Wednesday, 12 March 2014

An interminable gallery full of filth and inhabited by monsters

Portuguese edition.

At a first glance it seems Umberto Eco wrote Inventing the Enemy (2011) for no other purpose than celebrating the opulence of erudition. His mastery of a varied array of subjects, showing a knowledge of them that is simultaneously anecdotic and academically thorough, is in full display in this book from cover to cover. One can just imagine Eco waking up, opening an encyclopaedia – a 18th century edition, obviously, rare, heavy, expensive, outdated – at random, his eyes closed, putting his finger on the page, giving a look at some outlandish entry, thinking, “Ah, today I’m going to write about this,” and effortlessly whipping up a brilliant little article. It is remarkable, then, that these “occasional writings,” as he calls them, were all written to serve a specific purpose in some conference, publication, meeting, or celebration, which not only attests to Eco’s diversity, far-reaching interests and public participation, but also shows what a vast and strange world we live in, where people invite a writer to contribute writings on: Medieval cuisine, the history of philosophical relativity, a semiotics of fire, Wikileaks, Saint Thomas Aquinas on the problem of human foetuses and souls, imaginary maps, holy relics, a history of Utopias, what Italian fascists thought of James Joyce’s Ulysses, why everything is big in Victor Hugo, Eugène Sue and the feuilleton, and the political usefulness of inventing enemies. It’s a dozy.

A New York meeting with a Pakistani cabbie, who wanted to know who Italy’s traditional enemies were, for every country must have one, prompted Eco to reflect on the need for nations, regimes and groups throughout history to create enemies, in order to reinforce the “feeling of national identity, and their power.” This originated “Inventing the Enemy,” the first text in the book. “Having an enemy,” writes Eco, “is important, not only to define our national identity, but also to find an obstacle in relation to which our system of values can be measured, and to show, in confronting it, our value. Therefore when the enemy doesn’t exist, it has to be invented.” So Eco the Historian, of Western history anyway, takes us through a journey of political propaganda.

From Cicero inveighing against Catiline for conspiracy to Saint Augustine’s desire to “boil pagans,” from racism to misogyny to anti-Semitism, from hatred of lepers to people with AIDS, Eco explains the mechanism of turning others into Others. “Enemies are different than us and behave themselves according to customs that are not our own,” he says. “However, from the start enemies are not those who are different and threaten us directly (like in the case of barbarians), but those whom someone is interested in representing as threatening, even if they do not threaten us directly, so that it’s not so much their menacing character that accentuates the difference, but it’s the difference that becomes a sign of menacing character.”

In “Absolute and Relative” we learn how Christian dogmas we take for granted have changed over time. A case in point, Saint Thomas Aquinas and the question, Do embryos have souls? Several centuries ago, Church doctors would have said, No. “Saint Thomas (…) believed that [embryos] had only a sensitive soul, like animals, and, therefore, not being yet humans gifted with a rational soul, they did not take part in the resurrection of the flesh. Nowadays he’d be accused of heresy, but, in that so very civil epoch, they made him saint.” Eco expands on this topic in another text called “No Embryos in Paradise.” What he has to say on relativity is fascinating for its archaeological value: he traces the meaning of the word from the past in its incarnations through religion and science, in the 19th century with Comtian positivism, until their modern meaning in the cultural and moral sense, where they’re considered to be recent dangers created to hasten the destruction of all morality and ethics. Eco makes a good case why we should not be so pessimistic.

Fire, one of the four elements, is the subject of “The Beauty of the Flame.” He gives fire a lovely panegyric, which, he warns runs the risk of disappearing from our experience. “Air we breathe every day, water we use in our quotidian, earth we permanently step on.” But fire, he warns us, is receding from our existence. “Those that used to be the functions of fire are progressively taken over by forms of invisible energy; we’ve disassociated the idea of light from that of flame, and of fire we only have the experience with gas (where it’s hardly seen), with the match or the lighter, but only for those who still smoke, with the little flames of candles, but only for church-goers still.” And so, donning the mask of archaeologist again, he searches for the meaning of fire as divine element, its role in art and alchemy, its symbolism as regeneration and epiphany, and its instrument as cosmic destroyer. Nobody has made me see such an ordinary thing in such a different light since Italo Calvino waxed poetics on urban garbage. How talented these Italians!

