- A Class of His Own
How many people can you name that have made major contributions to semiotics, medieval philosophy, and the philosophy of language, in addition to writing a weekly newspaper column and authoring novels that have sold over ten million copies? It’s a small club.
Known worldwide for both his philosophical contributions and his best-selling fiction, Italian writer and philosopher Umberto Eco is in a class of his own. His most popular novel, The Name of the Rose (1980), which was made into a movie in 1986 directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and starring Sean Connery, defied expectations about difficult fiction and obscure philosophy by making it popular and fun.
His recent death leaves a vacuum in international letters; there are not many thinkers of his range and stature. Few have been able to blur the lines between fiction and philosophy, the difficult and the popular, as publicly and distinctly as Eco. Of his role as a scholar engaged in public debate, he said, “Journalism is my political duty.” It was a duty he performed like few others.
His novels, particularly The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) and The Island of the Day Before (1994), contributed to the rise of literary theory in the latter part of the twentieth-century. Without these works of fiction, it is hard to believe that semiotics, a major chapter in late twentieth-century literary theory, would have had as much international recognition and intellectual attention as it did, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. Just as Jacques Derrida became the international face of deconstruction during this period, and Richard Rorty the face of pragmatism, Eco, through his academic and popular writing, became the face of semiotics. And a highly visible one at that.
A professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, Eco came to be associated with the idea that people don’t want to be pandered to but rather challenged through writing. “It’s only publishers and some journalists who believe that people want simple things,” said Eco. “People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged.” And the professor from Europe’s oldest university was more than happy to indulge them.
One only needs to look to the sales of his fiction, particularly his first three novels, for ample evidence of his claim that people are tired of simple things. The first one-hundred pages of The Name of the Rose, for example, are heavy sledding, even for academics. Even so, it has been translated into thirty languages.
Still, to test the notion that “People are tired of simple things,” he wrote a novel in plain language that was not overly philosophical or erudite. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2004) turned out to be his worst-selling novel.
But much about Eco defies expectation. Most who write novels as difficult as Eco’s do not reach a mass audience. William Gass, for example, took twenty-five years to write his novel The Tunnel. It came out in February of 1995, around the same time as Eco’s The Island of the Day Before. Eco’s novel remains in print by its original publisher. Gass’s, however, was quickly put out of print by its publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, and if not for being put back in print in 1999 by Dalkey Archive Press, would probably still be out of print.
Yet is it is not just his success as a novelist that defies expectation, but also how he dealt with it. Most professors who pen best-sellers leave academe as soon as they can to either write more best-sellers or to just enjoy the rewards of fame and fortune. But not Eco.
While his novels sold well enough for him to give up his university position, he refused to saying, “I am a philosopher.” “I write novels only on the weekends.”
Also, unlike most professional Anglo-American philosophers who specialize in one area or subarea of philosophy, and work it to death, Eco did the opposite. He was interested in everything. High culture, low culture, and everything in between—and wrote about...