Umberto Eco is one of the authors whom I really admire although it has been several years since I read his books. Popular culture knows him as the one whose Foucault’s Pendulum foreshadowed medieval conspiracy theory fiction such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. He is also known as the author of The Name of the Rose which is a detective story set in medieval times and was made into a movie starring Sean Connery.
He was an expert in the medieval history of Europe and a Professor of the mysteriously named field of Semiotics. No one else has done more to popularize this field and its use in interpreting historical findings. His knowledge of these two areas were ingrained in his thinking as a philosopher and his writing.
Semiotics refers to the study of signs, their interpretation and use in communication, and their link to language. Since these are a lot of heavy words, let me give you an example that we can all relate to. I had a twitter account under a different name. When I created this blog, I wanted a matching twitter account (no, I don’t really use it!) but “@nilambar” wasn’t available. I was under the invisible time pressure we all feel when creating a username on online signup forms. So in my panic I was searching the screen and my room for some clue.
Here is a screenshot of the top right section on twitter:
This + “nilambar” = “quillambar“! I know the end result is extremely cheesy but let me explain how my brain worked: Green post button with feather logo -> a feather is used to make a quill which is used for writing -> rhymes with nil -> bingo!
After observing the icon, this whole cognitive process took less than a second. This is a simple example that shows how a sign (feather) combined with context (writing), produced an idea (quill) that produced a word (something related to writing + the rhyming?). There are probably interesting neuro-biological aspects to this as well but we will stick to the subject here. Semiotics is basically a formal study of such processes from the perspective of history, language and communication. Eco wrote definitive textbooks in his main field of Semiotics.
He also wrote more accessible essays where he deployed these skills. After a visit to the US, he wrote essays published as Travels in Hyper-reality that explore the reasons for America’s fixation with living life larger or in recreating reality (replicas of the Oval Office or installations in Disneyland) based on his observations.
He was an expert on the medieval and Renaissance period in Europe. He could connect historic development right from the crusades and the inquisition to modern times. But I don’t think Eco wrote a popular or academic book that purely covered history unlike for example, William Dalrymple’s research on Afghanistan or the Mughal times in India. Instead he liked to combine a lot of historical fact with handcrafted fiction and his most well-known novels do exactly that.
As a widely read person, he felt every book referred to many others consciously or not. Nassim Nicholas Taleb speaks about the massive library of Eco in his book, The Black Swan, and calls it the “anti-library” of which I wrote here. Taleb also calls him encyclopedic.
He wrote a set of essays, On Literature, that demonstrates his wide range of reading. One of themes was that Literature reinvents itself with the sensibilities of every passing age. The other theme was on the nature of writing. The last essay here, “How I write” has some immortal lines on the last page:
“There is only one thing you write for yourself, and that is a shopping list… One writes only for a reader… Whoever says he writes for himself is not necessarily lying. It is just he is frighteningly atheistic. Even from a rigorously secular point of view.
Unhappy and desperate the writer who cannot address a future reader.”
He combines knowledge of semiotics, history and literature into his fiction as demonstrated in The Name of the Rose:
- The name of the book is not explained in the book and has no connection to the story. Later in a postscript he said that he chose this, “because the rose is a symbolic figure so rich in meanings that by now it hardly has any meaning left”
- The protagonist, William of Baskerville, is a play on William of Occam (known for the Occam’s Razor principle) and Sherlock Holmes
- Jorge Luis Borges, who was the inspiration for many of the “magic realism” writers in South America like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was a favourite of Eco. The main antagonist in this book is inspired by him. Borges wrote about a labyrinthine Library of Babel, in a short story. Eco sets a lot of the action in his book in a similarly modeled library.
- The inquisition and fixations of the dark ages play a big role in this book. There is a theme of searching for heresies and punishing new ideas; destruction of books and scrolls that may contain knowledge that contradicts theology.
He also wrote commentary about the now. A set of essays titled Inventing the Enemy starts out with an idea that if one doesn’t have an enemy then one must invent it. He shows that even to have an identity (as a person or a group) that has some self-worth means we must invent an “other”; something foreign and repulsive – an enemy. It shows when you look around in today’s connected world. You can have enemies who you never see or speak to, provoke, draw reactions and deliver counter-reactions, and thereby establish and celebrate your identity as opposed to the “other”.
Eco left us earlier this year and will be sorely missed but his entire body of work says that what he wrote will endure and reinvent itself. May he rest in peace.