Umberto Eco, who passed away last year, was one of a rare breed: a man of letters in the classical sense, a semiotician, essayist, literary critic and author, most famously, of The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum.
In this collection of essays, Eco demonstrates his wide-ranging breadth of interests and intellectual pursuits. Meditations on Wikileaks accompany long exigeses on Victor Hugo’s works. Semiotic forays into the myriad meanings of fire rub shoulders with a satirical account of a society whose laws are overly-literal readings of traditional proverbs.
The two essays that start and end this collection are probably the most accessible to a contemporary audience. The titular essay Inventing the Enemy seems at first your standard-issue tract about the human propensity to view the world through a Manichean lens and makes enemies of the Other, but rather than decry this tendency, Eco suggests that perhaps we shouldn’t fight the urge and instead go find appropriate enemies to channel our opprobrium at – preferably non-human threats like global warming. Outrage, rightly channeled, can be a wonderfully productive force.
Thoughts on Wikileaks is an assortment of observations about that famed incident, ending with Eco pointing out the irony of technological progress – that as we go forward, the future starts to look awfully nostalgic – for, in an age where technology makes things more transparent than ever before, the bread and butter of international espionage will have to go back to its Cold War-era, cloak-and-dagger roots of dead drops and furtive encounters in dark alleyways.
Not everything is on the same level of accessibility or interest to the general reader of his works. One essay, a vitriolic critique of James Joyce entirely pieced together from the reviews of several Fascist tracts directed against it after its publication, left me nonplussed; it is scarcely more understandable even when you realise from some research that Eco was known as a seminal scholar of Joyce. Another essays deals in some length with a fellow named Camporesi, who Eco (understandably) assumes the reader is familiar with.
Unlike some other essay collections I could name (cf Wallace), though, Eco does not attempt to drown you in a deluge of facts and verbiage as a testament to his own erudition. His essay on Victor Hugo is a case in point – as long as you know him as the man who penned Les Miserables, you should be able to follow and be entertained by Eco’s surprisingly engaging essay on how Hugo made use of the literary device called bombast to make his works immortal.
Eco also professes an almost endearing fascination with fictitious worlds, whether astronomical or geological. His essays on fictitious cosmologies and lost islands inspire a fascination with the earnest falsities of the past, of those who struggled to fit capricious reality into their own wistful image.
I suspect that, with Eco, there is that pedagogical instinct present in his writing, or perhaps just a writerly good habit – Eco never fails to educate even if his subject matter exists just outside the skein of one’s lived experience. He writes like an avuncular, chain-smoking professor that knows he’s a bit out of your depth, but with a twinkle in his eye, pulls you in anyway.
I give this collection: 4 out of 5 insula perditas