“Here” is what I mean by the fiction works of a thinking man, who as a child went through the Second World War and after that went on to become a university teacher.
Umberto Eco brought questions, theories, narratives and philosophies into the lives of many. Most of the time he did it through one of his old obsessions, which is more like a question that his readers are faced with: How much truth is in the stories of the world?
We should not be astonished at the fact that his protagonists are his spokesmen, this being a common literary feature well-rooted around the elite. “Don’t think of yourself as the only storyteller in this world. Sooner or later, an even bigger liar than Baudolino will tell it.”, “Malkuth is Malkuth and that’s that”, or “They will look for other meanings, even in my silence. That’s how they are. Blind to revelation”, bear witness to how the characters speak the author’s language. Even thought this happens, he avoids to build his characters as a portrait of himself. Not only he avoids it, but most of the time his characters end up being completely opposite of himself. Nonetheless, they speak his “language”.
His fascination with people who believe in conspiracies, in bedtime stories, always turns into a criticism. How does he present this criticism and make it readable? By subtly making fun of what he criticizes. In “Foucault’s Pendulum”, even the characters who build up “The Plan” know how much of a figment of their imagination it is, so they continue to structure it just for fun. A proof is that, or the character Bragadoccio, a journalist who, if taken seriously, can make you miss the whole point of “Numero Zero”. This way, Eco quotes the philosopher Karl Popper and calls these stories “a way to escape responsibilities”.
I would now like to turn to how Eco constructs his action around the ignorance of society. There are two things to tackle here. First of all, Eco describes the ignorance, or the type of ignorant people of his time. This is irrelevant nowadays, unfortunately. That is because the ignorant people of his time, the ones he described in novels, or the ones he was surrounded by, were able to connect history with alchemy, philosophy, or secret societies. His ignorant stereotype acknowledged historical facts before slaughtering them and making them sound outrageous. People who are not satisfied with the beauty that lies in the simplicity of the world, who need unbelievable stories of political, religious, or historical nature. He saw this as the takeover or the pervasiveness of ignorance. But “the takeover of ignorance” is radically changing its meaning, as it is no longer about what was mentioned previously. It is probably the reason why minds like Eco come to hate human nature at one point.
The second thing there is to talk about when mentioning Umberto Eco’s description of ignorance is how he relates it to what religion means and to his atheistic ideas. In Foucault’s Pendulum (which I would turn into a case study anytime when analyzing Eco’s work), the ending comes with the best proof of that. The chapter names (which are an homage to Diotallevi) are the names of the ten Sephiroths from the Tree of Life in the Kabbalah. The last Sephiroth, Malkuth, is the only one related to our experience on Earth, while all the others have spiritual meaning. The quotation I made earlier, “Malkuth is Malkuth and that’s that” is coming from the writer’s beliefs, relating religion to what he built throughout the whole book: an essential story, a necessary one, that through his eyes is not true.
What Eco masters really well is the process of creating certain worlds. Once he does that, it comes very natural for him to convey his message. When creating a world, he is actually giving his characters a space and a time in which they can leave their mark. His procedures always favored the characters, letting them tell the story.
But in the end, no matter the procedure, it comes down to the abstract collaboration between the reader and the author, like he mentioned in one of his major essays, “Lector in Fabula”. It’s about how the reader perceives his message, and how he fills in the blanks that the author leaves. I think of those blanks as offered by the author more than I think of them as just left. Because I believe there is no greater way in trying to tell your ideas as an author than making the reader come up with something substantial.
A broad conclusion of him would be that he was essentially concerned with the truth, truth that he has probably already found in the most unique way.
“As a philosopher, I am interested in the truth. But to establish what is true is very difficult. Frequently it is easier to establish what is false. And, passing through the false, it’s possible to understand something about the truth.” But just that, definitely won’t do him enough justice. Nevertheless, it’s probably the closest I can get to his persona.
*The author of this essay is a high-school student currently based in Belgrade (Serbia), who will move to the United States for the next school year