Umberto Eco

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Thomas D'Evelyn (review date 14 May 1986)

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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 times helps him discover some illuminating and disturbing parallels with our own.

It should be noted first that Eco is by profession a semiologist, a student of signs. He teaches at the University of Milan. A semiologist studies not only language but cultural phenomena of all sorts—social behavior, political acts, landscapes—as part of a largely hidden system of significance. Naturally, the semiologist can in practice be a con artist, offering his explanations of what's going on to an audience only too willing to grasp at straws when it comes to the question, “Where is it all heading?”

Eco is no futurist. He is not interested in trends. He writes not out of a conviction that he has all the answers, but rather that as an intellectual, he has a moral obligation to tell others how he sees “daily life, political events, the language of the mass media”; and there's a long essay on Casablanca as a cult film.

His charming humility has increased with time. In the late '60s, as he tells us in “Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare,” he thought that he and other semiologists could demystify the present by teaching us about, for example, the political significance of a TV ad. His eye was on the communication conglomerates, and his tone was shrill at times.

He rightly saw that we had entered into “the Communications Era.” As that era matured, Eco's historical sense did, too. He saw that communications happened on one level, national politics at another. As an Italian, he watched with interest the way the United States struggled with the Third World. He saw an analogy with medieval times, and wrote some essays on “The Return of the Middle Ages.” In comparing our own times to the Middle Ages, he wrote: “At the collapse of a great Pax, crisis and insecurity ensue, different civilizations clash, and slowly the image of a new man is outlined.”

What this new man will be is problematic, of course. Who are the heroes who will show us?

Is the terrorist the new hero? Depends on who you ask. Clearly the terrorist is a hero to certain Palestinians and others. But as Eco cogently argues, with the breakdown of the political order, the terrorist has become an anachronism. The System is headless. When the Red Brigades kidnapped and murdered Aldo Moro, the Italian Prime Minister, they thought they had delivered a crippling blow to the state. No such thing. Moro was simply replaced.

Eco's meditations on terrorism extend the invaluable analysis done by Albert Camus in The Rebel, in which political murder was treated as a profound act. Eco considers it irrelevant to the situation at hand. What Eco takes seriously is the possibility that the terrorist will discover ways of faking his way into the communications microsystems that together constitute the System.

In a model essay called “Falsification and Consensus,” he gives small examples of this: the wiseacre who steals a company credit card and uses it to call his girlfriend halfway round the world; the crisis in publishing caused by photocopying. We can add the recent invasion of airspace on the HBO channel by a disgruntled subscriber. But he shows again that even this high-tech form of terrorism will fail to upset the system, which, as an organism, has an incredible ability to adapt: the phone company, for example, simply budgets “a few thousand dollars” to cover illicit calls and charges it annually in a fixed fee to clients.

The fact is, as Eco shows, there will be no Revolution. The millenial dreams so inspiring to 19th-century revolutionaries and anarchists and 20th-century radicals have faded in the new Middle Ages. Indeed, the system that binds the international community will create conditions such that “… the utopia of the revolution is transformed into a scheme of short-range, but permanent, harassment.”

The terrorist as romantic, the terrorist as a perpetual adolescent: Certainly the terrorist has had his day as the “hero.” Too often, the terrorist is just a criminal in disguise and merely exemplifies the “quotient of evil” that appears to be a part of earthly existence, as Eco argues in an essay on the ability of full-time revolutionaries to go from guerrilla to bureaucrat with a turn of the wheel of fortune.

Eco adds with characteristic charm: “The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else.”

That humility serves Eco well as an essayist. He can be very funny: “Castro must be more familiar with Errol Flynn than with Marx.” He writes well about any number of things: sports and violence, comedy and tragedy, “the multiplication of the media,” St. Thomas Aquinas, the American taste for imitations (the title essay on “hyperreality” takes us on a tour of wax museums, Disneylands, etc.), the cult film. And you'll love the one on his blue jeans.


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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Liz Heron (review date 29 August 1986)

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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 transformations present in America's pursuit and capture of the Old World's cultural heritage—in the Hearst Castle, the Getty Museum and the Museum of the City of New York, as well as the numerous kitsch exhibition palaces that house elaborate artistic and architectural simulations. This cultural appropriation could be construed as an artificial lengthening of the past. These days the instant manufacture of nostalgia stems as much from a paradoxically opposing impulse: to yank back what we can of yesterday's continuities with today, to cohere them into a longer present, before they enter the snapping jaws of history.

In ‘The Multiplicity of the Media’, a piece dated eight years later, Eco describes the public effects of technological change that have led us to this condition of evanescent realities, in which new densities of everyday knowledge crowd out old. This instructive and important essay is itself offered as a major revision of the one that precedes it in the book, ‘Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare’, his 1967 proposal that strategies of opposition to the dominant messages of the mass media should emphasise the plurality of interpretations available to those on the receiving end, and the possibilities for critical decoding. Better and more democratic that the audience be schooled in waging its own daily wars on received meanings than merely to fight for a new regime of Truth from above.

It still holds that we are more than blankly passive consumers of whatever the TV screen beams into our living-rooms. But this is an immeasurably relativised degree of power within Eco's later formulation of an empire of signs that stretches its cross-referenced web of meanings all around us—through television, fashion, show-biz gossip, advertising, brand names and mass paperbacks. Think of Dallas and Dynasty, Coca-Cola and Coronation Street, as well as the burgeoning technologies that quicken the pace of information and its absorption into daily life, whether in comic strips, computer science or Hollywood films. Eco's first image of the desolate obsolescence spawned by this postmodernity is Kubrick's once innovative 2001, which now appears nothing more than a shoddy imitation of its successors in the Star Wars league.

This collection provides its own incidental commentary on the way cultural realities rapidly spin out of the orbit of our perceptual grasp. There is no slowly ripening set of arguments, but a busy ferment of ideas that are often mutually contradictory. This is, after all, anthologised journalism, with a few longer articles from monthly reviews thrown in. Its inconsistencies, which Eco readily acknowledges, can be allowed as those of the guerrilla intellectual, constantly on the run, a role he defends against the anticipated criticism of an American academic audience.

Eco's ability to bring to the profound erudition of the medievalist and semiotician a freewheeling spontaneity that makes connective sparks fly between academic concerns and those of the immediate social landscape is argument enough for this role's validity. That he can write with equal agility on such topics as the World Cup, St Thomas Aquinas, and how the wearing of tight blue jeans constricts the interior life as well as the body (while those given to a cerebral existence function better in loose garments), in a style that is both serious and diverting, is an achievement unparalleled in British journalism.

In Italy, though, where fewer people read books (because of the relatively late spread of literacy and the historical dominance of dialects over a nationally unifying language), you are more likely to find literary and cultural debate of some substance, and at some length, in daily or weekly columns. Sciascia, Calvino and Pasolini have been no strangers to these ephemeral regions either.

The constraints of the medium do not wholly explain the incongruities in Eco's own messages. The contradictions are not always temporal, theories brusquely revised with the passing of years. There's a tendency to overgeneralise, and to nurture analogies and parallels at the expense of what these do not share. His rich knowledge of the medieval period is exercised time and again through projections on to our own age of uncertainties, something he also did in The Name of the Rose, where the proliferating heresies and millenarianism of the fourteenth century found apocalyptic echoes in the violent political dissent that brought the Seventies to their drastically repressive close in Italy.

While in many ways these are wonderfully lucid examples of how the past does help us make sense of the present, they lose their fluidity when Eco moves them into the realm of eternal recurrence, history as repeated patterns with inescapable outcomes, instead of the dialectic of change which so much else of his writing suggests. And this static version of history leads him in one instance into explaing away both the Red Brigades and the Montoneros through the existence of violence as a biologically coded force that will out in the event of a protracted national peace. Yet he has also argued that football, war and California death cults alike contain the anger and violence that might otherwise find political targets.

But Eco is, above all, a professional doubter, quizzical, ironic, a writer who sees all systems, political and philosophical, as impermanent, and who embodies both the revolutionary optimism and the apocalyptic pessimism of this attitude's double potential. It is this, and the need for special rigour, that braces his disputations with those giants of cultural theory, Barthes and Foucault, in an excellent synthesising essay on the elusive and ubiquitous nature of power in late 20th-century society. It is this that also mediates his stance of sardonic detachment where the reader might wish for more passionate political engagement. Read him not only for the delicious pleasures of interpretation to be found in his classic account of Casablanca's undying cult status as ‘not one movie’ but a synopsis of movies, or his elegant classification of ‘ten little middle ages’. Above all, Eco deserves to be read for the same reason he himself accords homage to Aquinas—as a man who reminds us ‘to think new things’.

Principal Works

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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 narrativa [The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts] (criticism) 1979

Il Nome della rosa [The Name of the Rose] (novel) 1980

“De Bibliotheca” (essay) 1981

Postille a Il Nome della rosa [Postscript to The Name of the Rose] (criticism) 1984

Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (criticism) 1984

Sign of Three: Dupin, Holmes, Peirce [editor with T. Sebeok] (essays) 1984

Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages (nonfiction) 1986

Faith in Fakes (essays) 1986

Travels in Hyper Reality: Essays (essays) 1986

Il Pendolo di Foucault [Foucault's Pendulum] (novel) 1988

Il Limiti dell'interpretazione [The Limits of Interpretation] (essays) 1990

Interpretation and Overinterpretation (lectures) 1992

La Ricerca della lingua perfetta nella cultura europea [The Search for the Perfect Language] (nonfiction) 1993

Apocalypse Postponed: Essays (essays) 1994

L'Isola del giorno prima [The Island of the Day Before] (novel) 1994

Il Secondo diario minimo [How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays] (journalism) 1994

Six Walks in the Fictional Woods (lectures) 1994

Serendipities (essays) 1999

*A translated version of the original English manuscript was published as Trattato di semiotica generale in 1975.

Gilbert Adair (review date 26 September 1986)

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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 mausoleum, from the Ca' d'Zan, a half-Venetian, half-Venusian palazzo erected by the Ringling Brothers (of three-ring circus fame) in Florida to the concentration kitsch of Southern California's Madonna Inn, provides a panoramic, zigzagging overview of the United States' somewhat chilly “philosophy of immortality as duplication”. In it, Eco demonstrates how a nation deprived of an extended historical continuum in the European sense has, with the maniacal compulsiveness of the jigsaw puzzle addict, proceeded to construct a false one. But the majority of the essays, which were originally published in journalistic form, range far beyond the allure of the fake. They encompass the trial of the Red Brigades, the collective suicide of the People's Temple in Guyana, the cool, unfanatical rationalism of Thomist theology, the crisis of reason (or rather what Eco defines as “the crisis of the crisis of reason”) and the World Cup. A heterogeneous miscelleny indeed, whose unifying principle, or so I suspect, was at least as much a publisher's incentive to capitalize on the freakish success of Eco's novel The Name of the Rose (of whose descriptive inventory-making a distinct echo may be detected here) as the presence of any truly consistent methodology.

Eco is, under his journalist's hat, a highly entertaining and perceptive “decoder” of the world, but the widely aired comparison with Barthes—and in particular with his Mythologies—strikes me as wholly advantageous to the latter. The nub of the problem lies, precisely, in the notion of the quotidian. Barthes was a startler: by subjecting to an operation of decipherment those really prosaic artefacts and activities which we had always allowed to “go without saying”—whether a plate of steak and chips or an all-in wrestling match—he sensitized our environment with an aura of significance of which most of us had been unaware. He was therefore an “arming”, rather than disarming, writer. There is, by contrast, not much that could be called quotidian about the Los Angeles Forest Lawn cemetery (immortalized by Evelyn Waugh in The Loved One), the vulgar wax versions of Leonardo's “Last Supper” which seem to dot the American hinterland or the “degenerate utopia” of Disneyland—all of them phenomena more startling in themselves than the commentary even so keen an observer as Eco can apply to them. Confronted with such delirious instances of pure connotation, of flagrant, frantic reproductivity, only the most naive of tourists could fail to turn himself without external prompting into an amateur semiologist; in consequence, there is to this first essay a faintly Alan Whickerish tone, a television pundit's craving to have the last word on something which is already audibly—in fact, noisily—emitting its own ambiguous messages.

Leaving aside the more theoretical texts, wonderfully translated by William Weaver, which are directly related to his experience as both a semiologist and a medievalist, Eco is at his sharpest when dealing with areas of perception where his readers are likely to have been only half-enlightened. As when, for example, discussing Montreal's Expo '67, he proposes that “in contemporary expositions a country no longer says, ‘Look what I produce’ but ‘Look how smart I am in presenting what I produce’” and that each country shows itself by the way in which it is able to present the same thing other countries could also present”. Or when he dismantles the narrative codes underlying Casablanca to demonstrate that “in order to transform a work into a cult object one must be able to break, dislocate, unhinge it so that one can remember only parts of it, irrespective of their original relationship with the whole”. Or, again, when he ruefully observes how wearing a pair of jeans, ostensibly the symbol of vestimentary informality, tends to stiffen his natural demeanour instead of relaxing it. At such moments he is telling us something that many of us knew, perhaps, but which we needed to encounter in print for us to know that we knew. And in an increasingly terrorist and terrorized world—one which would have us believe that merely to speak about the weather, or a football match, or the varied minutiae making up our daily round, now requires some kind of specialized knowledge—any book prepared to offer us rapid access to such “expertise” can lay claim to a degree of indispensability.

Further Reading

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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 Foucault's Pendulum.Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 19, No. 2 (Summer 1995): 171–84.

An essay where Kirkpatrick identifies the themes and technique of Foucault's Pendulum with the “conspiricist” tradition, comparing several interpretive strategies and demonstrating the relations of conspiracy with irony, contingency, and materiality.

Lee, Andrea. “Man Overboard: 1600 and All That.” The New Yorker 71, No. 25 (21 August 1995): 122–24.

A review in which Lee describes the genesis of the plot and themes in The Island of the Day Before, commending its range of allusions to diverse cultures and communities.

Mahler, Scott. Review of Travels in Hyper Reality: Essays, by Umberto Eco. Los Angeles Times Book Review (20 July 1986): 4.

Summarizes the contents and methodology of Eco's collected essays.

Additional coverage of Eco's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Bestsellers, Vol 90:1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77–80; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 12, 33, and 55; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 196; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists and Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; Literature Resource Center; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1 and 2.

B. F. Dick (review date Winter 1987)

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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 complementary aspects of California's fantasy landscape; jeans promote “epidermic self-awareness” by encouraging a sense of the exterior. Film is a natural subject for semioticians, and it is a medium in which Eco has shown an increasing interest. In what will probably be the most famous essay in the collection (but far from the best one), he approaches Casablanca semiologically, yet his analysis fails to explain the movie's perennial fascination.

Basically, Eco does what literary critics, especially myth critics, have traditionally done: he analyzes a text in terms of themes, motifs, and levels of meaning, except that he replaces the simplicity of an earlier vocabulary with terms like intertextual archetypes, combining two entirely different concepts (literary and psychological) into one that is essentially superfluous. Hence he sees Casablanca in terms of Märchen motifs (the clipper to Lisbon as the Magic Horse, the letters of transit as the Magic Key, America as the Promised Land) and plot details in terms of the various generic elements incorporated into the script (spy movie / propaganda movie/ action movie). His most interesting essay is on Saint Thomas Aquinas, in which he asks and answers the perennial question, “What would the angelic doctor be doing if he were alive today?” Eco believes he would be writing commentaries not on Aristotle, but on Marx and Freud. Although Eco is always fascinating to read, and there are some provocative pieces here (notably a breakdown of the term Middle Ages into ten components), there is also a sense of déjà vu.

Wendy Smith (essay date 27 October 1989)

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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 The Theory of Semiotics and with some exceptions The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, was enthusiastic about his extracurricular effort and assured him that, based on his reputation, it could probably sell 10,000, maybe even 20,000 copies of his fictional debut.

Just under a decade later, Eco's second novel, Foucault's Pendulum, was greeted in Italy with the hysteria usually reserved for touring rock stars. It sold 400,000 copies in its first two months of release, at one point outselling the title just before it on the bestseller list by a margin of 15 to one. The novel's alleged secret meaning became the hot topic of conversation at every fashionable cocktail party. The popular press published plot outlines and glossaries of occult terminology to help readers decipher this playful romp through the history of crackpot theories, with special emphasis on the ancient order of the Knights Templar. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, which will publish William Weaver's English translation this month (Fiction Forecasts, Sept. 8), expects Foucault's Pendulum to be just as much of an event in America and has printed 250,000 copies to make sure no eager reader is turned away at the bookstore.

What happened to change an unassuming academic into a brand name author? Eco's medieval detective story, The Name of the Rose, won countless literary prizes and was a surprise bestseller throughout Europe; by the time it was published in America in 1983 it had become an international phenomenon. To date it has sold some nine million copies in 24 languages and been made into a film starring Sean Connery. The author can no longer attend a gallery opening or go to the theater in Italy without being buttonholed by his admiring fans, and though he continues to teach at the University of Bologna, it's for pleasure, not money, “because, you know, the salary can be easily covered by the royalties!”

It's a little strange to be a celebrity, he admits. “As an author I am very happy when I find a good article or a good review, but when the grocer or the conductor on the train recognizes me, I feel embarrassed. I prefer in a train to stay quiet and read my book without being accosted. Selling millions of copies can change your life in a bad way; you lose your privacy. So you try to make a more private life with your friends, not to be disturbed.”

Still, success has its pleasant side effects, not all of them financial. “Some of my scholarly books that were not translated have been now. My first book, the one I love more than all the rest, on the aesthetics of Aquinas, was written as a dissertation and because it was very technical was never translated. Now, 30 or 35 years later, it's been published by Harvard University Press. Probably there are 2000 copies, but I am more proud of this book and of those 2000 copies than of all the millions of copies of The Name of the Rose.

Eco is a cheerful, gregarious man of 57 who speaks fluent, if somewhat idiosyncratic, English. He sports a gray-flecked beard, a twinkle in his eye and a figure that suggests he's acquainted with the joys of Italian cuisine. He sits in his American publisher's office, resting between photo sessions on a whirlwind visit to New York to prime the publicity pump for Foucault's Pendulum. It's clear that the author can sell books as easily as he plumbs the depths of philosophical treatises: he's witty, charming and gallant in a delightfully old-fashioned way. A publishing veteran—he was an editor at Bompiani in Milan for 17 years before he became its bestselling author—he enjoys telling the story of how his first novel confounded everyone's expectations.

Bompiani had already given Eco its estimate of 10,000-20,000 copies when he met with Helen Wolff to discuss the American publication. “Helen said, ‘I love your novel, I want to publish it, but you understand, a book like this will probably sell only 3000 copies,’ and she paid an advance on [the basis of] 3000 copies. I gave the book to the [Italian] publisher at the end of January, 1980, and they planned to release it in November. So in April they begin the information campaign. In May, they were making one of those meetings with the booksellers, and in two months the booksellers ordered 80,000 copies—without having seen the book! You understand that when you have already sold 80,000 copies six months before publication, you can make a good price, success is already assured, because the booksellers are then obligated to put it in the right window.”

Those 80,000 copies, as everyone in publishing now knows, turned out to be only the beginning, and though Eco is grateful to bookstores for their early enthusiasm and to his publishers for their support, he credits readers as the major force behind the success of The Name of the Rose. “As a matter of fact, Bompiani didn't make any publicity for the book except the usual small ads. The book marched by itself, by word of mouth. That's an expression I have learned in several languages—word of mouth, bouche oreille in France, bocca a bocca—because in every country I was told by the booksellers that the book circulated this way.”

Given the stratospheric sales of his first novel, Eco might reasonably have looked to the highest bidders for extravagant advances on his second work of fiction. On the contrary, as PW reported in its Rights column (Sept. 8), he felt such loyalty to the publishers worldwide who had taken a chance on The Name of the Rose that he instructed Bompiani to stick with them whenever possible. In the U.K., paperback rights went to Picador, although a competitor offered more.

“I have always thought the policy of the high advance is negative for the author,” Eco explains. “Okay, you get the advance, but if by chance your next book doesn't go so well, the publisher is discouraged, next time you shift to another publisher, then to another publisher …”; he shrugs, indicating the futility of this course. “I think that when you stay with the same publisher, they know you and are interested in supporting you. The policy of the high advance is too much adventurous! I understand that the writer who is offered 10 times more by a new publisher can be tempted, but if the difference is not too enormous, it is possible. I told Bompiani, ‘Don't pay too much attention to something more or something less.’”

Eco believes in continuity, and he sees it in his work as well. “There is a narrative thrust also in my essays,” he comments. “I think that to write a scholarly essay means also to stage the adventure of your research: this is the problem, you tell the reader, now I'll try this solution; this solution cannot work, now I'll try the other one. I think that each of my works—with the exception of The Theory of Semiotics, which is by definition systematic—but all the others are the story of how you can arrive at certain conclusions starting from certain problems. Scholarly work is very similar to detection. You start because there is something that doesn't work, there is a problem; you say, so-and-so and so-and-so don't mesh together properly, so it's a story of detection.”

Foucault's Pendulum is, in essence, a tale of the detective instinct gone mad. Three editors at Garamond, a Milan publishing house, grow tired of the crazy writers and readers they encounter in the course of their work on a series of occult books called Isis Unveiled. (Eco describes the mechanics of creating a trashy series, and the way Garamond's clandestine vanity press subsidiary lures unwary authors into paying for their publication, with knowledgeable wit that will make publishing insiders smile.) Since the Diabolicals, as the editors call the cranks who besiege them with manuscripts, see mystic links and conspiracies everywhere they look, the trio decide to create a superplot, the Plan. It will explain every supposedly supernatural event in history, from the ancient megaliths to the cryptic intelligence of plants, as manifestations of a single awesome secret known only to the medieval Knights Templar, who created the Plan and prepared to bring it to fruition in the 20th century.

The editors find cynical delight in tying together every strange phenomenon and bizarre philosophy they can think of, taking as their motto, “The Templars have something to do with everything.” They are dismayed to discover that the Diabolicals take the Plan seriously—and in fact, invest it with reality through a frenzied search for its purported secrets. The novel's apocalyptic finale drives home Eco's fundamental message: when the natural human quest for meaning degenerates into the paranoid invention of cosmic conspiracies, the results can only be disastrous.

“There is a profound human need to find a sense in life,” he says. “All the religions and philosophies are efforts to do this. But some explanations are unpleasant, and people try to find another one because they think that a good explanation must be consoling and satisfactory. My book is not against this profound need that we have to find non-obvious explanations; as a semiotician, I am continuously trying to find the meaning of things under the text. It's against the cancer of exaggerated interpretation, in which you are never satisfied, you always want another answer. In the first centuries of Christianity, they had this truth that God is one in three, a trinity; it's a marvelous mystery. But there were immediately all these sects who said, ‘No, this is only an allegory for something more secret and more difficult.’ It was enough to understand this mystery, but they wanted another one.”

Eco offers a lighthearted example of the difference between “healthy suspicion and sick suspicion.” Gesturing to the desk in front of him, he says, “I enter this room and try to determine what there is in this ashtray. There are four butts of two different brands. I then suspect that there were here at least two different persons, and since I know that 15 minutes ago this room was empty, I suspect that these two persons are pretty compulsive smokers, since they smoked two cigarettes each in 10 minutes. Okay, this is a good way to interpret it. If I am a paranoid, I start thinking, ‘Why four? Maybe they put four butts here to remind me that I had four wives, or that I live at number four.’ You can go on ad infinitum this way.”

Which is exactly what Eco's three editors do. Gradually, they become so enchanted by the convoluted beauty of the Plan that they almost forget it's not real. Eco understands the attraction of “the polyphony of ideas,” as one of his characters calls their pastime of yoking every theory together. “As a book collector I have many volumes of lunatic science,” he says. “The polyphony of ideas can be very musical, but beyond a certain limit it drives you crazy. That was the reason I had to stop the book, because I was too much fascinated by this polyphony. It can happen with every book you write that at the end you are neurotic, and in this case, using such ‘hot’ material, I started closing the book and looking around, thinking, ‘Why this, and why this?’ And you can always find similarities between things. Give me any two objects of your choice, give me $10, and in five seconds I will find a similarity between them.”

Lunatic science? Paranoid conspiracy fantasy? Perhaps, but the semiotician-turned-novelist has also given a perfect thumbnail description of the storyteller's art.

Richard Eder (review date 5 November 1989)

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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 mastery is both an illustration and a parody of the contemporary literary doctrines of semiology and structuralism.

Eco is a professor of semiology and a novelist, author of The Name of the Rose. His new book is a bravura series of variations and reverses on the structuralist view that the important reality in a text is the text itself. Hamlet, for example, is not “about” a melancholy prince and the difficulty of action. It is “about” Shakespeare's telling the story. He might have told it differently.

In one of many witty passages in Pendulum in fact, Belbo, a nervous and suggestible book editor who is jealous of his authors, imagines himself coaching Shakespeare. Don't set it in France, he advises; set it in a less distinctive place, say, Denmark. How about having the ghost come in at the beginning instead of the end? And couldn't we improve on: “To act or not to act, that is the problem”?

Belbo, in other words, is “deconstructing,” showing the inner flux and instability of monuments. Structuralism, like modern science—which it aims to be—divides the visible into subatomic particles. At that level, a chair and the thumbtack placed upon it are much the same. So are Superman and Keats. In physics, a lot of energy has been liberated. In literature, a lot of scholarly activity has been liberated, but perhaps less energy.

To tell what Pendulum is about, itself requires a certain deconstruction. The plot is the least of it, being, essentially, an invention of the characters. Only at the end does the invention appear to come true, although this “coming-true” also is an invention. Through it, Eco makes his point—satirical, serious and above all ambiguous.

Essentially, then; or rather, unessentially: Belbo, Diotallevi and the narrator, Casaubon, three Milan intellectuals of varying stripes and edginesses, work for Garamond, publisher of a few serious books and of a great number of vanity items, paid for by their authors.

One of these, a comically paranoid and right-wing former Foreign Legionnaire who goes by the name of Colonel Ardenti, turns up with a book about a mystical secret known to the Knights Templar. The Templars fought in the Holy Land, came back to Europe, but became rich and powerful, and eventually were broken and dispersed in the 14th Century by the Pope and King Philip of France.

Ardenti claims to have found part of the secret in the form of a coded message. The Templars, he asserts, hid it and purposely got themselves suppressed in order to go underground until, through a 600 year line of initiates and adepts, it should be time for it to become known. The time is now, he insists; by publishing what he knows, others will come forward and complete the chain. Instead, Ardenti vanishes.

Garamond, for reasons that will become unpleasantly clear at the end, thereupon orders a line of books on similar themes. Manuscripts pour in on such assorted topics as the Rosicrucians, the Masonic lodges, the Bavarian Illuminati, and all kinds of alchemical and other lore from the long Western tradition of hermetic and underground belief.

It is all so far-fetched and arbitrary that Belbo, Casaubon and Diotallevi decide they can do better. They feed the manuscripts and masses of other research into a computer. And they proceed to invent their own elaborate theory about the Templar secret.

It consists, they decide, of a map through which can be found a place where the earth's magnetic currents form a kind of node. Power over this node will allow vast tectonic displacements. Japan, for instance, could be dumped into the Gulf of Panama. Such a power, of course, would make its holders the monarchs of the world.

Robert Adams (review date 9 November 1989)

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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 resounded down the ages—the twenty-five centuries—ever since.

Big thinkers are subject to big obsessions. Their eyes are fixed on the positive evidence, and oblivious of everything else; their busy minds expand theories, extrapolate hypotheses, and invent logical structures, perhaps scenarios, even plots, at stroboscopic speed. Common sense, at the exalted level of their thinking, they're entitled to disregard. It's their business to grasp at straws and make cathedrals out of them. Especially nowadays, when paranoia is openly proclaimed the only secure guard against delusion, literature has exploited a long list of visionary crackbrained narrators whose double-focused awareness of symbol behind surface makes rich grist for fiction's ironic mill. Kafka, Borges, Nabokov, Hesse, Gadda, Bellow, and Arno Schmidt are only the first names of a long list; their literary ancestry reaches back through Nerval, Novalis, and Hoffmann to Doctor Pangloss, Monsieur Panurge, through cabalists, alchemists, mages, and charlatans beyond number toward the Gnostics, the Zoroastrians, and the miscellaneous mystical fabulators of the Hellenistic Mediterranean basin. From taking a collector's interest in the varicolored species of distracted scholar, it's only a short step to sounding like one of the breed oneself.

Obsession is the first premise of Umberto Eco's second novel, Foucault's Pendulum. It is an encyclopedist's black comedy, sprawling across close to a millennium, from the first crusade to last year, and wandering around at least three continents. In mere physical dimensions, it's surely close to a world's record shaggy-dog story. Like his Renaissance forebear, Rabelais, Eco never uses one word where fifty will do, never hesitates to provide all the circumstantial preliminaries of a basically simple process. When the pace slows or the scenery turns drab, he resorts for extended periods to Steven Spielberg special effects, to pastiche, parody, and Grand Guignol. Best of all, he doesn't take himself too seriously; in the midst of his most macabre scenes, there's a continual flow of high spirits that raises this second novel well above (as it seems to me) the first one, The Name of the Rose. Not that both books don't have their longueurs. Professor Eco is a word man, and when his always incipient logorrhea takes over, there's nothing to do but step aside and let the spate run its course.

Without giving away too much of the story (which in any case has to be straightened out if a summary of it is to make any sense), it can be taken as a premise that three jocose young fellows—Belbo, Diotallevi, and Casaubon—are working for a seedy vanity publisher in present-day Milan, Signor Garamond(!). Provoked by the number of occult and esoteric manuscripts that have to be read, the junior editors persuade the semiliterate Garamond to set up a division of the press that will specialize in hermetic books. Most of the materials, it is agreed, will be secondhand garbage, copied out of previous rehashes of ill-translated popularizations of thoroughly dubious work. No matter; anything fresh or original would upset a market that has been flourishing for years. The staler the stuff, the better for Garamond's projected readership. And of prospective copy for those readers there is no end. There are so many writers turning out the stuff that some of them may even read one another's copy. And in any event, between flattery, suasion, and sharp practice, they can all be made to pay for the printing of their own lucubrations.

Thus the piratical enterprise gets under way, in a spirit rather like that of Wells's Tono-Bungay; but it is given a particular twist by the circumstance that Casaubon, for his doctoral dissertation, has investigated the history of the Knights Templar. At some length, but with the zest of an enthusiast, he recites the story. The chivalric order of the Knights Templar began in 1119 as a protective service for pilgrims going to and from the newly conquered Holy Land. For many interrelated reasons, the order grew and flourished mightily: grateful pilgrims gave donations, a kindly church remitted taxation, and the knights picked up from their intimate Saracen enemies some rather sophisticated commercial practices.

Whether they also picked up and brought back to Europe some fairly radical religious ideas is much debated; it's not impossible, and there is some belated evidence to that effect. With the blessings of Saint Bernard, they certainly flourished in the Church and in the world—till the fall of 1308, when (for reasons and under circumstances that have been bitterly debated ever since), the French monarchy abruptly disbanded the order and arrested its grand master, Jacques de Molay. Some of the knights were executed, the rest dispersed; after several trials, Jacques de Molay was burned at the stake for repudiating previous confessions of heresy and blasphemy. Apparently that finished the order. Yet a tradition persisted of a group of crypto-Templars, possessing secret wisdom and enormous wealth. Sometimes they were thought to be disguised as Rosicrucians, sometimes as Freemasons; on occasion they were thought to be allied with heretical communities like the Cathari or the Brethren of the Free Spirit. At no time did they appear publicly. Yet was it not true that when Louis XVI went to the guillotine nearly five hundred years after the grand master went to the stake, someone climbed on the scaffold to shout, “Vengeance for Jacques de Molay!”? It was a cry that still echoed in the ears of William Butler Yeats in the full twentieth century.

This is the story told by Casaubon to his two fellow editors (or, as they soon take to calling themselves, his co-conspirators); and they proceed to build themselves a structure of correspondences and coincidences on the assumption that the old Templars not only survived into the twentieth century as an organized conspiracy but retained dreams of their ancient power. Only, over the centuries, some parts of their invaluable wisdom had been misplaced. It must now be recovered and reassembled, but by whom? The three conspirators, drawing on lavish contributions from manuscripts submitted for publication, but also rummaging through archives and covert cross-references in printed texts, pursue the evidences of this shadowy, transsecular wisdom. In conversation among themselves, they never abandon the formula that this is only a game, a fantastic imaginative invention—but in their heart of hearts they gradually come to believe their own absurdities.

For it all fits; on one level or another every bit of absurdity they can dream up fits with the previously established parts of their structure, confirming it as it confirms them. The law of obsession takes over; a random speculative fact fitted into their established speculative structure suddenly takes on a new luminous meaning. If there's a gap in the structure, they look for the missing piece, and inevitably, miraculously, they discover it—all the while reassuring one another that they are proceeding by the strictest laws of scholarship. “Grant just one absurdity,” say the severe logicians, “and anything you want can be made to follow (sequitur quodlibet).”

The merry mythplaiters of Milan have an unlimited appetite for absurdities; they accumulate them wholesale. The philosopher's stone and the gift of immortality are only the beginning; they are easily woven into the Baconian theory of Shakespeare, the tomfooleries of Cagliostro or Madame Blavatsky, and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. All are facades or fronts for the machinations of the mysterious crypto-Templars. Metaphors, in service to the structure, are briskly converted to facts; because some surviving Templars perhaps went underground after 1314, modern descendants of the order are to be sought in cellars, catacombs, sewer lines, and subway systems.

Much of the ancient wisdom consisted in identifying lines of terrestrial force that secretly connect the sacred places of the earth, like Avalon, Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, the monastery-castle of Tomar in Portugal, the rock of the mosque of Omar in Jerusalem, and of course the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in Saint Martin des Champs, which houses Foucault's pendulum, the device, originally two hundred feet long, that J. B. L. Foucault used in 1851 to prove the rotation of the earth. (The pendulum, as one source puts it, “continued to rotate in a single plane as the earth rotated beneath it, thus leaving a series of traces in the sand in all directions.”)

Everything fits. The great iron erection of the Tour Eiffel is a device for broadcasting rays of cosmic force over the earth; across the Seine the gaudy pipes and tubes of the Beaubourg (Pompidou) Cultural Center are accumulators and distributors of telluric energies coursing through a secret network burning with vital force. (If you're a logical fussbudget, you may wonder why three of the great power centers of the worldwide network have to be placed within easy walking distance of one another in the heart of Paris; but that's not the sort of vulgar common sense you're encouraged to exercise in the great work of system building.)

So far the three accomplices have been nothing but a trio of amateur fantasists meeting occasionally in a back room to play a private game. But their hobby does not go long unnoticed. Under the guise of helping in their investigations, apparently commonplace but pertinacious personages start to infiltrate their councils, instruct them in secret proceedings, bring them into illuminate circles. They attend occult gatherings and are queried by an interested policeman. First one of their informants drops out of sight for entirely imaginable but not very explicit reasons then another. Gradually it becomes clear to the unfortunate conspirators that they are becoming victims of their own cabal. What began as a private joke has convinced a lot of the miscellaneous crazies in the world, among them the “Diabolicals” who contribute to Garamond's occult bookshelf, that there really is a world conspiracy to recover the ancient wisdom of the Templars, to assemble the missing parts of the sacred doctrine, and so to rule the world. (Under the cosmological and historical trappings, it is the basic Indiana Jones scenario. What frightens the original trio is not just that people swallow the story, but that they identify themselves as part of it.)

The danger of the joker position becomes clear when someone tries to assassinate Belbo and then succeeds in kidnapping him. Their adventures in the Walpurgisnacht they have stirred up, and the several ways they escape from it, are not for a reviewer to reveal; but the alert reader will not be surprised to hear through the latter pages of the book a remote tinkle of feminine laughter.

What does any of this have to do with the pendulum set up in Paris by the highly respected physicist J. B. L. Foucault? Its purpose, as I have noted, was to demonstrate the rotation of the earth, and that it did—still does, as a matter of fact, wherever a replica of it has been set in motion. But how do the Knights Templar connect with the somewhat diminished version of Foucault's machine in the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in the old Paris church of Saint Martin des Champs? The connection is diaphanous, atmospheric—fictional, in a word. For Eco a museum of outdated technology is a louche and spooky place to set a story of Gothic intrigue, and the pendulum, as an object uniquely free of the earth's motion, makes of St. Martin one of the world's mysterious strong spots. Bonus points come from an unspoken association with the pit and the pendulum of Poe's short story. But structurally it's not a very tight joint.

No artist in miniature, Umberto Eco has provided in his new book an overflowing macédoine enriched with hallucinations, excursions, allusions, retrospectives, and parodies from other periods, places, and stylistic traditions. One price of this verbal richness is that the book doesn't have much space to create characters: most of them are mere stencils. Another consequence of all the verbal richness is that the best way to read the book is fast. One of the major effects at which it aims is kaleidoscope; one doesn't get, and shouldn't try to grasp, a moment to assemble the pieces, run down a reverberation, or take in the richness of an overtone.

At a given moment, even a careful reader may not be able to tell whose consciousness he is following; and there are too many verbal byways and offshoots to explore them all. Okay, so Belbo's computer, which is summoned up to recite sections of the narrative or just to play games, is named Abulafia after a Spanish cabalist of the Middle Ages, and the A of Abulafia is required to give the Milan conspirators initials representing the first four letters of the alphabet. But this is squeezing the juice out of a dried fig. Eco is a joker, a constant joker, but his jokes, like most good ones, have something childish and rowdy about them; they're open, not cryptic. So far as I can make out, there's very little in Foucault's Pendulum akin to the semiotic overtones that provoked a good deal of portentous analysis of The Name of the Rose. Like the movies of Ingmar Bergman, which also suggest many “profound” speculations but which fade overnight into a memory of impressive commonplaces, the novel of Umberto Eco is a structure of impressionistic illusions. Or would be, if it weren't for the blessed injection of a blunt, tough sense of humor.

The mimetic range of Eco's verbalizations can only be suggested by quotation. When Belbo's computer Abulafia is unlocked by Casaubon to roam the fields of free electronic association, he pours forth a line of far from artless gabble:

This is better than real memory, because real memory, at the cost of much effort, learns to remember but not to forget. Diotallevi goes sephardically mad over those palaces with grand staircases, that statue of a warrior doing something unspeakable to a defenseless woman, the corridors with hundreds of rooms, each with the depiction of a portent, and the sudden apparitions, disturbing incidents, walking mummies. To each memorable image you attach a thought, a label, a category, a piece of the cosmic furniture, syllogisms, an enormous sorites, chains of apothegms, strings of hypallages, rosters of zeugmas, dances of hysteron proteron, apophantic logoi, hierarchic stoichea, processions of equinoxes and parallaxes, herbaria, genealogies of gymnosophists—and so on, to infinity.

That's giving the old Renaissance concept of copia a whole new dimension.

Or note the boldness and intimacy with which Eco flings himself into a hallucinatory fantasy dictated by the disintegrating Belbo to his machine. Starting from the ironic assumption that he is Shakespeare's editor rewriting a first draft of Hamlet, he plunges through Conrad's adventure story into the maelstrom of history lashed to a foam by the character's overwrought brain.

Why not set it in Denmark, Mr. William S.? Seven Seas Jim Johann Valentin Andreä Luke-Matthew roams the archipelago of the Sunda between Patmos and Avalon, from the White Mountain to Mindanao, from Atlantis to Thessalonica to the Council of Nicaea. Origen cuts off his testicles and shows them, bleeding, to the fathers of the City of the Sun, and Hiram sneers filioque filioque while Constantine digs his greedy nails into the hollow eye sockets of Robert Fludd, death death to the Jews of the ghetto of Antioch, Dieu et mon droit, wave the Beauceant, lay on, down with the Ophites and the Borborites, the snakes. Trumpets blare, and here come the Chevaliers Bienfaisants de la Cité Sainte with the Moor's head bristling on their pike. The Rebis, the Rebis! Magnetic hurricane, the Tower collapses, Rachkovsky grins over the roasted corpse of Jacques de Molay.

Some of these allusions are common knowledge, some can be supplied from other parts of the novel, some are altogether private. The associative connections are mostly arcane. No matter. Discursive expository prose is the common mode of plain sense, but not here. The scene is high tension. Because Eco knows something about the flickering pace of the electronic media, the suggestive powers of swift juxtaposition, he is not bound to statement.

The Name of the Rose was complained of because the exposition got in the way of the narration, and of other fictional values as well; readers were even heard of who failed to stay the distance. Eco's best friend would hardly deny that in Foucault's Pendulum he got all the mileage there is out of a single wiredrawn jape. Knowing all there is to know about the occult is knowing a lot that's not worth knowing in the first place. But most entertainments in our blasé world depend on a precarious suspension of disbelief. Umberto Eco, if not a mage, is a juggler with lots of moves and an almost hypnotic line of patter. It's a good show, which from time to time almost persuades you to forget the sorcerer's warning against taking it seriously.

Thomas D'Evelyn (review date 27 November 1989)

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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 serious fare.

But what could be more serious than a serio-comic interpretation of the modern mind? Like Erasmus and Swift, Eco plays the fool to teach us better about ourselves. Unlike his best-selling The Name of the Rose, Foucault's Pendulum is short on atmosphere and suspense. On the other hand, it's packed with lore alchemical, Rosicrucian, theosophist, et cetera (and in the tradition this novel is exploring, et cetera is like a magic spell!).

A professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna and a specialist on the Middle Ages, Eco is fascinated by the fascination certain medieval ideas still hold for us. The time is the present: The characters provide several points of view from which to explore our credulous age.

Eco's starting point in his interpretation of the modern world is suggested by one of the epigraphs attached to one of the 120 chapters. It's from Karl Popper: “The conspiracy theory of society … comes from abandoning God and then asking: ‘Who is in his place?’”

Put another way: Conspiracy theories abound when the meaning of history is in doubt. Is there a plot in the random events of history? The hero of the novel—he calls himself the Sam Spade of culture—begins to think so when he sets out to find a friend who has just phoned calling for help. “They” are after him. As it turns out, “They” are after the “Plan.” But it takes 600 pages of flashback to tell us why, what the plan may be, and whether it even exists.

The hero, whose name is Casaubon (after the dried-up scholar in Middlemarch and also after a tudor debunker of alchemy), is a full-time graduate student writing a thesis on the knights of the temple. The templars became so powerful in the late Middle Ages that they threatened the Pope, who had their leader executed as a heretic. Casaubon almost convinces himself that the plan derives from the templar's secret knowledge of the future and how to gain world power.

The search for the plan involves the hero in scams and escapades. He becomes consultant to a publisher who exploits the popular weakness for occult connections; a volume on metals grows to include alchemy! He visits brazil, falls in love, and toys with local mystical rites. This section includes a vivid and moving portrait, sometimes satirical, of the human cost of delusion.

The mind-set of the novel is '60s-ish: we witness some student demonstrations and our hero draws the inevitable parallel between the knights Errant and the New Left. On a certain sunny afternoon in Milan—“yellow facades and a softly metallic sky”—he watches a student demonstration and thinks first of a modern painter, Dufy, then of a medieval one, Guillaume Dufay: “I had the impression of being in a Flemish miniature. In the little crowds gathered on either side of the marchers, Iglimpsed some androgynous women waiting for the great display of daring they had been promised.”

The portrait of the friend Casaubon sets out to rescue may explain why the novel sold 600,000 copies in the first couple of months in Italy. Bilbo is 15 years older than Casaubon. He's rooted in war-torn Italy. He's also haunted by failure, a singular inability to seize the main chance. His pathetic but lyrical adoration of a tough Italian beauty who sometimes thinks she's Sophia—wisdom—]incarnate, helps bind these pages together. In the end, Bilbo learns the wisdom of saying “no.”

