[Paleopsych] Telegraph: (Eco) Heavyweight champion

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Sat May 28 19:35:14 UTC 2005

Heavyweight champion
    (Filed: 24/05/2005)

    Umberto Eco has made a name - and fortune - for himself in the role of
    thinking man to the masses. Not that we understand what he is going on
    about most of the time. Nigel Farndale asks him to explain himself

    'Mooo! Mooo!' Umberto Eco says by way of opening when I meet him in
    his high-ceilinged apartment overlooking the piazza Castello in Milan.

    'I'm supposed to do this exercise for my throat,' the 73-year-old
    Italian philosopher and novelist explains. 'Mooo! Mooo! I had an
    operation on my vocal chords and am still recovering.' I tell him I
    will understand if he needs to rest his voice during our interview, or
    indeed if he needs to moo from time to time.

    Though he has a paunch and unexpectedly small, geisha-like feet, Eco
    has an energetic stride - as I discover when he leads the way along a
    winding corridor and I try to keep up with him. We pass through a
    labyrinthine library containing 30,000 books - he has a further 20,000
    at his 17th-century palazzo near Urbino - and into a drawing-room full
    of curiosities: a glass cabinet containing seashells, rare comics and
    illustrated children's books, a classical sculpture of a nude man with
    his arms missing, a jar containing a pair of dog's testicles, a lute,
    a banjo, a collection of recorders, and a collage of paintbrushes by
    his friend the Pop artist Arman.

    Although Eco is still best known for his first novel, The Name of the
    Rose (1980), a medieval murder mystery that sold ten million copies,
    it is as an academic that he would like to be remembered. He has been
    a professor at Bologna, the oldest university in Europe, for more than
    30 years. He has also lectured at Harvard, Yale, Cambridge and
    numerous other famous universities and, to fill in the rest of his
    time, writes cerebral essays on uncerebral subjects ranging from
    football to pornography and coffee pots.

    He is one of the fathers of postmodern literary criticism - the
    general gist of his approach being that it doesn't matter what an
    author intends to say, readers are entitled to interpret works of
    literature in any way they choose. He was also a pioneer of semiotics,
    the study of culture as a web of signs and messages to be decoded for
    hidden meaning.

    Doesn't it drive him mad, always seeing meaning where others just see

    'It does become a habit, but you are not obliged to be on duty at
    every moment,' he says in his heavy Italian accent. 'If I drink a
    glass of scotch I am thinking only of the scotch; I am not thinking
    about what the brand of scotch I am drinking says about my
    personality. I know what you mean, though, and I suppose the answer is
    that I am driven no more mad than a pianist who always has melodies in
    his head.'

    He strokes his beard as he says this, and I notice he wears his watch
    over his shirt cuff, with the face on the inside of his wrist. Is this

    'There are two practical reasons for it - one is that in my job I am
    obliged to attend a lot of symposia, which are frequently very boring.
    If I do this to check the time [he bends his arm], everybody notices.
    If I do it this way [he looks down at his watch without moving his
    wrist], I can check surreptitiously without showing it.

    'As for the sleeve, that is because my watch-strap gives me eczema.
    So,' he says with a laugh, 'there is a meaning there, but not a
    terribly interesting one.'

    I see he is also chewing on a dummy cigarette. 'Yes, I gave up smoking
    five months ago. I find it helps to have something in my mouth. I like
    nicotine because it excites my brain and helps me work. In the first
    two months after quitting I couldn't work. I felt lazy. Then I tried
    nicotine patches.' He has, he says, smoked 60 a day for most of his
    adult life. Hasn't he left it a little late to start worrying about
    his health? 'Perhaps I am not as wise as I like to think I am.'

    His second novel, Foucault's Pendulum, took eight years to write. It
    was about three editors at a Milan publishing house trying to link
    every conspiracy theory in history, including that now famous one
    about the medieval Knights Templar and the secret of the Holy Grail.

    'I know, I know,' he says with a laugh. 'My book included the plot for
    The Da Vinci Code. But I was not being a prophet. It was old occult
    material. It was already all there. I treated it in a more sceptical
    way than Dan Brown did. He had the excellent idea of treating it as if
    it were true. Millions of people believed him. They took it seriously,
    but it was all a hoax.'

