AC Grayling admires Umberto Eco's new opus
It is said that Thomas Aquinas's brothers introduced a naked courtesan into his bedroom in the hope of dissuading him from becoming a Dominican monk, whereupon the soon-to-be Angelic Doctor plucked a burning brand from the fireplace and chased her out. This entertaining vignette is offered by Umberto Eco as evidence that Aquinas was no stranger to the things that are sometimes alleged to be more powerful than truth - a king's authority, the influence of wine, and the seductions of women. It occurs as an aside in 'The Power of Falsehood', one of the eighteen occasional pieces collected in this richly fascinating and varied volume, and it well illustrates Eco's manner as an essayist: even when writing about such demanding topics as symbolism, metaphor, influence and truth, he is invariably amusing, instructive, impressively erudite, and profoundly enjoyable. The range of Eco's interests and talents is such as to make him exemplary as a classic intellectual, for whom wide reading and capacious reflection are the distinguishing duties. As an academic Eco defines his specialism, semiotics, as a 'critical way of looking at the objects of other sciences' in other words: as a license to poke one's mental nose into everyone else's business; and this indeed is precisely what philosophy (of which Eco's semiotics is part) is in large part about. But to do it well and interestingly one has to have a genuine breadth of reading, providing an easy command of material and an apposite fund of reference with which to illustrate, decorate and deepen the discussion in hand. This Eco has, to an admirable degree, and it is this that makes him such an educative pleasure to read.
The title On Literature is accurate but misleading, for by itself it gives no indication of the variety of topics Eco covers. He discusses what literature is for, and describes his own methods as a writer. He explores aspects of Dante (who with Aquinas and Jorge Luis Borges are luminous and often iterated presences in his essays) and Nerval, Wilde and Joyce; he tackles questions of symbolism, style, the literary representation of space, flaws in form, 'intertextual irony' and reading, Aristotle's 'Poetics', the way falsehoods drive history, and how the United States is viewed from a European perspective. In the hands of a compelling essayist it does not matter when such a miscellany is nothing more than miscellaneous; but in fact connections bind the essays not in content, although the quickening spirits of Dante and Borges recur frequently, but in Eco's distinctive ambition to illuminate and understand.
Even this survey of contents fails to capture their full variety. For example: in the essay 'Wilde: Paradox and Aphorism' the main target of discussion is the aphorism, and that means that it also discusses La Rochefoucauld, Pascal, Karl Kraus, Chamfort and an aphorist championed by Eco for his excellences Pitigrilli (the alias of Dino Segre). It also provides, as examples, an overflowing abundance of quotation from the aphorist, with some surprising results: as when Pitigrilli transposes "happiness resides in things, not in our tastes" to "happiness resides in our tastes, not in things", and places contradictory items of received wisdom side by side: "People would be happier if kings were philosophers and philosophers were kings" (Plutarch); "the day I want to punish a province I will have it ruled by a philosopher" (Frederick II).
For an insight into Eco's selfperceptions as a writer, turn to the essays 'Borges and my anxiety of influence' and 'How I write'. In the first he describes the complicated ways in which the writings of 'the delirious archivist' (Eco's sobriquet for Borges) relate to his own. Borges was an early influence, even though his work only became widely read in Italy after Eco started writing (with equally conscious Proustian influences) in the late 1950s, for Eco had been alerted to Borges by the poet Sergio Solmi soon after the latter recommended his work to the great Italian publishing house Einaudi. Eco immediately read Borges therefore, but did not cite him in print, because his readers would still be ignorant of the reference. Moreover at that time the avant garde in literature was represented by RobbeGrillet, Gadda and Joyce, and Borges wrote in a classical yet unclassifiable manner that did not fit the radical agenda of the Gruppo 63 or the paradigm set by the poetry anthology I Novissimi. So Borges became a 'secret love' for Eco. By the time Eco wrote The Name of the Rose he had been thinking about Borges's Library of Babel for some time, and went so far as to call the blind librarian in his novel Jorge de Burgos. The fact that Jorge turns out to be a bad guy is a result, Eco says, of the way novels and their characters assume lives of their own, not a result of disaffection with Borges or his works.
It sometimes seems that Eco is having a sly dig, as when he cites Swift's savants of the School of Languages in the Academy of Lagado (Gulliver's Travels Part III chapter V) who, to save time and their lungs, decided to give up speaking but to carry around with them instead sacks full of the objects they might wish to refer to, so that they can point to them instead. Bent double under their loads, the savants spend hours unpacking and repacking their sacks whenever they meet each other. This puts me in mind of academics in the humanities in general, who have given up speaking their mother tongues in favour of sackloads of polysyllabic jargon and reconditery, under which they stagger about, packing, unpacking and gesticulating. Might this be what Eco had in mind? He is after all a professor.
But he is not a professor of a Lagadan kind. As these eloquent, witty and absorbing essays show, he is everything that an Enlightenment intellectual should by contrast be: lucid, illuminating, and a luxuriously good read.
On Literature is available from Amazon (UK)