Arts Interview: Postmodernism with the late Umberto Eco

“All my effort is to transform machines into narrative, to show how much narrative power they have inside them, how they can tell stories.”

Umberto Eco. Photo: Famous Authors

The late Umberto Eco. Photo: Famous Authors.

By Harvey Blume

When I interviewed Umberto Eco, who died, age 84, last week, in Milan, a good part of the interchange took place on a ride to Logan airport, but perhaps its denouement happened once we were there. En route, Eco said that at first he couldn’t imagine Sean Connery playing the main role in the movie based on his The Name of the Rose — What!? James Bond in a medieval monastery? Looking into a lost masterwork by Aristotle? — but then changed his mind.

Connery doesn’t play any kind of Bond, as Eco feared; he plays a cool, smart, skeptic, one who has suffered at the hands of the Inquisition and who is nevertheless embarrassed by the fanatical opposition to it. Very Scottish.

It’s a very good movie, in my estimation, and even before it came out with Connery as William Baskerville (the name taken from the Doyle story) in the lead, the novel was a hit.

I can’t quite explain why. The novel contains what anthropologists might call a thick description of the cults, conspiracies, and revolts roiling the late Middle Ages. There’s less of the good v. evil depicted in the film and much more of sheer complexity.

Eco throughout his career was drawn to the tortured relations among power, politics and religion. It might be said he never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t want to expose, dissect or even invent.

Eco’s fascination with such makes his Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) well-nigh unreadable. In The Name of the Rose, for all its learned complexity, doesn’t succumb to that flaw.

Truth is, we didn’t talk too much about conspiracies on the way to Logan, or, for that matter, Eco’s novels. We talked about postmodernism, as described in his collection of essays, Travels in Hyperreality (1990), and how the version of it many of us were encountering in digital form was but a second coming.

When we got to Logan, it became evident how serious Eco was about experiencing hyperreality, American style, when he ordered a foot-long meatball sub and preceded to heartily consume, perhaps even enjoy.

“They landed then at a sixth island, still farther to the west, where all the natives talked among themselves incessantly, one telling another what he would like the other to be and do and vice versa. Those islanders, in fact, could live only if they were narrated; if a transgressor told unpleasant stories . . . the others would cease telling anything about him, and he would die.” — Umberto Eco, The Island of the Day Before.


Arts Fuse: I’ve read an interview with you in which you denounce interviewing.

Umberto Eco: My theory is that the interview has taken the place of the review. Newspapers are so full of interviews that once they have interviewed the author they forget to review the book. In a review you trust that a person will give you an opinion about a book; in an interview the author is usually advertising himself. The interview is unfair for the reader. And the author is at his best in the book, losing years and years to it. In the interview, he gives his worst, so you also get the worst of the author.

In the present state of Italian press, the interview has become a way to fill up the newspaper. In Italy, every writer and scholar can be disturbed during the day — I don’t answer my phone — “Ingrid Bergman is dead. What is your opinion?” What opinion can you have about it? You say, obviously, I’m sad, a great actress. “There was a flood in your native city. What is your opinion?”

AF: You’re against it?

Eco: Obviously. And today Italian politics is made up of fake interviews in which they ask somebody something, then change it slightly or isolate a sentence in order to get a response from other politicians. It’s a sort political discussion made up of mutual misunderstandings.

AF: Of course, as a journalist, you regularly interview yourself for your own opinions.

Eco: That’s true. It was understood from the beginning that my column would not have to be bound to events. If I had read Homer the night before, I would be free to write about Homer.

AF: Primo Levi, too, had that kind of access, and wrote with great charm for newspapers.

Eco: It’s normal for the European intellectual. It’s typical of the Italian, of the Spanish, of the German intellectual to have a continuous relationship with the media, and with politics, too. It’s not the same here or even in Great Britain. It was a shock in the time of Bertrand Russell to see a philosopher so involved in public affairs, atomic disarmament, and the like. It’s completely usual to have a Gunther Grass or a Sartre involved in politics.

AF: One thing I find fascinating in your work is that you show there are many postmodernisms, that postmodernism is recurrent.

Eco: Hellenistic literature was a postmodern reflection upon the past literature. Open and closed forms are returning episodes in the history of art, and I think that the postmodern attitude is not a typical feature of our time but an attitude returning cyclically in different eras.

AF: What do you mean by postmodernism?

