Morto lo scrittore

Morto lo scrittore Umberto Eco. Ci mancherà il suo sguardo sul mondo. Aveva 84 anni. E’ stato filosofo, semiologo e grande esperto della
comunicazione. Non ha mai perso la voglia di osservare la politica.

Morto lo scrittore Umberto Eco. Ci mancherà il suo sguardo sul mondo

A great loss to Italy, literature, philosophy, and the world. It’s not often that I personally mourn the death of a public figure, but to the extent that I had an intellectual idol, it was him.

He was as brilliant in person as he was in print, but he was also friendly and even charming. He was not merely kind to his intellectual inferiors and his awestruck fans, he was patient and generous. And although his later novels never reached the heights of his first two, those two, Il Nome della Rosa and Il Pendolo di Foucault are two of the greatest ever written in the Italian language.

He was one of the few modern immortals and I am deeply saddened that he will write no more. Addio dottore.

Eco on the animal soul

Umberto Eco reviews an anthology of ancient works devoted to considering the ensoulment of the animals:

On the animal soul

Acording to the ancients, animals possessed rational knowledge. But
they also had feelings. And, according to this theology, they can
therefore go to Heaven.

Einaudi published a lovely anthology of ancient writings on “The
Soul of the Animals” (at 85 euros it is an expensive book but it is
a really nice one.) It is not only we of contemporary times who are
preoccupied with our dog or decide to go on a vegan diet in order to avoid killing animated beings. The ancients already considered the problem
of when an animal possessed reason. In his Historia animalium,
Aristotle said that in many animals could be seen traces of the
quality of soul, by which animals demonstrated gentleness and
courage, timidity, fear, and slyness, and even something that bears some similarities to wisdom.

It is in a stoic form that an argument appears, unanimously
attributed to Chrysippus of Soli, that was destined to be of great
popularity. It exists in two versions, but we will cite the more
notable, that of Sextus Empiricus, in which he recounted a dog that,
upon arriving at the meeting point of three paths and recognizing
with its sense of smell that the prey had not taken two of them,
deduced that it must have gone the third way. He thus proved that the dog
knew reason according to the principles of logic.

Another fundamental text is “de sollertia animalium” by
Plutarch, in which it is admitted that animal rationality is less
perfect than human reason, but also notes that diverse grades of
perfection are also found amongst human beings (an elegant way of
insinuating that we are beings who reason like the animals.). In
another text, “Bruta animalia ratioe uti”, to those who objected
that one could not attribute reason to beings that did not have an
innate notion of the divine, Plutarch responds by recalling that
Sisyphus, too, was an atheist. It is on that basis that he rejects a carnivorous diet, albeit with many exceptions,

We have a radical vegeterian thesis in the “De abstinentia” of
Porphyry. For Porphyry, the animals express the ideal interior state
and the fact that they don’t understand us is no more embarrassing to
them than the fact that we don’t understand the language or the
thought of the Indians or the Scythians.

It is too bad that the Einaudian account ends with Porphyry, although
the volume has more than 500 pages as it is. It would have been interesting to
have an anthology series in multiple volumes that contained the
succeeding discussions, from the beautiful pages of Montaigne
refuting Cartesian mechanics to the long and protracted polemics
involving Leibniz, Locke, Cudworth, More, Shaftesbury, Cordemoy,
Fontenelle, Bayle, Buffon, Rousseau, Condillac and others.

I don’t know if all dogs go to Heaven or not. But frankly, it is very, very difficult to imagine a place that could be reasonably called Heaven, or be considered anything even remotely akin to a paradise, without them.

