Umberto Eco's web of lists and The Name of the Rose

In an interview with the German newspaper SPIEGEL, Umberto Eco says that ‘We Like Lists Because We Don’t Want to Die.’ His first answer goes:

The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.

One can see the intellectual footprints of Eco’s work at the Louvre—he’s curating an exhibit about lists—in Reflections on The Name of the Rose, where he discusses the composition and ideas behind The Name of the Rose: “I dug out a huge amount of material (file cards, photocopies, notebooks), accumulated since 1952 and originally intended for other, still-vague purposes: a history of monsters, or an analysis of the medieval encyclopedias, or a theory of lists. . . .” (emphasis added). On page 24, he says that he made “Lists of names and personal data for many characters [….]”

Alas: the interviewer didn’t know about these obscure references and missed the chance to ask about them. Does he perceive his books as an effort to order chaos? Do books bring a certain amount of chaos (intellectual, social) of their own? He describes The Name of the Rose as a text composed of other texts, as all books are to some extent, but how does this metaphor of the web fit with our conception of lists? I could try to answer some of these questions, and do in my mind, but I would like to see the master’s thoughts too.

Granted, maybe my curiosity simply implies I should see the exhibit, but the Louvre is a long way from Tucson. Eco, however, still firmly resides in my mind, and implicitly on the minds of others; over at The Atlantic Andrew Sullivan says that “It’s staggering really that modern American Christianism supports wealth while Jesus demanded total poverty [….]” Maybe Jesus demanded poverty and maybe he didn’t: as Eco says in both Reflections and The Name of the Rose, the “poverty debate” dominated learned circles in 1321, masking a larger debate about power and its deployment. The arguments Eco recounts in The Name of the Rose shows that, if the answer were as simple as Sullivan describes, there would be no debate. But where there is money, and by extension power, there is sure to be a multiplicity of interpretations based on who stands to materially gain—and lose.

As so often becomes the case after one becomes familiar with his work, Eco has already been there.

Architects of Fear: Conspiracy Theories and Paranoia in American Politics — George Johnson

Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum is both more fun to read and more informative than George Johnson’s Architects of Fear: Conspiracy Theories and Paranoia in American Politics, which promises an in-depth explanation of conspiracy theories and theorists but doesn’t really deliver.

Johnson’s central claim is that conspiracy theorists see sinister links between a variety of unrelated or barely related occurrences while simultaneously lacking the ability to deal with ambiguity and change. They lack the critical rigor necessarily to separate cause and effect, correlation and causation, coincidence and connection. It’s an intriguing idea that he should have explored more, at the expense of vapid histories of mostly right-wing conspiracy theorists. The John Birch Society and Lyndon LaRouche both get prominent billing, but both now seem dated; the pinnacle of their ideas’ power came with the Oklahoma City Bombing, after which conspiracy theorists of that style receded very low-level background cultural noise—especially after 9/11 revealed real problems, as opposed to the invented ones Johnson chronicles.

Still, Architects of Fear is amusing for its depiction of bogus reasoning used by conspiracy theorists. For example, Adam Weishaupt was a Bavarian university professor who “wanted to bring the spirit of rationalism and the philosophical Age of Enlightenment to his benighted land.” To do so, he founded a group he called the Illuminati, who have provided fodder for lousy Dan Brown-style novels ever since (along with the aforementioned Foucault’s Pendulum, which is excellent, showing that cultural flowers do sometimes spring forth from the most unusual places). In turn, conspiracy theorists have cited the Illuminati, the Knights Templar, and others as possessing secret, hermeneutical knowledge, which is proven in a variety of absurd ways. For example, one section from Architects of Fear says:

As conspiracy theorists are fond of pointing out, Weishaupt structured [the Illuminati] like a pyramid […] Eventually, thirteen ranks were established. Thirteen levels, as on the dollar-bill pyramid. As initiates learned new powers and secrets, they ascended the step of the pyramid, coming increasingly closer to the light.

