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Umberto Eco: an empty space

Aga Zano By Aga Zano Published on February 20, 2016
"We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death."

The world has lost one of its most brilliant minds - Umberto Eco passed away, aged 84. The information was confirmed by his family and his publisher of many years, Bompiani.

A satisfying age, many would say, but not when it comes to our greatest. We like to claim ownership on them, and we like to find consolation in the fact that we still do have our wise mentors and subversive geniuses to look up to, to view them as vessels for inspiration, for all the questions we don't know how to ask and for all the answers we never thought we needed. 

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Sean Connery as William of Baskerville

Eco was one of the most - if not the most - versatile intellectuals of the 20th century. He was a philosopher, semiotician, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and an academic. He lectured at Harvard and at the University of Bologna. He used to say he's a serious professor who only writes novels on weekends - he wrote his first and still most celebrated one, The Name of the Rose, when he was almost 50. The novel soon gained the status of a classic - over the years it sold in over 10 million copies and was translated into more than 30 languages.  Six years later it was was made into a movie, starring Sean Connery. The novel, published in 1980, has ignited the fascination with crime novel with great medieval and religious conspiracies in the background - the topic that has reached its commercial peak when Dan Brown published his bestselling Da Vinci Code. Eco's response to this phenomenon, shared in an interview with the Paris Review in 2008, was as insightful as it was humorous:

"The author Dan Brown, is a character from Foucault’s Pendulum! I invented him. He shares my characters’ fascinations—the world conspiracy of Rosicrucians, Masons, and Jesuits. The role of the Knights Templar. The hermetic secret. The principle that everything is connected. I suspect Dan Brown might not even exist."

He firmly believed that the readers like to be challenged, and that his novels - painfully erudite, filled with nuances and historical facts, slow, deeply philosophical, elaborate and almost academic in style, at times - appeal to his readers for this vey reason. "Probably I'm writing for masochists" - he quipped.

"It’s only publishers and some journalists who believe that people want simple things. People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged."

Although he did acknowledge that his books were far from simple in form, he made it very clear that he did not appreciate the idea of people purchasing them for vanity - he considered it "a tax on idiocy". 

Eco's novels often read like academic works, and his academic works read like best novels. He had a unique ability to marry complex ideas with approachable and very entertaining style. Not everyone appreciated it, though: when he decided to start writing novels (he was already an accomplished scholar at the time) some of his colleagues in academia started regarding him with certain dose of resentment, as he recalled.

He made a great contribution to semiotics and postmodern linguistics - but he was also unafraid to apply his knowledge to discuss popular culture, until recently frowned upon by "serious" academics. His essays on Snoopy, Superman or Greta Garbo - although thoroughly academic in form and substance - provided fascinating and eye-opening insights on the contemporary culture that envelops us today. It would be hard to find another philosopher as insightful as relevant to popular culture.

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The Ugly Duchess by Quentin Matsys, featured in Eco's On Ugliness.

One of his most successful non-fiction works, however, was the double anthology: On Ugliness and On Beauty. This was initially conceived as purely commercial project, but eventually the books turned out to be a challenging exercise - especially On Ugliness. The idea was simple: to show how ugliness and beuty were perceived across arts and ages: from ancient to modern times, from drama to painting to scuplture to literature. The task proved simple enough for the history of beauty: it has always been in the centre of attention. But Eco thought that beauty is boring - because it is predictable. It was ugliness that turned out to be infinitely more interesting - not only because of the variety of shapes and forms (beauty, unlike ugliness, is painfully limited in its structure), but also because ugliness tends not to occupy the very centre of any work. It hides in the peripheral spaces,  it needs to be chased and looked for - thus becoming not only aesthetic, but also intellectual challenge.

He was awarded a honoris causa degrees by dozens of universities worldwide - and he did not even accept all the awards he was offered. However, apart from an academic career in semiotics, he was also remarkably active in journalism - which he considered his political duty. His essays covered wide range of topics, from politics and sociolog to current events and popular culture - were always laced with philosophical analyses and erudite remarks (even if sometimes considered over the top). In his last, seventh novel, Numero Zero (published in 2015) he drew a poignant satire on modern tabloid journalism, weaving in - in his trademark style - a multitude of events from World War II all the way to terrorist attacks in the 1970s, involving numerous figures from the Italian history, from early fascsists to politicians, popes and secret organisations.

He enjoyed literary analysis, often conducted from unexpected perspectives. He liked to take his readers and listeners to places and conclusions far from obvious. He would analyse maps of Dumas's Paris with precision of a skilled cartographer - only to prove that Aramis could not have lived at rue Servandoni (although Roland Barthes most certainly did). He enjoyed dissecting the realities of literary universes,  and to discuss ontological status of fictional character - within and outside of the literary worlds they inhabited. These exercises in literary analysis are a delightful insight in the ways we apply logic and semiotics to the worlds of reality and fiction, often allowing them to get tangled up or to merge into one without even noticing. 

"The good of a book lies in its being read. A book is made up of signs that speak of other signs, which in their turn speak of things. Without an eye to read them, a book contains signs that produce no concepts; therefore it is dumb."

Eco was one of the most dazzling and inspiring characters of our time, and he will be sorely missed - not only for his brilliant literary work, but perhaps even more for we have lost a guide to the world of signs, which he took such delight in deciphering. He was our eye to read the signs - and that alone was a greatest gift of all.

Translator, linguist, copywriter, literary agent. Enjoys bad puns, exploring ruined buildings and being the weird one.