The heart of this book's mystery is not the plot but why human beings tend to invent plots when they could just live day by day. The human mind loves to make comparisons and draw analogies.

A major comparison controls most of the detail of this book: the modern world is in many ways like the early Middle Ages. “A splendid epoch,” Eco's narrator says early in the book, “a time dazzled by ecstasies and peopled with presences, emanations, demons, and angelic hosts.” Recall that some of the widely followed “wisemen” of our times, from Timothy Leary to Aldous Huxley, held some strange beliefs and generally flirted with ideas that the orthodox consider heretical.

As Eco notes, his “splendid epoch” of hodgepodge paganism yielded to the iron law and iron fist of the church.

In any event, reading Eco one starts to hear echoes. The title, for example, refers to the pendulum one sees in science museums, the long cord that swings in an arc determined by the rotation of the earth. The pendulum suggests that there's a point outside one can depend on. The pendulum plays a grisly role in the wild and scary final scene.

The title also refers to another Foucault, a modern historian who has denied the objectivity of fact, who thinks history is myth. But this Foucault is never mentioned in the book. Or is there an occult resemblance between the scientist and the historian?

The point is not to answer such questions but to not be too stuffy to explore them. Eco is in control. True, the novel can seem as interminable as a medieval romance, and, like his model Sam Spade, our hero is an incorrigible romantic. A faithful friend to Bilbo, he can't quite live up to the responsibilities of fatherhood.

He's also no match for “them,” who, plan or no plan, are still on his trail at novel's end. But the book has a point. Its wisdom is contained in a two-sided coin: the courage to say “no” (to occult resemblances, to romantic notions) on one side, and, on the other, the capacity to seize the occasion, live life to the hilt.

That these impulses may check each other and tongue-tie the would-be wiseman is also reflected in the curious reticences and careful shaping of what often seems like a very wordy book. Satire or salad bar, Foucault's Pendulum is a salubrious feast of words and ideas.

G. Michael O'Toole (review date November-December 1989)

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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 Jerusalem during the Crusades before they were tried and disbanded for heresy. He and his co-workers are approached by a Colonel Ardenti, late of the Foreign Legion, who claims to have discovered a secret Templar plan for world domination. Since the Templars have been the subject of innumerable conspiracy theories, the editors are wary. Soon, however, there are more encounters and coincidences (?) with other like-minded types. Thus saturated, the editors, for fun, with the aid of a computer, brainstorm their own all-encompassing theory to rule the world based on the Templar Plan. But then Colonel Ardenti disappears without a trace, and the game ultimately becomes obsessional, then fatal.

Every new thread of information becomes fodder for the conspiracy and Eco provides in painstaking detail the antecedents to each. What began as an editor's joke assumes a life of its own, attracting its own cult. Eventually they contact their creators, an ominous voice on the phone saying “You know more about us than we do,” and the stage is set for a climactic confrontation.

Eco has created the ultimate conspiracy novel, labyrinthine, loaded with suspense, and cleverly subversive in its humor. The author spends 600-plus pages explaining that which he ultimately dismisses, but, as in The Name of the Rose, he creates such an enjoyable romp through a hitherto (for most) unseen world that, despite its length, one hates to see it end.

Gregory Comnes (review date 1990)

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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 course, is any possibility of using narrative as a means of recovering meaning. Read in this context, Eco's Opera aperta (The Open Work) is an important book, since it at once accepts the standard postmodern critique of language and offers a manifesto detailing how meaning can be recovered narratively.

The book collects eleven essays written both before and after Eco's turn to semiotics. David Robey's lucid introduction is helpful in establishing an outline of key concepts and thematic linkages, especially in light of Eco's encyclopedic and broadly eclectic source material. Ranging from Aquinas to C. S. Pierce, from the political activism of Gruppo 63 to the kitsch of the information age, Eco's work both by philosophy and by design actively resists easy summary. Nevertheless, some provisional judgments can be made concerning the book's position on the cognitive power of art to help man understand and transform the labyrinth of postmodernism.

Throughout his writings, the concept of the open work serves as Eco's epistemological metaphor, the unpredictable and ambiguous text requiring active reader participation for its provisional “completion” mirroring the conditions of life. The cognitive power of art, Eco believes, is that in learning how to understand and transform an open text, one could better understand and transform one's open world. In an age of aesthetic pretense, it is the open work that is ideologically sound: acknowledging the essentially problematic historical circumstances in which we live allows for possibility of change, of choice rather than resignation and despair. Noteworthy in this context is Eco's notion of alienation. Running against conventional wisdom, Eco considers alienation good insofar as it reminds us, since we are alienated from something other, how to lose possession of ourselves. Losing possession of self is good because it reminds us how all constructs are “methodological” rather than “ontological”: provisional and hypothetical products of the mind rather than representations of the “real” nature of things.

Should one be tempted to dismiss all of this as simply a “privileging of the text,” it should not be forgotten that Eco not only tells but has repeatedly shown us his vision the way the best writers always do: orchestrating into the formal rhythms of fictions such as The Name of the Rose the limitations and capacities of the open work's manifesto. Like William of Baskerville, the reader of The Open Work comes to embrace a hermeneutics of suspicion, refusing either to privilege or suppress the complexities of a life that is always a work in progress, but a meaningful work nonetheless.

Olga Ragusa (review date Winter 1990)

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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 Capozzi, “Troppi movimenti intorno al Pendolo di Eco!” (Quaderni d'Italianistica, Autumn 1988).

Eco “readers” can be divided into two camps: those who can forget themselves in the labyrinthine construction of his “stories,” where digression is heaped on digression, although a unifying thread runs through them all to create the necessary suspense to keep one going; and those who boldly announce that there is nothing more soporific than the overwhelming display of recondite scholarly knowledge, familiarity with pop culture, and never-ending associations through the length and breadth of contemporary experience, be it literary, philosophical, topical, historical, significant, inconsequential—a veritable grab bag of everything that has impinged upon the consciousness of a late-twentieth-century mind let loose in the Wunderkammer of the Age of Information explosion.

What is Il pendolo di Foucault about? (And if we pose the discredited question, it is because we are thinking of what is perhaps a mythical general reader and not of those very real readers who are already caught up in the “movements” of this pendulum, every so often giving it a push of their own.) First of all, a misapprehension must be corrected: the Foucault at issue is not the famous twentieth-century philosopher but the nineteenth-century inventor of an instrument used to study the rotation of the earth, an instrument which now—a historical relic—is exhibited at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in Paris, where the present-day action of the novel begins. The narrator, Casaubon, is maneuvering to have himself locked up in the museum for the night so that he can set in motion the first part of an investigation in which he and the protagonist, Jacopo Belbo, are involved. The search for the missing Plan, for the answer to a mystery, leads through a universe that is not superreal but unreal, obsessive, created in the mind and through the furnishings of a mind set loose from circumambient reality and reduced to a system of signs.

Jeffrey Garrett (essay date October 1991)

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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 one considers the vast and intricate library dystopia which Eco has created for his novel, the casting of a librarian as archvillain, and the use of a library book as this villain's principal murder weapon. Beyond these matters of setting and casting, however, close examination of Eco's imaginary library and its literary antecedents, but also of Eco's yet untranslated essay “De Bibliotheca” (1981), will reveal the author's use of the library metaphor to be anything but casual. It is instead an image charged with meaning, both within the context of postmodern literary theory and as an element of Eco's own agenda for real-existing libraries.

Eleven years have now passed since Umberto Eco's medieval mystery novel Il Nome della rosa made its appearance in Italy, eight since its publication in the United States as The Name of the Rose [1]. The work's obvious demands on readers—significant passages in Latin, French, and even Middle High German; allusions to a host of forgotten (and often fictitious) classical and medieval writers; long and tangled disputations on abstruse matters of church history—should have made it an unlikely candidate for the bestseller lists. And yet, The Name of the Rose soon vaulted the walls surrounding the literary ghettos of the world to achieve a remarkably democratic popularity. In the United States, it sold well over a million hardcover copies between 1983 and 1987. When the paperback version was released in 1984, 800,000 copies sold within the first three months alone. The commercial success of Jean-Jacques Annaud's film version in 1986, with Sean Connery in the leading role, marked the elevation of this recondite novel, “one of the most popular non-popular books ever written” (Thomas Cahill), into the pantheon of Western popular culture [2, pp. 9-10]. Author Umberto Eco became an overnight pop hero, a “Superstar Professor” [3].

One aspect of this intelligent and remarkably successful mystery novel that has surely caught the attention of many readers in the library community but, surprisingly, received little or no attention in the literature of our profession is that Eco's The Name of the Rose is not only “a tale of books” (as it says of itself [1, p. 5]), but also of libraries, librarians, and library users. Let us look for a moment at the plot of Eco's work—this time from a librarian's perspective.

Within the confines of a great monastery on the slopes of the Apennines, a scholar-detective, the enlightened English cleric William of Baskerville, seeks to unravel a series of library-related murders. His quest for a forbidden book, which appears to hold the key to the case, requires that he first decipher a perplexing classification and shelving scheme. Failing again and again to crack this code, he concludes that the fault is not his own, that instead the knowledge of the all-powerful librarians has been used “to conceal, rather than to enlighten,” that indeed “a perverse mind presides over the holy defense of the library” [1, p. 176]. In the central villain's role, Eco has cast just such a librarian, the aging monk Jorge of Burgos. As we ultimately learn, Jorge has poisoned the forbidden library book (significantly, Aristotle's legendary lost treatise on humor), using it as a weapon to bring an excruciatingly slow and painful death to monks who, in violation of library access restrictions, succeed in “getting their fingers” on it [1, p. 472; 4, p. 254]. The novel ends with Jorge maniacally devouring the book rather than handing it over, and his last patron, William, screaming helplessly: “But I want the book!” [1, p. 482]. In a spectacular finale, the magnificent library burns to the ground, set ablaze by none other than its supposed protector: Jorge the librarian.

At intervals during this richly allusive tug of war between scholar and librarian over a book, numerous questions of interest to modern-day librarians are mused over, discussed, and debated, always in a delightful tongue-in-cheek pseudo-medievalese. Among these are such issues as censorship; the structure of public-access catalogs; the conflicting requirements of preservation versus access; the advent and implications of new end-user technologies (William's eyeglasses!); the utility of mnemonic versus non-mnemonic (or even anti-mnemonic) signage in library stacks; the semiotics of library architecture; the education of librarians and the epistemology of librarians’ expertise [1, pp. 26, 37-38, 74-76, 129-30, 183-85, 286, 310-21, et al.]. Last but not least, the novel puts in question the capacity of librarians for self-irony, that divine gift which would allow them to perceive the ambivalence inherent in their position as mediators between books and readers. Recalling that it is a treatise on humor that the librarian has chosen to poison, Eco seems to doubt the ability of librarians to laugh at themselves, not to mention their (in)ability to tolerate the laughter of others.

We might further consider what messages for librarians and their patrons are contained in the looming physical presence of the library itself. Repeatedly, Eco makes reference to its enormous “bulk,” its “exceptional size,” its extraordinarily vast and rich collections [1, pp. 21, 26, and passim]. Why is this library so much larger, grander, so much more modern than any library that existed at the time of Eco's story, namely, fourteenth-century Europe?1

These issues have not gone unmentioned in the growing body of exegetical literature surrounding The Name of the Rose. Rolf Köhn, professor of medieval history at the Universität Konstanz (Germany), has examined numerous details of Eco's fictional library, comparing and contrasting them with the realities of libraries in the late Middle Ages [5]. Both his findings and his conclusions are notable. For example, at a time when the most important libraries in Europe, such as the Sorbonne in Paris or the papal library of Avignon, could boast few more than two thousand codices, the library of Eco's remote Benedictine abbey housed at least that number of Bibles alone [1, p. 35]. Its entire holdings appear to have surpassed by far the six thousand codices which Eco attributes to the Piedmontese monastery of Novalesa—which, as Köhn points out, probably never had a significant library [5, p. 82]. Equally fantastic (and thoroughly unmedieval) is the interior architecture of Eco's fictitious library. Its capacious scriptorium, for example, lets the sunshine in through “three enormous windows” and numerous smaller ones, creating generous workspaces “suffused with the most beautiful light” [1, p. 71]. As anyone even touristically familiar with medieval interiors knows, nothing approaching Eco's scriptorium would have been imaginable in late medieval Europe [5, p. 90]. Again and again, Köhn reveals how Eco's library represents an “architectural monster” in a medieval context, “in many respects more similar to libraries of today than to those of the late Middle Ages” [5, pp. 84, 111].2 For Eco, whose credentials as a medievalist are impeccable [cf. 6, p. 11], these inaccuracies can only have been intentional, leading the medievalist Köhn to argue for an “allegorical reading of Eco's novel, for a translation of the historical sujet into the present day of the author and his readers.” Quite apart from any literary agenda being pursued, The Name of the Rose can also be read, Köhn feels, as “a parable for the situation of the modern researcher and library user” [5, pp. 109-10].

We must naturally exercise some caution at this point, since the allegorical complexity of the library as “the novel's presiding symbol” (Theresa Coletti in [6, p. 38]) clearly forbids a reductionist interpretation of Eco's The Name of the Rose as “library fiction,” however grandiose. But just as undeniably, Eco has drawn liberally and with gusto on his own experiences with modern research libraries in creating the library of his novel and has made these experiences and the (real) libraries in which he has had them a subject of his literary reflection.

If any further proof for this contention were necessary—and it apparently is, since even such recent commentators as Deborah Parker continue to refer to libraries as “literary commodities” that Eco has exploited solely to “add zest to his story,” much like the Victorian setting of the classic English detective story [7, p. 844]—this is provided by Eco himself, in an address which he delivered in Milan on March 10, 1981, just six months after the publication of The Name of the Rose. Eco had been invited to speak at an event commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Milan Public Library, held in the Palazzo Sormani. Published in Italy in 1983 under the Latin title “De Bibliotheca,” Eco's remarks have, to my knowledge, yet to be translated into English [8, pp. 237-50].

Eco's speech was probably not what the organizers of the event had in mind when they invited the distinguished Bologna professor of semiotics to speak to them, for it is one long philippic against libraries he has known. With no apologies to his hosts and, at least in the published version, not even nodding mention of the positive achievements of the public library movement in Italy, Eco conjures up, in nineteen numbered points, an “immense nightmare” of a library, a projection of all the irritations he has experienced in a lifetime as a library user, both in his country and in others [8, p. 240]. Eco's complaints range from the peevish to the profound, from the sometimes impossible length of call numbers and the absence or inaccessibility of library photocopiers to the latent hostility he perceives in librarians towards the patron (“an idler and potential thief”), or the fact that librarians and not actual users determine subject headings under which ultimately the user, often an expert in the field, must search for books [8, pp. 240-42]. As one reads “De Bibliotheca,” it is easy to imagine Eco, standing impatiently in some long line at the library circulation desk, brooding darkly over the details of the library dystopia (“a good library in the sense of a bad library”) that we finally meet full blown in The Name of the Rose [8, p. 240].

As negative as “De Bibliotheca” may seem and in tenor certainly is, venting his spleen was not Eco's entire purpose in coming to Milan. For one can, as Eco carefully points out at the outset of his speech, very well,“speak of the present or future of existing libraries by creating purely fantastic models” [8, p. 238]. Eco's belief in the heuristic value of seemingly frivolous fictional models, “gloriously lacking in any relevance for our day” [1, p. 5], to illuminate the contours of real problems, point toward possible solutions, and then, like a finished paperback, be discarded, is also a frequent subject of learned discourse in The Name of the Rose. Early in the novel, for example, the learned monk Venantius speaks of the power of “metaphors and puns and riddles,” which “seem conceived by poets for sheer pleasure. … to lead us to speculate on things in a new and surprising way” [1, p. 82]. Then, near the end of the novel, in his final debate with Jorge, William repeats almost exactly Venantius's argument, “how through witty riddles and unexpected metaphors,” by “depicting men and the world as worse than they are or than we believe them to be,” we can be brought to examine things more closely [1, p. 472]. This and other repetitions of the point suggest how Eco would like his readers to “use” his own novel [cf. also 1, p. 492; 9; 10, pp. 48-49].

This being said, however, we are still left with the daunting task of sorting out just what messages Eco intended to convey to us by invoking the library metaphor and what his agenda for real-existing libraries might have been in writing The Name of the Rose. We will have to keep in mind, as we now approach this task of interpretation, that Eco the author is a peculiarly bipartite spirit. A notorious literary gourmand, he is also a leading world expert in the study of literary gourmandise [11, pp. 325-26]. A novelist with (now) two best-sellers to his credit, he doubles as a prolific literary critic who has written on topics as disparate as James Joyce and James Bond [12, 13]. And so, both humanist and social scientist, both a writer and consumer of prose, Eco naturally regards the library on two distinct but interrelated cultural planes. On the first level, it is one of the great commonplaces of Western literature, an “intertextual archetype” representing at one and the same time both the grandeur and the ultimate vanity of all human intellectual striving. At the same time, Eco also regards libraries in their reality, as institutions still clinging to an outdated, quasi-sacred mission, urgently in need of secularizing reform. Both of these levels find literary expression in The Name of the Rose. Let us turn first to the library as Library, as literary topos.

For Eco, the postmodern man of letters, conscious of the weight of the textual past pressing down upon any late twentieth-century writer of fiction, there would have been no point in striving to be original in developing the Library as a literary theme. Indeed, this would have been futile, for everything has already been said on this and on every other subject, and a writer can only quote from the trove of the past every time pen is put to paper: it is, as Eco writes in his Postscript to “The Name of the Rose,” no longer possible to speak innocently” [14, p. 67]. Eco has therefore chosen to appropriate consciously the ways in which libraries have figured in the works of writers who have gone before him. Of these there are very many. A 1982 study published in Germany (which incidentally raised no claim to exhaustiveness) analyzed 267 fictional works in which libraries or librarians have played some literarily significant role [15]. Despite these sheer numbers, there are discernible consistencies in these works that allowed the author of the study to work out a typology of meanings associated with libraries. Just such a typology seems to have been at work in Eco's imagination while writing The Name of the Rose.

In the Western literary tradition, the Library at its most positive has been represented as a temple of wisdom, the home of a sacred order, comforting proof of man's dominance over nature, or, in Debra A. Castillo's words, “the reconstructed tower [of Babel]” [16, p. 3]. In this, what we might call its sacral manifestation, the library is approached and entered with the reverence due a site of great holiness.3 For other authors, however, it is the remoteness of this world of order and meaning from the real world that sets the tenor. The library then becomes a kind of redoubt that “has solidified and closed around us,” in which “classificatory systems serve as a kind of map to keep the confusion at bay” [16, p. 14].

In a final, grim permutation, the Library of literature, in its “vast, inhuman impersonality,” dessicates and ultimately destroys its human creators [16, p. 114-15]. It then becomes “the ferocious library” [17, p. 55]. “ruthless in its fetishization of the ordering process,” inducer of a “madness—or perhaps intolerable sanity” that is inimical to life [16, pp. 3, 13]. The literary apotheosis of the library as the impassive bringer of madness and death is to be found in the stories and poetry of Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentinian writer whose oeuvre is intertextually omnipresent in Eco's novel [7, 18]. In Borges's nightmarish “Library of Babel,” for example, death comes to the library's users, who spend their lives lost and perplexed in its vastness, as one might expect, through “suicide and pulmonary diseases,” whereupon their bodies are thrown over the railing to decompose as they fall, eternally, past the library's infinite layers of tiers [19, p. 54].

If the name Borges seems to resonate throughout The Name of the Rose, it is surely no coincidence, if for no other reason than for the anagrammatic similarity that Eco has constructed between Borges's name and that of his fictional librarian, Jorge of Burgos [14, pp. 27-28]. It is Borges, of all writers who have speculated upon libraries real and metaphysical, to whom Eco obviously feels the closest affinity and owes the greatest debt.4 Both writers display the same encyclopedic urge, the same longing to pull together all the disparate images to which the Library has lent itself throughout world literature into a single, all-encompassing one, which can then stand as a cipher for the whole uncomprehended universe of human experience. As Eco puts it in The Name of the Rose: “For these men devoted to writing, the library was at once the celestial Jerusalem and an underground world on the border between terra incognita and Hades. They were dominated by the library, by its promises and by its prohibitions” [1, p. 184]. Eco has anchored the two ends of the semantic spectrum that Library has traditionally connoted in literature—the positive and the negative, Heaven and Hell, light and fire—at the beginning and the end of his novel, respectively. On the very first page of his story, he lets William's scribe Adso express wonderment and awe at the “perfect form” that the library turns to the world, expressive of the “sturdiness and impregnability of the City of God” [1, p. 21]. William, too, in his first meeting with the abbot, bestows profuse and sincere praise on the library, “spoken of with admiration in all the abbeys of Christendom” [1, p. 35]. In time, however, cracks in the library's glorious facade become evident, then horrible gaping fissures. Yet neither William nor his creator Eco can ever bring themselves to cast final, condemnatory judgment on the library or on its librarians. Even as it burns to the ground, taking his archenemy Jorge with it, William is so overcome by grief at his loss that he collapses in tears [1, p. 487]. The analysis of critic Robert F. Yeager suggests that some of these tears might even have been spent on Jorge the librarian, with whom William is linked in a strange love-hate, even homoerotic relationship [20, pp. 44-45].

Apart from Jorge's name, the most obvious evidence of Eco's debt to Borges is the architecture of the library, which in its size, geometric regularity, and labyrinthine structure is a direct descendant of Borges's “Library of Babel” [2, p. 28]. In postmodernist thought, the literary text, the library, the labyrinth—each often serves as a complex sign for the other, just as each stands for and thus interprets the world and the human condition.5 Each shares what in Eco's semiotic theory can be referred to as a common morphology, in Eco's words that of a “large labyrinthine garden,” permitting the “detective metaphysic” in his quest to “take many different routes, whose number is increased by the crisscross of its paths” [14, p. 54; 21, p. 275]. The goal of this “quest”? It is for William in The Name of the Rose, for Borges's librarian-scholars in “The Library of Babel,” and for the archetypal library user as well, quite simply: a book, the book, “the formula and perfect compendium of all the rest” (Borges in [19, pp. 56-57]).

At this point we need to consider Eco's views on the labyrinth in somewhat greater detail, not only since the library-labyrinth topos is so constitutive of The Name of the Rose,6 but also because the idea of the labyrinth has broad applications as “an abstract model of conjecturality” (Eco in the Postscript [14, p. 57]) of potential value in library contexts, which we will consider shortly.

As Eco elaborates in Postscript there are three kinds of labyrinth. The first is that of the ancient Greeks, of which the Minoan labyrinth at Knossos is the classic example. For all its circuitousness, the unicursal labyrinth of antiquity always led to the center or “goal”—and then, hopefully, to the exit. “This is why in the center there is the Minotaur,” Eco explains, for “if he were not there … it would be a mere stroll” [14, p. 57; cf. now also 22].

Modern maze-treaders, on the other hand, must be prepared to find their way in labyrinths of far greater complexity: the “mannerist” or multicursal maze, a model of the trial-and-error process, in which paths branch off at every intersection; or even more likely, in what Eco refers to as the “rhizome” maze of criss-crossing paths, in which the boundaries themselves shift from one moment to the next [14, pp. 57-58]. The old positivist techniques do not get you very far in the rhizome labyrinth. In fact, trusting too much in the inevitability of reaching one's goal by methodically following the prescribed twists and turns of a “search” is either grossly naive or an act of grave hubris. As detective Lönnrot must learn in “Death and the Compass,” another Borges tale that inspired Eco while writing The Name of the Rose, it can cost you both your quest—and your life [23, p. 87; 18, pp. 797-803].

Eco's linkage of libraries and labyrinths suggests an interesting image with which we may seek to capture, at least conjecturally, the “fundamental shift in information-seeking behavior” (Deanna Marcum) which modern libraries are currently both promoting and responding to [24]. Consider first the manifest evolution of the modern library from a “classical,” unicursal labyrinth to a multicursal one. Traditionally, libraries directed their readers to literature that had “stood the test of time,” to an accepted canon of authors who provided proven answers to questions both practical and spiritual. As author Elizabeth Yates's librarian Miss Patch regularly advised her patrons in Nearby (1947), the traditional library seemed to say to its users: “When a new book comes out, read an old one!” [25, p. 116].

Modern library searches do not lead from point A (the catalog, the reference desk) to point B (the book, the answer, the truth), but instead invite their computer-literate users to explore on their own the many recesses of a multicursal maze, placing them again and again in decision situations, at forks or nodes where multiple paths lead down through the hierarchies of subject headings, on their way to what may or may not be a useful or even existing document. Indeed, through the extraordinary versatility of keyword and Boolean searching, the modern library environment actually begins to approximate Eco's rhizome labyrinth, in which “every path can be connected with every other one,” in which there is “no center, no periphery, no exit, because it is potentially infinite” [14, p. 57]. In effect, the library user creates with every search his or her own ad hoc library of five, fifty, or five thousand book and journal citations, cut out from that great “virtual” library that is the universe of all accessible books, all stored information. If the user is unlucky, this personal library may have thousands of books, but provide no answers—and have no exit. Our (post)modern library, like the ouevre of Jorge Luis Borges (in the words of Gérard Genette), “does not have a ready-made sense, a revelation to which we must submit: it is a reservoir of forms which await their meaning, it is the imminence of a revelation that does not take place, and which everyone must produce for himself” [26, p. 327; emphasis in original].

“Revelation” must then, if at all, be forthcoming from the searcher, for whom ambiguity is not just “short-lived and ultimately yielding to proper procedures” but “a permanent state” [20, p. 48]. There is no longer a canon to turn to and to master. Everything is potentially valuable or worthless, depending on its position in the temporary contexts that we create for our library searches, what we then make of it, and at what point in our search we move which way. We are, to use another metaphor, lost at sea, and, to use a term now common in computer science, must “navigate” our way through layers of menu screens and catalogs of search variants, through an ocean of books and articles without end. This is also the world in which William of Baskerville, representing the modern library user, ultimately realizes he is living: “I have never doubted the truth of signs, Adso; they are the only things man has with which to orient himself in the world. What I did not understand was the relation among signs. … I behaved stubbornly, pursuing a semblance of order, when I should have known well that there is no order in the universe” [1, p. 492]. It can only be mentioned in passing that Eco's radical relativism has implications far beyond the library environment, especially for our collective belief, unchallenged until recently, in the existence of a scientifically derived and classifiable body of knowledge. We cannot examine these implications here, except to observe that the Library, in both its “spiritual” and “terrestrial” manifestations, is one of the most visible and important temples that society has erected to this belief. Instead of pursuing this interesting philosophical tangent, let us return once again to The Name of the Rose as literature, to consider now for a moment Eco's treatment of librarians.

Exactly paralleling the broad and contradictory associations stored in the literary image of the Library is the ambivalence of the ancestral intertextual tradition toward the guild of librarians. At his (or, less frequently, her) best, the librarian of literature has figured as “the virgin priest of knowledge” (thus R. L. Stevenson in Prince Otto [27, p. 57]), keeper of a sacred trust to protect and administer society's “guilty knowledge”: that Pandora's box of society's accumulated experience and wisdom which, in the wrong hands, would lead to moral decay and revolution [28, p. 5; 15, pp. 68-69].

It was this same quasi-sacerdotal “reading” of librarianship that informed José Ortega y Gasset's 1934 address “The Mission of the Librarian,” in which Ortega speaks with great respect of the “hermetic mysteries” of the librarian's profession, bestowing upon the initiate powers to work to society's good in ways analogous to the physician, the judge, and the soldier. For Ortega, the librarian's mission was to protect society from “ideas received in inertia” and even “pseudo-ideas,” making the librarian, in Ortega's view, society's appointed “doctor and hygienist of reading” [29, pp. 133, 154].

As revealed in the following passage, spoken by the abbot of the novel's great monastery, Eco is obviously very familiar with this kind of imagery. Indeed, The Name of the Rose's monastic setting lends itself well to the “vestal” interpretation of librarianship we have seen represented above:

The library was laid out on a plan which has remained obscure to all over the centuries, and which none of the monks is called upon to know. Only the librarian has received the secret, from the librarian who preceded him, and he communicates it, while still alive, to the assistant librarian, so that death will not take him by surprise and rob the community of that knowledge. And the secret seals the lips of both men. Only the librarian has, in addition to that knowledge, the right to move through the labyrinth of the books, he alone knows where to find them and where to replace them, he alone is responsible for their safekeeping. The other monks work in the scriptorium and may know the list of the volumes that the library houses. But a list of titles often tells very little; only the librarian knows, from the collocation of the volume, from its degree of inaccessibility, what secrets, what truths or falsehood, the volume contains. Only he decides how, when, and whether to give it to the monk who requests it.

[1, p. 37]

The subtle auctorial irony evident in this passage, which naturally occurs early on in the book, already suggests that alternative images of the librarian's mission are to come. And indeed, here again Eco draws on Borges as his encyclopedist and processor of literary images, this time in regard to librarians. As we might expect, the Borgesian archetypes are significantly darker than those propagated by Stevenson, Ortega, or by Eco's fictional abbot. Recall first Borges's “Library of Babel,” in which the figure of the librarian is that of a lost and desperate searcher in the labyrinth of a limitless library [19, p. 52]. In a closely related image, in Borges's poem “The Keeper of the Books” (1968), the librarian is portrayed as a degenerate epigone protecting a hoard of books he himself cannot read:

In the faltering dawn
my father's father saved the books.
Here they are in this tower where I lie
calling back days that belonged to others,
distant days, the days of the past.

[30, pp. 73, 75]

Eco's The Name of the Rose plays upon these and other, often contradictory, literary affects associated with librarians, and the two main adversaries of his book, Jorge and William, each subsume parts of this tradition. For his villain, Eco has borrowed the image of the librarian as priest of the book, merging it with the Borgesian image of the librarian as an uncomprehending book-“keeper” fighting a rear-guard action against a new age. No doubt, Jorge would have also felt quite comfortable in the role of an Ortegan “doctor and hygienist of reading” and does in fact use medical imagery to describe his understanding of his office. In discussing the treatment of library patrons “infected” with idle or wrong thoughts (Ortega's “ideas received in inertia”), Jorge is uncompromising:

“Illness is not exorcised. It is destroyed.”
[William:] “With the body of the sick man[?]”
“If necessary.”

[1, p. 477]

In a further, startlingly apt image for both professional skill and professional egotism, Jorge is blind, but in the confines and the darkness of the library, where only librarians are allowed and only librarians know the way, his “magic sensibility” allows him to “see” better than anyone else [1, p. 483]. Jorge, in sum, is a frightening amalgam of the Ortegan and Borgesian visions of the librarian.

What now of Eco's protagonist, William of Baskerville? Other writers on William's literary antecedents—especially S. Tani, W. D. Spencer, and D. McGrady—have shown how William, like Jorge, is a composite figure [31, pp. 68-75; 17, pp. 43-59; 18]. They reveal how Eco has taken the Borgesian image of man the “imperfect librarian”—a desperate, relentless, tragically unsuccessful searcher for knowledge—enriched it with obvious borrowings from Conan Doyle and less obvious ones from the modern genre of the antidetective genre, in order to create the (anti)hero of the story.

But let us look at the figure of William from a library perspective. His stance in favor of freedom and facility of access is clearly that of the modern academic user. Consider this exchange between William and the librarian Malachi as the two stand before the library catalog:

“But in what order are the books recorded in this list?” William asked. “Not by subject, it seems to me.”…

“The library dates back to the earliest times,” Malachi said, “and the books are registered in order of their acquisition, donation, or entrance within our walls.”

“They are difficult to find, then,” William observed.

“It is enough for the librarian to know them by heart and know when each book came here. As for the other monks, they can rely on his memory.”

[1, p. 75].

William's growing skepticism toward the librarians as aids to his researches turns out to be vital to his progress in solving the case. Rather than place himself in their professional care, he prefers to be left to his own “devices”: “It was a forked pin, so constructed that it could stay on a man's nose … as a rider remains astride his horse or as a bird clings to its perch. And, one on either side of the fork, before the eyes, there were two ovals of metal, which held two almonds of glass” [1, p. 74]. The object of such wonderment is, of course, William's pair of eyeglasses, introduced in Italy just decades before and seen in the monasterial library now for the first time: “The other monks looked at William with great curiosity but did not dare ask him questions. And I noticed that, even in a place so zealously and proudly dedicated to reading and writing, that wondrous instrument had not yet arrived” [1, p. 74]. Robert Artigiani, professor of the history of science at the U.S. Naval Academy, has trenchantly commented upon the struggle between Jorge and William as a “confrontation between the blind man and the bespectacled one” [32, p. 70]. By depriving William of his eyeglasses (which he steals), Jorge is able to prolong, at least temporarily, his monopoly of access to library information. Teresa de Lauretis sees in Jorge's efforts on behalf of “his” library “a conservative, misconceived, even pathetic, last-ditch attempt to salvage the status quo” [33, p. 27].

Eco's “medieval” novel reveals itself in this light as a very topical contribution to the discussion of the roots of the librarian's profession and the exercise of that profession from the perspective of the modern user. Eco obviously thinks little of the historical “moral” mission of librarians and argues that the librarian is quite capable of abusing his knowledge not only to protect ethical values that are not those of everyone in the community at large but also for making himself, to the detriment of unhindered bibliographic access, indispensable to anyone wishing to use the library. Although (at least in this country) we may hope to have transcended the role of our librarian predecessors as moral gatekeepers, may we not be suspected as a guild (Eco might ask) of at times clutching our “hermetic mysteries” to our bosoms for the purpose of protecting our “professional interests”?

What if our greatest service to our users (Eco might appear to suggest) would be, as in Lenin's theory of the state, to perfect our technologies to such an extent that we make ourselves superfluous and, as a profession, just “wither away”? It is interesting to note that in “De Bibliotheca,” the only two libraries singled out for praise—Yale's Sterling Library and the library of the University of Toronto—seem to function in Eco's perception supremely well without a single professional librarian appearing at the user/library interface. One only sees the occasional “employee who rather absentmindedly casts a glance into your bag as you go out,” or the young student who scans the books at the circulation desk with an electronic wand: “All this means that in these libraries there are very few supervisors and very many employees, more accurately a kind of functionary, half librarian and half assistant, usually a student who in this way, full-time or half-time, earns his or her way through school” [8, p. 244]. Another quite different reading of Eco's description of libraries also offers itself, however, one that contains the germ of a far more optimistic perspective on the future of professional librarianship. This would involve a revival of the old Port-Royal image of God the Master Clockmaker. According to this notion popular in seventeenth-century France, after creating and “winding” the mechanism of Creation, the Master Clockmaker then sits back to observe and monitor the proper functioning of his work. This being the real world, however, and technological advance, unlike a Pascalian clock, being far from an epiphany, our master clockmaker—the professional library administrator of the future—would certainly not be able to avoid intervening to make corrections and adjustments to the workings of the clockwork. Nonetheless, his or her principal function in this scheme would be, in concert with the users and other stakeholders of the library, to contemplate, plan, and then implement improvements to the grand design—and otherwise not be too much in evidence.

In closing, let us not overlook the very fundamental moral message that The Name of the Rose contains for us in the profession. Eco, in the interpretation presented here, confronts librarianship not as some disembodied notion of “service,” not as an ideal that we all believe ourselves striving for, but as an assemblage of real persons performing real work in real institutions, all of which acquire through time an inertia of their own. Eco's book contains a warning as to where this inertia may lead: to habits of mind and of action quite different from and of a tendency diametrically opposed to the ideals we so vociferously uphold. In a rapidly changing world, Eco seems to suggest, we may increasingly find the ghost of Jorge of Burgos insinuating himself into our professional midst, whispering in our ears, informing many of our thoughts and actions when it comes to matters of “the survival of the profession.” Librarians, Eco is telling us, may fall victim to the same temptations that other mortals might. They may attempt to hide behind their professional credentials. They may seek to create a mystery about themselves to put the performance of their duties beyond question to outsiders. They may react in fear and destructively in times of change. And, above all, they themselves may not perceive the contradiction of their ways. As Carl Rubino writes, “This book brings us face to face with our ghastly medieval enemies, who turn out, of course, to be ourselves” [34, p. 56].


  1. My thanks to Professor David Kaser (Indiana University) for drawing my attention to this question.

  2. Unless otherwise noted in the reference, translations of passages from foreign language works are my own and will not be individually attributed.

  3. The German study noted above documents the use of sacral imagery in connection with libraries in works of writers as diverse as C. S. Lewis, James Joyce, Henry Miller, Richard Brautigan, Henry James, and William Saroyan [15, pp. 15-17].

  4. In fact, Eco began his Milan address by reading aloud a long passage from Borges's “Library of Babel,” referring to it as “scripture” and ending his reading with a hearty “Amen!” [8, pp. 237, 238].

  5. Compare the words of the monk Alinardo of Grottaferrata: “The library is a great labyrinth, sign of the labyrinth of the world” [1, p. 158].

  6. The floorplan of the library-labyrinth is in fact the novel's only illustration [1, p. 321] (D. Kaser, personal communication).


1. Eco, Umberto. The Name of the Rose. Translated by William Weaver. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. Originally published as Il nome della rosa. Milan: Bompiani, 1980.

2. Haft, Adele J.: White, Jane G.: and White, Robert J. The Key toThe Name of the Rose.” With a foreword by Thomas Cahill. Harrington Park, N.J.: Ampersand Associates, 1987.

3. Sullivan, Scott. “Superstar Professor.” Newsweek (September 29, 1986), pp. 62-63.

4. Hohoff, Curt. “Umberto Eco: Author of the Postmodern.” Translated by J. Koeppel. Communio: International Catholic Review 15 (Summer 1988): 253-61.

5. Köhn, Rolf. “‘Unsere Bibliothek ist nicht wie die anderen…’: Historisches, Anachronistisches und Fiktives in einer imaginären Bücherwelt.” In “… Eine finstere und fast unglaubliche Geschichte”? Mediävistische Notizen zu Umberto Ecos Mönchsroman “Der Name der Rose.”3d ed., edited by Max Kerner, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1988.

6. Coletti, Theresa. Naming the Rose: Eco, Medieval Signs, and Modern Theory. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988.

7. Parker, Deborah. “The Literature of Appropriation: Eco's Use of Borges in Il nome della rosa.Modern Language Review 85 (October 1990): 842-49.

8. Eco, Umberto. Sette anni di desiderio. Milan: Bompiani, 1983.

9. Churchill, John. “Wittgenstein's Ladder.” American Notes and Queries 23 (September-October 1984): 21-22.

10. Hüllen, Werner. “Semiotics Narrated: Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.Semiotica 64 (1987): 41-57.

11. Nöth, Winfried. Handbook of Semiotics.. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

12. Eco, Umberto. Le poetiche di Joyce dalla “Summa” al “Finnegans Wake.” Milan: Bompiani, 1966.

13. Eco, Umberto. “Le strutture narrative in Fleming.” In Il caso Bond, edited by Oreste del Buono and Umberto Eco. Milan: Bompiani, 1965.

14. Eco, Umberto. Postscript to “The Name of the Rose.” Translated by William Weaver. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.

15. Döhmer, Klaus. Merkwürdige Leute: Bibliothek und Bibliothekar in der Schönen Literatur. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 1982.

16. Castillo, Debra A. The Translated World: A Postmodern Tour of Libraries in Literature. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1985.

17. Spencer, William David. Mysterium and Mystery: The Clerical Crime Novel. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989.

18. McGrady, Donald. “Sobre la influencia de Borges en Il nome della rosa, de Eco.” Revista Iberoamericana 53 (October—December 1987): 787-806.

19. Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Library of Babel.” Translated by John M. Fein. In Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, edited by Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby. New York: New Directions, 1964.

20. Yeager, Robert F. “Fear of Writing, or Adso and the Poisoned Text.” SubStance 47 (1985): 40-53.

21. Eco, Umberto. A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.

22. Doob, Penelope Reed. The Idea of the Labyrinth from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990.

23. Borges, Jorge Luis. “Death and the Compass.” Translated by Donald A. Yates. In Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, edited by Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby. New York: New Directions, 1964.

24. Marcum, Deanna B. “For University Librarians of the Future, the Degree in Library Science, by Itself, Will Not Be Sufficient.” Chronicle of Higher Education (August 1, 1990).

25. Yates, Elizabeth. Nearby: A Novel. New York: Coward-McCann, 1947.

26. Genette, Gérard. “La littérature selon Borges.” In Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Dominique de Roux and Jean de Milleret. Paris: L’Herne, 1964.

27. Stevenson, Robert Louis. Prince Otto: A Romance. New York: Scribner's, 1905.

28. Dingwall, Robert. “Introduction.” In The Sociology of the Professions: Lawyers, Doctors, and Others, edited by Robert Dingwall and Phillip Lewis. London: Macmillan, 1983.

29. Ortega y Gasset, José. “The Mission of the Librarian.” Translated by James Lewis and Ray Carpenter. Antioch Review 21 (Summer 1961): 133-54.

30. Borges, Jorge Luis. “El guardián de los libros”/“The Keeper of the Books.” In In Praise of Darkness: A Bilingual Edition. Translations by Norman Thomas di Giovanni. New York: Dutton, 1974.

31. Tani, Stefano. The Doomed Detective: The Contribution of the Detective Novel to Postmodern American and Italian Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.

32. Artigiani, Robert. “The ‘Model Reader’ and the Thermodynamic Model.” SubStance 47 (1985): 64-73.

33. de Lauretis, Teresa. “Gaudy Rose: Eco and Narcissism.” SubStance 47 (1985): 13-29.

34. Rubino, Carl A. “The Invisible Worm: Ancients and Moderns in The Name of the Rose.SubStance 47 (1985): 54-63.

JoAnn Cannon (essay date Winter 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7183

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 master different codes and eager to deal with the text as with a maze of many issues” (9). Umberto Eco would seem to be not only the ideal “model reader” but the only empirical reader whose competence is sufficiently encyclopedic to do justice to The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum. Each of Eco's novels is in fact a vast maze, a tangled web of arcane references, coded messages, metaphysical speculation, and historical trivia which only the author can successfully unravel. On the other hand, Eco's assertion that the author should die after his work is complete, in order not to block the path of the text,2 acts as a kind of challenge to the reader to fix upon an “unauthorized” interpretation of the text.3 Whether we pose as model readers, following the paths of a “faithful” reading predetermined by the author, or whether we decide to break new, uncharted ground, the interpretive paths we may follow seem endless. It has become something of a convention to open an essay on The Name of the Rose by inventorying the numerous if not infinite ways in which the text might be read.4 No matter what approach the critic chooses, she makes it clear that the reading in question is in no way privileged, that it “forecloses no others” (Artigiani 64). The critic who may seem to “go too far” with Eco's text forestalls any objections by belittling the effort as a “monstrosity … doodled in the margins of [the author's] manuscript” (Mackey 39). If the critic chooses to deconstruct the novel, “to read the text against its own conscious assertions,” looking for the point where the author is not in control, she must ask whether this particular strategy is not already foreseen in the text.