Eco on the disappearance of the book

Umberto Eco considered a failed prophecy of Marshall McLuhan in light of recent developments in e-publishing in an article published on October 30, 2013 in L’Espresso.
At the start of the Seventies, Marshall
McLuhan announced some profound changes in our ways of thinking and
communication. One of his intuitions was that we were entering into a
global village, and in the universe of the Internet we have certainly
seen the verification of his vision. However, after analyzing the
influence of the printing press on the evolution of the culture and
our individual sensibilities in The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan
announced, in Understanding Media and other works, the sunset
of alphabetic linearity and the newly arisen dominance of images. To
hypersimplify this, he anticipated that the masses “will no longer
read anymore, they will watch TV, (or the strobing lights of the
McLuhan died
in 1980, just as we were entering the daily world of the personal
computer. (There appeared models that were more or less toys and
experimental objects at the end of the Seventies, but the mass market
began in 1981 with the IBM PC.) If McLuhan had lived
a few more years, he would
have had to admit that
even in a world apparently
dominated by images,
the personal computer was establishing a
new alphabetical civilization.
It may be true that the preschoolers of today use iPads, but all the
information we receive from the Internet, email, and SMS are based on
our knowledge of the
alphabet. Computers perfect the situation imagined in Hugo’s The
Hunchback of Notre Dame
, in which the
archdeacon Frollo, indicating first a book, and then the cathedral
seen from the window, rich with images and other visual symbols,
says: “this will kill that”. With all its
multimedia links, the computer certainly
possesses the characteristics of being the instrument of the global
village, and it has the capacity to revive again the “that” of
the Gothic cathedral, but it still
fundamentally rests upon neo-gutenbergian

To return to the alphabet, the invention of
the ebook has provided the possibility to read alphabetic texts on
screens instead of paper. And on these screens one can expect to read
yet another series of auguries predicting the disappearance of the
book and of the newspaper, (in part suggested by some declines in
sales.) One of the favorite sports of every unimaginative journalist
over the years is to ask the men of letters how they see the coming
demise of the world of print. It is not enough to argue that the book
remains of fundamental importance to the transmission and
conservation of information, or that we have scientific proof that
books printed 500 years ago have survived wonderfully while we cannot
scientifically demonstrate that the magnetized storage systems
presently in use can survive for more than ten years. (Nor can we
verify this, since computers today cannot read a floppy disk from the

Now, however, there are some
disconcerting occurrences that have caught the attention of
journalists, although we have not yet grasped their significance and
their eventual consequences. In August, Jeff Bezos of Amazon bought
the Washington Post, and while announcing the decline of the daily
newspaper, Warren Buffet recently acquired some 63 local newpapers. As
Federico Rampini observed in Repubblica the other day, Buffet is a giant
of the Old Economy and he is not an innovator, but he has a rare
acuity for discerning investment opportunities. And I suspect
that other sharks of Silicon Valley are also moving against the
Rampini asked if the final blow will
not be Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg purchasing the New York Times.
Even if this doesn’t happen, it is clear that the digital world is
overtaking print. What about commercial calculations, political
speculations, and the desire to preserve the press as a democratic
watchdog? I don’t feel that I have a sufficient grasp on the situation to
interpret these various facts correctly. However, I think it is interesting to
consider the possibility of the reversal of another famous prophecy. Perhaps
Mao had it wrong and one must take the paper tiger seriously.

Umberto Eco on the death of William Weaver

Umberto Eco eulogized his translator and friend, William Weaver, in an article that was published on 3 December, 2013 in L’Espresso.
After ninety years, the last ten of them reduced to a quasi-vegetable state, William Weaver is no more. He was
a great translator, and one could say that it was primarily through his merits
that our contemporary literature is known and loved in the
Anglo-Saxon countries. Born in Virginia, a conscientious objector but
unable to ignore the grand conflict that was underway, he enlisted in the Second
World War as an ambulance driver. He served with the
English forces throughout the entire Italian campaign, facing danger without ever holding a rifle in his hands. From Naples to Rome, he
made friends with many Italian writers of the era, and from then on,
he never left our country.
Thus it was that he came to translate Pirandello (One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand and The
Late Mattia Pascal
), Zeno’s Conscience by Svevo, That
Awful Mess
and Acquainted with Grief
by Gadda, two-thirds of
Calvino’s works, The Monkey’s Wrench
and If Not Now, When?
by Primo Levi, The Sunday Woman
by Fruttero and Lucentini,
History and Aracoeli
by Elsa Morante, Incubus
by Berto, A Violent Life
by Pasolini, as well as Cassola, Calasso, De Carlo, Malerba, La
Capria, Parise, Soldati, Alba de Cespedes, Festa Campanile. He also
translated A Man and
Inshallah by Oriana

In addition, from 1981 to 2003 he translated
four of my novels and many of my essays. For twenty intense years, it
was a splendid collaboration, in which we could spend afternoons, or
exchange two or three letters, on a single word. If the culture has
lost a great writer, I have lost a friend. Weaver was a great
translator, not only because he sought to accurately render the
fluidity, the rhythm, the lexical richness, and the sound of the text. (From my
perspective, he sometimes improved upon my original.) He was a great
translator because he also knew that to translate the meaning, one must
dare to reject the literal translation in order to conserve the
effect or the deeper sense of the text. For reasons of space, I am
limited to relating one amusing memory, of a time in which we tore the text apart in order to render a simple play on words, a wordplay that was already
difficult for Italian readers.