But virtually all organizations are structured as pyramids, with a relatively small number of leaders at the top and a larger number of functionaries below them. The United States itself functions like this, with a President as the leader, and most corporations have a CEO who is blamed, fairly or not, for what goes well or poorly in an organization, despite the amount of control she might or might not have.

Alas: Johnson didn’t point this out, and it’s one of the many examples of where his analysis is flat or inadequate. He does sometimes hit useful points, as when he says, “Many of the founding fathers were Freemasons and sympathized with Masonic aims of universal brotherhood, but sharing symbols and ideas is different from participating in a plot.” It is, and I would’ve liked to hear more on the subject.

Thin research might prevent Johnson from saying more; most of the research he does have comes from newspaper articles, and most of the chapters consist of rehashes of those articles rather than original observations built on substantial knowledge. Architects of Fear could have been a better book, but it shows the weakness of journalists-turned-book-writers, as opposed to something like Dave Cullen’s Columbine, which shows the strengths. Along those lines, in another section Johnson says that:

Modern historians […] believe the Antichrist predicted in Revelation refers to Roman emperor Nero. The book apparently was written after Christ’s death to comfort Christians persecuted by Nero’s “one-world government,” the Roman empire.

But he cited no sources for this claim in the bibliography. I have no idea whether it’s actually true because I know little about historical scholarship surrounding the Bible. He also gave no citation for his “one-world government” quote, meaning that it might have come from somewhere or merely be offset to show how conspiracy adherents might observe the Roman Empire. As far as I can tell, however, no one has come along to do it better; books like Jane Parish and Martin Parker’s The Age of Anxiety: Conspiracy Theory and the Human Sciences sound too narrow, while Daniel Pipes’ Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From is more promising but still reminiscent of an amorphous genre. Nonetheless, they seem better alternatives than Architects of Fear.

Worth keeping? No.
Worth buying? No.
Worth reading? No.

Summary Judgment: The Island of the Day Before, The Salterton Trilogy, and The Brief History of the Dead

“Summary Judgment” is a new and occasional feature not unlike the “Books Briefly Noted” section in the New Yorker.

* The more I read of Eco, the more I think of him as an author of extremes in terms of accomplishment: his great books have the shock, astonishment, inevitably, and beauty that make them great, while his weaker ones can descend into bland self-parody or simple boredom. The Island of the Day Before rests firmly in the latter camp. Like Robert Penn Warren or Melville, Eco’s best novels, like The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, more than excuse The Island of the Day Before. In this case, Amazon’s 448 used copies of the hardcover edition are available starting at $0.01 for a very good reason.

The unnamed “I” narrating the Island of the Day Before says that Roberto, a man cast on a dream-like abandoned ship in the mid-seventeenth century; Roberto is about to explore the dream ship, and on the verge of his exploration we are interrupted:

Or, rather, he does not set out at once. I must crave indulgence, but it is Roberto who, in telling this to the Lady, contradicts himself—an indication that he does not tell in complete detail what has happened to him, but instead tries to construct his letter like a story or, more, like a sketch for what could become both letter and story, and he writes without deciding what things he will select later; he drafts, so to speak, the pieces of his chessboard without immediately establishing which to move and how to deploy them.

Eco is describing the author’s troubles here, but its self-consciousness is more irritating than enlightening: save such disquisitions for literary essays rather than literature, where action should propel the reader to care before metaphysical blathering lulls him to sleep. It’s an intensely annoying affectation that continues throughout at least the first hundred pages. Who is the Lady ostentatiously mentioned? By midway through the novel, when I gave up, we hadn’t learned, and she remained a cloying illusive presence. Some novels use the layered story structure well—including The Name of the Rose, Heart of Darkness, William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, and some of John Barth’s novels—but The Island of the Day Before among them.

You can find good explanations of what Eco is attempting in Barth’s The Friday Book and Further Fridays, and when the explanation is better than the specific work of art manifesting a phenomenon, you know that work of art—in this case a novel—has failed its greatest test: to make you feel. If the ghost ship interruptions had been removed and the sections about Roberto streamlined into something more conventional but, for this material, probably more appropriate, I think The Island of the Day Before would’ve worked much better.

