To Umberto Eco, in memoriam.
Others will write about Eco’s fiction, and how much it meant to them. For me, the man’s erudition, humor and soulfulness shined most clearly in his criticism. Often sweeping in scope, his scholarly works read like meditations rather than arguments, quietly basking in the pleasures of reflection and synthesis, joyfully following threads of thought to see where they will go, and offering up to the reader whatever insights result. The sensibility that animates them is one of rare warmth and generosity; a genuine desire to share the marvels he has uncovered. But Eco’s gifts to readers were not limited to the fascinating pieces of information recovered from archives of the Middle Ages, or to the connections he could draw between such arcana and larger philosophical questions: they were also, more subtly, in his very way of presenting those ideas, in his particular style and approach.
As a sophomore in college, I stayed up until the small hours of the morning reading The Search for the Perfect Language. Like a character in one of Eco’s novels, I had stumbled across the book in completely haphazard fashion, as I was perusing library shelves in search of something that might inspire a topic for my final term paper for Intro to Linguistics. Eco unveiled a series of models for what perfection in language could mean, a sequence recounted with all the excitement and narrative momentum of a good novel. Each chapter illuminated new ideas of how language works, and the role it plays in the world, from a desire to recreate lost, ancient tongues, or the original language of God, to efforts to perfectly express philosophical ideas, or unite humankind. This was one of the gifts that Eco offered to a young scholar: the revelation that an engagement with the abstract ideas of the past can be genuinely thrilling.
Another was the generously wide range of his interests, a willingness to take anything seriously, even things seemingly meant for “mere” entertainment. In his essay on Charles Schulz and Charlie Brown, for example, he discusses the comics as if they were metaphysical parables containing the key to an understanding of the twentieth century’s anomie.
Pig Pen, too, has an inferiority to complain about: he is irreparably, horrifyingly dirty. He leaves home neat and spruce, and a second later, his shoelaces come untied, his trousers sag over his hips, his hair is flaked with dandruff, his skin and clothes are covered with a layer of mud…. Aware of this vocation to the abyss, Pig Pen turns his plight into a boast; he speaks of the dust of countless centuries, an irreversible process: the course of history. This is not a Beckett character speaking; these are, more or less, the words of Pig Pen; Schulz’s microcosm reaches the last outcrops of existential choice.
You will never see Pig Pen the same way, will you?
A slightly different example of Eco’s generosity can be found in the patient pedagogy of How to Write a Thesis, a remarkable book that sets out to explain the dissertation process, from the grander purpose (“Studying is not simply gathering information, but is the critical elaboration of an experience”) to the more mundane aspects. Here is Eco, explaining how to take notes on index cards, telling you that underlining passages in books personalizes them and makes them your own, or, even more astonishingly, that in a typewritten manuscript, you must underline what would be italicized in a book—and then giving a list of those things: titles of books, films, and musical scores; foreign words; scientific names. We often forget that these things, too, must be taught. The book is a fascinating document on the nature of scholarship in the humanities, both in its particular time and place (1970s Italy) and in our own, and it is a worthy object of study for those contemplating the state of the field. But it is also a remarkable example of a genuine commitment to pedagogy, particularly to its less glamorous side.
Contemplating Eco’s many offerings over these last few days, I returned again and again to a wonderful piece in On Literature entitled “Borges and My Anxiety of Influence.” In the essay Eco counters the notion of influence as being solely a transaction between two people, imagining it, instead, as a triangle that opens onto a third term of culture at large, “the universe of the encyclopedia”:
The relationship between A and B can take place in different ways: (1) B finds something in the work of A and does not realize that behind it lies X; (2) B finds something in the work of A and through it goes back to X; (3) B refers to X and only later discovers that X was already in the work of A.
The essay proceeds with Borges as A and Eco playing B, spinning out various aspects of both authors’ works featuring in the role of X, and providing examples of each of the three scenarios, as well as a contemplation of how one ascertains which of the three options is most suitable. Thus, for instance, a case where what seems like the influence of Borges should instead be considered that of whomever Borges was drawing from, or a moment, illuminating the temporal dimension of such considerations, where what Eco would once have considered a Proustian influence can be linked to Borges as well. “Sometimes the most profound influence is the one you discover afterward, not the one you find immediately.”
It is a worthwhile exploration of the nature of influence in all its plenitude (and is fittingly brimming with references to a vast array of other authors, friends and potential sources), and an appropriately labyrinthine homage to Borges, but it also offers a very direct account of what Eco sees as his own particular skill. Eco describes the characteristic feature of his writing as the direct opposite of defamiliarization: “I take a reader from Texas, who has never seen Europe, into a medieval abbey (or into a Templar commandery, or a museum full of complicated objects, or into a baroque room) and make him feel at ease.” Another gift.
The final lines of the essay, following Eco’s admission of a sense of inferiority in relation to Borges, contains this burst of touchingly humble bravado:
But I hope that still someone will be found after my death who is even less skillful than me, someone for whom I will be recognized as the precursor.
Image credit: Martin Grüner Larson