Umberto Eco

General Nonfiction: Columns & Essays


Translated by William Weaver

Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993, ISBN 0-15-660752-2; Paperback $14.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Originally published in 1963 as Diario minimo and revised in 1975, this small book is a collection of writings culled from Eco’s monthly column in the Italian literary magazine Il Verri. The writings are essentially freewheeling and experimental pieces, most of them taking humorous swings at literary theory, anthropology, and cultural biases. The English translation was made in 1993 and contains a special preface which explains the background to some of the pieces.
Misreadings is a perfect name for this delightful little book, as it captures the spirit of many of the essays, in which an entirely misappropriate spin is placed on familiar subjects. Sacred cows are irreverently speared and offered up for dinner, overinterpretation and ivory tower intellectualism are toppled down and mischievously dragged through the dust of the “real world,” and parodies are allowed to expand to their most pompous and ludicrous horizons. Modern literary criticism is applied to classics like the Bible and Dante, banknotes and currency are evaluated for their artistic value, and the modern media is depicted covering such events as the voyage of Columbus. Eco deftly and humorously points out that for all our art, criticism, and science, we as human beings are still terribly limited in our understanding of each other and the world we create around us.
Here is the blurb from the inside cover:

In an upside-down Lolita, Umberto Umberto pursues a granny with “whitely lascivious locks.” Professor Anouk Ooma of Price Joseph’s Land University addresses his colleagues on recent archeological findings that shed light on the poetry of Italy before the explosion. Columbus’s landing in the New World is covered by television reporters, commentators, and guest experts. In addition, we are given a social and structural analysis of the art of striptease as performed by Lilly Niagara of the Crazy Horse; we are privy to in-house publisher reader’s reports, most of them unfavorable, on such submissions as The Odyssey, Don Quixote, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and the Five Books of Moses; and we hear a diatribe against the mounting tide of vulgarity in Greece, the new democratic “culture industry” of such upstarts as Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, not to mention public playing of the flute.

Umberto Eco pokes fun at the oversophisticated, overacademic, and overintellectual, and along the way has some penetrating comments to make about our modern mass culture and the elitist avant-garde in art and criticism.

This is a very enjoyable book, and it furnished the name for this web page as well – Porta Ludovica, from an essay that declared the impossibility of its existence in Milan.

Apocalypse Postponed

Edited by Robert Lumley

Indiana University Press, 1994, ISBN 0-253-31851-3; Hardcover $29.95. Out of print. [Browse/Search for a Copy]

Originally published in 1964 as Apocalittici e integrati and revised in 1977. From Kirkus Reviews:

Teacher (Semiotics/Univ. of Bologna), editor, cultural commentator, and novelist (Foucault’s Pendulum, 1989), Eco offers refreshing commentary on cultural life, primarily in Italy, from the mid-1960s to the late ’80s, when intellectuals were especially alarmed by the emergence of a mass or pop culture. Dedicating his book to those he calls the “apocalyptics,’’ cultural elites who fear the destruction of their world by mass communication and popular entertainment, he offers historical surveys of key terms such as “culture,’’ “intellectual,’’ and “design,’’ bringing to these terms more inclusive definitions that embrace comic books, TV, popular music, and a whole range of experience that he includes in the idea of civilization. He recalls introducing his collection of Superman comics at a distinguished European conference of theologians and philosophers discussing mythography; republishes his famous essay from the New York Review of Books on Peanuts (the “microcosm,’’ the “primitive epic’’) for “humanists who do not read comic strips’’; and to prove that “the medium is not always the message,’’ he analyzes the official comic strips of the Chinese communist government. In lucid, persuasive, and artfully illustrated essays, Eco expands the range of what is acceptable as culture: television programs, computers, popular music, posters, the whole counterculture, anything that does not require paper made from trees, for, he concludes in a typically gnomic remark, “every new book reduces the quantity of oxygen.’’ Although Eco occasionally sounds foreign and anachronistic, he displays a universal sympathy and a comprehensive eye that ranges from Snoopy, who has “no hope of promotion,’’ to the “Genius Industry’’ – those poor eccentrics who believe themselves to be victims of their own originality, publishing and reviewing their own books. Eco is a true original – substantial, lucid, humane, and a great deal of fun. (Copyright ©1994, Kirkus Associates, LP.)

