Travels in Hyperreality

Readers should not be put off by the wording of Eco’s title essay. By “hyperreality,” he does not mean an excursion into speculative fantasy, but into real life itself, exaggerated and self-parodied by twentieth century man to create for himself little “fortresses of solitude.” Beginning with holographic images, which create artificial, three-dimensional illusions of reality, Eco moves with exuberant good humor to other examples of trumpery: wax museums in Southern California and other American locales; dioramas at the Museum of the City of New York; President Lyndon Johnson’s memorial repository of personal artifacts in Austin, Texas; Ripley’s “Believe-It or Not!” Museum in San Francisco; Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California; Hearst’s “Castle” in San Simeon and the Madonna Inn near San Luis Obisbo, both in central California. Not since Evelyn Waugh’s dyspeptic account of Hollywood has a European captured with his pen so many scenes of vulgarity and ostentation. Eco, however, unlike Waugh (also unlike Tom Wolfe, the American pop-culture satirist whose essays most closely resemble the Italian’s), is a historian as well as a critic, a scholar whose sense of balance permits him to praise certain American constructs, including J. Paul Getty’s Art Museum in Malibu, California, and the Vieux Carre in New Orleans.

Other essays exhibit much the same quality of refined intelligence. In two essays on “The Return of the Middle...

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