[Paleopsych] Telegraph: (Eco) Joyfully surfing the waves of confusion

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Joyfully surfing the waves of confusion

    (Filed: 09/01/2005)

    Joanna Kavenna reviews On Literature by Umberto Eco

    Umberto Eco has been called an "intellectual bon viveur", who wines
    and dines his readers with choice titbits from the last few millennia.
    He is usually charismatic and often conspiratorial. His writings are
    an elegant patchwork of tales from European literature, allusions to
    esoteric texts and personal anecdotes. A man of robust intellect and
    genuine erudition, he is at times charmingly sketchy and seems to have
    gleaned half his material from the internet. He doesn't quite part the
    sea of confusion in his writings; he rather surfs the waves,
    performing spectacular turns to an audience of deconstructionist beach
    bums and sunbathing postmodernists.

    This collection of essays presents some of the highs and lows of Eco's
    writing over the last few decades. Chapter headings include: "The
    Mists of the Valois", "On Symbolism" and "Les Semaphores sous la
    Pluie". If those don't set your pulse racing, there's an elegant
    reading of Dante's Paradiso, a tribute to Borges, some clever talk of
    James Joyce and a lucid essay on irony. There's a reading of The
    Communist Manifesto as a work of "genuinely poetic capacity", and a
    discussion of Oscar Wilde's aphorisms in which he is jovially accused
    of lacking philosophical depth. There's a fine piece of autobiography
    in which Eco reveals some of his writing rituals and superstitions.

    A few familiar themes surface. References to alchemical texts are
    strewn through the book. Dante is much-praised. Eco allows himself
    another crack at the question of a perfect language - the subject of
    previous works such as Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation and
    The Search for the Perfect Language. Dante's dream, writes Eco, was to
    restore "an Edenic language that was at the same time both natural and
    universal... to help the `modern' poet heal the post-Babel wound".
    Joyce, argues Eco, was also busy with this enterprise, though readers
    who found that Finnegans Wake gave them a migraine will question Eco's
    claim that Joyce really wanted to "restore the conditions of a perfect
    language through his own personal literary invention".

    This debate about a perfect language leads to a central concern of
    Eco's writing: the illusory nature of certainty and orthodox truth. In
    an essay in this collection called "The Power of Falsehood", Eco
    questions certainty of any kind: "Since in the course of history many
    have acted in the belief of something that someone else did not
    believe in, we are obliged to admit that for each of us, in different
    measure, History has been largely a Theatre of Illusions." After
    bringing on Columbus, Dante, Erik the Red, Ptolemy, Macrobius, Roger
    Bacon and the Rosicrucians, Eco concludes plainly enough: "Deep down,
    the first duty of the Community is to be on the alert in order to be
    able to rewrite the encyclopaedia every day." Any "truth" may be
    another illusion of science, or religion, or myth.

    This is all coherent enough, and perfectly postmodern, but then Eco
    turns to his own branch of academic theory, semiotics. In "On Style",
    he argues for semiotic criticism as "the only true form of criticism".
    "Semiotics," he adds, is "the model for all criticism." He ends by
    entreating the beleaguered ranks of semioticians "to remain faithful
    to our origins... without giving in to any blackmail, to humiliate
    those who are our inferiors". This all jars somewhat with Eco's
    remarks about truth. Is he saying that all truths are potential
    untruths apart from the undeniable truth of a semiotic reading? Or is
    he saying that only a semiotic reading can alert us to the truth which
    is the impossibility of certain truth? Or is he saying that semiotics
    is the only true form of criticism because it exposes as untrue all
    other forms of criticism?

    It remains unclear. But Eco's unyielding devotion to semiotics seems
    strange. Irrespective of whether it is a good idea or not, it is a
    theory that causes even elegant writers such as Eco to start filling
    their sentences with shabby old forms of convolution, words which once
    suggested newness but which have been thrown around in academia for
    ages now: "intertextuality", "metanarrative", "discourse" and,
    inevitably, "signifier" and "signified". Eco is too stylish, too
    ecumenical, for such an exclusive commitment to a single theoretical
    system. He is at his best, I think, when he drops the
    theory-mongering, when he slips out of the corset of jargon and allows
    himself to be a good-time intellectual again. It is then that he
    really sparkles, and this collection supplies plenty of instances of
    Eco in his most glitzy mode.

    [34]24 October 2004: Martin Gayford reviews On Beauty ed by Umberto


   34. http://www.arts.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml;sessionid=KDRRSKNJ3BPDHQFIQMGCM54AVCBQUJVC?xml=/arts/2004/10/24/boeco24.xml

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