Tag Archives: Umberto Eco

“Revisiting History” by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

This essay is included in the book Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism. Since most of the essay concerns Italian politics and media (a topic which I know little about), the names and references were somewhat meaningless to me. Still, there are a couple sections that discuss fascism and dictatorships that I found interesting.

There seems to be a belief that true political change only occurs through extreme action or revolution. But Eco points out that this is not really the case, that a Fascist Revolution is gradual.

At school they spoke to me about the “Fascist revolution,” but afterward it became clear to me that Fascism hadn’t arrived overnight, like the tanks in Budapest or in Prague, but crept into the country gradually.

(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 166 – 7)

As the election campaign in the US heats up, the rhetoric and tweeting and social media noise is reaching epic levels. As such, dialog and debate is being suffocated, as I see it. People are no longer open to constructive debate and only seek validation of their already established views, and anyone who expresses disagreement with those views is attacked ruthlessly. This is creating a dangerous environment which, as Eco points out, is ripe for the rise of a dictatorship.

In other words, the absence of political debate spells dictatorship, in which criticism is forbidden and newspapers that don’t toe the government line are closed down.

(ibid: p. 177)

Thankfully, the United States is not a fascist country, nor is it ruled by a dictator, but it would be naïve to pretend that we are not moving close to a precipice that we could easily tumble over. Looking back over the past 30 years, you can see the trend towards intolerance for dissent, factionalism, tribalism, and a stark division between the political right and the left. If this trend continues, it will not end well. I hope that the current ranting will move back toward constructive debate.

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“Foreigners and Us” by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

I have to say, I was intrigued by the title of this essay (included in Turning Back the Clock), particularly given the distrust of foreigners that many Americans currently feel. There are some correlations between the essay and current affairs in the United States, but not ones I expected.

The first correlation is in regard to news media. Eco explains how the veracity of news is determined by whether the views expressed support the established views of the reader. This has been taken to the extreme in the US, where people on the left see MSNBC as the source of truth and those on the right assume FOX News is the source of truth. But the fact is that both sources are biased and the truth lies somewhere else.

By this reasoning, if a public prosecutor accuses us of a crime, then he is an agent of the plot, and if he acquits us, he is virtuous and upright. It’s like saying that The Economist is trash because it criticizes the Polo candidate, but The Times is a model of journalism because it is more indulgent toward him. Where will we end up if we fall into such barbarism?

(Turning Back the Clock: p. 158)

Eco also points out that many politicians now rely on negative campaigning to differentiate themselves from the opposing candidate. It’s the “Vote for me because I am not that person” ploy, and it seems to resonate. I hear people saying they will vote for one candidate solely because they do not like the other candidate.

Many politicians have run for office saying that they wouldn’t behave like the Soviet Union, or Haider, that they weren’t Nazis or Stalinists, that they harbored no authoritarian ambitions, that they didn’t want their country to be reduced to the level of those governed by Idi Amin Dada, Francois Duvalier, Saddam Hussein, and so on.

(ibid: p. 160)

But the thing that stands out the most for me in this essay is a section regarding Americans, how we are a diverse culture bound together by rules of coexistence.

It’s hard to say who the Americans really are, because they are the descendants of the old British Protestant pioneers, Jews, Italians, Irish, Poles, Puerto Ricans, and God knows how many others. But what makes the United States a nation is the fact that all Americans have absorbed a fundamental principle, one that—when the time is right—also fuels their patriotism. The principle is very simple: This is the country where I make a living and allows me, if I can, to become rich, so I must accept some of its rules of coexistence.

(ibid: p. 161)

Maybe this was the case in 2003, but I see a growing disregard for the rules of coexistence in this country. In fact, there seems to be a reaction against the rules of coexistence. A growing number of very vocal individuals appear to want rules of exclusivity that favor one group above others. I find this a frightening trend and one that is bound to end poorly if it continues.

As the 2016 election campaigns continue and the rhetoric becomes more vitriolic, I feel powerless to do much other than share my thoughts and watch how it all unfolds.

