Umberto Eco 1932-
Italian critic, essayist, novelist, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Eco’s career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 28 and 60.
Having previously established a professional rapport among scholars with his influential works in both semiotics and medieval culture, Eco achieved literary celebrity with the publication of his best-selling first novel Il Nome della rosa (1980; The Name of the Rose). With its ingenious plot and a protagonist conflicted by spiritual and intellectual concerns, this novel enthralled both popular and critical audiences worldwide and was later adapted to film. Foremost, however, Eco is regarded as one of the world's leading semioticians whose analyses of the linguistic and aesthetic codes or “signs,” by which a culture communicates and understands itself, span nearly forty years. Indeed, the philosophical themes of Eco's academic research animate his erudite fiction, which dramatizes principles of semiotic theory through multi-faceted allusions to a broad range of significant cultural artifacts. Scholars have for some time widely acknowledged Eco's brilliant and substantial contributions to semiotic thought—a discipline that Eco almost single-handedly legitimated with his own theoretical writings, according to many. Similarly, most critics of Eco's hugely popular novels have applauded his knack for making the concepts of semiotics palatable to a general audience, who have in turn prompted a resurgence of interest in his earlier works.
Eco was born January 5, 1932, in Alessandria, Italy, the son of Guilio and Givovanna Eco. He attended the University of Turin, where he studied the philosophies and aesthetic theories of the European Middle Ages. In 1954, he took a doctorate degree in philosophy, writing a dissertation that he later published as Il Problema estetico in Tommaso d'Aquino (1956; The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas). Upon graduation Eco edited cultural programs at RAI, an Italian radio and television network, until 1959, when he began writing “Diario minimo,” a monthly column for a literary magazine on the politics of popular culture—which he has continued to compose in many reincarnations for a string of periodicals throughout his career. Meanwhile, in 1956, he launched a distinguished academic career at his alma mater, the first of several positions at various Italian and American universities that eventually led him to the University of Bologna, where he has chaired the semiotics department since 1975. First as a lecturer on aesthetics and architecture, then later as a professor of visual communications and semiotics, Eco steadily produced a stream of theoretical writings. With such works as Opera aperta (1962; The Open Work), A Theory of Semiotics (1975; his first work originally published in English), and Lector in fabula (1979; The Role of the Reader) Eco drew respect from academicians and cultivated repute among semioticians everywhere. Hence he primarily appealed to a specialized intellectual audience—until The Name of the Rose appeared in 1980. By 1983 this internationally acclaimed, best-selling novel had been translated into more than twenty languages, won several of Europe's most prestigious literary prizes, and sold over twenty-five million copies worldwide. In 1986 Jean-Jacques Annaud directed a film adaptation of The Name of the Rose that starred Sean Connery. By the mid-1980s Eco once again returned to scholarly pursuits, publishing such works as Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (1984), Travels in Hyper Reality (1986), and Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages (1986), and he contributed his editorial expertise to several English-language anthologies on semiotic theory as well. Following the publication of Il Pendolo di Foucault (1988; Foucault's Pendulum), Eco's best-selling award-winning second novel, he lectured extensively on semiotics at a number of prestigious learning institutions around the globe, some series of which are gathered in Interpretation and Overinterpretation (1992) and Six Walks in the Fictional Woods (1994). As translated editions of his earlier theoretical writings became increasingly available, Eco selected various essays dating from 1985 onwards for Il Limiti dell'interpretazoine (1990; The Limits of Interpretation) and Apocalypse Postponed (1994), and he issued Misreadings (1993), a translation of a selection of “Diario minimo” pieces first published in 1963, and Il Secondo diario minimo (1994; How to Travel with a Salmon (1994), a collection of previously unpublished columns. In these and other later works Eco has tended to focus on the linguistic dimensions of semiotics, writing the provocative monograph La Ricerca della lingua perfetta nella cultura europea (The Search for the Perfect Language) in 1993, the novel L'Isola del giorno prima (The Island of the Day Before) in 1994, and the essay collection Serendipities in 1999.