* I re-read Robert Davies’ The Salterton Trilogy, which tended to reinforce my initial impression of it being the least of his works, though still quite good. He doesn’t really find his legs until the second half of A Mixture of Frailties, the novel in which provincial Canadian Monica Gall ends up in England, discovering what art she had and how to free herself through music. She’s the most developed character in the trilogy, and if she is at times more passive than she should be, it’s at least forgivable.

The other two novels are mixed: the first, Tempest-Tost, is clever but has a tendency to interrupt the main story too often for elaborate backstory on characters, and this kind of thing is much more organic in The Deptford Trilogy. With Tempest-Tost, a community theater—er, excuse me, theatre—is performing The Tempest, which unleashes mini teapot tempests among many members of its conniving cast, most notably the floppy, self-satisfied math teacher Hector Mackilwraith, a man who is about forty but, as one character, says: “Spiritually—if one may use the word of Hector—he’s been seventy for years.” For that reason he’s one of the more interesting characters, a study in premature maturity. That he doesn’t realize it makes him officious, hilarious and pathetic at the same time. There’s a great speech about Mackilwraith that’s somewhat misplaced and also indicative of the novel’s problems:

I think it’s [I leave the “it” blank intentionally] the logical outcome of his education and the sort of life he has led. He’s vulgar. I don’t mean just that he wears awful suits and probably eats awful food: I mean that he has a crass soul. He thinks that when his belly is full and his safe, he’s got the world by the tail. He has never found out anything about himself, so how can he know anything about other people. The condition of the vulgarian is that he never expects anything good or bad that happens to him to be the result of his own personality; he always thinks it’s Fate, especially if it’s bad. The only people who make any sense in the world are those who know that whatever happens to them has its roots in what they are.

All of that is true, but it’s also somewhat awkward to have long, play-like soliloquies spout from characters in novels like . If this were an isolated example, one could let it pass, but the whole The Salterton Trilogy is filled with them. Davies’ later work has similar long commentaries, but they’re better integrated with the characters’ personalities and with the plot. This one is particularly noticeable because the sentiment expressed is interesting, but it’s easy to pass it as the scene it’s embedded in goes from person to person, each of whom diagnoses Mackilwraith’s psychological problems. Still, The Salterton Trilogy is fun, but read The Deptford Trilogy and the Cornish Trilogy first, both of which show Davies’ powers at their zenith.

* Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead isn’t so much a narrative as a series of vignettes about two worlds: that of the living, which has been swept by a plague that’s a convenient but not overly ostentatious metaphor for corporate greed (“The ice cap was already melting, after all, pouring into the ocean by the tankerload, and the corporation might as well take advantage of it while they still could”) and zombification, while the other follows an almost pastoral city world or holding chamber for those heading from one zone—life—to another, which is left to the reader’s imagination.

It’s a clever set up, but one narrative thread should have predominated over the other; the switchbacks make it feel too dead, too abstract, like the world of the dead who are stuck in their strange city. Although there’s space for anti-corporate screeds in novels, this one is particularly blatant. Coca Cola is, if not the bad guy, then at least a vector for the bad guy, implying that Coca Cola executives are, if not evil in and of themselves, are at least the somewhat witting agents of evil. Save it for your alt-weekly column and give us more story and less ideology.

* Mordechai Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman remains mostly confusion around page 100, but it doesn’t have quite the amusement needed to propel me to read on. The novel lacks a discernible backbone running through, while the tedium of continuing to track what, if anything, is happening outweighs the pleasure of occasional jokes. It’ll remain shelved next to Barney’s Version because it feels like it might have buried promise that I’ve yet to unearth.

