Monday, 9 October 2000

Umberto Eco: Serendipities: Language and Lunacy (1998)

Edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999
Review number: 648

Some of Eco's essays in semiotics (those in Travels in Hyperreality, for example), are to me fairly impenetrable. The five in this collection are not like that. Concentrating on aspects of the history of linguistic thought, they show a wide ranging and brilliant mind, but are written in a lass academic style. (It was the vast array of references to writers that I had never read that was daunting.) They read more like they are notes related to one of Eco's novels, and are particularly close in style to the digressions in Foucault's Pendulum.

The reason for this is that all the essays except the first deal with a subject similar in many ways to the pursuit of the ultimate conspiracy which is the theme of that novel - the quest for the original language of mankind, or, more specifically, for that used by Adam to name the beasts of the earth in Genesis and that used by God to speak to him. This may seem to be an obscure subject, but it says something about the way that those who discussed it felt about the relationship between language and the physical world, and that is an issue of some importance in philosophy as well as being of interest in itself.

These essays are not particularly closely connected; each concentrates on a particular small part of the theme (Dante's views, for example, or the supposedly fundamental languages devised by eighteenth century philosophers) with little reference to the others. Each is interesting in itself, and a book which contained them all as chapters would probably be fascinating, though I found Serendipities rather on the bitty side.

The first essay, based on a lecture given to open the academic year at Bologna University, is rather different in nature. Entitled The Force of Falsity, its subject is influential lies of the past. Forgeries have had a surprisingly big effect on history, from the Donation of Constantine, used to bolster the claims of the Papacy to dominion over the secular rulers of medieval Europe, to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which inspired Hitler. Both these forgeries led to wars, but others had a positive effect; eastward and westward exploration by Europeans in the fifteenth century were inspired by erroneous beliefs - eastward by Prester John, westward by an incorrect estimate of the circumference of the globe. The latter, which was Columbus' inspiration, has itself been the victim of misrepresentation, as Eco points out - anti-clerical campaigners in the nineteenth century claimed that the reason Columbus travelled was to prove that the earth was round in defiance of established church doctrine; few educated people in 1492 would have believed in a flat earth.

None of the essays are about anything of earth shattering importance; all are interesting and determinedly erudite.

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