Traducere // Translate

Umberto Eco’s last book is the perfect final word

Only a week after the death of the writer and philosopher Umberto Eco, Italian bookshops are already selling his last book, Pape Satàn Aleppe: Cronache di una società liquida (Pape Satàn Aleppe: Chronicles of a liquid society), which originally was due to be published in May. 75,000 copies sold in a single day.
The publication date was brought forward as a homage to the author, who died in Milan in February, aged 84. The book is the first to be released by the new publishing house, La nave di Teseo, recently co-founded by Eco himself in opposition to the merging of the two biggest Italian publishers, Mondadori (owned by Berlusconi) and Rizzoli. The merger is seen by many intellectuals to be a threat to plurality and freedom of speech – and international writers such as Hanif Kureishi, Michael Cunningham and Tahar Ben Jelloun have joined the La nave di Teseo project.
Eco contributed both intellectually and financially to the founding of the new publisher. He suggested the name, inspired by Plutarch’s Parallel lives; he granted it his rich publishing rights (the new ones immediately, and the others as soon as they become available), and he backed personally the project with €2 million. La nave di Teseo represents the last act and the legacy of his unfaltering civic commitment, which became particularly strenuous in the years of Berlusconi’s governments.

La bustina di Minerva

Eco already had approved the final proofs and the cover of this collection of newspaper articles, chosen from those that appeared over the years 2000-2015 in his column for L’Espresso. The column was called La bustina di Minerva; here not signifying the Roman goddess of wisdom but the humble object of the matchbox (in Italy, Minerva is a common name for the safety match, an old brand name). It symbolises a small space in which one jots down quick, extemporary notes.
In his column, Eco either scrutinised current events or used them as starting points for digression, humorous anecdote, and wordplay. Following the promise made to the readers of his first “bustina” in 1985, he wrote notes on:
The last book not read, on the intuition that has crossed our minds on the highway while braking in order to not end up in the back of a truck, on being and nothingness, on the famous steps of Fred Astaire. We’ll see.

Eco’s funeral in Milan, February 23. Daniele Mascolo/EPA

There are few educated Italians who didn’t regularly read Eco’s column, but it has attracted only intermittent interest in the English-speaking world – although earlier selections were translated partially in How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays (1998), and Misreadings (1993) is in a similar vein.
Internationally, Eco is known for his fiction, and especially the blockbuster crime novel Il nome della rosa (1980), translated into English by William Weaver in 1983 as The Name of the Rose, and made into a film by Jean-Jacques Annaud in 1986, featuring Sean Connery in the leading role of Brother William of Baskerville. Worldwide intellectuals and academics also recognise him as an eminent scholar, particularly in the fields of medieval aesthetics, literary theory, and semiotics. But the way he zoomed into and commented on Italian culture meant that Eco was a key figure well beyond literature and philosophy.

The polymath

Eco’s tireless and wide-ranging intellectual activity spanned over 60 years, during which time he was always an active, nonconformist presence in Italian public debates. He was the first academic to give custom clearance to mass and popular culture, both with his studies and by contributing consciously to its production. Already in the 1950s, for example, while studying medieval aesthetics, he worked at the state broadcaster, RAI, as one of the young intellectuals appointed to modernise TV and radio programmes. He mixed highbrow and popular culture without any sense of guilt, much to the chagrin of his academic peers.
His omnivorous curiosity is particularly evident in his short pieces for the press, marked by a unique penchant for paradox and irony: here, Eco the philosopher, the public intellectual, and the storyteller converge.
Since social commentaries and irony are based on topicality, in order to enjoy them fully one needs to have some knowledge of Italian internal affairs. Despite this, his posthumous publication has an international appeal, as together with Berlusconi’s scandals the author reflects broadly on the Western society of our times, from Bush’s politics to the recent terror attacks in Paris. He comments on the role of internet in the evolution of mass media and communication, on racism and integralisms, religion and philosophy. Here’s hoping for a translation.
Whereas the subtitle reveals the debit to Bauman’s reflections on the “liquid modernity” we live in, the title quotes a verse from Dante, who historically is the first of the Italian civic intellectuals. “Pape Satàn Aleppe” are the words of Plutus, the guardian of the fourth circle of hell in the Divina Commedia, (Inferno, VII, 1), and they still trouble interpreters for their menacing unintelligibility.
Similarly, Eco’s book suggests that we live in a society which to a, 80-year-old can resemble a medieval hell, one that is difficult to understand, but that, in its intrinsic contradictions, is always open to different interpretations – a theme that runs through all of his thinking and writing. Right up to his final days, Eco never renounced the intellectual role of attempting to understand the changing social and cultural phenomena, guided by human curiosity and rationality, and always tempered with a good sense of humour.