Bill was translating my Foucault’s
He arrived at a
point in which two protagonists, obsessed with the world of the
occult, found a mysterious symbol tied to the transmission system in
automobiles. To demonstrate, in an ironic manner, their propensity to
think that every aspect of the world, every word written or spoken,
does not have the sense it appears, an allusion to the axle of
the Sephirot of the Kabbalah was made.
the English translator
this allusion presented difficulties from the start, because in English
there is a difference between a “tree” (vegetable and
cabalistic), and the axle (automobile), but after foraging through
the dictionary, Weaver discovered that the expression “axle-tree”
was legitimate. Nevertheless,
he found himself in a predicament when the two characters then
engaged in a certain word play that involved
the gnostic pneumatics, (the spirits opposite the somatics, that are
immaterial), and the pneumatics of a car. It was a joke, but the
protagonists were simply making jokes.
However, in English, the rubber upon
which an automobile’s wheels roll are not “pneumatics”, but
rather, “tires”. What to do? Weaver, as he recounts in his
translation diary, Pendulum Diary, was struck by a brilliant notion when he remembered the name of a celebrated brand of tires: Firestone. It occurred to him that one might draw an association
between that name and the English expression “philosopher’s stone”
of alchemic lore. The solution was found and the English text therefore
describes how the sightless occultists did not succeed in finding the
true connection between the philosopher’s stone and Firestone.
As one can see, he turned the gag into
something different than the original. The translator must render
the deeper sense of the text, one that is not “the protagonists
speak of tires”, but rather, “the protagonists are students who
play foolishly with the universal knowledge”.
As the Prince of Laughter once said,
translators are born. And Bill was a born translator.

This is not only an affectionate tribute to a great translator, but wonderful advice that I hope everyone who is translating one of my books into another language will keep in mind. It is always il senso profondo del testo that comes first, not il testo literale.

Speaking of translations, I’ve translated eleven or twelve of Eco’s online articles that aren’t otherwise available in English. If you are a fan of his, you can find them here.

Umberto Eco on the death of the dream of Europe

I like and admire Umberto Eco for many reasons, but I firmly believe that the great humanist is absolutely on the wrong side of history with regards to the great post-WWII neo-fascist enterprise of the European Union.  And so, it is very satisfying indeed to read of the increasing despair of the bien-pensant intellectuals, and to hear the cri-de-coeur of an elite that is increasingly conscious of its failure concerning an endeavor where, for one brief shining moment around the turn of the millenium, it believed it had succeeded.

