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Umberto Eco (1932 - )

Cult Movies [...]

Umberto Eco was one of the first academics to write about the cult movie phenomenon, employing Casablanca as an example. Personally, I do not consider Casablanca to be a cult movie, but rather an icon of popular culture.

Cliche(s) [...]

When all the archetypes burst out shamelessly, we plumb the depths of Homeric profundity. Two cliches make us laugh but a hundred cliches moves us because we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, celebrating a reunion . . . Just as the extreme of pain meets sensual pleasure, and the extreme of perversion borders on mystical energy, so too the extreme of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the Sublime.
-- Umberto Eco, "Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage" (1984) from Travels in Hyperreality

Cult and Canon

Philip Josť Farmer is also masterfully well read, with a proclivity -- like Umberto Eco -- for blending cult characters and literary devices like Andy Warhol on steroids. Eco has a fascinating little essay entitled "Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage" from the book Travels in Hyperreality which dissects the history of temporal cult interaction and analysis, notably the ways in which cult and canon necessarily (though not always obviously) converse. --http://www.sfsite.com/05a/du151.htm

Casablanca [...]

The New Generation will be Alphabetic

"We are frequently misled by a "mass media criticism of mass media" which is superficial and regularly belated. Mass media are still repeating that our historical period is and will be more and more dominated by images. That was the first McLuhan fallacy, and mass media people have read McLuhan too late. The present and the forthcoming young generation is and will be a computer-oriented generation. The main feature of a computer screen is that it hosts and displays more alphabetic letters than images. The new generation will be alphabetic and not image oriented. We are coming back to the Gutenberg Galaxy again, and I am sure that if McLuhan had survived until the Apple rush to the Silicon Valley, he would have acknowledged this portentous event." (Eco in The Future of the Book, ed. by Geoffrey Nunberg, 1996)

1997 Wired Interview

Italian novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco expounds upon the Net, writing, The Osteria, libraries, the continental divide, Marshall Mcluhan,and, well, God.

so you didn't know what a feat Umberto Eco pulled off in writing The Name of the Rose, that postmodern bestseller (17 million copies and counting) set in a 12th-century monastery. You didn't know that Eco wrote the novel while holding down a day job as a university professor - following student theses, writing academic texts, attending any number of international conferences, and penning a column for Italy's weekly newsmagazine L'Espresso. Or that the portly 65-year-old semiotician is also a literary critic, a satirist, and a political pundit.

But you did know - didn't you? - that Eco was the guy behind that unforgettable Mac versus DOS metaphor. That in one of his weekly columns he first mused upon the "software schism" dividing users of Macintosh and DOS operating systems. Mac, he posited, is Catholic, with "sumptuous icons" and the promise of offering everybody the chance to reach the Kingdom of Heaven ("or at least the moment when your document is printed") by following a series of easy steps. DOS, on the other hand, is Protestant: "it allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions ... and takes for granted that not all can reach salvation." Following this logic, Windows becomes "an Anglican-style schism - big ceremonies in the cathedral, but with the possibility of going back secretly to DOS in order to modify just about anything you like." (Asked to embellish the metaphor, Eco calls Windows 95 "pure unadulterated Catholicism. Already Windows 3.1 was more than Anglican - it was Anglo-Catholic, keeping a foot in both camps. But Windows 95 goes all the way: six Hail Marys and how about a little something for the Mother Church in Seattle.")

Eco first rose to fame in Italy as a parodist in the early '60s. Like all the best satirists, he oscillates between exasperation at the depths of human dumbness, and the benign indulgence of a grandfather. Don't let that grandfatherly look fool you, though. Eco was taking apart striptease and TV anchormen back in the late '50s, before anyone had even heard of Roland Barthes, and way before taking modern culture seriously (deconstructing The Simpsons, psychoanalyzing Tintin) became everybody's favorite pomo sport. Then there's his idea that any text is created as much by the reader as by the author, a dogma that invaded the lit crit departments of American universities in the mid-'70s and that underlies thinking about text in cyberspace and who it belongs to. Eco, mind you, got his flag in first, with his 1962 manifesto Opera aperta (The Open Work). -- Lee Marshall, Wired Magazine, http://www.wired.com/wired/archive//5.03/ff_eco.html?person=marshall_mcluhan&topic_set=wiredpeople

