Eco Consciousness

By Fernanda Eberstadt

Vogue, November, 1995

The boulevard at the Italian seaside resort of Rimini is crowded on a Friday night in August, a frenzy of mini golf courses and aquariums as glitzy as discotheques. Umberto Eco -- professor of semiotics, historian of medieval theology, and author, most famously of The Name of the Rose -- swoops down upon a newsstand. "Here," he crows, showing off a fistful of comic books. "This is my current reading matter!"
After a night and a day's conversation, prompted by the American publication of his third novel, The Island of the Day Before (Harcourt Brace), Eco's specialty of semiotics has begun to seem like an excuse for a greedy mind for rifle the toy store of universal knowledge. Topics have swung from Saint Augustine's hermeneutics and the Asiatic origins of Celts to the corruptness of medieval Latin ("a kind of pidgin English, like reading Shakespeare in messages sent from Malaysia to Canton") to why there are five words for owl in Italian but only one in English, and religious paradigms for computer programming (Macintosh, according to Eco, represents the Catholic Church, IBM Protestantism, and Window the Anglicans).
In the intervals, Eco has performed Renaissance melodies on his flute, sung "The Girl from Ipanema" in Genoese dialect, and taken his visitor to drink vino giovane (new wine) with he mayor of the village where he spends his summers. Now Eco is hungry for relaxation. He is, after all, on vacation.
Eco and his wife, Renate, and arts educator, have a huge summerhouse -- he describes as "Alcatraz" -- in the remote and craggy hills inland from Rimini. The seventeenth-century manor was used as a barracks for German soldiers in the Second World War, and more recently as a Jesuit-run summer camp for kids from the village. When Eco bought it 20 years ago, "every room had 40 beds!" Now the rooms contain the surplus from Eco's 30,000-volume library in his home base in Milan, and the chapel has become his workroom. Collecting books, he explains, "is a sport I practice." Renate, a beautiful German with wide black eyes and a guilelessly clear diction, complains that her husband reads even at the dinner table, which was not very "normal" for the now-grown son and daughter.
Asked about his omnivorous scholarship, Eco takes a contrary stance, insisting that genuine learning demands a "stubborn incuriosity. Galileo appeared curious, but there were many subject matters he had simply cut away. According to Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes knew everything about chemistry, but he still believed the sun turned around the earth. In order to be so perceptive about the meaning of a spot on someone's shoe, you have to ignore the solar system. As for my own incuriosities, I am so uninterested in them that I do not even know they exist."
At 63, Eco looks like a koala bear with a grizzled beard. He shouts when he talks, smokes Philip Morris cigarettes, loves whiskey and company, and prefers to stay up working till 3:00 or 4:00 A.M. "I am what the anthropologists call a polychronic personality. If I don't have many things to do, I am lost. Every day I do the less urgent task -- this gives me a sense of adultery." He teaches at the University of Bologna, where he runs its Program for Communication Sciences, and -- especially since the sale of nine million copies worldwide of The Name of the Rose -- spends most of his life "in transit" to conferences, lectures, and seminars.
Publishers were flumoxed by the success of Rose, which appeared in 1980, but Eco, who has published 22 books, mostly on semiotics, had long been famous in Italy for a weekly magazine column that brings to bear a formidable historical perspective and a talent for deflation on such phenomena as terrorism, millennial cults, theme parks, and blue jeans. His second novel, Foucault's Pendulum (1988), combined cabala, mathematical equations, and Mickey Mouse in densely allusive prose, and proved an equally unlikely blockbuster.
The Island of the Day Before portrays the misadventures of Roberto della Griva, a young seventeenth-century nobleman who, dispatched by Cardinal Mazarin on a spy mission to pin down the still hazy art of longitude, finds himself shipwrecked in the South Seas -- not on and island but on another deserted boat. Marooned, Roberto teaches himself how to swim, indulges in semiheretical theology, and relives his experiences during the Thirty Years' War. Of its setting, Eco explains, "I realized I had written two novels about books, erudition, culture. How about writing about pure nature?"
The Island does indeed offer hallucinogenically baroque descriptions of coral reefs and tropical birds -- when he feels like it, Eco can muster up a heady prose -- but it also contains many themes his fans will recognize. Most particular is the opposition between hoarders of knowledge -- in this case Mazarin, who believes that cornering the market in longitude will make the French masters of the world -- and the more generous empiricists, wedded to experimentation, speculation, and the indeterminacy of truth. Gazing at the stars, Roberto imagines an infinite succession of crucifixions taking place around the universe in parallel time, and God "lost in the remaking of Himself from too many perspectives."
I ask Eco -- a lapsed "militant Catholic" -- about the notion of an absent deity that haunts his writing. Laughing, he offers only the mischievous retort "God hides because He doesn't want to appear in Vogue!"
