File:Umberto Eco.jpg
Photo of Umberto Eco by Robert Birnbaum

Umberto Eco (born January 5, 1932) is an Italian medievalist, philosopher and novelist, best known for his novel The Name of the Rose and his many essays.

Biography

Eco was born in the city of Alessandria in the region of Piedmont. His father, Giulio, was an accountant before the government called upon him to serve in three wars. During World War II, Umberto and his mother, Giovanna, moved to a small village in the Piedmontese mountainside.

His family name stems from an acronym of ex coelis oblatus (lat: a gift from the heavens), which was given to his grandfather (a foundling) by a city official.

His father was the son of a family with thirteen children, and urged him to become a lawyer, but he entered the University of Turin in order to take up medieval philosophy and literature, writing his thesis on Thomas Aquinas and earning his doctorate of philosophy in 1954. During this time, Eco left the Roman Catholic Church after a crisis of faith[1].

After this, Eco worked as a cultural editor for Radiotelevisione Italiana and also lectured at the University of Turin (1956–64). A group of avant-garde artists — painters, musicians, writers — that he had befriended at RAI became an important and influential component in Eco's future writing career. This was especially true after the publication of his first book in 1956 Il Problema Estetico di San Tommaso, which was an extension of his doctoral thesis. This also marked the beginning of his lecturing career at his alma mater.

In September 1962 he married Renate Ramge, a German art instructor.

Works

In 1959 he published his second book, Sviluppo dell'estetica Medievale, which established Eco as a formidable thinker in medievalism and proved his literary worth to his father. After serving for 18 months in the Italian Army, he left the RAI to become in 1959 nonfiction senior editor of Casa Editrice Bompiani of Milan, a position he would hold until 1975.

Eco's work on medieval aesthetics stressed the distinction between theory and practice. About the Middle Ages, he wrote, there was "a geometrically rational schema of what beauty ought to be, and on the other [hand] the unmediated life of art with its dialectic of forms and intentions" — the two cut off from one another as if by a pane of glass. Eco's work in literary theory has changed focus over time. Initially, he was one of the pioneers of "Reader Response."

During these years Eco began seriously developing his ideas on the "open" text and on semiotics, penning many essays on these subjects, and in 1962 he published Opera aperta ("Open Work").

In Opera Aperta, Eco argued that literary texts are fields of meaning, rather than strings of meaning, that they are understood as open, internally dynamic and psychologically engaged fields. Those works of literature that limit potential understanding to a single, unequivocal line are the least rewarding, while those that are most open, most active between mind and society and line, are the most lively (and, although valorizing terminology is not his business, best). Eco emphasizes the fact that words do not have meanings that are simply lexical, but rather operate in the context of utterance. So much had been said by I. A. Richards and others, but Eco draws out the implications for literature from this idea. He also extended the axis of meaning from the continually deferred meanings of words in an utterance to a play between expectation and fulfillment of meaning. Eco comes to these positions through a language study and from semiotics, rather than from psychology or historical analysis (as such theorists as Wolfgang Iser, on the one hand, and Hans-Robert Jauss, on the other hand, did). He has also influenced popular culture studies though without developing a full-scale theory in this field himself.

Novels

Eco employs his education as a medievalist in his novel The Name of the Rose (later made into a motion picture starring Sean Connery) about a monk who investigates a series of murders revolving around a monastery library. He is particularly good at translating medieval religious controversies and heresies into modern political and economic terms so that the reader can understand them without being a theologian. At the conclusion of that novel, we are left with a monk attempting to reconstruct a library based on scraps and attempting to create meaning by the combination of random pieces of information. This monk is fulfilling the role of a reader.

Because his novels often include references to arcane historical figures and texts and his dense, intricate plots tend to take dizzying turns, he has enjoyed a wide audience around the world, with good sales and many translations. Foucault's Pendulum, Eco's second novel, has also sold well. In Foucault's Pendulum, three companions, all of whom are under-employed publishers working for a minor publishing house decide, as a method of occupying themselves, to weave together the narrative implicit within the conspiratorial histories, alchemical tracts and pseudo-scholarly investigations of hermeticism that they regularly receive (and, as regularly, recommend to the vanity publishing house next door, of which they run a subsidiary). They pretend that the eventual 'alternative history' they create is the detailing of an immense and intricate master plot, the ultimate in nefarious schemes perpetrated by an elusive elite order descended from the Knights Templar, with the aim of taking over the world. Even as they mock the 'diabolicals' whose texts they are interpretively amalgamating, the three slowly become obsessed with the delineation of this 'Plan'. However, their derisive joke is believed by those whose material went into its creation, and they find themselves caught in a reality made by their fiction, as they are murderously pursued by those they sought to deride.

As in The Name of the Rose, characters in Foucault's Pendulum are obsessed with hermeneutics, and in particular the consciously concealed truth. Also, characters are again dealing with the random or the unintended. Eco's characters partially enact literary theory, as they demonstrate the manner by which meaning is manufactured by consciousness, and how it may be impossible for any human reading to be without the pursuit of, and sometimes unconscious application of meaning. As in semiotics, it is possible that there is an order antecedent to even the consciously random and that any manufactured meaning is true or false only to the degree that it is believed.

Eco's work illustrates the postmodernist literary theory concept of hypertextuality, or the inter-connectedness of all literary works and their interpretation. A woven fabric of cultural consciousness is imitated and, in fact, investigated.

Honorary doctorates

Since 1985, Umberto Eco has been awarded over thirty Honorary doctorates from various academic institutions worldwide such as the Universities of Odense (1986), Paris (Sorbonne Nouvelle) (1989), Buenos Aires (1994), Santa Clara (1996), Moscow (1998), Berlin (FUB) (1998), Quebec (UQAM) (2000), Jerusalem (2002) and Siena (2002). The full list can be found on his official curriculum.

Bibliography

Novels

Books on philosophy

Areas of philosophy Eco has written most about include semiotics, linguistics, aesthetics and morality.

Books for children

(art by Eugenio Carmi)