Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Umberto Eco's "Inventing the Enemy": Book Review

Eco explains "occasional writings" as its proper subtitle: he had no interest on the topics herein at first, but being commissioned or encouraged to contribute these pieces as essays, he reflected more on them out of necessity. Over the past decade, so they emerged to entertain himself and his audience as "an exercise in baroque rhetoric." Like that style, its ornamentation may intrigue some and lull others.

Any reader coming to Eco not for the first time expects erudition and range. His medievalism engages us in many entries. The titular one considers how his native Italy lacks enemies for the past sixty years, and how this undermines a national identity. So, enemies if not real must be invented, against which a people test their self-worth. Eco uses an array of classical, medieval, and fascist examples to prove this point, as well as Shakespeare, Sartre, and Orwell. He conveys with well-chosen excerpts, as throughout this collection, the lively spirit of rhetorical and intellectual excess.

"Absolute and Relative" takes on the present pope as well as Nicholas of Cusa, Pseudo-Dionysius, Lenin and Aquinas. These enliven the more bookish analyses of logic he applies. Fire in "The Beauty of the Flame" uses its metaphorical themes, with a dutiful citation from Bachelard before going back to hellfire, heavenly light, alchemy, luminosity, destruction, ekpyrosis, and even Joycean epiphany. This exemplifies Eco's range efficiently.

So does "Treasure Hunting," allowing him another romp into medieval relics displayed all over the Christian world. As with fellow scholar Piero Camporesi, a wonderfully eclectic investigator of odd lore, Umberto Eco in his tribute to this "gourmet of lists" as well as tastes and smells finds a fitting subject. Same for the stolid but offbeat "No Embyros in Paradise," to find what Thomas Aquinas thinks (as opposed to Catholic orthodoxy today!) about stem cells, embryos, abortion, and "the so-called right to life." Eco finds, no surprise, that the Angelic Doctor differed from the modern Church in when ensoulment entered the fetus.

Victor Hugo's "sublime excess" and that of the gothic (the original version!) novel slots Eco into the grotesque adroitly. Even if I lacked knowledge (as often in this wide-ranging book) the source texts quoted often at wonderful length and astute choice, Eco's pleasure is infectious. "Censorship and Silence" takes a more serious turn, if Italy's "television showgirls" can pass as that via the term "valina" or "veline." He moves this discussion into current fears of censorship, and the ethical problem of how in a media-drenched world "to return to silence."

"Imaginary Astronomies" benefits by its charts and maps; how the earth and sky were charted by our ancestors segues into Jules Verne and science fiction and finally "true history." A "spurious review" titled "Living by Proverbs" follows as the first of three pieces of "real entertainment." The next on "sentimental digressions on early times" expounds (tediously at times for my tastes) on "anagnorisis" or "the change from ignorance to knowledge." These two felt fustier if perhaps intentionally so, more a drawing-room exercise by a wit. But, they preface my favorite, hauntingly and disorientingly composed of seventeen real excerpts from 1920-30s Italian reviews of James Joyce's "Ulysses" by fascist critics.

The penultimate essay looks at why utopia is lost and its islands never found, in visual and textual illustrations. The last, from December 2010, combines two articles on WikiLeaks as a "false scandal"--one that becomes public but which was known widely and whispered about in private long before. While subsequent events perhaps show the power of the authorities bent on taking its mastermind down, Eco leaves us with another smart remark: "technology moves like a crayfish, in other words, backwards." That is, compromised spies and duplicitous diplomats may have to retreat from electronic databases and networked communiques to the days of "meetings in the steam room of a Turkish bath, or messages left in the alcove by some Mata Hari."

Richard Dixon translates these assorted essays with vigor. It's fun to learn so much from 222 fast-paced, smart, and thoughtful pages. Intellectuals can have a blast too, and Umberto Eco in his lectures and discussions teaches us how to look fresh at the world of the past as well as the foibles that literature and history and philosophy (and theology and alchemy and astronomy) dutifully investigate, satirize, and pontificate upon. (Amazon US 7/23/12)

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