These are hard times for those who
believe in the European Union: from Cameron, who calls his compatriots
to decide if they still want it (or if they never had the will), from
Berlusconi who one day declares himself a Europeist but the next,
if he doesn’t make a visceral connection to the old Fascists, says
returning to the lira would be better, to the Lega Nord and its
hyperprovincialism. In summary, one can say that – at a distance
of more than fifty years – the bones of the founding fathers of
Europe United are turning in their graves.
Nevertheless everyone should know that
in the course of the Second World War 41 million Europeans died, (I
say only Europeans, not including the Americans and the Asians), massacred one after the other, and afterwards, saving the tragic
Balkan episode, Europe has known 68 years of peace.  If one
recounts to the young, (who maybe would appreciate it more if they spent a year working in another country on the continent with the Erasmus program, and perhaps at the end of this experience would find a twin spirit with those who speak another language than their own), that the French might today defend the Maginot
line to resist the Germans, that the Italians would want to expand
their borders to incorporate Greece, that Belgium could be invaded, that English
airplanes could bombard Milan, these youth would believe we were
inventing a science fiction novel. It is only the adults who
understand that instead of crossing borders without passports, their
fathers and their grandfathers vacationed with rifles in hand.
But is it really true that the idea of
Europe is unsuccessful in attracting the Europeans? Bernard-Henri
Lévy recently released a passionate manifesto in defense of a
European identity. “Europe or Chaos” begins with a disturbing
threat. “Europe is not in crisis, it is dying. Not Europe as in
the territory, naturally. But Europe, the Idea. The Europe that is
a dream and a project.” The manifesto was signed by António Lobo
Antunes, Vassilis Alexakis, Juan Luis Cebrián, Fernando Savater,
Peter Schneider, Hans Christoph Buch, Julia Kristeva, Claudio Magris,
Gÿorgy Konrád and Salman Rushdie (who is not European but has found
in Europe his primary refuge from the start of his persecution. I
also signed it with some other co-signers, a few days ago, when I was
at the Théâtre du Rond-Point in Paris for a little debate. One of
the themes that quickly emerged, one that I found amply consequential, is
that there exists a consciousness of a European identity. It
occurred to me to cite the pages of Remembrance of Things Past by
Proust when, in Paris during the time of the bombardment by the
German Zeppelins, the intellectuals continue to speak and to write of
Goethe or of Schiller as an integrated part of their culture.
But this sense of a European
identity, certainly very strong among the elite
intellectuals, is it also among the common people? It occurred to me
to reflect on the fact that even today, in every European country, they
celebrate (in school and in their public festivals), real heroes, who
are all men who have valorously slain other Europeans, from the part of
that Arminius who exterminated the legions of Varo, to Joan of Arc,
the Cid, (because the Muslims against whom he fought were of the
European centuries), to various Italian and Hungarian heroes of the
Risogimento, who fell against the Austrian enemy. Is there no European hero of whom we can speak? Did none ever exist? What about Byron and Santorre di Santarosa, who advanced and fought for the cause of Greek liberty,
to say nothing of the not-insignificant numbers of little Schindlers,
who saved the lives of thousands of Jews without concern for what
nation they belonged to. What about the non-martial heroes, such as De
Gasperi, Monnet, Schuman, Adenuauer, Spinelli? And could not
searching into the recesses of history expose others, of whom we could speak
to the children, (and to the adults)? Is it truly possible that we cannot
find a European Asterix of whom we can speak about the Europe of
The fall of the fraud-imposed European Union will be difficult and painful for many, just as the collapse of its force-imposed American counterpart will cause considerable chaos and suffering.  But in both cases, the pain will be a relatively small price to pay, because the alternative is the material imposition of Orwell’s metaphorical boot-on-the-human-face forever. 
The answer to his question is no.  There can never be a European Asterix.  Asterix is a hero to millions of Europeans because he represents the independent human spirit resisting the force of Empire.  And as such, the new Asterixes of the future will be those who courageously resisted the bureaucratic stormtroopers of the failing Union, not those who marched in their ranks.  The EU is in the imperial tradition of Augustus, Napoleon, and Hitler, and as such, it can never command the loyalty of an Asterix.
The intellectual elite always loves Empire.  They are its parasites, its remoras.  And how they hate that it is so often those men who stand against them and their will to rule that are loved and lionized by generation after generation of the common people.

Umberto Eco on the ever-ending world

Where will we go in the end?

First little thought. We will not speak of the curse of the Mayans, but of certain newspapers, that are always citing Cassandra and day after day announce an ever-darker tomorrow, where the oceans overflow, the seasons end, and, of more immediate concern, the Default. For example, after listening to his parents inform him about the destiny of the world, a ten year-old son of my friends began to cry and asked: “But is there really nothing good in my future?”

To console him, I could cite many extremely dolorous predictions concerning the years to come, as were customarily made throughout the past centuries. Here is an excerpt from Vincenzo di Beauvais in the 13th century: “After the death of the Antichrist… the final judgment will be preceded by many signs that were indicated by the Evangelist…. In the first day the sea will rise forty cubits over the mountains and its surface will rise like a wall. On the second day, it will submerge many who will go unseen. On the third day, the marine monsters appearing on the surface of the sea will roar at the heavens. On the fourth day, the sea and all the waters will catch fire. On the fifth day the grass and the trees will emit a dew of blood. On the sxith day, buildings will collapse. On the seventh day, the stones will crash against each other. On the eighth day, the entire earth will shake. On the ninth day, the earth will be levelled. On the tenth day, the men will come out of their caves and will wander like madmen unable to speak. On the eleventh day, the bones of the dead will rise. On the twelfth day, the stars will fall. On the thirteenth day, the survivors still living will die to rise again with the dead. On the fourteenth day, the heavens and the earth will burn. On the fifteenth day, there will be a new heaven and a new earth and all will rise again.” As you can see, we already have no lack of climactic alterations and tsunamis to threaten us.