More on How Fiction Works and someone else’s review doesn’t

In The Australian, a nominal review of James Wood’s How Fiction Works is really a discussion of Wood’s work more generally. It also shows why I shirked writing a deep review of How Fiction Works, as I I have more than a few quibbles:

If Wood doesn’t “get” the overall trick of an author’s writing he tends to dismiss it. This was most evident in his notorious Guardian review (reworked in The Irresponsible Self) of “hysterical realism”, a term Wood has coined to sum up the work of a whole slew of contemporary novelists that includes Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, Salman Rushdie and Thomas Pynchon.

Is this an issue of not “getting” the works, or of getting them too well and not liking or caring for what they represent? To me, DeLillo and Pynchon in particular have long been overrated. I remember trying to read them in late school and early college and thinking, “why are these awful writers so highly praised?” At the time I didn’t realize that they were a reaction against earlier literary trends and that they were trying to be stylistically unusual merely for the sake of being stylistically unusual, or for obscure philosophical points without writing actual philosophy. Paul Graham seems to have had a similar experience with actual philosophy. Wood gets this, and probably better than I do, and I’m not the only one who’s noticed the overpraised and under-talented; one thing I very much appreciate about A Reader’s Manifesto is its willingness to engage with writing, rather than politics surrounding writing, or whatever propelled DeLillo to fame.

To return to the review:

While another critic might see the impulse towards jam-packed, baroquely hyperreal novels as a legitimate and thoughtful, albeit varyingly skilful, response to our postmodern world (a mimetic reflection of the different status of information in an age of instant and indiscriminate communication, say, or an attempt to “wake up” a form whose traditional gestures are now the cliched staples of Hollywood cinema) […]

The problem is that these techniques aren’t mimetic: in trying to mimic the supposed techniques that they implicitly criticize, they don’t reflect information, but chaos; they aren’t hyperreal, but fake. And I’m not convinced modern life is so different in terms of “the different status of information in an age of instant and indiscriminate communication.” Information isn’t indiscriminate: I still choose what to read and what to watch most of the time; if I’m exposed to ads, it’s because I choose to be. In some essays, Umberto Eco discusses how he sees ideas and battles from the Middle Ages underlying much of everyday life, and the more I read, the more I tend to trace the lineage of intellectual and personal ideas backwards through time. Although our technological and physical world has changed enormously in the last two hundred years, I’m not sure the purposes to which we put technology and power (conquest, sex, etc.) has much. That isn’t to say literary style hasn’t evolved, as it obviously has, and my preference tends toward novels written after 1900. Ideas have shifted and evolved too. Still, techniques used by modern authors like the hyperrealists just because they can be used doesn’t make them an improvement. Furthermore, not all of Wood’s loves are mine—I just finished Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady and wouldn’t have if I didn’t need to. But I have seldom read a stronger argument for the capital-N Novel than I have in How Fiction Works, and even when I sometimes don’t find Wood persuasive, the power of his argument and depth of his reading always compels me to think more clearly and deeply about my own positions and thoughts.

More on How Fiction Works and someone else's review doesn't

In The Australian, a nominal review of James Wood’s How Fiction Works is really a discussion of Wood’s work more generally. It also shows why I shirked writing a deep review of How Fiction Works, as I I have more than a few quibbles:

If Wood doesn’t “get” the overall trick of an author’s writing he tends to dismiss it. This was most evident in his notorious Guardian review (reworked in The Irresponsible Self) of “hysterical realism”, a term Wood has coined to sum up the work of a whole slew of contemporary novelists that includes Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, Salman Rushdie and Thomas Pynchon.

Is this an issue of not “getting” the works, or of getting them too well and not liking or caring for what they represent? To me, DeLillo and Pynchon in particular have long been overrated. I remember trying to read them in late school and early college and thinking, “why are these awful writers so highly praised?” At the time I didn’t realize that they were a reaction against earlier literary trends and that they were trying to be stylistically unusual merely for the sake of being stylistically unusual, or for obscure philosophical points without writing actual philosophy. Paul Graham seems to have had a similar experience with actual philosophy. Wood gets this, and probably better than I do, and I’m not the only one who’s noticed the overpraised and under-talented; one thing I very much appreciate about A Reader’s Manifesto is its willingness to engage with writing, rather than politics surrounding writing, or whatever propelled DeLillo to fame.

