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.