Foucault's Pendulum elicits from the critic precisely the same perplexity as Eco's first novel. Is it the critic's job to reconstruct the references on which this compendium of arcane knowledge is based? Should one read the novel as an autobiographical projection of the author or as an exemplification of the author's theories? I have envisioned a somewhat hybrid approach to Foucault's Pendulum, an approach which I will elaborate in the following pages. I will examine the central theme of the novel first in the context of the sociopolitical upheaval of post war Italy and then in the light of Eco's numerous theoretical works. Finally I will locate the point where we may begin to unravel the text through a reading which could be called deconstructive. Without deciding whether this is a moment of ambiguity or irony that is inscribed in the text or whether it is instead a moment of blindness (and, of course, insight), I point to the way in which Foucault's Pendulum puts into question Eco's theoretical work.5

No reading of Foucault's Pendulum can do justice to the novel without situating it in the sociopolitical climate from which it emerged. The novel unsparingly satirizes the Italian political scene of the last decades. Foucault's Pendulum confronts head on events that in The Name of the Rose were dealt with indirectly and allegorically. It will be remembered that Eco's first, historical, novel is prefaced by a note informing the reader that the text is a translation of a manuscript which first fell into the author's hands in Prague in 1968, six days before the Soviet invasion.6 Although the authorial note claims that the story is “gloriously” lacking in any relevance to contemporary Italy, the dust jacket of the Italian edition of the novel gives the lie to this disclaimer. Jorge da Burgos' fanatical belief in Truth with a capital “T” allegorizes, among other things, the political fanaticism of the Red Brigades. Through his fictional alter ego, William of Baskerville, Eco denounces the devotion to a political absolute which led Italy into the bloodstained “anni di piombo.” These issues, which are dealt with only implicitly in Eco's historical novel, take center stage in Foucault's Pendulum. The real narrative time of Eco's second novel extends from the period of revolutionary zeal of the late sixties to the fanatical terrorism of the seventies to the political disenchantment of the eighties.

The vicissitudes of Italy in these years are filtered through the consciousness of a disenchanted intellectual, Jacopo Belbo, who sports the same birthdate and vital statistics as Umberto Eco. Born in 1932, Belbo (like Eco) was eleven years old at the time of the Resistance movement and, thus, was too young to take an active part in the partisan struggle. Not only was Belbo cheated of the opportunity to participate in the Resistance but also to write as a “participant observer” of the experience that inspired a whole generation of Italian writers, including Calvino, Vittorini, and Fenoglio.7 Belbo, an “autore mancato,” has given up his dreams to settle for editing the books of others. As a young man Belbo had come close to acquiring a “war story” when he was caught in cross fire and stubbornly refused to take cover. When his uncle pulled him to safety moments before a bullet struck the exact spot where he had been standing, Belbo lost his one opportunity to transcend the role of spectator which history had allotted him. This adolescent disappointment cast a pall of cynicism over his adult life. The one moment when he had at least half-heartedly attempted to “believe” in something was in 1968. Convinced that the student protest movement of the late sixties represented the only possibility of redemption, Belbo had attended the rallies, sit-ins and occupations:

it was a settling of scores, a time of remorse, repentance, regeneration. We had failed and you were arriving with your enthusiasm, courage, self-criticism … We had to be like you. … We stopped wearing ties, we threw away our trench coats, and bought secondhand duffle coats. Some quit their jobs rather than serve the Establishment.


The possibility of redemption after the lost opportunity of the Resistance proved to be an illusion. Toward the beginning of the novel, Belbo describes to Casaubon, the university student whom he first meets in the early seventies, his disappointment in the younger generation. He particularly indicts the university students who betrayed their youthful ideals either by selling out to the establishment or by gunning down their opponents in the street.

Eco's vivid portrayal of the danger inherent in the black and white certainty that led to Italian terrorism is coupled with a nostalgia for the clarity of the Resistance. That nostalgia is particularly acute in Eco's generation, which was denied active duty in that ferocious but also, at least in retrospect, reassuring period of Italian history. Next to the black and white, or rather red and black, certainty of the Resistance movement, the events of 1968 and 1969 seem at best anti-climactic. The ideological confusion of the seventies and eighties becomes even more bewildering in contrast to a simpler time. In the days of the Resistance movement, the birth of history for Belbo's generation, the “two opposing sides were distinct, marked by their colors, red or black, without ambiguities,” (272). In the postwar period, on the other hand, Italian politics has sometimes seemed to be a Pirandellian game in which ideological distinctions blur and ambiguities abound.8 The blurring of ideological distinction known in Italy as “transformismo” and vigorously denounced by Leonardo Sciascia led to the Propaganda Due Scandal of the eighties. “Transformismo,” endemic to Italian politics from the time of the unification of Italy, took on the proportions of a national conspiracy as politicians from the far right to the far left were shown to be exchanging favors as members of a secret Masonic lodge (P Due).9 The Templar conspiracy theory later developed by the protagonists of ll Pendolo mimics in its labyrinthine complexity this secret Masonic network, which seems to have extended into every sector of Italian society.

It is significant that Casaubon and Belbo, who initially meet at Pilade's bar during the last stages of the student demonstrations, resume their acquaintance precisely at this moment of extreme ideological ambiguity. Casaubon begins to freelance for Garamond, the Milanese publishing house where Belbo and Diotallevi are employed. To while away the time in this period of political confusion Belbo, Casaubon and Diotallevi become co-conspirators in a dangerous game, a search for an absolute truth which for the three men begins as a pastime but becomes an obsession. As they review manuscripts for Garamond's illustrated history of the hermetic sciences, Casaubon, Belbo and Diotallevi are gradually drawn into the irrational world described by the Diabolicals. The three editors set out to construct a cosmic plot based upon the axiom that the Templars have something to do with everything. They begin to feed bits of information (apparently unrelated to the Templars) into Belbo's computer, Abulafia. The editors' muse is a certain Colonel Ardenti, an aspiring Garamond author who is convinced that the Templars possessed the secret of an immense source of power which would allow them to control the Navel of the World. Calculating that it would take six hundred years for the world to make the necessary technological advances to harness that knowledge, the Templars kept the location of the point secret. The pendulum's intersection with a ray of light from the Chartres cathedral window will reveal the location of the critical point upon a now missing map. Only by reassembling a message broken up into thirty-six pieces and scattered throughout the world can the right map be reconstructed.

The cosmic plot invented by the three editors in response to Ardenti's mad but intriguing theories in many ways allegorizes the political situation of the eighties in Italy. The Plan reads like the various conspiracy theories which both entertain and dismay Italians as they are played out on the front pages of the nation's newspapers. Just as commentators can explain the recent political scene by assuming, perhaps correctly, that P Due (the secret Masonic lodge) is involved in every aspect of Italian society, from the Mafia to the Vatican to the highest levels of the government, so the makers of the Plan in Eco's novel assume that the Templars had something to do with everything. At the same time the cosmic conspiracy reflects an understandable need for certainty, for a culprit, for an answer to the question “Whodunit” in a time of bewilderment and perplexity.10 The pendulum of the title figures the unbeliever’s nostalgia for certainty which, Belbo argues, is typical of his generation. “The idea that everything else is in motion and up above is the only fixed point in the universe. … For those who have no faith, it's a way of finding God again, and without challenging their unbelief, because it is a null pole. It can be very comforting for people of my generation, who ate disappointment for breakfast, lunch, and dinner” (199-200).

The commitment to the present which is implicit in the ironic preface to The Name of the Rose becomes explicit in Foucault's Pendulum. The novel is firmly situated in the cultural context and historical particularity of postwar Italy. The allure of the pendulum, the fixed point, must to some degree be related to the numbing ambiguity of the Italian political scene of the past decades. But it would be too simple to ground Belbo's search for an absolute entirely in Eco's personal history or in the cultural history of Eco's generation of Italian intellectuals. Eco himself locates the search for absolutes in the postmodern Zeitgeist. Several of his recent works reveal a fascination with the current “crisi della ragione” in its various forms, from the crisis of classical reason, to the crisis of technology and science to the crisis in historicism.11 The author suggests that the response to that crisis may take two forms. One is to replace the concept of classical reason with that of “reasonability” or weak thought.12 This is clearly the response advocated by Eco's recent theoretical work and allegorized in The Name of the Rose.13 Another response, one which Eco perceives as quite common and consoling in our postmodern moment of crisis, is escape into irrationalism.

Foucault's Pendulum reflects Eco's interest in the various forms of “irrazionalismo” which have captured the human imagination from ancient times to our postmodern present. Eco projects that interest onto his fictional publisher Garamond, who senses that the current fascination with the secret, the hidden, the occult, is evidence of a vast, untapped market. Under the umbrella term Project Hermes, he decides to commission two series on the hermetic sciences, one for the vanity press Manuzio and one for the serious press Garamond. Garamond's decision to back Project Hermes through a scholarly series is based on the same intuition of a “crisis of reason” which Eco has repeatedly pointed out. In an address delivered at the Frankfurt book fair in 1986, Eco cites the boom in the sale of books dealing with alchemy, black magic and the occult as evidence of a loss of faith in technology and science.14 It is this loss of faith that helps to explain what Eco has called “the return of the middle ages” both in popular culture and in serious scholarly studies. As Eco describes the appeal of the Middle Ages and its antiscientific nature, we get a sneak preview of Foucault's Pendulum, replete with “occult philosophy … swarming with Knights Templars, Rosicrucians, alchemists, Masonic initiates, neoKabbalists, drunk on reactionary poisons sipped from the Grail, ready to hail every neo-fascist Will to Power” (Travels in Hyper Reality 61-85). Eco describes the contemporary Zeitgeist to the publishers gathered in Frankfurt by citing the same passage from Chesterton which appears in the conclusion to Foucault's Pendulum: “When men stop believing in God, it isn't that they then believe in nothing: they believe in everything” (514).

Chesterton’s intuition becomes a fitting epigraph to the protagonists' cosmic plan. The plan devised by the three editors is all inclusive. Like the philosophers of the imaginary universe in Borges's’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” Eco's protagonists “know that a system is nothing more than the subordination of all the aspects of the universe to some one of them” (Ficciones 25). Beginning with the history of the Templars, the editors devise a cosmic plot which includes and subsumes all of human history. The editors playfully subscribe to Agliè's idealistic, nineteenth-century historicism. Rejecting the notion that history is “a bloodstained and senseless riddle” Agliè asserts:

there must be a Design. There must be a Mind. That is why over the centuries men far from ignorant have thought of the Masters of the King of the World, not as physical beings but as a collective symbol, as the successive, temporary incarnation of a Fixed Intention.


Agliè's Templar conspiracy theory is a kind of parody of what Lyotard calls a “grand récit”—a master narrative or metanarrative which would give history meaning and closure.15 With a postmodern consciousness of the dissolution of the master narratives, the editors nonetheless amuse themselves by creating “an immanent rationality of history.” The Thirty Years' War and the French Revolution, the Freemasons, Rosicrucians, and Templars, the Arabs, Jesuits, and Jews all fit somewhere into the fantastic cosmic conspiracy. Even the greatest mystery in human history, the “reason” for the Holocaust, is “explained” by the cosmic plot.16

Like Project Hermes, the editors' cosmic plot is inspired by the hermetic belief in the principle of universal analogy. This is the constitutive feature of hermetic thought as defined by Umberto Eco in The Limits of Interpretation. Eco's latest book argues forcefully against the Hermetic approach in contemporary interpretation. In the key essay in that volume Eco locates the limits of interpretation by contrasting unlimited semiosis and hermetic drift. Eco takes issue with modern reading, which invariably posits “the inexhaustibility of the sense of any text” (20). He traces this interpretive strategy, whose most recent manifestation is deconstruction, back to Renaissance Hermetism. Eco argues that hermetic drift is not equivalent to the notion of unlimited semiosis first advanced by Charles Sanders Peirce and repeatedly cited by the author as a characteristic feature of his brand of semiotics. Although I will refer the reader to the text for a detailed description of the difference between unlimited semiosis and hermetic drift, the end result seems to be that hermetic drift is based upon the idea that “interpretation has no criteria” (6). Eco argues against that notion not only in this essay but throughout The Limits of Interpretation. “In the Peircean line of thought it can be asserted that any community of interpreters, in the course of their common inquiry about what kind of object the text they are reading is, can frequently reach an agreement about it. … [T]o reach an agreement … does not mean either (a) that the interpreters must trace back to the original intention of its author or (b) that such a text must have a unique and final meaning. There are ‘open’ texts that support multiple interpretations” (41). While hermetic drift in the case of text interpretation suggests that any interpretation is valid, unlimited semiosis still excludes certain readings. “Thus, even though using a text as a playground for implementing unlimited semiosis, they can agree that at certain moments the ‘play of musement’ can transitorily stop by producing a consensual judgment” (42). Eco goes to some length to point out that “responsible deconstructionists” from J. Hillis Miller to Derrida himself recognize that not all readings are equally valid.17

Eco's insistence upon the imposition of limits of interpretation is particularly interesting when considered in the light of his earlier theoretical work, particularly his 1962 Opera aperta. In that work the author argued that the reader plays an active role in producing the meaning of the text. The notion of the open work has often been interpreted as a carte blanche; the phrase seems to suggest that texts are open to limitless readings. In the introduction to The Limits of Interpretation, however, the author maintains that this is a misreading which he has set out to correct. After a period of what he sees as excessive deference to the rights of the reader, rights which Eco himself was instrumental in defining, he reasserts the rights of texts. The Limits of Interpretation is a cautionary tale, warning against the allure of infinite readings.

The protagonists of Foucault's Pendulum fall under the very spell which is denounced in Eco's recent work. Casaubon, Belbo, and Diotallevi read the liber mundi as an open work which is susceptible to infinite readings. A driver's manual provides Casaubon with the pretext to perform a brilliant three page exegesis showing that the automobile is a metaphor of creation. The passage is reminiscent of an anecdote in Stanley Fish's Is There a Text in This Class? Fish draws a frame around an assignment with the last names of five authors and tells the class it is a religious poem of the kind they have been studying. The interpretive bravura of the students in the face of this assignment helps Fish make his point: with the proper kind of attention, the reader creates poetry (303-321). By the same token, with the properly “suspicious” state of mind, Casaubon can find subtexts in a traffic sign or produce a mystical interpretation of the phone book. And what is the proper mindset? “Any fact becomes important when it's connected to another. The connection changes the perspective; it leads you to think that every detail of the world, every voice, every word written or spoken has more than its literal meaning, that it tells us of a Secret. The rule is simple: Suspect, only suspect” (314). As the plan comes to fruition, each of them is taken by it in a different way. Belbo, whose apparent skepticism masks a thirst for the absolute, is converted to the plan, Diotallevi corrupted by it, Casaubon, who, thanks to Lia, is able to keep some distance, is merely addicted. Midway through the novel Lia warns Casaubon against falling into the “psychosis of synarchic plots.” The one true answer, according to Casaubon's Beatrice, is that there is nothing to understand: “Synarchy is God” (266).

The cosmic Plan grew out of the interpretation of a text presented to Garamond by Colonel Ardenti as Ingolf's message of Provins. Ingolf's message is, of course, written in a secret code which, when deciphered, proves to be the transcription of a partially damaged parchment. By a series of surmises, or abductions, the philologist/semiotician reconstructs a text which deals with six knights appearing six times in six places every one hundred twenty years. The Plan to which Casaubon, Belbo and Diotallevi devote a year of their lives rests upon the assumption that Ingolf's message charges these knights to carry out missions in particular places every hundred and twenty years, beginning in 1344. But, following her credo that the simplest, most economical explanation is always the best, Lia elegantly demonstrates to Casaubon that the message discovered in Provins was actually a laundry list.18

The misreading of the message of Provins dramatizes the pitfalls of conjecture. The episode functions much like the conclusion to The Name of the Rose, where Guglielmo correctly identifies the culprit by incorrectly surmising that the murderer was following a plan based on the book of Revelation. The Name of the Rose allegorizes the story of conjecture as told in such studies as Semiotics and Philosophy of Language and The Sign of Three. Like Guglielmo, Colonel Ardenti takes some interpretive risks. Having already read in one of the histories of the Rosicrucians a theory of the one hundred twenty years, he guesses that one of the incomplete notations is “post 120 annos patebo.” This in itself is not a bad strategy. Indeed, as Guglielmo points out in The Name of the Rose, the first rule of decoding a secret message is to guess what it means. But in this case the Colonel's abduction is faulty. The notation transcribed as an “a” and interpreted by Colonel Ardenti to mean “years” is actually the equivalent of a cents sign and indicates the price of the order. Ardenti's error, like Guglielmo's faulty abduction, comes to symbolize the basic “fallibilism” that governs human knowledge.19

The distinction between Ardenti's interpretation and Lia's is spelled out in The Limits of Interpretation. Although both characters base their interpretations on a suspicion, it seems that Lia's suspicion is a “healthy” one while Ardenti's is not. In a 1988 interview with Ferdinando Adornato, Eco speaks of suspicion as a necessary component of the great scientific discoveries such as Copernicus's intuition of heliocentrism.

All knowledge is based upon the exercise of suspicion. To suspect is important. It is necessary, however, to distinguish between “healthy” and “sick” suspicion. “Healthy” suspicion is one which lasts for only a limited period and one which is made public. “Sick” suspicion on the other hand is one which creates an infinite chain of suppositions which are all secret and are never proven. Semiotics is the science which allows us to distinguish between these two types of suspicion.

Ardenti and Casaubon, who base their abductions on what Eco would call “infinite interpretive drift” (Limits 28), have developed the wrong kind of suspicion. Whereas Casaubon departs from a car manual and reaches a cosmology, Lia departs from a cosmic plan and reduces it to a laundry list. Yet it is Lia who is able to explain to Casaubon why he is attracted to the play of musement in the first place. “Mankind can't endure the thought that the world was born by chance, by mistake, just because four brainless atoms bumped into one another on a slippery highway. So a cosmic plot has to be found—God, angels, devils. Synarchy performs the same function on a lesser scale” (266). Foucault's Pendulum is a tale constructed around what Eco might call an “obsessive idea”20—in this case the idea of a cosmic plot. In the address delivered at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1986, Eco suggests that contemporary culture has inherited from gnosticism in particular the idea that man is a victim of a cosmic plot. The notion of the cosmic plot figures prominently in the work of such diverse writers as Chesterton, Popper, Pynchon, and Borges.21 Eco cites Popper's explanation of the origin of this notion both in the Frankfurt address and in the novel: “The conspiracy theory of society … comes from abandoning God and then asking: ‘Who is in his place?’” (Popper 123, qtd. in Foucault's Pendulum 511).

But perhaps more than any other writer, it is Borges who in his ficciones has probed the attraction of the cosmic plot. Eco's reading of this metaphore obsedante in Borges might also be used to characterize Foucault's Pendulum. “One is never confronted by chance, or by Fate; one is always inside a plot (cosmic or situational) developed by some other Mind according to a fantastic logic that is the logic of the Library” (Eco Limits 81). The fascination with the nonexistent plot in Foucault's Pendulum closely parallels the fascination with the nonexistent planet of Tlön in Borges' Ficciones. “Why not fall under the spell of Tlön and submit to the minute and vast evidence of an ordered planet? Useless to reply that reality, too, is ordered. It may be so, but in accordance with divine laws—I translate inhuman laws—which we will never completely perceive” (34). The protagonists of Foucault's Pendulum understand too late that their enormous chess game offers mankind an irresistible consolation. “There can be no failure if there is really a Plan. Defeated you may be but never through any fault of your own. To bow to a cosmic will is no shame. You are not a coward; you are a martyr” (513).

The nonexistent plan fabricated by Diotallevi, Casaubon, and Belbo as a hoax begins to intrude upon reality. As is the case with the imaginary planet, Tlön, “humanity forgets and goes on forgetting that it is the discipline of chess players, not of angels” (Borges 34). Agliè and the group of diabolicals whose esoteric submissions gave birth to Project Hermes believe firmly that the Plan is real and that they are a part of it.22 Agliè lures Belbo to the Conservatoire des arts et métiers in Paris where they interrogate him as to the secret of the map that will reveal the location of the “Navel of the World.” But Belbo, having regained his sanity, chooses not to cooperate in perpetuating the myth of the Plan. His response to Agliè and those who seek the Absolute, the secret of the world, is “Ma gavte la nata” [“Take out the cork”]. To anyone who didn't understand his favorite Piedmontese expression, Belbo would explain that you say it to one who is too sure of himself. Remove the cork stuck in his behind and he returns to the human condition. Belbo dies a martyr to guard against the same fanatical certainty which characterizes the villainous Jorge in The Name of the Rose.

Belbo refuses to bow to “nonmeaning” by taking refuge in illusory, consolatory Plans. He rejects the idea that existence is so meaningless that we must take refuge in the illusion of a search for its secret. At the novel's conclusion Casaubon learns from Belbo's death the only “secret” worth knowing:

There are no “bigger secrets,” because the moment a secret is revealed, it seems little. There is only an empty secret. A secret that keeps slipping through your fingers. The secret of the orchid is that it signifies and affects the testicles. But the testicles signify a sign of the zodiac, which in turn signifies an angelic hierarchy, which then signifies a musical scale, and the scale signifies a relationship among the humors. And so on. Initiation is learning never to stop. The universe is peeled like an onion, and an onion is all peel. Let us imagine an infinite onion, which has its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere. Initiation travels an endless Moebius strip.


This example of infinite slippage is a celebrated hermetic argument refuted by Bacon.23 In The Limits of Interpretation Eco cites Bacon in his own argument against hermetic semiosis (25).

The central theme of Foucault's Pendulum, indeed the moral of the story, seems to be that this endless traveling along the Moebius strip is fruitless and empty. The image of the infinite onion, the search for secrets which in order to remain secrets must be “empty” secrets, revealing nothing in an endless deferral, is clearly denounced in the novel. Yet this negative image of the infinite onion, which has its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere, corresponds to a positive image often used by Eco. Borrowing from Deleuze and Guattari, Eco uses the image of the rhizome, which has no center, no periphery, and no exit, to characterize what he calls conjectural space.24 The rhizomatic space of conjecture, which “can be structured but is never structured definitively,” has an unambiguously positive connotation in The Name of the Rose. Recognizing the absence of a single truth, Guglielmo discards structure for “structurability,” reason for “reasonability.” (Eco's notion of “reasonability” is closely related to the idea of “pensiero debole” [weak thought] advanced by Vattimo and Rovatti.25) That Eco would choose the image of the onion/rhizome as the projection of all that is wrong with the world seems highly problematic. All of the tidy distinctions between unlimited semiosis and hermetic drift, good suspicion and bad suspicion, respect for the text and deconstructive deferral and drift are swept away with this choice. As much as Eco insists upon a clear distinction between good and bad suspicion, in fact the two begin to merge. Perhaps, in the practice of decoding semiotic messages, in the exercise of conjecture, there may be a gray zone in which the threat of deferral or drift is always present.

The shifting of this key image in Eco's novel reveals an ambiguity. Is this a simple contradiction or a moment of “blindness and insight,” a moment where the text begins to deconstruct the author's explicit thematic concerns? The fascination with the occult, the guarding of “empty” secrets, is labeled a sickness, a cancerous growth which in the end claims Diotallevi's life. The novel in other words seems to dramatize the danger of hermetic drift or excessive interpretation outlined in The Limits of Interpretation. If we are to “respect” Eco's text at all,26 we must concede that on a literal level the novel should be read as a cautionary tale against the attraction of the game of uncovering “secret meanings beyond the letter” (467).27 Yet much of the appeal of this book is in watching the interpretive bravura of the protagonists. Is this not a sickness of which Eco himself suffers?28 Despite his distaste for this kind of autobiographical reading, Eco cannot be blind to the fact that Diotallevi, Belbo, and Casaubon are so many authorial surrogates.29 Indeed, the author has gleefully planted autobiographical tidbits in the identities of Casaubon, Diotallevi, and particularly Jacopo Belbo. The games which the three editors play cannot help but conjure up Eco the semiotician as he skillfully deciphers texts, from James Joyce's Ulysses to Charles Schulz's Peanuts. Is Eco consciously satirizing the games he himself plays? How do we account for the slippage between the “good” image of the rhizome and the “bad” image of the infinite onion?

Let us defer the question of whether the novel is truly blind to its own insights or whether it is a conscious allegory of blindness and insight. Let us consider instead the conclusion of the novel. According to Casaubon, Belbo's initial embracing of the Plan was not due to faith but lack of faith. His refusal to humor the Diabolicals and his rejection of the Plan is instead due to a rediscovery of meaning. Casaubon believes that Belbo in the end finds “qualcosa che ha più senso del resto” (494) [“something that has more meaning than the rest” (516)]. Casaubon visits Belbo's country home where he discovers a “Key Text” in the cupboard. The text tells of Belbo's moment of boyhood glory when he is asked to play the trumpet at the funeral of two fallen partisans. Only at the end of his life did Belbo realize that the moment when he held the long final note was his moment of glory, his opportunity, his Truth.

You spend a life seeking the Opportunity, without realizing that the decisive moment, the moment that justifies birth and death, has already passed. It will not return, but it was—full dazzling, generous as every revelation … that moment, in which he froze space and time, shooting his Zeno's arrow, had been no symbol, no sign, symptom, allusion, metaphor, or enigma; it was what it was. It did not stand for anything else. At that moment there was no longer any [deferral],30 and the score was settled.


The glorification of the non-semiotic from the pen of a semiotician, a masterful decipherer of symbols, signs, symptoms, and allusions, is, to say the least, striking. Belbo's desire of “the thing itself,” a desire of presence which Derrida has taught us is characteristic of Western metaphysics, is denied by the very notion of the sign. For the condition of possibility of the sign is deferral, “putting off into the future any grasping of the ‘thing itself’” (Atkins 17). Why does the novel end with this glorification of a presemiotic moment? While Eco is on the one hand satirizing the notion of loss or absence implicit in the Derridean notion of sign, he also seems to share Belbo's desire of presence.

If Eco's theory were faithfully mirrored in his novel, this glorification of the non-semiotic would not be the logical conclusion. It is interesting that the conclusion of the novel does not reinforce the distinction in The Limits of Interpretation between unlimited semiosis and hermetic drift, between good suspicion and bad suspicion that is made when Lia correctly interprets the message of Provins as a laundry list. Belbo's final choice, and the lesson Casaubon learns from that choice, is not between good and bad suspicion, creative abduction and hermetic drift, but only between bad suspicion, the search for secrets on the one hand, and on the other a presemiotic or non-semiotic moment of glory whose “presence” cannot be evoked by any sign.

The lack of perfect complementarity between Eco's theory and his second novel is one of the most intriguing aspects of Foucault's Pendulum.31 The “loose ends” I have pointed out make this book not simply a primer of semiotics but a fictional text. On the dust jacket of Il Nome della rosa Eco has written of his decision to write his first novel: “Se ha scritto un romanzo è perché ha scoperto, in età matura, che di ciò di cui non si può teorizzare, si deve narrare.” [“If he has written a novel it is because he has discovered, upon reaching maturity, that what we cannot theorize about, we must narrate” (my trans).]32Foucault's Pendulum fits this description much more than Eco's first novel. While The Name of the Rose allegorizes or exemplifies Eco's theory, Il Pendolo problematizes it. The novel reminds us that the questions raised in Eco's theoretical works cannot be tidily resolved. In our reading of the book of the world the distinction between interpretation and use, between good suspicion and bad suspicion, between creative abduction and hermetic drift, is not always so easy to discern. We can never be assured that our search for understanding is not an endless journey along a Moebius strip. This is why, despite his ardent defense of “reasonability,” Eco understands quite as well as Borges the fascination with the irrational.


  1. A brief version of this paper was delivered at the annual meeting of the American Association of Italian Studies in April 1992 at the University of North Carolina.

  2. See Postscript to “The Name of the Rose” (7). Indeed, Eco maintains that an author’s favorite readings are readings he had not foreseen.

  3. As Rocco Capozzi points out, however, each time the frustrated critic thinks (s)he has found a new interpretive key to Eco's work, s(he) runs across a reference to that author or title in one of Eco's own essays or interviews (236, n. 31).

  4. See for example Walter Stephens, Robert Artigiani, and Theresa Coletti.

  5. See Atkins (24-25) for a clear and concise characterization of these two choices.

  6. This was also the moment when the Italian communist party broke with the Soviet communists to form its own brand of Eurocommunism.

  7. Of course it should not be forgotten that Eco, like the other experimentalist writers of the Gruppo 63, had decisively broken with neorealism. Thus, there is a certain amount of irreverence in Eco's treatment of the Resistance as the ultimate literary theme.

  8. See Sciascia's “Nota” appended to Il contesto (121).

  9. See Denis Mack Smith (175) for a discussion of transformismo beginning in the post unification period.

  10. One culprit in the P Due Scandal seems to be Licio Gelli, the head of the secret Masonic lodge. Gelli's connections to the Vatican and to the Italian political establishment, particularly Andreotti, have never been fully understood. See Luigi Malerba's ll pianeta azzurro for a highly fictionalized account of this murky scandal.

  11. See “The Crisis of the Crisis of Reason,” in Travels in Hyper Reality.

  12. For a brief but informative overview of pensiero debole see Stefano Rosso, “Postmodern Italy.”

  13. See Eco “Horns, Hooves, Insteps” and “Antiporfirio” in The Sign of Three. See also Cannon, Postmodern Italian Fiction and De Lauretis, Umberto Eco.

  14. This keynote address was delivered by Eco at the Frankfurt Buchmesse on October 6, 1986, and later published in Alfabeta as “L'irrazionale ieri e oggi.”

  15. See Jean François Lyotard for his characterization of postmodernism as the period of the dissolution of the master narratives.

  16. Belbo maintains that the “incredible bureaucracy of this genocide,” the strip searching, the sorting and storing of clothes, only makes sense if the Nazis were looking for something, the map that would allow Hitler to determine the exact point under the earth's concave vault where the telluric currents converged. This episode has sparked accusations of anti-Semitism from some reviewers. It should be remembered, however, that the pain Diotallevi experiences as Belbo expounds his mad theory reflects the author's perception of the obscenity of any theory purporting to “explain away” the holocaust.

  17. See The Limits of Interpretation, particularly Chapter Three, where Eco argues that although “it is very difficult to decide whether a given interpretation is a good one, it is, however, always possible to decide whether it is a bad one” (42).

  18. See The Limits of Interpretation (5) for a discussion of the virtues of the simple or economical hypothesis.

  19. See The Sign of Three (218) for a discussion of Peirce's idea of fallibilism.

  20. See Postscript to “The Name of the Rose” (81).

  21. I am grateful to my colleague Peter Hays for pointing out this similarity between Eco's work and Pynchon's.

  22. Again there is a parallel to The Name of the Rose. Agliè falls captive to the cosmic conspiracy theory just as Jorge da Burgos believes that he is part of a nonexistent plan based on the Book of Revelation.

  23. In Parasceve ad Historiam Naturalem et Experimentalem Bacon raises an objection to the celebrated Hermetic argument, based on the fact that “the plant orchis has the same form of human testicles.” Eco cites Francis Bacon's discussion of hermetic semiosis in The Limits of Interpretation (29).

  24. See Postscript to “The Name of the Rose” (57).

  25. The image used by the debolisti to describe the always provisional, often fallible, traveling along the cluster of messages is the image of the net. See Gianni Vattimo, “Bottle, Net, Truth, Revolution, Terrorism, Philosophy” (24).

  26. See Chapter Three of The Limits of Interpretation for a discussion of respect for the rights of the text and an explanation of the distinction between use and interpretation.

  27. Rocco Capozzi argues that the denunciation of hermetic interpretive practices is quite explicit in Eco's novel (227).

  28. Eco makes no secret of the fact that he has in his private collection about 1500 volumes on the occult! See interview with Adornato.

  29. In Postscript to“The Name of the Rose,” Eco treats with disdain the idea that an author identifies with a particular character and suggests that authors identify with the adverbs.

  30. I have translated the Italian “rinvio” as “deferral” rather than “deferment,” the term used in the William Weaver translation. “Deferral” is the term which Eco uses repeatedly in The Limits of Interpretation and which captures all that is wrong with hermetic drift.

  31. In his essay on The Name of the Rose, Walter Stephens was the first to formulate the question of the degree of complementarity between Eco's theory and his fiction in precisely these terms.

  32. This statement appears only on the dust jacket of the first Italian edition of the novel; it does not appear in the English translation.

Works Cited

Adornato, Ferdinando. “II mio piano: Intervista con Umberto Eco.” Espresso, 9 ottobre 1988.

Artigiani, Robert. “The ‘Model Reader’ and the Thermodynamic Model.” Sub-Stance 14 (1985): 64-73.

Atkins, Douglas. Reading Deconstruction. Deconstructive Reading. Lexington: The U P of Kentucky, 1983.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Ficciones. Trans. Emecé Editores. New York: Grove P, 1962.

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———. Semiotics and Philosophy of Language. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1984.

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Linda Hutcheon (essay date Spring 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8774

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 Foucault by name, puzzlement may jostle for position with irony, even if we realize that Jean Bernard Léon Foucault was a nineteenth-century physicist whose famous pendulum hangs in the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in Paris. Nevertheless, I want to argue that it is almost impossible not to think of Michel Foucault when reading this novel. But as the puzzlement dissipates, the ironies remain.

Eco has made it his specialty to write learnèd novels, bringing together his two worlds as creative writer and critical theorist, media darling and dissertation fodder. He has also made it difficult for reviewers and critics to engage with those novels, despite the tantalizing lures, because he self-reflexively ironizes the position not only of author but also of reader, thus reminding critical commentators of their secondary, even parasitic role. Given that, what do we do with a novel like Foucault's Pendulum that ironizes all attempts at either deconstruction or construction of meaning? What happens when pages of contradictions get welded into a totalized vision of order, when life imitates art, when the narrative structure, while seemingly loose and baggy, is in fact obsessively ordered around the form of the occult Tree of the Sefirot? And what has any of this to do with Michel Foucault?

Despite its overt trappings and publicity blurbs, Foucault's Pendulum is not really an adventure story, a thriller, or a detective story, like The Name of the Rose, Eco's first novel. Foucault's Pendulum ends, rather than begins, with the requisite deaths. There is a plot—or rather, a plethora of plots—all brought together into something called the “Plan.” Instead of the causality we have been taught to expect in traditional plotting of popular genres, this Plan is governed by what Eco elsewhere calls “a sort of spiral-like logic of mutually sympathetic elements. If the universe is a network of similitudes and cosmic sympathies, then there are no privileged causal chains” [The Limits 19]. And this novelistic universe is just such a network, as we shall see.

Michael Holquist has argued in “Whodunit and Other Questions” [135] that the detective story is to postmodernism what myth and depth psychology were to modernism. In Eco's perverse version of the postmodern, however, the detective as the metaphor of order and logic is ironized by the decisive presence of chance or accident (in The Name of the Rose) or by hyperbolic expansion and inversion (in Foucault's Pendulum). In this latter novel, the “belief that the mind, given enough time, can understand everything” [Holquist 141] is taken to an overstated ironic extreme: it is the portrait of the totalizing mind imploding. Eco's ultra-contrived plot about plots operates much like Pynchon's paranoia in Gravity’s Rainbow. But it is not the “scientifically charted and organized familiarity of the totalized world” [Spanos 155] that gets ironically subverted here; rather it is the flip side of positivism—hermetic thought. Its self-confirming, circular mode of including contradictory elements is at the same time put in motion and called into question. For the mystic adept, every word becomes a sign of something else, the truth of what is not said. Therefore one must learn to read with suspicion, lest something be missed. Irony, of course, is also a sign of something else—the not said—and to be sensitive to irony is to read with suspicion. Foucault's Pendulum shows what happens to hermetic thought when it confronts the irony that is structurally its twin.

In 1986 Eco gave a course on hermetic semiosis at the University of Bologna's Istituto di Discipline della Comunicazione, in which he studied the interpretive practice of seeing both the world and texts in terms of relations of sympathy and resemblance. His time frame ranged from prehistoric times to the present. Now, perhaps, we can begin to see what all of this has to do with Michel Foucault. In The Order of Things (Les mots et les choses), Foucault argued that this kind of thought was historically limited, a Renaissance paradigm which gave way to a modern, scientific one. The epistemological space up to the end of the sixteenth century was one Foucault saw as governed by a rich “semantic web of resemblance” [17]. In his course Eco clearly wanted to challenge this temporal periodization, to argue that this kind of thought never really disappeared, that there was no final epistemic break. In his view the hermetic semiosis discernable in documents from the early centuries of the Christian era (for example, Corpus hermeticum) developed clandestinely in the medieval period, triumphed in the humanistic rediscovery of hermetic writings in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, and continues to exist parallel to the quantitative science that then developed (often crossing it, more often opposing it) [Eco, “Introduzione” 9-10]. Newton, for example, is known to have combined modern science and cabalistic speculation. More recently he points out that Gilbert Durand, in Science de l'homme et la tradition, linked contemporary structuralist and poststructuralist thought with the same logic that accepts the plurivocal nature of both interpretation and texts. We might recall, in this vein, Derrida's notion that “[b]etween rationalism and mysticism there is … a certain complicity” [80]. In other words, the pendulum has continued to swing between the extremes of some form of reason and some form of mysticism, and this is one of many meanings of the titular pendulum. The others require more context to be understood.

Foucault's Pendulum is narrated by a young Italian scholar, Casaubon, in the hours following the climax of the Plan's plotting as he awaits what he imagines to be his death. It is in this light—knowing the end of the story, so to speak—that he fills in the background. He recounts how, while writing a dissertation on the medieval Knights Templar, he had become an unofficial consultant to Jacopo Belbo and his colleague, Diotallevi, editors for a small, serious press, when a certain right-wing Colonel Ardenti had approached the press about publishing a problematic book. According to its author, this book would act as a call to pool knowledge and solve the mystery of the Templar plan to conquer the world, a plan that involved a secret about some immense power source. Such a publication would enable contact with others “in the know” that might lead to picking up the thread of the plot that had been lost because of a missed meeting and thus a missing piece of the puzzle. Ardenti disappears under mysterious circumstances, possibly murder, and the book remains unpublished—but its contents lie dormant in the minds of the editors and their consultant. Casaubon completes his dissertation on the Templars, goes to Brazil, falls in love with the beautiful Amparo, attends some Afro-Brazilian religious rites, and meets a singular Signor Agliè who seems to be the Comte de Saint-Germain redivivus. It is in Brazil that Casaubon begins to be lulled, as he puts it, by the notion of resemblance, by the feeling that everything might be related to everything else. When he returns to Italy, he converts this “metaphysics” into “mechanics” with the help of Belbo and Diotallevi, who employ him to do research for their publishing house's vanity press division. From his initial task—finding illustrations for a science book on the history of metals—Casaubon finds that magic and science go hand in hand; soon he feels he has one foot in the cabala and the other in the laboratory. Eco's pendulum has begun to swing. The two presses decide to publish a new series of hermetic texts, and Signor Aglié is brought in as a consultant to help them deal with the vast number of manuscripts written by what they call their “Diabolicals.”

A trip to Portugal and a chance encounter with the police inspector in charge of the earlier Ardenti case remind Casaubon of the theory of the Templar plot to rule the world. This leads to the three editors' conceiving “the Plan” out of their formalist (even modernist) “desire to give shape to shapelessness, to transform into fantasized reality that fantasy that others wanted to be real” [337]. Out of data and desire, with the aid of a computer program to randomize information, they set out deliberately and ironically to deploy—rather than decode—the hermetic semiosis. Feeding hermetic data into the computer, along with connectives and neutral data, they randomize the order and then create connections: “Any fact becomes important when it's connected to another. The connection changes the perspective; it leads you to think that every detail of the world, every voice, every word written or spoken has more than its literal meaning, that it tells us of a Secret. The Rule is simple: Suspect, only suspect” [378]. The ironic play in English on E. M. Forster's “Connect, only connect” marks its exaggeration, not its negation. Starting with Ardenti's notion of the Templar plot, they “narrativize” isolated data, making connections—causal, temporal, spatial. They start with verifiable facts; the fictionalizing is in the “order of things,” so to speak. Soon, everything from the cabala to Bacon to Shakespeare to the Templars to the Rosicrucians to the Masons to the Jesuits to Hitler is linked in a plot whose climax should, by the Plan's reasoning, take place in Paris at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers (where hangs Foucault's pendulum, the laboratory proof of the earth's diurnal rotation). Nothing they discuss or consider remains innocent; all is interconnected once this hermetic thinking is set in motion. In tandem with this male creation of artifice, Casaubon's child is gestating in the womb of his partner, Lia, who is endowed with the “wisdom of life and birth” [365]. The pendulum swings.

Parallel to this narrative is the revelation by Casaubon of the contents of Belbo's computer files. Having decided he was one of life's spectators, not actors, and thus having chosen to be an editor, not a writer, Belbo nevertheless uses his new computer to record stories of his childhood in the wartime Italian countryside, to work out his feelings for the beautiful Lorenza, and to write/create. But what he creates is a parody of Eco's own radical intertextual play in the novel itself, as we shall see.

The three Planners have to keep reminding themselves that the idea is to create, not discover, the Templars' secret and that their Plan is a fake [387; 391]: “We consoled ourselves with the realization—unspoken, now, respecting the etiquette of irony—that we were parodying the logic of our Diabolicals” [467]. But the problem is that their “brains grew accustomed to connecting, connecting, connecting everything with everything else, until [they] did it automatically, out of habit”; gradually they lose the ability to tell the similar from the identical, the metaphoric from the real [467; 468]. They come to decide that their “story was plausible, rational, because it was backed by facts, it was true” [493]. Unfortunately, others decide likewise: Aglié believes them and, when they will not reveal the Secret they claim to know, he disappears.

At this point, things begin to go badly for the Planners. As Belbo works Hitler into the Plan, Diotallevi (who wants to be Jewish) becomes sick. Convinced that he has developed cancer because they have “sinned against the Word” by mocking knowledge [564], Diotallevi sees his cancer cells as inventing a Plan of their own in a diabolical allegory of their hermetic Plan [566]. As Diotallevi lies dying, Belbo falls into the trap of belief. Desperate to be an actor instead of a spectator, an author instead of an editor, he thinks of himself as a god-like creator: “Inventing, he had created the principle of reality” [531]. Given the importance the Plan had granted to the Conservatoire and the pendulum in Paris, Belbo leaves to fulfill his destiny on the day of the summer solstice. A mysteriously interrupted call from Belbo to Casaubon sends the latter to Belbo's apartment to read his computer files and, from there, to follow him to Paris, where he hides in a periscope in the Conservatoire and waits for the solstice midnight.

The TRES or the Templi Resurgentes Equites Synarchici—an invention of the Planners, or so they thought—appear on time and almost the entire cast of characters of the novel is to be found among these reborn Templars. As Casaubon says, “if you invent a plan and others carry it out, it's as if the Plan exists. At that point it does exist” [619]. Belbo and the pendulum are the center of the bizarre ceremony in which, as Casaubon witnesses, they try to wrest from him the Secret. Since there is no Secret, of course, Belbo dies—refusing “to bow to unmeaning” [623]. Early in the novel we had read one of Belbo's computer files in which a slip of the finger is said to have the power to erase memory: “I have no Message to reveal. But later on—who knows?—I might” [27]. But if he does have a message, he does not reveal it, even later on; he dies, hanging from the pendulum. Casaubon flees back to Italy, to Belbo's country house, and waits. He finds the “Key Text” there, the story of the most glorious moment of Belbo's life. But one way of interpreting what he learns from this key is that there is nothing to learn: he understands that there is nothing to understand. He waits in peace, offering a self-reflexive warning to the reader (earlier referred to, in a parody of Baudelaire by Eliot, as “apocryphe lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère” [200]): “I would like to write down everything I thought today. But if They were to read it, They would only derive another dark theory and spend another eternity trying to decipher the secret message hidden behind my words. It's impossible, They would say; he can't only have been making fun of us. No” [641]. Then he adds: “It makes no difference whether I write or not. They will look for other meanings, even in my silence” [641].