To return to the review:

While another critic might see the impulse towards jam-packed, baroquely hyperreal novels as a legitimate and thoughtful, albeit varyingly skilful, response to our postmodern world (a mimetic reflection of the different status of information in an age of instant and indiscriminate communication, say, or an attempt to “wake up” a form whose traditional gestures are now the cliched staples of Hollywood cinema) […]

The problem is that these techniques aren’t mimetic: in trying to mimic the supposed techniques that they implicitly criticize, they don’t reflect information, but chaos; they aren’t hyperreal, but fake. And I’m not convinced modern life is so different in terms of “the different status of information in an age of instant and indiscriminate communication.” Information isn’t indiscriminate: I still choose what to read and what to watch most of the time; if I’m exposed to ads, it’s because I choose to be. In some essays, Umberto Eco discusses how he sees ideas and battles from the Middle Ages underlying much of everyday life, and the more I read, the more I tend to trace the lineage of intellectual and personal ideas backwards through time. Although our technological and physical world has changed enormously in the last two hundred years, I’m not sure the purposes to which we put technology and power (conquest, sex, etc.) has much. That isn’t to say literary style hasn’t evolved, as it obviously has, and my preference tends toward novels written after 1900. Ideas have shifted and evolved too. Still, techniques used by modern authors like the hyperrealists just because they can be used doesn’t make them an improvement. Furthermore, not all of Wood’s loves are mine—I just finished Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady and wouldn’t have if I didn’t need to. But I have seldom read a stronger argument for the capital-N Novel than I have in How Fiction Works, and even when I sometimes don’t find Wood persuasive, the power of his argument and depth of his reading always compels me to think more clearly and deeply about my own positions and thoughts.

To the Lighthouse

Are people afraid of Virginia Woolf, per the Edward Albee play, because she’s got the reputation of being a big tough writer, or because she’s genuinely hard to read and understand? As a a relative latecomer to her, the issue was at the forefront of my mind as I read To the Lighthouse, as was how glad I am to have come to her now as opposed to earlier, when I don’t think I would’ve been prepared. Now, I see To the Lighthouse as it was intended: as a vast artistic statement with much history behind it, which makes it a writer’s novel, or an intense reader’s; it reconciles so many opposites, being both fluid and structured, artificial and real, and yet at the cost, I suspect, of being easily understood through one’s first reading. To the Lighthouse demands such familiarity with what conventional narration is that to comprehend it with any fullness requires wide and deep reading as initiation. In Reflections on the Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco describes how he came to structure The Name of the Rose:

After reading the manuscript, my friends and editors suggested I abbreviate the first hundred pages, which they found very difficult and demanding. Without thinking twice, I refused, because, as I insisted, if somebody wanted to enter the abbey and live there for seven days, he had to accept the abbey’s own pace. If he could not, he would never manage to read the whole book. Therefore those first hundred pages are like a penance or an initiation, and if someone does not like them, so much the worse for him. He can stay at the foot of the hill (41).

Such a process isn’t built into To the Lighthouse, and without preparation, I suspect reading it would be like trying to understand trigonometry without knowing algebra. That might be an unfair comparison, especially given the hackles I’m sure it raises in the math phobic, but I make it for good reason: Woolf is built on understanding why and how she uses her great strength and technique: free indirect speech or limited omniscient narration, depending on the term you prefer, which allow her to peer into all her characters’ minds, allowing each to perceive the other’s limitations, weaknesses, foibles, and problems. Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? Those who wonder: Am I smart enough? Do I not get it? Am I like one of the characters, each of whom is shown with flaws more glaring than those of most hardboiled detective fiction?