Eco's writings on semiotic thought, ranging from such seminal studies as The Open Work, A Theory of Semiotics, and The Role of the Reader to such later works as Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Interpretation and Overinterpretation, The Limits of Interpretation, represent some of the definitive texts of the discipline, which studies the cultural meanings and production of symbols and signs, particularly in relation to both natural and artificially constructed languages. In these works Eco developed the interpretive methods and postulates for semiotic analyses of linguistic cultural artifacts that he stylistically and thematically incorporated into his own encyclopedic fiction. Adapting and often parodying the conventions of the detective genre, Eco's novels illuminate a procedural affinity between semiotic inquiry and criminal investigation as his protagonists give interpretations of elaborate systems of cultural “signs” and explanations of metaphysical phenomena to resolve equally convoluted, ancient mysteries. Cerebral in tone and rife with Latin quotations, The Name of the Rose is an intricately plotted, literate murder mystery cloaked with multiple meanings. At once a detective story and a semiotic novel of ideas, the narrative recreates a detailed account of medieval life, politics, and thought as it traces the murders of several monks in attendance at an ecclesiastical council at a Benedictine abbey in northern Italy in 1327. When the survivors enlist Brother William of Baskerville to deduce the mystery, a conflict arises between modern rationality and humor, represented by the humanistic William, and medieval superstition and austerity, represented by the Catholic Jorge de Burgos, the elderly blind librarian at the abbey. A literal and metaphoric labyrinth of possibilities and obstacles, the library houses a forbidden collection of heretical texts, which William links to the murders based on evidence of secret symbols and coded manuscripts he uncovers there. In richly allusive passages that seem to fulfill biblical prophecies of the Apocalypse, the Inquisition confounds William's search for the truth, but he eventually locates the banned text that incited the murderer—the legendary second volume of Aristotle's Poetics, which reputedly extols the therapeutic values of comedy. Foucault's Pendulum touches on many historical and religious mysteries of the last two millennia. The narrative centers on a seedy publishing house in contemporary Milan. In order to relieve the monotony of reviewing manuscripts on occultism, three editors playfully construct an extravagant conspiracy theory that combines details from their work with the spurious contents of a coded manuscript delivered by a mysterious stranger, who is later murdered. With the aid of a computer and some quixotic analogies, they create a program called the Plan in order to decipher the document, which they surmise contains a secret of the medieval Knights Templar, a papal order that fought in the Crusades. The Plan yields a 600-year-long web of arcane correlations linking the mysterious Knights to the motives of such historical figures as Rene Descartes, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Adolf Hitler; it also determines the geographical location of a potentially devastating energy source: the historical site of Foucault's pendulum in Paris. As they reconstruct human history to fit their theoretical matrix, the editors come to believe their own fabrication, and when ardent occultists learn of their secret, their esoteric extrapolation precipitates murder and human sacrifice. As the novel follows the myriad twists of the editors's ruminations, it also ultimately condemns their illogical folly. Eco's third novel, The Island of the Day Before, recounts the encyclopedic musings of an early seventeenth-century Italian castaway, who cannot swim yet finds himself marooned off the Fiji Islands along the international dateline. As he ponders how to reach a nearby island lying just beyond the dateline, his mind wanders through a dense catalogue of seventeenth-century minutiae on the people, places, and things that defined the culture of the 1600s. Among Eco's later nonfiction works, The Search for the Perfect Language chronicles the historic quest to recover the primal tongue of human language, while Serendipities considers how false beliefs have both beneficially and adversely changed the course of human history.
Before he wrote fiction, Eco had already established a brilliant literary reputation with his specialized academic texts on medieval culture and semiotics, which many scholars have regarded as definitive, so the exuberant critical and popular reception of his first novel astonished both himself and his publishers, who have called its commercial success “phenomenal” by book-selling standards and noted the cottage industry that sprung up around the novel. Praising both the scholarship and imagination of The Name of the Rose, critics have universally acclaimed Eco's literary skills in the novel, especially his thorough treatment of different levels of meaning in the narrative and his impeccably designed, intellectually stimulating plotting. But commentators's opinions widely diverged on Foucault's Pendulum when it first appeared. Some critics disdained Eco's highly allusive style, describing it as laborious, encyclopedic, and inappropriate in a novel, yet others were intrigued by the tone of his metaphysical enquiry, favorably comparing it to the humor of Rabelais', Jonathan Swift's, and Voltaire's satires. Eco once explained that Foucault's Pendulum “was a book conceived to irritate the reader. I knew it would provoke ambiguous, non-homogenous responses. …” The success of his fiction writing has simultaneously renewed interest in his academic works, ushering in the appearance of numerous English-language translations of his studies in medieval culture and semiotics. Literary scholars in the United States have consistently remarked on the diversity of Eco's allusions and the range of his themes in his theoretical writings, identifying methods and applying his paradigms to a broad spectrum of texts.
