The List is the origin of culture.
– Umberto Eco
oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, magnesium, and trace elements
– List of elements that compose the human body
Father’s and sons have been at it since the beginning of time — since an outraged God told Adam to get out of Eden and take his side rib (Eve) with him, and go fuck himself, after His Satan-driven brat ate of the iMac tree, and started thinking for himself; and Adam screamed back over his shoulder, “You go Yahweh and I’ll go mine; and, He riposted to Them, “See ya, Totem and Taboo.” They went into Exile, and many many many many many many illicit light thoughts later, to make a long story short, here we are.
When Umberto Eco died of complications from pancreatic cancer in Milan in 2016, many people felt as if they had lost a loveable father figure. With his trademark self-effacing humor, he honored the reader, which is to say he honored and fought for freedom of thought, and took the real value of a text away from what he called ‘the imperial author’ and ceded its interpretation to the reader. He was kinder than Yahweh that way. In a speech before PEN America in 2008, he spoke of his father’s absence in his life. “I knew Stephen Daedalus better than my father,” he begins. There were stories never told, emotions never felt, and his father drifted away, a ghost to him, before ever being fully realized.
Newly translated from Italian by Alastair McEwen, On the Shoulders of Giants is a series of twelve lectures Eco wrote for an annual cultural festival called La Milanesiana that commenced in 2000. It’s deep dive into an array of esoteric, sublime, and sometimes scatological ideas that Eco manages to make accessible to intellectuals, wannabe intellectuals, and people who fucking hate intellectuals but enjoy and playfulness. He’s a semiotician interested in the signs and symbols of ancient Christianity; he’s a linguist interested in how words communicate, identifying a triadic dialectic between the reader, the text, and the writer; and, he’s a responsible relativist. The lectures cover three broad areas: relativism, aesthetics, and the duality of truth.
Eco begins his lecture series with “On the Shoulders of Giants,” which is a much-trodden ground of inquiry, all kinds of homage parties have been thrown over the years: Where would we be if not for Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Galileo, Copenicus, Darwin, yada yada, and this is all meet and acceptable behavior, so let us carry on. What makes Eco’s talks fun is his humor, penetrating insights and truly eclectic examples of topic points. He manages to make you feel that you’re going on an esoteric adventure into secret spaces, rather than some Adventure World ride into over-structured sentimentality. In this first lecture, Eco reminds us that, postmodern or not, the age-old struggle with Daddy (patriarchy) continues, and we alternate between dwarfs and giants into the uncertain future.
Eco starts biblically. After the Flood, Noah got shit-faced, and took a nap, and, peeking in on Dad, Ham took note of his “nakedness” and tittered, some say like Eddie Murphy in Raw, who invited his brothers, Japheth and Shem, to check it out; instead, they grabbed a sheet and, walking backwards into the tent, they covered Dad and skedaddled, but their brother, still hamming it up, woke Dad from his wet dream, and all hell broke loose. “Imagine opposing one’s father by mocking him,” Eco tells us, “as Ham did when he couldn’t overlook Noah’s having a little wine after all that water…” Noah reacted by dropping the N-bomb and “exiling his disrespectful son…[and] descendants to thousands of years of endemic hunger and slavery.” Poor Noah, said Polly to the cracker, who bequeathed us chain gangs and economic inequality.
After these two major over-reactions (Adam, Noah) to nakedness by father figures, Eco reminds us of how psychopathic old monotheism could be. God terrorizes Abraham to the point he’s willing to cut the throat of his scapegoated kid, Isaac, to please the Old Man. (Actually, the whole vibe of this scene is captured perfectly by Dylan in Highway 61.) Eco tells us, “(Believing the son would die of a slit throat while the father earned the benevolence of Yahweh—you cannot tell me the man was behaving according to our moral canons.) Luckily, Yahweh was joking—but Abraham did not know that.” Fucking Yahweh, right? Maybe he told the serpent to go Eve, just to see what would happen next.
These kinds of estrangements carry a lot of weight with Eco — he traces these battles of fathers and sons, dwarfs and giants, from the Bible through to the rest of history. Copernicus, he says,
referred back to the thinking of Plato and Pythagoras…Kant needs Hume to awaken him from his dogmatic slumbers; the Romantics engage…the Middle Ages; Hegel explicitly sanctions the primacy of the new over the old…Marx, reinterpreting human history …[started with] the Greek atomists…Darwin kills off his biblical parents by making giants of the great anthropomorphic apes, on whose shoulders men came down from the trees to manage, still full of wonder and ferocity, that marvel of evolution that is the opposable thumb.