The following description has been reprinted from the back of the Flamingo edition of Apocalypse Postponed:

Apocalypse Postponed is the anguished portrait of Western culture on the brink of self-destruction, by one of the world’s foremost writers.

With consummate ease, Umberto Eco provides simultaneously both a perfect attack on and an apology for mass culture. Exploring such exotica as La Ciccilina, Charlie Brown, George Orwell, Fellini, Chinese and American comics, as well as appraising illiteracy, the state of counterculture and his own reaction to the media’s consumption of his work, he exposes contemporary mass culture both as mankind’s nemesis and its salvation.

The introduction explains that the essays have been chosen with these objectives:

1. To convey some sense of the development of Eco’s writing on cultural issues from the early 1960s to the late 1980s, documenting as well as re-presenting past works.
2. To focus on journalism and occasional essays.
3. To include historically significant pieces not previously translated (notably from Apocalittici e integrati).
4. To include material written about Italy and for Italians and which has tended not to be translated for that reason.
5. To communicate the wit and brio of Eco’s writing.

And finally, here’s the Table of Contents with some information on the various essays:

Part 1; Mass Culture: Apocalypse Postponed
1. Apocalyptic and Integrated Intellectuals: Mass communications and theories of mass culture [1964]
2. The World of Charlie Brown
3. Reactions of Apocalyptical and Integrated Intellectuals: Then (1964)
4. Reactions of the Author: Now (1974 and 1977)
5. Orwell, or Concerning Visonary Power
6. The Future of Literacy [1987]

Part 2: Mass Media and the Limits of Communication
1. Political Language: The use and abuse of rhetoric [1973]
2. Does the Audience have Bad Effects on Television? [1977]
3. Event as Mise en scene and Life as Scene-settings [1982]
4. The Phantom of Neo-TV: The debate on Fellini’s Ginger and Fred [1986]

Part 3: The Rise and Fall of Counter-cultures
1. Does Counter-culture Exist? [1983]
2. The New Forms of Expression [1973]
3. On Chinese Comic Strips: Counter-information and alternative
information [1971]
4. Independent Radio in Italy [1978]
5. Striking at the Heart of State?

Part 4: In Search of Italian Genius
1. Phenomena of This Sort Must Also be Included [1982]
1. Phenomena of This Sort Must Also be Included in Any Panorama of Italian Design [1982]
2. A Dollar for a Deputy: La Cicciolina [1987]
3. For Grace Received [1970]
4. The Italian Genius Industry [1973]

Porta Ludovica thanks Mark Brown and Guy S. Kaiser for some of this information. Guy also remarks, “Look for the early (first?) apperance of De Gubernatis in the last essay, the model for Manutius.”