Il Problema estetico in Tommaso d’Aquino [The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas] (criticism) 1956
Opera aperta: forma e indeterminazione nelle poetiche contemporanee [The Open Work] (criticism) 1962
Diario minimo [Misreadings] (journalism) 1963
Apocalittici e integrati: Comunicazioni di massa e teoria della cultura di massa (criticism) 1964
La Struttura assente (criticism) 1968
*A Theory of Semiotics (criticism) 1976
Come si fa una tesi di laurea (nonfiction) 1977
Lector in fabula: La cooperazione interpretative nei testi...
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SOURCE: “Meditations on Terrorism and Other Signs of the Times,” in The Christian Science Monitor, May 14, 1986, p. 23.
[D'Evelyn is general editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press. In the following review, he provides a thematic overview of Travels in Hyper Reality, drawing parallels between contemporary culture and that of the Middle Ages.]
Umberto Eco's best-selling novel, The Name of the Rose, takes place in a Franciscan abbey in 14th-century Italy. Now we have a collection of essays [Travels in Hyper Reality] by Eco, essays written in the last 20 years for the popular press, and it turns out that his familiarity with medieval...
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SOURCE: “Urbane Guerrilla,” in The New Statesman, August 29, 1986, pp. 24-5.
[In the following review, Heron outlines the tenor of Eco's thought in Faith in Fakes, noting his insights and inconsistencies.]
Time is going faster. The constant ‘past-ising’ process that Eco noted as a pervasive feature of American civilisation in 1975—when the Nostalgia sections in the big record stores held racks devoted to the Seventies as well as the Sixties—has accelerated and is no longer the strictly transatlantic phenomenon he then perceived.
Much of the opening essay in Faith in Fakes is taken up with remarking the symbolic...
(The entire section is 1098 words.)
SOURCE: “Expert of the Everyday,” in Times Literary Supplement, September 26, 1986, p. 1061.
[In the following review, Adair discusses Eco's methodology in Faith in Fakes, noting that the collection's unifying principle lies in its interpretation of the common stuff of life.]
The English-language title of Umberto Eco's foray into the semiology of the quotidian [Faith in Fakes] is a rather misleading one, only partially applicable to the twenty-six essays of which it is made up. To be sure, the first, lengthiest and most seductive piece, “Travels in Hyper Reality”, which whizzes us from Hearst's San Simeon castle to Lyndon Johnson's personal...
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SOURCE: A review of Travels in Hyper Reality, in World Literature Today, Vol. 61, No. 1, Winter, 1987, pp. 168-69.
[In the following review, Dick identifies the themes and basic technique of Travels in Hyper Reality, with a few provocative exceptions, as essentially nothing new.]
Although Eco insists that his collection of essays [Travels in Hyper Reality] is not a book on semiotics, it really is; or, at least it is a book about signs in the sense of channels of information that increase one's knowledge of something. Thus holography is a sign of America's obsession with the replication of the real; Hearst's San Simeon and Disneyland are...
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SOURCE: “Umberto Eco,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 236, No. 17, October, 1989, pp. 50-1.
[In the following essay, Smith focuses on Foucault's Pendulum, relating Eco's comments about its publication history and methodology.]
In 1979 Umberto Eco was a professor of semiotics who had just completed his first novel, with some exceptions The Name of the Rose, a 500-page metaphysical mystery, set in the Middle Ages, crammed with arcane historical and philosophical material as well as a good dollop of plain old suspense and a fiery finale. His Italian publisher, which had achieved modest success with Eco's scholarly titles, including with some exceptions...
