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Of Lying And Language — Last Thoughts On Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco in 2005
Umberto Eco in 2005
Andrej Mrevlje

NEW YORK — Umberto Eco died last month in his Milan apartment, among his 30,000 books. He wrote many of them himself, and these books were translated into more than 30 different languages. He had them all. Even when translated into foreign languages, Eco owned them, because he worked hard with every single translator.

He could be quite niggling and professorial when it came to translations of his own writing. But there was a reason for it, as he disclosed in his interview for the Paris Review in 2008. Asked why he paid so much attention to a translation of his works, Eco answered, "Text is more intelligent than its author. Sometimes the text can suggest ideas that the author does not have in mind. The translator, in putting the text in another language, discovers those new ideas and reveals them to you." Those ideas then turned into new books that were then translated into more languages.

Umberto Eco was "un fiume di parole" — a torrent of words.

In 1995, I was fortunate enough to spend of couple days in his company. It was May in Siena, and it was the first time that the Académie universelledes cultures (which today exists only as an archive) did not meet at the Louvre in Paris. It was Eco's idea to drag Former French Culture Minister Jack Lang, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, and world-famous poets, historians and anthropologists into the backdrop of this small but beautiful town from the Middle Ages, that had been run by both ancient contrada neighborhoods and the Communist Party.

The two-day-long gathering was dedicated to the elaboration of an educational program that would enable the world population to increase ethnic tolerance and eventually abolish racism across the globe. The founders of the project, Jacques Le Goff, Furio Colombo and Umberto Eco, were convinced that the appropriate education should start with kids under 15 years old.

The project was somewhat bizarre and a bit insane, but it was one of those great humanist ideas that we no longer find space for in this world. When I spoke with him, Eco had no problem admitting that there were difficulties with the project. Not with money, but with ideas. How, for example, should they explain the notion of racism to the Chinese, who have been convinced for 5,000 years that their country is the center of the world and that, therefore, their race is superior to the others, Eco reasoned. I have no idea if the Académie ever finished the project, which was meant to result in a manual that would enable discussion of racism in schools across all continents.

It was a privilege, even fun, to watch this savant of world culture at work or engaged in conversation — or even just absorbed in a book, occasionally picking his nose.

A few days after Eco's death, the Conversation noticed the general ignorance about who Eco really was, and ran a piece claiming that he was more than a fiction writer — that he was semiologist. There is no doubt that Eco was very devoted to semiotics before he became a fiction writer. But as much importance as he ascribed to his scientific work, — he considered Foucault's Pendulum his best book.

I will always think particularly fondly of his interview for the Paris Review, in which Eco proved his great capacity to move back and forth between science and literature, even diving into alchemy and cartoons. In his advanced age, Eco also restarted playing trumpet, because he wanted to evoke his youth. Everything that he did was meant to improve and inspire his writing. And yet, when he talked about his endeavours, he showed a great, self-deprecating sense of humor. He said, for example, that he "developed a passion for the Middle Ages, the same way some people develop a passion for coconuts." He went on to explain that:

My whole life, I have had innumerable experiences of full immersion in the Middle Ages. For instance, in preparing my thesis, I went twice for month long trips to Paris, conducting research at the Bibliothèque Nationale. And I decided in those two months to live only in the Middle Ages. If you reduce the map of Paris, selecting only certain streets, you can really live in the Middle Ages. Then you start to think and feel like a man of the Middle Ages. I remember, for instance, that my wife, who has a green thumb and knows the names of just about all the herbs and flowers in the world, always reproached me prior to The Name of the Rose for not looking properly at nature. Once, in the countryside, we made a bonfire and she said, Look at the embers flying up among the trees. Of course I didn't pay attention. Later on, when she read the last chapter of The Name of the Rose, in which I describe a similar fire, she said, So you did look at the embers! And I said, No, but I know how a medieval monk would look at embers.

When the interviewer asked Eco why he once called semiotics "the theory of lying," he told her, "Instead of ‘lying,' I should have said, ‘telling the contrary of the truth.' Human beings can tell fairy tales, imagine new worlds, make mistakes—and we can lie. Language accounts for all those possibilities.

"Lying is a specifically human ability. A dog, following a track, is following a scent. Neither the dog nor the scent ‘lies,' so to speak. But I can lie to you and tell you to go in that direction, which is not the direction you have asked about, and yet you believe me and you go in the wrong direction. The reason this is possible is that we depend on signs."

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Semiotics studies signs, in (almost) every sense of the word — Photo: Freddie Phillips

Eco talks about many other beautiful and very interesting things in the interview. His narrative is void of intellectual posturing — rather, it's full of human humor, joy and curiosity. But the last part of the interview is especially interesting. Eco told the interviewer about his secret project that proved to be impossible:

Until the age of fifty and throughout all my youth, I dreamed of writing a book on the theory of comedy. Why? Because every book on the subject has been unsuccessful, at least all the ones I've been able to read. Every theoretician of comedy, from Freud to Bergson, explains some aspect of the phenomenon, but not all. This phenomenon is so complex that no theory is, or has been thus far, able to explain it completely. So I thought to myself that I would want to write the real theory of comedy. But then the task proved desperately difficult. If I knew exactly why it was so difficult, I would have the answer and I would be able to write the book. Compared to beauty and ugliness, comedy is terrifying. I'm not talking about laughter, mind you. No, there is an uncanny sentimentality of the comic, which is so complex that—I cannot quite explain it. And this, alas, is why I didn't write the book.

"Is comedy a specifically human invention, as you said lying is?" the interviewer asked.

"Yes, since it seems that animals are bereft of humor. We know that they have a sense of play, they feel sorry, they weep, they suffer. We have proof that they are happy, when they are playing with us, but not that they have comic feelings. It is a typical human experience, which consists of—no, I can't exactly say. …

"I have a suspicion that it is linked with the fact that we are the only animals who know we must die," he said.

Eco died on February 19, and only a week after his death, his first posthumous book was published. The book, which sold 75,000 copies on its first day, is called Pape Satàn Aleppe, the words of Plutus, the guardian of the fourth circle of hell in Dante's Divina Commedia — words that are still unintelligible to scholars. However, Pepe Satàn contains a collection of columns Eco wrote for L'Espresso, a weekly Italian publication. The column was called "Bustina di Minerva," but has nothing to do with the Roman goddess of wisdom. Minerva is an old brand of Italian matches with a fold inside on which one can scribble a little note. Eco loved to equivocate and play mind games.

Some of the "Bustina" columns have been translated into English and published in a book called How to Travel with a Salmon. The book title is actually the name of one of Eco's articles about how a great savant (Umberto Eco himself) got into trouble because of his profane, Earthly desire for a smoked salmon. I still remember my loud laughter when I first read the story on the very last page of L'Espresso. I was taking my first steps in journalism then, and God only knows how much I wished that I could write like Eco.

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