Pale Wire (Popscene)

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Umberto's Way


Today I finished plowing through Travels in Hyperreality, a collection of essays and newspaper columns by the Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco. Back in November I read another collection of his odds'n'sods, the much shorter Five Moral Pieces.

At its best, the writing sparks with life. Whether discussing Media Theory, the nature of power, Casablanca, L'Expo '67, the steady creep of multinational corporations, Saint Thomas Aquinas, the massive spectacle of professional sports, wax museums, or the sinister semiotics of blue jeans that impede the natural carriage of the scrotum, Eco writes with the same fevered intensity. This is exactly the sort of fancy-pants intellectual promiscuity we dour Anglos tend to frown on. But, unlike many of his peers (Jean Baudrillard, I'm looking at you), Eco's cheerful irreverence and refreshing modesty—not to mention his stunning gift for unveiling a sexual example to flesh out any abstraction—wins the day.

Many of these clippings probably could have been left to yellow in L'espresso's morgue, but the best stuff (a hilarious polemic against the World Cup, a brisk challenge of Marshall McLuhan which concludes with Eco suggesting that in fact "the media is not the message") all comes out of the top drawer.

The sample is too broad, and I too shallow, to distill it all down into a few sentences. But the most prominent theme I picked up, besides the looming presence of The Red Brigades, is Eco's persistant insistance that the world is more complicated than most people, including some really smart ones, would like to believe.

I feel like I shouldn't leave you without a taste of his sense of humor. Here is an excerpt from an essay on the role of the Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas in the history of ideas. It's meant to relate the "universe of hallucination" that preceded the development of empiricism. Aristotle was banned, reason was a "luxury" and:
Far, far away there is God, in whose attainable totality the principles of things, ideas, stir; the universe is the effect of a benevolent distraction of this very distant One, who seems to trickle slowly downward, abandoning traces of his perfection in the sticky clumps of matter that he defecates, like traces of sugar in the urine. In this muck that represents the more negligible margin of the One, we can find, almost always through a brilliant puzzle-solution, the imprint of germs of comprehensibility, but comprehensibility lies elsewhere, and if all goes well, along comes the mystic, with his nervous, stripped-down intution, who penetrates with an almost drugged eye into the garconniere of the One, where the sole and true party is going on.