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SOURCE: “Umberto's Truffle Hunt,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 5, 1989, p. 3.
[In the following review, Eder describes the themes and critical techniques of Foucault's Pendulum.]
Umberto Eco's new novel [Foucault's Pendulum] is an artichoke with 641 leaves and not much heart. There is some real pleasure in artichoke leaves, but what with the work and the scratchiness you probably wouldn’t undertake one unless you thought there would be a heart in it.
True, in Foucault's Pendulum the absence is part of the point. Its elaborately branched story about the search for an ancient secret whose possession will confer world...
(The entire section is 719 words.)
SOURCE: “Juggler,” in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 36, No. 17, November 9, 1989, pp. 3-4.
[In the following review, Adams commends Eco's achievement in Foucault's Pendulum.]
The obsessed or distracted scholar, who knows so much about the cosmos in general that he doesn't see what’s under his nose, is an ancient figure of fun. Thales of Miletus was the first. The foremost astronomer of his age, he was walking home one night with his eyes fixed on the constellations when he stumbled and fell into a ditch. From the shadows where she was watching, a kitchen wench of Miletus saw the philosopher's pratfall and giggled “tee-hee.” The tinkle of her laughter has...
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SOURCE: “A ‘Sam Spade’ of Culture Explores Modern Age Mysteries,” in The Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 82, No. 1, November 27, 1989, p. 13.
[D'Evelyn is general editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press. In the following review, he sketches the plot and narrative significance of Foucault's Pendulum.]
Full of tangy, crunchy morsels of history, fiction, and theory, Umberto Eco's new novel [Foucault's Pendulum] is like a salad bar. It's all good for you—and at 641 pages there's plenty of it; it boasts the occasional hot pepper of insight; and it may serve as an appetizer or to clean the palate after the roast beef and potatoes of more...
(The entire section is 1086 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Foucault's Pendulum, in West Coast Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 2, November-December, 1989, p. 20.
[In the following review, O'Toole praises the plotting and humor of Foucault's Pendulum.]
Nearly every form of mysticism and the Occult known to Western man is catalogued in this encyclopedic novel [Foucault's Pendulum], in which the author of The Name of the Rose has woven his immense mastery of these cults and their history into a grand intellectual adventure.
Casaubon, narrator of this odyssey, an editor with a Milan publishing house, is an expert on the Knights Templar, the order that guarded the Temple of...
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SOURCE: A review of The Open Work, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 10, No. 1, 1990, pp. 320-21.
[In the following review, Comnes analyzes the thesis of The Open Work.]
Amidst the farrago of isms (under erasure, of course) used to discuss contemporary narrative, it is sometimes difficult to discern just how bleak the postmodern narrative condition appears to be. Rupture, breakdown and self-contradiction prevail, and critics tell us our task as readers is to remain incredulous toward metanarrative “solutions” while we soberly applaud those works which acknowledge and exploit their rhetorical status in an essentially rhetorical world. Absent, of...
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SOURCE: A review of Foucault's Pendulum, in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 1, Winter, 1990, pp. 87-8.
[In the following review, Ragusa anticipates two sorts of reader responses to Foucault's Pendulum.]
By the time this review is in print, the English translation of Il pendolo di Foucault (Foucault's Pendulum) will be in the bookshops and a new chapter in the ongoing “Eco case” will have begun. For what has more and more engaged the imagination with respect to an Eco novel are the contexts within which it appears and the reactions that reflect back on the product—a process attentively and amusingly detailed in a recent article by Rocco...
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SOURCE: “Missing Eco: On Reading The Name of the Rose as Library Criticism,” in The Library Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 4, October, 1991, pp. 373-88.
[In the following essay, Garrett examines the meaning of the library as a literary topos in The Name of the Rose from the perspective of professional librarians, discussing several aspects pertinent to real-life libraries and their administrators.]
While many outside the library community have commented at length on the central role of the library in Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose (Milan, 1980; New York, 1983), librarians themselves have been notably silent. This reserve is surprising when...
