Since people speak, to explain why and how they speak cannot help but determine their future way of speaking. At any rate, I can hardly deny that it determines my own way of speaking.1 One of the pleasures of reading Umberto Eco is the gradual realisation that he works hard at capturing his readers’ attention and engagement. He uses different methods to shift his tone and style, for example, and during his career worked in a variety of different genres, such as literary theory, semiotic philosophy, newspaper columns, television appearances,2 and novels to make his arguments. Often, Eco’s intentional pleasure is based on elaborate games, puzzles, and a plain, if pertinent, telling of jokes: While I say many things … there are many more that I don’t say, simply because my ideas are not clear in that regard. In fact, I should like to take as my motto a quotation from Boscoe Pertwee, an eighteenth-century author … ‘I used to be indecisive but now I’m not so sure’.3 Eco shows his own enjoyment in thinking, writing and talking, giving his audiences different stimuli (intellectual, conversational, humorous, modest) to respond to. Certainly, these tactics, combined with genuine talent and erudition, helped him transcend any single context, and they go a long way to explain his later fame as a popular, if also demanding, novelist. In Umberto Eco, the Da Vinci Code, and the Intellectual in the Age of Popular Culture, Douglass Merrell sets out to capture the essence of Eco’s cross-cultural, elite yet popular appeal. His book marks the first sustained effort to trace Eco’s intellectual biography (as opposed to the coverage in newspaper obituaries) since his death in 2016, aged 84. Merrell compares Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003) to Eco’s debut novel The Name of the Rose (1980): while noting that both books were bestsellers, Merrell contrasts Brown’s seduction of credulous readers, fascinated by conspiracy theories, with Eco’s fusion of detective plotting and medieval intrigue, on the one hand, and intricate philosophical challenges on the other. Brown’s readers, Merrell argues, consume his fiction, eager to be thrilled, while Eco’s readers initially enjoy the shock of murder and mystery, but are then led deeper into questions without clear answers, right up to and beyond the ending (the novel’s title, for example, is never explained). Eco was not content with mass popularity alone (though he never exactly complained about it); his readers also had to think: Eco … developed a distinctive practice as a public intellectual by imposing rigorous demands on a popular readership. He leads them through an unresolved maze of dense historical references and arcane conceptions to arouse an awareness of the fallacy of seeking a tidy narrative closure … These efforts are intended to entertain a popular readership in the broadest sense such that their initial hopes for enjoyment … are overturned but their full engagement … will bring about a transformative awareness. (p. 274) Eco championed the attainment of critical consciousness, writing not only to entertain and educate, but to change minds. This effort is evident throughout his fiction, from his debut novel through to Foucault’s Pendulum (1988), The Island of the Day Before (1994), The Prague Cemetery (2010), and others. In Foucault’s Pendulum, for example, the plot is filled with suspense, as the protagonists, fresh from reading occult conspiracy theories, playfully invent their own, before intermittently falling under the plot's spell and coming to the attention of sinister, shadowy forces. The plotting is careful and well designed, with an eye to attracting a mass audience, while the overlaying of discussions between the characters and the textual references to obscure conspiracy theories pushes readers to a recognition of their own need to judge the ideological reasons behind calculated falsehood (such as the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion). Merrell also quotes another example of Eco’s deliberate provocation of his popular readers; as the author said in an interview about The Prague Cemetery: ‘my intention was to punch the reader in the stomach by making the main character as unlikeable and offensive as possible’ (p. 273).4 Nonetheless, despite the prominence of Dan Brown in the book’s title and first pages, much of the work actually revolves around a careful tracing of Eco’s education, journalism, scholarship, and fiction, most of which preceded The Da Vinci Code. We learn about Eco’s Salesian childhood education in the Italian countryside, where his family moved during the Second World War; his study of medieval philosophy and literature at the University of Turin, culminating in a thesis on Thomas Aquinas; his first job as cultural editor for RAI broadcasting; and his return to the academy, extensive writing, and later fame as a novelist. This underlying, traditional narrative (from birth to death, though Merrell avoids talking about the details of either) gives the work a clear structure, interrupted when the author analyses his subject’s philosophical, political, and cultural stances. The book’s style and focus remain professional throughout. This is no Éducation sentimentale, and so Eco’s personal relationships (for example with his wife, children, friends, and acquaintances) stay out of bounds. Of course, this is the genre Merrell writes in, and yet it cannot be denied that many Eco fans will be left wanting