Travels in Hyperreality

Translated by William Weaver

Harcourt Brace & Company, 1986, ISBN 0-15-691321-6; Paperback $15.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Travels in Hyperreality is a conglomeration of essays from previous works and columns. It is mostly based on 1983’s Sette anni di desiderio: chronache 1977 - 1983 (Seven Year’s of Desire), which is a collection of essays written about Italian political unrest, leading to a “religiosity of the unconscious, of the vortex, of the absence of a center, or radical difference, of absolute otherness, of fracture.” Hyperreality, however, includes several other essays taken from the earlier untranslated works Il costume di casa (1973) and Dalla periferia dell’Impero (1977) as well as a 1975 essay on the American subculture of hyperrealism called “Faith in Fakes.” This essay, retitled “Travels in Hyperreality,” is the longest work in the book, and provides the collection with a new name.
Obviously most of the essays concern themselves with modern culture and the currents and trends that helped to shape it, which allows Eco a platform to analyze such things as the media and the “global village” concept; but more than a few essays revolve around some of Eco’s favorite topics such as Aquinas and semiotics. In short, the range of topics is broad and eclectic as usual. The title essay tracks Eco as he journeys through American wax museums and theme parks in search of the American Ideal, commenting on the American fondness for kitsch and “authentic copies” in the absence of a profound historical tradition. Other subjects include a shrewd analysis of MacLuhan’s “the medium is the message” slogan, an irascible but thoughtful diatribe against spectator sports, a modern refutation of the ideology of the “romantic” terrorist, an analysis of the movie Casablanca as a cult phenomena laden with archetypes, and a series of essays which expostulate that our modern love of certain images and systems is a sort of “return to the Middle Ages.”
Many of the essays are actually quite humorous as well as insightful, and as usual Eco manages to serve up his ideas through a witty use of satirical analysis and overinterpretation coupled with a sly sense of irreverent and occasionally backhanded humor. The barbs are well fashioned, the commentary suitably wry, and the theory well-explained. A superior collection that certainly rewards a careful reading and a thoughtful re-reading.
Here is the introductory note from back cover:

Umberto Eco – novelist, semiotician, and cultural critic extraordinary – displays here the same wit, learning, and lively intelligence that delighted readers of The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum. Eco’s range is wide – from pop culture to philosophy, from the People’s Temple to Thomas Aquinas, from Casablanca to Roland Barthes.

The opening essay shows us the tireless and questing author travelling the length and breadth of America in search of places that probe the boundaries of realism, copies that promise more than the originals: wax museums, halls of fame, theme parks, zoos. “The Return of the Middle Ages” asks searching questions about our modernity; “The Global Village” moves from mass media to mass sports. Small gems abound, like “Lumbar Thought,” in which Eco considers how blue jeans shape the man.

The insights in these essays are acute, frequently ironic, and often downright funny. To quote the San Francisco Chronicle, Eco has “a great deal to teach all of us about the importance (not to mention the pleasure) of observation and criticism, those twin privileges – and, as he says, duties – of all thinking human beings.”

Postscript to The Name of the Rose

1. Harcourt, 1995, ISBN 1568496753; Hardcover $27.00. Out of Print. [Browse/Search for a Copy]

2. Harvest Books, 1994, ISBN 0-15-600131-4; Trade paperback $15.00. Translated by William Weaver, includes the full novel The Name of the Rose. [Browse/Purchase]

An essay written about his first novel, Postille a Il nome della rosa had its first incarnation as a lengthy journal article. It was later retitled Reflections on The Name of the Rose and bound in a small illustrated book; but recently it has regained its original name and is included in the “Harvest in Translation” paperback edition of The Name of the Rose. The essay explores the role of the reader in approaching the text, and it gives some amusing and informative anectdotes on the actual writing of the novel, shedding much light on Eco’s creative process.
Here is some commentary about the original work, sent in by Jonathan Key:

A wonderful little book. Eco even talks about the different types of labyrinth. There are also some neat illustrations, particularly of the labyrinth on the floor of the cathedral at Rheims, which is the basis for the library in the novel. It appeared on the jacket of the original Italian hardback, and on various other editions (e.g. embossed on the Russian hardback). Part of its appeal for Eco, I’m sure, is that it was obliterated by a Canon in the 18th century. It is thus sous rature as Derrida would have it, under erasure – necessarily destroyed but nevertheless still visible and usable. It is a classical maze, surprisingly, rather than a mannerist one. The library in the novel is essentially mannerist (in that the ultimate goal is the finis africae), and both types become superceded by the rhizomatic model of Deleuze and Guattari in Rose. So, the Rheims labyrinth has only one route. As Eco (or his editor) put it: “But if you unravel the classical labyrinth, you find a thread in your hand, the thread of Ariadne. The classical labyrinth is the Ariadne’s-thread of itself.” (p.57) This reminds me of the final exchange between Lönnrot and Red Scharlach in Borges’ “Death and the Compass,” which, of course, was a major plot source for Rose. Interestingly, while in the novel William uses mathematical analysis to solve the mannerist maze, the film has Adso solving it by use of an Ariadne’s thread. Eco’s comment would seem to associate the thread solution exclusively with the ’classical’ maze but this is misleading. ’Classical’ labyrinths were usually pictorial, like Celtic ones, and you certainly wouldn’t need a thread to find your way out – you just keep going. The minatour’s maze would have to be mannerist, with lots of dead ends, despite what Eco says. Hence the need for a thread. Besides, I’ve seen Knossos, and it is beatifully labyrinthine, with lots of steps, little corridors, sudden changes in direction, and poky little rooms. Mannnerist, for sure.

