Life: Interpretation and the work edition

Hamlet is not a masterpiece; it’s a muddled tragedy, which fails to bring its disparate sources into a coherent whole. But that’s also why it has become an enigma that continues to fascinate and provoke debate all over the world. Hamlet isn’t a masterpiece on account of its literary qualities; it has become one precisely because it resists our interpretation. Sometimes it’s the weirdness that makes a text go down in history.”

—Umberto Eco, from This is Not the End of the Book (a book that demands to be read in gorgeous hardcover, given the many comments about the physicality of books within). I wonder if the observation about enigma and failure to cohere could apply too to this season of True Detective, which is only charitably coherent. Sadly, though, it is much less linguistically interesting than Hamlet and much less visually interesting than much of what else is in the media.

Life: The meaning of life edition

“Their protest often reduces salvation to the idle contemplation of one’s own inner void; to them, even the merest search for a remedy is a form of complicity with the alienating situation. On the contrary, the only possible salvation demands an active and practical involvement with the situation. Man works, produces a world of objects, and inevitably alienates himself to them. But then he rids himself of his alienation by accepting those objects, by committing himself to them, and, instead of annihilating them, by negating them in the name of transformation, aware that at every transformation he will again find himself confronting the same dialectic situation. . .

If he chooses instead to withdraw into himself and to cultivate his own purity and spiritual independence, he will find not salvation but annihilation. He cannot transcend alienation by refusing to compromise himself in the objective situation that emerges out of his work.”

—Umberto Eco, The Open Work

What makes a person special: Name of the Rose edition

“But there is no precise rule: it depends on the individuals, on the circumstances. This holds true also for the secular lords. Sometimes the city magistrates encourage the heretics to translate the Gospel into the vernacular: the vernacular by now is the language of the cities, Latin the language of Rome and the monasteries. And sometimes the magistrates support the Waldensians, because they declare that all, men and women, lowly and mighty, can teach and preach, and the worker who is a disciple after ten days hunts for another whose teacher he can become.”
“And so they eliminate the distinction that makes clerics irreplaceable!”

That’s from Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and we can see a similar situation happening now among many professional, privileged, and credentialed classes: with the Internet, the cost of being able to “teach and preach” goes down; anyone motivated can learn, or start to learn almost anything, and anyone inclined to teach can start writing or videoing on whatever topic they believe themselves to be an expert in. The key of course is motivation, which is in scant supply now and probably always will be.

Whether the existing power structures want to encourage self-learning, like many of the “secular lords” and “city magistrates,” or want to preserve existing institutions, depends on the person speaking and their aims. But “the distinction that makes clerics irreplaceable” is similar to the one that makes professors or other professional teachers irreplaceable. It’s a distinction that’s less important than the knowledge and skill underlying the distinction. Some with the distinction are not very good at their jobs and some without distinction are incredibly skilled. Those lines are blurring. Blurring slowly, to be sure. The language of knowledge is spreading. The issue of credentialing remains, but the number of jobs in which work product is a better examination than formal credentials is probably growing.

Does the average software startup want a famous degree, or an extensive Github repository? Right now I’m sifting through freelance fiction editors, and I’ve asked zero of them where they got their degrees or if they have any. I’m very interested in their sample edits and other novels they’ve edited. Clients almost never ask Seliger + Associates about formal degrees—they want to know if we can get the job done.

In writing this post, I am also conforming to the second of Umberto Eco’s “three ways” of reading The Name of the Rose:

The first category of readers will be taken by the plot and the coupes de scene, and will accept even the long bookish discussions and the philosophical dialogues, because it will sense that the signs, the traces and the revelatory symptoms are nesting precisely in those inattentive pages. The second category will be impassioned by the debate of ideas, and will attempt to establish connections (which the author refuses to authorize) with the present. The third will realize that this text is a textile of other texts, a ‘whodunnit’ of quotations, a book built of books.

Eco published this novel in 1980, around the dawn of the personal computer age and long before the consumer Internet. Whatever connections existed in the 1970s between The Name of the Rose and that era—the ones Eco presumably had in mind, whatever his view of authorization—are not the ones I most notice. That the novel’s correspondences can grow and change with decades make it so powerful and deep. Few works of art transcend their immediate context. This one does. It deals with the eternities much more than the news, though the author has demonstrated in essays his interest in the daily news.

