The Engaging Mind of Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco is best known for The Name of the Rose, his 1980 murder mystery set in a medieval monastery. For the most part Eco’s hefty novel clips along agreeably, even though it’s replete with Latin quotes, literary allusions, and rather complex philosophical themes. Knotty, atmospheric, and a bit bizarre, The Name of the Rose is one of the bestselling novels of all time.

Eco’s status as a professor of philosophy gave The Name of the Rose an added credibility, and made it particularly fashionable in academic circles. His A Theory of Semiotics (1976) had already connected Eco closely with the rise of Critical Theory in literature departments throughout Europe and the United States. He continued to hold various academic posts, primarily at the University of Bologna, and died in 2016 at the age of 82.

Eco was at his best addressing scholarly subjects in an engaging, accessible way. In his 1989 collection of essays, Travels in Hyperreality, he noted that “the fact that what I do is called ‘semiotics’ should not frighten anyone.” That book, which included pieces on Disneyland, the World Cup, and Thomas Aquinas, was without jargon and pretense, and sometimes showed Eco joking at his own expense. Writing about blue jeans, for example, he admitted that, as he grew rotund, he had to stop wearing these comfortable pants. “True,” he said, “if you search thoroughly you can find an extra large (Macy’s could fit even Oliver Hardy with blue jeans), but they are large not only around the waist, but also around the legs, and they are not a pretty sight.”

The essays in Eco’s posthumously published Chronicles of a Liquid Society are similarly varied and conversational, though perhaps less buoyant than his previous nonfiction collections. The volume contains over 100 columns Eco wrote for L’Espresso, the Italian news magazine, between 2000 and 2015. Some respond to headlines of the day, and allude to particularly Italian events and public figures including Eco’s bête noire, Silvio Berlusconi. Most, however, deal with cultural subjects of long interest to Eco, arranged in assorted sections like “Being Seen,” “On Mass Media,” “On Conspiracies,” “Religion and Philosophy,” and “From Stupidity to Folly.”

Encapsulating the Postmodern Flux

Most of these pieces leave the language of semiotics behind. Only loosely does the author link his commentary to the notion of “liquid modernity”—a phrase coined by the late Polish social theorist, Zygmunt Bauman. The term, which has a certain currency among European intellectuals, aims to convey the sense of fluidity and flux that has characterized life in the late 20th and early 21st  centuries, a period often described with the umbrella term “postmodern.”

Postmodernism, Eco notes, “signaled the crisis of ‘grand narratives,’ each of which had claimed that one model of order could be superimposed on the world; it devoted itself to a playful or ironic reconsideration of the past, and was woven in various ways with nihilistic tendencies.” But it “represented a sort of ferry from modernity to a present that still has no name.”

Bauman, though, thought the word “liquidity” captured the nature of our current state, one of lost moorings and lost meanings, where the only constant is change. In the liquid society people often find themselves afloat, aware of the collapse of once-powerful institutions and ideologies, and without the consolation of the beliefs or traditions that provided ballast for centuries. What is notable, Eco observes, is an “unbridled individualism” prompting people in the liquid society to “move from one act of consumption to another in a sort of purposeless bulimia: the new cell phone is no better than the old one, but the old has to be discarded in order to indulge in this orgy of desire.”

In a 2005 essay, he contemplates the cell phone in all of its culture-changing glory, hailing its convenience but regretting the way it has muscled its way into nearly all aspects of human life, forcing “a loss of solitude, of silent personal reflection,” and condemning its users to “a constant presence of the present. Change doesn’t always equate with liberation.” In a 2013 piece, he looks doubtfully at Twitter, equating it with “a village or suburban bar” where the locals talk over each other with boasts and complaints that, in more placid surroundings, would never be voiced.

“The opinions expressed on Twitter have no relevance,” Eco writes, “since everyone is talking—those who believe in the appearances of Our Lady of Medjugorje, those who go to fortunetellers, those who claim that September 11 was planned by the Jews, and those who believe in Dan Brown.” (He frequently mocks Brown, the author of fanciful, alternative-history fictions like 2003’s The Da Vinci Code, which suggested that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and began a dynasty of French kings.)

In the liquid society many millions bid for attention, apparently driven by the sheer pleasure and excitement of being noticed. In the past, says Eco, people assumed recognition or praise was somehow earned, attached to the display of some skill or virtue widely prized. Now, however, it generally doesn’t take much to merit a legion of “followers,” a profusion of “likes.” It often just means laying claim to a parcel of media space. In a 2002 piece Eco already spotted this trend, pointing to the endless procession of untalented people rushing to appear on television reality shows to air their scandals and sins; or who, when a camera appears in public, jostle to position themselves before its lens, eager to “wave ciao ciao” to those watching at home.

This exhibitionism, Eco suggests, stems from anomie and fear of anonymity. In a 2010 piece he cites his friend, the Spanish writer Javier Marías, who posited that such desperate public displays must owe, at least partly, to a widespread loss of religious faith. “At one time,” Eco writes, people “were persuaded they did have at least one Spectator,” the “all-seeing eye, whose gaze” brought meaning to all human lives, however lowly or great. The disappointed mother, thus, could tell her ungrateful child: “God know what I’ve done for you.” The abandoned lover could proclaim: “God knows how much I love you.”

When this “all-seeing Witness” is gone, being seen on a video screen is for many “the only substitute for transcendence,” one’s best shot at pseudo-immortality. With the ear of God no longer there, one “seeks the eye of society, the eye of the Other, before whom you must reveal yourself so as not to disappear into the black hole of anonymity, into the vortex of oblivion, even at the cost of choosing the role of village idiot who strips down to his underpants and dances on the pub table.”

