By the late 1980s, every humanities academic on earth talked of his or her Umberto Eco novel in the drawer.
Not a novel by Umberto, of course. No, the novel soon to be written that would equal the international acclaim of Eco’s medieval thriller, The Name of the Rose (1980), which eventually sold 30 million copies in more than 40 languages.
Did any of those books ever get done? Hardly a one. Because to produce a work comparable to that still-singular first novel — not to mention its six successors, Foucault’s Pendulum (1988), The Island of the Day Before (1994), Baudolino,(2000), The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2004), The Prague Cemetery (2010), and Numero Zero (2015) — you needed to be Umberto. That is, impossibly learned. Indefatigably hardworking. Singularly modest and self-critical. Uniquely open to people and culture high, low, and middle. Quick to laugh and joke. Wise to the importance of entertaining readers — with puns, plot, playful Latin, lighthearted examples, exotic hypotheticals — while guiding them.
You had to be hungry for the latest news and gossip — about anything — and willing to plop it into a narrative composed largely of more sober elements. You had to possess a common touch, an ability to talk and write in the language of the street, which Umberto possessed to a degree I’ve never seen in any other scholar of his stature.
Since February 19, when the unquestioned giant of contemporary Italian literary and intellectual culture died at 84 after a two-year battle with cancer, Italian newspapers have published scores of articles about Umberto, noting that he was, in the view of many, the most famous intellectual in the world. To an extent unrivaled even by such internationally famous compatriots as Italo Calvino and Primo Levi, Umberto also became, over time, the critical conscience at the center of Italian humanistic culture, uniting smaller worlds like no one before him.
Roberto Benigni, the Oscar-winning actor, director, and Eco friend, laughed repeatedly as he recalled Umberto’s unstoppable sense of humor. The jazz musician Gianni Coscia, Umberto’s friend since high school, remembered when Umberto’s mother pleaded with Coscia when they were teens to steer Umberto from philosophy to law, so he wouldn’t starve. Coscia replied, "Relax, Signora Rita, because no matter what Umberto does, I assure you he’ll never go hungry."
The actor and musician Moni Ovadia alluded in turn to Umberto’s ironic transformation from a leader of Italy’s Catholic Action Youth to committed atheist. Umberto, for all that, ebulliently indulged reasonable clerics, even co-publishing a book with Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini. Ovadia offered a benediction "from a believer to a nonbeliever," announcing, "God blesses you above all because you are not a believer. God supports believers, but he definitely prefers atheists."
That Umberto would be cremated later in the day surprised some people. Not me. Umberto exulted in hurtling into the past through texts, in fulfilling Kierkegaard’s admonition to understand backward but to live forward. Umberto once observed, "The person who doesn’t read lives only one life. The reader lives 5,000. Reading is immortality backwards." With typical Umberto mischievousness, he probably thought of cremation as his one chance to experience an auto da fé.
There will be decades to assess the lasting importance of Umberto’s novels, his philosophical work, his prolific intellectual journalism, his sardonic criticisms of both terrorists and the likes of Berlusconi and Italy’s political elite. But one should salute, for the moment, his wonderfully tart voice.
A few years ago, he bluntly remarked that for Italian political life to change, "about a dozen very powerful people have to die. It is a biological fact. It’s necessary for there to be a new political class." About Berlusconi and his "bunga bunga" partying, Umberto famously commented, "I also go to bed late, but because I read Kant."
One can, as well, thumbnail his chief philosophical accomplishments. In aesthetics, with Susan Sontag, he helped eliminate traditional insistence on correct, artist-directed interpretations of art. He, like Sontag, opposed frozen hierarchies of artistic accomplishment and artificial disciplinary boundaries.
Derrida thought that Umberto’s most important book was not The Name of the Rose, but The Open Work (1962), the book of critical essays in which Umberto launched his version of that demolition project against fuddy-duddy aesthetics. Derrida was right. Today every important newspaper and magazine in the world embodies the Eco/Sontag impact on artistic criticism, mixing coverage of rap and classical music, graphic novels and old-fashioned literary tomes, weirdo conceptual art and fusty museum shows hawking the great masters.