And so They will. So do we all: it is the job of critics and readers to “derive another dark theory” and “decipher the secret message hidden behind” the words of texts. This is what I meant by the notion that Eco makes his works hard to write about. But I would still argue that, although this is a novel about connections and resemblances that is structured, obsessively so, on connections and resemblances, it is irony—the canker or cancer beneath overt resemblance—that makes Eco's plot different from Casaubon's Plan. Without irony, Eco's novel would be an exemplar of hermetic semiosis; with irony, it becomes simultaneously both an examplar and a critique.

This is “both/and” thinking of the first order. As the temporal pendulum swings, medieval hermeticism and contemporary postmodernism share the ability to juggle “complexity and contradiction” in what postmodern architect Robert Venturi calls “the difficult unity of inclusion” [16]. Foucault's Pendulum—structured as tightly, as rigidly as any modernist novel—carries structure to such an extreme that it implodes: it ironically turns in on itself and metamorphoses into an “open” work, by Eco's own definition. It both continues and contravenes the modernist project. The pendulum swings, and it is irony that provides the magnetic field to make it swing. In calling The Name of the Rose postmodern, Eco himself once foregrounded this double-talking trope: “Irony, metalinguistic play, enunciation squared. Thus, with the modern, anyone who does not understand the game can only reject it, but with the postmodern, it is possible not to understand the game and yet to take it seriously. Which is, after all, the quality (the risk) of irony” [Postscript 68]. In Foucault's Pendulum it is the ironizing of the twin modernist elements of reflexivity and intertextuality that activates the particular game of resemblances and connections.

Textual reflexivity operates on many levels in this novel. Each of the 120 sections of the work begins with a citation—presumably one of the 120 that Casaubon found in Belbo's computer files and in the light of which he interprets “the whole story” [43]. The 120 sections are divided into 10 chapters of uneven length, each labelled according to one of the parts of the mystic Tree of the Sefirot and each explained within the text itself. The first (Keter), for instance, is called “the Crown, the beginning, the primal void” [18]; the second (Hokhmah) is strangely described as the sign of wisdom in a box—strangely, that is, until we realize that this is the section in which Casaubon finds out how to enter Belbo's computer system and acquire, if not wisdom, at least information. It is also the source of much of the story line to follow, just as Hokhmah is said to hold “the essence of all that will emanate from it” [41]. This patterning continues throughout the novel.

Eco actually printed a visual representation of the Tree of the Sefirot as the frontispiece to the novel [see Fig 1], and not merely to help us follow the order, for that is not particularly difficult. It is there, I think, to help us visualize the swing, the rhythm, for the movement of the order of the named chapters is, not surprisingly, that of the horizontal swing from side to side on the diagram. It also forms an overall elliptical shape if viewed vertically. The famous pendulum of Foucault does exactly the same thing. In naming his novel as he did, Eco was pointing us to multiple, complex levels of reflexivity. The actual pendulum, hung from “the only Fixed Point in the universe, eternally unmoving” [5], but representing, indeed demonstrating, the working of time [Vita-Finzi 225; Berardinelli 5], is itself as inherently paradoxical a symbol as the place in which it hangs. The Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in Paris is a post-revolutionary museum, deliberately set up in a church (St.-Martin-des-Champs); it is a run-down museum of industry and technology housed in part in a gothic priory, here used as the setting for a climactic occult ritual. It is an apt place for Eco's climax for other reasons than these ironic paradoxes: it is situated in front of former Templar towers and is historically connected to a figure important to the Plan, Bacon, and his House of Solomon in the New Atlantis, where all the inventions of humankind are found collected.

From the first pages of this novel, the pendulum itself is presented to us in language both mystic and scientific, both overblown and precise, signalling in language the swing between magic and reason. What we might call pendular thinking, oscillating between opposites, has always characterized Eco's work—both creative and theoretical. We need only remember the importance of nonorder to order and instability to stability in his semiotic theorizing, or the undercutting of reason by chance in The Name of the Rose. That pendular binaries also end up moving more or less in circles, like Foucault's pendulum, is not unrelated to Eco's theory of the self-reflexive circularity of semiotic systems in his Theory of Semiotics. The titular pendulum, in other words, becomes a plurivalent sign whose allegorical meanings proliferate in the text to form a complex set of reflexive mises-en-abyme. But at the climax of the novel, as Belbo hangs from the pendulum, something seems to change. While the pendulum is described in binary terms both as Belbo's Sinai and as his Calvary [600], the ironic paradoxes that have constituted its identity seem to resolve as it is identified with Belbo's moment of understanding. It is described as “no symbol, no sign, symptom, allusion, metaphor, or enigma: it was what it was. It did not stand for anything else” [633]. Yet it is hard not to notice that this resolution into nonparadox, nonirony comes (ironically) at the moment in which a literalization of the so-called postmodern death of the subject results in the affirmation of subjectivity, when the so-called postmodern crisis in representation is resolved—doubly resolved, in both literary and scientific terms. The very next section of the novel opens with a letter from a scientist explaining precisely how a pendulum would swing if a man were hanging from it—a literal re-presentation of the scene we have just read. And yet, what one critic calls the charm of a pendular mind [Berardinelli 4] still seems to endure, no matter what the thematic and structural resolution that might seem to stop the pendulum's swing. These ideological ironies, these undercuttings of contemporary theoretical truisms, constitute yet another layer of reflexive mise-en-abyme.

There are still other layers, of course. The naming of characters, as well as of the novel itself, functions ironically. As we have seen, the Foucault of the title is both the French physicist, Jean Bernard Léon Foucault (1819-68), and Michel Foucault (1926-84), the French theorist of the “order of things.” Casaubon, the text tells us, is the name of both a character in George Eliot's novel Middlemarch and a Renaissance philologist [63]. Eliot's “learned provincial clergyman” [Eliot 18] bears little physical resemblance to Eco's narrator, who is no “dried bookworm towards fifty” [17]. But on another level, he may not be unrelated to the man who says, “My mind is something like the ghost of an ancient, wandering about the world and trying mentally to construct it as it used to be, in spite of ruin and confusing changes” [13]. Eliot ironizes her Mr. Casaubon considerably as the novel proceeds, however. His young wife is forced to see that “the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband's mind were replaced by anterooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither” [145]. Like the Planners with their computer files, Mr. Casaubon arranges his research documents in pigeonholes [14], and the aim of his work—to find the “Key to all Mythologies”—is clearly an intertextual commentary on the Plan. Eliot's Mr. Casaubon wanted

to show (what indeed had been attempted before, but not with that thoroughness, justice of comparison, and effectiveness of arrangement at which Mr. Casaubon aimed) that all the mythical systems or erratic mythical fragments in the world were corruptions of a tradition originally revealed. Having once mastered the true position and taken a firm footing there, the vast field of mythical constructions became intelligible, nay, luminous with the reflected light of correspondences.


This intertext turns back reflexively and ironically upon the Plan of Eco's Casaubon. Eliot's own explicit ironies at her Casaubon's expense are a warning to the reader of Eco's text about trusting anything, even the final discovery of what is ominously referred to as the “Key” text. Eliot writes of the search for the “Key to all Mythologies”:

Mr. Casaubon's theory of the elements which made the seed of all tradition was not likely to bruise itself unawares against discoveries: it floated among flexible conjectures no more solid than those etymologies which seemed strong because of likeness in sound, until it was shown that likeness in sound made them impossible: it was a method of interpretation which was not tested by the necessity of forming anything which had sharper collisions than an elaborate notion of Gog and Magog: it was as free from interruption as a plan for threading the stars together.


In explicitly sending his readers to a text that ironizes totalizing thinking, underlining its “constructedness,” Eco points to the Plan's obvious fabrication. He also signals the equally suspiciously “constructed” nature of all totalizing systems of thought—including, of course, his own.

The other series of cultural intertexts behind the name of Casaubon are as ironically invoked as Eliot's is. The Renaissance philologist Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614) was known for his apposite but profuse illustrative commentaries on texts. Here I would like to think that it is Eco himself as much as his character who is being ironized. But the historical Casaubon also wrote a book which challenged the authenticity of certain hermetic texts which were crucial to Renaissance occultism and also changed the idea of when hermetic thought originated. With the proliferation of apt intertextual echoes like these, Eco enacts both what he has called “hermetic drift” and Peirce's “unlimited semiosis”. In fact, he uses each to ironize the other. The following is his definition of the similarity and difference between the two terms: “There is a fundamental principle in Peirce's semiotics: ‘A sign is something by knowing which we know something more’ (8.332). On the contrary, the norm of Hermetic semiosis seems to be: ‘A sign is something by knowing which we know something else’” [The Limits 28]. The ironic literalization and the exaggeration—that is, the not only unlimited but rampant semiosis—of the Plan provide the “something else” which becomes, to the Planners' shock, the “something more.”

As in The Name of the Rose, Peirce's theories are important intertexts to Foucault's Pendulum, though often in ironic ways. For example, the immediate contact of signs and their referents that is not part of Peirce's semiotic theory is what the climax of the novel is all about: the autonomy of the semiotic system (the Plan) is jeopardized by the occult believers' need to link signs and world. The system becomes a “true philosophy” according to Eco's description in Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language: “A philosophy is true insofar as it satisfies a need to provide a coherent form to the world so as to allow its followers to deal coherently with it” [11]. Here, however, there are fatal consequences of that urge toward coherent form. The flip side is that the Plan itself becomes the ironic literalization of the structuralist theory that sign systems exist independently of reality and are thus autonomous of any referent. The opening parodic words of the prologue of The Name of the Rose—“In the beginning was the Word” [11]—become ironic in this context.

In this novel, as in his first, there are so many other reflexive recalls of Eco's own theorizing and that of others that it is hard to know where to start. For example, the Planners' (and Eco's) holistic thinking is relatable to Eco's notion of the encyclopedia and how we make meaning by tracing units of signification through wonderfully varied and tangled avenues of connections. It also suggests his description of the Deleuzian rhizome: “Every path can be connected to every other one. It has no center, no periphery, no exit, because it is potentially infinite,” for it is “the space of conjecture” [Postscript 57]. Is it not also possible to read Foucault's Pendulum as an example of abduction run amok, with the Planners making too much meaning by connections and relations between signs? It is certainly an example of what Eco has wittily called “cogito interruptus,” a mode of thought common “both to the insane and to the authors of a reasoned ‘illogic’” [Travels 222] that sees the world as inhabited by symbols or symptoms.

In an earlier essay, “Dreaming the Middle Ages,” Eco provided a succinct description of a particular literary use of that period that he links to “so-called Tradition” or occult philosophy. This description functions as perhaps the best possible summary of his own later novel. He writes of

an eternal and rather eclectic ramshackle structure, swarming with Knights Templars, Rosicrucians, alchemists, Masonic initiates, neo-Kabbalists … mixing up René Guénon and Conan the Barbarian. … Antiscientific by definition, these Middle Ages keep going under the banner of the mystical weddings of the micro- with the macrocosm, and as a result they convince their adepts that everything is the same as anything else and that the whole world is born to convey, in any of its aspects and events, the same Message. Fortunately the message got lost.

[Travels 71]

This essay provides not only an example of this kind of ironically reversed thinking (“propter hoc ergo ante hoc”), but a clue to the naming of the narrator of the later novel: “It is well known that the Corpus hermeticum was written in the first centuries of the Christian era but the adepts of the Tradition firmly maintain (even after the decisive demonstrations of Casaubon) that it was written at the time of Moses or of Pythagorus and, in any case, before Plato” [71-72]. In Foucault's Pendulum, this kind of thinking by the adepts of the occult, as ironized and literalized by the Planners, turns on resemblances and connections. As Casaubon the narrator claims, “No piece of information is superior to any other. Power lies in having them all on file and then finding the connections. There are always connections; you only have to want to find them” [225]—or they will find you, as he learns. Indeed, Casaubon's description of the Plan as “a great feast of analogies, a Coney Island, a Moscow May Day, a Jubilee Year of analogies” [361] is an apt way to describe Eco's entire novel.

The purpose of this proliferation of relations is not, I think, simply a big joke, despite Casaubon's hypothesis about the New Testament: “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are a bunch of practical jokers who meet somewhere and decide to have a contest. They invent a character, agree on a few basic facts, and then each one's free to take it and run with it” [200]. In casting doubt on the “naturalness” of the narrative of one of the most sacred of texts, the Bible, as well as of the infamous Plan, Eco's irony points to the un-natural, constructed nature of all narrative, including his own. The Plan is an ordered, narrativized, connected account of historical data; the fictionalizing is in the construction, in the connections—and these are ironically man-made (not, significantly, woman-made). As in many postmodern “historiographic metafictions” [Hutcheon 5], history and fiction are both revealed as constructions, as fictionalizations. In both showing and ironizing the process of construction within the novel itself, Eco has produced an aesthetically self-reflexive mise-en-abyme of his own novelistic act and, at the same time, an ideologically de-naturalizing allegory of the structuralist insight that language constructs rather than reflects reality.

Eco not only alludes to but makes ironic (again through the device of literalizing) Foucault's exact description of sixteenth-century thought: “The heritage of Antiquity, like nature herself, is a vast space requiring interpretation; in both cases there are signs to be discovered and then, little by little, made to speak” [33-34] by using either divinatio (magic, perhaps fiction) or eruditio (learning, history). Both are part of the same hermeneutic, however. According to Foucault, the esoterism of the sixteenth century is a phenomenon of the written word. The spoken is seen as the “female part of language” [39], the sign of the passive intellect. In Eco's version the pregnant Lia's commonsensical talk to Casaubon about the “mysteries” of the human body provides the antidote to the male-generated Plan. But the irony is that it is Lia who is literally creative and (re)productive, and not the males, even if the “male principle” of language—that is, writing—is said to harbour “the truth” [Foucault 139]. But Eco provides yet another ironic twist here. Given what Foucault calls “a non-distinction between what is seen and what is read” [39], both the Planners and their occult enemies make this writing their own “truth.”

The very linear form of writing is itself parodied in the novel as the Planners construct their plot from data drawn from the computer, which they have named Abulafia. So the plotting literally moves from a (Abulafia) to b (Belbo, the computer operator) to c (Casaubon, the narrator) to d (Diotallevi, the man whose cancerous body enacts its own diabolical plan). Even Abulafia takes on allegorical and ironic functions. It comes to stand for the sign of the true Secret of world power: information, not telluric currents (as the Planners speculated), is the real source of power today. An ironized Grail, information is what “nourishes, heals, wounds, blinds, strikes down …” [141].

The ironic play on this theme does not stop there: the computer's binary thinking is both emblematic of the pendular thought of the novel and tied in with the occult numerology of the Plan. And Abulafia has a role in the ironizing of the Foucault as well as the pendulum of the title. In The Order of Things, Foucault wrote, “man is only a recent invention, a figure not yet two centuries old, a new wrinkle in our knowledge, and … he will disappear again as soon as that knowledge has discovered a new form” [xxiii]. In the age of information technology, many have wanted to see the computer as that “new form” of knowledge. But, as presented in the novel, the computer can never replace “man,” for it cannot create knowledge but can only combine and randomize knowledge that is given to it—and even that is done more effectively by a human (the press's assistant, Gudrun [373]). It is not even used to make cross-referenced connections: Casaubon uses index cards to help him do that [225]. Belbo, the main user of the computer in the story, says he will employ it to order, and edit the work of others, not to create or write about himself. He names it Abulafia after the man who dedicated his life to the science of the combination of the letters of God's name, and one of his first exercises on the computer is to work out all those 720 combinations—duly printed in the text we read. Despite his stated intentions, Belbo does use it to write about his own life and even to fictionalize by parodying, with a kind of Joycean euphoria, the texts of others, including those of Eco himself. He begins with: “O what a beautiful morning at the end of November, in the beginning was the word, sing to me, goddess, the son of Peleus, Achilles now is the winter of our discontent” [24].

Perhaps the greatest Foucaldian irony in the novel's presentation of the computer, however, is that its limitations—its ability to randomize, to use only what is fed to it—turn out to be the limits that Foucault ascribes to the mechanisms of resemblance in pre-seventeenth-century hermetic thought. He writes of “the plethoric yet absolutely poverty-stricken character of this knowledge” [30], always working with the same things: “Hence those immense columns of compilation, hence their monotony” [30]. (Some reviewers have said similar things about Foucault's Pendulum.) Though Eco, as I mentioned earlier, rarely refers openly to Michel Foucault's work, the ironic intertextual allusions to that work in the novel abound: “Knowledge … consisted in relating one form of language to another form of language. … Language contains its own inner principle of proliferation” in the Renaissance [Foucault 40], leading to commentaries and interpretations of interpretations. Eco's novel literalizes and ironizes at the same time many like statements about occult thought based on a theory of resemblance: the Plan is its literal enactment and the irony comes from both its overtness of construction and its temporal dislocation. If Foucault were right, this mode of thought should have died out by the end of the Renaissance. But has it?

Ironic intertextuality—or parody—is clearly one of the major modes of reflexivity in Foucault's Pendulum. Eco is responsible for many wonderful academic parodies, such as his Beckettian/Joycean parody, “My Exagmination Round his Factification for Incamination to Reduplication with Ridecolation of a Portrait of the Artist as Manzoni” [in Almansi 125]. The changing of the title of the famous book on Joyce from “of Work in Progress” to the ironic signal of “to Reduplication with Ridecolation” is a clue, as is the parodic “Portrait of the Artist as Manzoni.” Furthermore, in the understated style of the Times Literary Supplement or American New Criticism, Eco reads Manzoni's novel I promessi sposi as if it were a posthumous work by Joyce. The ironies at the expense of reviewing and criticism in general are multiple—and deadly.

This same kind of parodic play occurs on almost every page of Foucault's Pendulum, making the novel into an “intertextual collage”—his term to describe the film Casablanca. Likewise his novel could share that film's label as “a palimpsest for future students of twentieth-century religiosity, a paramount laboratory for semiotic research into textual strategies” [Travels 197]. It is hard to read any of Eco's essays of the last decade or so without seeing intertextual allusions or reflexive mises-en-abyme of the novel he was then writing. Certain passages have been fictionalized and dropped, almost verbatim, into the novel: the description of two Afro-Brazilian rites he attended, as recounted in “Whose Side Are the Orixá On?” [Travels 103-12], reappears in Casaubon's narrative, just as pages of The Sign of Three found their way into The Name of the Rose. Is it utterly coincidental that Eco in The Role of the Reader analyzed Alphonse Allais's Un drame bien parisien, in which the character Raoul goes to a ball disguised as a Templar?

Reviewers have had fun pointing to other intertexts in the novel besides the author's own works, making connections to Calvino and Del Giudice [Berardinelli 4] as well as to films featuring both Sam Spade and Indiana Jones. That these latter are overt in the novel [54, 435 and 275 respectively] makes this task somewhat straightforward. Other films mentioned by name and usually cited ironically are Star Wars [54], A Man Called Horse [114], Gone with the Wind [323], Hellzapoppin [328], Rosemary's Baby [437], and the Pink Panther films [354]—not all film classics, to be sure, but all equally fodder for Eco's broad echoic cultural play. Popular culture and high art meet in all of Eco's work, theoretical and novelistic, and in all cases the allusions are not usually hidden. The intertextual scenarios are repeated, discussed, recalled, inverted. As Casaubon and Eco know [588], any story about a pendulum inevitably suggests Poe's “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and indeed Eco tries to one-up Poe in the macabre and the terrifyingly fatal. Similarly any tale about the occult with references to the Tetragrammaton, the names of Yahweh [31], and the aleph [41] recalls such stories by Jorge Luis Borges as “Death and the Compass” and “The Aleph.”

But it is the character Belbo, rather than the narrator Casaubon, who is the past master of intertextual ironies. His computer files, obsessively examining childhood memories, are appropriately full of references to Proust's fiction [25, 64, 230, 371, 495]. At one point he and Diotallevi try to construct an “ars oblivionalis,” rules for forgetting, but they find it impossible. It is easy to search for lost time, they decide, but impossible “to misplace time refound” [25]. While reading those files, Casaubon realizes that he is privy to the story of Belbo's Combray [327]. Indeed, the Plan is conceived by Belbo as a way out of this: “We're here to create a story of the future, not a remembrance of things past” [333].

There are also in Belbo's computer files direct citations or ironic allusions to the work of T. S. Eliot: the opening of The Waste Land [24] and, appropriately, a reference to “Madame Sosostris, the famous clairvoyante” [411]. Conrad's Lord Jim and Kurtz make a number of appearances in Belbo's parodic chronicle of cowardice and lost or evaded opportunities [70, 497]. Joyce's “incomprehensible message,” the Wake, is cited several times as well [24, 416]. While each intertextual echo functions in a different way, the cumulative references to Proust, Eliot, Conrad, and Joyce in Belbo's writing create a chain of allusions to the specifically modernist masters. And one way of looking at the modernist aesthetic and linguistic paradigm is to see it as a combinatory process within a closed field, where what is important is the relations of elements with each other [see Hugh Kenner]. From this perspective, modernism too reveals itself to be modelled on hermetic semiosis. If Belbo is the modernist, does that make his collaborative reader, Casaubon, the postmodernist? Certainly he sounds like it at times. He alludes to Derridean themes in associating Hermes, the god of trickery, with “writing, which is the art of evasion and dissimulation, a navigation that carries us to the end of all boundaries” [185]. At the climax of the novel, Casaubon ironically recalls what Roland Barthes had proclaimed in his famous essay announcing “The Death of the Author”: “The author has to die in order for the reader to become aware of his truth” [633]. In the end, then, Belbo becomes an author.

One of the features that makes it difficult to decide precisely what kind of allegorical fun Eco is having with the tenets of either modernism or postmodernism is the persistent, scatter-gun effect of his irony. While irony is clearly a frequent trope of the postmodern today, it also characterizes much modernist writing. I have argued that Foucault's Pendulum is an obsessively formalist novel that is about the implosion of formalism in upon itself. It is also a novel that foregrounds its own ironies. Thematically, irony is presented as the stance of detachment, of spectatorship, as willed by Belbo and desired by Casaubon: “I had to play this ironically … not letting myself become involved” [10]. Irony is also literalized in Belbo and Diotallevi's playful syllabus for the School of Comparative Irrelevance, with its list of subjects such as Adynata or Impossibilia (such as Morse Syntax and Urban Planning for Gypsies) and Oxymoronics (such as Heraclitean Statics and Spartan Sybaritics) [75]. There are many verbal ironies, too many to list, so a single example will have to suffice: from the perspective of Signor Agliè, a man hundreds of years old, historical materialism becomes an “apocalyptic cult that came out of the Trier region” [182].

But there are other, less playful uses for the trope of the unspoken, as Belbo writes on his computer: “Ah, irony of language—this gift nature has given us to keep silent the secrets of our spirit!” [500-01]. The structural and thematic irony of this statement, is that this is a novel in which there is no final Secret—or is the Secret simply kept silent? The rug is constantly pulled out from under the figurative feet of the reader. Chapter epigraphs that conventionally look forward and guide the interpretation of the reader here often look backward and comment ironically on the last chapter [particularly good examples are the epigraphs to chapters 51, 53, 57] or else become totally integrated in and illustrate the holistic logic of the Plan.

In a novel full of images of inversion, of upside-down worlds and mirrored reversals, it may not be surprising to find allegories of the hermeneutics of irony. I mentioned at the start that irony demands an attitude of suspicion as much as hermetic thought. Casaubon describes two Rosicrucian manifestoes in terms that also function to allegorize the need for markers that tell us to interpret, not literally but ironically: “Taken literally these two texts were a pile of absurdities, riddles, contradictions. Therefore they could not be saying what they seemed to be saying. … They were a coded message. … I had to read with mistrust” [394]. If The Name of the Rose is, by Eco's own admission, “ironclad” in its obvious scaffolding [in Rosso 7], then Foucault's Pendulum must be “irony-clad.”

One of the effects of this pervasive irony is that ambiguity reigns, even unto the end. How are we to read Belbo's death? Is it murder or suicide? Is it accidental or planned? Even the language of his Conservatoire death scene, as narrated by Casaubon, is an ambivalent one of science overlayed with magic, as suggested earlier. Its choice of words plays off the names of the inventions of the other Foucault (after whom were named not only a pendulum, but magnetic currents, mirroring prisms, a polarizer, and a “knife-edge” test—all of which figure in the language of the scene). But Michel Foucault isn't far away either. In fact this scene and the remainder of the novel can be read, once again, as ironic literalization of the latter Foucault's description of the Renaissance semiosis of resemblance, specifically as described in the chapter on “The Prose of the World” in The Order of Things. In this section Foucault analyzes the four principal figures that determine the knowledge of resemblance. The first, spatial adjacency or resemblance by contact, is called “convenientia” and is represented by the image of an “immense, taut, and vibrating chain” [19]. In Eco's novel, this is literalized in the pendulum's physical form. The second figure of hermetic knowledge is “aemulatio,” or mirroring across distances, a polarization into imbalanced weak and strong forces: “Similitude then becomes the combat of one form against another—or rather of one and the same form separated from itself by the weight of matter or distance in space” [20]. The importance of the “one and the same form” for the novel is clearer in conjunction with Foucault's third epistemological figure, analogy. Here the principles of resemblance include reversibility and polyvalency in a universal field of application which is drawn together through a “privileged point” saturated with analogies: man's body, “the fulcrum upon which all these relations turn” [22]. Belbo dies by being hanged from the pendulum by the neck. The effect this has on the movement of the pendulum is that it starts to move from Belbo's body downward. His body becomes the point of suspension, “the Fixed Pin, the Place from which the vault of the world is hung” [597]. As the scientific epigraph of the next chapter explains, a body hanging from a pendulum becomes the fulcrum, thus literalizing in a horrific image Foucault's “privileged point.” But Belbo's body, at first jerked about by the pendulum's movement (that is, before it becomes its fulcrum), is said to describe a shape in the air—the shape of the Tree of the Sefirot, the shape that is visible on the novel's frontispiece and that structures the entire novel.

Belbo is not the only one to die at midnight on the summer solstice: Diotallevi also dies at that moment, a victim of the Plan of the cancer cells attacking his body. Earlier, Diotallevi had warned that the computer was dangerous because, like the historical Abulafia's science of the combination of the letters of the name of God, it risked becoming a tool of magic and power in the hands of the unscrupulous [33]. As he put it, “every letter is bound to a part of the body” [34]. For sinning against this knowledge, he must pay the price in and with his own body. He too falls prey to what Foucault describes as thinking by analogy, drawing connections between the body and external things, and transmitting resemblances “back into the world from which he receives them” [23].

The fourth and final figure of resemblance described in The Order of Things is called “sympathies,” the powerful play of the “Same” in a free state throughout the universe: “It is a principle of mobility: it attracts what is heavy to the heaviness of the earth” [23]—not unlike Jean Bernard Léon Foucault's eternally moving pendulum. But the figure of “sympathies” is dangerous: it has the power to assimilate, to make all things the same, destroying individuality—unless counterbalanced by “antipathy” [23]. The pendular thought of the entire novel offers countless examples of this binary figure at work, just as the plot structure opposes the Planners' totalizing assimilation of everything into their Plan, thanks to the factionalism and divisiveness of the various credulous occult groups. There is more than one Foucault's pendulum.

Michel Foucault himself turns ironic when discussing the need for visible markers or “signatures” of these various kinds of often secret resemblances operating in hermetic thinking—not accidently, a need shared by irony itself: “Now there is a possibility that we might make our way through all this marvellous teeming abundance of resemblances without even suspecting that it has long been prepared by the order of the world, for our greater benefit” [26]. In Eco's ironic literalizing of Foucault's irony, the Plan is not “prepared by the order of the world” but is prepared very much by the order of man. And resemblance, as Foucault describes it, becomes the inversion of the trope of irony: both “require signatures” to be interpreted, so that “the space inhabited” by both “becomes like a vast open book; it bristles with written signs. … All that remains is to decipher them” [27]. The “signature” image is also used by Eco to describe the interpretive habit of hermeticism in a recent essay, but with no reference to Foucault: “It is through similitudes that the otherwise occult parenthood between things is manifested and every sublunar body bears the traces of that parenthood impressed on it as a signature” [The Limits 24]. In Eco's hands, irony becomes a kind of inverted extension or perverse variant of hermetic similitude, exploiting the inevitable if “slight degree of non-coincidence between the resemblances” of which Foucault speaks [30]. This slight degree of noncoincidence provides the space for irony. What Foucault writes concerning the process of deciphering similitude also defines the intent of ironic reading: “To find a way from the visible mark to that which is being said by it and which, without that mark, would lie like unspoken speech, dormant” [32].

Eco has been called “an author who has irony in his soul” [Vita-Finzi 618]; his novel has been dubbed a work of irreverence and irony [Toscani 618], and no doubt this is what caused the Pope to get upset at what he saw as a desecration of faith. But if, as in Eco's own words, “Lacan is interesting because he resumes Parmenides” [Travels 127], so Eco is interesting in part because he resumes Foucault—and many others. Though I've claimed that he rarely discusses Foucault's work in detail, Eco did once define the postmodern as “the orientation of anyone who has learned the lesson of Foucault, i.e., that power is not something unitary that exists outside us” [in Rosso 4]. Foucault was describing his own affiliation when he talked about the “great warm and tender Freemasonry of useless erudition” [Power 79], but Eco seems to be part of that same cabal.

The pendulum has come full swing again but with another of those “slight degrees of non-coincidence” that turns resemblance into irony, hermetic semiosis into postmodern semiosis. Foucault characterized sixteenth-century language as that which “simultaneously promises and postpones” [Order 41], as what offers all signs as “written matter for further discourse” [41]. But for Eco the “perennial shift and deferral of any possible meaning” [The Limits 27]—the unstoppable slippage of meaning [“Introduzione” 14] that constituted hermetic thought—has become the postmodern deferral of meaning, the intertextually ironic deference to other texts, other commentaries, other discourses. In Foucault's words, “It is the traversal of this futile yet fundamental space that the text of literature traces from day to day” [44]. So too does the text of theory.

Works Cited

Almansi, Guido, and Guido Fink. Quasi come. Milan: Bompiani, 1976.

Berardinelli, Alfonso. “Eco, o il pensiero pendolare.” Linea d'ombra 31 Oct. 1988, 3-6.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.

Durand, Gilbert. Science de l'homme et la tradition. Paris: Berg, 1979.

Eco, Umberto. Foucault's Pendulum. Trans. William Weaver. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989.

———. “Introduzione: La semiosi ermetica e il ‘paradigma del velame.’” L'idea deforme: interpretazioni esoteriche di Dante. Ed. Maria Pia Pozzato. Milan: Bompiani, 1989. 9-37.

———. The Limits of Interpretation. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990.

———. The Name of the Rose. Trans. William Weaver. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

———. Postscript to The Name of the Rose. Trans. William Weaver. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

———. The Role of the Reader. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979.

———. Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.

———. A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1976.

———. Travels in Hyperreality: Essays. Trans. William Weaver. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986, 1967.

Eliot, George. Middlemarch. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. London: Tavistock, 1970.

———. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. Trans. Colin Graham, Leo Marshall, John Mepham, and Kate Soper. Ed. Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon, 1980.

Holquist, Michael. “Whodunit and Other Questions: Metaphysical Detective Stories in Post-War Fiction.” New Literary History 3 (1971): 135-56.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Kenner, Hugh. “Art in a Closed Field.” Virginia Quarterly Review 38 (1962): 397-413.

Rosso, Stefano. “A Correspondence with Umberto Eco.” Trans. Carolyn Springer. Boundary 2 12.1 (1983): 1-13.

Spanos, William V. “The Detective and the Boundary: Some Notes on the Postmodern Literary Imagination.” Boundary 2 1.1 (1972): 147-68.

Tani, Stefano. The Doomed Detective: The Contribution of the Detective Novel to Postmodern American and Italian Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984.

Toscani, Claudio. Rev. of Il pendolo di Foucault. Critica letteraria 16 (1988): 617-20.

Venturi, Robert. Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1977.

Vita-Finzi, Claudio. “Omnivorous fantasy.” Rev. of Il pendolo di Foucault. Times Literary Supplement 3 March 1989: 225.

Bernard Williams (review date 2 February 1995)

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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 bad luck.” The quotations bring together two obsessions in which much of Eco's work is involved, one with logical paradox, the other with obscure facts about Hermetic traditions, magical riddles, prophecies, the cabbala, and interpretations of history and nature according to complex, hidden, and often conspiratorial patterns.

As its many readers know, such things are themselves the subject of Foucault's Pendulum. At its center is the idea of a vast trans-historical Plan, initiated by the Knights Templar and involving the Holy Grail, the Society of the Rosy Cross, numerological ratios, the Great Pyramid, Freemasons, the Seven Dwarfs, and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In the novel, the contemporary characters, Milanese publishers who get sucked into the world of this conspiracy, turn out to have been deluded; “the interpretative frenzy of my monomaniacs,” as Eco calls it in Interpretation and Overinterpretation, is checked when a young woman, more sensible than her friends, plausibly conjectures that the central document is a “laundry list,” as it is from then on unquestioningly called: though while it is a list, it does not seem to be a list of laundry.

However, even if the Plan turns out in the book, as in history, to be a myth, Eco does not think that nothing is left over from it. We are invited into the “excess of wonder” that leads the Hermetic interpreter on, and at the end of the novel there are some strange events to wonder at. Moreover, we are invited, by the existence of the novel and the material that Eco assembled in it, to wonder at the strange processes of “Hermetic semiosis” itself.

Eco sees quite clearly what is wrong with the principles of interpretation (mainly of texts, but also of events) that lead to the paranoid belief in the Plan. They permit everything, because any similarity or association, of the many different kinds that were exploited, as Eco explains, by the Renaissance “art of memory,” is enough to get them going; the plant called orchis can stand for the testicles (by similarity of shape), or the crow for the Ethiopians (by similarity of color), or the ant for Providence (by a hieroglyphic relation), and since, as Eco says, “from a certain point of view, everything bears relationships of analogy, contiguity and similarity to everything else,” by exploiting “a false transitivity” you can get anywhere from anywhere. As a result, there can be no final Hermetic secret:

Every object … hides a secret … The ultimate secret of hermetic initiation is that everything is secret … Hermetic thought transforms the whole world theatre into a linguistic phenomenon and at the same time denies language any power of communication.

It is not merely that each thing means something, but that each thing means almost anything. As a character in Foucault's Pendulum says, “The more elusive and ambiguous a symbol is, the more it gains significance and power.” What is wrong is well illustrated (though I do not know whether Eco has mentioned it) by the activity, once quite popular, of finding messages coded in Shakespeare's writings which revealed that they were written by Bacon. It seems to have stopped after researchers, using the same methods rather more elegantly, decoded messages to the effect that they were written by various other people, for instance by Shakespeare.

Just because these interpretative activities are unlimited, uncontrolled, indeterminate, they are quite specially and limitlessly boring. It does not follow that facts about the human appetite for this kind of interpretation are themselves boring. The discovery of those facts, after all, is not effortless or unconstrained, and the extraordinary range of information about such things that Eco mobilizes in Foucault's Pendulum and elsewhere must have cost him an immense amount of work. However, it is the point of the novel that one should not just learn about this interpretative frenzy but take pleasure in sharing it, and, for me at least, Eco's attempt to sustain one's interest in that world is not entirely successful. It is less successful than it is with the world, also very densely illustrated, of The Name of the Rose, and I was a bad candidate for that book, too, with its combination of two things neither of which has much charm for me, the English detective story and the Middle Ages.

The self-destruction of unconstrained interpretation concerns Eco, of course, not simply in the form of zealots tracing the tracks of the Templars across history. He is concerned with the directions taken by contemporary readers of literary texts, particularly of fiction, and several of the books under review address the question of how interpretation can be constrained, and of how reading, once it is freed from traditional (and poorly considered) conceptions of its limits, can be saved from falling into an indeterminacy as empty, and certainly as boring, as the fantasies of Rosicrucian paranoia.

Eco wants us to allow a play of many interpretations of fiction and poetry, and he often quotes Verlaine's saying that there is no one true sense of a poem; but some interpretations are definitely out. He would agree with the classical scholar I know who admitted, perhaps a shade reluctantly, that the free play of the signifier did not extend to the possibility that the word “album” in a poem of Horace could be taken to suggest a book of photographs. He notes approvingly that Geoffrey Hartman refrained from reading Wordsworth's line “A poet could not but be gay” in the sense that it might now suggest, and he remarks that this has something to do with knowing when it was written (a point which, I shall suggest, may go rather further than Eco wants).

Eco's desire to step back from uncontrolled interpretation is expressly encouraged by the thought that he may have done something to encourage it. In his book Opera Aperta of 1962,1 he writes, he “advocated the active role of the interpreter … I have the impression that, in the course of the last decades, the rights of the interpreters have been overstressed.” In his writings from that time on, Eco has taken part in developing, along with others such as Wolfgang Iser,2 the concept of an implicit reader, now called by Eco “the Model Reader,” who is the reader having the linguistic understanding, the empirical knowledge, and more generally the expectations (for instance, of a text of that form) which the text can be taken to assume. The Model Reader is “a sort of ideal type whom the text not only foresees as a collaborator but also tries to create.”

Along with that, equally, can be constructed various notions of implied authors, among whom the narrator, as contrasted with the empirical author (the historical figure who wrote the book) is only the most familiar.3 Some of the most interesting chapters in the attractive set of lectures Six Walks in the Fictional Woods are concerned with these themes, particularly in relation to a text that has fascinated Eco for a long time, Gérard de Nerval's tale Sylvie. In this case, besides the empirical author (who was in fact called Gérard Labrunie, and hanged himself in 1855), there is a first-person narrator (“Je-rard”), and behind him, further, a model author, an impersonal voice which says everything that is said in the novella. Eco does ingenious work with these elements, as he also does with the temporal intricacies of the book, starting with the tense of the verbs in its first sentence and opening out into elaborate formalist analyses of flashback.

The Model Reader is, so to speak, the location of the constraints on interpretation. This does not mean that the idea provides a criterion for acceptable interpretation. Clearly it could not, since the Model Reader is himself or herself constructed only from the text itself; indeed, Eco is just as happy to express the limits of interpretation in terms of “the intention of the text.” There is no criterion of acceptable reading, only plausible or implausible readings, and the idea of a Model Reader offers a focus or a frame for assembling the constraints that seem appropriate. Among the examples and explanations that he gives in Interpretation and Overinterpretation are some comments on his own novels, where, with scrupulous and winning denials of authorial privilege, he casts himself as a Model Reader and tells us, with perhaps a little help from his empirical memory, that the “Foucault” of Foucault's Pendulum of course has to have an echo of Michel Foucault, as well as of Léon Foucault (the one who invented the pendulum). Eco wants the Model Reader to understand that the leading character called “Casaubon” was named after the Renaissance scholar Isaac Casaubon, not for Dorothea's husband in Middlemarch (so much the book indicates); but he also tells us, surprisingly that it simply had not occurred to him that the work on which George Eliot's character was endlessly working was “A Key to All Mythologies.” But: “As a Model Reader, I feel bound to accept that innuendo.”

That surely is right: the “innuendo” is totally within the range of the associations that this book can appropriately invoke, and it could be helpfully put into the head of a reader who was being told what the book meant. According to Eco's own testimony, it was not part of the empirical author's intentions. This, for Eco as theorist, is of no interest, since the empirical author is the figure in this galère who gets, officially, the least attention, and is treated most of the time with contempt. “I'll tell you at once,” Eco says early in Six Walks, “that I couldn't really care less about the empirical author of a narrative text (or, indeed, of any text),” and he goes on to say that knowing the author's age will not help you to judge whether Le Diable au Corps is a masterpiece, or tell you why Kant introduced twelve categories. This is indisputable, but not much of an argument: you might as well say against formalism that knowing the number of words to the page will not answer those questions either.

The questions are not only, or mainly, about a writer's intentions, though it is worth saying that Eco's objections to intentionalism, like many other people's, do seem to rely on a very crude notion of an intention. He sometimes gives the impression that on an intentionalist account an author would have to have in his head at each moment a cartoonist's balloon containing an expository paraphrase of what he was writing; but that is not a sensible account of doing anything intentionally. Quite apart from questions about intention, however, Eco's wholesale dismissal of the empirical author does seem a manifest case of repression. In fact—and it is hardly surprising—Eco keeps his interpretations under control, and supplies the Model Reader with what the Model Reader needs, by appealing all the time to facts about the empirical author: who he was, when he wrote, and, indeed, what sort of book he took himself to be writing—i.e., his intentions in a broad sense. He has an elaborate and quite enjoyable argument about street names in The Three Musketeers which turns on the date when Dumas wrote the book, the topography of Paris at the time, and what Dumas (the actual Dumas) might reasonably be expected to expect his reader to know.

Information about the empirical author is only one example of many things that it is, unsurprisingly, useful to know. In one of the essays in the collection called The Limits of Interpretation, Eco writes, in a discussion of Derrida:

If it is true that a notion of literal meaning is highly problematic, it cannot be denied that in order to explore all the possibilities of a text, even those that its author did not conceive of, the interpreter must first of all take for granted a zero-degree meaning, the one authorized by the dullest and simplest of the existing dictionaries, the one authorized by the state of a given language in a given historical moment, the one that every member of a community of healthy native speakers cannot deny.

Moreover, when Eco refers to a dictionary, even a dull one, he follows much contemporary philosophy in not wanting to distinguish it in principle from an encyclopedia.

This much seems (if the word is not too dampening) sensible; and Eco's actual practice in bringing empirical information to bear on interpreting texts seems notably sensible, even if he sometimes permits himself a Derridean flourish which makes the actual world just another text: “In order to compare worlds,” he says in The Limits of Interpretation, “one must take even the real or actual world as a cultural construct. The so-called actual world is the world to which we refer—rightly or wrongly—as the world described by the Encyclopedia Britannica or Time magazine. …” Here, particularly as we pass that sinister word “so-called,” we seem to be on our way to one of those more maniacal poststructuralist views about which a friend once said to me: Tell that to the Veterans of Foreign Texts. But clearly Eco's heart is not in it; he is a respectable empiricist in these matters, who only looks as though he were taken with the suspect charms of Rien de Hors-Texte. Indeed, as soon as he has suggested his threat, he allows “rightly or wrongly” to take it away again, leaving us only with the alarming thought that the world could conceivably be as it is described by Time magazine.

Some of Eco's critics think that he is too sensible. In Interpretation and Overinterpretation, the same volume of Tanner Lectures in which Eco's essay appears, Jonathan Culler shrewdly remarks that “over-” begs some questions. “[L]ike most intellectual activities,” he claims, “interpretation is interesting only when it is extreme.” (The editor of the book, in his mildly condescending introduction, omits the word “intellectual” when he refers to this quotation, turning the contestable into the idiotic.) It depends, surely, on what interpretation is for. Culler is assuming, I take it, that what is at issue is the discussion of literature as such. In that connection he refers to a helpful distinction made by Wayne Booth between understanding a text and “overstanding” it, where the latter consists of “pursuing questions that the text does not pose to its model reader … it can be very important and productive to ask questions the text does not encourage one to ask about it.” As Culler says, “One advantage of Booth's opposition over Eco's is that it makes it easier to see the role and importance of overstanding than when this sort of practice is tendentiously called over-interpretation.” “Overstanding” is needed to correct overly respectful readings. Culler quotes Barthes to the effect that those who do not re-read condemn themselves to read the same story everywhere: “They recognize what they already think or know.”

