In the piece below, HUP Executive Editor for the Humanities Lindsay Waters reflects on his long association with Umberto Eco, who died last month.
I was trained first by Dominican nuns at St. Patrick’s grade school in St. Charles, Illinois, and later by Dominican priests at Providence College, so the names Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas were the names of tutelary geniuses in the educational system I was raised in. And so by the time I wished to emulate Stephen Dedalus in declaring “Non serviam,” I had already been steeped in the holy water quite a long time. No way to get the stain of it off me. In that system religion meant Aquinian rationalism, not mysticism. Joyce’s book was one that hit me so hard when I first read it that I felt almost as if he must have plagiarized his book from my diary, so many details were like details of my life. I was raised in a culture much like the one Dedalus was brought up in—denial of the flesh, fasting, abstinence, the cult of the BVM.
So, no wonder that when I was proposing a translation of Umberto Eco’s Il problema estetico in Tommaso d’Aquino to the Syndics of Harvard University Press in 1985, right after I arrived here, I nearly felt insulted when Syndic Helen Vendler questioned the timing of my proposal. You can see why she was asking, when you consider the facts. The year 1985 was just five years after The Name of the Rose had appeared in Italian and two years after it came out in English, ringing up sales that no book by a literary theorist had hit the like of since Derrida published Of Grammatology, but Eco’s novel surpassed Derrida by far.
All my education had led me to treasure theorizing of art. I admit it might have looked to the guardians of our imprint, like Helen, as if I were trying to capitalize on Eco’s popular success. However, I had been pursuing Eco for years, first as a graduate student at the University of Chicago seeking out novel theories of literature in obscure journals of literary theory worldwide that would allow me to come up with notions to carry me beyond Aristotle to write about Renaissance popular culture, and then as an editor for the University of Minnesota Press where I had already signed up a popular book of his. Eco’s predilection for rummaging through the entirety of culture to analyze artifacts—a practice he called “semiotics”—proved to me that he was genuine because he could totally get into what the cartoon Peanuts was all about. “He always fails. His solitude becomes an abyss... The tragedy is that Charlie Brown is not inferior. Worse, he is absolutely normal. He is like everybody else.”
His critical promiscuity and my own editorial and academic promiscuity might have shocked Helen, but Umberto’s was the way of a lover, always the way of the passionate lover. Years ago the high level journal of literary theory called Diacritics based at Cornell ran an interview of Umberto in which the interviewers asked him to describe how he saw himself as a teacher—clown or priest? And he said neither. He wooed his students like a lover.
For the last few weeks I have been thinking about Umberto. First, I gathered all the books of his I own, five or six of which I have now published at HUP. Then I gathered all the reviews of his books I have clipped and xeroxed—all the paper, including immensely colorful bookmarks and matchboxes designed to promote his books and caricatures of him by Tullio Pericoli and Levine in NYRB. Who says a chubby, middle-aged literature professor chewing on the stub of a cigar can’t look cute? I have boxes and boxes of Umberto stuff, a cornucopia. Assembled, it all feels like a literary version of the Pompei of a scholar’s life caught under the flow of lava that marks a life cut off by a sudden natural disaster. There are letters, faxes, emails, phone messages that give clues of hundreds of activities, many done, many waiting for us to finish them. He was bursting with life.
We once talked about how to devise a “new literary history” of Italian literature. He knew right where it should begin with the first sentence of what was recognizably modern Italian, before Dante’s Commedia, a curse spelled out in mosaic tiles in the church of San Clementina in Rome. There is one letter from 1993 he writes, a little angry at me, but he expresses his anger in humor, saying that if I make him pay for corrections in the proof of his book, according to our rules, it would be the first time he’d have paid to publish a book and doing so would make him feel like the publishers in the vanity press in his Foucault’s Pendulum. But he valued publishing with a university press. His popular success never made him want to rise to some eminence beyond the realm of footnotes, to cease being anchored by them to the earth. He was enthralled by the romance of scholarship, and in the last few years of his life he gave me to publish what he called “the summa of my historical scholarship,” From the Tree to the Labyrinth: Historical Studies on the Sign and Interpretation. He joked about how serious it was and how unlikely it was we’d make money on it: “For my book I would be delighted to have it on your list, but I must warn you that it will be a very academic collection of essays on the history of philosophy of language and semiotics, with a lot of footnotes and no chance to become a best seller.” You see I was not misleading Helen Vendler when I swore that if we took on Eco, he was giving us serious work to publish.
I feel convinced I can see him in heaven now. He looks like this: I have myself only been to the Frankfurt Book Fair two or three times, but if I went a hundred times, I swear my picture of joy at the Fair, and joy in this life would be the sight I caught of him in 1983 in booklover’s heaven making his way down an aisle moving in to zero in on a book and writing down the names of the author and title in a little notebook. “Book Heaven,” I say, the bibliophile’s version of pig heaven. He was enthralled by the romance of scholarship, the life in footnotes that soared into the stratosphere the way the sales of his novels did. He was, just as my friend Mike Dirda, another champion bibliophile, wrote, “half savant, half bon vivant.”
Umberto rejected all mysticisms including the idea that magic was the key ingredient in the making of Coca Cola or the plots of the novels of Emile Zola. He belonged, as we might say, to the reality-based community. His idea of philosophy was the philosophy of Harvard University Press authors Van Quine and Hilary Putnam. Like Hilary and Sherlock Holmes, he was a “a realist, even if minimal.” He embodied the Enlightenment, as when he wrote “Every secret message can be deciphered provided one knows it is a message.” His belief that books will not become obsolete was not based on his personal preferences, but on his calm rationality.
He was a joyous earthling, not a transcendentalist. He once told me that he was not like Gramsci, who said he was a pessimist of intellect and optimist of the will. Instead, he said, “I’m an optimist of the intellect and pessimist of the will.” His interest, his love, for popular culture was not a career move like that of too many pop culture specialists. The way I know we were on the same wavelength was because he loved Joyce and Charlie Brown as much as I did and in the way I did, passionately, for the right reasons.