Umberto Eco, a Fighter at the Frontier of Infinity

Umberto Eco in Naples. Credit: Sud Foto/Sergio Siano/CC 2.0

Umberto Eco
Credit: Sud Foto/Sergio Siano/CC 2.0

Umberto Eco is dead.

A world has been extinguished. Its conspiratorial talespinner, “roaming among worlds constructed by the imagination, the imaginary astronomy of our forebears, shaded with hints of the occult”, has ended his journey. There’s not the reluctant yet obliging parting with Eco; he and his words were far too dear and unique to those who admired his indulgent exploration of the differences between reality and fiction. And with the irreplaceable Eco gone, his imaginary astronomy is gone with him.

Eco was known most famously for his first work of fiction, Il Nome Della Rosa (1980; The Name of the Rose, 1983), a mystery set in an Italian monastery in the 14th century. Before it was published, Eco was widely recognised as a renowned semiotician, rewarded with directorial positions at the Universita di Bologna and read as a philosopher and historian of import. However, despite Il Nome’s claim to being a work of fiction, the leap from academic to creative thought wasn’t a big one to make for Eco.

To understand why, consider David Robey’s introduction to Eco’s position: “The principle of unlimited semiosis is, Eco argues, vital to the constitution of semiotics as an academic discipline. According to this principle, the meaning of any sign, both verbal and nonverbal, can be seen only as another sign or signs … whose meaning, in turn, can be seen only as yet another sign or signs, and so on ad infinitum.” Eco essentially disputed the existence of a semiotic absolute, a guiding light of some kind external to ourselves, around which our ambitions and perversions swirled.

Instead, his truth was about being becoming liberated from the pursuit of the mythical absolute, about relieving ourselves from the madness of seeking it and the hope of finding it. And this is the journey that Il Nome’s protagonist, William of Baskerville, undertakes through its course. In his desperation to find a murderous monk, William is consumed by the need to make sense of disparate signs and symbols – and his consumption casts them in a light that misleads him. This is also Il Nome’s conclusion (p. 491): “Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth.” And this is also the premise of his Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) and, by some stretch, of Baudolino (2000).

Foucault's Pendulum, at  the Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci, Milan.  Credit: Ben Ostrowsky/Flickr CC 2.0

Foucault’s Pendulum, at the Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci, Milan. Credit: Ben Ostrowsky/Flickr CC 2.0

Eco’s wasn’t a pursuit of originality but the blend of many originals; think the inventive Thomas Pynchon meets the self-assured historian Janov Pelorat from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation’s Edge (1982). He was well-read – owning a personal library spanning over 50,000 books – and his writing was steeped in references, especially when he was discussing headstrong revolutions, shifting battlefronts, and the fevered obsessions of magicians and inventors. At this point it’d be irresponsible to think of him as an earlier Dan Brown (an author Eco thinks is a character from one of his books) but for the sake of a metaphor, let’s: Eco was Brown but with a treatment much less preoccupied with conclusions, with an obsession with historical details less about technical scruples, with a treatment of history more cognisant of human agency, and able to bestow his narratives with a littérateur’s dignity.

Eco was born in Alessandria, Italy, in 1932. His last name is an acronym of ex caelis oblatus (‘offered by the heavens’) received by his grandfather when he was found as an abandoned child. Eco graduated with a degree in philosophy in 1954, and embarked on a rewarding career as an editor and lecturer. Among his academic achievements are coining the term ‘semiological guerilla’ in an influential essay in 1967; establishing the prominent European semiotics journal Versus in 1971; and kicking off an anthropology conference in 1988 where non-Western scholars discussed the anthropology of the West. To his credit, he remained contemporary for most of his life, keeping himself academically active and writing books till the very end (Numero Zero was published in 2015).

And the pursuit of contemporaneity had him turning his attention to, as well as commenting on, fields impacted by the “various cognitive sciences”: mass communications, censorship, social justice, science fiction – even astronomy. He foresaw the angst of Theodore Twombly in Her (2013) in his essay Form as Social Commitment (The Open Work, 1989). He poked holes in Robert Heinlein’s ideas on telepathic communications in Inventing the Enemy (2012) – going on to ask in the same essay if cold fusion was someday validated, we’d take Thomas Aquinas’s opinion that the Sun’s innards were cold seriously. In his Kant and the Platypus (1997), he uses the examples of functional mirrors and specular prostheses to understand what signs are.

Umberto Eco. Credit: Tilly Sfortunato/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Umberto Eco. Credit: Tilly Sfortunato/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

At a lecture delivered at the Italian Semiotics Association in 2009, he used the doublespeak implicit in the words veline and casinó to discuss forms of censorship used by fascists, and how their regimes are marked by the ability of speculative insinuations to cause more damage than well-substantiated takedowns. In December 2010, he penned an article in Libération documenting the impact of WikiLeaks on journalism and on how whistleblowers have changed how journalists remove “all power from the Power”.

Of course, he hasn’t escaped criticism – especially for assuming every now and then that his intellectual indulgence has risen above its abstract roots even when it’s barely peeked above the surface. At the same time, working as he did with things as indistinct as meanings and memories – and often those of others’ – it isn’t surprising that a call to pardon from one of Eco’s essays makes for his excuse as well (Inventing the Enemy, p. 161): “Spare a thought … for those who fought at the frontiers of infinity and the future. Remember the greatness of those imaginary geographies and astronomies, and those errors that often bore fruit.”