more. Contrast this, for example, to Alexander Herzen’s (1812–70) sprawling autobiographical My Past and Thoughts (1861–7), a prime example of a personal and intellectual biography. It becomes clear that a solitary focus on the mind – rather than the inclusion of relationships with fellow writers, family, and friends, attitudes towards the state, moral insights, and thoughts about what is best, worst, and unavoidable about modern life – is an authorial choice, rather than the only possible way to write about a famous intellectual. Even if one allows that Herzen could write more deeply and broadly about himself than Merrell could have written about another, the point stands. That noted, Merrell is at his most acute and engaging when he describes Eco’s fluctuating loyalties, from erudite avant-gardist, opposed to unreflective consumerism, to lively critic and storyteller, keen to get ‘the masses’ on his side. From his earliest days, particularly starting with his Salesian education, Eco was attuned to a sense of community, social responsibility, and the tensions between elite and popular perspectives. The Salesian Order was founded in 1845 by Giovanni Bosco (1815–88) in order to provide young children displaced from poor rural backgrounds with a material and spiritual home. As Merrell writes: The Salesian Order … adapted the elitist institution of the Catholic Church to the needs of the uneducated and socially disadvantaged, for example, through St. Francis de Sales’ treatise on devotion that was unusual for its time in attempting to communicate religious doctrine to a lay audience with rudimentary education. (p. 55) Later, after university, Eco attempted during his RAI years to shape mass television programming towards the culturally educational, a common effort for many 1950s broadcasters, before becoming disillusioned when most of the audience showed greater enthusiasm for consumerist programmes like Lascia o Raddoppia (‘Double or Nothing’), a quiz show similar to the American 64,000 Dollar Question. He then turned to a study of James Joyce’s modernist, highly unconventional aesthetics in Le poetiche di Joyce (1962) after resigning from RAI, but did not stay removed from wider Italian society for long, writing regularly for newspapers and magazines, and starting his career as a novelist in 1980, aged 48. Merrell is also good at explaining Eco’s turn to semiotics after reading de Saussure and Peirce. He explains how Eco became convinced that semiotics could function as an all-encompassing ‘grand theory’ to explain how people communicate, using language but also all the other cultural ways to express meaning. Whereas critiques of consumerist culture tend to be reactive and ephemeral, owing to the speed with which popular culture develops, a theory of semiotics could function as a continuous tool for academics and the wider intelligentsia who engage with them, from journalists to essayists and cultural critics, to understand how dominant significations are first established and then spread through society. Merrell is keenly aware of Eco’s essential motivation in writing the magisterial A Theory of Semiotics (1975). This work, and the later ones that followed, notably Kant and the Platypus (1997), are intellectually robust and enormously ambitious in their quest for what Merrell calls ‘a Grand Unified Theory of Culture’ (p. 269), but their ultimate purpose is to equip readers with the means to truly understand, and thereby to change, culture and history. As Eco stated: Theoretical research is a form of social practice. Everybody who wants to know something wants to know in order to do something. If he claims that he wants to know it only in order ‘to know’ and not in order ‘to do’ it means that he wants to know it in order to do nothing, which is in fact a surreptitious way of doing something, i.e. leaving the world as it is (or as his approach assumes that it ought to be).5 Although you might disagree with the Marxist overtones (‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it’6) on political grounds, the social function Eco champions shines through. Moreover, Eco’s exploration of semiotics gave him a clear conception of his own social role and function. Despite these various strengths, however, Merrell is weak in two regards. First, he devotes an entire chapter to a rather quixotic, if serious, effort to describe human beings as ‘The Intellectual Species’. He does so, he explains, to place Eco’s self-conscious status as a prodigiously gifted public figure in the wider context of thinking humankind, but it is bewildering to jump so quickly from the dawn of civilisation to post-industrial society in a single chapter, filled with somewhat underwhelming insights: Other species, such as ants and beavers … are able to modify their natural behaviour, but only in a very limited way in relation to the environment and through instinctual behaviours that don’t change over extended periods of time. In contrast, humans … have the ability to constantly modify the environment on an increasingly massive scale in ways that change dramatically over time. (p. 29) The point is not that this is incorrect per se, but that Merrell’s 24-page description of all of human history and culture to illustrate that ‘we’ think more, and to greater external effect, than other species could fill entire libraries of scholarly dispute. It feels unnecessary to do justice to Eco’s intellectual biography: we do not need to know about