'I invented Dan Brown'

Umberto Eco still considers his writing secondary to academia.

eco book 88 224 (photo credit: )
eco book 88 224
(photo credit: )
On Ugliness By Umberto Eco Rizzoli 456 pages; $45 'I invented Dan Brown. He's one of the grotesque characters in my novel who take a lot of trash occult material seriously' Umberto Eco has grown wiser with age, and about no topic more so than stupidity. Rolling forward in his low couch, in the dimly lit lounge-bar of his New York hotel, the oval-shaped Eco advises that the best way to face mortality is to realize how little there is to miss. At 75, the recently retired semiotics professor from Bologna harbors no false expectations of his fellow mortals. When another writer's work displeases him, he just sighs philosophically: "If he were intelligent, he would be the professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna." With 34 honorary doctorates (and almost as many declined), Eco's erudition is a rare commodity. His agile intellect, as adept at descanting on Superman as Shakespeare, once prompted Anthony Burgess to declare enviously: "No man should know so much." Eco pioneered the academic study of popular culture in the 1960s before it fell into vogue, at a time when "many academics read detective stories and comic strips at night but didn't talk about it because it was considered like masturbation." He then defied the conventional wisdom of publishing that abstruse ideas cannot turn a profit when his 1980 debut novel The Name of the Rose shifted 50 million copies. Superficially a sleuth story set in a 14th-century abbey, the novel brimmed with such arcana as passages of untranslated Latin and a love scene stitched from the words of religious mystics. "Readers are not as stupid as publishers believe," Eco says animatedly, his earlier wisdom deserting him. "Eco" carries similar clout in publishing to "Armani" in Italian fashion. His new book, On Ugliness, tours the history of unsightliness in Western art - an assemblage of images with a running commentary too thin for any art connoisseur, but emblazoned with a name to guarantee the book a place on coffee tables worldwide. A selection of Eco's occasional pieces has also just been published as Turning Back the Clock; but the book could just as easily have been titled "On Stupidity," as it charts the decline of public life in the age of media populism. If ugliness, like beauty, is in the beholder's eye, can absolute ugliness exist? "Those forms of ugliness that provoke disgust seem to be universal. The corpse should be disgusting for more or less everybody - if corrupted. If fresh, I don't know, because there's still cannibalism. Then the idea that ugliness is a lack of completeness, of integrity - that a man should have two eyes, two arms - seems to represent a universal attitude." BESUITED AND bearded, with a paunch he likens to Pavarotti's, the owlish-looking Eco has the congenial manner of someone who delights in holding court. He is no longer a smoker, but his gravelly voice wears the strain of his former 60-a-day habit, and he sucks on an unlit cigarillo throughout the interview. His name - Italian for "echo" - is fitting for an exponent of that European academic fixation of "semiotics," concerned with the limits of language. "Semiotics is a confederation of competing approaches to the problem of communication, of signification," he explains. "Confidentially, there is only one approach which is good, which is mine." Whereas his fellow semioticians Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva and Jacques Lacan were willfully elitist and obscure, Eco gave his field an approachable face with raffish newspaper think-pieces and jargon-free monographs on topics ranging from medieval aesthetics to the mass media. Eco unhesitatingly accepts the label "postmodern" to describe his novels, whose plots often hinge on the ambiguities of language and pay homage to writers, philosophers and theologians from throughout the ages. "Postmodernism is a form of narrativity that takes for granted that everything has already been said before. If I love a girl I cannot say 'I love you desperately,' because I know that Barbara Cartland has already said it. But I can say, 'as Barbara Cartland would say, "I love you desperately."'" His 1997 philosophical study Kant and the Platypus described the platypus as a postmodern animal, after considering the debates of 18th-century scientists over whether to classify the duck-beaked, beaver-tailed creature as a mammal, a bird or a reptile. "Postmodern texts quote other texts; the platypus quotes other animals," says Eco. "Borges said that the platypus is an animal made up of the pieces of other animals, but since the platypus appeared very early in evolution, there are probably other animals made with pieces of platypus." As unclassifiable as a platypus, Eco made his fictional debut at 48, when a publisher commissioned him to contribute to an anthology of detective tales written by academics. Instead, he turned in a 500-page tome: The Name of the Rose. Italian literature lacks a tradition of detective fiction, which Eco attributes to Renaissance Italy's abandonment of Aristotle's Poetics. "The Poetics is the theory of pure narrativity. The Italian tradition was more interested in language than plot." Asked about his late impulse to write a novel, Eco waves away the question: "It's like you feel the need to piss, so you go and you piss." Pressed, Eco says that he turned to fiction to compensate for his two children growing up: "I didn't have anybody to tell stories to any more, so I started writing." After The Name of the Rose was made into a garden-variety adventure flick with Sean Connery in 1986, Eco refused all future offers to render his books in celluloid. He illustrates his decision by way of an anecdote - perhaps apocryphal - about a girl who walked into