Other than penning some columns for L’Espresso, as he had been doing on a weekly or fortnightly basis for over thirty years, and releasing one more novel, Year Zero, his final public act was to found a new publishing house. He and his collaborators called it the ‘ship of Theseus’, after the vessel that produced the ancient paradox by the same name – could an object still be considered the same object if you replaced all of its parts with identical ones? – and set its course to collide with ‘Mondazzoli’, the corporate behemoth created by the merger of the two largest Italian publishers, Mondadori and Rizzoli. It was an improbable, crazy idea. The small, patched-up ship would likely be crushed. But clearly he felt he had that last fight left in him. I suspect he also enjoyed the underlying joke.
Umberto Eco was a funny man who was at his funniest when the topic was dry or serious. Early in his career, he kept the comic and the serious quite separate. He proposed to call his first book The Forms of Indeterminacy in Contemporary Poetics, which his publisher countered with the much more agile and less pompous The Open Work. Yet at the same time as he composed that frowning tome he wrote a series of comic essays for Il Verri, including at least one – ‘The phenomenology of Mike Bongiorno’, a satirical portrait of the quiz master that dominated Italian television at the time – that went viral before the word existed.
Very soon Eco learned to cross those two streams, and began not only to inject comic examples into his serious work – as he did for instance throughout his A Theory of Semiotics – but also to draw comic works and ‘lower’ art forms within the field of serious, legitimate criticism. He wasn’t alone in doing this, of course, but the role he played both at home and abroad was an important one. The English title of his collection Apocalypse Postponed – and more so the original one, Apocalittici e integrati – dramatises the struggle between two kinds of intellectuals: those who see mass culture as a dilution and corruption of culture proper, and those who take the opposite view, and seek to question and expand their practice accordingly. If it seems an outdated debate to be having, consider that he was saying these things in 1964, fresh from gaining a degree in medieval philosophy in a country whose education system was and largely continues to be built on elitism and exclusion.
I still consider it his main contribution to our culture: that of demystifying and modernising the role of the intellectual; of making it more accessible, more contemporary, more relevant. He wasn’t a radical like, say, Pier Paolo Pasolini or Michel Foucault, and never viewed himself as part of a struggle, be it political or existential. He never operated outside of the establishment, either, embracing rather a role of international academic superstar that saw him bouncing for two decades between Italy and the United States. Yet he also helped create lasting institutions, like the modern field of semiotics and the university faculty known as DAMS, in Bologna, where one could survey new phenomena such as mass communications and culture through very old means, reaching as far back as the scholastic philosophy of his beloved Thomas Aquinas, and from there further back to Aristotle. At the time when I went to university, in 1990, this was still an almost singular exception in an academia that clung for dear life to its pre-war methods, structures and concerns.
Then, at the age of forty-eight, Eco became a novelist. Later he revealed that he had come to hate The Name of the Rose, which he regarded as his worst work of fiction but, with all due respect, it’s a silly assessment. That first novel, his best, reflects his approach to intellectual work in that it’s a superficially difficult book, delving at length into obscure theological and philosophical questions, that manages nonetheless to be highly enjoyable and readable. Its themes are the same themes that preoccupied him at the time, chiefly the problem of interpretation. I think we are beyond spoiling the plot, but in the simplest of terms, in The Name of the Rose an occasional murderer becomes a serial one in order to fulfil the plot that the detective has come up with in order to explain the original killings: therefore his subsequent murders are effectively inspired by the fervid imagination of the detective. Like his semiotic work Lector in fabula, which he had just finished writing, The Name of the Rose is about the role of the reader in making sense of a text, only in a literal and essentially comic fashion. As Eco explains in the postscript to the second edition, he had been fascinated by an attempt by the French writers of Oulipo to produce a matrix of all possible murder stories, whose conclusion was that they had all been written save perhaps for one in which the murderer was the reader. That was the paradox, or joke, at the root of it all.
Another way of summarising the plot of The Name of the Rose would be that a deranged monk becomes a killer in order to prevent the recovery of the lost last book of Aristotle’s Poetics, the one on comedy. Therefore the novel is another dramatisation of the struggle between apocalyptic and integrated intellectuals, between deadly seriousness and life-giving irony. Foucault’s Pendulum picks up on the same themes, but with a little more of an edge. The fanatic conspiracists at its centre bear a striking resemblance to contemporary flat earthers and 9/11 truthers, and as a result the book still reads very well: Eco’s concern with textual interpretation, if anything, has become more relevant and more political now that everyone writes as well as reading.
I suggested recently in an Overland article that we are all Umberto Eco now, by which I meant that the internet gives everyone an opportunity to be a published – therefore public – intellectual, such as was afforded to Eco for a mainstream national audience only at the height of his career. The inverse of this observation is that Umberto Eco was Umberto Eco first. That is to say, he exhibited the kind of encyclopaedic intellectual interest that is almost a default, standard setting of the current reader/writer, covering the most disparate of topics like a one-man Twitter or Facebook timeline.
This may be why, in spite of neither being a great admirer of his fiction nor a follower of his semiotic theories, over the years I have found myself drawn to Eco time and again. I think it was his voraciousness, that medieval appetite for universal knowledge that is nonetheless truly modern, his prodigious curiosity, and the obvious enjoyment he derived from intellectual work and was able to transmit to the reader. Of some of his work, in the fold of that vast output, I am truly fond. Like his heroic translation into Italian of Raymond Queneau’s devilish Exercices de style (a one-page narrative about a chance encounter on the bus is re-told in ninety-nine different styles); his introduction to the work of one of my favourite writers, Achille Campanile; his recent, inexhaustible book on the passion for lists in Western thought; and above all so many of his columns, too many to count.
There will be many obituaries, and I’d like to conclude this one with a nod to the one he wrote for the great illustrator, designer and author Bruno Manari, with whom he had long worked at Bompiani on technical and other non-fiction work. In this brief piece for a magazine after Munari’s death, in 1998, Eco recalled his friend’s great talent for sketching complex book layouts with a few strokes of the pencil, equal only to his ability to argue and immediately show that any alternative suggestions would simply not work on the page. It was a little lesson on the craft of publishing that obviously stayed with him: he remembered it four decades later, and it has stayed with me for two decades more. Deep thinking about book design is a form of deep thinking about culture, which is also ultimately the sum of all of our crafts. Eco was above all this: a devoted and joyous practitioner of the art of being interested in things.