The Name of the Rose (1986) - Jean-Jacques Annaud

The Name of the Rose (1986) - Jean-Jacques Annaud [Amazon.com]

The Name of the Rose, a 1980 novel by Umberto Eco, is a murder mystery set in an Italian monastery in the year 1327 during the papacy of Pope John XXII. The book was also made into a film in 1986, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and starring Sean Connery as the intrepid Franciscan monk, William of Baskerville.

Along with his apprentice Adso of Melk (named after the Benedictine abbey Stift Melk and played by Christian Slater), William journeys to an abbey where a murder has been committed. As the plot unfolds, several other people mysteriously die. Our heroes explore a medieval library, the subversive power of laughter and come face to face with the Medieval Inquisition.

The name of the central character, William of Baskerville, alludes both to the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes and to William of Ockham, who first put forward the principle known as "Ockham's Razor": that one should always accept the simplest explanation that covers the facts. The name of the narrator, his sidekick Adso, is among other things a pun on Simplicio from Galileo Galilei's Dialogue; Adso = ad Simplicio ("to Simplicio"). It is also a play on Holmes' friend Dr. Watson.

On one level, the book is an excellent exposition of the scholastic method which was very popular in the 14th Century. William demonstrates the power of deductive reasoning. He refuses to accept the diagnosis of simple demonic possession despite demonology being the traditional monastic explanation. He keeps an open mind, collecting facts and observations, following even pure intuition as to what he should investigate, exactly as a scholastic would do. The story also demonstrates the crucial importance of chance in any investigative endeavour. Nevertheless, William could not have solved the cases if he had not properly prepared a framework of facts and interconnections, which the chance discovery then made meaningful.

The book meticulously describes monastic life in the 14th century. The action takes place at a Benedictine abbey during the controversy between branches of Franciscans. The spirituals abhor wealth, bordering on the Dulcinian heresy.

As usual in Eco's novels, there is a display of erudition. The blind librarian Jorge from Burgos is a pun on Jorge Luis Borges. Borges wrote a short story, "The Library of Babel," which inspired the secret library in Eco's book. Throughout the book, there are Latin quotes, authentic and apocryphal. There are also discussions of the philosophy of Aristotle and of a variety of heresies, especially those associated with the fraticelli.

Eco, being a famous semiotician, is hailed by semiotics students who like to apply this movie to explain their relatively arcane discipline. Eco also spent some time at the University of Toronto while writing the book. The stairs in the monastery's library bear a striking resemblance to those in Robarts Library. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Name_of_the_Rose [Mar 2005]

see also: grotesque


  1. Faith in Fakes: Travels in Hyperreality (1987) Umberto Eco [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    By the author of "The Name of the Rose", these essays, written over the last 20 years and culled from newspapers and magazines, explore the rag-bag of modern consciousness. Eco considers a wide range of topics, from "Superman" and "Casablanca", Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni, Jim Jones and mass suicide, and Woody Allen, to holography and waxworks, pop festivals and football, and not least the social and personal implications of tight jeans.

  2. Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language - Umberto Eco [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    If you want to know what meaning 'means' in linguistics inquiry then this is an incredible volume. Eco's discussion of theories of meaning based on dictionaries and encyclopedias and the relationship between the two shoud be read by linguists and computer scientists alike as this debate (which is really the heart of much of the book) has direct bearing on theories of grammar and artificial intelligence (much to the detriment of most modern theories of the latter). The only real complaint I have is that the initial chapter is quite dense and definitely not understandable for the reader not versed in at least some of his concepts--I had family members who wanted to know what I study and so I gave them this volume and they could not get past the first chapter to the meat of the book, which is very well written. --a reader for amazon.com

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