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Mythological Cycles in “Library of Souls” by Ransom Riggs

LibraryOfSouls

If you follow my blog, you probably know how I feel about trilogies. They are not my favorite and I am frequently annoyed by stories that start out great and then seem to drag on in an attempt to fill three volumes. Thankfully, this book is one of the exceptions. In fact, this is as great if not better than the first book in the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children trilogy. Not only is it very well written and illustrated with “found” vintage photographs that add to the overall surreal weirdness of the book, but the text is rich in symbolism and mythology. I was so engrossed in this book that I found it difficult to put down.

I want to focus my post on the allusions to mythology that permeate this book. For those of you who have not read this yet, fear not, I will not include any spoilers, and hopefully this will help you enjoy the richness of this novel.

On the whole, this book is a classic example of the hero’s journey. We have all the motifs that make up the hero myth, and early in the book we are clued in to the fact that we are going along on the epic adventure.

The present seemed suddenly strange to me, so trivial and distracted. I felt like one of those mythical heroes who fights his way back from the underworld only to realize that the world above is every bit as damned as the one below.

(p. 47)

There is a beautiful scene where three of the peculiars encounter Sharon, the boatman. He is a spectral figure and clearly a representation of Charon, the mythical boatman who ferries souls across the river Styx.

“STOP!” came a booming voice from inside the boat.

Emma squealed, Addison yelped, and I nearly leapt out of my skin. A man who’d been sitting in the boat—how had we not seen him until now?!—rose slowly to his feet, straightening himself inch by inch until he towered over us. He was seven feet tall, at least, his massive frame draped in a cloak and his face hidden beneath a dark hood.

“I’m—I’m so sorry!” Emma stammered. “It’s—we thought the boat was—“

“Many have tried to steal from Sharon!” the man thundered. “Now their skulls make homes for sea creatures!”

“I swear we weren’t trying to—“

“We’ll just be going,” squeaked Addison, backing away, “so sorry to bother you, milord.”

“SILENCE!” the boatman roared, stepping onto the creaking dock with one enormous stride. “Anyone who comes for my boat must PAY THE PRICE!”

(pp. 50 – 51)

A common theme among myths is the classic battle waged by the gods, the proverbial “clash of the titans.”

“… There dawned a dark time, in which the power-mad waged epic battles against one another for control of Abaton and the Library of Souls. Many lives were lost. The land was scorched. Famine and pestilence reigned while peculiars with power beyond imagination murdered one another with floods and lightning bolts. This is where normals got their tales of gods fighting for supremacy of the sky. Their Clash of the Titans was our battle for the Library of Souls.”

(p. 194)

I had read in a book by Umberto Eco how legendary and mythological lands occupy a unique place. We cannot say for sure that they never existed, but through the retelling of the stories, they become places that also exist in our collective consciousness, a place that is the source of our imagination and creativity.

“We may never know for certain if Abaton is a real place,” Bentham said, his lips spreading into a sphinx’s smile. “That’s what makes it a legend. But like rumors of buried treasure, the legendariness of the story has not stopped people, over the centuries, from searching for it. It is said that Perplexus Anomalous  himself committed years to the hunt for the lost loop of Abaton—which is how he began to discover so many of the loops that appear in his famous maps.”

(p. 195)

But in the end, what makes a story a myth is that it is more than just a story. It is a story that contains universal truths that convey what it is to be divine, sentient beings living in this realm of existence. The myth expresses parts of us that cannot be told other than through the rich symbols and metaphors that comprise the myth.

Just a story. It had become one of the defining truths of my life that, no matter how I tried to keep them flattened, two-dimensional, jailed in paper and ink, there would always be stories that refused to stay bound in books. It was never just a story. I would know: a story had swallowed my whole life.

(p. 371)

I confess that I felt sad when I finished this book. I felt really invested in the story and connected with the characters. I didn’t want it to end. But isn’t that the thing with stories like this? They never really end. They just cycle around again, waiting in our collective consciousness for the next great writer to resurrect the mythical beings that have inspired us since time immemorial.

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“On Mass Media Populism” by Umberto Eco

TurningBackTheClock

This essay, included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism, is actually comprised of several shorter essays on the same theme. It’s very timely, considering the media circus surrounding the presidential primaries here in the US.

Anyone who is even vaguely aware of the US primaries will likely agree with Eco’s assertion regarding how a politician can dominate the media.

