The Wisdom of Umberto Eco

"Umberto Eco" by Flickr user giveawayboy, March 24, 2009. Available via Flickr.
“Umberto Eco” by Flickr user giveawayboy, March 24, 2009. Available via Flickr.

Ed Simon

With the recent passing of the great Italian scholar and author Umberto Eco, one mourns not just the death of a man, but indeed the loss of the unwritten library in his head. A literary protégé of Jorge Luis Borges, Eco was fascinated by the relationship between fiction and reality, and how meaning can hide and be obscured in the fuzzy spaces between signifier and signified, word and object. His novels like Foucault’s Pendulum, Baudolino, and of course The Name of the Rose were playfully filled with imaginary texts, libraries hidden in labyrinths, elaborate (and illusory) secret societies. As such, it’s totally appropriate to imagine what books he wished to write, or could have written, or never got around to writing. With the death of any author so prolific, one feels the tug of that absence that represents works of his we’ll never get to read. As his main character said in his most famous novel, “there are also visions of books as yet unwritten” – it is immensely sad that, now, none of these books yet to be written will be Eco’s.

As a medievalist, religion and theology were subjects with which he was naturally conversant, and he brought a sense of rigor married with curiosity to them. If the loss of Eco is both a loss of a genuine public intellectual who saw no shame in celebrating complexities, then it is also the loss of a scholar who transcended the boring culture war debates that bifurcate all experience into the religious and the secular. He understood the undeniably sacred nature of the written word, where all interpretation must in some sense be exegetical. Eco was intimately familiar with the complex debates about language engaged by scholastic philosophers and theologians; the terminology of realism, Platonism, and nominalism was his life-blood from his graduate days onward. Though he cheekily claimed that his most famous novel was written because he “wanted to poison a monk,” and though he was an atheist, Eco still understood how theological the origin of so much of the humanities was, and the profound debt that literary study owed to the scriptural hermeneutics that was its precedent.

Standard contemporary narrative often has it that a thinker must somehow simply either be secular or religious, a friend of religion or its foe. Eco belied that reductionist dichotomy, in that his metaphysics were certainly openly atheistic, but he fully acknowledged and explored the theological origins of so much of humanistic inquiry. His name is most often appropriately identified with semiotics, the literary critical study of how signs and symbols construct relative meanings. As a discipline, the question of how words and meaning relate go back to the very scholastic philosophers he fictionalized in The Name of the Rose and whom he analyzed in his more academic works – after all, Eco knew that for those monks who believed that in the beginning there was the “Word,” literature would be of paramount significance. A good argument could be made that both literary criticism and theory are in themselves a type of secularized scriptural exegesis, and as a medievalist, Eco was perhaps more familiar with this idea than most. Too often our discourse today asks us to fully condemn religion, or to simplify definitions of what religion is, which can lead to shoddy, anachronistic, ahistorical understandings of the genealogies of important concepts in our culture. Eco was a scholar who could reject those simplistic, ahistorical misinterpretations of both history and literature, and his writings (both fictional and academic) exhibit the subtlety, nuance, and complexity that is necessary if we’re to properly analyze and discuss cultural phenomena. Reading audiences were surprisingly comfortable with following him in those directions.

Eco was that rare figure who truly straddled the divide which unfortunately exists between the academy and the general public; that he was able to do this without compromising his rigor is all the more commendable. Eco helped disprove that tired editorial canard that literary theory must always be obscure, lifeless, obfuscating, airless, dry, and cold. One never got this sense of theory when reading Eco; to the contrary, he explained that the analysis of fiction is “a game by which we give sense to the immensity of things that happened, are happening, or will happen in the actual world.” For Eco the critical discussion and interpretation of literature, philosophy, and theology was no unweaving of the rainbow, rather it was the very method by which one was able to fully inhabit and enjoy those subjects. As he explained, “Reflecting on these complex relationships between reader and story, fiction and life, can constitute a form of therapy against the sleep of reason, which generates monsters.” In his writings, the duty of wonder is as central as the responsibility of analysis.

His character, William of Baskerville, said In the Name of the Rose that “The Devil is not the Prince of Matter; the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt. The Devil is grim because he knows where he is going, and, in moving, he always returns whence he came.” This is certainly not an anti-religious sentiment, far from it. It embraces spirit, faith, and truth; it simply asks of us that we also embrace the twin virtues of good humor and skepticism, both of which keep us honest. The wisdom of Eco was that he knew good humor and skepticism are central values to free inquiry for anyone, whether you identify with the faithful or the faithless or refuse the need to choose between them.

Ed Simon is a PhD Candidate in the English department of Lehigh University. His research focuses on religion and literature in the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Atlantic world. He has been previously published in The Revealer, the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, and the Public Domain Review among others. Currently he is the assistant editor of the Journal of Heresy Studies, and one of the founding members of the International Society for Heresy Studies. He can be followed @WithEdSimon