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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2029

Collections of essays are, even at their best, mixed bags, even when written by someone like Umberto Eco, respected in the fields of semiotics, medieval studies, literary and cultural criticism, and fiction writing, to name a few. On Literature is an eclectic collection. Its “occasional writings” include five lectures, six conference papers, one closing address, two short newspaper articles, one preface, one afterword, one essay, and an indeterminate other, for which the explanatory endnote was omitted. All were delivered or published between 1980 and 2000 (and all but one after 1990), then revised. The publisher is inaccurate in claiming that the eighteen pieces cover “the course of his illustrious career,” which began two decades before the publication of Eco's first novel, the improbable international best-seller Il nome della rosa (1980; The Name of the Rose, 1983). The publisher is also remiss in making it seem that the essays have not appeared in English before; some have, albeit in different form.

On Literature is clearly intended for American readers—or, more accurately, the American market. Although as a critic and semiotician, Eco has shown scant interest in literature's economic side—from which he has profited handsomely—the publication of this miscellany in 2004 cannot be separated from Harcourt's publication of the paperback edition of Eco's fourth novel, Baudolino, in 2003 and the impending publication of The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, the English translation of his fifth novel, La Misteriosa fiamma della Regina Loana(2004), in 2005.

In his theory of the “Model Reader,” Eco puts crude economic matters aside, for the Model Reader is not the actual reader (least of all the one with $26) but that purely hypothetical being—or beings—created by the text itself. The semantic Model Reader only wants to know how the story turns out, and the semiotic or aesthetic Model Reader “asks himself what kind of reader that particular story was asking him to become, and wants to know how the Model Author who is instructing him step by step will proceed.” Although he applies it only to narrative texts (especially novels), Eco's theory of model readers proves useful in trying to figure out exactly what kind of mixed bag On Literature is, as it takes on Dante's La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels's Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei(1848; The Communist Manifesto, 1850), Gerard de Nerval's “Sylvie” (1853; English translation, 1922), Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; English translation, 1612-1620), Aristotle's De poetica, (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705), Piero Camporesi's Il sugo della vita (1988; Juice of Life, 1995), and Oscar Wilde's aphorisms, as well as literature in general, paranoid symbolism, style, intertextuality, the representation of space in words, the power of falsehoods, and Eco's own fiction-writing habits in particular.

What the book's eighteen pieces have in common is Eco's having been invited to write or deliver them—for a book, a conference, an anniversary, a convocation, and the like. The Model Reader being constructed by the collection as a whole is quite different than the Model Reader being constructed by any one of its parts (an address at a conference of Italian semioticians, for example, or the readers of an Italian newspaper). However varied the actual audiences and the Model Readers of the individual essays undoubtedly were, and are, On Literature's Model Reader is not someone who has an interest in one or more of these specific topics. Rather, he or she is someone who delights in the play of Eco's well-stocked mind in these eighteen walks in the narrative woods (to borrow the title of one of Eco's earlier books) and who delights equally in the sound of Eco's voice, as rendered on the page. Martin McLaughlin's translation is so wonderfully consistent and remarkably transparent that the reader cannot doubt that this is exactly how Eco sounds—in English.

Always the affable guide, Eco invites the reader to ramble with him, dotting the journey with bits of his distinctive brand of intelligent, gently mocking as well as self-deprecating humor: “I remember the shivers I experienced as a young man, feeling as marginalized as a young homosexual in Victorian society, when I discovered that the Anglo-Saxon tradition had continued to take Aristotle's poetics seriously, and without interruption.”

Eco's sentences are often miniature versions of his overall method of labyrinthine twists and turns: “[Philosopher and historian Paul] Ricoeur (quoting [Jacques] Derrida on this topic, who says that in Aristotle the defined is implicated in the person who defines) observes that, in order to explain metaphor, Aristotle created a metaphor, borrowing it from the order of movement.” It is a method Eco intuitively discovered early and which explains the affinity between his novels and his nonfiction, between his scholarly and fictional sleuthing:

When I was examined for my graduating thesis on the problem of aesthetics in Thomas Aquinas, I was struck by one of the criticisms of the second examiner (Augusto Guzzo, who, however, later published my thesis as it was): he told me that what I had actually done was to rehearse the various phases of my research as if it were an inquiry, noting the false leads and the hypotheses that I later rejected, whereas the mature scholar digests these experiences and then offers his readers (in the final version) only the conclusions. I recognized that this was true of my thesis, but I did not feel it to be a limitation. On the contrary, it was precisely then that I was convinced that all research must be “narrated” in this way. And I think I have done so in all my subsequent works of nonfiction.

As a result, I could refrain peacefully from writing stories because in fact I was satisfying my passion for narrative in another way; and when I would later write stories, they could not be anything other than the account of a piece of research (only in narrative this is called a Quest).

