*Portions of this essay originally appeared in Sacred Matters.”
With the passing of the great Italian scholar and author Umberto Eco, one mourns not just the death of a man, but indeed the loss of the unwritten library in his head. A literary protégé of Jorge Luis Borges, Eco was fascinated by the relationship between fiction and reality, and how meaning can hide and be obscured in the fuzzy spaces between signifier and signified, word and object. His novels like Foucault’s Pendulum, Baudolino, and of course The Name of the Rose were playfully filled with imaginary texts, libraries hidden in labyrinths, elaborate (and illusory) secret societies. As such, it’s totally appropriate to imagine what books he wished to write, or could have written, or never got around to writing. With the death of any author so prolific, one feels the tug of that absence that represents works of his we’ll never get to read. As his main character said in his most famous novel, “there are also visions of books as yet unwritten” – it is immensely sad that now none of these books yet to be written will be Eco’s.
Eco was that rare beast of a literary scholar who actually becomes famous, and it was in part because his erudition seemed to mark him as a modern “Renaissance man.” Committed medievalist that he always was, he may have viewed that complement with tongue firmly-in-cheek, and yet in every sense of the popular parlance of that phrase he certainly was a Renaissance man. Son of the Piedmont and professor at the University of Bologna (which was venerable when Oxford and Cambridge were upstarts), Eco seemed to have a vast repository of human knowledge at his command. Like one of those Renaissance scriveners who practiced the elaborate ars magna of building spatial memory palaces in the mind so that they could call forth reams of text with wizardly command, Eco was conversant with a seemingly infinite supply of knowledge, from history, literature, and religion. Though his reputation for difficulty was often because of his associations with what students of literature often call “Theory” (with a capital “T”), Eco would have been perfectly at home in the sixteenth-century Venetian print shop of Aldus Manutius, or possibly sharing a drink with Erasmus. Though he is associated with “post-modernism” (whatever that is), Eco was indelibly early modern, the scope and range of his knowledge remind you of figures like Athanasius Kirchner, or Wilhelm Gottfried Leibnitz. They, like him, were scholars who seemed to know everything, but who importantly also remembered that knowledge isn’t just power, it’s also joy. Eco often claimed to have been in possession of one of the largest private libraries in Europe. Based on the depth and breadth of his knowledge one suspects he may have actually read most of those books in that library as well.
A specialist in medieval literature, he was of course also one of the most important practitioners of semiotics, the literary critical study of how signs and symbols construct relative meanings. It’s an unlikely profession for a man whose 1980 The Name of the Rose would climb the New York Times bestseller list, even if for many it remained one of those novels placed conspicuously on a shelf to demonstrate good taste and intelligence more than it was actually read. But for many who did read it, The Name of the Rose could be revelatory. A strange type of medieval detective story, the novel follows the investigations of the Holmes-like William of Baskerville, a skeptical-minded Franciscan who must solve a series of gruesome murders at a northern Italian monastery. Along the way there are discussions of the relationship between language and reality, the medieval heresy of the Joachimites, and a consideration of whether Christ laughed or not (along with the inclusion of a manuscript whose ink was poisoned). There was even a film adaptation, which for what it loses in the erudition of Eco’s original almost makes up for it in sheer hamminess (not to mention a bemused Sean Connery barely able to feign that his character is a virgin).
The novel and the film of course led to other books, similarly difficult but fascinating for those who were willing to put in the time deciphering them. Eco saw no shame in difficult writing, indeed one suspected that a maxim of his was that difficult writing and thinking paid off in the end with an increased joy at engaging with the subject. And many readers agreed with him, making even his complicated theoretical works like A Theory of Semiotics and Kant and the Platypus surprisingly popular sellers. Eco was that rare figure who truly straddled the divide which unfortunately exists between the academy and the general public, that he was able to do this without compromising his rigor is all the more commendable. Eco helped disprove that tired editorial canard that literary theory must always be obscure, lifeless, obfuscating, airless, dry, and cold. One never got this sense of theory when reading Eco, to the contrary he explained that the analysis of fiction is “a game by which we give sense to the immensity of things that happened, are happening, or will happen in the actual world.” For Eco the critical discussion and interpretation of literature, philosophy, and theology was no unweaving of the rainbow, rather it was the very method by which one was able to fully inhabit and enjoy those subjects. As he explained “Reflecting on these complex relationships between reader and story, fiction and life, can constitute a form of therapy against the sleep of reason, which generates monsters.” In his writings the duty of wonder is as central as the responsibility of analysis.
As a medievalist, religion and theology were subjects which he was naturally conversant with, and he brought a sense of rigor married with curiosity to them. If the loss of Eco is both a loss of a genuine public intellectual who saw no shame in celebrating complexities, than it is also the loss of a scholar who transcended the boring culture war debates which bifurcate all experience into the religious and the secular. He understood the undeniable sacred nature of the written word, where all interpretation must in some sense be exegetical. Eco was intimately familiar with the complex debates about language engaged by scholastic philosophers and theologians, the terminology of realism, Platonism, and nominalism was his life-blood from his graduate days onward. Though he cheekily claimed that his most famous novel was written because he “wanted to poison a monk,” and though he was an atheist, Eco still understood how theological the origin of so much of the humanities was, and the profound debt that literary study owed to the scriptural hermeneutics that was its precedent. His William of Baskerville said that “The Devil is not the Prince of Matter; the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt. The Devil is grim because he knows where he is going, and, in moving, he always returns whence he came.” This is certainly not an anti-religious sentiment, far from it. It embraces spirit, faith, and truth; it simply asks of us that we also embrace the twin virtues of good humor and skepticism, both of which keep us honest. There is sadness in the books of his that he will not write, but we’re immensely fortunate to have the ones that he did.
Ed Simon is a PhD candidate in English at Lehigh University, where he studies early modern religion and literature. He is a contributor at several sites, and can be followed at both edsimon.org and on Twitter @WithEdSimon.