Thursday, July 17, 2008

Umberto Eco interview in The Paris Review

To promote/advertise Umberto Eco's new book On Ugliness, he gave an interview for the new issue of the Paris Review. I haven't read any of Eco's fiction or philosophy. Notta. Years ago, when I told a philosophy professor that I was really interested in the intersection of literature and philosophy, he recommended Eco's novel The Name of the Rose. I haven't read it yet, but I haven't forgotten it either.

Anyway, Eco seems like a low-key Slavoj Zizek with his sharp sarcastic sense of humor. He says some interesting things that I will now quote mostly out of context of the interview and maybe reframe them in my own context.

Here's a good line: "I was at that time a great writer of unaccomplished masterpieces."

And another re: poetic youth: "I think that at a certain age, say fifteen or sixteen, poetry is like masturbation."



To what extent are your novels autobiographical?


In some way I think every novel is. When you imagine a character, you lend him or her some of your personal memories. You give part of yourself to character number one and another part to character number two. In this sense, I am not writing any sort of autobiography, but the novels are my autobiography. There's a difference.

I will do this: "But if you give me fifty dollars, I will write you an essay about the parallels between our time and the time of the Neanderthals."

This is interesting:


In Foucault's Pendulum you write, "The more elusive and ambiguous a symbol is, the more it gains significance and power."


A secret is powerful when it is empty. People often mention the "Masonic secret." What on earth is the Masonic secret? No one can tell. As long as it remains empty it can be filled up with every possible notion, and it has power.

Eco is asked if he is still obsessed with television. He says, "I suspect that there is no serious scholar who doesn't like to watch television. I'm just the only one who confesses." This thread continues:


Are there any shows that you particularly love?


The police series. Starsky and Hutch, for instance.


That show doesn't exist anymore. It's from the seventies.

I laughed for awhile after I read that while sitting on the toilet.

I loved this exchange, too:


Have you read The Da Vinci Code?


Yes, I am guilty of that too.


That novel seems like a bizarre little offshoot of Foucault's Pendulum.


The author, Dan Brown, is a character from Foucault's Pendulum! I invented him. He shares my characters' fascination--the world conspiracy of Rosicrucians, Masons, and Jesuits. The role of the Knights Templar. The hermetic secret. The principle that everything is connected. I suspect Dan Brown might not even exist.

Good stuff. I think that is probably the comment that reminds me of Zizek the most. And here I am going to present a question and answer that supports my continuously saying that philosophy is simply another genre of fiction.


Why didn't you begin writing novels until you were forty-eight years old?


It wasn't as much of a leap as everyone seems to think, because even in my doctoral thesis, even in my theorizing, I was already creating narratives. I have long thought that what most philosophical books are really doing at the core is telling the story of their research, just as scientists will explain how they came to make their major discoveries. So I feel that I was telling stories all along, just in a slightly different style.

This quote also confirms for me the fact that what I thought was a clever insight into the relationship between fiction and philosophy was really only impressive to me. It's important to humble oneself on occasion. Sometimes, I think I overdo it, though. So I am going to practice more pride and arrogance.

Speaking of laziness, I haven't read anything else in the issue yet, but I would say that the Eco interview is worth getting your hands on in some way. I would recommend a subscription, though. Because, you know, they're probably pretty strapped at the ol' Paris Review. No, probably not, but just an issue or two ago there was a kickin' story by Jesse Ball, which won the Plimpton Prize for Fiction. I don't really know why I'm trying to convince anyone to subscribe to The Paris Review as though no one has heard of it. Stupid.

I think I'm just trying to share some stuff about the Umberto Eco interview that I found interesting. Let's say that.

"I always assume that a good book is more intelligent than its author. It can say things that the writer is not aware of," Eco says.

When asked about being criticized for being too 'erudite', "that the main appeal to your work for a lay reader is the humiliation he feels for his own ignorance, which translates into a naive admiration for your pyrotechnics," Eco says, "Am I a sadist? I don't know. An exhibitionist? Maybe. I am joking. Of course not! I have not worked so much in my life in order to pile knowledge before my readers. My knowledge quite literally informs the intricate construction of my novels. Then it is up to my readers to detect what they might."