This narrative leaves the semantic Model Reader fully satisfied. The aesthetic Model Reader may feel differently, however, as if Eco were inviting further decoding. What appears at first glance straightforward may be something more duplicitous. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne in his “Custom House Introduction” to The Scarlet Letter (1850), Eco seems to keep his innermost self hidden behind a veil. Lured by Eco's dance of the seven semiotic veils, the aesthetic Model Reader discerns what the semantic Model Reader misses: that “How I Write” bears an uncanny resemblance to Edgar Allan Poe's “Philosophy of Composition,” discussed elsewhere in On Literature. Revealing himself in this concealing, parodic way allows Eco to retain for himself what critic Mikhail Bakhtin called a loophole, an unspoken final word.

Thus the tenacity with which Eco pursues a subject is complemented by the pleasure he takes both in the pursuit itself and in the narrative of that pursuit: his tales of scholarly sleuthing, of tilting at intellectual windmills. At once Sherlock Holmes and Don Quixote, Eco sallies forth not, as in James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), to fashion the uncreated conscience of his race but instead on a series of seriocomic intellectual adventures in a collection that resembles nothing so much as an episodic novel in which the breadth of interests is offset, or linked, by a sameness, even saneness, of method.

There is the opening gambit, often followed by a discussion of a term's etymology, followed in turn by several speculative walks in the interpretive woods (the bulk of each essay), and ending with a conclusion that seems at once definitive and provisional or penultimate. Many of these speculative walks combine Eco's passion for narrative and his passion for endless classification, for splitting semiotic hairs: Eco the semiotician in the Peircean mold morphing into a character in one of Samuel Beckett's plays or novels—Molloy, perhaps, sucking his sucking stones, turn and turn about. “You must go on I can’t go on I’ll go on.”

The result is often illuminating, occasionally maddening, nowhere more so than in “The Mists of the Valois,” the longest work in the collection. It begins:

I discovered Sylvie when I was twenty, almost by chance, and I read it knowing very little about Nerval. I read the story in a state of total innocence, and I was bowled over. Later I discovered that it had made the same impression on [Marcel] Proust as it did on me. I do not remember how I articulated this impression in the vocabulary I had then, especially as now I can only express it in Proust's words from the few pages he devotes to Nerval in Contre Sainte-Beuve (Against Sainte-Beuve).

Eco translates the forty-five years he has spent, off and on, with “Sylvie” into the thirty-four-page reworking of a part of the afterword to his Italian translation of Nerval's story. Eco marshals charts, tables, and parallel columns in an exhaustive (and exhausting) attempt not merely to explain to the reader but also to understand for himself both Nerval's mazelike handling of time and space and his effect on Proust (who, Eco contends, devoted his life to the challenge of outdoing Nerval).

“The Mists of the Valois” makes a prime example of the role intertextuality plays in Eco's conception of literature in general and in his critical methodology: a mise-en-abime of texts within texts. Eco can understand Nerval by understanding Proust, who not only wrote after Nerval wrote but whom Eco read after reading Nerval.

In “How I Write,” Eco explains that in order to create a novel he must create a world, and to create a world he must spend years on research in order to create a world out of texts. The intricacy of the worlds Eco creates in his fiction and his nonfiction, and the enormous pleasure that readers take in both, mask a wistfulness on Eco's part and perhaps on his reader's as well. This wistfulness is especially evident in “On Symbolism,” in which Eco examines the fate of the symbolic in a wholly secular world, and in the far more playful “A Portrait of the Artist as a Bachelor.”

In the latter, Eco plays the role of genial guide through a labyrinth of his own making. He begins not, as with his novels, with an image but with an invitation: to speak on the anniversary of the conferral of a bachelor's degree on Joyce. Invitation leads to word, “Bachelor,” word leads to etymology, etymology to the courses that Joyce took and the papers that he wrote and lectures that he delivered on the way to earning his bachelor's degree, and from these to Dante's search for an Edenic, pre-Babel language, and from Dante's project for a perfect language through a twelfth century Irish grammatical treatise of which Joyce may have known, Auraicept na n-Éces (Auraicept na n-Éces: The Scholars’ Primer, 1917), to one that he certainly knew or at least had seen, The Book of Kells (800 c.e.). Eco—playing the parts of Ariadne, Theseus, Daedalus, Stephen Dedalus, Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and perhaps his horse Rozinante, too—takes his readers to a conclusion as bold and sweeping as it is tenuous:

Perhaps we are living inside a Book of Kells, whereas we think we are living inside Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie. Both The Book of Kells and [Joyce's] Finnegans Wake are the best image of the universe as contemporary science presents it to us. They are the model of a universe in expansion, perhaps finite and yet unlimited, the starting point for infinite questions. They are books that allow us to feel like men and women of our time, even though we are sailing in the same perilous sea that led Saint Brendan to seek out that Lost Island that every page ofThe Book of Kells speaks of, as it invites and inspires us to continue our search to finally express perfectly the imperfect world we live in.

Eco himself “invites and inspires,” as well as delights. Like intertextuality (which he perversely calls “intertextual irony”), this reluctant postmodernist “provides revelations to those who have lost the sense of transcendence” and in this way unites author and reader “in the mystic body of worldly Scriptures.”

Review Sources

The Independent, January 27, 2004, p. 35.

Sunday Times, January 9, 2005, p. 42.

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