In the fourth of six lectures delivered during his Charles Eliot Norton Professorship of 1992-1993, the great Italian semiotician, critic, philosopher, and novelist Umberto Eco described the extent of his efforts to bring a verisimilitude to a long walk taken by a character in his 1988 novel Foucault’s Pendulum. Eco, who passed away last week at age 84, recounted how he’d traveled the route himself several times before writing the scene, and gone so far as to consult a record of the moon’s path across the sky as seen from that place on that night. Later, Eco closed his final lecture—the lot of which we published as Six Walks in the Fictional Woods—with another scene rendered real by a recreated night sky. That passage follows.
At any rate we will not stop reading fictional stories, because it is in them that we seek a formula to give meaning to our existence. Throughout our lives, after all, we look for a story of our origins, to tell us why we were born and why we have lived. Sometimes we look for a cosmic story, the story of the universe, or for our own personal story (which we tell our confessor or our analyst, or which we write in the pages of a diary). Sometimes our personal story coincides with the story of the universe.
It has happened to me, as the following piece of natural narrative will attest.
Several months ago I was invited to visit the Science Museum of La Coruña, in Galicia. At the end of my visit the curator announced that he had a surprise for me and led me to the planetarium. Planetariums are always suggestive places because when the lights are turned off, one has the impression of being in a desert beneath a starlit sky. But that evening something special awaited me.
Suddenly the room was totally dark, and I could hear a beautiful lullaby by de Falla. Slowly (though slightly faster than in reality, since the presentation lasted fifteen minutes in all) the sky above me began to rotate. It was the sky that had appeared over my birthplace, Alessandria, Italy, on the night of January 5-6, 1932. Almost hyperrealistically, I experienced the first night of my life.
I experienced it for the first time, since I had not seen that first night. Perhaps not even my mother saw it, exhausted as she was after giving birth; but perhaps my father saw it, after quietly stepping out on the terrace, a little restless because of the (to him at least) wondrous event which he had witnessed and which he had jointly caused.
The planetarium used a mechanical device that can be found in a great many places. Perhaps others have had a similar experience. But you will forgive me if during those fifteen minutes I had the impression that I was the only man, since the dawn of time, who had ever had the privilege of being reunited with his own beginning. I was so happy, that I had the feeling—almost the desire—that I could, that I should, die at that very moment, and that any other moment would have been untimely. I would cheerfully have died then, because I had lived through the most beautiful story I had ever read in my entire life. Perhaps I had found the story that we all look for in the pages of books and on the screens of movie theaters: it was a story in which the stars and I were the protagonists. It was fiction because the story had been reinvented by the curator; it was history because it recounted what had happened in the cosmos at a moment in the past; it was real life because I was real, and not the character of a novel. I was, for a moment, the model reader of the Book of Books.
That was a fictional wood I wish I had never had to leave.
But since life is cruel, for you and for me, here I am.