A few days ago, my new book was published. But that’s not the point here. The point is that, when I was compiling a list of the promotional copies to be sent by the publisher, I couldn’t include the name Umberto Eco. Nor will I ever be able to do so again. In that banal yet revealing moment, I realized something I had never previously given any thought to: that, for many years, dating back to my university days in fact, Eco was my intellectual frame of reference. He had helped shape the form of my career as a scholar and semiologist, as a critic of the media and as an analyst of its languages. In a sense, I always wrote for him, with the vague hope – which occasionally came to fruition – that he would read my work. Eco was my ‘ideal reader’: a figure he defined in one of his most important and complex books, Lector in fabula (The Role of the Reader, 1979).
I’m not recounting any of this out of narcissism or because I consider my personal experience to be extraordinary in some way. Rather, it is because, having spoken with numerous friends and colleagues, I have come to realize in these past few weeks, following Eco’s death, that large numbers of us have had the exact same feeling – the same perturbation at having lost not only an extremely important essayist and writer but, above all, our ideal reader. Someone to formulate thoughts for, someone who could help us to determine and measure the criteria by which we interpret the world. For entire generations of scholars, I am starting to recognize, Eco was not just someone whose writings should be read and reread, understood and appreciated, but also someone to write for, someone to be judged by – even if only virtually. In other words, not only for the hundreds who studied directly under him at the University of Bologna, Eco was a maestro in the original sense of the word, that is: a professor, a teacher.
What did it mean for Eco – and for those of us who were, whether directly or indirectly, his students – to be a teacher? Or, indeed, to be the teacher? It goes without saying that Eco had also given this some thought. There were, he said, two types of teacher. The first constructs rigid, rigorous models that students must devote themselves to learning and disseminating. Historically, in the field of philosophy, Georg Hegel falls into this category, while in linguistics and semiotics we could look to Noam Chomsky or Algirdas Greimas. The second type of teacher doesn’t devise methods: rather, they themselves provide the model for a way of thinking, for an approach to working, for an intellectual life. Such is the case with Søren Kierkegaard in philosophy or Roland Barthes in semiotics – neither of whom formulated models for application but, rather, indicated new paths to be explored. Under the first kind of teacher, students merely verify pre-existing hypotheses or else run the risk of being considered deviant. No such problem occurs with the second kind of teacher, however: students must perennially deviate; indeed, it would be impossible for them not to.
Which of these two categories did Eco fall into? Quite obviously, both. On the one hand, Eco always espoused clarity and rigour, proposing well-defined methodologies for analysing artworks and literary texts, and constructing categories of thought for interpreting the world of mass media. Predating today’s continuous evolution and innovation in cultural and social history, and drawing on the structuralism of Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson, Eco developed complex and stable formal systems of thought that were intended to serve, in Kantian fashion, as ‘conditions of possibility’ for every concrete manifestation of semiotics. Eco’s Trattato di semiotica generale (A Theory of Semiotics, 1975) was, and still is, the seminal text responding to this need to identify intransigent structures and to develop precise theoretical reference points. Other key texts in this sense are I limiti dell’interpretazione (The Limits of Interpretation, 1990), in which he critiques the deconstructionist approach of Jacques Derrida and his American followers; Kant e l’ornitorinco (Kant and the Platypus, 1997), which sees Eco re-evaluate the entire corpus of semiotic study in light of more rigorous research into cognitivism; and Dire quasi la stessa cosa (Saying Almost the Same Thing, 2003), a semiotic theory of translation, linguistics and literature. From this point of view, as Eco himself often recalled, he was essentially revisiting the teachings of medieval scholasticism, of which he was an avid student, in particular the writings of Thomas Aquinas, to whom he dedicated his university thesis.
On the other hand, however, following Enlightenment thinking, Eco always considered trial and error as intrinsic to philosophical and scientific research, seeing it as a process of continual investigation and an unending need to pose problems rather than to find solutions. A wise man, he would say, doesn’t give sensible answers, but asks pertinent questions. This was the motivating force behind the majority of Eco’s books, starting with Opera aperta (The Open Work, 1962), in which he reassessed 20th-century literary experimentation and avant-garde art (from James Joyce to Karlheinz Stockhausen, from Constantin Brâncuși to Bruno Munari, from Art Informel to Anton Webern) as aesthetic projects requiring an element of interpretation from the viewer. For him, this ‘opening up’ of the work is necessary for its survival. In Apocalittici e integrati (Apocalypse Postponed, 1964), Eco provides a reading of popular culture that, for the first time, is neither ideological nor enthusiastic but problematic. For Eco, mass media generate an anthropological universe that should be evaluated carefully, element by element, without prejudice but with curiosity, without snobbery but with a desire to understand. This was something that he himself would continue to do in his academic research as well as in his work as a columnist for newspapers including il manifesto, L’Espresso and la Repubblica, and which he carried through into important publications such as Dalla periferia dell’impero (From the Periphery of the Empire, 1977), Il superuomo di massa (Superman of the Masses, 1978), Sette anni di desiderio (Seven Years of Desire, 1983), A passo di gambero (Turning Back the Clock, 2006), Costruire il nemico (Inventing the Enemy, 2011) or, published posthumously, Pape Satàn aleppe (2016; the title is a quote from Dante’s Inferno, famous for its uncertain meaning).
It is not the case, however, that these two aspects of Eco’s practice – devising models and acting as their chief denouncer – found their actualization in what would be, from Il nome della rosa (In the Name of the Rose, 1980) onwards, his parallel careers as a novelist and theorist. For Eco, the study of semiotics and the telling of stories were analogous and complimentary activities. Novel-writing does not recompense for theoretical deficit; it problematizes the questions that are raised and leaves them hanging, swinging back and forth like a pendulum. Eco rewrites these queries in the guise of narrative, transfiguring concepts into characters, reinterpreting debates as part of a plot, consigning to the joyous obduracy of the text (ambiguous and self-reflexive, as in A Theory of Semiotics) the issues exposed by semiotic and philosophical reflection. That is to say: on further consideration, narration isn’t a substitute for theory but a means of translating it – not the abandonment of theory but theory through other means. Only if it is done well, of course – as Eco both sought to do, and succeeded in doing.
First published in Issue 179