Interview with Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco is an author and professor of semiotics (the study of signs and symbols) at the University of Bologna. His novels have sold more than 20 million copies worldwide, including “The Name of the Rose,” which was made into a movie starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater. His latest novel is “The Island of the Day Before.” He was interviewed at the Whitney Hotel in Minneapolis, on December 12, 1996.

Your novels are very popular, but it’s said that many people don’t read them all the way through. Does that bother you?

I must confess, there are books that I love very much, and I didn’t read them completely. It happens. When “The Name of the Rose” came out, so difficult and full of Latin quotations, and it had the success, it started the legend that it was an unread book. I am content.

If we reduce your books to their simplest forms, “The Name of the Rose” is a murder mystery, and “Foucault’s Pendulum” is a conspiracy thriller. What is “The Island of the Day Before?”

First of all, this is one level on which you can read the stories. In the first two, there is a certain detection-like mystery story. But there is also present a metaphysical detection, some great questions about truth and the order of the world. In this sense, the third novel is following the same path.

All three are philosophical novels. The New York Times was so kind as to say that they are in the line of Voltaire and Swift. But there is a difference – the first two novels are novels about culture.

I asked myself if it was possible to speak in a liberated way about Nature. That’s where I got the idea of an island, an island in the Pacific, untouched by human hands. It was interesting that in the case of my character arriving there for the first time – not only for himself, but for all humankind – and watching the things that no human eye had seen before, he didn’t have names for them. I was excited about telling the story through metaphor, instead of using the names. From my semiotic point of view, it was an interesting experience.

I always thought that Adam faced an interesting task when God told him to name everything. Where did Adam start?

You know that the last of my scholarly books discusses the problem that has been discussed for the last 2,000 years by our civilization, which is: What was Adam’s language, the perfect language? Because there is a myth that the name given by Adam to the rabbit expresses the real idea of the rabbit. It is a utopian idea, we would like that our language was a transparent tool by which we really understand the nature of things.

But in “The Name of the Rose,” don’t you seem to suggest that ideas don’t matter by making Jorge, the blind librarian, the villain?

Do you think William of Baskerville has no ideas? Jorge is not the villain, he is one of the heroes … He is expressing certain attitudes of his time, but I don’t consider him a villain. It is a confrontation between two worldviews, and a worldview is a system of ideas.

Are there ideas as dangerous to our modern worldview as an Aristotelian treatise on laughter would have been perceived in 1327?

Even our times have been full of dictatorships that have burned books. What does it mean, the Salman Rushdie persecution, if not to try to destroy a book? We are always trying to destroy something. Even today we have this continual struggle between people that believe certain texts are dangerous and must be eliminated. So my story is not so outdated, even though it takes place in the Middle Ages. We are not better.

Even here, people are discussing whether it is advisable or not to allow certain kinds of information on the Internet. Is it really permissible to allow people to teach people how to poison your mother, or make a bomb, through the Internet? We are always concerned that there are fearful texts.

In 1995, you mentioned that you did not use the ‘Net. Do you now?

I am a very well-balanced surfer. I surf on the Internet when I want to look for something that I need. I can spend 10 or 15 minutes to surf for mere curiosity. I don’t spend the entire night as a paranoid drug addict. I wish that everybody was so well-balanced as I am, at least in this matter.

Do you get more satisfaction out of writing a scholarly work, a novel, or even a particularly good newspaper column?

There is no difference. Once you are involved in a project, a duty, you can do it with great passion. At the moment, I am writing a very technical paper. Unfortunately, in this case, I cannot invent. I have to say something, if not true, at least reasonable. (laughs)

In “The Name of the Rose,” there was a serious discussion of whether Jesus laughed. Do you believe that God has a sense of humor?

What is the strange and unique property of a human being? To know we are mortal … which is an important piece of knowledge, if not so exciting. And I think just because we are the only ones to know we have to die, we are the only ones who try to react by laughing. In this sense, if God exists, he has no need to laugh. But maybe he would smile … (laughs).