By Erica E. Goode
US News & World Report, November 11, 1989
Conversation: Italian philosopher
Umberto Eco surprised the literary world with a best-selling
medieval mystery in 1983. Now he's back with another rich and
What audience do you have in mind when you write your books?
author, even a writer of Harlequin novels, foresees two readers,
though they may both be the same person. The first is the one
I call the "naïve" reader, the one who reads to
know what happens. Then there is the "critical" reader,
who goes backwards or rereads, though not necessarily physically,
to see how the book convinced him as a naïve reader. Every
act of reading involves these two levels, and once there are
two there can be 2,000. You have a book like Joyce's Finnegans
Wake, that a reader can reread 10,000 times and every time
discover a new connection, a new level. Then there are books
that try to reduce this plurality of levels -- a phone book reduces
it to the minimum -- and books that play upon the possibility
of producing many levels. My pleasure in writing a novel is to
produce these levels. In this book, there are ultraviolet innuendoes
and allusions that probably are clear only to me. And then sometimes
I meet somebody who says, "I discovered that connection."
But nobody has discovered that one of the "files" in
Foucault's Pendulum is a novel written by Benito Mussolini,
because it is not literally quoted but interwoven with the whole
damn thing. That's a pleasure for me. Belbo, a character in Pendulum,
is playing with literary memories and quotes Mussolini, who in
his youth wrote a novel taking place in a monastery with an evil
monk. In The Name of the Rose, the first 50 or 70 pages
were difficult in order to give the reader the necessary exercise.
He had to learn how to breathe in order to start mountain climbing.
In this new book, I open with a Hebrew quotation nobody is able
to understand. This is in order to say, "O.K., do you want
to play this game? You are my friend, and we go. Otherwise, too
bad for me or for you." I think it is untrue that my books
are impenetrable. On the contrary, I think I am a sort of great
vulgarizer. I put down certain difficult stuff, but I give my
readers clues to understand what this kind of stuff is.
You once said that you were surprised that your books sold
so widely. Why are they so popular, do you think?
are at least 12 explanations, but none of them is accepted. Yet
those who ask this question, I think, are thinking of the book
and not of the public. The public has changed enormously in the
last two decades. You see boys going into the bookstore and buying
Proust. They want a difficult experience. They have had enough
of Yogi Bear or "Dallas" or Harold Robbins -- there
is plenty of easy, precooked experience available. The most interesting
reactions I get from readers in the United States don't come
from New York or San Francisco but from the Midwest or from the
mountains. They were happy to be involved in a complex reading
experience that demanded a certain level of effort and that gives,
it seems, a certain reward.
What was the genesis of Foucault's Pendulum?
after finishing The Name of the Rose, my question was:
Was this an exceptional episode of my life or would I be able
to write another novel? I thought that probably all the images
that obsessed my mind were in that book. So if I were to write
another novel, what would it be about? And I thought, O.K., there
are two images that were important in my life. One was the pendulum,
which I saw for the first time in 1952. I remember that I was
fascinated. And many other times I came back to see it, and I
talked about it with certain scientists. The other was the story
of the boy it the cemetery with a trumpet. That really happened
to me in 1945, and I told his story many times. The question
was: What is the connection between those incidents? If they
were so important to me, I thought, it means that there is a
connection. And I started to look for a connection, and that
was the start.
Why is the notion of conspiracy and plotting so important
to Foucault's Pendulum?
some ways, my novel is the story of paranoia, interpretive paranoia.
I have always been fascinated by the idea of conspiracy, which
doesn't hold only in the political world but also sometimes in
literary interpretation. There are forms of hermeneutics, for
example, that try to find a secret meaning in a text. So we have
always the obsession for a supplement of meaning that can lead
to pure paranoia or to intolerance. That's why the early Christians
were thrown to the lions; the Roman empire needed to find a conspiracy
in order to justify certain social troubles. The occult world
is the great theatre of conspiratorial paranoia. In fact, I could
have written this novel without all the occult stuff. I could
have set it up -- I don't know -- among some physicists looking
for cold fusion or in a philological congress of people trying
to interpret a Latin manuscript. Obviously, the occult was narratively
more exciting, and I was for a long time fascinated by those
things. But you can have a conspiracy syndrome anywhere. I am
not saying that there are no plans, that there are no secret
conspiracies. But it's not by chance that every dictatorship,
when it cannot face a difficult internal situation, looks for
an external enemy who is responsible. I am terrorized and frightened
by this conspiracy syndrome. Somebody said to me,"But you
are a semiotician, you are a critic! You are always trying to
uncover, to unmask meaning." True, but I am not against
the act of interpretation. I am against the paranoia of interpretation,
which is different.
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