Of Letters

Of Umberto Eco. A Pendulum of Knowledge

Umberto Eco is no more, but still is and continues to beat like a perpetual pendulum within our hearts and minds forevermore. May God rest him in peace and receive him with open arms in throughout his Kingdom. Following is a mix of present thoughts and some (in italic) that came down on paper in 2008.

Eco’s universe

8 October 2008. Autumn feels the scent of entering its own rights and the days are falling from the calendar like the golden leaves from the canopies of sad trees. 8/10 2008 or 10/8/08, a date that starts and ends with an 8, also a date with an 18th number with two senses, that 18 of 3 times 6, or 18 times 2, that Rosicrucian number of 36. The date of 8/10/08 on the 18th hour, and hour which was pushed of being late at the meeting. This numerical religiousness that has influenced the arithmetic of religion. In this unique day and hour of the unfolding of life the chance was there to meet and listen one of the biggest thinkers of our time – Umberto Eco. University of Toronto’s offering on this rare privilege of listening Mr. Eco as part of a public conference organized under the auspices of “An Illustrated Presentation on the History of Beauty and Ugliness”.

When one comes to encounter such a personality it is with emotions, dispersed thoughts, and overflowing awkwardness towards what one can express being faced with such an occasion. After all, it is to be Umberto Eco, a human among humans, a man endowed with the armor of talent and the weapons of knowledge. The question comes to what is left from his garden of liberty given his public statute of a moving monumental statue. At best, one has to try and perceive the human, and of what has directed the destinies of its writings by traversing some of the public journeys over the internet, through the parks of interviews, the jungle of critics, and the thousands of pages turned by the readers of his books.

Through time and books

The world fell in love with The Name of the Rose, both the book and the masterful movie from 1986 directed under Jean-Jacques Aranaud. It feels like Eco went on to study the world, the history and all the erudition that he could undertake, to then come back at the age of 48 and publish this marvel of a book. Many people relate to this, mark it as a milestone in their reading experience, partly from its action packed monks-being-detective story, others from experiencing history and semiotics as pop-culture or simply from visualizing William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) and Adso of Melk (Christian Slater) on resolving this medieval murder mystery go live on screen. It is a captivating story after all, that sold in millions of copies even so it is packed with latin, theological references and usage of semiotics, a true labyrinth of knowledge, all happening at a monastery and having a library and its manuscripts at the center of the plot, intrigue and intricate resolve of the captivating enigma.

Rocca Calascio exterior shooting location for the movie

The burden of the sentiment of inferiority in front of the erudition and the interior beauty that made so many millions of people startle from the impressions created by imaginary journeys, triggers vast forms of invading emotions. Standing the chance of meeting and listening to Umberto Eco, emozioni are everywhere around, so but luck comes along the way as the humour and healthy laughs relax the atmosphere and leave space for a step forward. Being in front of Mr. Eco, the questions are pouring down the brain like a torrential rain but have a tendency of being ordinary, and so refrain and retreat are the principles of wisdom. Try and slip, try again and recover, in the end give up and make room to others that converge towards the same wishes of questioning and rapprochement.

This existence through celebrity that somewhat limits one’s liberty must be overwhelming and it must result into a continuous zigzag of the mind through the so many repetitive questions that are much of the time senseless and end up wishing to remain within the ordinary, the commonplace. For one, the literary journeys presented to the world detaches a writer altogether from us, and it startles a sentiment of envy towards such freedom, as Mr. Eco has lived and grown in various worlds be it medieval, conspiratorial, symbolic, natural, humorous, etc. and after years and years to then return to us the mundanes, the ones stuck in the present, the ones awaiting with their open souls to receive the gift of lives from other times extracted in pages full of erudite and rich writings.

Umberto Eco was a passionate book collector, everybody talks of his famous walk through his personal library where tens of thousands of tomes line upon shelves with ladders all along the white walls of his Milan apartment. One can only imagine a travel through time and and feel the winds of so many stories, images and symbols of thousands of different lives and characters. Another round of collections of books lies on the shelves of his vacation home near Urbino, a different setting with different research tool at one’s fingertips. Professor Eco was often amused of the tempting question coming off the guests visiting – “And have you read them all?”. Indubitably, a question with no answer, just a smile or a joke. Wherever he went Eco became a deep and extreme antiquarian explorer, and one can be certain that La Biblioteca di Umberto Eco has offered a constant source of inspiration for the multitude of stories, intrigues and fakes, symbols and muses, conspiracies or fallacies.

Reading through the pages of Foucault’s Pendulum, imagine taking a break at the Pilade bar and ask oneself what kept Eco’s pendulum in movement, what is the gravitational force driven off – passion, books, belief, genetic code? One can only wish to have really met the author at Pilade’s as a “stupido” igniting some discussions in front of a glass of whiskey. The world has been described and divided in the Pendulum between idiots, imbeciles, stupid and crazy. Not much left afterwards.

