Eco war­rior an en­emy of his own mak­ing

In­vent­ing the En­emy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Tim Mcguire

IN the in­tro­duc­tion to this col­lec­tion of es­says, Um­berto Eco con­fesses the sub­ti­tle, Oc­ca­sional Writ­ings, was orig­i­nally prof­fered as its ti­tle. His pub­lisher was ap­pre­hen­sive about the name, how­ever, sus­pect­ing read­ers would over­look it, and so the book was named in­stead for its first and best essay, In­vent­ing the En­emy. On read­ing the vol­ume in its en­tirety, though, you can’t help but feel Eco’s ini­tial ti­tle might have been more apt.

In­vent­ing the En­emy is the prod­uct of more than a decade’s worth of re­search­ing, writ­ing and teach­ing by Eco, the Ital­ian scholar and au­thor best known for his hit 1980 novel The Name of the Rose.

These es­says en­lighten read­ers about a ca­reer made full, one rooted in phi­los­o­phy, lit­er­ary criticism and fic­tion writ­ing. Those fa­mil­iar with Eco’s work will re­mem­ber his pre­vi­ous, ac­claimed essay col­lec­tions, in­clud­ing How to Travel with a Salmon (1998) and Turn­ing Back the Clock (2006). Now he ten­ders an an­thol­ogy of his lec­tures and dis­cus­sions that, in part, helps in­form his nov­els, es­pe­cially last year’s The Prague Ceme­tery.

The in­dis­crim­i­nate as­sem­blage


ideas By Um­berto Eco Trans­lated by Richard Dixon Harvill Secker, 222pp, $35 means, at least, that Eco is able to leap from topic to topic with­out segue or apol­ogy. His es­says ex­plore sub­jects as ver­sa­tile as the his­tory and sig­nif­i­cance of fire, proverbs, censorship and the ethics of si­lence, the fall­out from Wik­iLeaks, the­o­ries of rel­a­tivism and ques­tions about the ex­is­tence of the souls of un­born chil­dren. The col­lec­tion com­prises 14 es­says, which for the most part are in­for­ma­tive and in­her­ently cu­ri­ous but also, oc­ca­sion­ally, sneak­ily hu­mor­ous as well.

In each, the in­tel­li­gence and pas­sion with which the Ital­ian au­thor has writ­ten them has not been lost in the trans­la­tion, but it is per­haps the ab­sence of a theme, one be­yond Eco’s own aca­demic time line, that keeps In­vent­ing the En­emy from ever quite reach­ing its grand po­ten­tial.

In the tit­u­lar essay, Eco in­sists that a so­ci­ety can­not func­tion with­out an en­emy. He writes that the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and pos­ses­sion of an ad­ver­sary is es­sen­tial to ‘‘ de­fine our iden­tity [and] also to pro­vide us with an ob­sta­cle against which to mea­sure our sys­tem of val­ues’’.

Here he re­flects on his coun­try’s his­tory, sur­mis­ing that in the ab­sence of an en­emy a so­ci­ety must in­vent one, even if the threat must be found to be an in­ter­nal one. The no­tion is an un­com­fort­able one, but its ex­plo­ration is han­dled ex­pertly. Eco reels off a long list of ex­am­ples, cit­ing pro­pa­ganda from Hitler’s Ger­many, the works of Shake­speare, even the first Amer­i­can en­cy­clo­pe­dia’s un­set­tling def­i­ni­tion of a Ne­gro, to un­veil the process by which en­e­mies are in­vented.

Eco goes on to chase the idea that an en­emy can be any­one ‘‘ dif­fer­ent from us’’ and who may ‘‘ ob­serve cus­toms that are not our own’’. He makes a bold claim that the US was in dan­ger of los­ing sight of its iden­tity un­til the Septem­ber 11 at­tacks, which pro­vided the surge of na­tion­al­ism Amer­i­cans needed to reaf­firm their val­ues and vi­su­alise their fu­ture. This essay in par­tic­u­lar ex­em­pli­fies Eco’s abil­ity to re­flect is­sues back on to the reader.

In Censorship and Si­lence, one of the more ur­gent and self-aware dis­cus­sions here, Eco ex­am­ines our con­stant need for and re­liance on noise, such as it is, and ex­plores the ef­fects of tech­nol­ogy on so­cia­bil­ity that re­cur in his lit­er­ally ti­tled Thoughts on Wik­iLeaks. In both these es­says, as with the oth­ers, Eco strikes an easy bal­ance be­tween his opin­ions and those of the thinkers be­fore him, cit­ing them and fight­ing them by turn.

This col­lec­tion is writ­ten pre­dom­i­nantly in di­dac­tic fash­ion. In­deed, many of the es­says were first con­ceived as lec­tures and still read as such. The prose con­sis­tently im­presses, con­sid­er­ing the com­plex­ity of some of the top­ics Eco must cover, and here the book ob­vi­ously

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