Leaping over six centuries of more fatal prophesies, here is Balzac in 1836: “The modern industry, that produces for the masses, is destroying the creations of the antique arts, those works that possessed an individual hallmark for the consumer and the artisan alike. Today we have “products”, we no longer have “works””. Among these “products” that Balzac warned would be deprived of every artistic value, Leopardi was writing The Flower of the Desert in that same year, Manzoni had in hand the second draft of The Betrothed, three years later Chopin composed Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, twenty years later Flaubert published Madame Bovary, and there was still about thirty years before the appearance of the Impressionists and more than forty prior to the publication of The Brothers Karamazov. As you see, in the past they were also overly afraid of the future.

A second thought. Perhaps, if we reconsider, “evil times today” really are here, for as tradition has it, one of the typical signs the end of times is at hand is the fact that the world has gone to ruin. Consider that at one time the rich lived in the center of Rome in luxurious palaces and the poor on the desolate peripheries; today it seems the palaces that face the Colosseum are like prostitutes, with toilets on the balcony that you can enter for four bucks. I imagine the corrupt politicians go to live outside the imperial walls.

Yesterday the poor travelled in trains and only the rich were permitted airplanes; today the airlines cost forty cash, (those with the best price resemble cattle carriers in a time of war), while the trains become ever more expensive and luxurious, with bars reserved only for the hegemonic classes. At one time, the rich went to Riccione, and in the worst case, to Rimini, while in the islands of the Indian Ocean there lived a miserable population as well as those deported there for life imprisonment. Today, it is only politicians of rank who go to the Maldives, and in Rimini, on the other hand, you will find mostly lower-class Russians barely removed from the slavery of the soil.

Where will we go in the end?

I’m more than a bit dubious about the bit concerning the modern palaces, but otherwise it was an unusually easy column to translate. I’m also not sure about the reference to the slavery at the end, as the most literal translation would be “the slavery of the the fleshy spore-bearing inner mass of fungi.”

Umberto Eco on Italy’s new dictator

I was extremely curious to know how Umberto Eco would react to Italy’s peaceful departure from democracy, given his left-wing ideology as well as his childhood experience with Fascism and the post-WWII ideological battles. He did not disappoint as his take on it is fascinating, not only in his characteristic use of an apt literary analogy, but in the way that he appears to almost completely ignore the salient point. The key word there being “almost”, as if one considers the specifics of the analogy, one can see that his view of the matter may not be quite as favorable as it seems on the surface.

But we asked it of him

There is no relationship between the tall and elegant professor Monti and a ball of tallow, and yet I see one between his vicissitudes and the short story of the same name by Maupassant. Everyone, I hope, is familiar with the story: during the Franco-Prussian war traveled a carriage that, among its various passengers, carried a prostitute, provocative and curvacious. Accepted ungraciously by her travel companions only because she offered to everyone the provisions she had with her in a basket, she became responsible for the halting of the carriage on the part of a Prussian official, who threatened to refuse to permit anyone to depart if the girl did not concede her favors to him.

Although she had already granted them to many, the patriotic “escort” refused to let her offer her services to the hated enemy. The carriage therefore remained halted, until little by little, the travelers began to remonstrate with Ball of Tallow for harming everyone over one foolish little point. Through various arguments and moral blackmail, they pushed her to concede. Reluctantly, and for the good of the community, she accepted. The illicit goods consumed, the carriage departed, but at that point the travelers began to regard the wretched girl with contempt because she was a prostitute, even though she had pulled their chestnuts from the fire.

It seems to me that the same thing is happening to Monti. Everyone has asked him to remove the chestnuts from the fire, to take those severe measures that otherwise they have not known or wanted to take even at the risk of unpopularity. Now that he has done it, everyone has begun to look at him negatively. Maupassant understood these things.

Now, I would first argue that it is far, far too soon to argue that the unelected, IMF-installed Professor Monti has pulled anyone’s chestnuts from the fire, except perhaps the balance sheets of a few international banks. And while some degree of fiscal responsibility is in order, it wasn’t the Italian people who asked for him because they have never voted for him. For anything. But the analogy is a brilliant one regardless, because Monti most certainly is a prostitute and the nation of Italy is being occupied, in a very real, albeit non-military, sense, by the Franco-Prussians.