That certainly is one reason for overstanding imaginative texts, for moving beyond the horizons of the Model Reader. Even with literature, however, it is not a reason for always overstanding them, for instance when they are being introduced to students who have never read them before. The teachers are indeed re-reading them, and have entirely intelligible reasons (as well as those of finding a market niche) for wanting to make something new of them, but their students (if they are going to read these texts at all, which is another matter) need in the first place to have something old made of them, to be shown how to be Model Readers.

But there is a quite different and more important reason for guarding against the idea that interpretation should always try to be extreme, or that it should constantly aspire, in Culler's term, to be interesting. Eco's history of paranoid fantasy, which culminates in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and their offspring, reminds us that interpretation is an urgently political matter, and not just in the sense in which the Secret Agents of literature departments take a re-reading of Heart of Darkness to be a political matter. Records are being interpreted when the Holocaust is denied, and then what is required of interpretation is not interesting extremity, but, to put it baldly, truth.

Because Eco is aware that the vicissitudes of interpretation can be seriously political, his novels speak to political issues, even if one does not go all the way with the suggestion Robert Lumley mentions in his informative introduction to Apocalypse Postponed, that they are “political allegories.” This introduction tells one a certain amount about Eco's rather ambivalent relations over the years to Italian politics, particularly to movements of the left. (I also learned from Lumley that Eco is the author of the standard Italian work on how to write a doctoral thesis: Come si fa una tesi di laurea, a title in which the reflexive voice makes the task sound, at least to an imperfectly Italianate ear, agreeably easier than it is.) The book itself addresses politics, but they are almost entirely the politics of culture. It is not altogether a satisfactory collection. There are translations from a book published in 1964, Apocalittici e Integrati, followed by an assortment of pieces on popular culture and cultural politics, some of which are very dated (Italian events in the 1960s; Orwell in 1984; rather painfully, the Royal Wedding.)

“Apocalyptic” and “integrated” intellectuals are distinguished by their attitudes to popular culture, and, as that choice of labels makes heavily obvious, Eco sides unequivocally with the latter, those who wish to make something of it, while the apocalyptics see in TV and “mass culture” the end of civilization. Eco salutes the apocalyptics, and indeed dedicates the book to them, but he thinks that their formulas—in particular the term “mass culture” itself—are fetishes, that their view of the past as contrasted with the present is unhistorical, and, most basically, that they snobbishly withhold themselves from manifestations that can be enjoyable, interesting, and rich with semiotic extravagance.

The apocalyptics whom Eco was addressing when he wrote these essays came supposedly from the left, even if (as in the case of Adorno) this represented a choice of rhetoric rather than anything else. But those at the present time who are drawn to American Straussianism or other versions of cultural pessimism will find themselves challenged by Eco, for instance in the short essay “The Future of Literacy,” to reflect on what exactly it is that they deplore and how exactly it differs from what it was in the past. In particular, he is good on showing the implications of simple McLuhanite assumptions about the image and the word. As he points out, in the Middle Ages visual communication was more important than writing. “Cathedrals were the TV of their times, and the difference with our TV was that the directors of medieval TV read good books, had a lot of imagination, and worked for the public good.” Admittedly, this takes us only as far as asking some better and harder questions about literacy, and Eco, at least in these pages, does not help us much in answering them. In this respect, the category of the “integrated” intellectual is something of a delusion. It registers, as contrasted with rejection, only the point that some intellectuals have absorbed popular culture to the point where they can sing along with it, as Eco does in his essay on Charlie Brown and Krazy Kat. In itself, it offers no hope that some intellectuals might be integrated into popular culture and have some influence on it, as Eco would clearly like to be the case when he compares the management of RAI unfavorably to the designers of Chartres.

In fact, Eco has been involved in TV, in publishing, and in journalism as well as being a professor. Many of the essays on cultural politics are reprinted from newspapers. However, besides these familiar activities of the academic critic, he has written a lot in lighter styles. Starting in 1959, he wrote for a literary magazine a monthly column called Diario Minimo, and Misreadings offers a selection of translated pieces from that column. They take the form of parodies—of Nabokov, Robbe-Grillet, Adorno, and Anglo-American anthropology, among other targets. They have come a long way by now, from originals in English, French, or other languages to Italian to English, and despite the linguistic skills of Eco and his translator, the parodic impulse that set them off has not always survived to the present volume. The other little book in Eco's lighter manner, How to Travel with a Salmon, represents a translated selection of items from a second Diario Minimo, in this case put into a drawer as they were written and published later. These are comic numbers, on “How to Be a TV Host,” “How to Eat in Flight,” and so forth. One of them contains a genuine narratological discovery, which reappears in Six Walks: a sure way of telling whether a film is pornographic is that it contains many scenes in which the protagonists travel in a car, enter or leave buildings, pour drinks, and engage in other everyday activities, all of which are displayed in real time and take just as long as they would take in life (it is a device for separating the sex scenes without having to invent any plot). One piece about the gadgets advertised in airline magazines, is to me, at least, very funny:

LeafScoop is a glove that transforms your hands into those of a palmiped born, through radioactive mutation, from the cross-breeding of a duck with a pterodactyl via Dr. Quatermass. It is used in the collection of fallen leaves in your eighty-thousand acre park. Spending a mere $12.50, you save the salary of a gardener and a gamekeeper (we recommend it to Lord Chatterley's attention). TieSaver covers your neckties with a protective oily film so that, Chez Maxim, you can eat tomato sandwiches without then appearing at the Board of Directors meeting looking like Dr. Barnard after a difficult transplant. Only fifteen dollars. Ideal for those who still use brilliantine. You can wipe your forehead with the tie.

Others, such as a laborious working out of Borges's famous idea of a map on the scale of 1 to 1, seem to me notably unfunny, sometimes to a degree that I find almost bewildering.

Perhaps there is nothing to this except the usual vicissitudes of humorous writing—different times, different cultures, different temperaments, the joke that does not travel. But I suspect that that there is something deeper involved. It relates to a characteristic that Eco does share with many of his academic colleagues in literature, particularly those more dedicated than he is to literary theory. He is much more learned, steadier, more humorous, and when in the presence of solid fact more sensible than many of them, but he does share an affliction with them. This is paradoxic bulimia, an ungoverned appetite for seemingly contradictory conundrums. Its symptoms drive philosophers to fury, and the difference between the two parties in this respect marks, more than anything else, the contemporary front line in the age-old war between the troops of philosophy and the troops of literature.

Faced with an apparent contradiction, philosophers, the friends of consistency, want to resolve it. Logicians such as Raymond Smullyan (whose good joke, quoted by Eco, I mentioned at the beginning) love paradoxes, but want to explain them. The other party, the friends of the conundrum, move in the opposite direction: given a boring fact, they do the best they can to represent it as a contradiction. Many years ago I read a little book called Zen and the Art of Archery, which tried to illustrate Zen teaching by telling you, for instance, that in archery one should aim by not aiming. This meant simply that if you were to hit the target you needed to get into a state of mind in which you were no longer consciously trying to do so. But this is true of most such activities. I remember clearly the irritation I felt, as a hardcore member of the consistency party, at what seemed an entirely gratuitous mystification.

That case was, in fact, doubly bad, since the truth wrapped up in the contradiction was an obvious one, and the only point in wrapping it up, the Zen point, lay in a practice of meditation and discipline which no book was going to impart. Of course, in many other cases the party of consistency is rightly seen as consisting of clumsy wreckers, who feel threatened by the first sight of contradiction and reach for their rationalizing tool kit. They—that is to say, we—always run the risk of forgetting that the first sight of something worth understanding may take the form of a contradiction. The best way there may be of putting something worth saying may take that form, and, in personal life at least, it may sometimes be best to leave it that way, since the roots of the contradiction can sometimes only be found by digging up the plant. But if that is so, there is at any rate a consistent explanation of why it is so. Contradictions in themselves do not make life more abundant. They do not even, much of the time, make it more interesting, and this is for the same reason that the search for the Hermetic secret is so boring, that in themselves they leave you with something indeterminate and limitless, a world in which nothing is impossible and everything is the same. Hence one's (literally) desperate weariness as the more mechanical forms of deconstruction grind out their paradoxes.

Eco is never boring in such a way or, most of the time, in any other. Yet he seems to have a serious problem, as they say in the eating disorder clinic, with paradox, and I think that this is why his jokes seem so uneven, since a shared sense of humor rests heavily on a common sense of what is paradoxical, and Eco is prepared to find amusingly paradoxical what some of his readers may see as merely elaborate or forced. He seeks out formulations that trip themselves up, ways of putting things that might be taken, at a pinch, to undo what they say. His sympathy with people who love contradictions is hard, at points, to distinguish from a sympathy with contradictions, and he occasionally stuns the principles of logic with a shot of cultural relativism, as when he refers in the Tanner Lectures to “the typical pattern of thinking of Western rationalism, the modus ponens: ‘if p then q; but p: therefore q.’” How far east do you have to go for that to stop being valid?

In Foucault's Pendulum, they say to the narrator:

“You can always tell a genuine Piedmontese immediately by his skepticism.”

“I'm a skeptic.”

“No, you're only incredulous, a doubter, and that's different.”

A little later the narrator goes on:

Not that the incredulous person doesn't believe in anything. It's just that he doesn't believe in everything. Or he believes in one thing at a time. He believes a second thing only if it somehow follows from the first thing. He is nearsighted and methodical, avoiding wide horizons. If two things don't fit, but you believe both of them, thinking that somewhere, hidden, there must be a third thing that connects them, that's credulity.

Incredulity doesn't kill curiosity; it encourages it.

Umberto Eco, in his dealings with interpretation, is to a wonderful degree what the subject needs, someone who is incredulous without being a paralyzing skeptic. He is incredulous about skepticism itself: about the limitless space of unconstrained semiosis. At the same time he is incredulous concerning traditional assumptions about the author and the extent to which meaning can be determinately recovered. But in all his inventive dealings with these questions he shows, as well as vast learning and a high sense of fun, a robust belief in the obstinacy of fact, a historical past that can be recovered, if not as a large-scale story, at least as an assemblage of undeniable bits and pieces. It is only from time to time, in his dealings with logic, when he reveals a taste for paradox that is more unconstrained than he allows interpretation to be, that he seems to flirt with deep skepticism. But this may, finally, only be one of his games, for it is very clear that he recognizes that good sense and an understanding of the past, including the lunacies of its interpretations, are sustained in fact by a vigorous belief that one thing follows from another, and that wishful interpreters can no more empower contradictions than they can prove the existence of the Templars' conspiracy.


  1. Translated as The Open Work (Harvard University Press, 1989).

  2. Der Implizite Leser (Munich: Fink, 1972); English translation, The Implied Reader (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974). Der Akt des Lesens (Munich: Fink, 1976); English translation, The Act of Reading (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).

  3. Eco gives some history of these ideas in “Intentio Lectoris,” one of the articles collected in The Limits of Interpretation; he particularly picks out Wayne Booth's conception of an “implied author,” which was first published in 1961.

Wulf D. Rehder (review date July-August 1995)

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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 phrase for the person who turns up unexpectedly the moment his name is mentioned. Substituting the lector for the wolf conjures up the image of a reader who appears in the text that he or she is reading. And so “speaking of the reader” became something of a slogan for a research program. This happened at a time when many saw the author disappearing behind his work: The author is dead, long live the reader. While some literary critics have not only banned the author to anonymity but have also relegated the text to a tool that a reader may use arbitrarily, Eco has always insisted that author, text, and reader together create a triumvirate that is balanced by their respective roles. The conceptual twist Eco has given to the critical discussion is both conservative and radical. Yes, he says, the empirical author is of little import other than tickling our curiosity for a particular curriculum vita; and yes, the empirical readers, you and I, will use and manipulate the text for our own purposes, reading it for consolation, amusement, education, or to write a review. But behind this Eco detects a “model author” who instills into his work—through a particular style, in an implied voice, or by explicit instructions—a lasting purpose (the intentio operis,) and this strategy is directed toward an ideal addressee, the “model reader.” A model reader of Finnegans Wake understands all the hidden puns and riddles and knows the tides of the River Liffey. He is the Adam for whom the godlike author creates a world in a book.

It's a bit awkward to have to climb to these theoretical heights for a book as playful as Six Walks in the Fictional Woods. But as soon as we enter the book we realize that walking in the woods is Eco's metaphor for reading fiction.

There are woods like Dublin, where instead of Little Red Riding Hood one can meet Molly Bloom, and woods like Casablanca, in which one can meet Ilsa Lund and Rick Blaine.

While an empirical reader may want to follow her favorite path and linger in a particularly beautiful clearing, Eco is dealing in this book only “with those walks that the author's strategy induces the reader to take.” The casual tone of the title hides his contention that some paths on this walk are more accessible than others; that only some trails lead to a discovery, or that you may not see the forest for all its trees. Soon we'll notice that by entering the woods (which, via a paper mill, delivers the paper for the pages in front of us), each one of us becomes a “lector in fabula.” Then we understand that this small book is nothing less than a miniature guide for six itineraries through Eco's larger, more theoretical work.

No wonder that on our way we encounter some of Eco's main characters from books, movies, theories, and, less frequently, real life. We meet eccentric French writer Nerval's Sylvie and Italian Romantic writer Manzoni's The Betrothed, Flaubert's Sentimental Education and Ian Fleming's Casino Royale as witnesses for authors who manipulate a reader's sense of time with stylistic elements that simulate big pauses (Flaubert), casual lingering and zooming in and out (Manzoni), dreamlike confusion of times lived and remembered (Nerval), or with elements that mimic thriller action by quick, short sentences (Fleming). Not much different from literature are movies and the heroes of pop culture, from Rhett Butler to Charlie Brown. Eco displays here, with trademark erudition and brio, his talent to spice the trivial with the sublime and to explicate the philistine with philosophy. Little Red Riding Hood and Hegel are neighbors in these woods, and Aristotle may drop in anytime for a visit with Poe to discuss the poetics of “The Raven.”

The Ur-article responsible for much of Eco's early fame as a critic of culture, both high and low, is the opening essay in the collection Apocalypse Postponed. Written in 1964, it introduces, as the (anti-) hero, the critic, who joins the interactive play between author, text, and reader as the opinionated referee not only of books but of the whole encyclopedia, as Eco sometimes calls the world. Like Calvino's Cloven Viscount who has a good half and a bad half, Eco's critic is Janus-faced. The “apocalyptic” side sees culture as an aristocratic enterprise for the chosen few, and everything below this level of sophistication is proof of decadence about which the apocalittico loves to theorize and to moan. The “integrated” side does not theorize; he participates: The integrato produces TV shows and entertaining (if somewhat ironic) books and consumes them himself. He is part of the culture he feigns to criticize, while the apocalyptic curmudgeon sits above it all like another of Calvino's characters, the baron in the tree. Among these barons Eco counts various European intellectuals, but we don't always have to look toward the old countries. Our own Mencken was an apocalyptic; Hilton Kramer and most of the New Criterion crowd are even more miserly (and less literate); Gore Vidal likes to assume the apocalyptic pose of the Great American Preceptor, as do many academics who all deplore the united states of learning and reading and behaving. Our public (and publicized) critics, on the other hand, from Marshall McLuhan to Camille Paglia and the New York Times, are all “integrated,” sometimes actors themselves, often in the audience, always paid participants in a game they pretend to referee.

Other essays in this collection haven't aged so well. Eco's homage to “The World of Charlie Brown,” where Charles M. Schulz is called a “poet,” suffers from the intervening three decades of extreme commercialization of Chuck, who in Eco's ranking is our “Leopold Bloom, a Positive Type, our pocket, portable Everyman, the suburban Philoctetes.” Wouldn't it be a feast if Eco tried his pen on the world of “Doonesbury”?

In “The Future of Literacy” Eco is a moderate—apocalyptic deep at heart and integrated in front of his own word processor:

I think that computers are diffusing a new form of literacy but are unable to satisfy all the intellectual needs that they stimulate. I am an optimist twelve hours a day and a pessimist the remaining twelve.

The variety of Eco's topics is, as always, astounding. From a systematic discussion of culture and counter-culture we are thrown, the next moment, into samples of Chinese comic strips. Occasionally on first sight, the subject matter seems very homegrown, as when he writes about the “Italian Genius Industry” or about the porno-stripper, La Cicciolina, who became a deputy of the Italian parliament. But then you think about football coaches who are geniuses of Beethoven's caliber, or of Howard Stern's exhibits. If Eco's style and subjects tend toward the impressionistic and ephemeral and then, suddenly, become laden with a reference to Kant or Lucretius we must remember that playful intelligence is the obligation of every Italian intellectual. Like Calvino, they have all written for newspapers and earned their honest lire with a pen before fame struck. Eco is still contributing his weekly column “La bustina di Minerva” for L'Espresso. The thread tying together the diverse essays in this collection is not so much woven from the theme of mass culture and its critics and all the reactions it has provoked since the sixties, as from Eco's own unlimited intellectual curiosity, his sprightliness and erudite eclecticism, and his sympathy for our collective, sometimes silly, sometimes sad, sometimes serious human condition—but in the lighter sense of Roman playwright Terence's humani nil a me alienum, nothing that's human is foreign to me.

Norma Bouchard (essay date Fall 1995)

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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 and Malcom Bradbury. These novels, which genre theorists have labelled “critifictional,” combine fictional accounts of academic life with theoretical polemic directed against literary theorists—deconstructionists in particular. Often parodic and intentionally employing strategies that feature burlesque representation of their targets, Lodge's and Bradbury's novels have been the focus of extensive analysis in the current debacle of deconstruction—in the wake of blooming cultural theories. Eco's novel, however, has not been received with comparable interest. On the one hand, the textual backbone is an encyclopedic and chaotic archive of western knowledge—“a true extravaganza”1—that has severely limited the range of the audience's reception. On the other hand, it is likely that critics have extended Eco's earlier comments on the separate roles of fiction and theory to include Foucault's Pendulum. As a consequence, the novel's rightful place within the current critifictional revision of deconstruction remains widely unacknowledged. Using a textual and intertextual approach, this essay establishes a metonymic relation between Eco's recent theoretical stance against deconstruction and his latest novel. Eco's major critical essays from the mid-eighties will provide the background to support a critifictional reading of Foucault's Pendulum.

It is likely that future literary historians will record the eighties as the age of postdeconstruction.2 In recent years a full-fledged critique of the theory has been mounted by a number of commentators, ranging from the left—with Hayden White, Fredric Jameson, Frank Lentricchia, and Terry Eagleton—to the older generation of humanist critics—with René Wellek, M. H. Abrams, and E. D. Hirsch. At the risk of oversimplifying the critical stances taken against deconstruction, the left-leaning opposition has generally focused on the paralyzing effect that the theory is likely to create in any future revolutionary political practice. Deconstruction's reminder of the structures of power at work in all critical discourse has been interpreted as a manifestation of a conservative and reactionary force. In Felperin's words, “a throwback … to the dandyist aestheticism of the nineties, a displaced religion of art” (111). The focus of the critique waged by humanist critics has been different, but no less vehement. Deconstruction's notion that there are no authorial intentions behind the production of texts and that no meaning is to be found in textual production, has engendered serious reflections on the threat that deconstruction poses to the institutional and pedagogical practices of literary studies.

Parallel to the theoretical critique of deconstruction, there has been a fictional critique as well, more properly by critifiction. According to Mews,3 critifiction is a newly emerging subgenre of the academic novel, “penned by critics and professors of literature who consciously endeavor to combine critical theory and fictional practice by engaging in the production of both sorts of texts” (714). The most distinguishing feature of critifiction is a willful attempt to move beyond the codified conventions of the academic novel—such as the mimetic representation of the institution of higher education and their members—to address those issues and debates that make up the more significant and more serious aspect of academic life. By way of illustrating his definition of “critifiction,” Mews cites Terry Eagleton's Saints and Scholars (1987), a novel whose focus is not the campus setting, but the “fictional distillations of the philosophical, religious, and political debates at the beginning of modernism” (714). Mews' definition offers a good framework to conceptualize the works of a number of European academics who are confronting literary theory—and deconstruction in particular—not just by means of critical essays, but by means of fictional, or critifictional writings as well.

British writers Malcom Bradbury and David Lodge are among the acknowledged European practioners of this genre. Both have taken a critical and critifictional stance against deconstruction, expounding their liberal-humanist views in a number of articles as well as in their novels. The contiguity of the “quarrel with the French algebraists”4 informing their theory and practice has been emphasized not only by their commentators, but also by the writers themselves. Bradbury, for example, in My Strange Quest for Mensonge,5 poses as M. Malcom, a scholar from the University of East Anglia who is relating to the public the beginning and ending of the “Deconstructionist movement” (81). According to the narrator's research, the presumed father of deconstruction, the legendary Henri Mensonge—a composite image of Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, Deleuze, and Guattari (27)—has pointed out, via “the Mensongian cul-de-sac” (63), the double bind of deconstruction: “the Deconstruction of Deconstruction itself” (28). Mensonge has argued that if, as deconstructionists maintain, there are no privileged points from which to speak and no meaning before and after the production of texts, the disappearance of the subject of consciousness and the ensuing silencing of all intellectual life is the logical conclusion to which the theory leads. Thus, through an act of admirable integrity and intellectual heroism, Mensonge literally disappears into total obscurity, leaving only the voice of M. Malcom to relate the final demise of deconstruction.

The same explicit contiguity between theory and fiction is illustrated in the writing practices of David Lodge. However, whereas Bradbury locates his signature as opposer of deconstruction in the novels themselves, Lodge does not. The discourse of his personal voice is much harder to circumscribe since, as a novelist, Lodge employs narrative strategies that tend to efface the presence of a clearly identifiable narrator, openly revising deconstruction. Nonetheless, Lodge's essays provide many clues to his critifictional intents. In his recent publication, After Bakhtin,6 a collection of critical essays dating from 1981 to 1990, Lodge takes a retrospective look at his work. According to his own statements, an open engagement with the developments in literary theory arising from structuralism has always been a constant in his activity: “cannibalized … in criticism and literary journalism, and satirized and carnivalized … in my novels” (8). If this declaration is not sufficient to illustrate Lodge's critifictional intents, he also incorporates characters from his novels in his latest essays, and thereby establishes additional, contiguous links between the two spheres. Morris Zapp, for example, a fictional character from Lodge's Changing Places7 and Small World,8 is quoted in one of Lodge's essays from After Bakhtin as “another modern authority” in deconstructionist criticism (90). Thus, Lodge repeatedly invites the public to read the novels Changing Places, Small World, and Nice Work9 as being shaped and informed by his theoretical concerns.

In the three texts, Lodge has two deconstructionists, Morris Zapp and Robyn Penrose, recant many of their beliefs when they confront the implications of the critical approach they uphold. In Small World, Morris Zapp, after a terrifying experience in the hands of a group of Italian terrorists, renounces the notion of the endless deferral of signifiers and announces the rebirth of the humanist subject as origin and source of meaning.10 Along the same revisionary lines, in Nice Work, Robyn Penrose, a strong believer in the absence of the “self” (21) and a supporter of the undecidability of meaning allegedly inherent in all language, comes to admit the inconsistency of her arguments by the “defamiliarizing” voice of an academic outsider, Managing Director Victor Wilcox. In the same text, Lodge also voices, through the character of Charles, his concerns about the impact of deconstruction on the institution of literary studies and on the theory's pedagogical application in particular.11

Eco's work lacks the explicit display of critifictional intent of Lodge's and Bradbury's. Neither in Eco's critical essays, nor in his novels, are there any open indications of an epistemological contiguity between his fictional and theoretical writings. In addition—and this is perhaps the main reason for the lack of acknowledgment of Eco's conversion to critifictional practices—in earlier works Eco had attempted to establish a fracture between theory and fiction. In an interview with Stefano Rosso,12 Eco addresses the absence of a demarcation line between language and metalanguage in the works of Derrida, Deleuze, Blanchot, and Lacan. Eco forcefully states his opposition to this type of writing practice: “When theoreticians behave like writers of fiction, I do not like it” (9). Here Eco's concern is over the different epistemes informing theoretical and creative writings. The function of theory is to better understand the cultural universe and to reduce culture's ambiguity: “Anyone who writes essays must work to reduce the labyrinth. He must impoverish the wealth of the real in order to permit definitions, even provisional ones” (8). Conversely, writers of fiction can afford to represent the chaos of “the labyrinth” and leave “truth hanging in the balance” (9). In other words, as a semiotician, Eco tries to isolate a portion of “the labyrinth” in order to provide provisional truths for the decoding of culture's many languages, but, as a fictional writer, he can afford to show the provisionality and/or failure of all definitions.

To illustrate this fracture, Eco cites the impasse of all methods of interpretations that William, a character from Eco's The Name of the Rose, is finally forced to face.13 A similar declaration of an explicit disjunction between theory and practice is present on the dust jacket of the Italian original14 and in a commentary on the same novel, Postille a Il Nome della rosa.15 In this work, Eco extends his notion of fracture to include the historical reader as well. Unlike the reader of essays whose possible interpretative misreadings need to be addressed and answered by the essayist in the process of composition itself, the reader of fiction has to be “depistato” (8), to be led “off-track.” Given these precedents, it comes as no surprise that scholarship on Eco's first novel has tended to emphasize the contradictory nature of the episteme at work in the author's writing practices.

If Eco's work in the field of semiotics has been a consistent attempt to provide directions through the labyrinth of signs, his fiction would appear to undermine the validity of semiotics, as several scholars have pointed out. Jocelyn Mann,16 for example, reads the novel as a rejection of “any culture-deciphering tools” (134). Mann goes as far as to align Eco's novel to De Man's and Derrida's deconstructionist practices: since there are no right clues to a proper decoding of “the labyrinth”—no ‘transcendental signified’—the doors to “the centerless universe of unlimited interpretability” (140) are open to the infinite deferral of significance. Notwithstanding the validity of this critic's alignment of Eco with De Man and Derrida,17 it is a valid statement that, at least up to the time of the publication of The Name of the Rose (1980 in the Italian original), Eco conceived of creative and critical writing as two separate activities. However, starting with Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, the 1990 Cambridge Tanner Lectures, now reprinted in Interpretation and Overinterpretation, and culminating in The Limits of Interpretation, a collection of essays mostly ranging from 1985 onward, Eco has been renegotiating the boundaries between fiction and theory.18 It is in this newly defined context that one should place Foucault's Pendulum.

Unlike The Name of the Rose, whose outcome might very well contradict Eco's theoretical activity, Foucault's Pendulum is a critifictional text, since it partakes of the same epistemological concerns informing Eco's latest theories of reading and interpretation. These theories are in open opposition to some of the tenets of deconstruction—“Derridism” in particular.19

Eco's main argument is clearly informed by the implication of the theory for reading and interpretative practices. Since one of deconstruction's major premises is the lack of context in written utterances—written words always being separated from the utterer and the context of utterance—Eco believes that ultimately the theory comes to justify the absence of a stable meaning and to legitimize the boundless freedom of acontextual and reader-centered approaches. If meaning can never truly be present, then signifiers are no longer bound to signifieds but are free to refer only to other signifiers: words refer to other words in a deferral ad infinitum. In Eco's own words, from a passage of The Limits of Interpretation20:

Once the text has been deprived of a subjective intention behind it, the readers no longer have the duty, or the possibility, to remain faithful to such an absent intention. It is thus possible to conclude that language is caught in a play of multiple signifying games; that a text cannot incorporate an absolute univocal meaning; that there is no transcendental signified; that the signifier is never co-present with a signified which is continually deferred and delayed; and that every signifier is related to another signifier so that there is nothing outside the significant chain, which goes on ad infinitum.


In open polemic with such a view, Eco's theoretical argument begins by historicizing deconstruction via an historical outline of aberrant theories of reading, traceable back to irrationalism.21 Starting from second-century hermetism and Biblical hermeneutics through Aquinas and Renaissance hermetism, in Interpretation and Overinterpretation,22 Eco observes how “post-modern thought … look[s] very pre-antique” (245). However, deconstructionists are not just demoted in their role of theoretical forefront, but are also said to fall into the same traps of aberrant decoding as the Renaissance hermeticists (23-43). According to Eco, the hermetic philosophers of the Kabbalah, conceiving of the world as a text ruled by the principle of universal analogy and sympathy, undermined the possibility of all meaning in the same way that deconstructionists have. The Kabalistic drift from symbol to symbol, even if ruled by the will to know more, ended by devoiding language of its ability to communicate. Along parallel lines, Eco states in Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language23 that deconstructionists' assertion of the absence of a univocal meaning achieves the same semantic tabula rasa: “the text as symbol is no longer read to find in it a truth that lies outside: the only truth (that is the old Kabalistic God) is the very play of deconstruction” (155; emphasis added).

Eco's theoretical works also formulate an amendment to deconstruction's premises. In The Limits of Interpretation for example, Eco suggests that hermeticist and deconstructionist theories of reading are based on the misrecognition of a fundamental semantic concept: words might be “paradigmatically open to infinite meanings but syntagmatically, that is textually, open only to the indefinite, by no means infinite, interpretations allowed by the context” (21). Thus, Eco proposes a pragmatic model of reading that bounds the unlimited potential of signification—the unlimited semiosis of the semantic competence of our culture—to the text. Eco suggests a type of textual analysis in which semiosis' drift can be reduced and contained by the cooperation of the readers with the text and by the willingness of the readers to justify their interpretation on the basis of information legitimized only by the text. Resuscitating “the old and still valid hermeneutic circle” (59), Eco describes an interpretative model which combines traditional hermeneutics with Peirce's “abductions”: hypotheses and conjectures about the text that are accepted or rejected according to textual validation. Explicitly proposing (52; 58-59) one of his earlier works, The Role of the Reader,24 as a detailed analysis of this abductive hermeneutic process, Eco puts limits on interpretative activities. The reader transforms, through a complex system of encyclopedic codes and subcodes,25 the expression plane into the first level of content. When and if circumstances of utterance are available, such as general information about the message's sender and social context, the reader takes them into account in order to hypothesize about the nature of the speech act. At this point, the reader has a number of possible topics available. If the topics are textually verifiable and authenticated, the “disclosure of discursive” and “narrative structures” (17-31) of the message begins. Conversely, if the topics are not legitimized by the text, the reader must discard them and devise others. As a last step, decisions about the “elementary ideological structures” (that is the ideology informing the message) and the “world structures” (the credibility of the events, beliefs of characters, and so on) can be formulated (37-39).

From the brief outline of Eco's model, it is clear that the intention of the reader in textual decoding is always secondary to the communicative intent of the text.26 As The Limits of Interpretation warns, the intentio lectoris needs to yield to the intentio operis (59). However, Eco believes that contemporary and past misreaders blatantly disregard this procedure. In their aberrant decoding, hypotheses about the text are not textually legitimized and interpretation is left to run free:

The semiotic theories of interpretative cooperation look at the textual strategy as a system of instructions aiming at producing a possible reader whose profile is designed by and within the text. … In a totally different way, the most radical practices of deconstruction privilege the initiative of the reader and reduce the text to an ambiguous bunch of still unshaped possibilities, thus transforming texts into mere stimuli for the interpretative drift.


To summarize Eco's positions, then, deconstruction is first historicized and then disputed on grounds of faulty premises about the nature of speech acts. These premises are seen by Eco as being not simply fallacious but also as having profound implications for the activity of reading and interpreting written messages. As a corrective, Eco proposes a model of reading derived from Pierce and traditional hermeneutics.

To be sure, Eco's presentation of deconstruction is somewhat partial and innacurate. It is the product of a conflation of two distinct interpretative models; deconstruction and Renaissance hermeticism. Deconstruction's argument that no univocal, transcendent truths can be established, does not necessarily entail the unlimited deferral of meaning that Eco is suggesting, but calls instead for a plurality of coexisting meanings.27 Yet, it is also quite possible, in view of the usual sophistication of Eco's readings, that this inaccuracy is part of a rhetorical strategy informed by a polemic directed against the critical application of Derrida's philosophy. Nonetheless, the correctness of Eco's characterization of deconstruction is not relevant here but, rather, his recent shift into critifictional writing practices as they emerge from Foucault's Pendulum.28

To begin with, the novel is permeated by allusions to many of the theoretical discourses that in recent years have animated the forefront of academic life. The title already resonates with echoes of that other Foucault, Michel, whose second chapter of The Order of Things,29 had also connected modern linguistic theories to the interpretative model of Renaissance hermetism, and had welcomed the return of the hermetic materiality of the sign in modern times (44). Other allusions range from a Dr. Wagner, who “always said Other with a capital O” (232) and practiced a “sufficiently deconstructive” and “non-Cartesian” brand of psychoanalysis (230), to hints at the self-proclaimed leftists who, between the late seventies and early eighties, talked about the unconscious, Nietzsche, and Céline (221). More important than these surface allusions, is the sustained and central presence of fictional corroborations of Eco's resistance to deconstructionists' reading practices outlined in his theoretical work from the mid-eighties onward. Unlike The Name of the Rose, the validity of proper methods of interpretation is never undermined. Readings that yield to the intentio operis are presented as accurate, and are set against the misreadings of a group of readers' uncontrollable interpretative drives.

The novel relates the adventures of three Italian intellectuals, Belbo, Casaubon, and Diotallevi, whose innocuous penchant for wordplay, ranging from metaphors, to oxymorons, solecisms, and paradoxes—a penchant certainly shared by most deconstructionists—has become a fatal attraction. Indeed, at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in Paris on 23 June 1984, Casaubon analeptically narrates the series of events that has led to the murder of his friend, Belbo, and may lead to his death as well. At the center of Belbo's death and Casaubon's own impending doom30 is nothing but a chain of aberrant decodings initiated by Colonello Ardenti and pursued by the three intellectuals. Ardenti is an old fascist soldier who has dedicated most of his activity to the study of Knights Templar history. His intertextual competence on the subject brings him to formulate a set of a-priori abductions about the order. Ardenti firmly believes that the Templars had a plan to conquer the world and subjugates all relevant texts about the order to a connotative drift designed to validate a hypothesis formulated well in advance.31 Like a semioclastic Roland Barthes,32 Ardenti is suspicious of the referential and denotative function of language and embraces an extreme model of Hjelmslevian connotation. As Ardenti himself maintains, “Not that I am so ingenuous as to take the story of the hay wain literally. It's a symbol—a symbol of the obvious—… behind the story of the hay wain lies something else” (123). Living up to this reading program, in the course of a meeting with the three intellectuals, Ardenti turns all signs into signifiers for other signs (119 ff). For example, because of the massive killing of the Templars, ordered by the King of France in 1307, Ardenti believes that the order must have had a plan to conquer the world and that a group of them has survived. Furthermore, since the founder of the Templars' order in 1118 was Ugo de Payns from Champagne, Ardenti assumes that the surviving knights have settled somewhere in the same region. Through another connotative move, Ardenti decides that the Templars' new residence was the city of Provins. To his baffled audience—Casaubon, Belbo, and Diotallevi—Ardenti explains that Provins, because of its underground system of caves, would have been an ideal location for the knights. In addition, during the course of a research trip to Provins, Ardenti has read in a 1894 newspaper of a man's repeated descents into one of the underground caves. The article prompts Ardenti to make additional conjectures. Bearing in mind intertextual frames of old monks finding pots of gold under the floor, Ardenti assumes that the man, Ingolf, has found information related to the Templar's plan. Additional research brings Ardenti into contact with Ingolf's daughter, and it is in her library that he discovers two messages. The first is a ciphered one,33 while the second, written in Old French, is missing some letters:

a la … Saint Jean / 36 p charrete de fein / 6 … entiers avec saiel / p … les blancs mantiaux / r … s … chevaliers de Pruins pour la … / 6 fois 6 en 6 places / chascune foiz 20 a. … 120 a. … / iceste est l'ordonation / al donjon li premiers / it li secunz joste iceus qui … pans / it al refuge / it a Nostre Dame de l'altre part de l'iau / it a l'hostel des popelicans / it a la pierre / 3 foiz 6 avant la feste … la grant Pute.


Ardenti, without following any of the guidelines outlined by Eco's abductive hermeneutic model, begins his final, aphasic34 process of interpretation. In ways parallel to Eco's theoretical characterization of deconstructionist practices in The Limits of Interpretation (44-63), Ardenti completely ignores the intentio operis while privileging his intentio lectoris. None of the codes and subcodes necessary to transform the lexematic surface of the text into the first level of content are taken into account. Available contextual information about the nature of the utterance is blatantly ignored. Finally, the text is forced to authenticate Ardenti's hypotheses formulated before the discovery of the text itself. All of the message's words are misread as symbols to reveal that the Templars had indeed continued to exist and had secretly planned to meet every 120 years in six different locations: the Castle (“al donjon”), Jerusalem (“joste iceus qui … pans”), Agarrtha (“al refuge”), Chartres (“a Notre Dame”), the Mediterranean shores (“a l'ostel des popelicans”), and Stonehenge [“it a la pierre” (145-46)]. In one last, ominous decoding, Ardenti, like the hermeticists and the deconstructionists described by Eco, disregards the semantic concept that words are only paradigmatically open. He ignores the syntagmatic bounding of the word “pierre” to the message and opens it to culture's unlimited semiosis. Hence, from a series of associations ranging from von Eschenbach's Parzival to the philosophers' stone, from the Argonauts to Hitler, from Saint Peter to Baphomet, from the Milky Way to the Golden Fleece (142-43), Ardenti concludes that the Templars' plan was about controlling Earth's telluric energies and that the Templars met in order to transmit the plan until technology would be advanced enough to provide the technical support. Ardenti's readings are initially received with perplexity by his audience. Casaubon calls them “conjecture,” while Belbo calls them “guesswork” (126) and Ardenti's reading as jouissance is also noticed. As Casaubon recalls, “The Colonel seemed caught in … heroic ecstasy. … Someone had to bring him down to earth” (143). Shortly after, Ardenti disappears and Casaubon moves to Bahia for a year. When he returns to Italy, Garamond, the owner of the publishing house where Belbo and Diotallevi are working, offers Casaubon a research job for the illustrations of a book on the history of metals. The three intellectuals begin spending a lot of time together and often converse about the Templars. One unfortunate day they decide to reconstruct the Templars' plan for the conquest of the world (369), disregarding their early skepticism about Ardenti's reliability as a decoder of secret messages. With the help of a computer, Abulafia (387), they invent a history of the Templars' order until 1944, based solely upon relations of flexible similarity between the most disparate events. In a parody of deconstructionists' meticulous attention to words, every sign becomes a palimpsest: signifiers are hidden metaphors (468), acrostics (426), and anagrams (530) of underlying significance. To read becomes a process of deferral along the metonymic chain. As Diotallevi puts it, in what seems to be a clear travesty of a passage from Barthes' chapter “Reading, Forgetting” in S/Z,35 “… I interpose, I shift, I transfer, I substitute, I abrogate a law, I change a meaning … I move, I transform, I transpose …” (567). The game is a dangerous one, since, within a brief time, the three of them fall prey to the demon of the endless chain of signifiers:

Any fact becomes important when it's connected to another. The connection changes the perspective; it leads you to think that every detail of the world, every voice, every word written or spoken has more than its literal meaning, that it tells us of a Secret. The rule is simple: Suspect, only suspect. You can read subtexts even in a traffic sign that says “No littering.”


The repeated warnings of Casaubon's girlfriend, Lia, about the lack of foundation of such method are consistently disregarded (361-65). Finally the Templars become connected with just about everything in the Western (and Eastern) cultural universe; from Marx and Freud to Hitler and the Red Brigades.36 Lia, who becomes more and more concerned with these aberrant patterns of interpretation, asks to see the message that started the reconstruction of the Templars' history. Drawing upon the interpretative model of abductive hermeneutics outlined by Eco's theories, Lia begins her decoding. As a first step, she represses the sedimentation of her intertextual competence and completely yields to the intentio operis. Then, she observes how the lexematic surface of the text recalls Old French. This prompts her to obtain some pamphlets from the city's tourist office. In one of the brochures, she discovers that the place where the message was originally found was a merchant's center, the Grangeaux-Dimes on the Rue Saint-Jean. This center's commercial activity was predominantly the trade of fabric (“draps or dras as they wrote it then” [534]) and roses. The street plan familiarizes her with other possible locations of trading. Then, through the use of a list of words in old French, she disambiguates a number of graphemes in order to establish the basic semantic and syntactic properties of the text. She discovers that several letters and words such as “p” and “it” have meanings different from their present uses (535-36). For example, during the Middle Ages “it” meant “item” and was used in lists. Bearing in mind the possible social context of the message, Lia begins to formulate a hypothesis on the text; a note of a merchant to himself concerning the earnings and deliveries of the day. Then, she verifies the legitimacy of her hypothesis with the text; the message is indeed a merchant's note. Starting from the Grange-aux-Dimes, on the Rue Saint-Jean, the merchant will receive 36 moneys for the hay. On the Rue des Blancs Manteaux, which still exists according to the city's street plan, the merchant will deliver some fabric. In six other locations he will deliver six bunches of roses, each costing 20 “deniers” for a total of 120. The locations, all still in existence, are Donjon, Porte-aux-Pains, Eglise du Refuge, Eglise de Notre Dame, the building of the Popelicans and rue de la Pierre Ronde (535-36). Faced with the legitimacy of Lia's reading, Casaubon, like Lodge's and Bradbury's deconstructionist characters, must reconsider the validity of his methods. However, Casaubon has invested too much time into his reading to give it up: “Indeed, I felt a pull to the Plan. I did not want to abandon it, I had lived with it too long” (541). Meanwhile, Belbo has been claiming to hold the Templars' map of the location where the telluric forces can be contained. A group of people, including Ardenti, meets Belbo at the Conservatoire where, as Belbo maintains, Foucault's pendulum will show the point of containment. However, Belbo is obviously unable to give the location of the presumed point. In a dramatic thematization of the dangers implicit in aberrant misreadings, the group kills Belbo. Casaubon, partly responsible for his friend's murder, returns to Milan where Diotallevi is dying of cancer; a physical form of “neoplastic connotative growth,” like the hermetic and deconstruction drift described by Eco's Limits of Interpretation (30). Casaubon recalls his reading experience and meditates on the foolishness of the enterprise and the empty secret that lies in the drift of signifiers:37 “I have understood. And the certainty that there is nothing to understand …” (640-41). He considers writing an explanatory story about his misreading but, having deprived language of any communicative power, no communication between him and the killers is possible now. As Casaubon gloomily states, “… if They were to read it, they would only derive another dark theory and spend another eternity trying to decipher the secret message hidden behind my words” (641). Unfortunately, silence will also be subject to further interpretation. In a last, final allusion to deconstructionists' attention to spacings, gaps, and absences as inherently significant, Casaubon realizes his double-bind situation:

They will look for other meanings, even in my silence. That's how They are. Blind to revelation. Malkhut is Malkhut, and that's that. But try telling Them. They of little faith.


An anagnorisis without peripety then, for Casaubon, who has nothing left to do but await his own death at the hand of Belbo's killers while contemplating nature: “So I might as well stay here, wait, and look at the hill. It's so beautiful” (641).

This “glorification of a presemiotic moment”38 from the pen of Casaubon, a practitioner for Eco of the radical semiosis of Renaissance hermeticism and deconstruction, is certainly a powerful warning against all intellectual excesses. It preaches caution and restraint to those who are all too eager to follow their interpretative drives, and also brings full meaning to the epigraph of the novel, a quotation from Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim's De Occulta Philosophia:

Only for you, children of doctrine and learning, have we written this work. Examine this book, ponder the meaning we have dispersed in various places and gathered again; what we have concealed in one place we have disclosed in another, that it may be understood by your wisdom.