Travels with a Salmon and Other Essays

1. Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994, ISBN: 0-15-100136-7; Hardcover $24.95. Out of print. [Browse/Search for Copy]

2. Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994, ISBN: 0-15-600125-X; Paperback $15.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Originally published in 1992 as Il secondo diario minimo. Here is the (rather lame) blurb on the jacket of the book:

Umberto Eco on how to avoid contagious diseases: “I read recently that according to the revelations of Professor Matre, heterosexual contact is carcinogenic. High time somebody came out and said it. I would go even farther: heterosexual contact causes death, period. Even a fool knows that it ends in procreation, and the more people are born, the more people die.”

Eco on the frustrations of trying to replace a lost driver’s license: “All of us know the ordinary terrorist is able to produce, in a few hours, dozens of fake licesnses – and remember, it takes more time to prodiuce a fake license than a genuine one. Now if we don’t want citizens who have lost their licenses to start frequenting murky taverns of ill fame in the hope of making contact with the Red Brigades, there is just one solution: employ all repentant terrorists in the license office.”

And that’s only the beginning: Eco on gadgets, including the Electric Nose Hair Remover (“an instrument that would have fascinated the Marquis de Sade”), Eco on 33-function watches, fax machines and cellular phones, express mail, in-flight meals, Amtrak trains, porn movies and Westerns, computer jargon, bureaucrats – you name it.” How to Travel with a Salmon is a “delightful romp through the absurdities of modern life.” (Publishers Weekly)

Kant and the Platypus

Translated by Alastair McEwen

1. Harcourt Brace, 1999, ISBN 0-15-100447-1; Hardcover $28.00. [Browse/Purchase]

2. Harvest Books, 2000, ISBN 0-15-601159-X; Paperback $16.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Published by Harcourt Brace, this work – the English translation of 1997’s Kant e l’ornitorinco – is another collection of essays revolving around semiotics and philosophy. The publisher’s description is as follows:

How do we know that a cat is a cat? Why do we agree on calling the beast a cat? Interesting questions, but an even more intriguing question lies at the heart of all modern philosophy – how much of our perception of things depends on our cognitive ability and how much on linguistic resources? At this point semiotics becomes inextricably linked to epistemology, or cognition. In these essays, Umberto Eco explores in depth such subjects as perception, the relationship between language and experience, and iconism that he only touched on in A Theory of Semiotics. Forgoing a formal, systematic treatment, Eco engages in a series of explorations based on common sense, from which flow an abundance of illustrative fables, often with animals as protagonists. Among the characters, a position of prominence is reserved for the platypus, which appears to have been created specifically to “put the cat among the pigeons” as far as many theories of knowledge are concerned. In Kant and the Platypus, Eco shares with us a wealth of ideas at once philosophical and amusing.