If someone had told me before I read The Name of the Rose that a novel set in 1327 and utterly enmeshed in the recondite politics of Christianity would be one of my favorite novels, I would’ve scoffed. Religion as a subject is of little interest to me, except in meta sense. But sufficiently great novels transcend their context, even as they adapt the language, rhetoric, and world of their context. As Eco’s third category of reader indicates, the novel is composed of many other novels, books, articles, and speech. He has, it seems, 800 years of literary history composted into a single work. Few novels do, and fewer still do so in a novel with an actual plot.

Life: The Name of the Rose edition

“Here the artist had dwelled at greater length on the woman’s form. I compared her face, her bosom, her curving thighs with the statue of the Virgin I had seen with Ubertino. The line was different, but this mulier also seemed very beautiful to me. I thought I should not dwell on these notions, and I turned several more pages. I found another woman, but this time it was the whore of Babylon. I was not so much struck by her form as by the thought that she, too, was a woman like the other, and yet this one was the vessel of every vice, whereas the other was the receptacle of every virtue. But the forms were womanly in both cases, and at a certain point I could no longer understand what distinguished them.”
—Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose.

And, why not have a bonus:

“Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means [. . .]”

The Prague Cemetery — Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco has written two fabulous, wonderful novels that I often reference and recommend to friends: The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum (have you read them? If not, stop reading this and get copies). He’s also written a number of others. The Prague Cemetery fits in with the others. I continue to read his novels, or at least start them, because writing one extraordinary novel, let alone two, is so rare that I continue to hope.

I meant to write a long review, but The Prague Cemetery is so tedious and plotless that I gave up. Nonetheless, I will point to a Paris Review interview with Eco that may explain the source of the malaise in his later novels:


Many of your novels seem to rely upon clever concepts. Is that a natural way for you to bridge the chasm between theoretical work and novel writing? You once said that “those things about which we cannot theorize, we must narrate.”


It is a tongue-in-cheek allusion to a sentence by Wittgenstein. The truth is, I have written countless essays on semiotics, but I think I expressed my ideas better in Foucault’s Pendulum than in my essays.

Relying “upon clever concepts” requires unusually deft execution, which Eco’s later books don’t seem to have—the problem is one of proportion: in his first two novels, Eco let narrates predominate, and ideas drove narrative. In his later novels, it feels like he’s taking an idea and forcing it into a narrative, instead of letting the narrative itself lead. The application of force might make for an “interesting” novel, or an interesting exploration of an idea or set of ideas in fictional form, but it doesn’t make for a satisfying read.

I am not opposed to reading novels that are “hard” or hard to follow (think of something like Peter Watt’s Blindsight); I’m opposed to reading ones that are pointlessly hard, or seem deliberately abstruse for no obvious reason. Which describes The Prague Cemetery. There are clever sentences, as always (“Artists are insufferable, even from afar, always looking around to see whether we have recognized them;” “People believe only what they already know, and this is the beauty of the Universal Form of Conspiracy”), but they’re not linked well. It feels like extended finger exercises, not a final performance. I gave up two-thirds in.

A novel without ideas might be impossible and certainly bores me; novels with characters who don’t know or seem to know very much aren’t very satisfying to me, on average, unless perhaps those characters learn a tremendous amount as they go along.

As so often happens, I set out to write about a book and ended up writing about Books. It’s a hazard of the hobby (and profession), I suppose, but I still catch myself doing it and decide that, oh well, I like it after all.

Umberto Eco at the New York Public Library for The Prague Cemetery

In a talk with Paul Holdengräber, Umberto Eco said that “I have no particular interest in psychoanalysis,” but the interviewer kept pressing. Eco said, “My problem with psychoanalysis is due to my pride.” He’d be too eager to “trick” the analyst. It’s a writerly comment, and I get the impression that he’s playing tricks with and on readers (and listeners) too, continually pulling himself back from definitive statements and teasing one with the power of narrative (did you guess the murderer and his reasons in The Name of the Rose? Can you reconstruct the weirdly chopped narrative in The Prague Cemetery? For me the answers are no.)

