Ecolalia

Nicholas Penny

  • Faith in Fakes by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver
    Secker, 307 pp, £15.00, August 1986, ISBN 0 436 14088 8
  • Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages by Umberto Eco, translated by Hugh Bredin
    Yale, 131 pp, £6.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 300 03676 0

The first of these books, Faith in Fakes, is a collection of essays – many of them newspaper pieces – by a ‘distinguished professor at the University of Bologna, with an international reputation as philosopher, historian and literary critic’. His subjects are novelties, many of which are now nearly forgotten. I cannot recommend anyone to reread McLuhan in order to appreciate Eco’s reservations about his theories, eminently judicious though these reservations are when compared with the enthusiasm of George Steiner or Raymond Williams. The Red Brigades, however, have not been forgotten. And people still wear blue jeans.

Professor Eco wore blue jeans ten years ago. They felt tight around his testicles. He became more aware of his body. He understood what women felt like wearing girdles and brassieres. In these circumstances, he found it harder to think: but he did think about the circumstances themselves and

about how much, in the history of civilisation, dress as armour has influenced behaviour and, in consequence, exterior morality. The Victorian bourgeois was stiff and formal because of stiff collars; the 19th-century gentleman was constrained by his tight redingotes, boots, and top hats that didn’t allow brusque movements of the head. If Vienna had been on the equator and its bourgeoisie had gone about in Bermuda shorts, would Freud have described the same neurotic symptoms, the same Oedipal triangles? And would he have described them in the same way if he, the doctor, had been a Scot, in a kilt (under which, as everyone knows, the rule is to wear nothing)?

It is embarrassing that Eco regards his experience of tight jeans as a fit subject for public discussion. Can it be that he is trying to shatter our illusions about professors?

Perhaps it is an attempt to pander to the prejudices of a large, unacademic public. If so, it must be admitted that Eco does not relish all aspects of popular culture. Modern spectator sport excites several outbursts, of which the following is an extreme example: ‘If sport (practised) is health, like eating food, sport seen is a defrauding of health. When I see others play, I am doing nothing healthy, and I am only vaguely enjoying the health of others (which in itself would be a sordid exercise of voyeurism, like watching others make love), because in fact what I enjoy most are the accidents that will befall those who are healthily exercising, the illness that undermines this exercised health (like someone who watches not two human beings but two bees making love, while waiting to witness the death of the drone).’ Since the voyeur’s thrill depends upon the unawareness of him or her on the part of the persons watched, there can be no analogy with sport, in which the relationship between player and spectator, even if secondary to that between players, is acknowledged to be important and reciprocal. If the spectators want the opposition to lose, and, sometimes, even to be hurt, then this is no less true of the players themselves, even when there are no spectators. How is it that the practice of sport is like eating, and how can either activity be identified with health? What can it be that prompts a philosopher to make this contorted exhibition of his own failure to think?

There is a clue in the preface where Eco declares his belief that an intellectual should ‘use newspapers the way private diaries and personal letters were once used. At white heat, in the rush of an emotion, stimulated by an event, you write your reflections, hoping that someone will read them and then forget them.’ He appears to have missed the arrogance of the verb ‘use’ and the self-importance of thus imposing upon thousands what was once confined to a single unfortunate correspondent. Professors, it seems, are no more impervious than anyone else to the intoxicating vanity inspired by the ‘mass media’.

I suspect that Eco may have first been seduced from intellectual caution, if not modesty, by the righteous cause of ‘relevance’ (a word much in favour when the earlier of these essays appeared) – a cause which Medievalists may be driven to embrace with particularly desperate abandon. This is suggested by another, more earnest paragraph in the preface: ‘my way of being involved in politics consists of telling others how I see daily life, political events, the language of the mass media, sometimes the way I look at a movie. I believe it is my job as a scholar and a citizen to show how we are surrounded by “messages”.’

If there is a subject upon which Eco, who has written a bestselling novel about monastic life, might be expected to offer some wise reflections it must surely be the modern fascination with the Middle Ages. ‘Looking at the Middle Ages means looking at our infancy ... Our return to the Middle Ages is a quest for our roots.’ He points out that ‘in the Middle Ages we witness the rise of modern armies ... the struggle between the poor and the rich, the concept of heresy or ideological deviation, even our contemporary notion of love as a devastatingly unhappy happiness.’ These are dubious claims (certainly the concept of ideological deviation is well developed in the Bible and Ovid knew something about unhappy happiness), but even if we accept them all, I cannot see how they make the Middle Ages akin to infancy, rather than, say, schooldays. We turn the page and read that ‘immediately after the official ending of the Middle Ages, Europe was ravaged by a pervasive medieval nostalgia.’ Leaving aside the problem of what is meant by the phrase ‘official ending’, we may be amazed to find cited, as evidence of this ‘ravaging’ nostalgia, the crusaders of Tasso, the irony of Cervantes, and, most remarkable of all, the fact that ‘Shakespeare borrowed and reshaped a lot from medieval narrative.’

We turn the page again and find that Eco is concerned to distinguish the different dreams of the Middle Ages entertained by modern man. No 7 reads as follows: ‘The Middle Ages of Decadentism. Think, obviously, of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, think of Ruskin, but think also of Huysmans’s À Rebours and of the ecstasies of Des Esseintes.’ I have thought about Ruskin but cannot discern anything decadent in his notion of the Middle Ages. And no amount of thinking will make Des Esseintes into a Medieval hero or even someone particularly attracted by the Middle Ages (perhaps Eco has confused À Rebours with La Bas).

In the next essay in the collection, the Middle Ages have ceased to be the infancy to which modern man looks back and have become, it seems, the second childhood into which we have stumbled: ‘the cathedral is the great book in stone, and is indeed the advertisement, the TV screen, the mystic comic strip ... Today as then the sophisticated elitist experiment co-exists with the great enterprise of popularisation (the relationship between illuminated manuscript and Cathedral is the same as that between MOMA and Hollywood).’ It is hard to decide whether this is more unhelpful as a commentary on the present or on the past. Much modern avant-garde art has no relationship, certainly no direct relationship, with popular art, whereas the unity of Medieval culture is remarkable, and nowhere more so than in the connections between illuminated manuscripts and cathedrals, despite the difference in scale, medium and public. There was no question of the elite being snooty about cathedrals in the way that advocates of avant-garde experiments today might be about the ‘entertainment industry’ – the elite, indeed, paid for the cathedrals and were buried in them. Moreover, everything that can be interpreted as popularising in the cathedrals – the grotesque and satirical, highly naturalistic flowers and animals, vivid narratives – can be found in manuscript illuminations.

‘Nothing more closely resembles a monastery,’ Eco continues, ‘than an American University campus.’ The differences, I must say, do seem to me to be very striking – as striking as the differences between this book and Eco’s own earlier academic writing. Of the latter, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, which first appeared in 1959 as a chapter in the first volume of Momenti e problemi di storia dell’estetica, is a notable example. My only complaint about its reappearance is that the English title encourages the expectation that it is more about art than is the case. The original Italian title was Sviluppo dell’estetica medievale and Eco’s subject is indeed aesthetics: works of art are mentioned, but are hardly central to his argument in the way that they were for Panofsky and Huizinga, whose writings he often cites. This is a sober and learned study which can be recommended as a lucid exposition of alien ways of thinking. There is no attempt to pretend that access to this world is easy for us today. No one on the campus conceives of Beauty or Truth as it was conceived of in the monastery.