Here is something recent and relevant, an interesting take on the specter of literary apocalypse:


What do you make of those who proclaim the death of the novel, the death of books, the death of reading?


To believe in the end of something is a typical cultural posture. Since the Greeks and the Latins we have persisted in believing that our ancestors were better than us. I am always amused and interested by this kind of sport, which the mass media practice with increasing ferocity. Every season there is an article on the end of the novel, the end of literature, the end of literacy in America. People don't read any longer! Teenagers only play video games! The fact of the matter is that all over the world there are thousands of stores full of books and full of young people. Never in the history of mankind have there been so many books, so many places selling books, so many young people visiting these places and buying books.

And when asked what he would say to "the fearmongers," Eco says, "Culture is continuously adapting to new situations. There will probably be a different culture, but there will be a culture . . . But thrilling new forms will continue to emerge and literature will survive."

So, I've probably quoted about five times the allowed word count, but there it is. Umberto Eco, none of whose fiction I have read yet, gave an interview and said some things that cause me to laugh, to nod, to think, Hmm, I dunno about that, but I'm not as smart or famous as Umberto Eco and he's probably thought things through more than I did just now after reading what he said.

Soon: something about the new issue of Pleiades's book reviews and something else about the soil, water, and/or air in Hemlock, Michigan.


ryan call said...

there is a movie of the name of the rose?

um, christian slater is in it?

craziness ensues


thanks for posting this

i read a few interviews in the paris review's archive. i like the hemingway interview the most.

hemingway = sassy

Josh Maday said...

i didn't know there was a movie. good call, ryan.

yeah, i know, last name and all. awkward. have you seen the feelum? that's how slavoj zizek says 'film' in english.

no problemo, ken. i keep waiting to see an email from tpr saying i quoted too much. i'm with you, man, the interviews are badness. yeah, hemingway was a prime example of confidence. it's probably important to have firm principles as a writer, even if you change them every other day.

'firm principles' sounds dirty and sort of funny: my, ken, you have very firm principles.

Matt B said...

Foucault's Pendulum a bizarre offshoot of The Da Vinci Code? Well, it could be if it wasn't published ten years earlier.

And, to be fair to Dan Brown, Foucault's Pendulum is as overblown and pretentious as Da Vinci is banal and ridiculous.

Josh Maday said...

actually, i think it talks about Da Vinci Code being an offshoot of FP, which i think makes a little more sense.

you've read Foucault's Pendulum? or tried anyway? i haven't read anything by Eco, like i said. seems like the "overblown and pretentious" is a common feeling about Eco's work, though. hmm.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

thank you

and i think you're the first person to be cognizant of where my url is from

i like your name or something

ryan call said...

i like dthe name of the rose as a book

it made me feel really smart to read it

sean connery?

Josh Maday said...

gena, you're the first person to like my name or something. thanks.

ryan, i'm going to try the name of the rose and foucault's pendulum, and probably some of his writing about linguistics. i want to feel smart. there should be a top ten books to read if you want to feel smart; and a list if you just want to look smart.

any mention of sean connery immediately plays the snl skits in my mind. anal bum cover.

mike fallon said...

thanks for posting this, josh. I've been avoiding the PR for awhile but now I'm curious to read this interview. I read Foucault's Pendulum a long time ago when I was young and impressionable and still remember it as a good book. beware, it's a longassed book.

more importantly, thanks for continously saying that philosophy is just another genre of fiction. that's what makes it interesting. I have been saying the same thing about theology, too.

Josh Maday said...

mike, i'm glad you found the post useful. the eco interview is definitely interesting. though i quoted a lot, it's probably three or four times longer, maybe more.

a pretty good case could be made to qualify almost any field of study or body of knowledge as fiction that is always in the process of revision. that does make it interesting.