    The Da Vinci Code is one of the few novels to have sold more than The
    Name of the Rose, I point out. Must be quite galling, that. He shrugs.
    Has he read it? 'Yes.' Did he like it? He shrugs again. 'It's a

    The Vatican was not keen on Foucault's Pendulum, by all accounts. Its
    official newspaper described it as being full of 'profanations,
    blas-phemies, buffooneries and filth, held together by the mortar of
    arrogance and cynicism'. Even the late Pope condemned Eco personally
    as, 'the mystifier deluxe'. Is it true he was all but excommunicated?

    'No. The whole affair was nothing but an invention of the newspapers
    that needed to have an Italian Salman Rushdie.'

    Salman Rushdie, interestingly enough, described Foucault's Pendulum as
    'humourless, devoid of character, entirely free of anything resembling
    a credible spoken word and mind-numbingly full of gobbledygook of all
    sorts'. Other writers, academics and critics, perhaps envious of the
    success of Eco's first novel, also put the boot in, accusing the
    author of wearing his learning too heavily. Was it all just
    professional jealousy, does he think?

    'When I went from being an academic to being a member of the community
    of writers some of my former colleagues did look on me with a certain
    resentment. But not all, and it is only after my work as a novelist
    that I received 33 honorary degrees from universities around the

    Many academics, I suggest, seem to have felt that Eco's main
    intellectual interest was in showing off. Is that fair? Is he an

    'I think every professor and writer is in some way an exhibitionist
    because his or her normal activity is a theatrical one. When you give
    a lesson the situation is the same as writing a book. You have to
    capture the attention, the complicity of your audience.'

    Even though Eco makes subjects such as metaphysics and semiotics
    relatively accessible through his playful prose, he must suspect that
    many of his ideas go over the heads of his millions of readers. I
    mean, if a clever chap like Salman Rushdie struggles with it, what
    hope do the rest of us have? He shrugs again. 'I write what I write.'

    Does he worry, though, that some people buy his books in order to
    impress their friends, but never actually read them?

    'If some people are so weak that they buy my books because they are
    piled high in bookshops, and then do not understand them, that is not
    my fault. If people buy my books for vanity, I consider it a tax on

    Is he a vain man himself - intellectually, I mean? 'Obviously there is
    a pleasure in teaching because it is a way to keep you young. But I
    think a poet or philosopher writing a paper who doesn't hope that his
    work will last for 1,000 years is a fool. Anyway, intellectual vanity
    does not exclude humility. If you write a poem, you hope to be as good
    as Shakespeare, but you accept you probably won't be and that you will
    have much to learn.

    'I would describe myself as an insecure optimist who is sensitive to
    criticism. I always fear to be wrong. Those who are always certain of
    their own work risk being idiots. Insecurity is a great force, apropos
    of teaching. The moment I start a new class I feel panic. If you don't
    feel panic, you cannot succeed.'

    It seems remarkable, given his success as a novelist, that he still
    teaches. 'My success obliged me to seek greater privacy, but that is
    the only real difference it has made to my life. It is difficult going
    to [film] premières, for example, because people want to interview me
    or hand me their manuscript. I continued with my life as a scholar,
    publishing academic books. There was a continual osmosis between my
    academic research and my novels.'

    His latest novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, is about a
    rare-book dealer who loses his 'autobiographical' memory - he doesn't
    know his own name or recognise his wife - but still has his 'semantic'
    memory and so is able to quote from every book he has ever read. The
    hero is the same age as Eco and has had similar life experiences.
    There is, then, I presume, much of his own autobiography in this book.

    'It is difficult for me to recognise it as autobiography because it is
    more the biography of a generation. But it is obvious I gave to the
    character a lot of my personal memories. The "historic" or "public"
    memories are from my private collection of memorabilia, from the Flash
    Gordon or Mickey Mouse cartoons of my youth. The illustrations I use
    in the book are all from my own collection, as displayed in that
    cabinet back there.' He directs a thumb over his shoulder. 'The
    character lived his childhood through books and cartoons, as did I.
    They dominated my life.'

    So cartoons are to him what the madeleine was to Proust, a trigger to
    memory? 'No. I had to fight against Proust in this book. If you write
    a novel about memory, you have to. So I did the contrary of the great
    Proust. He went inside himself to retrieve senses, smells and
    memories. My hero does the opposite because he is only confronted with
    the external memories, public memories which a whole generation

    At one point in the book the hero remembers fighting with the
    Resistance during the war. Although he was only a teenager, Eco did
    something akin to this, having first been a committed Fascist.