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SOURCE: “The Imaginary Universe of Umberto Eco: A Reading of Foucault's Pendulum,”1 in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 38, No. 4, Winter, 1992, pp. 894-909.
[In the following essay, Cannon examines the central theme of Foucault's Pendulum in cultural and theoretical contexts of Eco's life and work, deconstructing the way the novel questions the main tenor of the author's thought.]
In the introduction to The Role of the Reader Umberto Eco argues that a model reader is inscribed in the open work by its author. “An author can foresee an ‘ideal reader affected by an ideal insomnia’ (as happens with Finnegans Wake) able to...
(The entire section is 7183 words.)
SOURCE: “Eco's Echoes: Ironizing the (Post)Modern,” in Diacritics: A Review of Contemporary Criticism, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 2-16.
[In the following essay, Hutcheon traces the narrative development of irony in Foucault's Pendulum, highlighting the novel's representation of semiotic differences between modern and postmodern literary traditions.]
When one theorist publishes a book—a novel, at that—which contains in its title the name of another theorist, the academic reader is likely to be unable to resist looking for “in-group” ironies. When that novelist-theorist is Umberto Eco, who just happens to be someone who rarely mentions Michel...
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SOURCE: “The Riddle of Umberto Eco,” in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 42, No. 2, February 2, 1995, pp. 33-5.
[In the following review, Williams outlines the tenets of Eco's literary thought, highlighting his interpretation strategies and ideas about the author-reader relationship.]
At the beginning of Umberto Eco's novel Foucault's Pendulum, there are two epigraphs. Every chapter of this book also has an epigraph, so these are particularly prominent—they come before everything else. One is a quotation from an occultist writer, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim. The other is from a contemporary logician, Raymond Smullyan: “Superstition brings...
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SOURCE: “Splicing the Trivial with the Sublime,” in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 15, No. 4, July-August, 1995, p. 9.
[In the following review, Rehder assesses the theoretical aspects of Six Walks in the Fictional Woods and praises the thematic diversity of Apocalypse Postponed.]
Umberto Eco's book Lector in fabula, which corresponds only in part to the English version The Role of the Reader (Indiana University, 1979), is more than a book title. It triggers an allusion and it names a research program. The allusion is to “lupus in fabula,” the ever-present wolf in the (Italian) folktale. Summoning the wolf means “speaking of the devil,” a...
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SOURCE: “‘Critifictional’ Epistemes in Contemporary Literature: The Case of Foucault's Pendulum,” in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 32, No. 4, Fall, 1995, pp. 497-513.
[In the following essay, Bouchard outlines the narrative development of the major points of Eco’s theoretical stance against deconstruction in Foucault's Pendulum, which, she says, ranks among the most representative works of the “critifictional” tradition.]
This essay argues that Eco's second fictional work, Foucault's Pendulum (1989), participates in the genre of academic novels written from the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s by British authors David Lodge...
(The entire section is 7104 words.)
SOURCE: “Horsey, Horsey,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 17, November 16, 1995, pp. 13-14.
[In the following review, Sturrock describes the linguistic debate about the basis of language's relation to reality by contrasting Eco's thought in The Search for the Perfect Language with Gerard Gennette's.]
Anyone who has ever felt drawn to the remote but seductive question of what form the first human language may have taken will have been stirred the other day by Gillian Shephard's announcement that the Government is going to spend (a very little) money on coaching our young inarticulates so that they stop ‘grunting’ and start using words. This looks rather...
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SOURCE: “Melting into Air,” in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 43, No. 1, January 11, 1996, pp. 37-9.
[In the following excerpt, Dinnage remarks upon the multiple plots and allusions of The Island of the Day Before in relation to the seventeenth-century search for what today is known as the international dateline.]
We know there is one branch of fiction, godfathered by Kafka and Borges, which has abandoned the pretense that it really happened for fantasy and joke, miracle and fairy tale. “It's all a magic trick,” its authors say. “See how I do it?” This is fun, and often clever; but, like other forms of modern experimenting (“A chair...
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SOURCE: “The Wild Goose Chase,” in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 43, May 23, 1996, pp. 32-5.