If for some reason you’re reading the original article at La Repubblica, please note that this particular Bustina comes in two parts. I skipped the first one, which concerned poetry and a Spaziani novel, and was of no interest to me.

Umberto Eco on canine intelligence

But do dogs speak or not?

A lady, who went mushroom-gathering with a friend, was stung by a wasp and went into anaphylactic shock. She stopped breathing and her friend telephoned the paramedics, but the arrival of the paramedics was delayed because the two women were in a very thick forest and it was hard to find them. However, Queen, the friend’s dog, (but I imagine it must have been a female dog)1, instead of staying there licking the hand of the stricken as instinct would have commanded, ran through the forest, found the paramedics, and guided them to the right place.

As Danilo Mainardi commented in the Corriere Della Sera last August 21st, we are not seeing a simple instinctive behavior here, we are seeing an “intelligent” behavior in which the dog does not respond to the command of the instinct, (to stay near the injured), but elaborates “a complex plan which also comprehends the involvement of other individuals”.

The case, and the comments by Mainardi, recall to mind the vast literature of antiquity on the capacity for reason on the part of dogs. One of the texts that had great influence in the past is the Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder, who is occupied with the voices of fishes and birds, but also delved amply into canine intelligence; he cites a dog that recognized in the crowd the killer of his master, and by snapping and snarling at him, forced him to confess his crime. He also relates the story of the dog of a man condemned to death that howled mournfully over him, and when a spectator gave the dog some food, tried to put it in the mouth of the dead man. When the body was finally thrown in the Tiber, the dog jumped in and swam in an attempt to rescue its master.

But the more interesting philosophical discussion was already developed in three centuries of debate between Stoics, Academics, and Epicureans. Within the circuit of the Stoic discussions appears an argument attributed to Chrysippus of Soli, that was actually reprised and popularized about five centuries later by Sextus Empiricus. Sextus judged that the dog had the capacity for logical reason, showing how a dog that arrived at an intersection of three paths, and recognized by the odor that the prey had not taken two of the paths, immediately ran down the third without needing to sniff it. In effect, the dog had shown this mode of reason: “The prey has taken this way or that, or the other, now it is not this way or that, and therefore it is the other.” That would be an example of a reasoning called the Fifth Indemonstrable.

Sextus further recorded that a dog possessed a “logos” because it knew to remove the slivers and clean the paws, hold the injured limb immobile, and distinguish the herbs that possessed the ability to ease its suffering. As to an animal language, it is true that we don’t comprehend the voices of the animals, but we also don’t comprehend the voices of the barbarians even though we know they speak. And dogs certainly emit diverse vocalizations in diverse situations.

We can continue by citing the De Sollertia Animalium of Plutarch, where he said that while it is certain the rationality of animals is imperfect with respect to that of Man, this difference also applies between human beings. In another dialogue, Bruta Animalia Ratione Uti, to one who forcefully objected to attributing reason to beings that possessed no innate notion of the divine, Plutarch responded by recalling that there are also atheists among human beings.

In the On the Nature of the Animals of Claudio Eliano, other arguments are already seen; he cites dogs that are in love with human beings. In the De Abstinentia of Porfirio, the arguments in favor of the intelligence of animals serve to sustain a vegetarian thesis. All of these themes have been variously reprised in the modern era and until our days.

But let us stop here: if we cannot succeed in successfully defining the canine intelligence, we must be more sensible about this mystery. If it isn’t enough to cause us to become vegetarians, at least the less intelligent dog owners among us will not abandon their dogs on the highway.

As always with these translations, please recall that I am sub-fluent in Italian, particularly Eco’s notoriously complex brand of it. As an aside, I find it interesting to contemplate how reason has been turned on its head since Plutarch’s day. From assuming that an innate sense of the divine is required for a being to possess reason, there are now individuals such as Sam Harris who assume that an innate sense of the divine somehow equates to evidence of a lack of reason. I trust that by the time it ends, the ongoing Memorial Debate will suffice to demonstrate the false nature of the Harrisian assumption.