And later, that marvel of revolution, the middle finger.
In a lecture Eco gave before PEN America in 2008 he tells his audience that “I knew Stephen Daedalus better than I knew my father” and laments his absence, “the ghost lost forever.” We can speculate on what this meant for Eco, whether in the absence of his father he sought solace or understanding in the depths of the past where, as he says in a later lecture in this volume, “To the mystic, God appears as a Great Void.”
Eco sums up the intellectual connective tissue between millenia of generations, giants and dwarfs, as they sort out what to bring to forward from the past and what to pass on through time and space. Nietzsche, the philologist and arguably a proto-semiotician, makes a cameo appearance to guide us on how to treat the past:
Nietzsche names it in the second of his Untimely Meditations…, where he denounces our excess of historical awareness. If the oppressive influence of this awareness cannot be eliminated even by the revolutionary activities of the avant garde, the postmodern stance is that we might as well accept the past, revisit it as a form of apparent tribute, and reconsider it from the distance permitted us by irony.
This is an excellent way of putting it.
Though Eco briefly mentions the Bard in his lectures, he’d probably agree with Harold Bloom’s summary statement in The Anxiety of Influence, of Shakespeare’s outsized cultural value over the last four centuries:
I sometimes suspect that we really do not listen to one another because Shakespeare’s friends and lovers never quite hear what the other is saying, which is part of the ironical truth that Shakespeare largely invented us. The invention of the human, as we know it, is a mode of influence far surpassing anything literary.
But even Shakespeare, since the onset postmodernism has begun to crack and crumble like Ozymandias in a desert of mainstream neglect. Billions returned to dust, a handful still discussed.
Another form of the age-old Father-Son struggle, from Eden on, is what Eco addresses in his lecture, “The Absolute and the Relative.” An understanding of this relationship goes to the core of human being, the nature of reality (if there is any), as well as the mind-body problem and the experience of what we call consciousness. Eco cites Dante’s Paradiso in an eloquent encapsulation of the relationship: “Within its depths I saw gathered together, / Bound by love into a single volume, / Leaves that lie scattered through the universe.” In this lecture, he considers the most important question: “Is it possible to believe in an absolute and state that it is unthinkable and undefinable?” This we struggle with.
This uncertainty of what represents absolute value and what is relative carries over into the realm of art. In his lecture, “On Some Forms of Imperfection in Art,” he cites a number of examples of the power flaws to accentuate beauty. He notes how “Montaigne (Essays III, II) hailed the attractions of lame women.” This made me think of the gimpy femme fatale in W. Somerset Maughn’s Of Human Bondage, whose cruel beauty reduces a man to desolation and disillusionment. He sums up how the presence of imperfection can affect an aesthetic object this way: “So two forms of imperfection can be attributed to a work of art: the absence of some parts that the whole would require or the presence of more of them.”
This discussion of aesthetics leads Eco to more specific qualities of the aesthetic, which he has written quite a bit about over the years — beauty and ugliness There are separate lectures for each in the volume, as well as a complementary lecture on the invisible. He humorously notes that, today,
For some youngsters with earrings or maybe pierced noses, a Botticellian beauty may appear attractive because they are delightfully and perversely high on cannabis, but it certainly was not like that for Botticelli’s contemporaries, who admired the face of Venus in the Primavera for other reasons.
Again, a snapshot of generational relativity. Personally, I prefer to see it both ways, old and new, pass the bong.
Eco further stokes the comedy flames by having us “imagine if that traveler coming from outer space to determine our prevailing idea of female beauty had only Picasso’s portraits to go by. With respect to past centuries, we find ourselves in this kind of situation.” This makes sense to most of us intuitively, even within the set of generations we live through: I can barely handle hip-hop, whereas others seem to regard it as the cat’s meow.
Eco brings Thomas Aquinas’s three criteria of beauty, featuring proportionality, into the lecture hall; he briefly considers beauty’s “play of light, or claritas,” which he says was sacred and “valued due to the fact that numerous civilizations have associated God with light, and often with the sun.” He compares baroque painting, “such as Georges de La Tour’s Magdalene with the Smoking Flame,” wherein “everything in the scene is struck by the light of a candle,” with medieval paintings in which, “by contrast, light seems to radiate out from objects in the scene. They, being beautiful, are luminous in themselves.”