(epigraph to novel)

It also firmly establishes Eco's text within the current “critifictional” critique of deconstruction carried on by Lodge and Bradbury. Like Lodge's and Bradbury's academic novels, Foucault's Pendulum weaves into a dramatic plot line the major tenets of Eco's theoretical polemic against deconstruction and eventually brings the deconstructionist characters to recant many of their beliefs. Unlike The Name of the Rose, whose outcome might undermine Eco's positions, Foucault's Pendulum clearly polarizes interpretative activities into readings and misreadings. Therefore, the novel should be read as a palinode of Eco's previous disjunction of theory and fiction and as a full-fledged critifictional work, adding itself to those contemporary novels of resistance to the excesses of theoretical schools.


  1. Carl Rubino, “‘Oh Language Diabolical and Holy’: Notes on the Extravagances of Foucault's Pendulum,MLN 107 (1992): 829.

  2. Howard Felperin, Beyond Deconstruction (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1985). Further references will be given parenthetically in the text.

  3. Siegfried Mews, “The Professor's Novel: David Lodge's Small World,MLN 104 (1989): 713-26. Subsequent references to this essay will be given parenthetically in the text. Mews draws upon the earlier coinage of the word by Raymond Federman in Take It or Leave It (New York: Fiction Collective, 1976) and mentioned by Leo Truchlar in “Critifiction and Pla(y)giarism: Zum Literaturentwurf Raymond Federmans,” Poetica 15 (1983): 330. The eleventh chapter of Federman's novel is devoted to the issue of “critifiction,” the writing practice of a doctoral candidate for whom the distinction between theory and fiction is no longer tenable. Through the combination of fictionalized discourse with a rich web of allusions to literary theory, French in particular, the chapter is an early example of the genre. For a more recent description of critifiction, see also Raymond Federman, Critifiction (Albany: State U of New York P, 1993).

  4. Robert Morace, The Dialogic Novels of Malcom Bradbury and David Lodge (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1989) 89.

  5. Malcom Bradbury, My Strange Quest for Mensonge (London: Andre Deutsch, 1987). Subsequent references will appear parenthetically in the text.

  6. David Lodge, After Bakhtin (London: Routledge, 1990). Subsequent references will be given parenthetically in the text.

  7. David Lodge, Changing Places (New York: Penguin, 1979). Subsequent references will be given parenthetically in the text.

  8. David Lodge, Small World (New York: Warners Books, 1984). Further references to this work will appear parenthetically in the text.

  9. David Lodge, Nice Work (New York: Penguin, 1988). Subsequent references will be given parenthetically in the text.

  10. See, for example, the following statement by Zapp, from Lodge's Small World: “I've rather lost faith in deconstruction. … The deferral of meaning isn't infinite as far as the individual is concerned. … Death is the one concept you can't deconstruct. Work up from there and you end up with the old idea of an autonomous self. I can die, therefore I am” (373).

  11. In Nice Work, Charles writes the following letter to Robyn in order to inform her of his decision to leave the Academy: “Poststructuralist theory is a very intriguing philosophical game for very clever players. But the irony of teaching it to young people who have read almost nothing except their GCE set texts and Adrian Mole, who know almost nothing about the Bible or classical mythology, who cannot recognize an ill-formed sentence … the irony of teaching them about the arbitrariness of the signifier … becomes in the end too painful to bear” (225).

  12. Stefano Rosso, “A Correspondance with Umberto Eco,” Boundary 2 12 (1983): 1-13. Subsequent references to this essay will appear parenthetically in the text. For a similar argument, see also Michel Viegnes' “Interview with Umberto Eco,” L' Anello Che Non Tiene 2 (1990): 57-75.

  13. In Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, trans. William Weaver (New York: Harcourt Brace-Jovanovich, 1983), the erudite Franciscan monk William, attempts to discover the culprit of a series of murders that have taken place in a medieval monastery. However, William's interpretative method of abduction fails to uncover the killer, since he arrives at the truth by coincidence. Thus, William is brought to face the fallibility of his reading: “Where is all my wisdom, then? I behaved stubbornly, pursuing a semblance of order, when I should have known well that there is no order in the universe” (492).

  14. I owe this observation to an essay by JoAnn Cannon, “The Imaginary Universe of Umberto Eco: A Reading of Foucault's Pendulum,Modern Fiction Studies 38 (1992): 895-909. On the dust jacket of the Italian original, Cannon notices what one might call a sentence à la Wittgenstein. It is about narrating what one cannot theorize about …

  15. Umberto Eco, Postille a ll nome della rosa (Milano: Bompiani, 1984). All subsequent references will appear parenthetically in the text.

  16. Jocelyn Mann, “Traversing the Labyrinth: The Structure of Discovery in Eco's The Name of the Rose,” Thomas Inge, ed., Naming the Rose (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988) 130-45. Subsequent references to this essay will be given parenthetically in the text. Another critic, David Richter, “Eco's Echoes: Semiotic Theory and Detective Practice in The Name of the Rose,Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 10 (1986): 213-36, arrives at conclusions similar to Mann's. Richter argues that “Eco rejects the semiotic faith that one may accurately read the world through patterns. … If I am correct, in the ending of this astonishing novel the careful reader is set uneasily adrift between the radical rationalism of the detective story and the radical deconstruction [emphasis added] of that rationalism” (234).

  17. A critique of Mann’s argument is not of concern here. However, the legitimacy of her proposed alignment of Eco's work with De Man's and Derrida's deconstructionist practices should be questioned. When Eco addresses the issue of “unlimited interpretability,” as in his The Limits of Interpretation (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990) 33-43, he does so from the premise of Pierce's “pragmaticism” and not from De Man's and Derrida's “textual pragmatism.” It should be recalled that the purpose of Pierce's drift is an improvement of knowledge since the generative nature of signs—a sign being that thing which by knowing one knows more—must submit to laws of better semantic approximation. Moreover, the potential unlimitedness of interpretability, inherent perhaps in such a reading program, is kept in check by the notion of “final interpretant:” the community's consensus which accepts a given interpretation as provisionally final and “true.”

  18. The reader should not be surprised by the protean character of Eco's writing practices. From the neo-Marxist perspective of his earliest writings, such as Apocalittici e integrati (Milano: Bompiani, 1964), Eco turned to more structuralist readings. However, by 1968, with La Struttura Assente (Milano: Bompiani, 1968), Eco was already questioning the implications of structuralism through the framework of reception theory.

  19. It should be observed that Eco's concern is with the application of the philosophy of Derrida to literary studies carried on by Derrida's followers. As Rorty has suggested, in Umberto Eco, The Limits of Interpretation, (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990) 101-02, Eco might have in mind Paul de Man and his circle.

  20. Eco, The Limits of Interpretation. All subsequent references will appear parenthetically in the text.

  21. Eco sees the foundation of Western philosophies of rationality and irrationality in Greek thought. In Interpretation and Overinterpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992), Eco maintains that “Greek civilization, alongside the concept of identity and non-contradiction, constructs the idea of continuous metamorphosis, symbolized by Hermes. … In the myth of Hermes we find the negation of the principle of identity, of non-contradiction, of the excluded middle …” (29).

  22. Eco, Interpretation and Overinterpretation. Subsequent reference will be given in the text.

  23. Eco, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984). Subsequent references will be given in the text.

  24. Eco, The Role of the Reader (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979) 3-43. All subsequent references will appear parenthetically in the text.

  25. The main codes and subcodes that The Role of the Reader outlines in the process of transformation of the lexematic surface of a text to the first level of content, are the following: “Basic dictionary,” “Rules of co-reference,” “Contextual and circumstancial selections,” “Rhetorical and stylistical overcoding,” “Common frames,” “Intertextual frames,” and “Ideological overcoding” (14).

  26. As an Italian commentator, Giovanna Borradori, has suggested in The New Italian Philosophy (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1988), Eco's approach to the text as a yielding to its intention, is closely linked to the philosophical hermeneutics of Vattimo's “pensiero debole” or “weak thought” (1-26).

  27. Eco's partiality in representing deconstructionists' reading practices should be further noted. Eco chooses to disregard the important argument that deconstruction has presented against the univocality of meaning informing the Western notion of the graphic sign as “techné.” The omission of this argument brings Eco's theoretical discussion to read the plurality of meaning as interpretative drift. For a brief outline of deconstruction “as a Positive Science,” see Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: The John Hopkins UP, 1976) 74-93. It is interesting, in this context, to point out that some of Foucault's Pendulum misreaders are motivated by the same generalized desire for transcendent and authorial meaning that Derrida has criticized and that is far removed from deconstructionists' aims. On this point, compare also notes 31 and 36.

  28. Eco, Foucault's Pendulum, trans. William Weaver (New York: Harcourt Brace-Jovanovich, 1989). All further references are to this edition and will be given parenthetically in the text.

  29. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, Vintage Books ed. (New York: Random House, 1973). Subsequent references will be given parenthetically in the text.

  30. The events leading to these deaths are far too complex to fit into a footnote and far too long to incorporate into an essay. For a good outline of the story, I suggest Manlio Talamo, I Segreti del Pendolo (Napoli: Simone, 1989).

  31. Ardenti's reading is clearly motivated by the desire for presence and truth criticized by Derrida and certainly quite removed from Derrida's philosophy. It is also the same type of desire which leads Diotallevi, Casaubon, and Belbo to attempt to construct narrative coherence and stability out of Western cultural fragments. See also notes 27 and 36.

  32. I have in mind the early “mythological” Barthes from Susan Sontag's A Barthes Reader (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982) where the language of culture (the famous illustration of the young black in a French uniform from Paris-Match) is conceived as mythical speech, with the ensuing implication that the sign is but a signifier for another signified (93-149).

  33. Since Ardenti's reading of the ciphered message is very brief, I have not included it in this study.

  34. I am referring to Roman Jakobson's essay “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbance,” On Language (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1990) 115-33, where aphasia is described as linguistic disorder determined by a failure to integrate, in the process of communication, the paradigmatic (selective) and the syntagmatic (combinatory) aspect of speech.

  35. This quotation from Eco's novel bears striking resemblances to the following passage from the deconstructive Barthes of S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974): “… names call to each other, reassemble, and their grouping calls for further naming: I name, I unname, I rename: so the text passes: it is a nomination in the course of becoming, a tireless approximation, a metonymic labor” (11).

  36. The Plan is, of course, induced by the desire for metaphysical certainties and truths that deconstruction opposes as phonocentric. See also notes 28 and 32.

  37. The name Casaubon is an allusion to Isaac Casaubon who, according to a passage from Eco's Interpretation and Overinterpretation, “demonstrated that the Corpus Hermeticus was a forgery” (81).

  38. JoAnn Cannon, “The Imaginary Universe of Umberto Eco: A Reading of Foucault's Pendulum,Modern Fiction Studies 38 (1992): 906.

John Sturrock (review date 16 November 1995)

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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 like an attempt to recapitulate on the cheap the slow linguistic evolution of the species, as Trevor McDonald and his fellow therapists educate the grunters out of the animal and into the human state. Except, of course, that the grunts complained of are not natural phenomena but already signs, an admittedly crude but still authentic element of culture. All grunts are not identical, either in the way they sound or in what they may be taken to mean. They depend for their interpretation on how grunters grunt, in response to what, and who they grunt to (or at). They are not to be so easily dismissed as prehistoric intruders in our otherwise eloquent midst.

What they do, however, is to hark topically back to the big idea that binds these two learned, sceptical, on occasions witty, books [Eco's The Search for the Perfect Language and Gerard Gennette's Mimologics] together. This big idea concerns the relation we believe to hold between the words that we use and whatever we use them to refer to: between so-called ‘natural’ language and the extra-verbal world beyond it. It is an irony that we should have now come to call English, say, a ‘natural’ language when from one point of view that is exactly what it isn't, since the form that it takes has been determined not by directions given to Anglophones by nature but by agreement among the generations of those who have used and elaborated it.

The deep question of how ‘natural’ human language is or isn't goes a long way back, by scholarly tradition if not in historical fact to Plato and the dialogue known as the Cratylus. In this, two incompatible views of language are set in opposition. According to one view, argued for by Hermogenes, language is an institution founded on convention and on that alone. The forms that any particular language contains have arisen and have evolved through time, and bear only an arbitrary relationship to the world beyond language that they are used to refer to. There's nothing inherently horsey, in short, about the word horse, or cheval, or Pferd, or any of the many other terms to be found in the world's languages which may serve to identify this particular natural item. This is the doctrine of the ‘arbitrariness of the sign’ redefined early this century by Saussure and agreed to, I imagine, give or take some quite small refinements, by everyone today who has ever given the matter any thought. Hermogenes' opponent in Plato is the Cratylus for whom the dialogue is named, though he cannot be said have agreed his way to victory. Cratylus' view is that the relation of language to reality is not arbitrary or conventional but mimetic, that words imitate things, which have the names that they do because these are the ‘right’ names for them, imposed of necessity by the actual properties of what it is they name.

It might look as though any rational compromise would be hard to find between these two positions, but Socrates advances one, as Gérard Genette brings out in a typically rigorous analysis of the dialogue. Socrates emerges from it in the end as a ‘disappointed Cratylist’: his thesis is that whoever first gave things their names did a poor job on the whole, since so many of the names—though not all: this is something to come back to in a moment—seem to be wrong, or inappropriate, appropriateness being held to lie in a self-evident match between their sound and their sense. For Socrates, and for those who have thought like him in the many centuries since, the arbitrariness of the sign is an affliction, brought about by the incompetence of the first namer(s).

Mimologics (now very well and carefully translated, twenty years after it first appeared in French) gives a masterly account of Cratylism, and of the various ways in which its basic notions have been reformulated, stretched, narrowed or modernised by the succeeding waves of those anxious in one degree or another to re-assert the claims of a natural ‘motivation’ in language over those of a conventionalism damnable for being the mark of our cosmic alienation. In this sense, Genette's book, like Eco's, too, in part, is the history of a doomed but often laudably ingenious movement to go against the linguistic grain and rediscover a truly natural language: a language of Nature or of God as it were, the appropriateness of whose signs there could be no denying.

There is overlap between Mimologics and The Search for the Perfect Language, though Eco's book moves the faster and has in any case a subject that extends beyond Cratylism. As Eco points out, a perfect language doesn't in fact have to be Cratylist, or not in any usual understanding of that term. What he calls the ‘a priori’ languages, thought up by such as the 17th-century Bishop of Chester, John Wilkins, or by Leibniz, in order to remedy the perceived illogicalities of existing languages, are mimetic in one sense, because the verbal forms they contain are derived from an analysis of the perceived properties of the things or ideas they stand for; but that analysis is, as Eco makes clear in some of his best pages, in itself arbitrary and very much culture-bound, so that any necessary connection between the linguistic and the natural has been broken. Does anyone need reminding, at this late stage, of Borges's exquisite parody of Wilkins's arbitrary method of classification in his essay on that muddled prelate—a joke influentially recycled by Foucault at the start of Les Mots et les choses?

The Search for the Perfect Language is a brisk, chronological account of the many thinkers about language, from antiquity onwards, who have conceived programmes for undoing the effects of time and either recovering the ur-language that they believed must once have existed only later to be lost, or else inventing a replacement for it. One tradition which survived for centuries thought that, for good Biblical reasons, the proto-language must have been Hebrew, the language that came before the building work of Babel and the divinely ordered confusion of tongues that followed. Ethnic presumption having always had much to say in questions of this kind, rival candidates were later proposed as deserving of the priority, the strangest of all these surely being the dialect of Dutch spoken around Antwerp, which was ur because, asserted Goropius Becanus of Antwerp, the Antwerpers' ancestors had had the unique good fortune not to be present when the Tower of Babel was thrown down.

The ideals of the language unifiers, like their presumption, were frequently of the highest, since they assumed that if there were only one language in it, the world would become a better, happier place. ‘Very early on, I had dreamt of plans for perfecting grammar and achieving unity in the language system, from which I quite naturally thought a great amelioration of society would ensue … eternal peace and the universal confraternity of peoples.’ This was one of the most resourceful and engaging of Genette's Cratylists, the poet and linguist Charles Nodier, writing in 1828 about the hopes he had felt as an 18-year-old, fired as he then was no doubt by the propaganda of the French Revolution. For the dream of linguistic unity could hardly not have a politics to go with it. This could as well be a dream of imposing a single ‘perfect’ language on all the world's speakers in the service of territorial imperialism (Stalin, let's remember, took up the idea obsequiously fed to him by the infamous and deluded Marr that his native Georgian was the original language), as one of installing a millennium of peace and goodwill, founded on the unreasonable assumption that if we all spoke the same language we would never want to go to war with one another. Not for nothing did the originator of the most successful of the 20th century's ‘international’ languages, Dr Ledger Ludwik Zamenhof, take the pseudonym of Dr Esperanto (= Dr Hopeful).

The Cratylist dream is in its simplest form onomatopoeic. It wants words to sound right, so that we would all allow they accord with what they mean. That some words of our language sound right is not in dispute, and to that extent Socrates had a case: there are times when phonetics and semantics seem to go hand in hand. The English words ‘crash’, ‘bang’, ‘wallop’ all sound as if they might well have begun as attempts at a mimeticism of audible, tending to violent events—rather as S. J. Perelman once memorably said that in the names of the Madison Avenue advertising agents, Batten, Barton, Durstein and Osborn, you could but hear a tin trunk falling downstairs. That spoken words seem to fit perfectly with their sense is no sort of proof, however, that they are onomatopoeic; or better, were onomatopoeic, because, as Saussure famously observed, the difficulty with onomatopoeic words is that, once they have entered the language, they are subject to phonetic change just like other words. In my dictionary (Chambers), the etymology of crash is indeed given as ‘imit.’, though how long ago the imit. occurred is not stated. Bang, on the other hand, is said to come from Old Norse banga, ‘to hammer’, and wallop from Old French waloper, ‘to gallop’. This perhaps lets the Anglophone onomatopoeticist off the hook. Did Old Norsemen decide that banga was just right for the sound of a hammer hitting a nail, and Old Frenchmen that waloper was ideal for the sound of a galloping horse? To suppose so is to assume that onomatopoeia holds across languages that have different phonetic values, a universalising assumption that would be hard to defend. Mostly onomatopoeia is an agreeable fancy, but no less significant or productive, as Genette shows, for being fanciful.

The Cratylism of the Cratylus is of the simplest kind, like the examples offered above. Plato is concerned there with a one-to-one relation between this particular word and that particular thing, as if a language consisted purely of a nomenclature or a collection exclusively of nouns. Moreover, not even Socrates gives any attention to languages other than Greek, although the existence of a multiplicity of languages poses a large problem for a Cratylist, who is faced with trying to establish the evidence for mimeticism in all of them, instead of in just the one he knows best, his own. The way round this difficulty is to take a rather broader view of what actually counts as mimeticism, so that the different terms that exist in the world's languages for the ‘same’ thing may be argued as mimicking different aspects of that thing. The lines of communication between the real and the verbal can then be made more complex, and the determination of the second by the first made looser, allowing room for the idea that the signifiers of a language may be metonymic or metaphorical of their referents.

More promising as a line of defence, however, is that pursued by a number of French writers discussed in the second half of Mimologics, who elaborated on earlier attempts to onomatopoeticise not whole words of the language but some at least of its phonemes. Nodier was remarkably adept at this, and so above all was Mallarmé, on whom, as one would expect, Genette spends some profitable and incisive pages. Mallarmé descends in a direct line from the Socrates of the dialogue inasmuch as he, too, is a disappointed Cratylist, but one unprepared to rest in his disappointment. On the contrary, his dissatisfaction with the inappropriate sounds of which the French vocabulary is full lies at the heart of his vocation as a poet. ‘Verse remunerates the failing of natural languages, being their superior complement.’ What this means is that the task of the poet, according to Mallarmé, is to so use his defective natural language as to counteract its downward tendency towards prose. In a celebrated passage Mallarmé wrote:

Languages are imperfect because multiple, the supreme one is missing … the diversity of idioms on earth prevents anyone from uttering words which, otherwise, were they to appear in a single flash, would be truth incarnate … from the aesthetic perspective, I regret to see how discourse fails to express objects by means of keys that would correspond to them in colouring or in aspect—keys that do exist in the instrument of the voice, among languages and sometimes in one language. When compared to the opacity of the word ombre, the word ténèbres does not seem very dark; how disappointing is the perversity that contradictorily assigns dark tones to jour, bright tones to nuit.

This perversity of French is also invigorating, since it challenges the frustrated Mallarméan poet to deploy the phonemes of the language in such a way as to make verse into a peculiarly privileged because Cratylist medium, in semi-independence from the ‘ordinary’, merely conventionalist language that others are prepared to live with. With Mallarmé you could say that Cratylism learns how to imitate itself.

Not that it needs to be preoccupied only, or at all, with the sounds of a language; there have been graphic Cratylists also, well described by Eco, who were nostalgic for a script so constructed that it could represent the real world pictorially. When Egyptian hieroglyphics were rediscovered, in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was assumed, understandably, that all its signs were iconic, or determined visually by the things they stood for. Alas no: many of them are not pictures as such but ideograms or, worse still, are determined phonetically by a form of punning, so that a hieroglyph may represent a sound of the language by displaying the image of something whose name sounds similarly. This contamination of the iconic by the quasi-alphabetic was bad news for Cratylists.

Even with a fully phonetic alphabet like our own all is not lost, however, for the possibility remains for what Genette labels, precisely if cumbrously, ‘articulatory phonomimesis’. This is the belief that the graphic forms taken by the letters of the alphabet represent the physical disposition of the speech organs pictured in the act of articulating them. In the case of one or two letters—vowels, inevitably—this can seem almost plausible, as when the great Julius Caesar Scaliger compares the phonomimetics of O and I and decides that ‘the figure [O] comes from a representation of the circle of the mouth, whereas the I, which notates the shrillest sound, appears without either hump or belly.’ But even if we are persuaded by this, we need only to move away from the relative straightforwardness of O and I to the oral gymnastics required by H and Z for the phonomimetic edifice to totter and fall.

More rewarding and suggestive by far is that version of Cratylism that chooses to operate not at the level of individual words but of the sentence, and in doing so moves decisively into the present. It moves also away from the sensual and towards the grammatical. The Cratylist claim now becomes that the structure of a sentence reflects the structure of reality. Eco, the happy medievalist, introduces this way of thinking early on in his story, with the ‘Modist’ grammarians of the 13th century who ‘asserted a relation of specular correspondence between language, thought and the nature of things’. Their thesis seems to have been much the same as that of the early Wittgenstein in the so-called ‘picture theory’ of language that he later gave up, and which had proposed a formal equivalence between verbal propositions and their subject-matter.

This was an advanced and defensible version of an argument that surfaces several times in Eco's book, and not always so defensibly. Cratylists and linguistic perfectionists were often led astray by a fierce desire to promote their own language above all others, if need be by going to the limit, à la Goropius Becanus of Antwerp, and declaring that we need look no further for the perfect language because it is all around us, it is English or French or whatever. This claim may extend beyond vocabulary to grammar. Count Antoine de Rivarol, to take a characteristic example, writing in 1784, averred that the French language was ideal in every conceivable way but above all because of its word order, which followed that of a ‘natural logic’. Many of us met with curious vestiges of this belief when we were small and were told by one or other teacher of Latin that by learning that language we would be ‘taught to think’—the unspoken premise of which assurance was that Latin was closer to nature than English, that its, to us, erratic word order better represented the order to be found inscribed once and for all in the human mind.

Where Rivarol and the rest went adrift was in maintaining that one word order is superior to another for being more natural. Had they gone in for comparatism rather than chauvinism, they might have found the far from negligible argument that any word order reflects one possible realisation of underlying grammatical structures that are common to all languages and to all thought, if not necessarily to the reality we think about. Thus, if you accept that thought and language are separable, it is possible even now to preserve a modicum of Cratylism by arguing that the sentences we speak or write are mimetic of the universal ‘mentalese’ or Chomskyan ur-language that functions deep inside every human brain. In this attenuated, as yet secret, form Cratylism still lives.

Rosemary Dinnage (review date 11 January 1996)

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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 doesn't really look like this”), it makes it less easy than with writers of realistic fiction to sort out the masters from the copyists and the frauds. Not everyone who waves a wand is a Prospero.

The Tempest, along with Gulliver's Travels, The Anatomy of Melancholy, The Ancient Mariner, and no doubt many Italian classics, certainly lurks behind Umberto Eco's third magical blockbuster (are they really getting longer, or does it just seem so?). Before the sensational success of The Name of the Rose in 1981, Eco, as professor of semiotics in Bologna, already had much learned work to his name. He has said that he wrote the book on request, as a kind of challenge. As a medieval mystery thriller it had enough real narrative (borrowed postmodernly, no doubt, from Agatha Christie) and enough passion for the spirit of the fourteenth century (this is Eco's period) to catch on and even to film well. Foucault's Pendulum was more arcane, and perhaps rode on the Rose's success. And now, The Island of the Day Before comes with an actual publisher's guarantee of intellectual labor. The author, the handout says, read hundreds of books of seventeenth-century history and poetry in order to write it, traveled to the tropics to check out what they looked like, visited marine museums, made diagrams of the ship he features in the book, and, since his hero crucially cannot swim from ship to tropic island, “spent a lot of time in the water figuring out how not to swim.” What author could do more? It adds that Eco possesses more than thirty thousand books, which caused some walls of his apartment to collapse.

The handout could also have guaranteed that there are all the fashionable storytelling devices in the book that any reader could ask for. Narratives are framed within narratives; letters, dreams, flashbacks are used to complicate the design. “Our tentative romance,” the author calls his story; and “what does it matter, finally, whether it is there or not,” of his tropic island. “If you would listen to stories—this is dogma among the more liberal—you must suspend disbelief.” God, after all, is only a clever storyteller,

who clearly knew how to handle different times and different stories, as a Narrator who writes several novels, all with the same characters, but making different things befall them from story to story. … A thought which, as we shall see, was to accompany Roberto for a long while, convincing him not only that the worlds can be infinite in space but also parallel in time.

Fiction, Eco's hero Roberto muses, is like a cake his mother made with layers of egg and ham and pastry, and the universe is a pan in which different stories are cooking at the same time. This is Eco's own method, confusing at times, of telling Roberto's story. We meet him first, as in a kind of birth myth, floating on the sea, lashed, by hands unknown, to a plank. It is 1643. He is washed up aboard a ship which seems to be deserted. Flashback (this is a sample of Econian—Ecolian?—style) to the storm that wrecked him:

It is only later that he will assume, in dreams, that the plank, by some merciful decree of heaven or through the instinct of a natant object, joins in that gigue and, as it descended, naturally rises, calmed in a slow saraband—then in the choler of the elements the rules of every urbane order of dance are subverted—and with ever more elaborate periphrases it moves away from the heart of the joust, where a versipellous top spun in the hands of the sons of Aeolus, the hapless Amaryllis sinks, bow-sprit aimed at the sky.

From here onward the narrative shuttles between Roberto's early days on the Daphne (supposedly as related in a letter to his distant beloved, whom we only identify later) and flashbacks to his life up until the wreck. He has grown up, a solitary child, on an estate in Italy; he has always fantasized a lost twin brother, Ferrante, who is darkly inimical to him. As a boy he is taken off to fight the Spaniards by his father, who dies while the two are with the defenders of the city of Casale. At this besieged city he meets the skeptic French philosopher Saint-Savin, who instructs him in atheism and represents, perhaps, the seventeenth century's first signs of religious decay. “So you truly do not believe in God?” Roberto asks Saint-Savin; “I find no reason to,” Saint-Savin replies.

“You cannot believe what you are saying.”

“Well, no. Hardly ever. But the philosopher is like the poet. The latter composes ideal letters for an ideal nymph, only to plumb with his words the depths of passion. The philosopher tests the coldness of his gaze, to see how far he can undermine the fortress of bigotry.”

Saint-Savin dies with atheistic fortitude. Roberto finds himself eventually in Paris, mixes with femmes savantes with names like Arthénice and Carinthée, falls in seventeenth-century love with one (“The fire with which you burned me exhales such fine smoke that you cannot deny having been dazzled by it”), and ends up being engaged as a spy for the French by Cardinal Mazarin. His mission, a kind of industrial espionage, is to find out how far the English have got in finding the Punto Fijo, the fixed point from which longitude can be measured (and by the end of the book the reader may know more about the seventeenth century's search for this calculation than he or she ever wanted to). The fixed point, of course, is a kind of metaphysical notion, for on one side of it time is a day earlier than on the other side and so runs backward.

On the Amaryllis Roberto sets sail for South America, discussing astronomy and philosophy all the way, passing islands populated by dusky sirens. He discovers that a nasty and ingenious piece of early vivisection is being carried out on the ship by the dastardly English: by sympathetic magic a dog being tortured on board will howl with pain at the moment a knife is plunged into the fire on the other side of the world, thus telling the time.1 Interspersing the Amaryllis tale we have slices from Roberto's first days on the deserted Daphne. The layers in the cosmic cake, we have already been told, cook at different speeds; so Roberto's early life story has covered twenty-odd years, his Daphne experiences—tentatively exploring the ship, gazing at the unreachable island—a few days. He can find no one on board at first; but below deck he comes upon a kind of cathedral of growing plants, an aviary full of multicolored birds, a hall full of ticking clocks (reminiscent of Foucault's Pendulum). Birds seem to have been fed, eggs to have been collected. Is there someone else on board?

Now the parallel shipboard stories converge, with the discovery in the recesses of the Daphne of Father Caspar Wanderdrossel, e Societate Iesu, olim in Herbipolitano Franconiae Gymnasio, postea in Collegio Romano Matheseos Professor. From him Roberto discovers why the ship is deserted: the crew had fled, because they believed Father Caspar to have the plague. They went ashore to the island, leaving him to die, and were eaten by cannibals. Father Caspar recovered, fortunately for the story, for as a man of piety he is a kind of opposite for the suave Saint-Savin. He is of course opposed to the heresies of Copernicus and Galileo, and rehearses the Argument of the Sun, the Argument of Hail, the Argument of White Clouds, and the Argument of Terrestrial Animals against the notion that the earth moves round the sun. He speaks in a fine Latin/German argot that gives full scope to Eco the jokey linguist and his brilliant translator (“‘So, dumm bin ich nicht, not stupid! Vater Caspar has thought what no other human being before now had thought ever. In primis, he read well the Bible, which says, ja, that God opened all the cataracts of Heaven, but also had erupt all the Quellen, the Fontes Abyssy Magnae, all the fountains of the gross abyss. Genesis sieben elf.’”).

Father Caspar goes to his death in a homemade diving bell in which he plans to walk across the sea bed to the island (one of many amazing contraptions that crop up in the book), and of his bones are coral made. Roberto is sorry to lose his companion, so starts up a whole new branch of the story in which he invents adventures for his lost twin brother, Ferrante, enabling all sorts of wickedness to be related, and darkening the atmosphere. Ferrante cheats, steals, ravishes the lady Lilia. Death creeps up: Lilia withers on a rock in an agony of thirst, Roberto tries to turn himself into a stone. Ferrante, mirroring Roberto's plight (“Ferrante stands for your fears and your shame,” Saint-Savin has already said), is imprisoned on the island and unable to reach the ship. He meets more terrible beings on land than Gulliver did: dissected bodies that still walk, skeletons carrying spades to dig their own graves, bodies without heads, without penises, with guts dangling out. Horror-comic stuff. “Ill-come to the Land of the Dead,” says one,

… Here the air does not stir, the sea remains motionless, we feel neither heat nor cold, we know neither dawn nor sunset, and this earth, more dead than we, generates no animal life. … This island is the one place in the Universe where pain is not allowed, where a listless hope cannot be distinguished from a bottomless boredom.

They are dead but unable to die; among them Ferrante (Roberto's invention of him) is cruelly trapped. Then, in a fever dream, Father Caspar returns to Roberto to expound the full seventeenth-century horror of eternal punishment. In this dreamworld Father Caspar metamorphoses into Judas, who for his sin of sins is chained forever to the spot, between the two time-worlds, where it is always the ninth hour in the year 33 AD. Judas's is the worst punishment of all, for he is caught between two impossibilities. If he could cross the antipodal meridian, he could go back to Holy Thursday, the day before he betrayed Christ. But then, if Christ were not betrayed and crucified, the world could never have been redeemed. Judas has damnation on either side of him.

After this crowning conceit, there cannot really be an “end” to the story or stories of the Island of the Day Before. Anyway, perhaps it never happened, says Eco. Who knows?

And this is hardly a plot summary, because each digression on the way is a plot in itself. There are the machines, for instance: the ill-fated diving cage with its hooks and leather harness; the organ of Universal Harmony, surmounted by automata and fueled by sea water; Father Caspar's technasma or Megahorologium, capable of revealing all the mysteries of the universe; the Aristotelian pre-computer that categorizes the qualities of everything that exists in a great wooden chest. And, of course, the machine (or God, or author) that contains all the narratives that can ever be.

We feel that Eco must have got enormous pleasure, at once school-boyish and godlike, from dreaming up these contraptions. Then there are the exhaustive digressions into contemporary science; Eco has said that he loves the abandoned wrecks of false scientific theory, so we are able to learn from the book how the plague was thought to have been spread, what the unguentum armarium was, how vision is nothing but the encounter of the eye with the powder of matter. There are long philosophical digressions, luxuriations of antipodean flora and fauna, verbal explosions, unstoppable similes, metaphors that spread like fungus, and all the devices of rhetoric, for

the people of that period considered it indispensable to translate the whole world into a forest of Symbols, Hints, Equestrian Games, Masquerades, Paintings, Courtly Arms, Trophies, Blazons, Escutcheons, Ironic Figures, Sculpted Obverses of Coins, Fables, Allegories, Apologias, Epigrams, Riddles, Equivocations, Proverbs, Watchwords, Laconic Epistles, Epitaphs, Parerga, Lapidary Engravings, Shields, Glyphs, Clypei, and if I may, I will stop here—

Yes, yes, yes. Stop there.

Is this, then, the novel that has everything? As well as an extra-lavish allowance of words, it has Time, Space, Infinity, the Void, Heaven, Hell, and an unparalleled collection of ontological tricks. It attempts a complex picture of a world caught between religion and the birth of science—atoms preparing to split, the computer looming only centuries away. It takes on big symbols—the Ship, the Island—and it rehearses florid conjectures about the undiscovered Antipodes. The myth of the Double is not forgotten; the theory of parallel worlds comes in somewhere (I think), and chaos theory is implicated in the scratching of a flea's leg.

Eppure non si muove. In spite of William Weaver's astounding translating skills, there remains something lifeless about the book, buried as it is under a mass of verbiage. Decoding it, even, is a lot more fun than reading it. It is like one of the creaking, nonfunctional machines that stud its pages; it might be better issued in the form of a superior computer game for literary theorists and members of Mensa. What actually made The Name of the Rose work was not the vast learning embedded in it (which Eco wrote a book afterward to explicate), but the small literary spark at the center that was Eco's imagining himself into a young boy's mind. This came from his memory rather than his learning. It is hard to find such human illumination in The Island of the Day Before.


  1. For those interested in the staggering importance of the “longitude problem” for past centuries, Dava Sobel's Longitude (Walker and Co., 1995) packs a long story into a small space. Three centuries before Christ, Ptolemy (who believed that anyone living south of the equator would melt) set the problem afoot, but it took a further millennium before the lives of uncounted sailors ceased to be lost each year through faulty navigation. Meanwhile, Galileo, Newton, Philip III of Spain, Louis XIV, and Charles II all agonized over the problem, and “discovering the longitude” meant—as “going to the moon” once did—achieving the impossible. It even seems that Eco's bizarre concept of calculating time by vivisecting a dog at sea is taken from a seventeenth-century proposal. In the end, a country clock-maker named John Harrison invented the timekeeper that could give the correct time at sea—though he did not win the reward set by the Longitude Act until forty years later.

Frank Kermode (review date 23 May 1996)

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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 Enlightenment). Some nine volumes have so far been published or are on the point of publication, and there are many more on the way, all by distinguished writers. The series is published in five languages. It may be unfair to say so, and it doesn't appear that there is subvention from Brussels, but the augustly institutional air of such enterprises can be rather chilling, or some Euroskeptics may suspect this one of being high-class cultural propaganda for such projects as the single currency or other malign Eurocratic plots. Yet Professor Eco's book, though it naturally has something to say about the problem of a common language, says nothing whatever about common money. A few pious pages near the end are devoted to the desirability of achieving a Europe “where differences of language are no longer barriers to communication, where people can meet each other and speak together, each in his or her own tongue, understanding, as best they can, the speech of others.”

There is no sign here that the professor considers a common language as even a remote possibility. The five publishers associated with these books were evidently equally skeptical about the possibility of issuing them in some supranational dialect, and sensibly decided to risk the well-known difficulty of accurate translation rather than commission works in Latin or Esperanto. As it happens, James Fentress has translated Eco's book into English of remarkable elegance and resource, though it is true that readers without French, a smattering at least of Latin, and maybe some elementary Greek vocabulary may find it hard going. Translation of passages and titles in these languages is sporadic, and Eco, like some of the very dead scholars he discusses, is fond of unusual words like “pasigraphy,” “pansemiotism,” and “steganography.”

Again like these dead scholars, Eco is polymathic to an extent most will regard as practically inhuman, and he has never seemed more so than in this well-organized, sprightly, and exhaustingly informative book. He would hardly mind being compared with one predecessor in particular, the encyclopedic and fluent seventeenth-century Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, who wrote huge books on virtually everything—the Tower of Babel, Egypt, universal music, as well as the treatise on Universal Polygraphy that is part of Eco's present concern. Kircher was very famous in his day, and so were many other scholars here considered, but unless, like Leibniz, they achieved distinction in studies less vulnerable to the action of time, they are now forgotten except by scholars interested in forgotten scholars.

The reason why is simple: unlike the calculus, a demonstration that Hebrew or Dutch or French is the closest surviving relative of an original universal and perfect language is unsustainable and useless, and so, in the end, is the rival notion that language can be reduced to a kind of algebra. But Eco is writing the history of ideas, and since dead ideas can have interesting histories he loves to explain just why it was that the work of Kircher and other laborious researchers was rubbish in the end. If, as occasionally happened, some benefit quite fortuitously and unexpectedly accrued, he rejoices to tell us what it was. As I read I found myself thinking of some lines John Donne wrote about futile alchemical experiments:

No chemic yet the elixir got,
But glorifies his pregnant pot,
If by the way to him befall
Some odoriferous thing or
med'cinal …

Kircher, writing before alchemy was quite discredited, would have had no trouble understanding this point, but the pregnancy of his own pot was a false one, as Eco demonstrates, and nothing medicinal ever came out of it. What one feels after examining Eco's own pot, which is for the most part, and necessarily, a history of failure, is that it contains many interesting materials but was in any case never meant to arrive at the elixir—a solution to the polyglottism of Europe in particular and the world more generally—and moreover that it produces, by the way, nothing very medicinal. That doesn't mean it isn't a virtuoso performance. So was Kircher's.

For all manner of reasons generations of scholars and visionaries have wanted to overcome the confusion of tongues that prevents fruitful understanding and promotes distrust between peoples. One line of inquiry was devoted to the recovery of the language used by Adam and his descendants until the catastrophe of Babel—a language presumably perfect, because it was communicated directly to Adam from God. Hebrew was an obvious contender, but Egyptian, Irish, and Chinese also had their supporters.

The quest for a necessarily perfect Ur-language being more and more obviously a wild goose chase, some preferred other ways of tackling the problem of communication across language difference. The most notable of such projects were the artificial languages devised in the seventeenth century—attempts at a philosophical language “designed to express ideas perfectly.” Efforts of this sort persisted through the years, and Eco places under the same description such nineteenth-century artificial languages as Esperanto and Volapük. Since these languages were put together from already existing words, Eco calls them a posteriori constructs, to distinguish them from the earlier a priori “philosophical” languages of such writers as John Wilkins and Leibniz. He also has a category of “magic languages,” which claimed “mystic effability” but were available only to initiates, as were steganographics, or secret languages, of which the descendants are modern codes and ciphers.

As a sort of appendix to all this Eco scrupulously lists various kinds of invented languages that, on this occasion, he declines to discuss: oneiric and fictitious languages (invented by Rabelais, Orwell, Tolkien, and presumably by Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange), jargons, formal constructions like the language of chemistry, and sundry mad inventions by glottomaniacs. He feels, understandably, that he has enough to do without getting into these, though he might have said more about pidgins, which admittedly have nothing to do with the idea of perfection, but are particularly good examples of languages providing efficient communication between people not sharing a common language; in fact Esperanto, which he does discuss, has been authoritatively described as “glorified Pidgin European.”

Eco begins at the beginning with Genesis, and makes the point that the Babel story (Genesis 11) contradicts the tale of the posterity of Noah in Genesis 10, where the sons of Japheth scattered and spoke “every one after his tongue.” So exactly when did humanity lose the divinely acquired language with which Adam named the beasts and presumably everything else that needed naming? When did the fatal multiplication of tongues occur? After Eden, rather than after Babel? The need to know arose from a desire to find a language which, like Adam's, had a direct relationship to things.

The scholars who pondered such questions had copious evidence of the irresistibly fissile nature of language. Writing a version of classical Latin, itself corrupted by age and unnatural use, they, like the sons of Japheth, spoke every one after his own tongue, and among those tongues were the widely divergent versions of Latin developed in Italy, France, and Spain. Could one get behind this linguistic diversity to the perfect language that preceded it? We are told that the earliest attempt to make out of contemporary material a new language closer to the original was the work of medieval Irish monks, but it had many successors, and they would show an understandable preference for the languages deriving from Latin rather than Irish.

Eco is of course clear that dreams of a perfect language will always take color from the culture and politics of the moment. They were frequently associated with a longing for universal peace. Scholars were careful about the timing of their requests for financial support, choosing rare moments when their rulers, the potential backers, were not fighting expensive wars. But however honorable their intentions, their work could not escape the constraints and prejudices of contemporary learning. For this and doubtless for other reasons, most of the appallingly arduous and virtuously ambitious studies Eco discusses are hopelessly stranded in their own epoch. From where we stand their limitations are easy to see: for instance, belief in the literal inspiration of the Bible was an enormous handicap to linguistic as to other kinds of research, and so was the primitive character of the available semiotics. This, of course, is not a reason to feel superior, since we are equally unable to see our own limitations. But there is no denying that this book contains large amounts of palpable nonsense, briskly and serenely exposed, as well as evidence of great if useless ingenuity.

The kabbalistic writings, founded on a view of the Torah as having originally been a mass not of words but of letters, are an example of this, and Eco devotes an interesting chapter to what he calls “The Kabbalistic Pansemioticism.” But it is with Dante's exaltation of the vernacular that we enter a world more like our own. We regularly face the problem that perfect translation from one language to another is impossible. One's own language shapes and is shaped by one's own world, and the differences between these languages and worlds are hard to reduce: witness the case of near neighbors like Britain and France. Yet it is only common sense to remember that despite philosophical and linguistic arguments that suggest the hopelessness of the situation, we have every day evidence that good communication is always possible.

How can this be? We can, if we like, imagine that there presides over the act of translation a virtual superlanguage, which mediates between the source and target languages. Walter Benjamin had something like this in mind when he talked about a “pure language” that lies behind the impure ones we use. Dante's notion is somewhat different, but it seems to belong to the same family. Deferring to learned convention, he wrote his treatise De vulgari eloquentia in Latin, but its subject was “the illustrious vernacular,” a virtual language standing above the common vernaculars, though incorporated in the Tuscan Italian in which he wrote his poetry. It is hardly too much to say that Dante is here inaugurating modern European culture. Most of us derive our sense of literary value from the constantly changing vernacular we speak; though we accept its relation to what Dante called the grammatica, the relatively unchanging Latin of the civilization from which we descend, we are most at home in the mutability of our own language.