Eco: I should say I don’t mean anything by it because they invented the term, not me. But let’s say in certain eras you realize you are no longer innocent. You cannot forget what has been written before, and cannot play the role of the innocent. Otherwise you are like one of those painters for which there once existed an academy in Yugoslavia, an academy for producing naive painters, a grotesque idea of naiveté since you had to be taught to become naive.

When you have lost your innocence and you know the readers, too, have lost their innocence, literature plays a game upon itself by quotations and references. A novel can be the novel of itself. That is probably the case with The Island of the Day Before, a novel in which somebody is writing a novel while a ghostly narrator reflects upon novel writing.

AF: You also discuss overinterpretation, a condition in which meanings slip, imply other meanings, refuse to come to rest inside themselves. You write about Hermeticism as a form of overinterpretation: “In the myth of Hermes . . . the causal chains wind back on themselves in spirals; the ‘after’ precedes the ‘before’, the god knows no spatial limits and may, in different shapes, be in different places at the same time.”

Hypertext seems like a good contemporary example of Hermeticism. Things do not stabilize; they always point to other things.

Eco: The World Wide Web is a systematic hypertext; you can go anywhere. That is different from hypertext made only, say, of Shakespeare’s opus, in which all the points and connections are related to a finished corpus of Shakespearean works. You can go through it ad infinitum but still remain bound to Shakespeare.

With the World Wide Web I came across the site of a Toronto library to find a book about Freud, to find in Freud the word “sex,” to click on “sex” and find myself in a Playboy site. With Shakespeare’s hypertext you cannot do that; you cannot arrive in Playboy from Hamlet. Overinterpretation is the way of reading in which Shakespeare can lead you to Playboy. When I speak of overinterpretation, I speak of that reading attitude by which you put your personal positions inside the text, and in the end are no longer reading the text, you are reading yourself.

And I give many examples of reading that are disproved by the text, when you have to respect that text. You cannot say Shakespeare was speaking of Einstein. Shakespeare didn’t speak of Einstein, he couldn’t, whereas on the Web you can make any connection between Shakespeare and Einstein and Playboy; you can spend your nights making weird connections.

AF: The World Wide Web may be a Hermetic conception in some way, but the fact that it is implemented electronically on a huge scale changes the way people think and read, and that would seem to make this postmodernism different from others.

Eco: It is blatantly true that our Web is electronic but I think that the Renaissance magus who aims to interconnect every item of the world by a network of sympathies is pretty similar. In my novel, I speak of the metaphor machine. I didn’t invent it. It was conceived and designed.

They didn’t have the electronic way of realizing it but the software was already in their mind. The ideal of a Web connecting everything with everything is an old dream of mankind.

AF: It’s present in The Island of the Day Before.

Eco: Yes, and there is a seventeenth-century book in which the author conceived a way of producing billions of poems in honor of the Virgin. The combinatorial idea has already been there for centuries. We have only succeeded in making it electronically possible. And obviously, quantity always changes quality. If instead of 10,000 permutations, you can make 10,000 billion permutations this changes your attitude.

AF: In all three of your novels there is powerful description of machinery. In Foucault’s Pendulum, the narrator writes, “How could I endure in the midst of that foul concatenation of diesel genitals and turbine-driven vaginas, the inorganic throats that once had flamed, steamed, and hissed, and might again that very night?” In The Island of the Day Before, you write about clocks. And then there is your well-known statement, “Every text . . . is a lazy machine asking the reader to do some of its work.”

Why are you so interested in machines?


Eco: I was a failure in mathematics and physics at school. I am unable to understand mechanical instruments, unable to change a light bulb or use a screwdriver, but before I was thirty I worked in a publishing house, which is still my publishing house, and had to put together a pictorial history of inventions. I had to travel to museums to find images of inventions. For three years I worked with scientists, and I became fascinated with machines. I found them full of narrative aspects. When, in The Name of the Rose, I speak of eyeglasses, I was drawing from my discoveries in the history of science. These explorations in the history of science and technology enriched me enormously.

I take machines as fairy tales, not as really working but as models for mental functioning. That was probably why, when computers came within everybody’s reach, I became fascinated with computers.

AF: You introduce computer code into Foucault’s Pendulum.

Eco: All the instruments I describe in the novels come from those early exploration in machines. As a rare book collector I collect a lot of books on strange machines. There are people fascinated by horses; I am fascinated by machines.

AF: You tend to see them not only as complicated but as monstrous.

