Umberto Eco World Literature Analysis
Umberto Eco is among the most cerebral contemporary authors. His store of factual information from the broad range of fields in his specialty, semiotics, is all-encompassing. In his university days, he focused his semiotic studies on the medieval period, and he has made creative use of this period in his subsequent writing.
A strenuous academic focus in his life and writing preceded the publication of his first novel, The Name of the Rose. The broad scope of his scholarship led him deeply into the history and psychology of art and architecture, as well as into music, aesthetics, logic, communication theory, and many areas of history. His explorations reached beyond Western culture. He delved into Eastern cultures as well, seeking always to understand the signs by which cultures communicate.
Eco’s close reading and profound understanding of the works of James Joyce left indelible marks on his writing. Just as Joyce grappled with the question of how to deal with time within his work, so Eco has dealt with similar questions. Time is a vast continuum devoid of beginning and end. In The Name of the Rose, Eco uses an intricately structured temporal framework, with definite beginnings and definite ends, to provide a recognizable pattern—that is, impose meaning—on time’s fluid continuum.
Eco’s handling of time in his fiction is crucial and provides one of the many conceptual levels at which his two mystery novels, The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, function. In Ulysses (1922), Joyce confines his action to a twenty-four-hour day; Eco, in his first novel, situates the action in a seven-day period in which days are divided into rigidly structured segments. In Foucault’s Pendulum, however, Eco deals with time differently, not using much of the sequential structure of his first novel. In this work time is not dealt with in the linear way in which Western cultures view it.
The structure of time is one of the most significant conceptual frameworks for human communication. The ways in which people segment this infinite, unsegmented continuum fascinates Eco. Each dot on the continuum—each life, each thing—has virtually no intrinsic meaning, yet each one exists within a context that imposes meaning. The way one understands time, Eco might argue, is the way one interprets one’s experience.
In Interpretation and Overinterpretation (1992), a book drawn from the Tanner Lectures, delivered at Cambridge University in the preceding year, Eco discusses with Richard Rorty, Jonathan Culler, and Christine Brooke-Rose the limits of interpretation. Rorty defends readers’ rights to use texts for their own purposes and to interpret them in the light of these purposes. Eco, however, limits the extent to which texts can be interpreted and allows authors the right to rule out some interpretations, thereby allowing writers the luxury of being interpreted within the framework of their own creative intent.
Postmodern critic Culler defends overinterpretation (interpretation beyond the framework of the author’s intent), which presumably would include interpretations of old works based upon subsequent scientific findings. For example, Culler might defend interpreting Sophocles’ or William Shakespeare’s work in the light of Freudian or Jungian psychology. Although Eco accepts interpretations based on scientific findings that come after a piece of literature has been published, he balks at many of the interpretive schools that have grown out of movements with political agendas.
Brooke-Rose is close to Eco in her interpretive theory, believing that literary texts, in and of themselves, are interpretations that continually retest mythic paradigms. She, like Eco, considers the writer a reader of “the world, the book, and the world as book.”
Eco’s life, as demonstrated clearly in such seminal scholarly works in English as A Theory of Semiotics (1976), The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (1979), and Semiotica e filosofia del linguaggio (1984; Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, 1984), has focused intently on attempts to understand the order that cultures impose upon an amorphous environment. In all of his work, scholarly and creative, Eco is fundamentally concerned with moving toward an understanding of the meaning of meaning.
Eco’s two early novels, wearing the mantle of popular mystery novels, are intricately layered works that, to be understood at any but a superficial level, must be read in the light of their many levels of meaning. The Joycean technique of intricately layering meaning is apparent on every page of Eco’s elaborately structured novels.
Eco contends that if signs do not reveal things themselves—that is, if meaning is not inherent within signs—communities produce a shared idea of what the thing is. This extension of Plato’s theory of innate ideas and of Immanuel Kant’s theory of Dinge an sicht (things in themselves) leads toward the key to understanding the meaning that Eco seeks.
The Name of the Rose
First published: Il nome della rosa, 1980 (English translation, 1983)
Type of work: Novel
Set in a fourteenth century monastery, The Name of the Rose is a multilayered, philosophical treatise successfully masquerading as a mystery thriller.
In his first novel, Eco, already widely published in semiotics, sets up a story reminiscent of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Eco, however, uses his mystery story to convey to his readers an incredible wealth of information about the medieval period, semiotics, aesthetics, and logic. Eco’s intention obviously was not merely to write a thriller. Indeed, much of The Name of the Rose, which launches frequently into serious philosophical discourse, is far from thrilling.
The novel treats dissension within the Franciscan order that reaches the boiling point in...
(The entire section is 2494 words.)