As for the matter of canine intelligence, having owned a Viszla for 15 years, I can testify that while dogs do possess the capacity for reason, they don’t have a lot of it. The larger part of it appears to go towards rationalizing why they should be able to steal food from places they know perfectly well is not permitted. But despite these limitations, it goes without saying that anyone who intentionally abandons a dog should be excommunicated, flayed, rolled in salt, and burned.

If human affections were only half as reliable as the canine, the world would be a much better place.

(1) this clarification stems from the use of grammatical gender in Italian. “Il cane” is the generic term and suggests “the male dog”, but Eco imagines that the name Queen tends to indicate “la cagna”, or “the bitch”.

Umberto Eco on literal readers

Credulity and identification

In the preceding “Bustina di Minerva” I wrote that many readers find it difficult to ascertain, in a novel, the reality of the fiction, and they tend to attribute to the author the passions and the thoughts of his characters. To confirm this, I found a site on the internet that records the thoughts of various authors, and under “the quotes of Umberto Eco” I discovered this: “The Italian is unfaithful, a liar, vile, treacherous, he is is more comfortable with the dagger than with the sword, better with poison than with medicine, slippery in negotiation, and coherent only in that he changes his flag with every wind.” It’s not that there isn’t something of the truth in all this, but it appears as if it is written by a foreign author. In my novel, The Cemetery of Prague, this sentence is written by a gentleman who in the preceding pages has manifested a racist compulsion making use of all the most hoary old cliches. From now on, I must be sure to never place banal characters in fictional scenes, otherwise one day they will attribute to me philosophies such as “one has but one mother”.

Now I read the last “Blown Glass” of Eugenio Scalfari, which reprises my previous “Bustina” and raises a new problem. Scalfari agrees with the fact that there are people who confuse the fictional narrative for reality, but retains, (and rightly retains that I retained), that the fictional narrative can be truer than the truth in order to inspire identifications and perceptions of historical phenomenons, to create new modes of thought, etc. And we must consider if one cannot be in accord with this opinion.

It is not only that the fictional narrative also confirms aesthetic conditions: a reader can very well know that Madame Bovary never existed and yet enjoy the style with which Flaubert constructs his character. But here the aesthetic dimension can be seen to be in opposition to the “aletic” dimension, (that which has to do with the notion of the truth shared with logic, the sciences, or the judges that make courtroom decisions about the veracity of testimony declaring how a certain thing took place.) They are two diverse dimensions; there are problems if a judge makes his decision based on how aesthetically a defendant lies to him. I was occupied with the aletic dimension. It is for the most part true that my reflections were born of an internal discourse on falsehood and the lie. Is it false to say that a Vanna Marchi lotion will regrow hair? It is false. Is it false to say that Don Abbondio met two bravos?(1) From the aletic point of view, yes, but the narrator does not want to tell us how much of the story is true or false, he pretends it is true and asks us to play along. He asks us, as Coleridge recommended, “to suspend the disbelief”.

Scalfari cites Werther(2), and we know how many romantic young men and women identifying with the protagonist committed suicide. Did they perhaps believe that the story was true? Not necessarily, just as we know that Emma Bovary never existed and yet we are moved to tears on her behalf. One recognizes a fiction as fictional, even as we immerse ourselves in the depths of a character.

It is that we intuit that even if Madame Bovary never existed, there exist many women like her, and it is perhaps as if she is also us to some extent and from her a lesson can be derived of life in general and of our own selves. The ancient Greeks believed the things that befell Oedipus were true and reflected his fate. Freud knew very well that Oedipus never existed, but read those events as a profound lesson on how the aspects of the unconscious operated.

What happens instead to the readers of whom I speak, those who don’t absolutely distinguish between fiction and reality? Their situation does not have aesthetic validity. To the extent they are inclined to take the story so seriously that they never ask if it is told well or poorly, they are not looking for instruction and they do not identify with the characters. They simply manifest that which I will define as a fictional deficit; they are incapable of suspending their disbelief. Since there are more of these readers than we think, it is worth the trouble to consider them because we know that all the questions of morals and aesthetics will elude them.

(1) The Betrothed, Alessandro Manzoni
(2) This must mean The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe rather than the opera entitled Werther since the opera premiered 118 years after the book was published and well after the wave of the suicides it inspired.