Belbo, Casaubon, and Diotallevi jump alive in front of the reader’s eyes. They seem to breathe a well known air with a pleasant scent of old as the clock feels to be moving backwards. Abulafia’s image, the computer, that brought revelations hard to imagine, seems now so different after the recent evolution in technology. But even today the story amuses and delights with the impressions created by the force of the search function or of the concept of undo alongside the logic and attempt to decipher the password that will bring on screen the much wanted files loaded with secrets and revelations. The story then gallops towards a world heavy on historical facts, the Templars ride the pages and show up on the frontispiece in full force, at first also at Pilade, shaken out in the story by Casaubon, like a tirade of a western movie and then more like a serious matter with heroic and unique characters. Colonel Ardenti seals the Plan and introduces us with skill in the legend of the Graal.

Focault’s Pendulum has not even by far gained the popularity and success of …The Rose, as it bears a lot more historical references, some controversial, and sections of dry facts that tend to worn out the reader’s eyes and mind. History experts and the likes of Salman Rushdie have harshly criticized the book, nevertheless, it still turns into a fantastic mystery thriller, it captivates and keeps the interest alive through conspiracy theories and the solving of the intriguing enigmas. It is a focal point in the analysis and understanding into Eco’s ideas and theories, and his passion for conspiracies, some being more valid than others. It is a drive out of the secret societies, a hunt for discovery by failing journalists or low-life loser type intellectuals, characters that are though well read and educated and can spin a story, a conspiracy (The Plan) and interpretations like no others. The Knights Templars are the ones holding the secret and it is to be uncovered out of a special map and the Focault’s Pendulum. The final destination of power being the telluric currents that will give powers to control the world. This has much to portray of professor Eco, his constant search for history, imagination, conspiracies, symbols, fakes or lies. He once said it is better to uncover the lies first, so as to make up for the truth.

Foucault’s Pendulum (signed)

On such occasions and encounters silence can be wise. Perhaps, better write, later. Enter the reception room, the heart filled with rapid beats, searching the presence of Umberto Eco, oscillating from one foot to the other, from one thought to the other. How much do you have to read from an author to understand him, how many paragraphs, interviews, impressions, essays need to be covered to pierce through the armor of wisdom and towards the real sense that breathes through the letters born from the movement of the pendulum of knowledge?

Many stages exist when experiencing the journey of a book. Many stages and many imaginary plans. The mind reading a book becomes a book by itself, and the book will be different for each mind and individual, sometimes surprisingly contrasting. The first stage is one that is consumed relatively fast, the reading of the book itself, a total immersion in the pages of imagination, the action and characters, a quick and intense round. It is perhaps the most representative stage, as it offers a good portion of the image that is formed in relation to the impression of that book’s life and of the intellect that forms the imprints in the reader’s mind. The first stage doesn’t leave much space for escaping towards the author, the human being bearing the signature on the front cover, the author in the context of its own world and work. All that is retained and imagined is the name of the one that tries to captivate you, and a light shadow of the places and happenings associated to the personages. The image of Baudolino, Belbo or friar Baskerville takes hold of you altogether in that medieval or contemporary world and seems to stubbornly keep you out there. 

The typical smile and bonheur

The second stage is one of a potential in-depth knowledge that results from completing the lecture from the first round. The searches convey towards new books, interpretations, interviews, there is a need of understanding the author’s identity, one steps outside the stories, a new analysis of the letters and words is imposed as coming from the interest born in the first stage. This level of thoroughness is what makes one search, many times feverishly, towards other pages from other tomes and volumes of the same author. One steps into new territories, has new revelations, completes the collection of readings currently held and the feelings are confirmed or could take a turn.

The third stage, that of fulfillment, becomes part in part, whole in whole, and defines in a unique and strong way the relationship between the reader and the author. There aren’t too many authors for which one traverses their complete works, that are to be read and re-read to analyze and understand each and every word, to participate at each of their cultural events, to go over each newspaper column or magazine that contains references to the author, to read each of the media reviews or publishing events.

Baudolino is another medieval mystery novel, spanning the last Crusade, the sack of Constantinople and the story of Baudolino the boy, a natural born liar, who has the chance of living alongside Frederick Barbarossa, the king Alaman (Allemagne) and Duke of Swabia, and to tell his life story to Niketas Choniates the Byzantine chronicler. The merit goes to Baudolino for transposing one into history, experiencing the medieval times in a fascinating  and authentic way, culminating with epic journeys into lands of surreal and surrounded by rows of unique bestiaries. It is in these pages where one experiences the passion of Eco into history, reliving major events through the personalized story of Baudolino venturing through Constantinople, Paris or Milan.

Baudolino


At a later stage in his life Eco lands on new territories and pictorial formats with vivid commentaries were bundled in large size hardcover books on subjects such as the Beauty, Ugliness, Legendary Lands or the Infinity of Lists, where anthologies of images build the case for understanding history, ethics, legends of utopias and illusions, or the functionality, control and influence of lists, be it cultural, practical or poetical, that in the end are better defined boundless.