David Hornbuckle reviews the book for The Modern Word:
In Kant and the Platypus, Eco reiterates and updates much of the research that he published in 1976 as A Theory of Semiotics. Platypus is marketed as a general interest book, but the content presumes of the reader a fairly intimate knowledge of philosophy of language and complex logic, particularly certain writings of Kant, Heidegger and Peirce, which, more than one pundit has noted, almost nobody understands. Eco himself has even been reported as commenting on the difficulty of reading this book warning, “Don’t buy it if you are not Einstein.” To make things more difficult, or perhaps as a strategy of intimidation, Eco uses Latin, Italian, French and German quotations liberally with no translation whatsoever.
The essential subject matter of the book is the relationship between the things we perceive and the words we use to communicate about those things, name them, and describe them. Eco suggests a number of categories of meaning based largely on a language user’s linguistic competence, cultural background and technical expertise, and he illustrates this theory with a number of colorful and charming anecdotes, many borrowed or extended from other philosophers.
The title comes from an analogy Eco uses throughout the book, postulating a problem that Kant might have had in classifying a platypus had he ever come across one in his lifetime. The problem, specifically, is a bit unclear. Eco is a fine writer and certainly well-read, but his interpretations of other philosophers are sometimes suspect. Even so, the points he wishes to illustrate tend to boil down to plain common sense for the most part.
Some readers might be irritated by Eco’s frequent references to his own previous work as well as references to his skirmishes with various other philosophers over the years. However, fans of Eco’s fiction and lighter essays will still appreciate the playful humor and broad eclectic knowledge displayed in his writing, provided they can follow the subject matter being discussed. (DH)

Five Moral Pieces

Translated by Alastair McEwen

1. Harcourt Inc., 2001, ISBN 0-15-100446-3; Hardcover $23.00. [Browse/Purchase]

2. Harvest Books, 2002, ISBN 0-15-601325-8; Paperback $12.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Published by Harcourt, this volume contains five essays on themes of ethics and morality. According to Michael Spinella of Booklist:

Here Eco tackles difficult subjects with apparent ease in essays that, dealing with morality and ethics, touch every area of modern thought. His “Reflections on War,” written at the beginning of the Persian Gulf crisis, still resounds truthfully today. “On the Press” looks at the media and their influence on the world and one another. “Ur-Fascism” discusses the fascist regimes of Franco, Mussolini, and the Nazis, ending with the caveat that fascism, with its resurgence in the guise of militant new right-wing groups, isn’t at all a thing of the past. Through these and the other essays, Eco combines reflections on our shared history and his recommendations for a more favorable modernity in a manner that seems indisputable and brilliant.

Porta Ludovica reviewed this book upon publication – you may read the full review here.

History of Beauty

Translated by Alastair McEwen

Rizzoli International Publications, 2004, ISBN 0847826465; Hardcover $40.00. [Browse/Purchase]

An illustrated book, The History of Beauty represents Eco in cultural/historical critic mode. Additional commentary is planned for the future; this is from the publisher:

What is beauty? What is art? What is taste and fashion? Is beauty something to be observed coolly and rationally or is it something dangerously involving? So begins Umberto Eco’s intriguing journey into the aesthetics of beauty, in which he explores the ever-changing concept of the beautiful from the ancient Greeks to today. While closely examining the development of the visual arts and drawing on works of literature from each era, Eco broadens his enquiries to consider a range of concepts, including the idea of love, the unattainable woman, natural inspiration versus numeric formulas, and the continuing importance of ugliness, cruelty, and even the demonic.

Professor Eco takes us from classical antiquity to the present day, dispelling many preconceptions along the way and concluding that the relevance of his research is urgent because we live in an age of great reverence for beauty, “an orgy of tolerance, the total syncretism and the absolute and unstoppable polytheism of Beauty.”

In this, his first illustrated book, Professor Eco offers a layered approach that includes a running narrative, abundant examples of painting and sculpture, and excerpts from writers and philosophers of each age, plus comparative tables. A true road map to the idea of beauty for any reader who wishes to journey into this wonderful realm with Eco’s nimble mind as guide.

Red Bar

Go To:

Works Main Page – Back to Works Main Page, where you will find the standard Porta Ludovica menu.

Fiction – Details and reviews of Eco’s three novels.

Language & Literary Criticism – Non-semiotic works about language, aesthetics, and literary criticism, including chapters and contributions.

Semiotics – All works on semiotics, including chapters and contributions.

Children’s Books – Books for children.

Collaborations & Contributions – Non-semiotic works written in collaboration with others.

Italian Works – Works that have yet to be translated into English.

Bibliography – An expanding bibliography of Italian and English works.

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–Allen B. Ruch
8 November 2004