Eco warrior an enemy of his own making
Inventing the Enemy
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