The great Italian novelist passed away Friday, but his lessons on fascism, whodunits, and deep-dive erudition remain.
I discovered The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, the two best-known novels of Umberto Eco, who died on Friday at the age of 84, during my junior undergraduate year. A used-book vendor had parked his formica table of curated paperbacks in front of the university library where I worked, and I wandered over to examine his wares, idly picking up Eco's The Name of the Rose. I asked the vendor if he had anything Borgesian, and he pointed at the book in my hand: "Right there in your hand, buddy." Then he added, "But I'm a bigger fan of this one myself," and handed me Foucault's Pendulum. Somehow I headed home with both books.
The Name of the Rose is an undeniable homage to the great Borges. Published in 1980 to international acclaim, Eco sets his monastic whodunit in a Benedictine abbey's labyrinthine library called the Aedificium, which houses the lost second part of Aristotle's Poetics (the part about comedy). It is guarded by the only two people who know how to navigate it—its librarian, Jorge of Burgos, and his assistant.
Unlike Borges, Eco wasn't a genius librarian but a celebrated semiotician—"the most important representative of semiotics, since the death of Roland Barthes," a reviewer for the New York Times wrote in 1983. It was in Foucault's Pendulum, his second novel, that Eco unleashed his mastery of semiotics. In it, a trio of minor editors at minor publishing houses decide to create their own conspiracy (what they call "the Plan") and in the process mix themselves up in actual conspiracy plots of secret-society world domination. The internet was made for books like this: The first paragraph is in untranslated Hebrew. There are connected references to the Knights Templar, Bogomilism, the telluric current, and Mickey Mouse. Anthony Burgess claimed it needed an index. Salman Rushdie deemed it "fiction about the creation of a piece of junk fiction that then turns knowingly into that piece of junk fiction." Eco called it a thriller. I found it thrilling, not so much for plot but in looking up its esoteric references.
Foucault's Pendulum also showed me how funny erudition could be. Central to the plot is a computer program that randomizes text fed into it, creating improbable storylines: They try passages from the Kabbalah and an automobile manual, the result being that a car's powertrain is a modern-day Tree of Life (a drawing of which appears in the front matter of the book). I wonder if this idea came about during one of his long nights out with his students, a happy habit of his. How many great literary ideas have been birthed by similarly drunken nights?
Not long after I finished Foucault's Pendulum, his fifth novel was published in English: The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana . I literally picked it up the same week I was due to graduate, but I never finished it. No longer a student, I wanted to move on from the coziness of academia, where Eco's concerns for semiotics and meaning felt very immediate, to New York City, where people live in daily and mildly extravagant symbolism.
But Eco left his mark on me. I never skip an unknown reference, choosing instead to look things up as I read along. It's much easier of course to do that now with Wikipedia. Not surprisingly, the writer himself had an interest in the site, writing in his regular column for the Italian magazine L'Espresso about the need to maintain Wikipedia's integrity after his own entry was filled with false information. "Collective control can make sure a fact such as the death of Napoleon is always correct," he wrote, "but it is much less able to protect my own entry from lies and rumors."
Then last year, Eco suddenly and unexpectedly popped back into my life when, in penning a piece titled " Donald Trump Is a Fascist," Slate's senior political editor Jamelle Bouie cited Eco's 1995 New York Review of Books essay "Ur-Fascism" to back up his claim. Eco, a childhood supporter of Mussolini, snidely recalls the early pride of winning an essay competition: "I elaborated with rhetorical skill on the subject: 'Should we die for the glory of Mussolini and the immortal destiny of Italy?' My answer was positive. I was a smart boy." Eco spent most of his life refuting that argument, and in "Ur-Fascism," he warns of 14 signs of fascist ideology, which include Cult of Tradition and Personality, Obsession with Enemy Plots, and Contempt for the Weak. It's practically checklist-ready, and Bouie convincingly argues that Donald Trump hits half of these 14-points. The piece went viral, and suddenly Eco was back in my feed, being used to prove that one of the most notorious presidential candidates in US history was no worse than Mussolini or even Hitler.
In losing Eco, we have lost not just Borges's heir (with, as yet, no heir apparent to Eco) but a mind shaped by an older way of learning: of antiquated research and cataloguing methods. We take for granted these tools at our fingertips, but at least I am in awe of someone like Eco, who could dig deeply without them. I would have loved to have been a student of his. One of his earliest books, How to Write a Thesis, was translated just last year. The critic Hua Hsu, writing for the New Yorker, pointed out some of its anachronistic tips, such as using a date book to keep track of sources, but contended that Eco's purpose was greater than giving useful, if aged, bullet-points. "How to Write a Thesis," he wrote, "isn't just about fulfilling a degree requirement. It's also about engaging difference... and humbly reckoning with 'the knowledge that anyone can teach us something.' It models a kind of self-actualization, a belief in the integrity of one's own voice... and taking oneself seriously enough to ask for an unfamiliar and potentially path-altering kind of mentorship."
Perhaps How to Write a Thesis would have been more useful to me during college, instead of his thick tomes of fiction, but it was in them that I found an unlikely professor, one willing to offer up the encyclopedia inside his brain to help me to begin assembling my own, and to take pleasure and find poetry in the items I include. "Mickey Mouse can be as perfect as a Japanese haiku," Eco once said. I, as many other people, will miss him showing us why.
Follow Michael on Twitter.