He makes promises that—good, bad, or indifferent as they may seem to his supporters—are a provocation to his critics. He comes up with a provocation a day, and if they are bizarre or outrageous, so much the better. This allows him to occupy the front pages of the paper and the breaking news on television, with the result that he is always at the center of attention. The provocation must be calculated to ensure that the opposition cannot avoid picking up the gauntlet and reacting vigorously.

(p. 134)

One thing I found enlightening in this essay was Eco’s explanation of how news stories use structure to validate their arguments while positioning their view as the truth in a debate.

Television works this way. If there is a debate about a law, the issue is presented and the opposition is immediately given the chance to put forward all its arguments. This is followed by government supporters, who counter the objections. The result is predictable: he who speaks last is right. If you carefully follow all the TV news programs, you will see this strategy: the project is presented, the opposition speaks first, the government supporters speak last. Never the other way around.

A media regime has no need to imprison its opponents. It doesn’t silence them by censorship, it merely has them give their arguments first.

(pp. 144 – 145)

Finally, Eco asserts that electoral campaigns have become a spectacle focusing on appearances.

The electoral campaign emerges as a spectacle of form, in which what matters is not what the candidate actually stands for but how he appears to others.

(p. 155)

So what is a voting citizen to think about all this? It’s a legitimate question and one that Eco poses as the conclusion of his essay.

When you finish reading, you wonder: Is this really what democracy is all about? A way to gain public favor, based only on orchestrated appearances and a strategy of deceit?

(p. 156)

Ever the idealist, I’d still like to believe that democracy means more, that it is still about advancing humanity and civilization. As always, thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read thought-provoking stuff.

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“The 2001 Electoral Campaign and Veteran Communist Strategy” by Umberto Eco

UmbertoEco

While this essay, included in the book Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism, explores the 2001 Italian election, there is a lot that is relevant to the 2012 election here in the US.

Eco first points out that advertising principles play an important role in electoral campaigns: “From the model of advertising they have taken the constant repetition of one symbol plus a few simple slogans, as well as a shrewd color scheme.” (p. 121) In the US electoral race, this is standard across the board, and every candidate must use some color combination of red, white, and blue.

One thing I have noticed about the 2016 US political race is how aggressive it has become. Eco points out that this was also the case in the 2001 Italian election: “… every opposing point of view was branded as against the people, accompanied by constant complaints about the aggressiveness of others.” (p. 123)

Possibly the most frightening similarity is the stanch refusal to compromise on anything. Politics in the United States has become so polarized that it no longer matters what the policy or idea is—if it was presented by the other party, then it must be rejected completely. This was also the case in Italy, as Eco explains.

The 1968 model also lives on in the tactic of never giving an inch to the adversary, but always demonizing him whatever his proposals are, then refusing dialogue and debate (such as turning down interviews with any journalist seen as a lackey of power). This rejection of compromise was based on the constantly reiterated conviction that revolutionary victory was imminent.

(p. 125)

As I read this, I could not help but consider the Republican refusal to consider a Supreme Court nomination from President Obama asserting that the next president (meaning a Republican based on their victory conviction) should fill the post.

Finally, there are stark similarities between Berlusconi and Donald Trump regarding popular appeal and the reasons behind it, particularly that because he is rich, he is better qualified to be a leader.

Nor should we ignore the populist stamp of some of the arguments with which people, even those of humble origins, used to demonstrate their liking for Berlusconi. The arguments are: (1) being rich, he won’t steal (an argument based on the man in the street’s slipshod equation of politician with thief); (2) what do I care if he looks after his own interests, the main thing is that he look after mine too; (3) a man who has become enormously rich will be able to distribute wealth among the people he governs…

(p. 126)

History has a nasty habit of repeating itself, as is evident when you compare Italy’s 2001 election with the current American one. Sadly, though, people ignore or forget the lessons that history offers. I can only hope that this tendency changes in the future, but, if history is any indicator…

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“Numero Zero” by Umberto Eco

NumeroZero

As a result of the recent passing of Umberto Eco, I decided to bump this book up on my reading list. It is his most recent book, and sadly, his last one. It’s a short novel and fairly easy to read—not nearly as challenging as some of his other books. Still, it is classic Eco, steeped in conspiracy and social commentary, with ample references to history and literature.

