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Bookmarks BEAUTY IS FUN AND FUN BEAUTY -OR IS THAT ALL YE NEED TO KNOW? Interpretation and Overinterpretation (Cambridge University Press, $39.95 hardbound, $11.95 paper) presents three lectures by Umberto Eco, with responses by Richard Rorty, Jonathan Culler, and Christine Brooke-Rose, a final rejoinder by Eco, and a general Introduction by Stefan Collini. The occasion was the Clare Hall Tanner Lectures, and they apparently packed one of the biggest auditoriums at Cambridge University in 1990. There was more debate, including Frank Kermode, Malcolm Bradbury, and David Lodge, than is included here, and one imagines it was an exciting occasion. Ecobegins by identifying what he calls the hermetic tradition in interpretation. The Caliph who ordered the burning of the Library at Alexandria, he says, did so because he knew the truth of the Koran, but it's different with secondcentury hermeticism, which searches for a truth it does not know. Since the books in which it hopes to find the truth contradict each other, truth will be seen mysteriously to reveal itself in allusion and allegory. "Secret knowledge," he says, "is deep knowledge" for the hermeticist: truth must be probed for beneath the surface of the text. The Heideggerian overtones are not lost on Eco: "The gods speak (today we would say: the Being is speaking) through hieroglyphic and enigmatic messages." We have been living with knowledge since the beginning of time, but we have forgotten it. The result of the hermetic outlook is that "interpretation is indefinite," and that we must accept "a never-ending drift or sliding of meaning." On the one hand all phenomena become linguistic, while on the other language itself loses its communicative ability. Every revelation yields to yet another secret, ad infinitum . There would be no final secret, it might be said, were it not for hermeticism's cousin, gnosticism, who much enjoys a good secret, or at least acts like there is one. This is a gnostic power play, familiar to Marxists (mentioned by Eco) and the deconstructionists (whom he politely ignores): whatever is mysterious (the dialectic of history, the myth of presence, you name it) and Philosophy and Literature, © 1992, 16: 432^137 Bookmarks433 cloaked in jargon, must be very important, indeed essential. Best of all, only initiates can understand it. Eco then summarizes the main tenets of contemporary hermeticism: infinite interconnections of an open-ended text/universe; no preexisting meaning for language to grasp; being-in-the-world nothing more than our inability to find transcendental meaning; any text pretending to assert something univocal "the work ofa muddle-headed Demiurge"; every line of text conceals another secret (suppressed, etc.) meaning; words don't say, they hide; the "Real Reader is the one who understands that the secret of a text is its emptiness." Eco courteously calls this "a caricature" of radical reader-response theories, but it seems pretty accurate to me. His counterattack begins by asking if there isn't something out there someplace that might limit interpretation. He takes a 1641 text about an American Indian slave who is called upon to deliver a basket of thirty figs. After bending his interpretation and suggesting the sorts of complications on how this text might be construed, Eco concludes that there remains a final, un-get-aroundable , bedrock fact: the story says that there was once a basket of figs: "No reader-oriented theory can avoid such a constraint." There is something—a text—that must be respected. "Overinterpreting Texts," Eco's second lecture, starts off with a table of mnemonic devices, taken from a sixteenth-century self-help book on how to improve your memory. This turns out to give a convenient summary of the ways words and ideas can be similar to one another, or can more generally be connected to each other. Think hard enough about it, and anything can be connected to anything else—an underlying principle of hermetic semiosis: "from a certain point of view everything bears relationships of analogy, contiguity , and similarity to everything else." This is true of everyday thinking as well, but it is a mark of sanity to be able to distinguish relevant significant similarities from illusory ones. Obsessive, paranoiac interpretations...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 432-437
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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