Erich Auerbach, in Literary Language and its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages, described the formation of a reading public as occurring when a high vernacular—what he called, Germanizing Dante, a Hochsprache—made one reading public of aristocrat and bourgeois, and ultimately made for a literature dominated by the bourgeoisie. Auerbach's point is primarily sociological, but he does have in mind a language constructed from existing vernaculars, and argues that “even the most oppressed bourgeoisie, the German, awoke … from the depths of its national amorphousness and, precisely because Germany was not a nation, was able to create a genuine universality, the European internationalism of national diversity and historical perspectivism.”1 This new public spoke many different languages but acquired something like a common European spirit. It began to demonstrate the possibility of achieving something rather like the conditions of language and spirit Eco recommends for polyglot modern Europe.

Not that there is a straight road from Dante to our own time. There were many dark byways. Soon after Dante's day there came from Majorca the influential Ramón Lull, a vastly learned friar. He was working on a universal language primarily required for the conversion of infidels; Eco reports that he tried it out on the Saracens with so little success that they murdered him. Eco enthusiastically expounds the combinatorial mathematics of Lull's system, which I admit I don't understand; but over some centuries it interested great men, among them the Platonist Nicholas de Cusa, the mystical heretic Giordano Bruno, and the polymath G. W. Leibniz. In our own time Frances Yates has more than once reminded us of Lull's existence, and of his importance in the history of ideas.

Lull, however, did not prevail and new-minted languages were eventually to occupy more learned time than the quest for the original Adamic. Yet the old idea that all languages descend from a single mother tongue—what Eco calls “the monogenetic hypothesis”—lurks behind many perfect-language schemes, even those of more recent times. The assumption was that to find such a language would be tantamount to solving the problem that also exercised the makers of artificial languages, namely the need to have at one's disposal words that truly matched the world.

Among those who believed that such a language had originally existed, in which case there was no need to make one up, Hebrew was a favored candidate, but it was known by few non-Jews until the Renaissance, at which time the vernaculars, having acquired national dignity, could be proposed as rivals. By the seventeenth century the goyim had largely given up their advocacy of Hebrew, and eventually the idea of a possibly recoverable primitive ancestor itself began to fade, though the “nationalistic” hypothesis lingered on; as late as 1868 a Belgian baron was proclaiming that “Flemish is the only language spoken in the cradle of humanity.” One unexpected but lasting outcome—the equivalent of Donne's medicinal accident—was the Indo-European or “Aryan” hypothesis of nineteenth-century German philologists. Their claim was not that Aryan was the original or perfect language, merely that it was the notional mother of a whole family of languages, from Sanskrit on. There are of course no records of Indo-European, and philologists who invent Indo-European words scrupulously mark them with an asterisk; this virtual language was a pure scholarly invention, but by a further and less happy accident it fostered the development of a destructive racial myth.

Leibniz had thought Celtic was the probable ancestor language but did not seek his answer to universal mutual intelligibility there, having other ideas about ensuring it. Abandoning a heritage of magical speculations, including languages founded on occult imagery, the fake ancient Egyptian or Horapollo, and the almost universal cult of emblems and symbolic icons, he went to work as a philosophical mathematician, though still with a touch, it seems, of Lullian mysticism and even of the I Ching. Leibniz's invention, a faint anticipation of the computer languages, is not so much an attempt at a universal language (his philosophy of monads encouraged him to enjoy variety) as at the provision of “a lexicon of real characters upon which the speaker might perform calculations that would automatically lead to the formulation of true propositions.” Eco has much admiration for Leibniz: he failed, but only because projects for a philosophical language always will, since they must reflect the limitations of the stage of linguistic development that has been reached at the time of the project.

At much the same time, in Restoration England, the scientists of the newly constituted Royal Society were also conscious of an urgent need for a rational language. Eco has a good deal to say about John Wilkins, whose Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (1668) was the most complete attempt so far at an artificial language. Wilkins was a polymath, an important Fellow of the Royal Society, a man of exceptional and various ability, with a serious interest in all aspects of the new philosophy, but Eco has no difficulty in showing that his vast linguistic project was deeply flawed. In any case, the need of the society was not so much for a universal, all-purpose new language as for a new way of writing, plain and unrhetorical, appropriate to scientific reports.

One logical but farcical outcome of this passion for establishing an exact equivalence between words and things is the language of the Academy in Swift's Laputa, where the virtuosi have decided that “since words are only names for things, it would be more convenient for all men to carry about them such things as were necessary to express the particular business they are to discourse on.” So they would load themselves and their servants with every object foreseen as a possible requirement for an expected scientific conversation, producing each item at need. Yet despite Swift's mockery, the plain prose advocated by the Royal Society contributed to the development of an easy and accessible English style which, in the very long run, became, as they had wished, the lingua franca of international science.

After the seventeenth century we are in a more familiar world. “The Enlightenment was less concerned with the search for perfect languages than with the provision of therapies for already existing ones.” Nevertheless the old dream refused to die altogether. Eco records the claim of the late-eighteenth-century Count Antoine de Rivarol that the perfect language already existed and that it was, obviously, French, with its sweetness and harmony, its logical word order and the grandeur of its literature, and he cites other interestingly foolish claims of the kind. But he also quotes the Italian poet Leopardi as remarking, half a century or so later, that a universal language must necessarily be “the most enslaved, impoverished, timid, monetoneus uniform, arid and ugly language ever.”

The descendants of the a priori artificial languages are such computer programming languages as BASIC (Beginner's All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) and Pascal, perfect indeed within their severe limits (they reflect only Indo-European grammar and lack “effability”). Of course they do nothing to ease the problem of interlingual communication outside their limits. The problem remains; and if one thing is sure it is that nobody would endorse the choice of any one existing language as an agreed-upon auxiliary international language. So it began to appear that a new language, based on and resembling as closely as possible all the others, would be the only answer; and it was also sensibly conjectured that it would need to be heavily promoted by some international authority.

Many such languages have been proposed, and Eco gives several examples of their enjoyable absurdity, like “Congrand satisfaction mi ha lect tei letter [. …] Le possibilitá de un universal lingue pro la civilisat nations ne esse dubitabil,” which is Mondolinguo, 1888. Some sound a little like Finnegans Wake, but Joyce was looking for maximum resonance from natural language, whereas these attempts seek on the contrary to reduce ambiguity. The Italian mathematician and logician Giuseppe Peano proposed in 1903 a language that was Latin without declensions; it didn't work, and for all the eminence of its maker became one more curiosity in this history of ideas.

Esperanto gets some serious and mostly admiring attention from Eco, for it is still thriving and has even acquired its own literature. It is an old point that any universal language would itself be changed and diversified by its users, as all language is; but Esperanto, suggests Eco, might partially escape this fate by remaining obstinately an auxiliary language. But it has been around for over a century and seems unlikely to gain universal support and acceptance. That English is the nearest thing we have at present to a universal auxiliary language is due to historical accident rather than inherent suitability; had the other side won the Second World War we might, Eco speculates, be carrying on our own international conversations in German.

Oddly enough, he has nothing to say about Basic English, though it looked extremely promising to many intelligent people in the pre-war years. It is, or was, an experiment in an English tradition stretching back to the early days of the Royal Society; it was well propagandized and supported by men of the caliber of I. A. Richards, who worked with C. K. Ogden to devise it, and William Empson, who spent a lot of time on it. Churchill and Roosevelt gave it some wartime backing. The main object was to reduce the lexicon of English to “a scientifically selected vocabulary of 850 words.” Ogden, who made this claim, allowed that short additional vocabularies could be added to cater for minority interests and specialist fields of study. The Chinese showed interest, urged on by Richards, who remained an intellectual hero to them long after he had passed the peak of his celebrity in the West.

The chances of the whole world's agreeing to use a modified form of one national language must always have been small, and the postwar explosion of nationalistic sentiment diminished them further. Yet English, in unsystematically reduced forms, has had considerable postwar success, and Basic (acronym for British, American, Scientific, International, Commercial) might have been more useful. One would have liked to have Eco's comments on this failure. At a guess, he would find Basic English tainted by nationalism, and rather clumsy in use, for it makes a few verbs like “get,” “make,” and “do” work much too hard, and the scanty permitted vocabulary must often be under strain. According to The Oxford Companion to the English Language, the Oxford English Dictionary records 18,416 senses for the 850 words of the Basic English vocabulary, almost 18,000 of them undesirable in an avowedly minimalist language.

However, this admirable book records enough failures already, and as Eco remarks in his introduction, the subject is so close to inexhaustible that he repeatedly finds in antiquarian catalogs and bookshops works hitherto neglected in the colossal bibliographies of existing books on the subject; so he felt obliged to “proceed by a campaign of deliberate decimation.” Most readers, fully convinced by him that further search for a perfect language, of whatever kind, would be futile, will add to their expressions of gratitude for that demonstration another congratulating him on the decision to discuss not all the failures but only a selection that struck him as exemplary.


  1. “The Western Public and its Language,” in Literary Language and its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages (Pantheon, 1965; originally published in 1958), pp. 332–333.

Ernst Breisach (review date June 1997)

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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, plausibly, any pre-and extra-European searches. Eco locates the intersection between the search for a perfect language and the emergence of a European identity in the eleventh century, when the awareness of multitudinous vernacular idioms had grown strong enough to become a stimulus for new perfect language searches. He cites as the key indicator for the change the many contemporary depictions and narratives of the Tower of Babel story (Genesis 11:1-9). Despite its declared importance, however, Eco does not use this stipulated node as a major turning point in his own account; rather he shapes that account according to the symbolic value of the Tower of Babel narrative. Of the two possible perspectives on that narrative, the first makes the pre-Tower age the ideal period in which the perfect language is present, while the post-Tower period brings a troublesome confusio linguarum. Eco considers the second perspective as the optimistic one, since he celebrates the post-Tower period as a great opportunity for humanity to develop in plural ways.

For centuries, the first perspective inspired a search that aimed at the recovery of the one perfect language. Until the time of the late Church Fathers, Hebrew was the prevailing choice, and it enjoyed a brief revival in and after the Renaissance. Linguistic speculations in the context of cabalistic mysticism offered a bridge between the two periods of Hebrew prominence. The emergence of a global world, in which many groups could not easily be linked to the biblical world, directed the monogenetic search also toward the Egyptian and Chinese languages as well as, much later, the constructed Indo-European language. Expressive of the strongly secular trend were the new perfect languages that were not based on a natural or a divinely instituted language but were constructed according to philosophical matrices for the cosmic order. These attempts to find the perfect language shared with the earlier ones the motives of establishing world peace and brotherhood but not those of religious conversion and the unification of the Eastern and Western churches.

Eco gives intricate accounts of the methods according to which these languages were constructed. At this point, the reader would benefit from a more extensive discussion of the differences Eco sees between a perfect and a universal language, reaching beyond the purely functional into the religious and philosophical implications. The issue seems particularly acute in the 1600s and 1700s, so fertile with language schemes as shown in the works of James Knowlson, Vivian Salmon, Mary M. Slaughter, and Robert E. Stillman. Eco draws a very clear boundary between the perfect and the international auxiliary languages (such as the merely universal languages Volapük and Esperanto), in which the philosophical matrix is reduced to humanitarian hopes for unobstructed communication in an ever smaller world. The ultimate failure of these auxiliary languages makes Eco speculate on what would be needed for their success, but in the end he prefers the plurality of languages anyhow. That preference makes Eco a proponent of a united Europe of mother tongues, choosing the plurality of cultures over any synthetic unity, including a perfect or a universal language.

Eco has produced a fine account of a topic that obviously fascinates him, although he does not consider the search for the perfect language a promising endeavor. He also copes quite well with the difficult problem of establishing plausible connections between the search for a perfect language, an endeavor of an ahistorical nature, and the specific historical developments in which it was conducted. For him, the failure of the search is compensated for by the insights and new disciplines it yielded and by making the confusion of languages more of a gift than a curse. Historians are provided with an introduction to a segment of human development that is often ignored but that has particular implications for historiography in an age when linguistic preferences are prominent. The book, by necessity a selective account, is a reliable guide for those unlikely to refer to more specialized treatments of the topic. It reads well and has an informative bibliography.

Peter Carravetta (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12429

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 milestone, a historiographical moment of consolidation as well as a compass needle that locates paths and sets agendas for subsequent study.4 After a necessarily compressed synthesis of some fundamental tenets of A Theory of Semiotics, I propose to study three specific aspects:

First, how the theory qua Theory is actually constructed, taking into account its component elements, their definition, and their use.

Second, how a semiotic method is construed. Here I will consider its functioning and meaning with respect to the question of interpretation. The critical assumption (developed elsewhere)5 is that Theory and Method are inextricably connected and interdependent. But theory is basically related to ontology and ideology, whereas Method is the formal—epistemological component necessary for grounding and legitimizing theory.

Third, how semiotics treats the arts and offers a semiotic aesthetic, or an aesthetic semiotic. This will bear on the relationship between semiotics and social and cultural criticism.

In general, then, I propose to reread one of the most important and successful texts in the discipline of semiotics in order to gauge its coherence against its claims to universal validity, to question its metaphysical underpinnings, and to point out some of the paradoxes of a semiotically informed cultural criticism.


According to Eco, a “general semiotic theory [should be able] to explain every case of sign-function in terms of underlying systems of elements mutually correlated by one or more codes” (A Theory of Semiotics, 3; hereafter cited as TS). Moreover, a general semiotics “should consider: a) a theory of codes and b) a theory of sign production.” According to Eco:

In principle, a semiotics of signification entails a theory of codes, while a semiotics of communication entails a theory of sign production.

The distinction between a theory of codes and a theory of sign-production does not correspond to the ones between ‘langue’ and ‘parole’, competence and performance, syntactics (and semantics) and pragmatics.

(TS, 4)

Stressing the shift away from structural linguistics,6 Eco continues:

It is not by chance that the discriminating categories are the ones of signification and communication. As will be [demonstrated], there is a signification system (and therefore a code) when there is the socially conventionalized possibility of generating sign-functions. … [T]here is on the contrary a communication process when the possibilities provided by a signification system are exploited in order to physically produce expressions for many practical purposes.

(TS, 4)

If, as Eco indicates, semiotics comprehends and subsumes the other models of signification and communication, e.g., Chomskian, Saussurean, etc., he is also suggesting an even broader horizon, such that ideally it should replace philosophy itself.7 The terrain disclosed to inquiry by this discipline is also a sweeping vision:

semiotics studies all cultural processes as processes of communication. Therefore each of these processes would seem to be permitted by an underlying system of signification.

(TS, 8)8

Eco goes on to explain that the two semiotics, that of communication and that of signification, are not “mutually exclusive approaches in opposition” (TS, 8).9

According to Eco, the communicative process requires that there be the passage of a signal from a source through a transmitter along a channel and addressed to a receiver. Following Jakobson's model, Eco naturally assumes that any message will entail different occurrences of the five corresponding functions: referential, emotive, imperative, phatic, and metalinguistic (TS, 262). It follows from these premises that signification is possible only if a code exists already, i.e., “if something stands for something else” that was or could be. We shall return to this key formulation again and again.

A first consequence of this axiom is that all the communicative stages acquire meaning, signification, or a reason to exist provided that the sign (or signal) represents or substitutes for something else. This raises some problems, as if whenever some sort of exchange is deemed to be meaningful, communication simultaneously hides or obscures something else. The receiver understands, or rather “decodes,” what this sign (or cluster of signs) means10 because it falls within a network of systems and rules which the receiver already knows and where the sign becomes the sole bearer of necessary information.11


Underlying Eco's book is what Ferdinand de Saussure did not say. Saussure never clarified what the signified was, “leaving it half way between a mental image, a concept and a[n undefined] psychological reality [non altrimenti circoscritta],” which is given within that global plenum called society (TS, 14-15). Therefore,

according to Saussure signs ‘express’ ideas and provided that he did not share a Platonic interpretation of the term ‘idea,’ such ideas must be mental events that concern a human mind. Thus the sign is implicitly regarded as a communicative device [artificio communicativo] taking place between two human beings intentionally aiming to communicate or to express something.

(TS, 15)

Now we begin to perceive stress points in the unfolding of the Theory. We read that all semiological systems are “strictly conventionalized systems of artificial signs, such as military signals, rules of etiquette, and visual alphabets” (TS, 15). However, these systems make sense if the sign is taken as a communicative “device,” that is, a man-made artificial “thing” which entails intentionality and production and thus ultimately speaks to a consciousness! But if consciousness cannot be coded, it does not exist. Consciousness and intentionality are not thematized in Eco's Theory of Semiotics, and would at any rate follow upon the explication and adoption of the rationalist notion of inference: “there exist acts of inference which must be recognized as semiosic acts”12 (TS, 17). Inference, however, needs the sign as a necessary support, as a floating Grund of sorts, and intentionality is subjected to the same kind of radical semiotic critique, as will be the intensional fallacy and the extensional fallacy, which Eco discusses later with reference to the theory of codes (TS, 58-59, 62-66).

Eco states that “semiotics is mainly concerned with signs as social forces” (TS, 65). Understanding these social forces is complex, owing to their multifaceted functions, their being originally polymorphous, capable of suggesting different conceptions of thinking and the universe. From ancient times down through Hobbes, “a sign was defined as the evident antecedent of a consequent or the consequent of an antecedent when similar consequences have been previously observed,” but the sign was also reconceptualized as “an entity from which the present or the future or past existence of another being is inferred [and] as a proposition constituted by a valid and revealing connection to its consequent” (TS, 17).

Eco must therefore make some fundamental assumptions in order to proceed with any of these definitions of the sign and the connected problem of intentionality/inference-signification. He is well aware of the critical risks: “Probably this straightforward identification of inference and signification leaves many shades of difference unexplored: it only needs to be corrected by adding the expression ‘when this association is culturally recognized and systematically coded’” (TS, 17). We must keep on referring to these “shades of difference” because they will help us in the two-fold task of seeing what semiotics includes, subsumes, explains, and what it ignores, expels, or cannot know.

For Eco, Saussure's ideas had this limitation: the problem of the signified, by remaining unresolved, continued to be an “open” question, a question he had addressed in his earlier work on the basis of non-or pre-semiotic philosophies and criticism.13 Though the signified would later be the object of specific studies in the areas of semantics and pragmatics,14 the signifier still took center stage in his research of the early seventies. And the signifier was traceable. After all Eco's historical–theoretical recollecting illustrates the ample and yet unharnessed possibilities of the notion of the sign, taking advantage of its concrete, empirical dimension. He can now transfer the notion of “communicative device” onto the plane of Peirce's logical conception of the sign.


Peirce's work is crucial to the theory of semiotics. Peirce's definitions appear time and again in Eco as in the following passage from the Collected Papers 5.488:

By semiosis I mean an action, an influence, which is, involves, a cooperation of three subjects, such as [the] sign, its object and its interpretant, this tri-relative influence not being in anyway resolvable into actions between pairs.

(TS, 15)

Hence the sign is, citing Peirce, “something which stands to somebody for something in some respects or capacity” (Collected Papers 2.228). Furthermore, “when—on the basis of an underlying rule—something actually presented to the perception of the addressee stands for something else, there is signification” (TS, 8). Eco adds that “the subjects of Peirce's ‘semiosis’ are not human subjects but rather three abstract semiotic entities, the dialectic of which is not affected by concrete communicative behavior” (TS, 15, my emphasis).

While Eco's account of Peirce seems to leave concrete behavior aside, his concurrent adoption of Morris suggests that something else must be going on here. First, Eco claims that “human subjects” are not involved. But how can this be if semiotics deals with cultural (or better yet: cultured, acculturated) communication (cf. Pareyson, Apocalittici e Integrati, 354-57)? The cultural is in principle a “human” product. Second, claiming that its dialectic is not affected by concrete communicative behavior suggests that it is removed, abstracted, or set apart from material or “real” communication. Such a position betrays formalistic and idealistic matrices.15

Given the exclusion of human subjects and concrete communicative behavior from the conception of semiotic entities, the question of the relationship between Theory and Method, of how ideas get translated into reality, forcefully reemerges. Is the Theory so metaphysical, so essentialist, so strongly inclusive (and therefore exclusive) and self-legitimating that, no matter what happens in actual human communicative intercourse, precepts will hold and validity will not be affected? Does not the “application” of the Theory need to be translated into a Method practiced through human agency? And doesn't this have an effect on the very Theory (Eco's Theory) from which it is derived?

Yet if we assume, as Eco seems to do, that method and theory are unrelated and can be studied as two autonomous areas of research, then does not semiotic theory aspire to timelessness, eternity, universalism, and totality?16 This would make it a “strong” theory in the tradition of Aristotle,17 Aquinas,18 Locke,19 and Kant, grounded in necessary but unprovable axioms and deducing everything from them. Even Peirce's triadic schema left the door open for a more existential and ontological conception of human agency. This trilateral epistemology which was potentially predisposed toward ontological hermeneutics20 must therefore be reduced to a more manageable dualism, as in Charles Morris's semiotics.21

In Theory of Semiotics, Eco cites this key passage from Morris's 1938 essay on “The Foundations of a Theory of Signs”:

Semiotics, then, is not concerned with the study of a particular kind of object, but with ordinary objects insofar (and only insofar) as they participate in semiosis.

(TS, 16)

This definition, resonant with the premises and the promise of one of the major efforts in twentieth-century culture to come up with a Unified Theory,22 seems also to be the ontological—theoretical foundation of Eco's semiotics of the code. Such a semiotics is not preoccupied with the real, with any objects or things, unless they are first translated into signs and exist as signs … but not necessarily for something or for someone not readily present. The center of the universe, the fundamentum inconcussum, is an abstract concept/thing which necessarily harks back, or points forward, to something else, to an elsewhere. One gets the feeling that Hermes is showing only one side of himself, or telling half the truth.

Fortunately, this phantom is exposed and subject to discursive forces which can be contested or critiqued. If we read it metaphorically, as an imaginative figura, as the very definition of sign—“something standing for something else” (TS, 16)—it invokes its own ghost and acquires a double personality of which one is always present while the other gropes in the dark-infested background. In order to prevent the human interpreter from entering the space–time between Theory and Method, between signification and communication, he or she also must first be changed into sign-entities, into sign-functions. Thus Eco's final touch:

The only modification that I would introduce into Morris' definition is that the interpretation by an interpreter, which would seem to characterize a sign, must be understood as the possible interpretation by a possible interpreter.

(TS, 16)

In other words, this last gate open to a human subject is sealed off unless it is an instrument of the chain established by the sequence of signs during communication. Thus it can be analyzed within a verifiable statistical calculus, such as the model “Q,” which appears in later sections of Theory of Semiotics23 (TS, 121-124). The notion of “human” here is not very human at all because it exists and makes sense only as a sign—whether agent or reagent, shifter or variable, semantic marker or icon—within a preestablished code.


The question of the status and function of the interpreter is discussed in detail in the chapter on a “Theory of Codes” (TS, 48-150, especially 68-72). Developing and adapting the Peirce-Morris axis—although not unresponsive to the most stimulating theories in linguistics, such as that of Hjelmslev (TS, 51-54)—Eco writes:

The interpretant is not the interpreter (even if a confusion of this type occasionally arises in Peirce). The interpretant is that which guarantees the validity of the sign, even in the absence of the interpreter.

(TS, 68)

Neither a “he” nor a “she,” but perhaps more appropriately an “it,” the interpretant is “another representation which is referred to the same ‘object,’” in other words, another sign-function. Citing Peirce,24 Eco writes that a sign is “anything which determines something else (its interpretant) to refer to an object to which itself refers (its object) in the same way, the interpretant becoming in turn a sign, and so on ad infinitum” (TS, 69). We may ponder here whether this understanding of the interpretant as sign doesn't make the interpretant somehow superfluous, contingent, and unnecessary to the basic ontology of semiotics. We have already seen how Peirce's triadic scheme was pushed toward a bipolar or dichotomous matrix. Eco attempts to make semiotics a philosophic and scientific discipline: “The idea of the interpretant makes a theory of signification a rigorous science of cultural phenomena, while detaching it from the metaphysics of the referent” (TS, 70).

Is this possible? Is reference so easily disposed of? Metaphysics means, if nothing else, reflection on something: thinking, deciding, referring, interpreting, understanding. If these aspects are removed, in what way can we still speak of a “semiotics of experience,” or a “semiotic analysis of” anything, from meteorology to architecture to feminism? Current theories of reference explored by American linguists and analytic philosophers warn us of the danger of excluding the referent and of the complexities that arise from merely postulating the absence of reference in signification and communication, whether metaphysical, empirical, transcendental, positive, or rationalist.25

But let us continue with Eco's own synthesis of the possible ways in which an interpretant can be perceived, such as:

1. the equivalent sign-vehicle in another semiotic system. For example, I can make the drawing of a dog correspond to the word “dog.”

2. the index which is directed to a single object, perhaps implying an element of universal quantification.

3. a scientific (or native) definition in terms of the same semiotic system, e.g., “salt” signifies sodium chloride.

4. an emotive association which acquires the value of an established connotation: “dog” signifies fidelity (and vice versa).

5. the translation of the term into another language, or its substitution by a synonym.

6. the entire syllogism deduced from such premises as “All men are mortal” or “Socrates is a man.”

(TS, 70)

Without pretending to exhaust the implications of the above schemata of the interpretant, we can observe that:

1. Correspondence or substitution takes place even before we can speak of meaning or some sort of intrinsic qualities. Meaning is already and indeed always exchanged, transposed, and dislocated—in concrete historical cases—and tragically shortchanged the moment it enters the signifying chain. As the message, meaning can only be decoded within the enabling and justifying code. This code is marked fundamentally by ontological absence, by non-being. Signification can only occur on an other origin or site. In short, the correspondence theory of meaning goes through complex legitimizing procedures when it wants to connect with the real world of physical, emotional, and social existence.26

2. Metonymic sequential reasoning organizes the very structure of the thinking process.27 Empiricalness, the presence of things, can only exist as a sign. Eco's Theory of Semiotics is, as its Italian title suggests, a Trattato, a treatise. The ordering of its real-world referents must follow the methodological rules typically employed in similar texts, such as those derived from set theory.28 The development of the treatise from Aristotle to Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus achieves perfect abstraction, indifference, and silence.29 Wittgenstein himself began to reject it by the early thirties. Eco also casts doubt on this persuasive model of exposition, magisterially deployed in the Theory of Semiotics, when, later in his career, he turns to writing novels.30

3. Definition is the standardization of a measure, the accepted currency for the social codification of what something is. This something can reasonably be exchanged without having to ponder what it is, might be, or could be. Though they may not be an anthropological necessity like food supply, incest taboos, and religion, we can argue that definitions are necessary in a social–cultural realm in order to get on with the business of living everyday life. Yet a definition is not meant to be questioned. The interpretant/interpreter that might escape definition—as when it brings into the order of discourse foreign notions, logical impurities, semantic écarts, etc.—must be redefined (which is an intentional act) within the parameters of a code (even if this requires inventing one purposely). In short, the interpreter/interpretant as a socially and existentially given interlocutor or force is detached from the field of signification and exchange unless it plays by the rules and principles that apply to communication and signification as such. We don't have a choice—the formal system of sign relations matters foremost, and reality is merely a hypothesis. In this view, does not semiotics stretch a veil over reality, giving credence to Nietzsche's nihilistic assertion that the real world has become a fable?

4. Association manifests an obvious algebraic lineage, and an empirical–skeptical philosophical heritage, reiterated throughout this and later works. It comes perilously close to a behavioristic understanding of language use, insofar as connotation is sucked up centripetally to become, or to approximate, denotation, with all the “predictable” implications concerning identity, systematicity, typologies, forecasting, and manipulation. By the same token, it vindicates the relevance of the pragmatic aspect of communication and sign-production, which Eco takes up throughout the eighties.31

5. Synonymity is understood and defined solely with regard to preestablished, precoded correspondences along the signifying chain, e.g., A B C in code X (English) = A B C in code Y (Italian). Similarly, A B C in metalanguage P = A'B'C' in metalanguage S. When applied to a work of art, and aesthetics in general, this proposition will subject the entire semiotic edifice to strains and stresses, and possible fractures, as we will see below.

The theory of semiotics thus far outlined is a functional methodics of formal definitions and relations grounded upon a logical–rationalist epistemology.32 As such it is prone to all-inclusive and totalizing statements. Within this order of the universe, and insofar as the interpretant is a “category” that can accommodate both a theory of codes and a theory of sign production, “one should even consider as interpretants all possible semiotic judgments that a code permits one to assert about a given semantic unit, as well as many factual judgments” (TS, 71). And yet the interpretant also “defines many kinds of proposition and argument which, beyond the rules provided by the codes, explain, develop, and interpret a given sign” (TS, 71). The concept of interpretant is actually predisposed to the possibility that some interpretants may “escape” the semiotic universe, or even “enter” the system, though in the end, and coherent with Eco's logic, they must be incorporated into the fold of semiotic justification.33

Eco is not unaware of the “semantic” (if not altogether “hermeneutic”) multiplicity of the concept of interpretant. The interpretant is such a broad category that it “may turn out to be of no use at all and, since it is able to define any semiotic act, may in the last analysis become purely tautological” (TS, 71). Nevertheless this vagueness may be its “force” and the condition of its “theoretical purity.” This idea of a “pure” uncontaminated state is another rationalist and scientific chimera, though it is useful in guiding laboratory research as well as establishing metamathematical principles. The grounding presupposition of the two separate realms, that of ontology and that of the ontic, are clarified once again and made to relate by means of correspondences and analogies of various types:

The very richness of this category makes it fertile since it shows us how signification (as well as communication), by means of continual shiftings which refer a sign back to another sign or string of signs, circumscribes cultural units in an asymptotic fashion, without ever allowing one to touch them directly, though making them accessible through other units. Thus a semiotic unity never obliges one to replace it by means of something which is not a semiotic entity, and never asks to be explained by some Platonic, psychic or objectal entity.

(TS, 71)

This may have appeared to be a liberating situation because, during the sixties and early seventies in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, as well as in America, the polemical interlocutors were still (neo)idealists, Platonists of all stripes, phenomenological rationalists, orthodox (pre-Lacanian) Freudians, Lukacsian theorists, and (dialectical) materialists. Whatever the case, the dualism, the dichotomous self-referring, including/excluding relationship persists, and the threat of tautology is turned inward to serve as mainspring and essence of its own validity: “Semiosis explains itself by itself” (TS, 71) or, in Italian, “La semiosi si spiega da sola” (Trattato di semiotica generale, 104; hereafter cited as TSG).34 Thus, “this continual circularity is the normal condition of signification and even allows communication to use signs in order to mention things” (TS, 71).35 On Eco's premises, we do indeed get very close to the order of culture, and yet we cannot but observe how its explication, its sense, can only proceed on another plane.

The interpretant, when focused on cultural events, entities, and processes, is a function of the possibility of accumulation and of hierarchy. Its usefulness and persuasiveness grow as it exhausts or preempts all channels of communication within any given code. The signal does not have to elicit a simple stimulus, but ought to solicit an interpretive response or answer (TS, 8). But what is meant by interpretive behavior is the setting into a code (codification). The function of the interpretant consists in its switching or routing or placing a message within a receptive, specific code or sub-code. Therefore, the interpretant is charged with relating homologies, differences, deviances, and approximations to the necessarily pregiven conventions or codes. Such an interpretant is similar to an electric relay, a computer, or a psychological dispositif. The interpretant is not a person, a living interpreter: claims to theoretical purity are de-gendered, a-sexual, non-classist, anti-ideological, rationalist by election, and pluralist by default.36


There are three more broad areas of investigation which we must look at in order to have a more composite view of code semiotics. The first concerns the notion of culture, the second the dynamic of invention, and the third the question of the status of ideas.

From the semiotic point of view, an ambivalent relationship with culture is in question because communicating something with a meaning is actually irrelevant. What counts is that there is a communicative act or process. When Eco—with a pinch of irony—calls semiotics a “theory of the lie” (TS, 6-7, 58), he may be exacerbating Modern Rationalism, and he may be bringing out the paradoxical Socratic virtue of demonstrating how something must be right before it can be said to be true. If you can say the opposite of a statement, then it is a valid assertion, independently of whether it obtains in the order of the real. Hence the world is once again a hypothesis:

Every time there is possibility of lying, there is a sign-function: which is to signify (and then to communicate) something to which no real state of things corresponds. A theory of codes must study everything that can be used in order to lie. The possibility of lying is the proprium of semiosis just as (for the Schoolmen) the possibility of laughing was the proprium of Man as animal rationale.

(TS, 58-59)

With neither intension nor extension, and deprived of reference, the cultural world “is neither actual nor possible in the ontological sense.” Cultural critics seduced by semiotic analyses, take notice: your analyses are not about reality, but about signs! What is sought, what can function within a theory of codes is not the referent, but the content, which must in turn be “defined as a cultural unit” (TS, 63).

Cultural units are presumably capable of producing social effects. When they are transposed into signs, they exhibit semantic content; but semantics is not semiotics (Limits of Interpretation, 54 ff; hereafter cited asLI). Semiotics can only reveal how signification is obtained and comprehended:

Given two sentences such as “Napoleon died at Saint Helena on May 5, 1821” and “Ulysses reconquered the kingdom by killing all the Proci,” it is irrelevant to a code theory to know that historically speaking the former is true and the latter is false. … The fact that for us the second sentence connotes “legend” is semiotically analogous to the fact that it could yet be proven in some future civilization, on the basis of as yet unknown (or false) documents, that Napoleon died in a different place on a different day (or that he never existed).

(TS, 65)

In this context, healthy Humean skepticism is enlisted to avoid totalizing sentences about anything at all. Thus culture is defined on the basis of the following four assumptions:

1. the production and employment of objects used for transforming the relationship between man and nature;

2. kinship relations as the primary nucleus of institutionalized social relations;

3. the economic exchange of goods (TS, 21)

4. the birth of articulated language.

The conceptual model, the historical paradigm, is furnished by Claude Lévi-Strauss, who is mentioned frequently by Eco. This had in part been done already in La Struttura Assente (1968). The author does little with the third entry on the exchange of goods and its semiotic aspect.37 What draws our attention is the issue of the birth or origin of language, which brings Eco, when dealing with “radical invention,” to meet up with and debunk idealist aesthetics.38


Part Three of The Theory of Semiotics deals with “sign production.” Here we are particularly interested in discussing “typologies of modes of production”:

We may define as invention a mode of production whereby the producer of the sign-function chooses a new material continuum not yet segmented for that purpose and proposes a new way of organizing (of giving form to) it in order to map within it the formal pertinent element of a content-type.

(TS, 245)

Invention is “a case of ratio difficilis” brought forth “within a hetero-material expression.” Since there exists no prior convention to correlate the various elements of the new expression with whatever the chosen content, “the sign producer must in some way posit this correlation so as to make it acceptable” (TS, 245), that is, intelligible or readable. Notice the word “posit.” Invention is displayed against a spectrum of message production which includes recognition, choice, and replica, each requiring a particular mapping process (cf. Tables 40-44 in TS, 246-56). Invention occurs in the movement from physical givenness to stimulus to perception and thence to informing, followed by abstraction in a semantic model and its representation or transformation into sememes. Invention is conceived as that arrangement which places the greatest amount of stress on, and shifts the emphasis toward, the very institution of a comprehensive field of decodable sememes.

In the case of “invention as code-making” (TS, 250-56, ¶3.6.8), we find a further subdivision between a “moderate invention,” predicated upon an interplay of coded semantic models (e.g., in figurative painting), and “radical invention,” which is extraordinary insofar as “the sender more or less bypasses the perceptual model, and delves into the as yet unshaped perceptual continuum, mapping his perception as he organizes it” (TS, 254). Basically what takes place in this instance is that the sender produces and injects messages in the chain or field for which there is no existing code; in fact, the code is to be derived precisely from the expression itself. At times this creates confusion and, on the concrete historical plane, often rejection and destructive criticism:

Take the case of the Impressionists, whose addressees absolutely refused to ‘recognize’ the subjects represented and said that they ‘did not understand,’ that the painting ‘did not mean anything,’ that real life was not like that, etc. This refusal was due to the addressees' lack not only of a semantic model to which the mapped items might be referred, but also of a percept to guess at, since they had never perceived in this way.

(TS, 254)

The introduction of a radically new code of signification requires that the addressee (the viewer, the listener, or the reader) produce previously unthought notions of perception and semantization, and finally effect a decoding. This happens not only in the arts but also in the sciences, as in the not too dissimilar Kuhnian thesis of paradigm formation (see also TS, 188; ¶ 3.4.11). Meaning assumes some sort of correlation, such that the introduction of codes for the explanation of strange or radical inventions entails postulating artificial codes to determine what a message might mean. These codes are subsequently stabilized through convention by means of repeated analogous experiments and confirmations within a social group, or at the very least a specialized community where the code turns into a metalanguage.39 The radical inventor gambles on the possibility of semiosis and often fails miserably.

The above assumption, however, may carry “speculation about languages back to the position adopted by Giambattista Vico, who proposed that languages arise as poetic inventions and are only accepted by convention afterward” (TS, 254). Eco is quick to point out that radical invention should not be understood according to an idealist model. Although Vico cannot be reduced to the idealist version of his thought, this observation makes sense primarily in the context of Italian culture.40 Eco's problem appears to be the question of the origin of languages, an argument which semiotics does not typically address. In fact, consistent with its dualist rationality, code semiotics does not consider “invention” as a category or type of sign production—which would isolate and demonstrate the radical invention, the auroral moment that doubles as the prototype example of the birth of language. Rather, invention is “one among various modes of sign production, collaborating with others to correlate functives and to establish various sign-functions,” thus avoiding the “idealist fallacy.” On the historiographic plane, of course, this is accurate, insofar as “Croce's linguistics [overestimated] the creative power of the speaking subject” (TS, 256). Semiosis, in short, “never rises ex novo and ex nihilo,” so that “in the semiotic universe there are neither single protagonists nor charismatic prophets. Even prophets have to be socially accepted in order to be right; if not, they are wrong” (TS, 256).

Certainly this position goes a long way toward demolishing myths about genius, supercreative talents, and the notion of truth as above human understanding. Indeed, if this position cannot be communicated, if it does not find a Receptor or Addressee, a truth (message) is not only meaningless, it does not even exist. Once extended to the interpretation of culture, it is a good antidote to notions of priority or superiority: “No new culture can ever come into being except against the background of an old one”41 (TS, 256). Invention, we might even say creativity, is just one more way of arranging the relationships between Sender and Receiver, playing according to the particular case with replicas, stylizations, ostensions, and so on. The semiotic universe is ultimately a continuum of transformations wherein inventions are simply another (often exalted) way of changing something around.


Looking at semiotics' treatment of ideas brings us one more step along the path to an understanding of how this Theory and its related Method betray a quintessentially modernist frame of mind. To even sketch the issues raised by the problem of ideas, their origins and their nature and structure becomes a major philosophical enterprise, which is not within the range of this exposition. Yet this may not be as daunting a task as might at first be expected: for, on the basis of the Theory, it is enough to consider whatever we think ideas are as signs.42 We learn here that, since there exists a play of pointing and rebounding (deictics and reflection) from one image to the next, and since there is such a thing as a chain of concepts, the entire flow of thought can be looked at as a system of signs, and most cogently when—as is obviously the case with ideas—something stands for something else. In brief, “even ideas are signs” (TS, 166, ¶ 3.3.4). In retracing the history of this assertion, Eco writes that Peirce aligns himself along a very ancient and influential philosophical track, which comprises Ockham, Hobbes, and Locke:

These ideas are not (as the Schoolmen believed) a mirroring image of the thing; they too are the result of an abstractive process (in which—let it be noted—only some pertinent elements have been retained) which gives us not the individual essence of the named thing but its nominal essence. This nominal essence is in itself a digest, a summary, an elaboration of the signified thing.

(TS, 166)

It follows that:

The procedure leading from a bunch of experiences to a name is the same as that which leads from the experience of things to that sign of things, the idea. Ideas are already a semiotic product.

(TS, 166)

Therefore, though aware that in Locke's system “the notion of idea is still linked to a mentalistic view,” we are authorized “to replace the term ‘idea’ (as something which takes place in the mind) by ‘cultural unit’ (as something which can be tested through other interpretants in a given cultural context).” In addition, Berkeley “also speaks of an idea as general when it represents or stands for all particular ideas of the same sort” (TS, 166-67).

When we turn to sign production, we are entreated to consider that “the notion of ‘sign’ is a fiction of everyday language,43 whose place should be taken by that of sign-function” (TS, 158, my emphasis). Here judgment also falls under the semiotic scythe. What happens when in a society a cultural unit is defined in terms of another for which no code is given? If it does modify the preexisting system, as it must,44 how does it do so? Eco writes that:

The analytic judgment is the one in which the predicate is contained implicitly in the concept of the subject, and the synthetic judgment is that in which the predicate is added to the subject as an entirely new attribute, due to a synthesis obtained from the data of experience.45

(TS, 158)

He then goes on to ask:

Why then, according to Kant, is “all bodies are extensive” analytic and “all bodies are heavy” synthetic? Simply because Kant referred to the ‘patrimony of thought’ which he presumed to be known to his contemporaries. It is worth noting that “body” for him was not a referent but above all a cultural unit.

(TS, 158-59)

In other words, from Descartes through the Encyclopaedists, extension was attributed to this cultural unit as an “essential quality” which was part of its definition, whereas weight was thought to be an “accessory and contingent quality” not essential to the definition:

Judgments are either analytic or synthetic according to the existing codes and not according to the presumed natural properties of the objects. Kant explicitly states in the first Kritik that “the activity of our reason consists largely … in the analysis of ideas which we already have with regard to objects.”

(TS, 159)

Drawing also on the work of Morton White,46 who argued for the untenability of the analytic-synthetic dualism, Eco indicates that judgments are better understood in semiotic terms, where factual judgments must first be turned into metasemiotic or semiotic statements. This can be seen as another “logical” but somehow reductive appropriation, though we cannot explore its implications here.

The aesthetic text must also be studied as an “example of invention” (TS, 261-276, ¶ 3.7). Semiotically, the text is marked by the following processes:

1. Manipulation of Expression;

2. Reassessment of Content;

3. Code Changing;

4. Awareness of the World [TSG, 328 has: “visione del mondo”];

5. [Production and Representation of] a network of diverse Communicational Acts eliciting highly original responses.47

(TS, 261)

Eco characterizes Jakobson's five functions of language48 as merely operative or functionalist. In so doing, he must consider the poetic function as essentially “ambiguous” and “self-focusing” (autoriflessiva in TSG, 329). From within semiotics, ambiguity can be defined as a violation of the rules or a deviation from the norm in the message-bearing syntactic chain in such a way that the Addressee cannot make head or tail of it. Ambiguity seems crucial to aesthetic production and understanding, though it does raise some problems:

Ambiguity is a very important device because it functions as a sort of introduction [“vestibolo”] to the aesthetic experience; when, instead of producing pure disorder, it focuses my attention and urges me to an interpretive effort [“orgasmo interpretativo”] (while at the same time suggesting how to set about decoding) it incites me toward the discovery of an unexpected flexibility in the language with which I am dealing.