a bookstore and remarked on The Name of the Rose, "Oh, they've already adapted the film into a book." But after Stanley Kubrick died, he regretted rebuffing the director's interest in filming his second novel Foucault's Pendulum (1988). Foucault's Pendulum depicts three jaded editors at a Milan publishing firm connecting all the major conspiracy theories in history into an overarching "Plan," only to find the hoax unraveling from their control. Eco amassed 1,500 occult books, gathered from 10 cities, to research the novel, which anticipated the Da Vinci Code juggernaut with remarkable prescience. "I invented Dan Brown. He's one of the grotesque characters in my novel who take a lot of trash occult material seriously. He used a lot of material that I myself quoted." Brickbats flew with Foucault's Pendulum, where critics found Eco's delectation for scholarly exotica difficult to absorb in the absence of its predecessor's thriller plot. With the fatwa recently proclaimed on his head, Salman Rushdie found sufficient peace of mind to read Foucault's Pendulum and slate it in The Observer as "humorless, devoid of character, entirely free of anything resembling a credible spoken word, and mind-numbingly full of gobbledygook of all sorts. Reader: I hated it." Emotion rarely surfaces in Eco's novels, which anti-populist critics sometimes try to dismiss as cerebral game-playing masquerading as fiction. Eco subscribes to T.S. Eliot's notion of literature as an escape from emotion. "You can only write a real love poem when you're not in love any more and you can look at your previous emotion without being a victim of your passions," says Eco. His 2004 novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana was uncharacteristically sentimental. Containing barely disguised autobiographical traces of Eco's boyhood in Piedmontese Italy, it followed an amnesiac book dealer whose memory gradually returns upon a visit to his childhood home. His identity reemerges as he reencounters the old record covers, books, magazines and stamps from Mussolini's Italy, which are reproduced as illustrations - for "illiterate people," Eco jokes - throughout the text. But Eco has no plans to write the memoirs of his adult life, fearing that "many ladies could be compromised." ECO WAS raised in Alessandria - the company town of Borsalino hats - in a lower-middle class family. His parents were apathetic about the Fascist regime, but Eco launched his literary career, aged 10, by winning an essay-writing competition for "young Italian Fascists," on the topic: "Should we die for the glory of Mussolini and the immortal destiny of Italy?" Eco consolidated his interest in medieval symbols by writing a doctoral dissertation on the aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, published in his early 20s, before spending several years producing cultural programs for Italy's nascent national television network. He also co-founded the "Gruppo 63" - modelled on Günter Grass's "Gruppe 47" in Germany - calling for an overhaul of traditional literary techniques. But scholarship remained his lifeblood. After The Name of the Rose Eco could have retired to - even purchased - a private island, but he continued to teach, considering writing secondary to academia. Even post-retirement, he regularly arranges seminars in Bologna, where he likes to live because he doesn't suffer from his public recognizability: "They know me, so I can go through the streets and nobody cares. I'm a part of the landscape." In Anglophone countries, academics engaged in public affairs are often viewed askance by their colleagues, which Eco chalks up to the campus environments of most American and British universities. "Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, are outside of the city, so it separates the university from the political world. In Italy, Germany, France and Spain, the university is geographically at the center of the city." Turning Back the Clock traces the disintegration of Italian democracy under the center-right government of Silvio Berlusconi, who exploited his monopoly on media holdings to maintain popular support. "The Italians who voted for him thought that he would not steal the public money, without considering that in order to become rich he stole money from somewhere," says Eco. "Secondly, they thought, 'Because he's rich, he will help us become rich,' which is absolutely false. It's only because you are poor that I am rich." The new government of Romano Prodi, although Eco's friend and a fellow academic, hasn't made him more sanguine. "In order to win, Prodi was obliged to put together people who couldn't stay together. They are always fighting. This is the tragedy by which Berlusconi will win the next election if things don't change." Whereas his 1964 monograph Apocalypse Postponed inveighed against the demonization of the mass media by Marxist theorists such as Theodor Adorno, Eco now holds a pessimistic - if not exactly apocalyptic - view of the media. He explains that in the 1950s, when many Italians spoke only local dialects, television played an important role in unifying the Italian language. There was just one television channel, which broadcast only in the evenings, so the programming was very selective, he says. "Now in Italy we have the possibility of looking at 100 channels all day, so the quality is low." Italian newspapers are now almost twice the length that they were, which means "you invent news, or repeat the same story 10 times, or imagine plots and false explanations." Eco describes himself as a pacifist and thinks that war should be made a universal taboo. This wouldn't stop him from defending his family against attack, but means that military invasion wasn't the answer to the Iraq question. He deadpans: "If Bush were intelligent, he would be the professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna."