Superstar Professor

Umberto Eco bridges the worlds of high academe and popular culture

By Scott Sullivan

Newsweek, September 29, 1986

He looks a bit like a Maurice Sendak creation. He teaches semiotics, the "scientific" study of signs, a subject so complex and abstruse that only a few hundred people in the world have mastered its rudiments. His breadth of knowledge is mind boggling: he speaks five modern languages fluently, is perfectly at home with classical Greek and laces his writing with long Latin quotations and obscure scholarly jokes. He is, to put it mildly, a colossus of learning, with the honorary doctorates (13) and government honors to prove it.
For all that, diminutive Prof. Umberto Eco, 54, is also a superstar in the world of popular culture. His lighthearted weekly columns in the mass market Italian news magazine L'Espresso, which he has been writing for over 20 years, have won him a vast audience in his own country. He became an even bigger celebrity in 1980, when his first novel, The Name of the Rose, proved to be a surprise best seller. (His publishing house, Bompiani, had hoped the highbrow thriller would sell 30,000 copies; to date, sales have topped 4 million.) Now, with the release of the movie version of the novel, starring Sean Connery, Eco's international reputation is assured.

Scholarly Conundrum: And yet the runaway success of Eco's medieval whodunit remains something of a mystery. The first 100 pages are particularly tough slogging, and Eco claims he made them so on purpose. "I wanted the reader to go through a penitential experience as he entered the book, just as a medieval monk went through strenuous tests when he entered the monastery," he says. But even after its dense initial passage, the book, which is told through the eyes of a young novice, is anything but an easy read. Eco's monks indulge in chapter-long discussions of such theological niceties as the virtue of poverty, and the book is a virtual primer on medieval heresies. Even the solution of the successive murders that plague the monastery turns on a scholarly conundrum -- the existence of a copy of Aristotle's "Comedy," a book that was probably never written.
For all that, there is plenty of sinister atmosphere and highbrow gags. The detective monk, William of Baskerville, is a dead ringer for Sherlock Holmes -- one of whose most famous cases, of course, was "Hound of the Baskervilles." William's young clerical sidekick is clearly inspired by Holmes' companion and biographer, Doctor Watson, while the monastery's blind librarian, Jorge of Burgos, recalls the late blind Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, one of whose most famous stories is set in a fantastical library filled with "every book that was ever written."
Jean-Jacques Annaud, an Oscar-winning French movie director (Black and White in Color, Quest for Fire) worked for three years to capture Eco's medieval world on film -- or as much of it as the medium allows. "The book is so rich that any rendering of it will be just one version," says Annaud. That version is nothing if not lavish. The German producer spent $18.5 million, a huge sum by European standards, to reproduce Eco's monastery in precise and authentic detail. Italian artisans built a huge abbey out of stone and gesso and illuminated complete Books of Hours.

Chemical flame: Annaud looked at 300 abbeys scattered across Europe before settling on the 12th-century Cistercian monastery at Erbach, West Germany, as the site for most of the film's interiors. The huge outdoor set was constructed on a hilltop outside Rome. The high point in the film's production came in February, when the vast monastery "burned down" in a shower of chemical flame. Eco wasn't there to watch; he was teaching in Bologna, where he has been on the faculty since 1971. That wasn't unusual; he had deliberately avoided direct involvement with the film because, he says, "it's Jean-Jacques's work, not mine."
Eco the celebrity-scholar has come a long way from his lower-middle-class background in Alessandria, a nondescript town about 60 miles south of Milan. HIs father, an accountant, wanted Umberto to become a lawyer. But Eco fell in love with philosophy while studying at the University of Turin and wrote his famous thesis on Thomas Aquinas. "My father only accepted my career decision after I had published my first two books," he recalls. After college he went to work at the cultural desk of RAI, Italy's state-owned television network, where he met a group of avante-garde musician and painters; they remain close friends. When that job disappeared from under him one day, he went back without regrets to teaching, at the University Florence and later at Bologna.
The past 20 years have formed a workaholic continuum for Eco. While his essays are justly famous -- a collection, titled Travels in Hyperreality, was published earlier this year in the United States -- his major goal has been to systemize the study of semiotics. The discipline, which deals not just with words but with such other sign systems as flags, musical notes, medical symptoms, and even clothing, has gained significant academic ground since World War II, particularly in France and Italy. Eco has produced a series of complex textbooks that attempt to codify his own ideas and those of his predecessors. He is greatly in demand as a teacher. His classes at Bologna and his casual off-campus appearances are packed with worshipful listeners. Earlier this year, for example, a standing-room-only crowd jammed the hall in Bologna where Eco and four of his colleagues were conducting a round-table discussion of the English Gothic novel, scarcely a subject of urgent concern to most people in this day and age. Universities in America and elsewhere compete to offer him visiting professorships.
Eco's leap into celebrity status five years ago delighted and amused him, but he is beginning to feel the party has gone on long enough. "I simply can't spend the rest of my life talking about a book I left behind me five years ago," he says. Each new translation of "The Rose" carries an obligation to conduct more interviews. (He has even written a prototype "stupid interview" to substitute for the hundreds of repetitive conversations he has been forced to endure.) While he works as hard as ever, dividing his time between an apartment in Milan, a pied-a-terre in Bologna and a rambling former Jesuit monastery in the hills near Rimini, he has also become something of a cultural ambassador-at-large, criss-crossing the world from literary cocktail parties in New York to opening nights in Paris. His last word on himself: "I am no Renaissance man. Every single thing I've done comes down to the same thing: the study of the mechanism by which we give meaning to the world around us."

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