Tag Archives: Umberto Eco

Life in the Margins

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My desk blotter with my random marginalia

Some people, when they begin a new job, buy an new outfit to start off on the right foot. Me? I bought a used book. I have started a job digitizing medieval manuscripts and had the very clever idea to read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose to get myself in the proper frame of mind.

“It matters a great deal, because here we are trying to understand what has happened among men who live among books, with books, from books, and so their words on books are also important” (112).

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So far in my job, no one has been murdered. Although I have enjoyed Eco’s non-fiction, I have to admit it is the very genre of the “murder mystery” that put me off reading The Name of the Rose in the first place much less seeing the film. I don’t like the feeling of terror. The Exorcist was my first and last horror movie and Inspector Montalbano is the only detective I will ever love (but, Salvo, rest assure, I do love you). Basically, I’m a chicken. I am therefore happy to report that three murders in, I am forging ahead: labyrinth; dark, smoky intoxicating halls; ghoulish imagery; and creepy monks aside, the joy of reading about parchments and rubicators as I handle the very sorts of books that are at the center of the mystery in The Name of the Rose is tremendous fun.

An ancient proverb says, three fingers hold the pen, but the whole body works. And aches (128).

True, the script I am photographing is mind bogglingly small. I may go blind just trying to focus my camera never mind contemplate how they wrote in such a miniscule hand – nevertheless, I feel a kinship of sorts to the scribes of these texts. I prepare them to be ‘scribed’ by the computer, but we have the same problems, ye old monk and I: making copies, trying to get the details right, uncomfortable chairs, lighting issues, all in an effort to share the knowledge contained within.

Terce: In which Adso, in the scriptorium, reflects on the history of his order and on the destiny of books (181).

I think the biggest loss in the act of transcribing these books to a digitalized format is that in binary code, there is no room for marginalia. One thousand years from now that will be the most frustrating loss for archivists. They will want to know that I cursed in three different languages when I mistakenly failed to adjust the focus on fifty images. Alas, they will never know. The loss to history is….incalculable.

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*The Name of the Rose translated from the Italian by William  Weaver

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Shouting the Silence

The evidence of that wall, which says no when we want to interpret it as if it were not there, will perhaps be a fairly modest criterion of truth for guardians of the Absolute, but, to quote Keats, “that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
– Umberto Eco,  Inventing the Enemy,
from Absolute and Relative (43)

DSCI0012The other night at work I was watching a television program with one of the women I work for. She can’t hear very well, so it falls to me to succinctly interpret the plot or discussion. She loves public television. Almost every week we watch Bill Moyers together. Given that Moyers allows his guests time to articulate, and discuss their work, it sometimes poses more of a challenge for me as I strive not to destroy their ideas in an effort to shout them as clearly as possible. Moyers was discussing with Susan Jacoby her new book on Robert Ingersoll, The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Free Thought. Never mind not knowing who Robert Ingersoll was, who knew there was such a thing as American free thought? In our modern desert of mindless chatter and noise it is hard to disentangle our thoughts from the volume and find the space to think.  I haven’t read Jocoby’s book but if it is true that Ingersoll was single-handedly responsible for restoring the formerly discredited name of Thomas Paine, then I am a fan.

I have been reading essays (some based on lectures) by Umberto Eco recently. In Europe it is still quite natural to have “intellectuals” in the mix. I’m sure many Italians don’t care about Eco, but at least he exists as an intellectual. In America the term is derisive, and unless your field is economics, you are practically ridiculous.

But here I will limit myself to confounding your ideas rather than clarifying them, suggesting how each of these terms – depending on the circumstances – means many different things, and that they shouldn’t be used as baseball bats.
-Umberto Eco, Absolute and Relative (22) from Inventing the Enemy

Back in Ingersoll’s day his lectures were, apparently, enormously popular. It has always been a fantasy of mine to live out some bygone era of Jane Austen’s wherein large societies of people go to lectures and concerts and take “turns” in a wooded park. I do that now of course, but it is hard to fit it in, I am very often alone, or I am being graded- which is an unfortunate strain on my poor nerves when all I really want to do is blissfully listen to people smarter than me draw ideas together.

He [Piero Camporesi] looked back almost nostalgically upon less fastidious and more honest times when you could smell the blood that was spilled, when masochistic mystics kissed leprous ulcers, and excrement was sniffed as part of the sensual panorama of everyday life. –from Fermented Delights (87)

The above essay was a celebration (in essence) of stinky cheese, who can argue?  Eco leans heavily on his Italian-Catholic culture to discuss everything from the soul of an embryo using Aquinas’s thinking to show the hypocrisy rampant in the modern discussion when life begins (No Embryos in Paradise), what life lived as a proverb would laughingly entail (Living by Proverbs) to Victor Hugo’s excess in writing:

Just think of the Beethovenian description of the battle of Waterloo in Les Misérables. Unlike Stendhal, who described the battle through the eyes of Fabrizio, who is in the midst of it and doesn’t understand what is going on, Hugo describes the battle through the eyes of God- he watches from above. – Hugo, Hélas!: The Poetics of Excess (112)

And it’s true, the two do read very differently. I wouldn’t give up Hugo’s version, or Stenhals:  Fabrizio’s confusion in the chaos was dazzling, Hugo’s orchestration majestic. It seems to me that, as a writer, it must be easier to be God, which, I suppose goes to the point of Eco’s discourse on Hugo’s god-like excess.

I love a good essay. I love a good lecture. Combining the best features of entertainment and education together. There is such a cacophony of bullshit inundating the airwaves in today’s world, people can hardly see above the noise. It seems to me, the purpose of an intellectual is to clear some of the air, create some space to consider their ideas, to connect the ideas to your own. Those are the wonderful moments when, even if I am shouting, there is quietude in the enormity of our collective intelligence.

I invite you to consider, therefore, not words, but silence.
from Censorship and Silence (133)