Umberto Eco on Stephen Hawking

I was thinking about addressing Stephen Hawking’s absurd new book, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to bother even picking it up, let alone reading it. Fortunately, Umberto Eco was willing to do the dirty work for us:

Philosophy is not Star Trek

In “The Republic” of last April 6th, there appeared a preview of the book by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, introduced with a subtitle that more or less reprised a passage from the text: “Philosophy is dead, only physics can explain the cosmos”. The death of philosophy has been announced on various occasions and therefore the announcement made little impression, but it seemed to me it must be balderdash to have claimed that a genius like Hawking would say such a thing. To be sure that “The Republic” had not erroneously summarized the book, I went and bought it, and the reading confirmed my suspicions.

The book appears to have been written by two hands, although in the case of Hawking the expression is sadly metaphorical because, as we know, his limbs do not respond to the commands of his exceptional brain. However, the book is fundamentally a work of the second author, whose qualifications are described on the cover as having written some episodes of “Star Trek”. In the book, one can see the beautiful illustrations that appear to be conceived for a children’s encyclopedia from a bygone time; they are colorful and engaging, but do not actually explain anything about the complex physical, mathematical, and cosmological theorems they are supposed to illustrate. Perhaps it is not prudent to trust one’s destiny to the philosophy of individuals with rabbit ears.(1)

The work begins with the fixed affirmation that philosophy no longer has anything to say and only physics can explain:

1)How we can comprehend the world in which we find ourselves.
2)The nature of reality.
3)If the universe had need of a creator.
4)Why there is something instead of nothing.
5)Why we exist.
6)Why this particular set of laws exists instead of some other.

As you see these are typical philosophical questions, but it must be admitted that the book demonstrates how physics can, in some ways, serve to answer the last four, which appear to be the most philosophical of all.

The problem is that in order to attempt to answer the last four questions, it is necessary to have answered the first two. It is those questions which, in a large way, are what one requires in order to say that something is real and if we know the real world as it is. Perhaps you will recall from your philosophical studies at school that we understand by attribute what the intellect perceives of a substance,(2) it is something outside of ourselves. (Woody Allen adds: and if so, why are they making all that noise?) Either we are Berkeleyans(3) or, as Putnam said, brains in a vat.

Well then, the fundamental answers that this book puts forward are exquisitely philosophic and without these philosophical answers not even the physicist could say “because he knows” and “what he knows”. In fact, the authors speak of “a realism dependent on the models”, that is, they assume that “other concepts of reality independent of description and theory do not exist”. Therefore “other theories can satisfactorily describe the same phenomenon by means of different conceptual structures” and all that we can perceive, we know, and we say of reality depends on the interaction between our models and that thing which is outside but that we know only due to our perceptive organs and our brain.

The more suspicious among the readers will have already recognized a Kantian phantasm, but it is clear the two authors are proposing that which in philosophy is called “Holisticism” and by others “internal realism”. As you see, it is not a treatise of physical discoveries, but of philosophical assumptions, that stand to sustain and legitimize the research of the physicist – those which, when he is a good physicist, can only address the problem of the philosophical foundations of his own methods. We already knew, we were already familiar with these extraordinary revelations, (evidently due to Mlodinow and to the company of Star Trek), for “in antiquity there was an instinct to attribute the violent actions of nature to an Olympus of displeased or malevolent gods”. By gosh, and then, by golly.(4)

(1) “Orecchie da leprotto”. Literally, “the ears of the hare”. I’m not familiar with this phrase, which could mean anything from implying that the two men are asses (think Pinocchio) to a leafy green vegetable found in salads. Or it may simply be referring to Mlodinow’s background in television. Seeing as it’s Eco, one hesitates to guess. But one thing is certain; it’s not a compliment.
(2) I think this refers to Spinoza’s philosophy of mind. Some school. But do they know how to put condoms on bananas?
(3) Philosopher George Berkeley, who argued against rational materialism and considered the idea of “matter” to be unjustified and self-contradictory.
(4) “Perdinci e poi perbacco”. It’s an Italian expression that doesn’t necessarily translate well, but indicates a lack of surprise. The sense of dismissive sarcasm should be readily apparent.

As my Italian is better described as “conversational” rather than “fluent”, don’t put too much confidence in my translation. The four italicized notes are mine and therefore may be incorrect. Regardless, it should be clear that Eco is describing a material example of how, once more, science has climbed to the summit of another intellectual mountain, only to find the philosophers already there.