In addition: Eco said he’s not tempted by psychoanalysis because it’s too expensive, which is rather hilarious given his obvious wealth and the relative lowness of monetary concerns compared with the abstract, aesthetic or intellectual concerns around intellectual power and honesty. I identify with Eco, and if I were in psychoanalysis I’d want to trick the therapist too, which might defeat some of the purpose. Besides, Eco says he “doesn’t offer cures,” which is good: novelists should offer stories. Eco’s are tall, and he has the glint of a precocious child caught in a lie but still amused and chuckling at his ability to trick you, and he has that childlike sense of the very intelligent and curious, akin to your favorite professor in college; I’m trying to cultivate the same attitude, but it’s a bit like trying to grow tomatoes in Seattle.

Eco revealed other things: he loves the English words “discombobulation” and “flabbergasted,” both of which I also admire, though not as much as “specious” and “callipygian.” He says “stupidity is fascinating,” which is true, especially because stupidity can often be harder to define, and one can go from feeling pleased with one’s own intelligence to feeling quite the fool with astonishing quickness—which is one of the delights in The Name of the Rose, when William realizes that his vaunted mind has created connections where none exist and that he has been led astray by his own certainty. In The Prague Cemetery, Simonini the forger preys on the trust and paranoia of others. Eco calls him a character without any kind of morality. I would add that he has no epistemological foundation, which lets him ply his trade; Eco says “the world is full of Simoninis,” which also implies we should watch for them and the conditions, like war and paranoia, that allow them to prosper.

The Prague Cemetery is set in the 19th Century, but, like all novels set in a time not our own, it invariably comments on our own. Eco cited the imagined Iraqi weapons that gave a pretext for the second Iraq War in 2003 as an example of Simoninis at work. We tend to have too much credulity. Generalization is a scourge and specifics beautiful—except, of course, for this generalization.

Hearing and reading Eco shows a powerful and finely calibrated mind at work, which is a great and too rare pleasure. Listening to the talk and reading Eco’s work makes me want to be a better writer—and a better reader, since the two can’t be separated from each other. Another point: I can’t convey most of Eco’s hilarity. It’s too dependent on delivery and comic timing. Eco uses timing effectively, and he’s willing to let agonizing silence hang.

In Reflections on The Name of the Rose, Eco said that novels are born of a single, seminal idea; in the case of that novel, the desire to see a monk murdered (he originally wrote that he wanted to poison a monk, but he has since made the subtle but important change to take some of the agency out of his hands). So Holdengräber asked about the seminal idea in The Prague Cemetery. Eco said he didn’t have one. Things change. It might be futile to ask a writer about their methods, since writers, like lovers, might be motivated by all sorts of things at different times and places.

Eco said in the talk that “The novel is always a way of discovering something,” but I wonder if novels are really means of discovering how little we know and how strange things really are if we look closely enough. We really are strangers to ourselves, but we often don’t recognize it. Eco, I sense, does, and that may explain his uninterest in psychoanalysis. He’s essentially wary of the mind’s associative tendencies, which he associates with conspiracy theorists. The idea of conspiracy enters those of his novels I’ve read: The Name of the Rose, where William imagines a possible conspiracy, Foucault’s Pendulum, where Casaubon and the editors make up a conspiracy for their own amusement, The Prague Cemetery, which, so far, is overrun with characters whose dubious ability to infer causal relationships where none exist enables Simonini to flourish.

The end of the talk was disappointing: Holdengräber asked about the role of the Internet in changing research and the role of libraries in the age of the Internet, Eco offered platitudes long familiar to New York Review of Books readers, and, besides, no one really knows what’s going to happen over time.

I haven’t deeply discussed The Prague Cemetery in this post because he didn’t speak much about it. In addition, I’m about halfway through the novel and continue to dislike it—not because of its protagonist, a man as close to wicked, evil deception (as opposed to the humorous kind Eco practices) as Eco can probably make, but because of is narrative structure. The novel is divided between three major narratives, two of which may be multiple personalities from the same person, and much of it is told in diary form. It’s hard to track who is doing what and why he’s doing it.