Eco also brings in the saintly 12th century intellectual Robert Grosseteste (or Bobby Big Balls, as his more immature friends ranked on him), who “conceived of the universe as formed by a single flux of luminous energy that was at once the source of beauty and being—an image that, for us, summons the notion of a Big Bang.” Well, probably enough said.
His lecture “Ugliness” is essentially a taste of his longer, more famous work, On Ugliness. He asks rhetorically, and to the point, “Are there universal ways in which people react to beauty? No, because beauty is detachment, absence of passion. Ugliness, by contrast, is passion.” He adds further clarification, humorously (unless,of course, you’re a neo-Nazi), “There is a judgment of ugliness as a non-correspondence to the ideal of beauty, for example, when we say that a painting of a vase of flowers is ugly. Who painted it? Hitler.” A rose is rose is a rose unless it’s a prick.
In his lecture, “The Invisible,” he almost immediately asks the pointed question, “How can you show what cannot be seen?” He compares the historian’s depiction of personages who end up coming at the reader like ghosts versus characters a fiction writer creates. Eco tells us, “Reading fiction means knowing that the character’s destiny is ineluctable.” He provides as examples the many fictional lives of Madame Bovary, from verisimilitudinous adaptations to parodic (like Woody Allen’s The Kugelmass Episode), which are all anchored in her suicide. Likewise, with depictions of Anna Karenina, Eco says, “Only the fact that Anna Karenina inevitably dies makes her fondly, imperiously, and obsessively present as the melancholy companion of our existence, even though she never physically existed.” The historian can represent facts in ghosts clothing, but novelists can show a kind of relative truth.
Another area of oral exposition that Eco plays around with in his lectures is the duplicity of language, especially in such areas of paradoxes, lies, and conspiracies. Information can seem to mean two things at once; we can be faced with outright lies that may or may not have the desired effect on the target(s); and there is the allure of apparent “secret men’s business” that we sometimes filter public utterances from politicians and even, counterintuitively, the mainstream media.
He provides splendid examples of paradoxes, like “Of course I’m a solipsist, isn’t everybody?” and “God must exist because he wouldn’t be so mean as to make me believe he exists if he really doesn’t.”
Everybody lies, and Eco makes fun of St. Augustine, through Immanuel Kant, when the saint avers that we mustn’t ever lie. Eco passes on the example of a killer ringing Augustine’s doorbell. He says that Augustine “maintained that we should never lie for any reason, not even to save a human life. [He] proposed the extreme example of those who have hidden in their own home someone that a vicious murderer is seeking to kill.” St. Augustine’s coughing up the target. Of this proposition, Immanuel Kant said that it “reveals that the great man was capable of talking nonsense every now and then.”
For secrecy and conspiracies, Eco reaches back into the obscurist mythology. It’s fun. He says, “All mythologies have had a god of secrecy; the figure of Harpocrates, under various names, appears from Egyptian art through the Graeco-Roman world to the Renaissance.” I have new insight into his silence.
“Representations of the Sacred” is his last lecture in the volume. No one who has read The Name of the Rose could doubt that they are dealing with an author and thinker who is deeply suffused in the sacred and its mysteries. How do we know a sign to be sacred or merely a natural phenomenon? He says, “Simply put, a lightning strike that incinerates a tree accompanied by a clap of thunder would in itself be only a frightening accident and sensation were it not seen and justified as a manifestation of some transcendent entity or will….” At the end of the world, we get Noah’s Gof back, and, apparently, Noah’s water, too.
Even if we get through Covid-19 and Climate Change next, we still have AI and the quantum and multiverses ahead to further fuck ourselves with, and we seem a long way off before we return to the Garden, prodigal sons and their families, all in all a little worse off for the wear at journey’s end — maybe one or two of us with an axe to grind with their Eves. But here we are, many father and son quarrels later, after many master and slave tumbles in the mud, still exiles. In my mind’s eye I sometimes see the dome of the Sistine Chapel, Adam and God facing off, not touching fingers, ET-style, but instead, withdrawing from each other, maybe forever, angry middle fingers raised.