Legendary pictorials

The abundance of articles and references that one can find on Umberto Eco makes writing of him more difficult and poised with the task of avoiding repetition and reproducing of same material, over and over again, but it is out of respect for Mr. Eco to attempt such and undertake even when one is facing such a risk.

October 2015 was the time that brought Numero Zero on the stands across the world. A superb story so well placed in the current political context of our upside-down world. In 1992, Colonna, a journalist is recruited to run a newspaper called Domani, suggestive title towards a paper never to be published. The mastermind publisher is to use the paper only as a vehicle to buildup nonsense, fuel false stories and create confusion to manipulate the powers to be and the interested readers. Eco mentioned in an interview that there is a resemblance of characters towards the loser type individuals that is also cast in Focault’s Pendulum. “Losers are more interesting than winners”. Braggadocio is the master of conspiracy, again a subject of choice for Umberto Eco, and is also hired to contribute to the paper but also brings with him the story of Mussolini and the thrilling end part of the journey.

Numero Zero

I met again with Belbo and Casaubon before the conference and the memories invaded my thoughts. Memories related to the book and memories of the lived times while reading the book. After the conference I have restarted the pendulum journey even if the Earth has turned around a few times from the first lecture and other points of reference have drawn gravitational trajectories on sands of other territories.

What we become with the passage of time, we much believe in wisdom and then in fact they are only episodes of stubbornness and personality strength. We fulfill ideals and realize the puberty of the naive youth, we believe in new horizons or deny other ones more and more. The current world becomes conspiratorial and perhaps turned into reality, we qualm our conscience and ask ourselves how we have overseen primordial essences; but of course it was ignorance. The world of influences engraves an imprint more and more obvious, and forms currents of opinion that erupt from our revolted or enchanted souls.

In the evening after the conference, the sound of rain in the calmness of the night, by chance music brings a gift to my ears – Toto Cutugno and Emozioni, to maintain the wave of communication alight. Throughout time the outline of two imaginary maps have followed my mind which have been imprinted from the pen of the Foucaultian pages. The interesting passage of the Templars: Castle –> Jerusalim –> Agarttha –> Chartres –> Mediteranean –> Stonehenge (or in many other orders). ” The Templar spirit was of Celtic inspiration, Druidic, it was the nordic arian spirit that the tradition identifies with the island of Avalon, the site of the true hiperborean civilization.” One’s sight is fixed towards the geo-historical map, the path mentioned and the symbol drawn in the book.

The subject of numerology and of deciphering symbols and signs keeps returning to mind, the numbers and characters that come to us as an essential part of stories, invites us always into reflection and awakening towards what is there behind the walls. It is overwhelming to come across the presence of so many references of that many types, the medieval era and the legend of the Graal, the Templars and the Crusades all mixed by a grand wheel of history that spins rapidly and throws ourselves into the gravitational force of the belief and of journeys into the mythical and the legendary. But the foundation of the world in the book is superbly shaped and presented and the constant inquiry and search tend to remains stuck in the land of attempts and discoveries.

Choosing a book and going over it is a big question mark. How hard can it be to have the capacity of always choosing a valuable, worthy book to be explored. Recommendations, critics, even the slightest opinion of a title or an author in the subconscious immediately awakens the curiosity of touching and crossing of those rows and paragraphs. Umberto Eco was saying that a library is always a continuous source of attempt, because many volumes keep calling, and some are opened or pages are turned, and by doing this the books live inside the person even for that touch or thought of short duration. Never hesitate to pick up a book by Umberto Eco. Once done, one will always will.

“There are two authors who have influenced me. One is Joyce, about whom I also wrote a book, and the other was Borges, whom I adored. There was a symposium in Spain about ten years ago on the idea of relationships between me and Borges. María Kodama, the wife of Borges, was there. Borges influenced me very much.”

“You know, Roland Barthes once said that the semiotician, or the “semiologist” as they were called at the time, is the person who walks in the street and where other people see things, he sees the meaning. That is a real attitude – to see everything as being meaningful, even the less important things, to prove something, even the greater problems of life. Being a professional philosopher is, I would say, feeling natural to think about small and great problems. It is the only pleasure.”

“Sometimes I think of my children,” he said, “who see a name on the cover of a book, or on the screen, and it’s always somebody who was there in the house the week before. So there is no excitement. While for me to meet at the age of 20 a great movie director was, was … an event in my life. My son at the age of 5 put his hand on the mouth of Antonioni. So there is no excitement in meeting Antonioni.”

“There is nothing better than imagining other worlds, to forget the painful one we live in. At least so I thought then. I hadn’t yet realized that, imagining other worlds, you end up changing this one.” (Baudolino)

Ringraziamenti. Che Dio Riposare Signore! Ciao Professore!

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