Narrative games are a long-standing interest of Eco’s; to return to Reflections on the Name of the Rose:

Another problem: the encasement of the voices, or, rather, of the narrative points of view. I knew that I was narrative a story with the words of another person, having declared in the preface that this person’s words had been filtered through at least two other narrative points of view, that of Mabillon and that of the Abbé Vallet, even if they had supposedly operated only as philologists (but who believes that?). The problem arose again, however, within Adso’s first-person narration. Adso, at the age of eighty, is telling about what he saw at the age of eighteen. Who is speaking, the eighteen-year-old Adso or the eighty-year-old? Both, obviously; and this is deliberate. The trick was to make the old Adso constantly present as he ponders what he remembers having seen and felt as the young Adso.

But “the encasement of the voices” is easily followed in The Name of the Rose, and the various voices in Foucault’s Pendulum are anchored by Casaubon. One can follow what someone is doing and, more or less, why they are doing it. That’s not especially true in The Prague Cemetery, where the protagonist, Simonini is mostly writing a “diary,” while other voices track what he’s doing.

Does this sound confusing? I’ve reread the last couple paragraphs a couple times and find no way to simplify my explanation. The novel begins to feel more like an exploration of narrative games, along the lines of late Henry James, Herman Hesse, or Philip K. Dick, and less like a story. In Reflections, Eco writes that “Unquestionably, the modern novel has sought to diminish the amusement resulting from the plot in order to enhance other kinds of amusement. As a great admirer of Aristotle’s Poetics, I have always thought that, no matter what, a novel must also—especially—amuse through its plot.” Maybe he is no longer convinced “a novel must also [. . .] amuse through its plot,” or he has expanded his definition of “amuse,” or Eco has changed his mind, as he has about the need for a novel to come from a seminal image.

I keep reading Eco because I hope for a novel as powerful as The Name of the Rose or Foucault’s Pendulum. I hope to get one.

The year's best in reading, not in publishing

Like D.G. Myers, I don’t find much interest in “year’s best” lists and the like. Most of them are, as he says, boring; maybe that has something to do with the nature of the list and the arbitrary divisions that we use to mark milestones in our lives.

That being said, I read a lot, and I’d prefer to write about what’s new to me, rather than what happens to be published in a particular 12 month period. Last year I wrote about “pointless listmaking,” and I’m reminded of a comment from Rob, the narrator of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, when he’s at a party given by an ex-girlfriend:

The difference between these people and me is that they finished college and I didn’t… as a consequence, they have smart jobs and I have a scruffy job, they are rich and I am poor, they are self-confident and I am incontinent, they do not smoke and I do, they have opinions and I have lists.

(Emphasis added. The novel’s first sentence involves a list: “My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order: 1. Alison Ashworth…”)

Umberto Eco likes lists, or at least studies them. As previously mentioned, he said that “The list is the origin of culture.” Being the origin, however, is very different from being the destination, or the evolution, of culture, and so in that light the list might be a primitive device that is still nonetheless useful to consider. As such, after a great deal of meta commentary regarding the nature of the activity in which I’m about to engage, I’m going to give a non-numbered, non-ordered list of books I happened to read in the previous 12-month period that are books I now recommend to others, found moving, or otherwise think deserve special attention.

* Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Angel’s Game, which I keep meaning to write about and then not doing. If one were writing an ad for the novel, it could say, accurately, “Did you love The Shadow of the Wind? Then you’ll love The Angel’s Game!” The two novels are written in the same half-mocking Gothic style, are both set in Barcelona, and both deal with murder, love, and literature.

* Max Jamison, Wilifred Sheed’s improbably hilarious novel about an unhappy theater critic.

* The Magicians, Lev Grossman’s take on what magic school might seem like to those who are already aware of magic school and fantasy conventions. As with real school, nobility takes front seat to sex and power, which occupy the back. I also read (and haven’t written about) Donna Tart’s The Secret History, which features school and murder in a surprisingly pleasant literary package.

* Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness ought to be required reading for those who are alive.

* John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor.

One nice part about reading is that books are effectively inexhaustible: given constraints on time, no one can read everything worthwhile (although Harold Bloom is apparently trying). Therefore we need developed opinions, yes, but we also need pointers to books that are worth having developed opinions about, and to my mind the handful of books above meet that criterion. Apologies to those of you who have read this far and just wanted a couple books to read, and to those of you who think the whole idea of lists so noxious and boring that, even with the aforementioned meta commentary, you don’t know how you managed to get this far into the post.

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