(TS, 263)

The definition of ambiguity is reductive because it cannot constitute a dimension of chaos or disorder, and yet chaos and the unknown may be precisely what is questioned by or linked up with the work of art. When Eco says ambiguity functions as an “introduction” to aesthetic experience, does he mean that there is a first moment in time, in consciousness, or in mind when a whole set of other and different processes go to work—curiosity, urge, labor, imaginings of sense, preliminary formulations or sketches—such that a coherent (semiotic) explanation and judgment may later be elaborated and cast into the network? But if this is so, why are not these same processes part of the semiotic process? Experience also may be rhetorically described, producing causes and explanations. Yet from the semiotic standpoint we can only learn that this is the case, that the signs for experience are related to the signs for the ordered universe of the (master) code. And from a methodological and pragmatic perspective, is not this “practice” very close to what philologists and hermeneuticians have always done?49


Though he confutes Croce for basing his aesthetics on the time-worn categories of “expression” and “content,” Eco nevertheless states:

A first step toward an aesthetic definition of ambiguity might be represented by the postulate according to which in aesthetic texts an ambiguity on the expression [my emphasis] plane must involve a corresponding ambiguity on the content [my emphasis] plane.

(TS, 263)50

Eco's conception of aesthetic experience is greatly influenced by the Russian Formalists and Shklovskij in particular who “anticipates by some thirty years the analogous conclusions of so-called ‘informational aesthetics’” (TS, 264). Aesthetic experience increases the “difficulty and the duration of perception” through devices of estrangement and de-automatization in language.51 However, since perception itself becomes a sign (or is taken in its sign-function aspect), the main characteristic of the aesthetic experience is that it makes pertinent a particular artifact or cultural unit. This crosses somewhat over into the scientific domain, and would seem to confer on the aesthetic experience an epistemic capacity. In the section entitled “The segmentation of semantic fields” (TS, 76-81, ¶ 2.8.3), Eco explains and exemplifies the many possible ways in which a semantic field—in this case, concerning the properties of light—can be cut up, hierarchized, dissolved, and reformed: “science comes to know [the] reality [of wavelengths] after having divided it into pertinent units” (TS, 77). The Receiver (a reader, a scientist) decides to make the range of wavelengths from 430 mµ to 650 mµ pertinent to communication about light, because with those figures, those conferred attributes, we can speak more “scientifically”—from within a highly codified discipline, namely optics—of the colors everyone perceives every day. On a parallel plane, the aesthetic dimension lends itself to more structured and functionalist analyses. Its very ontology leans heavily on scientific models and practices. For example, aesthetic experience become sign takes up a position within a universe of signs in which what is important (what is made pertinent) is the very material that turns the work into matter or concrete substance. In linguistic terms, this means that art highlights the existence and force of the signifier over and above that of the signified. Through the fifties and sixties, in the wake of artistic avant-garde experimentation, critics from various branches in the humanities looked at all facets of culture under the revolutionary aegis of structuralism, a scientific approach which among other things brought out the theoretical and methodological importance of the signifier.52 From a different historical and ontological grounding, an integrated structuralist–Marxist materialism also underscored the crucial role played by the very materials artists use and their function within an aesthetic theory.53 For semiotics, things stand otherwise: “In the aesthetic text, the matter of the sign-vehicle becomes an aspect of the expression-form” (TS, 266). As any material employed is already charged with cultural signification, art manifests an aesthetic overcoding at both ends: the expression plane and the content plane. Eco's example of Gertrude Stein's well-known line “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” (TS, 270) clearly illustrates the case of overcoding, as the excessive redundancy of the verse actually produces “an increase in informational possibilities” (TS, 270). This happens because a Reader or receiver is so “estranged” or “detoured” that he or she immediately begins connecting with different connotative subcodes, “e.g. the allegorical, the iconological, the iconic. The work is thus ‘open’ to multiple interpretations” (TS, 270; here Eco recalls his own “pre-semiotic” 1962 work, Opera aperta [OW]).


The many possible versions of an aesthetic experience (or object) brings semiotics to the limit, where the Theory attempts to master chaos itself. It is well known that Eco has done extensive work on labyrinths and abduction, and that later in Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (1984) and The Limits of Interpretation (1990) he suggests the model of the encyclopedia as the plenum for unlimited semiosis, the interpretable social and cultural horizon of message exchange. In this “middle period,” however, he is still staking out a whole that must be rendered in terms of codes and sign-production. To put some order into the infinite possibilities of interpretation raised by the work of art, it is useful, he argues, to have recourse to an aesthetic idiolect, which “must be postulated in order to comprehend the fact that the work works” (deve essere postulato per comprendere il fatto che l'opera funzioni [TSG, 340n]). Once again a willing or positing consciousness, some sort of subject, decides a priori (or at least before in time and context) that the work communicates something, something graspable solely in terms of its givenness as sign. To postulate anything is a methodological necessity which allows Theory to stand up. We should therefore be able to predict the methodological structure and the function of the aesthetic idiolect.

If we take an unreadable or impenetrable text, we must suppose a systematic ordering of its as-yet-unknown rules. There exists a contextual solidarity which requires that we perform semiotic commutation tests in order to arrive at a systematic rule. The explanation for this state of affairs rests once again on an analogy with the the basic tenets of structural linguistics:

[the] work of art has the same structural characterists as does a langue. So that it cannot be a mere ‘presence,’ there must be an underlying system of mutual correlations, and thus a semiotic design which cunningly gives the impression of non-semiosis.

(TS, 271)

Homology is the key critical concept here. It should not be too difficult to see how, with the growing demands of the pragmatic aspect of communication, and the greater focus on the Decoder/Receiver of the message(s), langue will have to be replaced by the encylopedia (in SPL). At every level and for every message, Eco writes,

the solutions are articulated according to a homologous system of solutions, and every deviation springs from a general deviational matrix. Therefore, in a work of art a super-system of homologous structural relationships is established rather as if all levels were definable on the basis of a single structural model which determined all of them.

(TS, 271)

Thus the aesthetic work, even when unreadable, also acquires a corresponding super-sign function which draws up a more complex cluster of correlations. We approach, define, even talk about some of these correlations by positing a new meta-concept attuned to the code.

The rule governing all deviations at work at every level of a work of art, the unique diagram which makes all deviations mutually functional, is the aesthetic idiolect.

(TS, 272)

In some cases, mapping out “all” these deviations can be very complicated indeed. Consider some of Eco's own deviational analyses in the Theory of Semiotics and in The Role of the Reader. Yet semiotics also borrows concepts from the more traditional and methodologically proven notions of genre, style, historical period, Zeitgeist, textual dominant, etc.:

Insofar as it can be applied by the same author to many of his own works (although with slight variations), the idiolect becomes a general one governing the entire corpus of an author's work, i.e., his personal style. Insofar as it is accepted by an artistic community and produces imitations, mannerisms, stylistic habits, etc., it becomes a movement-idiolect, or a period-idiolect, studied by criticism or the history of ideas as the main artistic feature of a given historical group or period.

(TS, 272)

Four idiolects—pertaining respectively to the work, the corpus, the movement, and the period—can be organized hierarchically and made manageable. But in order to be consistent with these premises, Eco must de-realize, de-ontologize the non-semiotic import of these categories, and define them in a manner analogous to the interpretant: “Insofar as it produces new norms accepted by an entire society, the artistic idiolect may act as a meta-semiotic judgment changing common codes” (TS, 272). A series of plausible meta-semiotic judgments on action and agency within the semiotic universe will allow us to grasp and define, to evaluate and explain how, for instance, the chosen idiolect—an author's preferred symbolism, the metaphors of a group—forms an underlying “hierarchy of competences” and executions. These can be identified at the molecular, or even the “molar,” levels. They sketch a canvas toward a general interpretation, which is warranted by the (presupposed, or posited) methodological necessity of a system of systems.54


Eco's theory of interpretive acts, which is related to the work of art and its (re)generative power,55 also demonstrates that a theory of interpretation cannot be disjoined from its methodological routes, from its epistemologically legitimizing steps:

Inasmuch as the idiolect constitutes a sort of final (though never completely achieved) definition of the work, to read an artistic product means at once: i) to induce, that is to infer a general rule from individual cases; ii) to abduce, that is to test both old and new codes by way of a hypothesis; iii) to deduce, that is to check whether what has been grasped on one level can determine artistic events on another, and so on. Thus all the modes of inference are at work. Like a large labyrinthine garden, a work of art permits one to take many different routes, whose number is increased by the criss-cross of its paths.

(TS, 275)

This is an excellent characterization of a work of art: ample, suggestive, and acceptable by several different definitions of art. But one might want to underscore the reference to processes of cognition and the generation of common knowledge patterns, tropes that ensure the unencumbered linking up of lexico-formulaic statements about reality, culture, and the meanings that can be produced, processed, and reissued into an ever shifting communicative network.

Briefly summarized, Eco's A Theory of Semiotics introduces a number of key points:

1. A code is given on the basis of oppositional couples or dichotomies, distinguishing and contraposing “expression” and “content” (TS, 48-50).

2. In collapsing Frege's epistemological triangle (Sinn, Bedeutung, Zeichen) into a Sense/Symbol operative conceptual pair, a code divests the Bedeutung of any “real world” import, making it function as a ‘type’ (as opposed to a ‘token’) “very akin to … content” (TS, 60).56

3. The Referent is eliminated, insofar as the referential fallacy consists in supposing that the meaning of a sentence is in any way related to the corresponding object (TS, 58-9).

4. Intentionality is bracketed off as basically irrelevant to semiotic communication and understanding (TS, 15-19).

5. Code semiotics moreover does not deal with “extension,” insofar as it falls within the precincts of propositional calculus or of theories of truth (TS, 62-66).

6. Code semiotics recognizes as its ultimate epistemological limit the Indeterminacy Principle (TS, 28-9).

In Eco's later works, the definition of metaphor still remains structuralist: a complex, overcoded, and variously charged metonymic process of sense-production (or transfer) along a network of buzzwords, catachretic fields, and logically inferred associations within a recognizable and modellable code. Such a code can be called the cultural encyclopedia of a society. This has the advantage of shifting the emphasis to the addressee, at once rehabilitating interpretant and interpreter.57 Nevertheless, Eco's interpretation of symbol in Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (SPL, 130-163), as well as in The Limits of Interpretation (LI, 8-22), is still conceived in terms of a dualistic model for the decoding of any system of signification.58 Furthermore, any grammatological or deconstructivist (let alone hermeneutic) sense of difference is lost. In its place difference assumes an empirical, commonsensical dimension: “the presence of one element is necessary for the absence of the other” (SPL, 23). Interpretation proceeds according to a system of formal presuppositions. The aesthetic artifact is ultimately a “closed work,” an entity which can only exist in the interval between the theory of the code and the processes of signformation. Despite recent attempts to regain the extra-linguistic (or the non-semiotic) by extending the definition, range, and applicability of Eco's later theory, the great problem which underlies code semiotics is precisely the system of formal presuppositions. Axioms in a neutral (or logical) language do not allow for a thematization and in concreto response to stimulations coming from the subject, memory, ethos, and praxis.59


  1. Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975). Henceforth cited as TS. References to materials which appear only in Italian will be made throughout these notes, with the adopted abbreviations. English editions of Eco's books are not always straightforward translations from the Italian, as sections and paragraphs are often added or deleted; as a result, occasionally reference is made to both versions.

  2. See some of the early reviews, in particular John Deely, “The Doctrine of Sign: Taking Form at Last,” Semiotica, 18:2 (1976), pp. 171-93; John Walker, “Comments on Umberto Eco's Book ‘A Theory of Semiotics,’” Leonardo, 10 (1977), pp. 131-32; Gregory Colomb, “Semiotics since Eco (I) & (II),” Papers on Language and Literature, 15:4&5 (Summer and Fall 1980), pp. 442-59; Maria Corti, “Fatta di segni la dea di Eco,” Il Giorno, 2 (April 1975); Robert E. Innis's review in International Philosophical Quarterly, 20:6 (1980): 221-32.

  3. In a career that spans now nearly forty years, The Theory of Semiotics comes at midpoint. It is not difficult to distinguish an “early” stage in Eco's thought, basically from the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties, a “second” or “mature” stage which covers the years 1968-1980, characterized by the emergence and consolidation of his semiotics (and of which the Theory is the high point), and a still ongoing stage of study which appears evenly divided between the philosophy of language and cultural criticism. Of course, the actual picture is much more complex. Eco has always been engaged on several fronts at the same time, something which is still looked upon with suspicion in American academic circles. However, as he explicitly states in the Introduction to Sette anni di desiderio (Milano: Bompiani, 1983), p. 5: “Every so often I collect into a volume articles, occasional writings, polemical pieces, the nugae or observations that once used to be confined to personal journals or diaries. But in an age that not only allows but encourages circulating in public one's own immediate reactions to problems and events, the pages from a diary come out serially, in the print media. They have the advantage of not being written for posterity, but rather for one's contemporaries, often running into contradictions and risking imprecise judgments. But for the professional writer, this is the most appropriate (and at any rate the most responsible) way of committing oneself politically.” A similar remark appears in his preface to Travels in Hyper Reality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), p. x: “It is true that many American professors write for cultural reviews or for the book page of the daily papers. But many Italian scholars and literary critics also write columns where they take a stand on political questions, and they do this not only as a natural part of their work, but also as their duty. There is, then, a difference in ‘patterns of culture.’” Finally, we cannot discount (though we will not take it up here) the influence the writing and success of his two major novels had on his thinking and research through the eighties.

  4. For a critical and bibliographical overview, see Gianfranco Bettetini and Francesco Casetti, “Semiotics in Italy,” chapter 13, in The Semiotic Sphere, eds. Thomas Sebeok and Jean Umiker-Sebeok (New York: Plenum Press, 1986), pp. 293-21. For a comprehensive view of semiotics in Italy up to the appearance of the Italian version of A Theory of Semiotics [namely, Trattato di semiotica generale (Milano: Bompiani, 1975), henceforth cited as TSG], see Augusto Ponzio, La semiotica in Italia (Bari: Dedalo Libri, 1976). On Eco's reception in Italy, see the recent book by Margherita Ganeri, Il “Caso” Eco (Palermo: Palumbo, 1991), which contains, besides an extensive bibliography, excerpts from articles on and reviews of all of Eco's works from 1956 to the present.

    The following collection of critical essays dedicated to the whole of Umberto Eco's work, including A Theory of Semiotics, is entitled Semiotica: storia teoria interpretazione, eds. P. Magli, G. Manetti, and P. Violi (Milano: Bompiani, 1992).

  5. See Peter Carravetta, Il fantasma di Hermes; saggio su metodo, retorica, interpretare (Lecce: Milella, 1994), and the article “Repositioning Interpretive Discourse: From ‘The Crisis of Reason’ to ‘Weak Thought,’” in Differentia, 2 (1987): 83-126.

  6. As late as 1970, Eco is still working within the horizon of a structuralist “semiology”; see for example “La critica semiologica,” in I metodi attuali della critica in Italia, eds. Cesare Segre and Maria Corti (Torino: ERI, 1970), pp. 371-404. There are however many clear signs here and elsewhere in the writings of these years, that he is preparing the terminological, philosophical, and in part cultural-ideological “shift” toward the notion of “semiotics.” See Eco's treatment of Saussure in TS, 14-15. In the chapter on “Semiotics in Italy,” contained in the aformentioned The Semiotic Sphere (p. 302), Bettetini and Casetti write: “In La struttura assente (Milano: Bompiani, 1968), Eco breaks away from the extremisms of French structuralism (too biased by ontologism) and makes his way toward a theory of signification that will be further elaborated in [his] Segno (Milano: ISEDI, 1973) [hence-forth cited as S], thus resorting to Peirce's neopragmaticism and Morris's behaviorism and aiming at the unification of the structuralist dimension and Anglo-Saxon philosophy of language, without however neglecting the European logicians.”

  7. See S, 18-19, where Eco cites a 1938 passage by Charles Morris (from Charles Morris, “Foundations of the Theory of Signs,” in Foundations of the Unity of Science, 2 vols., eds. Otto Neurath, Rudolf Carnap, and Charles Morris (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1971), vol. 1, pp. 77-137] whereby semiotics will henceforth replace philosophical reflection (on itself and its own language), ultimately becoming a metamethodology; this will be taken up later in this article. See also Thomas A. Sebeok, American Signatures; Semiotic Inquiry and Method (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), p. 152 ff.

  8. Actually TSG, the Italian version which, by Eco's own account, was written after the English text, says the following: “la semiotica studia tutti i processi culturali come processi di comunicazione. E tuttavia ciascuno di tali processi … etc.”: The “Therefore” [for “tuttavia”] has actually the sense of a “Yet” in the Italian, so one may conjecture a less causal and necessary relationship between processes of communication and systems of signification.

  9. As we will see, Eco's conception of communication is often ambiguous, and will manifest some aporias. For an early critique, see Augusto Ponzio, La semiotica in Italia, pp. 41-49.

  10. See Gianfranco Bettetini Produzione del senso e messa in scena (Milano: Bompiani, 1975), and Eco's own note in TS, 30; it is interesting to note that in the body of the text, early on in his exposition (pp. 9-10), Eco defines the “political boundaries of semiotics,” in this way also “assigning” to the other dominant schools their own legitimized cultural-ideological working space.

  11. Nowhere is this more dramatically demonstrated than in Sebeok's zoosemiotics. See “‘Vital Signs’ and ‘Animal’ in Biological and Semiotic Perspective,” in Sebeok, American Signatures, pp. 107-32 and 159-73.

  12. In the background we can clearly hear Peirce's texts, such as “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs,” “Abduction and Induction,” and “The General Theory of Probable Inference,” which can now be read in Philosophical Writings of Peirce, ed. Justus Buchler (New York: Dover, 1955), pp. 98-119, 150-56, 190-217 respectively.

  13. We must bear in mind the influence of his teacher Luigi Pareyson (1918-1991), which is everywhere present in the early Eco, at a time when he most willingly responded to the new theories on the horizon and seemed to “try them out” one by one as he focused ever more closely on questions of communication and signification; see, for example, Luigi Pareyson, Apocalittici e integrati: comunicazioni di massa e teorie della cultura di massa (Milano: Bompiani, 1964 & 1978), La definizione dell’arte (Milano: Mursia, 1968 [1955-63]), and Opera aperta (Milano: Bompiani, 1962 & 1972), which collect studies and essays on mass culture, aesthetic theory, and the poetics of the avant-garde respectively. The first essay in Opera aperta, “The Poetics of the Open Work” [from the American Edition, The Open Work, trans. A. Cancogni (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), henceforth cited as OW], takes up and develops notions fundamental to Luigi Pareyson's Estetica, teoria della formatività (Firenze: Sansoni, 1954 & 1960; now Milano: Bompiani, 1990). See also Eco's own essay on the theory of formation and the phenomenology of the work of art, corresponding to ch. 7 of OW, pp. 158-66. For a non-semiotic exposition of Pareyson's theory of interpretation, see Peter Carravetta, “An Introduction to the Hermeneutics of Luigi Pareyson,” Differentia, review of Italian thought, 3:4 (Spring / Autumn 1989): 217-41.

  14. Consider the attention given to “non-textual” or “cultural” referents and their possible “effects” not only on code formation and sign-production, but also on meaning-reception and strategies of decoding, in the later Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), henceforth cited as SPL, and The Limits of Interpretation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), henceforth cited as LI.

  15. But at this stage Eco has left Pareyson behind and is staking out his own territory, strong in the various schools of linguistics and the history of logic, but also subject to the metaphysical contradictions of the latter.

  16. Many critics have remarked on how Eco's semiotics tends toward the all-encompassing, the totalizing, and therefore the imperialistic. See sample responses in Ganeri, Il “Caso” Eco.

  17. See for instance TS, 4, where he explicitly mentions Aristotle's distinction between power and act, as parallel to his distinction between rules and process.

  18. Let us recall that Eco's first book is on medieval aesthetics and logic, and that he was to return to these areas again and again, from the early Il Problema estetica in Tommaso D'Aquino (Milano: Bompiani, 1970 [1956]), to the later Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), as well as in chapters in SPL.

  19. See TS, 166-67; SPL, 19. Locke is also touted as the great forerunner (and maybe “grandfather”) of Modern semiotics by John Deely and Thomas Sebeok in Frontiers in Semiotics, eds. John Deely, Brooke Williams, and Felicia Kruse (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), pp. 3-42. See also Sebeok, American Signatures, p. 151.

  20. In Italy at least, work in this direction has been done by Carlo Sini, in Semiotica e filosofia (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1978), and Passare il segno (Milano: Il Saggiatore, 1981).

  21. Charles Morris was practically first introduced in Italy by Ferruccio Rossi-Landi, with his book Charles Morris (Milano: Bocca, 1953 [repr. 1975]), and his translation, the following year, of Morris's Foundations of a Theory of Signs (Torino: Paravia 1954).

  22. Recall that Morris was, together with Otto Neurath and Rudolf Carnap, one of the theoretical leaders behind the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science project of the mid-thirties to late-thirties. The original nineteen monographs (which include pathbreaking and influential papers by Bloomfield, Kuhn, and Dewey) have been gathered and reissued in a two-volume edition: Foundations of the Unity of the Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971).

  23. Eco's analysis of the KF model (and of all American linguistics), and particularly of the flexible and fruitful model Q (from Quillian's semantics) would require separate and detailed study. He returns to these in Lector in Fabula (Milano: Bompiani, 1983) and especially in the modified English version, The Role of the Reader (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979), henceforth cited as RR. The Q model was to furnish the theoretical underpinnings of his later notion of encyclopedia; cf. SPL, 68 ff.

  24. Peirce, Collected Papers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965), 2.300.

  25. See for instance the different though equally compelling positions of W. V. Quine, “The Inscrutability of Reference,” in Semantics, eds. Danny Steinberg and Leon Jakobovits (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), pp. 142-54, and Donald Davidson, “Reality without Reference,” in Reference, Truth and Reality, ed. Mark Platts (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980), pp. 131-40.

  26. Aspects and possibilities of this path have been explored by Hans Hörmann, Meaning and Context; An Introduction to the Psychology of Language, ed. Robert Innis (New York: Plenum Press, 1986), and by Giuseppe Minnini, Psicosemiotica (Bari: Adriatica, 1982).

  27. See for instance L. Bloomfield, “Language or Ideas,” in The Philosophy of Linguistics, ed. Jerrold Katz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 19-25: “Non-linguists (unless they happen to be physicalists) constantly forget that a speaker is making noise, and credit him, instead, with the possession of impalpable ‘ideas.’ It remains for linguists to show, in detail, that the speaker has no ‘ideas,’ and that the noise is sufficient—for the speaker's words act with trigger-like effect upon the nervous systems of his speech-fellows.” See also, in the same anthology, the chapter by J. A. Fodor, “Some Notes On What Linguistics Is About,” pp. 146-60.

  28. I have dealt in part with the relationship between rhetorical structures of language and the methodological assumptions of scientific discourse in my forthcoming Il fantasma di Hermes (see note 5), of which an English version is in progress.

  29. One might make the same emblematic claim in the parallel situation of Heidegger's Being and Time, which can conceivably represent the culmination of a particular way of doing philosophy, after which the recess or descent or decline of Modern metaphysical thought begins.

  30. We must defer to another place and time a study of Eco's notion of the rhetorical, as well as of his own “creative” writing, the novels The Name of the Rose, Foucault's Pendulum, and The Island of the Day Before.

  31. See especially “Semantics, Pragmatics, and Text Semiotics” in LI, 203-21.

  32. See the reconstruction along this axis by John Deely, Introducing Semiotics; Its History and Doctrine (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), especially pp. 2-3.

  33. In this direction, which points to juridical semiotics, see Roberta Kevelson, Inlaws/Outlaws; A Semiotics of Systemic Interaction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977).

  34. But the tautology is not exploded, or explored, as we find for instance in Heidegger's analyses of the Aristotelian identity principle, or even more so with “things [that] thing,” “space spaces,” or “thinking thinks,” in some of the essays in On the Way to Language, trans. Peter Hertz (New York: Harper and Row, 1971) and Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper and Row, 1971).

  35. Hermeneutics, also, “mentions” things, and is circular, as it can begin anywhere on the discursive chain (along the circumference of its “circle,” so to speak), but the reference is rehabilitated through diverse modalities of being and existence, of diachronic language transmission, and though it does not exclude the rational-geometric dimension of systems and typologies, it is far from limiting itself to this ordering principle alone.

  36. But these claims have been and continue to be challenged. For the sciences, see Paul Feyerabend, Against Method (London: NSB, 1975); for the relationship between scientific legitimation and power, see the different positions of Jean-François Lyotard and Michel Foucault. As for the question of scientific epistemology and gender, see Feminism and Methodology, ed. Sandra Harding (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987; and Beyond Methodology, eds. Mary Fonow and Judith Cook (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991).

  37. This area has been studied most profitably by Ferruccio Rossi-Landi, beginning with his early Significato, comunicazione e parlare comune (Padova: Marsilio, 1961), and on through Linguistics and Economics (The Hague: Mouton, 1975) and Language as Work & Trade (South Hadley: Bergin & Garvey, 1983 [Italian edition 1968]). For a critical monograph on Rossi-Landi's entire career, see Augusto Ponzio, Rossi-Landi e la filosofia del linguaggio (Bari: Adriatica, 1988).

  38. This was de rigeur in the late fifties and through the seventies in Italy. Idealism (with its connotations of immanentism, historicism, actualism, aristocratic liberalism, history as freedom, and so on) was the primary polemical target of such different books (and therefore of such different philosophies) as the already mentioned Luigi Pareyson's Estetica (1954) and Verità e interpretazione (1972); Luciano Anceschi's earlier Autonomia ed eterenomia dell’arte (1936, repr. 1976) and his Da Bacone a Kant (1972) as well as Le poetiche del novecento in Italia (1972); Galvano Della Volpe's Critica del gusto (1960, Eng. trans. 1976); Renato Barilli's Per una estetica mondana (1964); Enzo Paci's La filosofia contemporanea (1957 & 1974); and others. On Anceschi's phenomenological critique, see “Luciano Anceschi,” in Critical Survey of Literary Theory (Pasadena: Salem Press, 1988), vol. I: 29-35.

  39. During this period (early seventies), the question of the foundation of knowledge, and its necessary though always excluded reference to a “real” community, was being explored also by Aldo Gargani in his Il sapere senza fondamenti (Torino: Einaudi, 1972), whose position incidentally was not far from that of Rorty just before his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature came out.

  40. See the slightly different explication in the Italian text (TSG, 319). Vico is given a more generous treatment in SPL, 107-08, where his thought is associated with a “cultural anthropology” which effaces the chronological or sequential development of cultures, focusing rather on their cyclical activity, in a sense creating a simultaneity of overlapping cultures, ergo of codes.

  41. Vico also had said something to this effect, that each culture is evolved from a prior one, and naturally claims older or more prestigious ancestry vis-à-vis their neighbors or contemporaries; cf. The New Science of Giambattista Vico (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), ¶ 125, 126, 361, etc.

  42. Peirce is once again invoked as the inspiring auctoritas behind this position, and we have explicit references to paragraphs 5.480, 5.287, 5.283, and 5.284 of his Collected Papers.

  43. What an opportunity for a deconstructionist to attack the whole edifice of semiotics and efface its arbitrary, self-betraying stratagems, and the fictive, indeed “creative,” nature behind its rigorous conceptual apparatus!

  44. This reveals an underlying immanentism, present also, though elaborated in quite different terms, in Lyotard's Le Différend: the mere instancing (or: coming into being, being “born”) of a sentence necessarily displaces all others and negates another possible one which could not come into existence at the same time or place (or spacetime). But whereas Lyotard will develop this in view of the tensional dis / accord between their semantics and power (“phrases in dispute” is the subtitle of the English version), in Eco the appearance, the givenness of sentences are placed within an already existing signic network, adding to the possibilities of communication by its immediate status as the (new) nth element in the channels needed by the signifying chain to connect Sender to Receiver. In code semiotics, there cannot be a “dispute” because there are always alternative channels or routes for the message to get through. And if it fails, well, it didn't exist!

  45. Eco refers explicitly to Ernst Cassirer's Der Erkenntnisproblem in der Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neuren Zeit. For the importance of neokantian philosophy to structuralism and, by extension, to code semiotics, see G. Puglisi, Che cosa è lo strutturalismo (Roma: Astrolabio, 1970).

  46. See Morton White, “The Analytic and the Synthetic: An Untenable Dualism,” in John Dewey, ed. S. Hook (New York: Dial Press, 1950). Also in L. Linsky, Semantics and the Philosophy of Language (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1952).

  47. For all intents and purposes, these processes translate into “methodological” steps or subcategories or localized zones of inquiry, and their usefulness or “applicability” is undeniable. Eco's “readings” of contemporary cultural phenomena are rich and varied, and always illuminating. See his Il Superuomo di massa (Milano: Bompiani, 1978), as well as the already cited Apocalittici e Integrati, Travels in Hyper Reality, and OW.

  48. See Roman Jakobson, “Linguistics and Poetics,” in The Structuralists From Marx to Lévi-Strauss, eds. Richard and Fernande De George (Garden City: Doubleday, 1972). In the present context, Eco says, “we prefer to translate ‘poetics’ with ‘aesthetics.’” This practical (but also: methodological) move is, like the one concerning Kant above, akin to the bringing of a particular set of problems and issues with their own language, history, and referents into the fold of semiotics, an effect of semiotic cooptation which assumes a perfect formal homology among different metalanguages.

  49. Eco quite appropriately recalls Spitzer (TS, 263), but we could just as well include, in this lineage, Vico, Schleiermacher, Nietzsche, Dilthey, Timpanaro, Pasquali, Terracini, Menendez-Pidal, Benveniste, and even structuralists like Contini.

  50. For Croce's early formulation, see his Aesthetic, trans. Douglas Ainslie (Boston: Nonpareil Books, 1983 [1901-02]), pp. 15-16 et infra.

  51. It becomes ever more clear how the arts and sciences were traveling parallel routes, at least for the past century or so. And it is well known that Jakobson, Sklovskij, Eichenbaum, and Tynjanov frequented the various circles of the (mostly Russian) avant-garde of the post-WWII period. See Victor Erlich, Russian Formalism (L’Aja: Mouton, 1964); Tzvetan Todorov, Théorie de la literature (Paris: Seuil, 1965); Boris Tomasevskij, Teoria della letteratura (Milano: Feltrinelli, 1978); René Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature (New York: Harcourt, 1970 [1942]). We should recall that the Russian Formalists were primarily concerned with the aesthetics of literary communication; cf. Erlich, Russian Formalisim, chs. X and XV.

  52. This critical movement is too well known and recorded to have it cross-referenced bibliographically. It has given us the crucial work of Lacan, Barthes, Derrida, Kristeva, Genette, and others. According to Gianni Vattimo, if we can elect one school of thought among many as the most representative of a given cultural period, we can say that marxism was the cultural koinē of the fifties and part of the sixties, structuralism (and deconstruction) the koinē of the late sixties and seventies, and hermeneutics that of the eighties; cf. his article, “Hermeneutics as Koinē,” in Theory, Culture & Society, 5: 2-3 (1988), pp. 399-408.

  53. See for example the above-mentioned Galvano Della Volpe, Critique of Taste.

  54. The rhetoric here evokes a cluster of analogous concepts developed in Italy by transcendental phenomenology. See for instance the notions of “sistematica dei sistemi,” and system as “idea limite” in the work by Antonio Banfi (1886-1957), and of his disciple Luciano Anceschi. Of course Eco early on distanced himself from this school of thought, as it represented another polemical target of his Apocalittici e integrati (1964); a critique of transcendentalism could still be found as late as 1984 in “The sign as identity” in SPL, 25.

  55. When he found himself “on the other side of the barricade,” that is, when he had written an aesthetic work himself, Eco plays upon this notion; cf. PNR, 1-2, 4 et infra.

  56. See Eco's handling of epistemic triangles in Segno 22-27 and 124-26. For interesting developments of the idea that natural language itself is the “primary modelling system,” see Sebeok, American Signatures, pp. 175-86. Of course both scholars are aware of and often cite the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, but in reality very little is made of the overall philosophical and rhetorical implications of this understanding of “human” language.

  57. There is of course a non-semiotic way of reading Eco's important article, “Intentio Lectoris: The State of the Art,” (now a chapter in LI, 44-63), and that is, ethically, as well as broadly philosophically, in the sense that there is a limit to how much we can squeeze out of a text (or the interpretation of any phenomenon whatsoever). Moreover, the argument goes, if we cannot agree as to which is the better interpretation of two contending views, we ought to be able to agree as to what constitutes a totally false or irrelevant interpretation. This particular piece of Eco's was written partly in response to the interpretive free-for-all that was triggered by some overenthusiastic second-generation deconstructionists (or textualists), especially in North America, and partly to exemplify the difference between interpretation proper and the use of texts as instrumental proofs in something quite alien to the making of the text or event per se.

  58. Temptations to see processes which “are the same” or at the very least formally homologous in different historical epochs begin with the affinity between Thomism and structuralism discovered early on in The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas [Il Problema Estetico in Tommaso d’Aquino 243-64], and appear as late as LI, 20.

  59. See for instance Paul J. Thibault, Social Semiotics as Praxis (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), for a semiotics which responds to and integrates the thought of Bakhtin, Bateson, Gramsci, Foucault, Halliday, and Habermas.

Ian Thomson (review date 7 February 1999)

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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 fourteenth-century Italy. Its baggage of arcane erudition was designed to flatter the average reader's intelligence. In reality, Eco's medieval whodunnit was up-market Arthur Hailey with frills on. It sold five million copies worldwide and was translated into 24 languages. Not since One Hundred Years of Solitude had there been such a consensual success on the book market. Eco's gifted English translator, William Weaver, built an extension on to his Tuscan home with the proceeds. The Eco Chamber, he calls it.

Eco's second novel, Foucault's Pendulum, had the look and feel of an encyclopaedia. Unfortunately, it was magnificently boring. This time, Denis Wheatley was combined with Hugo, Poe and Eliot. Reviewing this comic-strip farrago for The Observer, Salman Rushdie confessed: ‘Reader, I hated it.’ A narrative calamity, then. But where could Eco go from here? The Name of the Pendulum, perhaps, by Umberto Foucalt? Eco was trapped in his own fame. When I visited him in 1986, he shuffled grumpily round his office, lifting up and slamming down books. He was wearing a tweed deerstalker. His conversation swerved giddily from Pre-Raphaelite forgeries to counterfeit Louis Vuitton handbags, from the World Cup to the porn star Marylin Chambers. This is what Eco does best: applying literary judgement to ephemera.

As Professor of Semiotics at Bologna University, Eco has decoded the James Bond novels and the Peanuts comics. He has analysed the Mad magazines and, with equal fizz-bang, pulpy strip-cartoons such as Camelot 3,000 and The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian. No cultural artefact is too lowly or trivial for Eco's analysis. When the entire world is a web of signs, positively everything cries out for exegesis. In one memorably daft essay, Eco discussed his own denims. ‘Well, with my new jeans life was entirely exterior: I thought about the relationship between me and my pants, and the relationship between my pants and the society we lived in. I had achieved epidermic self-awareness.’ The inspiration for this mandarin analysis of the mundane is the French counter-culture guru Roland Barthes. However, while Barthes wrote about washing powder or Greta Garbo in a wonderfully subtle, teasingly paradoxical prose, the Italian can muster only a crude equivalent. The typical Eco sentence is all braggadocio and swagger, but without Barthes's talent to subvert.

Serendipities, Eco's latest non-fiction, looks at how false beliefs have, for good or bad, altered the course of history. Columbus ‘discovered’ America because he assumed the world to be much smaller than it is. Marco Polo's mistaken identification of a rhinoceros for a unicorn encouraged conquistador fantasies of a mythic El Dorado. In the gospel according to Eco, these errors are called ‘serendipities.’

Eco's obsession in Foucault's Pendulum with shadowy cabalas and conventicles (the Mystical Legates of Camelot, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn) is continued in Serendipities. Now, Eco sees modern-day political parallels with the seventeenth-century secret Rosicrucian society. Indeed, Italy's temporary P2 Masonic Lodge and far-left fringe of the Red Brigades indulge a similar secrecy and fantaticism. Bologna University, where Eco teaches, is notoriously a hotbed of red activism, providing the author with first-hand experience of extremism and conspiracy. Eco displays a classically Italian enthusiasm, I think, for arcana. The Italian term dietrologia (which translates not very happily into ‘behindology’) presumes that secret cliques, camarillas and consortiums are everywhere manipulating political scandals.

With its typographical eccentricities, and endless inventories, Serendipities gives an impression of inaccessibility. Eco's erudition is impossibly showy (ostentation is the game of his prose) and obscure information lies dense on the page. Eco began his academic career with a book on Thomas Aquinas (written at the age of 24 during his military service) and he remains in thrall to medieval Latin civilisation. Thus Serendipities is a catalogue of scholastic hair-splitting. Why, of all the beasts and birds that God asked Adam to name, were there no fish? Eco finds these theological niceties quite exciting. Fortunately, he has a brilliant translator in William Weaver. In fact, the key to Eco's success over here is due, more than anything else, to the quality of Weaver's interpretations. Yet not even he can dispel such lumbering Eco-isms as ‘multi-interpretability’.

In the days before Umberto Eco became the emperor of international bestsellerdom, he wrote a withering critique of the 007 novels in which Ian Fleming emerged as an upmarket Mickey Spillane, cynically devising entertainments for a reading public both ‘popular and serious’. Yet The Name of the Rose appealed to exactly the same readership. Serendipities, alas, has none of the fluency of the detested Bond novels. Linguistically technical, Eco's style displays a self-conscious pomp—and a Moulinex mishmash of influences.

Tom Holland (review date 26 February 1999)

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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 signified by its own grammar and vocabulary. Eco's concern in his new book is to demonstrate how the very lunacy of that quest served to breed accidental, unanticipated truths.

To justify the plural in his title, Eco offers a cursory overview of other, canonical, examples of serendipity. He reminds us that the Ptolemaic image of the universe helped to bring about Columbus's arrival in America, and that the fraudulent Donation of Constantine underpinned papal power for centuries. Evidently, he is not indulging in wilful paradox when he argues that history is a theatre of illusion. Nor, Eco being Eco, is he shy of pointing out the obvious implication of this perspective: that if illusion and reality are interdependent, then our sense of both concepts can never be final. Only in his favoured field of linguistics, however, does Eco pursue this idea with the polymathic subtlety that has been the keynote of his best work. He does this, in part, by highlighting the modern aspects of seemingly antiquated debates, the way in which, for instance, Chomsky's concept of innate grammar was foreshadowed by a school of medieval thought that saw divine language as implicit in Adam's mind. But Eco does not only analyse the theological games of the medieval mystics, he also mimics them. So it is that he believes in, but cannot categorically prove, the influence of the Jewish Kabbala on Dante, just as, for the Kabbalists themselves, the knowledge of a truth did not require a definition. Eco is unusual among academic writers in that he delights in something that remains hidden and the games he can play by acknowledging it.

For the non-specialist reader, it is this ludic brand of erudition that makes Eco such good value even when he is at his most arid. It has been argued that the reason for the success of The Name of the Rose, his best-selling novel, was that it enabled its readers to feel cleverer than they really were; the same effect is evident in Serendipities. In both the novel and the collection of essays, the reader is inveigled into a labyrinth of paradoxes and arcana, tantalised with hints of gnostic revelations, implicated in the same quest for a veiled truth that is Eco's own theme. It is not surprising that the spirit of Borges should haunt Serendipities: both the content and the style seem consciously to echo him. He writes, “I find in Moshe Idel's Language, Torah, and Hermeneutics in Abraham Abulafia a surprising quotation from an unpublished manuscript by an anonymous disciple of Abulafia, where it is said that …” This is pure Borges: even the quotation from the anonymous disciple of Abulafia that follows is pure Borges. Only our awareness that Eco is writing with the scholarly rigour appropriate to one of the world's leading semioticians prevents us from assuming that he has made the whole thing up.

Indeed, there are times when one can sense that Eco wishes he were writing fiction. This is most obvious during his account of the Rosicrucian Order, an invented society so powerful and occult that it was actually brought into existence by the desire of people to believe that it was true. A similar theme inspired Foucault's Pendulum and, as Eco readily acknowledges, Borges's short story Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. His regret at a good idea already used is palpable, and it suggests what Eco would have liked to be doing with Serendipities. We are left in this book, for all its fascination, with the sense of a game not fully played out.

Amit Chaudhuri (review date 27 March 1999)

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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. The central thread running through his novel The Name of the Rose, the lost text of an Aristotelian tradition, a poetics of comedy rather than of tragedy, is a Borges-like fantasy, the difference being that Borges would have expended about five pages on it and woven it into some sort of mocking, erudite parable, while Eco composes a rather longer work.

Serendipities, for a change a short book, is Eco in his Borgesian mode; its first part, in particular, is closer to his fictionalising preoccupations than to his work as a semiotician. The first section, indeed, gives this book its title, for it is here that, as Eco puts it,

I wanted to show how a number of ideas that today we consider false actually changed the world (sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse) and how, in the best instances, false beliefs and discoveries totally without credibility could then lead to the discovery of something true (or at least something we consider true today).

Thus, the way that Western history is both creatively and disruptively dotted with cultural misreadings (and, in his concern with ‘misreading’ and the arcane, Eco displays an affinity with an older contemporary, Harold Bloom) is sketched suggestively by him in the first chapter.

Here, we are told, among other things, about ‘Marco Polo's mistaken identification of a rhinoceros for a unicorn’ or ‘how Columbus's assumption that the world was much smaller than it is led him to seek a more direct route to the East via the West and thus fortuitously “discover” America’. In the subsection on Columbus, entitled ‘The Flat Earth’, we are given interesting and persuasive background information about debates in the Christian mediaeval world concerning the earth's shape, and told that it knew of the earth's roundness for quite some time before it publicly acknowledged the fact; Eco says confidently, ‘Naturally Ptolemy knew the earth was round, otherwise he would not have been able to divide it into 360 degrees of meridian.’

This brings us to the doggedly backward-looking nature of Eco's brief explorations in this book, as he attempts to substitute a list of ‘misreadings’ for a myth of origins (as if almost every interesting idea in history had somehow arisen from some form of misunderstanding) and his relative lack of engagement with contemporary instances of misreading, however lunatic these might seem (the subtitle of the book is ‘Language and Lunacy’). For instance, there is a small but vocal group of people in America who still believe that the world is flat and that its alleged roundness is a hoax; one wonders whether this misreading (if, indeed, that is what it is) has had any serendipitous benefits for humankind. It is probably too early to tell.

It is really the first chapter, then, that is about the ‘serendipities’ of the title. Much of what remains has to do with another of Eco's enthusiasms: the idea of universal language (for instance, in what language did God speak to Adam?) This is not unlike the problems and ideas dealt with by structuralism and post-structuralism: Saussure's idea (and Saussure is mentioned in the second chapter) that communication involves a straightforward give-and-take between ‘addresser’ and ‘addressee’, assuming that both share a common social code, language, and the post-structuralist (specifically, Derridean) critique of Saussure's notion that it is possible to have an exchange of meanings uncomplicated by misunderstanding, or, as, Derrida would have it, ‘deferral’. Contemporary ideas of cultural misreading or misrepresentation owe not a little to this insight, although Eco's account of misreading is altogether more benign than that of theorists like Edward Said, who has devoted a lifetime's work to documenting the colonising West's wilful misreading, or misrepresentation, of the Orient. Eco's own book is not so much Eurocentric as largely incurious, in spite of the expected colourful references to Marco Polo, about the non-Western world. This is a pity, because it leaves out the story of Orientalist scholars, like William Jones, and Indian intellectuals in 19th-century India, surely one of the most important narratives of cultural exchange of the last 200 years, the discovery by the West of what came to be seen as the ur-language of the Indo-European languages, Sanskrit, and the creative misreadings and exchanges that, in the end, altered the world-views of both parties so profoundly.

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Umberto Eco World Literature Analysis


Eco, Umberto (Vol. 28)