A return to Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco. Credit: Sud Foto/Sergio Siano, CC BY 2.0
Umberto Eco. Credit: Sud Foto/Sergio Siano, CC BY 2.0

Why he was my favourite and why I think he’s irreplaceable

The first time I read Umberto Eco, I thought to myself – How could one guy know so much? It’s obscene, the amount of detail in his books. First there was Foucault’s Pendulum, with more than its share of Latin American mysticism and continental conspiracy theories, and then The Name of the Rose, with page after page of the history of the Catholic Church and its various schisms (in the order of my reading). If Eco had been in his twenties or thirties today, he’d have been on Adderall all day and on the Internet all day to have been able to write either of the books – or any of his other works of fiction, for that matter, only a few of which I’ve been able to finish. Barely.

But I loved him. Despite the fevered ‘ramblings’ he’d sometimes launch into in his stories, the things he wrote – which I’ve only ever been able to call his “imaginary astronomies” (a term he coined) – fit together. There was an unbroken coherence carried through the books, an undisputed convergence of thought. Three things about the way he constructed his narrative, across hundreds of pages, is what I also tell people to keep in mind when they ask me if they should write a book: 1) be able to describe the entire premise in one not-too-long sentence, 2) know from the get-go what it is that you’re writing about, and 3) bloody well stick to it no matter how much you think your readers will enjoy your indulgences.

This is why Eco is a difficult read, not a bad read – not a bad read by far. The unwavering intensity of his writing, and of his commitment to seem to be chronicling something (that could have happened in the past or in the future, notwithstanding the use of pseudoscience*) as opposed to be vainly conjecturing something, is what made his fiction worth committing to. This is why his ramblings weren’t ramblings in a real sense of the word; they formed a necessary part of the overall context in which his plots were situated. (And I believe The Name of the Rose was as big a success as it was because it had all these things going on and a Perry Mason-esque murder mystery.)

And this is why I was really saddened to hear of his passing. To me, he was the master and (once*) sole practitioner of a style that brought an immense, unbridled existential multiplicity – as a personal sense of ourselves can often be – together with great writing. And if he’s gone, so is this style diminished.

On the role of silence in communication

His far-ranging interests stemmed from what he was essentially interested in: the use of not-necessarily self-contained systems of signs to convey meaning, and their points of failure (obviously vastly simplified). This could be in the form of investigating the role of a language in shaping a culture, the culturally agnostic and psychologically cognisant placement of signages in public transportation, the anatomy and function of television advertisements to engender demand, even tracking on generational scales the rejection of various hypotheses in the natural sciences.

At a lecture Eco delivered at the Italian Association of Semiotics in 2009, titled ‘Censorship and Silence’, he touched upon something very relevant to incidents playing out in India at the moment.

The error made by La Repubblica in its campaign against [Silvio] Berlusconi was to give too much coverage to a relevant story (the party at Noemi’s house). If, instead, it had reporter something like this – “Berlusconi went into Piazza Navona yesterday morning, met his cousin, and they had a beer together … how curious” – it would have triggered such a series of insinuations, suspicions, and embarrassments that the premier would have resigned long ago. In short, a fact that is too relevant can be challenged, whereas an accusation that is not an accusation cannot be challenged.

The authoritarianism of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government has resulted in a strong polarisation of the national political scene as well as of India’s mainstream media. It’s impossible to write something without being forced to take sides – and should you still remain defiant, a side is cast for you as being the right fit. And in this acerbic environment, debate is exceedingly impossible: your suggestions are already insinuations, you already owe someone an apology. In place of Berlusconi seen getting a beer with his cousin at the Piazza Navona, there’s a student named Umar Khalid studying at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and who may have been involved in a debate about whether Afzal Guru was a martyr (even if he had been engaged in one, it shouldn’t matter).

In fact, the extent to which the false equation of Islam with terrorism has been entrenched was demonstrated by Khalid’s language, specifically in a statement he issued when he ‘emerged from hiding’. He said, “My name is Umar Khalid but I am not a terrorist.” (Emphasis added.) Saying ‘and’ in the place of ‘but’ would’ve strengthened the assertion (that being Muslim has nothing to do with being a terrorist) while using ‘but’ allows for the interpretation that Khalid is an exception.

… as a result of noise, we have a deliberate censorship – this is what is happening in the world of television, in creating political scandals, and so forth – and we have an involuntary but fatal censorship whereby, for reasons that are entirely legitimate in themselves (such as advertising revenue, product sales, and so forth), an excess of information is transformed into noise. This (and here I am moving from communications to ethics) has also created a psychology and morality of noise. … This great need for noise is like a drug; it is a way to avoid focusing on what is really important. Redi in interiorem hominem: yes, in the end, the example of Saint Augustine could still provide a good ideal for the world of politics and television.

(Redi in interiorem hominem is Latin for ‘return to the inner man’.)

One of the most fascinating things I learnt when working at The Hindu, Chennai, was of an entity called the filler. Before joining the The Hindu, and having been an avid reader of the once-vaunted newspaper for many years before my employment, the distinction between more important and less important articles was made only in terms of how much space they occupied and what graphic elements accompanied them. But looking at the newspaper from within the organisation, I found that some of the smaller articles, the fillers spanning about 150-300 words, were sometimes used to fill the odd gaps but otherwise contained nothing of substance.

Television channels do this, too – plugging moments of what would otherwise have been filled with silence with stories-that-aren’t-stories. These usually take the form of wild speculations, claims backed by little evidence, extrapolating data so it seems to suggest a conspiracy, or simply letting a news anchor with scant regard for the gravity of her/his position rant on live TV. Eco closes his essay with an invitation to examine the “semiotics of silence in political debate – in other words, the long pause, silence as creation of suspense, silence as threat, silence as agreement**, silence as denial**, silence in music.” (Emphasis added.) I’m anxious that the more we move away from being comfortable with silence, the more we’ll cede control of a powerful instrument of discourse to the Authority. Even now, we rally to raise our voices and register ourselves in the face of an outrage at JNU, perpetrated in full by a political hegemon adept at deflecting criticisms with claims that are not claims and with accusations that are not accusations. With noise.

*I say ‘once’ because of the rise of Steven Erikson, but then I also say the style honed by Eco is diminished by his passing because epic fantasy fiction, which Erikson writes, is yet to receive mainstream literary recognition.

**Both of which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has signalled by not uttering a word of condemnation against recent and flagrant cases of (physical and mental) violence incited by members of his party.