    'In 1942, at the age of ten, I received the First Provincial Award of
    Ludi Juveniles - a compulsory competition for young Italian Fascists,
    that is for every young Italian. I elaborated with rhetorical skill on
    the subject, "Should we die for the glory of Mussolini and the
    immortal destiny of Italy?" My answer was positive. I was a smart
    boy.' He recalls being proud of his Fascist youth uniform. 'I spent
    the following two years among the Germans - Fascists and partisans
    shooting at one another - and I learnt how to dodge a bullet. It was
    good exercise.'

    Can he recall exactly when he became disillusioned with Mussolini? He
    gives the question a contemplative nod before answering.

    'There were two letters I wrote nine months apart. I found them when I
    was doing research for this book. In the first, which I wrote when I
    was ten, I was, rhetorically at least, a fanatical Fascist. You see,
    as a child I was exposed every day to the propaganda. It was like a
    religion. Saying I didn't believe in Mussolini would have been as
    shocking as saying

    I didn't believe in God. I was born under him - I never knew anything
    else. I loved him. It would have been perverse if I hadn't. In the
    second letter nine months later I had become sceptical and
    disillusioned. I tried to work out what had happened in between. It
    might have been that

    I was no longer optimistic about the outcome of the war, but more
    likely it was to do with the radio and with reading American cartoon

    I did research and remembered that at the same time as we were hearing
    official Fascist songs on Italian radio we also began listening to
    silly humorous songs on Radio Free London - we were learning about
    everyday life elsewhere. I began to fall in love with the idea of
    Englishness. I began to read about Jeeves and Bertie.'

    Umberto Eco was born in Alessandria, a medieval fortress city in the
    Po valley in northern Italy. His grandfather was a typographer and a
    committed socialist who organised strikes. His father was an office
    clerk for a manufacturer of iron bathtubs. He describes his family as
    being 'petit bourgeois'.

    Did his father have aspirations to be an intellectual? 'He never had
    the chance. He was the first child of a family of 13. They were poor.
    My father left school early and went to work. But he was a voracious
    reader and went to the book kiosks and read books there so he didn't
    have to pay for them. When they chased him off he would simply go to
    another kiosk.'

    His father died of a heart attack in 1962, and his mother died ten
    years later. 'My father didn't want me to be a philosopher, he wanted
    me to be a lawyer,' Eco says. 'But he accepted my decision when I
    enrolled at Turin university. It was important for me to show him it
    could be a fruitful experience, and I think he was pleased when I
    became a lecturer at 24. I think he was proud, too, when I published
    my doctoral dissertation on medieval aesthetics. I know he secretly
    read it entirely, even though he couldn't understand all the Latin in

    Eco clears his throat. He does another 'Mooo!' Clearly, after an hour
    and a half of talking, his vocal chords are feeling the strain.
    Promising that this will be my last question, I ask whether the
    success he had with The Name of the Rose was diminished because his
    father was not around to see it.

    'Yes,' he says, 'absolutely. I was 50. As a consequence, the pleasure
    of that success for me was diminished. To this day, every day, I
    silently tell my father about what I am doing. He could be sceptical,
    and every time I was too enthusiastic he was there to provide me with
    a cold shower.

    'We are always children, I think, even when we are old. We always need
    parental approval. I never needed it as much from my mother, though,
    because I knew she was convinced I was a genius from the age of five!
    With my own children I tried to strike more of a balance between my
    mother's approach and my father's.'

    He married his German-born wife, Renate, the year his father died. She
    too is an academic, teaching architecture at Milan university. The
    couple have two grown-up children: Stefano, a television producer, and
    Carlotta, an architect.

    'I honed my storytelling skills by telling my children complicated
    bedtime stories,' Eco recalls. 'When they left home I didn't have
    anyone to tell the stories to, so I began to write.'

    Now he has grandchildren to tell stories to, when his voice is strong
    enough. They reward him by painting portraits of him. One, pinned to
    the wall, is by a four-year-old. It shows a round, jolly face with
    glasses, a scruffy beard and a big grin. Oddly enough, the likeness is

      'The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana' (Secker & Warburg, £17.99) by
    Umberto Eco, published on 6 June, is available from Telegraph Books
    Direct (0870 155 7222) at £15.99 plus £2.25 p&p

More information about the paleopsych mailing list