“Treasure Hunting” takes us to the world of holy relics, spread all over the world, sometimes inaccessible in musty churches in faraway places, known only to collectors and experts, sometimes proudly exhibited in museums for tourists, and still allows Eco to compare the habit of Christians and the Ancients worshipping relics – which may be fake, although that’s irrelevant for the man of faith – with modern-day obsession with paraphernalia owned by celebrities. “Imaginary Astronomies” and “Why the Island is Never Found” share similar pleasures in that they’re both explorations into how Medieval men conceived astronomy, goegraphy and Utopias. It is full of fascinating astronomic systems and fantastic maps of non-existing continents and islands that have been disproven and become outdated, retaining only a poetic value as tools that shaped our ancestors’ imagination when the world was a far smaller place. This is where Eco the Medievalist shines, and being very funny while he’s at it.

Some texts are also occasions to remember friends. “Fermented Delights” is a loving tribute to a historian called Piero Camporesi, whom I’m now curious to read: a historian of food and recipes, and their connection to literature, the arts and popular culture. In another piece, called “Group 63, Forty Years Later,” strangely left out of the English edition according to the table of contents in Amazon, Eco evokes a new generation of thinkers, poets, novelists and essayists, amongst whom he was included, who coalesced around a magazine called Il Verri. It’s nostalgic and full of names and allusions to events of the time, which may explain why it wasn’t included – I certainly wished mine edition had had footnotes – but it’s a great snapshot of the intellectual excitement of the age.

We arrived to the liberation and rebirth of the country when we were ten, others fourteen, others fifteen. Virgins. Conscious enough to have understood what had happened before, innocent enough because we had not had time to compromise ourselves. We were a generation that started maturing when all opportunities were open, and we were ready for every risk, while our elders were still used to protecting each other.

These elders are the writers and intellectuals who endured the years of Fascism. “They gathered in shadowy cafés, talked amongst themselves and wrote for a limited public. They lived badly and helped each other find a translation, a poorly paid newspaper job.” It’s such a fascinating overview of Italian intelligentsia, and the difference between two generations, that I can’t believe this one was left out of the English edition!

Curiously, the more bookish articles, that is, the ones that would appeal more to bibliophiles such as myself, although always interesting, are not the book’s best. In “Hugo, Helás!: The Poetics of Excess,” Eco, a great admirer of Victor Hugo, explores the role excess plays in his aesthetics – everything is huge in him, the cast, the personalities, the feelings, the plot. I just wish I had ever read Hugo, to feel more connected to it. Next we have “Ulysses: That’s all we needed,” a compilation of excerpts from Italian reviews of Ulysses from the twenties and thirties, during Fascism. The main thing to retain from this text: Ulysses was not popular in Italy at the time. Since I do not hide my contempt for this abstruse novel, I was thrilled to see so many people heap scorn on it, even if they were, alas, fascists. Amongst them was my much adored Curzio Malaparte: “Joyce is, at the bottom, amongst those called upon to perpetuate the bad taste of Italian bourgeoisie. But, thanks to God, and Mussolini, Italy is not all of it bourgeois, Europeanist and Parisian.” And my bourgeois readers better not forget: Malaparte, author of Kaputt and The Skin, is much, much better than this writer, this “decadent Irish poet,” who wrote in “humid fragments” a novel that after a “first and laborious read” one can agree is “not a work of art,” but rather a “sort of psychological pointillism,” a fashion destined to “last briefly,” for no person with moral decency or patience can withstand for long such an “interminable gallery full of filth and inhabited by monsters.” Oh, God, those Italians should win a retroactive Hatchet Job of the Year Award!

Usually I spend several years without reading a single Eco. Still under the aura of this book, I don’t understand why. This book contains everything I love: humour, knowledge without academicism, elegant prose, and a passion for books that directs the reader towards more and more books.


  1. I'm still laughing at the Malaparte comments; he is not a writer who holds back.

    It's been years since I read any Eco, but I still think about some of the essays in Travels in Hyperreality. I'm curious to read what Eco has to say about Eugène Sue, whose Les Mystères de Paris (speaking of skin) is an ongoing and seemingly interminable project for this year.

    1. Seraillon, I'm glad you laughed, but mind you, only the first quote is Malaparte, the rest is a medley from all the other reviews.

      Eco the essayist for some reason interests me a lot more than Eco the novelist, don't know why, he's a fine novelist of course. But his essays are small masterpieces of content and wit.

  2. Ah, this sounds so much like the literary equivalent of a bunga bunga party, Miguel--too bad about that chapter left out of the English translation. Have not read Eco in years, and I'm not sure why.

  3. Hmm, I haven't read Eco in decades. I should give him a browse, pilfer him a little. The Hugo essay, for example - I could use that.

    1. Funny, we all agree on the same: we've read Eco; we haven't read Eco in years; we think he's a great writer.

      Tom, the Hugo bit is quite good, even better for someone like you's actually read him.