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Great Misinterpretations: Umberto Eco on Joyce and Aquinas
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"Perhaps Aquinas would understand me better than you."

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Silence can be caused by the absence of speech or it can be a consequence of our inability to hear. It is sometimes hard to ascertain. We find ourselves precisely in this uncomfortable situation when, pressing medieval culture with modern questions, we fall short of any conclusive answer. The splendour of the intellectual, literary, and artistic legacy of the Middle Ages is evident. However, when we say that this legacy does not speak to us, is it because it really does not have anything to say or because we are unable to grasp its true relevancy? In order to scrutinize the alternatives, it might be wise to have recourse to qualified interpreters, by which I mean experts in both "cultural languages," so to speak.

If any of our living contemporaries deserves the title of interpreter, it is certainly Umberto Eco. He is not only a qualified interpreter in terms of literary criticism, but, as a semiotician in his own right, he can also rightly lay claim to being today's most significant theoretician of the interpretational process. Moreover, when we address the cultural languages that need to be interpreted, Eco immediately appears as a key figure. He is a scholar as qualified in the field of medieval studies as he is renowned for his analysis of contemporary mass culture, down to the latest comic strips. It is therefore worthwhile asking in what terms Eco assesses the "modernity" of the Middle Ages. A fairly recent study, Cristina Farronato's Eco's Chaosmos: From the Middle Ages to Postmodernity, argues that Eco's acquaintance with the medieval universe lies behind and directs his research in the wide field of semiotics.

There is an easier method for weighing the relevancy of Farronato's claim. The manner in which Eco sees the literary work of James Joyce as the paradigm of the modern is somewhat similar to the way Thomas Aquinas's theological thought, as postulated in Eco's earlier works, embodies the spirit of the Middle Ages. Let us then ask the following question: in what terms does Eco interpret the connection between Joyce and Aquinas? Does Eco's interpretation of this connection enable his readers to elucidate the presence of the Medieval in the midst of the Modern? In the following considerations, I will try to show that it does not. However, I shall argue that the reason why it does not is not the absence of the Medieval within the Modern, but Eco's failure to correctly identify this presence. There is therefore a positive aspect to my boldly critical stance: I am less interested in pointing out the misinterpretations of the most celebrated interpreter of our time than in the opportunity to shed some light on the hidden fecundity of the Medieval within our living culture.

This article is divided into three parts. The first is devoted to the principles of Joyce's aesthetics, the second to the understanding of Joyce's literary evolution, and the third to the analysis of a crucial passage of Ulysses.

I. Joyce and Aquinas on the Principles of Aesthetics: A Purely Formal Convergence?

One should certainly always take the acknowledgment of a writer's indebtedness to a philosopher or a theologian cum grano salis. What and especially how did the writer read the theologian? What did he digest and what did he reject? This prudent advice should apply in the highest degree to Joyce's repeated declarations of admiration for the ideas of Thomas Aquinas. Through Stephen Hero's mouth, Joyce has claimed that his whole aesthetic was "in the main 'applied Aquinas.'" However, what is the proportion of dandyish pose in this inveterate and supremely gifted blasphemer of the Catholic cult? Why would he proclaim an unswerving allegiance to the main speculative pillar of Catholic theology? In the same passage of Stephen Hero, Joyce writes that the young artist had "a predisposition in favour of all but the 'premisses of scholasticism,'" by which one should probably assume he means the truth of Christian Revelation as conveyed within the living tradition of the Catholic Church.

The question...



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