Umberto Eco: Symbol and sense

Nov. 12, 2001 at 8:24 PM
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Umberto Eco, whose most famous fictional work, "Il nome della rosa" ("The Name of the Rose," 1980) ends with the burning of a medieval library containing among other classical texts Aristotle's now lost volume on comedy, is, in a sense, an intellectual librarian.

Eco was born in 1932 in a small Piedmontese town called Allessandria. He first studied law and then medieval philosophy and literature at the University of Turin, and in 1954 he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Thomas Aquinas. His first job was, strange for a medievalist, with a local television station. In 1959 he switched jobs to Case Editrice di Bompiani, a publisher of print magazines. Since that time, Eco has always continued his journalistic activities alongside his varied academic and literary career.

For the next 15 years or so, his articles appeared regularly in the cultural sections of most of the better-known Italian magazines and newspapers. Concurrently he published his first works on medieval aesthetics and the interpretation of medieval texts, most notably the "Opera Aperta" ("The Open Work," 1962). In 1963 "Diario Minimo" ("Misinterpretations," 1963), a collection of his spoofs on interpretation and exegesis, which was published under the title of the editorial column in which they had first appeared

A year later Eco began teaching in Milan and soon in Florence. His first professorship for semiotics was in the Architectural Faculty of the Polytechnic Institute in Milan. During this time he published his first major work on semiotics, "La struttura assente" ("The Absent Structure," 1968), which prefigured many of the themes of his most influential book on that subject, the "Theory of Semiotics" (originally English, 1976).

In 1975 Eco received tenure as the first professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, a position he holds to this day. Meanwhile, he has also taught at a half-dozen American universities, at Cambridge University in England and at the College de France. He is a Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur as well as a Cavaliere di Gran Croce al Merito della Repubblica Italiana. His most recent work on semiotics is "Kant e l'ornitorinco" ("Kant and the Platypus," 1999), which revisits the notion of conceptual schemata, and discusses the way language adjusts, to newly discovered objects and phenomena.

Eco's career as a novelist began soon after his appointment at Bologna, and in 1980 he published "The name of the Rose" to tremendous public and critical acclaim. He has penned three further novels, "Il pendolo di Foucault" ("Foucault's Pendulum," 1988), "L'isola del giorno prima" ("The Island of the Day Before," 1994) and most recently "Bendolino" (2001).

Parallel to his activity as a fiction writer and semiotitian, Eco has published two collections of essays: one on the interpretation of fiction and the other on the task of writing it. Also, he has continued to develop his semiotic theories in "Semiotica e filosophia del linguaggio" ("Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language," 1984) and "La ricerca della lingua perfetta nella cultura europea" ("The Search for the Perfect Language," 1994). In the latter of these two volumes, Eco provides an overview of the debate concerning the origins of language. He takes a critical look at the attempt to transfer the conclusions of that debate to a program for the perfection of the languages we speak.

Coming from the background of medieval thought and theology, Umberto Eco has brought his erudition to the study of writing and signs, to the theoretical examination of the art of textual interpretation, and to the question of how great works develops. His fiction and his non-fiction alike are (with the exception perhaps of "The Island of the Day Before") about books. He writes about books, he talks about books, and he collects books -- his personal library in Milan contains over 30,000 volumes. In his spare time he engages in civic projects, such as the planning of the Biblioteca Multimediale Sala Borsa, a public multimedia library. According to Eco, "libraries can take the place of God." And with his reach to both the ancient and the modern, the tragic and the tragically funny, Eco has perhaps done more than anyone alive to remind us of the joys of reading and the treasures to be lifted from the crumbling pages of old books.

Eco has abandoned his earlier attempts to define or summarize the theory of semiotics. In 1996 he said, "I don't think it's possible to try a general overview of the theory of semiotics (anymore)." What's more, he always refuses to venture any kind of interpretation of his own texts. In his postscript to "The Name of the Rose," Eco writes, "the author may not interpret. But he must tell why and how he wrote his book." In this vein, Eco says in an interview for The Harvard Review of Philosophy that he regards his fictional writings as so many riddles, each with as many potential solutions as it has readers. As such, they are different from his philosophical writings, which aspire to present definitive answers to definite questions. He likens this difference to the one between Wittgenstein's "Philosophical Investigations" and "Tractatus."

(Prepared by the Harvard Review of Philosophy, and edited by S. Phineas Upham.)

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