Italian author Umberto Eco, who died Feb. 19 at the age of 84, was that rarest of creatures: a best-selling semiotician. Granted, it was his fiction, not his academic work, that brought him the greatest dollops of international recognition, but even his avowed entertainments – novels such as Baudolino, Foucault’s Pendulum, and The Name of the Rose – were informed by a staggering intelligence, a deeply philosophical attitude, and the kind of broad erudition that is only occasionally to be found.
Born in Alssandria in 1932, Eco was educated by the Salesians of Don Bosco, a Catholic order that stretches back to the 19th century. Eco later abandoned his religion; a header on his website reads, “When men stop believing in God, it isn’t that they then believe in nothing: they believe in everything.”
This attitude is evident in comments the author made about his most famous work of fiction, the 1980 novel Il nome della rosa, published in English three years later as The Name of the Rose (in a translation by William Weaver). A genre mystery that plays with the classic Sherlock Holmes template (the lead character is a Franciscan named William of Baskerville), the novel became an international success, despite trafficking in themes of medieval history, semiotics, art history, and theological dogma. Eco himself felt the novel was a lark; writing in The Guardian, Stephen Moss claims the author accepted the publisher’s proposal to write the book because, in Eco’s own words, he “felt like poisoning a monk.”
Elsewhere in Moss’s appreciation, he quotes Eco’s assertion that “only publishers and some journalists … believe that people want simple things. People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged.” It is perhaps appropriate in the context of a writer so steeped in literary history that this comment brings to mind the final line of a classic work of American modernism: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
Truthfully, we live in an anti-intellectual age, which makes Eco’s popularity that much more difficult to account for. It is perhaps easier when the writer is equated – as was often the case in articles and reviews – with his most popular novel, or its 1986 Jean-Jacques Annaud film adaptation starring Sean Connery and a young Christian Slater. And it is at least passingly ironic that Eco died at a moment in literary history in which the international sensation du jour is an Italian author of a series of melodramas set in Naples – the kind of work likely to have set the highly intellectual Eco’s blood to boil. (“Italy is not an intellectual country,” Eco told Moss in one interview.)
Eco himself was dismissive of The Name of the Rose, considering it not his best work of fiction. He came to the form late – he was 48 when The Name of the Rose was published – and seemed more personally invested in his works of criticism and linguistics. His non-fiction is a frankly intimidating intellectual edifice: volumes with titles such as Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Travels in Hyperreality, and Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition.
But Eco had the ability to straddle the line between professor and entertainer: he was equally at home talking about the nature of semiotics (which he called “the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie”) and Charles Schultz’s Peanuts cartoons. The Wall Street Journal refers to an interview in which Eco makes reference to having written “a structural analysis of the archetypal Ian Fleming plot.” His 1963 volume Diario Minimo, translated in 1993 as Misreadings, contains a section of mock readers’ reports that completely miss the point of classic books such as the Bible (“a real blockbuster, very well structured, with plenty of twists”), The Trial (“why all these vague references, this trick of not giving names to people and places?”) and Finnegans Wake (“I’m the English-language reader, and you’ve sent me a book written in some other, godforsaken language”).
In the end, Eco successfully melded both sides of his persona, crafting entertainments that aspired to philosophy and academic essays that were almost sinfully entertaining. The final scene in the author’s most recent novel, Numero Zero – a conspiracy thriller about the media, government malfeasance, and fascism – contains what might stand as a distillation of the apostate writer’s core approach to the world, and his work: “Life is bearable,” Eco writes, “you just have to make the most of it.”