This is a story about a newspaper in Milan that stumbles upon a conspiracy that may connect Mussolini with the Vatican, and suggests that Mussolini’s death was fake. There are lots of references that probably would have meant more to me if I was better versed in Italian history, but that did not detract from the book in any way. There is one criticism about this book, though, which I should probably get out of the way first. Personally, I thought the translation was very weak. It almost seemed like someone plugged the text into Google Translate which then spit out a translation void of nuance. This is especially noticeable in the dialog. All the language is flat and it is almost impossible to discern one character from another.

“But it’s like calling John XXIII the Good Pope. This presupposes the popes before him were bad.”

“Maybe that’s what people actually thought, otherwise he wouldn’t have been called good. Have you seen a photo of Pius XII? In a James Bond movie he’d have been the head of SPECTRE.”

“But it was the newspapers that called John XXIII the Good Pope, and the people followed suit.”

“That’s right. Newspapers teach people how to think,” Simei said.

“But do newspapers follow trends or create trends?”

(p. 83)

So in the previous excerpt, there are actually three people taking part in the dialog, but it is virtually impossible to tell one from another based upon the tone of the person speaking. I suspect in the original Italian, there was more nuance in the voices, but I cannot be certain about that. Anyway, now I can talk about what I liked.

This book’s strength is its critique against the news media. I’ve read essays by Eco where he addresses problems with news media, but here he presents his ideas creatively through fiction.

One of the ideas that Eco puts forth in this book is that news organizations actually create the news.

It’s not the news that makes the newspaper, but the newspaper that makes the news.

(p. 49)

This is true. The newspapers and news stations decide what is news and what is not. They decide what information is disseminated to the populace, and often these decisions are influenced by political agendas and advertising. In addition to the news media deciding what is “news,” there is another issue that impedes one’s ability to find important and unbiased news, and that is the fact that in the digital age, news is buried and hidden within a “sea of information.”

The point is that newspapers are not there for spreading the news but for covering it up. X happens, you have to report it, but it causes embarrassment for too many people, so in the same edition you add some shock headlines—mother kills four children, savings at risk of going up in smoke, letter from Garibaldi insulting his lieutenant Nino Bixio discovered, etc.—so news drowns in a great sea of information.

(pp. 140 – 141)

This passage makes me think a lot about FOX News and their scrolling ticker across the bottom of the screen. On a regular basis, the word ALERT! in red appears and pulls your eyes toward the ticker, distracting you from whatever is being discussed in the report. I cannot help but wonder if the timing of the alerts is orchestrated. As an experiment, I think I will watch closely and note what is being discussed each time an alert flashes at the bottom of the screen.

While this was not my favorite Eco book, I am still glad I read it and it is certainly worth reading, in spite of the translation issues. It’s a quick read and as with everything that Eco wrote, it is impossible to read this book and not come away a wiser person for doing so.

Cheers, and keep on reading!

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A Tragic Day for Literature: Umberto Eco and Harper Lee

Yesterday was a truly tragic day for literature. We lost two of our most treasured writers. Ms. Harper Lee passed away at the age of 89, and the great Umberto Eco died at the age of 84. I find it difficult to express how deeply I am saddened.

Umberto Eco was my favorite writer. I think why I felt such a connection to him is because he did it all. He wrote amazing literary analysis that is insightful and thought-provoking. He tackled complex social issues in essays that were both witty and complex. Finally, he wrote such rich novels that were mysterious, philosophical, and engaging. I cannot sing this man’s praises enough. His genius is reflected in everything that he wrote, and there is much out there to read.

In contrast to the prolific Eco, Harper Lee essentially wrote one book that changed the world. If anyone ever suggests that writing is a frivolous pursuit, you need only mention To Kill a Mockingbird and how that one book impacted society. And yes, Ms. Lee also recently published Go Set a Watchman, but it can be argued that this was the draft of what would be her masterpiece. Harper Lee was the literary equivalent to a one-hit-wonder in music, but that one hit delivered one of the most powerful blows in literature.

Although they are gone, their works will live on to inspire. The world suffers the loss of these two literary geniuses. I guess I can only feel grateful that I lived at the same time as these two brilliant writers.

Here are links to some of my past posts discussing Eco’s and Lee’s works. May they both rest in peace.


 

Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco


 

Harper Lee

Harper Lee

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