2016, RIP

RIP Umberto Eco

I only ever read two books by the man – one fiction, one non-fictiojn – but I felt his presence in my life in many ways. Ever since I first saw (the awfully cast) film version of his The Name of the Rose, I was intrigued, I felt like there was something there. The movie may have been a Hollywoodization of his novel – frankly, I have no idea, as I have not read it – but I sensed an understanding of the world that made sense to me.

It was only years later when I read Foucault’s Pendulum when I finally learned how important and vital and reasonable his message was. For everyone who will never read it (i.e. all of you), I like to describe Foucault’s Pendulum as a parody of a Dan Brown novel before Dan Brown wrote a novel. Of course, it’s much than that – and it isn’t that, as Dan Brown novels didn’t exist, but it’s an attack on that kind of thinking – it’s an explanation and examination of human beings trick themselves into believing in things that are not real disguised as a mystery/conspiracy thriller. Here are some of my favourite bits:

On belief in secret societies:

[T]he human race spends centuries deciphering…message[s]. The Templars’ mental confusion makes them indecipherable. That’s why so many people venerate them.

On the cowardice of intellectuals:

Wisdom creates cowards.

On paranoia:

“If something is real, then it’s real and you’re not to blame.”

On communists and other extremists:

After two years spent with Neoplatonists who chanted formulas designed to convince nature to do things she had no intention of doing, I received news from Italy. It seems my old classmates – or some of them, at least – were now shooting people who didn’t agree with them, to convince the stubborn to do things they had no intention of doing.

On the attraction of conspiracy theories for poor people:

They always go for for that. Hungry? Frustrated? Exploited? Mystery cocktail coming up.

On the birth of Christianity:

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are a bunch of practical jokers who meet somewhere and decide to have a contest. They invent a character, agree on a few basic facts, and then each one’s free to take it and run with it. At the end they’ll see who’s done the best job. The four stories are picked up by some friends who act as critics. Matthew is fairly realistic, but insists on that Messiah business too much; Mark isn’t bad, just a bit sloppy; Luke is elegant, no denying that; and John takes the philosophy a little too far. Actually, though, the books have an appeal, they circulate, and when the four realize what’s happening, it’s too late. Paul has already met Jesus on the road to Damascus, Pliny beings his investigation ordered by the worried emperor, and a legion of apocryphal writers pretends also to know plenty…It all goes to Peter’s head; he takes himself seriously. John threatens to tell the truth, Peter and Paul have him chained on the island of Patmos. Soon the poor man is seeing things: Help, there are locusts all over my bed, make those trumpets stop, where’s all this blood coming from? The others say he’s drunk, or maybe it’s arteriosclerosis…

On secret societies:

There exists a secret society with branches throughout the world, and its plot is to spread the rumour that a universal plot exists.

On dictatorships:

It’s like the story of the man with a bad stammer who complains that the radio station wouldn’t hire him as an announcer because he didn’t carry a party card. We always have to blame our failures on somebody else, and dictatorships always need an external enemy to bind their followers together. As the man said, for every complex problem there’s a simple solution, and it’s wrong.

On conspiracy:

Synarchy is God.

On reality vs. conspiracy:

Mankind can’t endure the thought that the world was born by chance, by mistake, just because four brainless atoms bumped into one another on a slippery highway. So a cosmic plot has to be found – God, angels devils. Synarchy performs the same function on a lesser scale.

On belief:

I believe that you can reach the point where there is no longer any difference between developing the habit of pretending to believe and developing the habit of believing.

It’s the old story of spies: they infiltrate the secret service of the enemy, they develop the habit of thinking like the enemy, and if they survive, it’s because they’ve succeeded. And before long, predictably, they go over to the other side, because it has become theirs.

On charlatans:

Beware of faking: people will believe you. People believe those who sell lotions that make lost hair grow back. They sense instinctively that the salesman is putting together truths that don’t go together, that he’s not being logical, that he’s not speaking in good faith. But they’ve been told that God is mysterious, unfathomable, so to them incoherence is the closest thing to God.

His curiosity, his wit, his depth of knowledge, all of these things make him a fascinating and thought-provoking writer. With just two books, he greatly influenced my view of the world and I hope I can make it through his oeuvre.


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