Amid the sadness following the death of Umberto Eco, it is dispiriting to find that so many obituary writers are not clear on what he actually did.
Certainly Eco is recognised as a major novelist, despite his subsequent novels never matching the success of his first, The Name of the Rose. He has also been feted as a philosopher, a historian and one of a dying breed of public intellectuals. Yet it is his underpinning role as a professor of semiotics that has proved most troublesome for the popular press to assess.
The problem is that many are not quite sure what semiotics is. The New York Timesobituary refers to it as an “arcane field”. The Scotsman refers to “the esoteric theory of semiotics”, while The Washington Post has it that semiotics is “the study of signs, symbols and hidden messages” which, when coupled with the reporting of Eco’s specialism in the history of the Middle Ages, makes him seem like a character in a Dan Brown novel.
The Guardian does no better, disdainfully suggesting that semiotics is “an abstruse branch of literary theory”, the exact phrase that is used in the obituary in The TelegraphThe Independent marks a slight improvement, with semiotics as “the study of signs and meaning in communications”. The BBC, for reasons which can only be guessed at, does not even mention semiotics, noting only that Eco was professor emeritus at the University of Bologna.

Eating peas

They may not know what semiotics is, but many are quick to condemn it.
The Telegraph is predictably swift in pouring scorn on Eco as such an influential left-of-centre voice, referring further to semiotics as according “world-historical significance to trivia” and dubbing Eco as “a sort of portmanteau intellectual, giving his views on everything from how to eat peas with a plastic fork to changing concepts of beauty”.
Far from according world-historical significance to trivia, semiotics has consistently led the way in eradicating subjective value judgements from all cultural artefacts, including those which have been said to have been born with, achieved or had greatness thrust upon them. Semiotics, as Eco formulated it, is a matter of understanding how sign systems work.
One of the key concepts of semiotics, invented concurrently by Roland Barthes and Juri Lotman in the early 1960s, is “the text”. Rather than a “work”, which indicates some higher purpose of an authorial genius, “the text” indicates a fabric of devices designed through habitual use of signs to reach a particular audience. Any collection of signs is a text. The concept was in the vanguard of the dismantling of the imaginary dividing line between so-called “high” and popular culture.
For those with a vested interest in high culture, the abolition of the great divide still rankles. The Telegraph derides Eco’s novels for being too difficult while lamenting the “infection” resulting from his democratisation of the process of interpretation. It’s the classic bourgeois demand that culture be reserved for an elite but without requiring too much effort from them to enjoy it. The alternative to such philistinism in the face of closed cultural divides seems to have been the middle-class colonisation of popular culture in the post-Hornby romance with football, for example, or with the ubiquity of Coldplay on BBC executives’ iPhones.

What is semiotics?

But, in drawing attention to sign systems, semiotics does not simply represent a mission to abolish cultural hierarchies. It has much bigger fish to fry. This makes its vision difficult to pin down and to sum up. So, just to be clear, what is semiotics?
Well, among other things, it’s “the theory of semiosis (the action of signs)”. But latterly it has evolved into the study of the “objective world” that is constructed by all species out of their own signs. This comprises the signification of all living things.
Eco tracked the definition of semiotics by reference to the shelving of semiotics books in a Harvard bookshop. First, they were in linguistics; then, in cultural studies; by 1999, when he addressed the International Association for Semiotic Studies in Dresden, the books were filed under “cognitive science” – although he did worry that, the next time he looked, they would be under “New Age”.
But while this worry might only be relevant in the context of some hapless obituarists, a greater concern occupied Eco in his final years. That concern, expressed in his “Letter to my grandson” was that people are losing their memory. The availability of the internet, he explains, could entail that people cease to engage in mnemonics to store their knowledge and memories in their brains. So he exhorts his grandson to try to remember football teams from different eras; those aboard La Hispaniola when it went in search of Treasure Island; the names of the servants of the Three Musketeers and d’Artagnan; who the Hittites and Camisards were; the names of Columbus’ three ships; when the dinosaurs became extinct; whether there was a steering wheel on Noah’s ark, and so on.
His advice foreshadows the interdisciplinary breadth of vision that semiotics demands. It also offers a strong sense of semiotics’ contemporary bearing – not just as a thorn in the side of elitists but as a key to understanding the relation of culture and cognition.

Niciun comentariu: