RIP: Umberto Eco

Italian author, philosopher, and literary critic Umberto Eco has died at the age of 84.

Author of a wide range of books, Eco was fascinated with the obscure and the mundane, and his books were both engaging narratives and philosophical and intellectual exercises. The bearded, heavy-set scholar, critic and novelist took on the esoteric theory of semiotics, the study of signs and symbols in language; on popular culture icons like James Bond; and on the technical languages of the Internet.

“The Name of the Rose” transformed him from academic to international celebrity, especially after the medieval thriller set in a monastery was made into a film starring Sean Connery in 1986. “The Name of the Rose” sold millions of copies, a feat for a narrative filled with partially translated Latin quotes and puzzling musings on the nature of symbols. But Eco talked about his inspiration with characteristic irony: “I began writing … prodded by a seminal idea: I felt like poisoning a monk.”

His second novel, the 1988 “Foucault’s Pendulum,” a byzantine tale of plotting publishers and secret sects also styled as a thriller, was successful, too —though it was so complicated that an annotated guide accompanied it to help the reader follow the plot…

Eco was born Jan. 5, 1932 in Alessandria, a town east of Turin; he said the reserved culture there was a source for his “world vision: a skepticism and an aversion to rhetoric.” He received a university degree in philosophy from the University of Turin in 1954, beginning his fascination with the Middle Ages and the aesthetics of text. He later defined semiotics as “a philosophy of language.”

I’m a big fan of Eco’s work, having read his two most famous works — The Name of the Rose (1980) and Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) — as well as some of his essays. I have several of his other novels, but haven’t gotten around to reading them yet.

Eco was thoroughly checked-out with respect to philosophy, literary theory, and literature itself. His work has a Borges quality to it, and the Anglo world has benefited from superb English translations of his novels.

The Name of the Rose is a top-notch, medieval noir, a detective story of sorts that is interspersed with cogent philosophical excursions, and which was turned into a successful 1986 movie starring Sean Connery. (I watched the film last year; it holds up very well.)

But Foucault’s Pendulum, despite its difficult early chapters, blew me away. I’ve long been fascinated with the nature of conspiracy theories, the way they provide a sense of order, a totalizing framework, to the otherwise random phenomena of human existence. (Michael Barkun’s 2006 book A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America is a great sociological overview.) So to read a masterfully written novel displaying Eco’s encyclopedic knowledge of esotericism (Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, Kaballah, medieval alchemy, Knights Templar lore, literally hundreds of other historical facets of religious and pagan symbolism and mythology), a knowledge rivaled only by the likes of Manly P. Hall or Mircea Eliade, was a pure joy.

In many ways, Dan Brown’s hugely successful novel The Da Vinci Code is a poor man’s version of Foucault’s Pendulum. Eco’s novel involves three intellectuals who work at a vanity press and, out of boredom and eventually expediency, decide to concoct one giant conspiracy theory to rule them all, one that weaves together hundreds of previously existing conspiracy theories into a single ‘true’ account of the Illuminati, and then publish it as if in earnest. As the novel progresses, however, they eventually become targets of what appears to be the very Illuminati they thought they had concocted.

Foucault’s Pendulum provides a wild intellectual ride through a rabbit hole of theories, meta-theories, and characters embodying these theories. I found the book’s climax to be a truly transcendent and mind-blowing literary experience.

Back in the day, the great Stanley Kubrick had wanted to adapt the book into a film, but sadly Eco refused him the rights. (When Kubrick died, Eco later came to regret his decision.) There is a wondrously creepy and surreal sequence in the novel where a character finds himself at a bizarre ritual/party, wherein (if I remember correctly) a strange, cosmically described ectoplasmic form appears, bathed in blue light… It is a helluva sequence; I can only imagine what Kubrick would have done with it visually. (I would argue that Foucault’s Pendulum was a key influence on Kubrick for the Illuminati themes and sequences in his last film, Eyes Wide Shut.  

A couple months before a trip to Italy I made in 2010, I wrote to Eco asking if I might pop in to his university office to get his autograph. I never heard back from him, but he was already pushing 80 back then, and I got the sense from articles about him that he was a deeply private man.

His kind are in short supply these days. He’ll be greatly missed.

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