MK Adkins has a Ph.D in English that he occasionally uses to think about literature, but more often uses to think about television, music and film. Adkins is the author of two popular culture books as well as numerous articles and reviews. Until recently, he worked as a college professor but made the decision to devote himself full-time to writing and podcasting in January 2019.
Don't have the time to listen to our podcast this week? Check out the transcript from each of our podcasts here.