the history of humankind as the ‘thinking animal’ to discuss one individual; imagine the laboriousness of every book like this if it were otherwise. Second, Merrell does not really show us Eco’s witty, self-deprecating, and playful sides. Eco is in some ways similar to Roland Barthes, who theorised pleasure: The text you write must prove to me that it desires me. This proof exists: it is writing. Writing is: the science of the various blisses of language, its Kama Sutra (this science has but one treatise: writing itself).7 In Barthes’s historico-cultural milieu, to write academically while referencing the Kama Sutra, and to use erotically allusive language, was deliberately confrontational. In effect, he implied the stuffiness of traditional French literary study. Eco, who admired Barthes, also employs a self-referential joy in writing to expand his likely audiences, and to draw them into the arguments he held dear.8 Merrell’s work is patently the result of many hours of sincere, open, and thorough engagement with Eco ‘the thinker’. This is laudable, and the author is nimble and shrewd in his explanations of Eco’s works and his desire to foster a critical consciousness in his readers. Yet he fails to respond to Eco’s frequent lightheartedness, grasping the intellectual effects it is meant to achieve, but passing over the spirited moments themselves in silence. Nonetheless, these qualifications aside, the ultimate conclusion is that this work is essential for anyone with more than a passing interest in Eco. Though it eschews the sort of self-referential joy its subject excelled at, the biography engenders its own pleasures, not least by reminding us of Eco’s superlative achievement as a writer and thinker who could not rest content to speak only to an elite audience. The larger point the work communicates well is that Eco achieved both popular and elite acclaim, not by accident, but through hard-working dedication to attracting new readers, listeners, and cultural critics. To understand Merrell speaking about Eco, to adapt Eco’s formulation, is to be able to change our own way of speaking; it must be hoped that another writer will take up the challenge to complement this wonderful if partial account, to give us Eco all in all. Footnotes 1 Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington, Ind. 1976) p. 29. 2 Umberto Eco parla di James Bond e ‘Ombre rosse’, <https://youtu.be/V58QCGBC724 > (accessed 29 Oct. 2017). 3 Umberto Eco, Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition (1997), trans. Alastair McEwen (London 1999) p. 2. Eco writes that Boscoe Pertwee was unknown to him before he happened to read about him by chance. He does not clarify whether or not he realised that Pertwee appears to be an invented name (as explained here: <https://www.newscientist.com/letter/mg18625031–300-bosco-pertwee-phd/>), and that the quotation he uses does not have an incontrovertible, identifiable authorship. However, it can be argued that Boscoe Pertwee is in fact part of Eco’s joke – and the philosophical point about not knowing – in the first place. 4 Quotation translated from the original Italian by Merrell, from ‘Complotti: conversazione tra Umberto Eco e il rabbino Di Segni’, L’Espresso magazine, 29 Oct. 2010. 5 Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics, p. 29. 6 Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, in Friedrich Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of the Classical German Philosophy, trans. W. Lough (Moscow 1969) p. 15. 7 Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (New York 1975) p. 6. 8 ‘In 1959, for Il Verri … I began writing a monthly column entitled Diario minimo … The first texts … from the point of view of literary genre resembled the Mythologies of Roland Barthes … at the time I began writing for Diario minimo I was not yet acquainted with it … it was after reading Barthes that, out of humility, I abandoned the Mythologies style and moved on, gradually, to pastiche.’ Umberto Eco Misreadings, trans. William Weaver (New York 1993) pp. 1–2. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Cambridge Quarterly. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The Cambridge Quarterly – Oxford University Press
Published: Jun 1, 2018
It’s your single place to instantly
discover and read the research
that matters to you.
Enjoy affordable access to
over 18 million articles from more than
15,000 peer-reviewed journals.
All for just $49/month
Query the DeepDyve database, plus search all of PubMed and Google Scholar seamlessly
Save any article or search result from DeepDyve, PubMed, and Google Scholar... all in one place.
Get unlimited, online access to over 18 million full-text articles from more than 15,000 scientific journals.
Read from thousands of the leading scholarly journals from SpringerNature, Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford University Press and more.
All the latest content is available, no embargo periods.
“Hi guys, I cannot tell you how much I love this resource. Incredible. I really believe you've hit the nail on the head with this site in regards to solving the research-purchase issue.”Daniel C.
“Whoa! It’s like Spotify but for academic articles.”@Phil_Robichaud
“I must say, @deepdyve is a fabulous solution to the independent researcher's problem of #access to #information.”@deepthiw
“My last article couldn't be possible without the platform @deepdyve that makes journal papers cheaper.”@JoseServera