“We live for books.” Those of us who do will have woken up to sombre news this morning. The death of the remarkable semiotician, intellectual and novelist Umberto Eco. The greatest Italian writer of this generation.
He was one of those novelists who was a whirlpool of intellectual force. A public intellectual, a relentless critic of Berlusconi, a tireless promoter of language, symbolism, and an unmatched historian. Not to be pessimistic, but there aren’t many polymath authors like him left, or even coming through the ranks. In the field of public intellectuals we have still Martin Amis, and Salman Rushdie – the kind of writers who are frequently asked for their opinion on non-literary matters. Although Eco had remarked that he would have hated to have been born in the Middle Ages he so loved, one cannot help but compare him to the diverse scholars of his time (ironically not Italian, but more Arabic, the likes of Avicenna and Averroes). A timeless mind from another time.
Perhaps the greatest tribute I could bestow upon Umberto Eco is that he was the natural heir to Jorge Luis Borges. Indeed, Eco was openly indebted to him, going so far as naming one of his most sinister characters in The Name of the Rose Jorge of Burgos (similarly an elderly, blind librarian). Eco devoted his life to literature, most of it esoteric, and was a walking library – his novels are the richest, most Baroque works of literature in the postmodern era. Taking a lesser-known example, my favourite novel of his, The Island of The Day Before; to read this story of a shipwrecked man, set in the 17th century, you will immerse yourself in Baroque science, metaphysics, geography, cosmology. And you learn, you really do learn so much.
And it’s not the kind of thing you would have learned in Harper Lee. Another great loss for literature of whom, I admit, I was never a great admirer. In Harper Lee, in contrast to Eco a reclusive writer, you would have learned about the issues of civil rights, race and innocence. Nothing you wouldn’t have learned from a myriad of other contemporary authors. And I am making the comparison deliberately. Umberto Eco is a rare writer in the modern canon. He doesn’t deal with sensitivity. Doesn’t deal with contemporary issues – he deals with the timeless ones. He is a giant of humanism. He drowns you in knowledge, thought, ideas, and conspiracies that make you question the very meaning of life. Even as he leaves us, we can verily declare: we need more Umberto Eco’s.
“I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.” This quote, from that conspiratorial masterpiece (a forerunner to Derren Brown, perhaps) Foucault’s Pendulum provincially summarizes what Eco imbues us with: “little scraps of wisdom” that truly form us, and, if you’re brave enough to read his sometimes difficult, esoteric works, they will form you in ways no other novels can. Milan Kundera said that novels should only deal with that which only novels can deal with. An Umberto Eco novel is endemic: it deals with things only an Umberto Eco novel can deal with.
I’m going to finish with a compilation of Eco quotes, let him sign off his life with his own words. It is often said that a writer’s best possible career move is dying. When a great writer dies it is like no other death. His words at once fossilize and melt like a frozen waterfall in the summer. There will not be a single word uttered by Umberto Eco anymore. Yet all his past words and writing will now take on a new life. So let these words be Eco’s second coming.
“When men stop believing in God, it isn’t that they then believe in nothing: they believe in everything.”
“People are never so completely and enthusiastically evil as when they act out of religious conviction.”
The Prague Cemetery
I think an author should write what the reader does not expect. The problem is not to ask what they need, but to change them … to produce the kind of reader you want for each story.”
“It is necessary to meditate early, and often, on the art of dying to succeed later in doing it properly just once.”
The Island of the Day Before
“I lacked the courage to investigate the weaknesses of the wicked, because I discovered they are the same as the weaknesses of the saintly.”
“Someone said that patriotism is the last refuge of cowards; those without moral principles usually wrap a flag around themselves, and those bastards always talk about the purity of race.”
The Prague Cemetery
“the first quality of an honest man is contempt for religion, which would have us afraid of the most natural thing in the world, which is death; and would have us hate the one beautiful thing destiny has given us, which is life.”
The Island of the Day Before
“How beautiful was the spectacle of nature not yet touched by the often perverse wisdom of man!”
The Name of the Rose