[In the following review, Kermode assesses the strengths of Eco's principal argument in The Search for the Perfect Language, focusing on his various reasons for inevitable failure in ascertaining the Ur-language.]
The Search for the Perfect Language is published in a series called “The Making of Europe,” of which the general editor is the eminent medieval historian Jacques Le Goff. Other volumes are by Peter Brown (The Rise of Western Christendom), Aaron Gurevich (The Origins of European Individualism), and Ulrich Im Hof (The...
(The entire section is 3742 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Search for the Perfect Language, in American Historical Review, Vol. 102, No. 3, June, 1997, p. 776.
[In the following review, Breisach outlines the thesis of The Search for the Perfect Language.]
This volume [The Search for the Perfect Language] is part of a series created by five European publishers of different nationalities to foster understanding of the European past and perhaps to facilitate the evolution of a united Europe. Umberto Eco had to be cognizant of the intent of the series in his narration of the search for a perfect language (a language that mirrored without distortions the true nature of objects). He excludes,...
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SOURCE: “The Reasons of the Code: Reading Eco's A Theory of Semiotics,” in Cultural Semiosis: Tracing the Signifier, edited by Hugh J. Silverman, Routledge, 1998, pp. 23-47.
[In the following essay, Carravetta explicates the rationale, the method, and the aesthetics of the interpretive strategy described in A Theory of Semiotics.]
Umberto Eco's A Theory of Semiotics1 is widely regarded as one of the most comprehensive treatments of semiosis.2 It is also a turning point in Eco's itinerary through various forms of interpretive thought.3 Moreover, in the history and development of semiotics in Italy, Eco's opus is a...
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SOURCE: “Why Adam Didn't Name Any Fish … Another Mystery for Umberto Eco,” in The Observer Review, February 7, 1999, p. 13.
[In the following review, Thomson evaluates both the benefits and drawbacks of the thematic and stylistic diversity of Serendipities.]
Umberto Eco, now a plump 67, is a man of towering cleverness. However, his mind works like a kitchen blender. In go a dash of Mickey Spillane, a pinch of Borges, some diced semiotics. Switch it on and hey presto!—out pours an ‘interesting’ book.
Eco's freak bestseller, The Name of the Rose, was an artful reworking of Conan Doyle, with the Baker Street sleuth transplanted to...
(The entire section is 866 words.)
SOURCE: “Hall of Mirrors,” in The New Statesman, Vol. 129, No. 543, February 26, 1999, p. 54.
[In the following review, Holland assesses Eco's achievement in Serendipities.]
Even scrapings from the table of a writer such as Umberto Eco should be accepted with gratitude. As Eco himself acknowledges, the essays in Serendipities are really nothing more than a collection of footnotes to an earlier and much more detailed work, The Search for the Perfect Language. The title of that book referred to an enduring and peculiar obsession in European culture: the belief that there had once been a language that had embodied the absolute essence of everything...
(The entire section is 694 words.)
SOURCE: “The Fruits of Error,” in The Spectator, Vol. 282, No. 8903, March 27, 1999, p. 41.
[In the following review, Chaudhuri addresses the lack of an Eastern cultural perspective in Serendipities.]
Umberto Eco is the offspring of Roland Barthes and Jorge Luis Borges. In his role as semiotician and interpreter of, among other things, Superman comics, he is Barthesian; in his pursuit of arcane, mediaeval European texts, of areas of Western tradition so little known as to seem imaginary, and in his meticulous, self-ironicising scholasticism, he is a follower of Borges. In this mode, one never knows (to give him the benefit of the doubt) when he is serious....
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Cormier, Raymond. Review of The Search for the Perfect Language by Umberto Eco. The Medieval Review (3 July 1998).
A review where Cormier agrees with the central thesis of The Search for the Perfect Language.
Eco, Umberto with Lee Marshall. “The World According to Eco.” Wired 5, No. 3 (March 1997): 144–49.
An interview with Eco where he discusses his views on a number of contemporary cultural issues, ranging from the Internet and electronic discourse, libraries, and Marshall McLuhan's societal observations.
Kirkpatrick, Ken. “The Conspiracy of the Miscellaneous in...
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