Umberto Eco (1932-2016)


Umberto Eco died on the 19th February 2016.

Ola: One of the world’s best semiologists, a medievalist, philosopher, literary critic, a keen, very observant analyst of modern media and communication processes. And, maybe most of all, a writer. One endowed with a wonderfully wicked mind. A person who understood bibliophiles like no one else. A person for whom a complex, demanding, intertextual play with symbols, patterns and cultural tropes was the epitome of fun.

Author of countless scientific essays, Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare being among the most important, The Philosophy of Loins among the most funny. Author of an interpretative approach in semiotics. I could drone on and on… I admired his unbelievable erudition, his sharp wit and good-natured appreciation for irony; his open fascination with popular culture was close to my own heart.

Foucault’s Pendulum is among my favorite books of all time. I appreciate The Name of the Rose, I like Baudolino, I haven’t gotten to reading The Prague Cemetery but will sure do soon. Foucault’s Pendulum however is, for me, the perfect book by Eco. Folding in on itself, self-referencing and immersed in the multi-faceted universe of centuries-old symbolism of many cultures, full of semiotic mischief and real tragedy and biting irony, and sadness and moments of joy… Utterly crazy and powerful and eye-opening, a philosophical treatise and at the same time – a great example of riveting, compelling, luscious fiction.

A perfect example of who Eco was and how he thought can be found in an old interview for NYT:

I am wondering if you read Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code,” which some critics see as the pop version of your “Name of the Rose.” I was obliged to read it because everybody was asking me about it. My answer is that Dan Brown is one of the characters in my novel, “Foucault’s Pendulum,” which is about people who start believing in occult stuff.

But you yourself seem interested in the kabbalah, alchemy and other occult practices explored in the novel. No, in “Foucault’s Pendulum” I wrote the grotesque representation of these kind of people. So Dan Brown is one of my creatures.

One of the most influential, most perceptive humanists of our time passed away. We all will miss him dearly.

Piotrek: Umberto Eco. Not only The Name of the Rose’s author, but I can’t help it – it is my favourite among his books. Baudolino was fun, Foucault’s Pendulum great, but it’s The Name of the Rose I paid loads of £ for Folio edition of 😉 I’ll need to re-read it soon, though, after 10 years or so.


It is a book interesting on so many levels, as a crime story set in medieval monastery, as a recapitulation of theological disputes, as a strong voice against intolerance and dogmatism. The superiority of laughter over grim, soulless religion. It’s also not a simple historical fiction written by a professor in his free time, it’s an elaborate postmodern novel playing with tropes and genres and rules of literary art. No surprise the book has pretty long page on :). Movie adaptation is also good, but why settle for less…

He was a scholar most of all, and I can’t say I know much about this. I’ve read a couple of essays, but it was long ago. I’m more familiar with Eco as a voice of reason in many political European debates, often interviewed for my favourite liberal daily. In, I think, the final one, asked “what would you rather do than answer my questions?” he said “play with my 15-month-old granddaughter”. Nice guy 🙂

What does he have to do with genre? Much, both as an author, and in his role of an explorer and analysts of popular culture. Commemorative post from io9 rightly reminded me of his The Myth of Superman text I’ve read years ago. First published in 1972 it not only analyses the phenomenon, but also validates our (as cultured, educated people 😉 ) interest in “triumphant infantile laziness” of such “consumer products” as comic books. His conclusion – he is “tempted to show more indulgence toward escape entertainments” 🙂 I’m not ridiculing Eco, just selectively quoting, but remember – the discussion “literary vs genre” is much older, than one might think, and we had smart allies on the other side even decades ago… Eco, after all, not only appreciated popular culture, he was actively creating it.

Also, he was a great book collector, with over 50 000 volumes on his shelves. He created his own Library, a microworld where not everything had been read, but everything could be researched. As I struggle to build my own smaller library, in a world where paper books, less and less valued,  are becoming a hobby, not a tool (knowledge is easier to get electronically), such people are my patron saints…

At 84 he was still active and could have created so much more… Umberto Eco will be sorely missed.

3 thoughts on “Umberto Eco (1932-2016)

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