Sitting under a lime tree in his garden, Eco describes his upbringing in the northwestern province of Piedmont -- a region that, both as setting and as prevailing temperament, animates most of his fiction. "The Piedmontese," he explains, "are the least Italian of the Italians -- not passionate, not excited, no fire. There is a strong French influence, a mountain culture. Remember that Piedmont is the only part of Italy that remained independent for the last 1,000 years. Certain elements remain as the as the basis of my world vision: a skepticism and an aversion to rhetoric. Never to exaggerate, never to make bombastic assertions." In Foucault's Pendulum this attitude is summed up in the Piedmontese dialect expression "Ma gavte la nata," roughly, "Take the cork out of your ass."
Eco was born in 1932 in Allesandria, a provincial "company town," famous for manufacturing Borsalino hats. His grandparents had thirteen children, and Eco attributes his sense of the absurd to his grandmother: "Having no time to beat all her children, she had to govern them by humor." In part, it is the toughness of this background that has given Eco and ironic detachment from politics and social movements. "My father fought in three wars, and it was enough. May parents had so many problems just to survive that their fundamental idea was a wise person shouldn't get mixed up in politics."
During the Second World War, Eco and his mother moved to a small Piedmontese mountain village from which he watched the partisans and the Fascists shooting it out "like a small Western. Those hills in my memory are the theater of military operations that I witnessed directly, aged twelve, thirteen." His novels and essays are dogged by the sense of belatedness, of having been too young to join the fray. "I frequently ask myself what I would have done has I been eighteen of 20. It's a kind of 'If Napoleon were female. . . .' Maybe my luck was to have been born a little late, and to have escaped this difficult decision, to regard the whole story as a fascinated spectator."
It is late afternoon, the mountains are still abuzz with heat, and we dawdle over an alfresco lunch of pasta and grilled meat and wine. Eco, Renate and his Venetian publisher are discussing the evening's plans. The Eco's daughter is arriving in Rimini on a midnight train. Should we eat fish by the sea before picking her up; should we get tickets to comic Roberto Benigni's one-man show; or should we visit another friend's spectacular nightclub? In the end we skip Benigni, skip the disco, and go off to the local village to consult its mayor about the best fish restaurant in Rimini.
Meanwhile, Eco returns to the subject of fiction, including his own. "People always ask me, 'How is it that your novel, which are so difficult, have a certain success?' I am offended by the question. It's as if they asked a woman, 'How can it be that men are interested in you?' Because I am beautiful, of course!" he roars. "To ask such a question insinuates that you are very ugly.
"I myself like easy books that put me to sleep immediately. But the normal reader who does not spend his day fighting with Kant or Hegel feels respected if there is a jujitsu with a novel, a resistance, a seduction. If the book says yes immediately, it is a whore. There is no challenge in seducing a whore." Only as energetic a bibliophile as Eco, it occurs to me, would regard it as the reader's job to seduce the book.
Although he has been accused of treating literature as a manic proliferation of word games, Eco is, in fact, quite pugnacious about the all-importance of a catchy yarn. "We are narrative animals. Le Discours de la Methode, by Descartes, is a page-turner. (The difference, of course, is in the speed at which you turn the pages.) There is suspense, too -- foreseeable suspense -- in Gauss' Theorem. Today there is a tendency to see a narrative core in every human activity, narrativity not as an output of language, perceptivity, understanding, but as the basic input." Story structure, with its satisfying interplay of repetition and variation, might even be seen, he suggests, as a physiological imperative. "The circulation of blood is a story. Blood makes always the same turn; the pumping of the heart is pretty repetitious -- happily repetitious. If it starts to change," he adds, "well, then the story becomes tragedy."
In The Island, however, he confessed mock-plaintively, "there is not story. There is no crime, no butler to be discovered. If anything, it is a story of concepts. I was very conscious that I was frustrating expectation."
As dusk descends, Eco remarks upon the narrative continuities, the happy repetitions, in his own life. After years of avoiding his hometown while he was making a name for himself in the capitals of the world, "I am returning to my roots," he reports, reclaiming childhood friends and high school teachers. One of the great pleasure of his success is that "the characters of my fiction reenter my life." Recently he has rediscovered the real-life girl whom the hero of Foucault's Pendulum unrequitedly adored at the age of twelve. "She is now the mayor of the village where I lived during the war, and although then she ignored my existence, now she imagines we were all along copains.
"Sit on the banks of the river and wait for the corpse of your enemy to come by. Obviously, in the meantime you have to think of something else -- that's what I mean by polychronic personality. Wait on the banks of the river, but in the meantime you read Plato, you write books."

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