In the theory of knowledge, Umberto helped establish semiotics — by which he meant a method of understanding the world through the interpretation of signs — as arguably the central humanistic discipline, because signs confront us everywhere. He acknowledged the abstract principles of the two thinkers usually seen as the founders of semiotics: American pragmatist Charles S. Peirce, who argued that signs should be understood triadically (sign, signified, interpreter), and the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who argued that literary forms are arbitrary. But Eco pulled the discipline down from the clouds with critical readings of popular culture, of Sam Spade, Peanuts, and James Bond.
He also persuaded "semiotics" types that signs should always be interpreted contextually by analyzing clues, the way his imaginary detective, William of Baskerville, unraveled the murder of 14th-century monks in The Name of the Rose. Finally, in his philosophy of criticism, he parted company with Sontag’s famous critique of interpretation as "the revenge of the intellect upon art." In contrast, he reserved his bile for neurotic overinterpretation, which he mocked in Foucault’s Pendulum, while celebrating humor as the antidote to dogmatism, a subtheme of The Name of the Rose.
No wonder an upcoming volume in the prestigious scholarly series "The Library of Living Philosophers" (Open Court), which comprises only the crème de la crème of world philosophers, will be "The Philosophy of Umberto Eco." (Philosophers, not always sticklers for truth, don’t cancel long-in-gestation volumes just because the subject succumbs before the pub date.) Umberto’s final book, Pape Satan Aleppe, a collection of his L’Espresso columns since 2000, arrived in Italy’s bookstores and kiosks in late February. (The title is a famous inscrutable phrase from Canto VII of Dante’s Inferno.)
Umberto, I think, would pronounce any interpretation of his life’s work to be premature overinterpretation. Down-to-earth, not remotely narcissistic, fond of pondering the human side of any artist or intellectual, he’d want us, in his Latin-dripping mind, to ecce homo — "behold the man," secular version. Fair enough. As a person, he was a sui generis mash-up of brilliance, drive, and endless good will.
I first met him in 1988 — a week spent together for a magazine article tied to the publication of Foucault’s Pendulum. With typical Umberto generosity, he invited me to accompany him almost full time, from his Milano apartment to his Bologna classes (and the inevitable outdoor evening feast with his beloved students, known as echini), to his restored monastery/vacation home in Monte Cerignone, in the hills outside Rimini.
It helped, in moving our conversations from cultural matters to human ones, that my father came from Voghera, not far from his own Piedmont hometown of Alessandria. Umberto grew up seeing Turin and Milan as promised lands for a child born to lower-middle-class parents yet hungry for a cultural life. His father, Giulio, the first of 13 children, served as an accountant for a manufacturer of iron bathtubs. His grandfather was a foundling, given the surname "Eco" by a city official. Once, way back, I asked him whether being a self-made man accounted for his endless projects and ambition, his avidity for cultural life. "Sometimes I think of my children," he said, "who see a name on the cover of a book, or on the screen, and it’s always somebody who was there in the house the week before. So there is no excitement. While for me to meet at the age of 20 a great movie director was, was … an event in my life. My son at the age of 5 put his hand on the mouth of Antonioni. So there is no excitement in meeting Antonioni."
That life of working his way up in both Italian and world culture kept him from turning into a pompous master of thought, an Italian Jacques Lacan. Although his standards of excellence remained rigorous, as evidenced by both his scholarship and his widely translated student guide, How to Write a Thesis (MIT Press, 2015), he’d spend endless time chatting with students, journalists, book buyers, and fellow Milanese antiquarians, whose organization he served as president until his death.
Umberto’s glorious qualities almost exactly paralleled, in my experience, Sontag’s: a relentless work ethic, an unquenchable appetite for culture and politics, for participating in the cultural fray, all of it done with that twinkle in the eye that meant something smart or hilarious was coming.
Years ago, I asked his wife, Renate, whom he met at Bompiani in 1960 when she was a graphic artist and he a nonfiction editor, why she’d fallen for him. Her immediate response: "I liked his jokes."
Me too. That approach to everything he examined supplies the helium that will keep his work in the air forever.
Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle, is a professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College and the author of America the Philosophical (Knopf, 2012).