The way we learn of those flaws also startles because of the novel’s shifting temporality: long paragraphs of thought explaining an interaction interrupt speech, so that the first statement and response to it are alienated. In later writers, like Raymond Carver, the speech and situation are simply assumed to be alienated from one another, the domestic situation strained or unspoken, and no longer interruptions necessary. But in Woolf, we have an explanation—but only from a character’s point of view. Here is one such passage, quoted at length because shortening it would defeat its purpose:

‘You won’t finish that stocking to-night,’ he said, pointing to her stocking. That was what she wanted – the asperity in his voice reproving her. If he says it’s wrong to be pessimistic probably it is wrong, she thought; the marriage will turn out all right.
‘No,’ she said, flattening the stocking out upon her knee. ‘I shan’t finish it.’
And what then? For she felt that he was still looking at her, but that his look had changed. He wanted something – wanted the thing she always found it so difficult to give him; wanted her to tell him that she loved him. And that, no, she could not do. He found talking so much easier than she did. He could always say things – she never could. So naturally it was always he that said the things, and then for some reason he would mind this suddenly, and would reproach her. A heartless woman he called her; she never told him that she loved him. But it was not so – it was not so. It was only that she could never say what she felt. Was there no crumb on his coat? […]
[This continues for much longer, until, finally—]
‘Yes, you were right. It’s going to be wet tonight.’ She had not said it, but he knew it. And she looked at him smiling. For she had triumphed again.

Triumphed? In what context? I hear Kurtz saying, “The Horror! The Horror!” and wonder, like an uncontacted tribe before a helicopter. The “triumph” comes at the end of To the Lighthouse’s first section, and it is as enigmatic as what proceed it. Notice that “he wanted something,” but it’s not clear that the thing he wanted or that she found so difficult is the love mentioned in the next part of the sentence. “Something” hangs ambiguously, like a writer trying to give the reader what the reader longs for but never knew they longed for.

Instead we long for something that we give imperfect names: depth of characterization, fastness of plot, reality, “entertainment,” symbolism, aesthetic experiences, or the other facets of a gem we call literature, or experience, or many other names. In Woolf, the mystery of that search comes from the deep internal lives of the characters and that contrast with their external lives—inside, they register knowledge, social orders, hierarchies, shifts, and even epiphanies, but all this happens beneath the veneer of social propriety and limited, clipped speech like “Yes, you were right. It’s going to be wet tonight,” ending an internal, gushing well of feeling that finds so little expression in speech. If someone like Robert Penn Warren strives to balance speech and internal monologue, making them reflect one another, abd Elmore Leonard pushes to strive almost entirely for description through speech, then Woolf, in contrast, pushes the seesaw almost solely on the side of the internal—which she can only accomplish through deft, extraordinary use of free indirect speech—otherwise we would have the hammering of a single and limited consciousness, which would deafen us with the repetition of its primary and perceptions, making us try to see through it rather than allowing the narrator to work. But the shifts aren’t easily perceived, making them different from novels where the narrators are clearly delineated, like Eliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity.

These traits make Woolf an acquired taste but one essential for writers to sample, and it’s also one usually acquired after tiring of novels driven solely by plot and novels without the depth of characterization Woolf has. Maybe Faulkner is the same way: I’ve never enjoyed reading his novels even as I recognize their importance. Yet I think I see a dividing line with Woolf and Proust—another modernist favorite more cited than read—on one side and Faulkner and Joyce on the other, with moving toward the former rather than the latter. This post in part articulates why, but there’s much more I can’t yet articulate. All four writers offer mystery above all, and not one that can be explained by finding out whodunit; therefore, I’m left describing without adequately explaining.

What would Woolf make of starting this problem? I’m not sure, as I complete this slippery review that too often uses the word “I,” establishing myself as a single perspective against the many “I’s” in To the Lighthouse. Still, Woolf influences how I now write posts: acknowledging myself, my biases, and the problems with my own reading, as well as what others would say to critics over-fond of “I”: narcissistic, obsessed with their own response, and the like. To them I have no perfect answer, though Virginia Woolf seems a good one.

Life

“You live on the surface,” Lia told me years later. “You sometimes seem profound, but it’s only because you piece a lot of surfaces together to create the impression of depth, solidity. That solidity would collapse if you tried to stand it up.”

—Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

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