“Eternal Conspiracy Syndrome”

In the liquid society, new if dubious sources of authority bid for our attention, offering their own sensationalized versions of historical truth. Eco has always been fascinated by the “eternal conspiracy syndrome,” the persistent popularity of shocking tales that purport to reveal the secret powers—be they Masons, Rothschilds, or members of the Bavarian Illuminati—who are said to control world events. He comments on a 2008 documentary called Zero: An Investigation into 9/11, which quickly became a cult favorite on the Internet. Featuring a string of alleged experts and conspiracy-mongers like Gore Vidal, the Italian-made Zero claimed that official accounts of the attacks of September 11, 2001 were almost certainly contrived to cover up a vast American plot concocted by the President, the Secretary of Defense, and other agents of the club of bankers and militarists who are hidden somewhere managing important happenings around the globe.

Eco approaches such narratives with his customary common sense. “I am by nature, out of skepticism, always inclined to doubt any conspiracy,” he writes, “since I believe my fellow human beings are incapable of dreaming up a perfect one.” Moreover, “only naïve Freemasons and followers of bogus Templar rituals believe in a secret that remains unbroken.”

Far more frequently, people spill the beans—particularly when financially incentivized to do so. Eco recalls the British army officer who, in the 1990s, received a publisher’s compensation as well as media fame for detailing his extramarital affair with Diana, Princess of Wales. Organizing a false attack on the Twin Towers would have demanded “the collaboration of hundreds, if not thousands, of people,” Eco writes. “Generally speaking, the people used for such undertakings are never gentlemen, and it’s inconceivable that at least one of them, for a sufficient sum, wouldn’t have spoken.”

Eco also notices the odd persistence of the old belief that much global turmoil can be laid at the feet of a group often cited by conspiracy theorists as cold-blooded and treacherous: the Jesuits. In a 2008 column he describes one French website, “Homeric” in its conspiratorial fantasies, that blames the Jesuits and their shadowy collaborators, the Knights of Malta, for sinking the Titanic, assassinating John F. Kennedy, and plotting just about every other cataclysmic event of the last century. The Jesuits also created the CIA, of course, and pulled the strings during Richard Nixon’s presidency. The wide appeal of crackpot history prompts concern about our culture’s continuing inability to know the difference between the imaginary and the real. (But at least, he cracks, “you no longer need to ask why people read Dan Brown.”)

In a 2009 column on living in the computer age, he declares himself “no traditionalist,” noting that he happily supplements his huge print library with easy-to-use digital editions of the Divine Comedy and the Summa Theologica, among other tomes, on a capacious hard disk. Still, he acknowledges the limitations of digital media, including the inevitable arrival of obsolescence in which, for example, floppy disks are followed by digital diskettes, and then rewritable disks, and then USB memory sticks—with each change tied to costly upgrades in computer hardware. Today’s communications media, Eco writes, “seem to be aimed more at the broadcasting of information than its conservation.” So, “I’m happy those books are still there on my shelves, useful backups for the time when electronic instruments eventually pack up.”

Eco’s Leftwing Traditionalism

Actually Eco was a traditionalist, of a sort—a left-leaning, sometimes cranky agnostic who nonetheless understood Western culture and loved its marvelous and often religiously inspired accomplishments, its literature and art. As an Italian he registers with displeasure a growing disrespect for Christian symbols like the Crucifix, which is now commonly used as a piece of jewelry, seen “nestling in the chest hairs of Italian Lotharios” or dangling from the necks of young women “who go about with their bare navels and skirts around their groins.” He points to the religious illiteracy of many schoolchildren in his country who, faced with a painting by Fra Angelico or some other Renaissance master, can’t begin to understand why a young woman is depicted “in conversation with a winged youth,” or why an “unkempt old man” is pictured “leaping down a mountain carrying two heavy tablets of stone and emitting rays of light from two horns.”

“It’s virtually impossible,” Eco writes, “for people to understand, let us say, three quarters of Western art unless they are familiar with the Old and New Testaments and the lives of the saints.” He mentions Benedetto Croce’s well-known remark that “we cannot not call ourselves Christians”—referencing all Europeans, practicing or not, whose civilization retains such deep Judeo-Christian roots. At the very least, for children, a more rigorous schooling in the history of religion would seem to be in order, particularly since the media environment that envelopes them “is now transmitting less and less useful information, and more and more that is entirely useless.”

Early in this collection Eco admits that he might occasionally appear “apocalyptic.” In fairness, though, Chronicles of a Liquid Society isn’t entirely bleak. It includes appreciative pieces on the Harry Potter novels and the mystery novels of Rex Stout. Eco writes warmly about book-collecting, a lifetime pursuit. He seeks rare volumes, but he also keeps many cheap volumes that hold personal value for him, the ones with “underlinings and notes in various colors.” An old book, much marked, “reminds me of my years as a student and beyond, and therefore forms part of my memory.”

Still, it’s not hard to detect the melancholia in this final Eco collection—a kind of nostalgia for the past mixed with worry about what’s ahead for a world “with no points of reference, where everything dissolves into a sort of liquidity.” Chronicles of Liquid Society is by no means Eco’s best book, nor is it perhaps the best introduction to his work. Still, it’s insightful, companionable, and a pleasure to dip into particularly at a time when, as Eco himself puts it, too many people “are inclined to talk without pausing to think.”