Travels in Hyperreality

by Umberto Eco

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Travels in Hyperreality

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 412

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 Ages,” Eco--author of the best-selling THE NAME OF THE ROSE (1983) and POSTSCRIPT TO THE NAME OF THE ROSE (1984)--shows once more his power to make the past appear vivid. In six essays under the heading “The Gods of the Underworld,” he explores notions of the sacred in different societies. Not since D. H. Lawrence’s ETRUSCAN PLACES (1932) has a Western writer empathized so well with “primitive” modes of expressing religious devotion. In another grouping of essays, “Reading Things,” Eco illuminates such topics as the effect of tight jeans upon contemporary men and women, the impact of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, and a photograph of Che Guevara’s dead body.

Readers of Eco will indeed “travel” in imagination, but Americans in particular will feel that they have never left home. The genial professor at the University of Bologna (Milan) knows more about us than we know--and his knowledge is never freighted with didacticism. Like all good teachers, he shows his readers a way--a sign--and allows the sign to point ahead. Adventurers of the heart and mind would do well to follow.

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