Eco: I look at them as living creatures. You remember Rube Goldberg, who designed strange and complex machines in the thirties and early forties? I was always fascinated by them. As a child, reading about Mickey Mouse captured and tied in rope while a candle burns the rope, and the rope keeps him from falling down a chute — I was always fascinated by such tricks. Don’t ask why. Something in my software.

AF: In the eighteenth century there was a tremendous fascination with the machine, automatons, the mechanical chess player . . .

Eco: Yes, and also the shitting duck. You put something in the mouth of this machine and out comes shit.

AF: We make machines to accomplish a task. They were building machines . . .

Eco: For the sake of themselves

AF: Because the universe might be a machine.

Eco: The mechanical view of the universe was an important theme all during the seventeenth and the eighteenth century.

It’s true people use objects as functional objects and when they are broken they throw them away. I am fascinated by broken objects. I see them as a piece of sculpture.

AF: As do many artists.

Eco: Yes, like Tinguely and Arman. That’s probably the reason why Arman and I became good friends.

I am very very happy you remarked about machines. All my effort is to transform machines into narrative, to show how much narrative power they have inside them, how they can tell stories.

AF: Do you truly see a text as a type of machine?

Eco: To the extent to which our brain is a kind of machine, even the story is a kind of machine, a strategy you have to set up.

Suppose you say, “Roberto, open the door.” You are not mentioning the hand. But the reader has to collaborate and at this point imagines the hand, and the slight movement of opening. The story is a machine in the sense in which by a few strokes it gets you to create a larger imaginary world. I’ve always been fascinated by hypothiposis. All the great rhetoricians from Aristotle on speak of it, that mysterious activity in which by using words, you create images. You name something and there is an image in your mind. How can it happen that by using words, which are sound, you create images in the minds of your reader?

AF: In Foucault’s Pendulum and in one of your essays you focus on African-based religions, on Condomblé, for example..

Eco: I had some interesting experiences in Brazil and used them as a metaphor for the rest of the story. In the same way I am fascinated by machines I am fascinated by cults. Somebody said why does Foucault’s Pendulum have a long intermission in Brazil; it is extraneous to the story. No, for me, it’s the summary of all the rest.

AF: The material you’re interested in usually shows up both in your fiction and your nonfiction.

Eco: It’s natural. It’s like I am looking out of the windows of my country house. There are beautiful clouds, and they are changing every five minutes. I see a beautiful cloud, and I decide to put it into the novel. In the same vein, I find a nice idea, I decide to put it into the novel.


AF: How do you think about balancing narrative and information, storytelling and erudition in your novels?

Eco: The problem is to transform erudition into narration. Take the problem of longitude, central to The Island of the Day Before. It took me three years to understand the whole story and I had to make it evident to the reader in non-boring way. So I imagine a talk with Mazarin and Colbert in which I presume, in ten pages of spy story, to provide my readers with the necessary information. All the rest comes step by step in reading the novel.

AF: You describe a powder of sympathy that was used in the attempt to solve the problem of longitude. A dog’s wound is kept open on a ship in the South Pacific. At an agreed upon hour the knife that opened that wound is touched in London. The dog howls and whimpers. The seamen then know London time, and this helps them determine longitude.

It amazes me that the powder of sympathy and the bleeding dog aren’t fictions. They were aspects of the day’s science, and employed in the attempt to establish longitude.

Eco: You know, we are wounding a lot of dogs today in order to improve our scientific knowledge. What is science if not a wounded dog?

AF: In The Name of the Rose, you sketch obscure modes of thought but always connect them to the interests of church and state. The details are a bit hazy but knowledge is always connected to power; it’s never immune to being used by power. In that sense, it’s never apolitical. I don’t find that same connection in the later two novels.

Eco: I think Foucault’s Pendulum, maybe in an allegorical way, is linked to power. Plotting and secrecy as instruments of power play important roles.

AF: It seems plotting and secrecy have lives of their own in that book, as if suspended above particular interests.

Eco: The smart reader should understand the links to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It’s more masked, maybe, then the links in The Name of the Rose. But in my interpretation, Foucault’s Pendulum is about the genesis of fascism. Conspiracy theory, Pat Robertson, these people now, the Michigan Militia — it is an attack on these people. I should have published it now, not ten years ago.

Originally appeared in The Boston Book Review, 1994.

Harvey Blume is an author—Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo—who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse, and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.

1 Comment

  1. […] tied to both the usefulness and the incompleteness of our tools. As those who are acquainted with Eco’s thoughts regarding post-modernism may have noticed, The Name of the Rose is possibly the best work of fiction I could’ve chosen for […]

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