Monday, May 05, 2008

Eco Chamber

I forsook much more important obligations to go listen to Umberto Eco's fun lecture yesterday at the satanically designed Cooper Union. I got there early so I didn't have to sit behind a column, like a third of the audience. I think it is very lovely that these Freedom to Write lectures are held where Abe Lincoln once spoke, but the hall sucks. Note to organizers: we are happy to forgo the meaningfulness of the location in favor of a better auditorium.
In any case, Maestro Eco did not disappoint with his playfulness and his erudition (rendered "lite" for the sake of the discerning audience). He basically posited that there are truths in fiction that are absolute and unquestionable (no one will ever question that Anna Karenina commits suicide, or that Superman is Clark Kent, or that Hamlet and Ophelia do not get married and live happily ever after, etc); whereas in history facts can change the moment new sources are discovered. So certain facts of fiction are absolutely true, yet their interpretation is infinite. Still, interpretation has to be borne by the text. One cannot say that D'artagnan is gay, because that is nowhere in the text. Agreed.
Surprisingly, after the lecture, Adam Gopnik asked very good questions and got a very good conversation going with Eco. At one point Gopnik mentioned to Eco that in critical studies in American colleges, you can learn theories that say that Superman is not really Clark Kent but a fantasy of Lois Lane. To which Eco replied that this is "an American disease": the misunderstanding of deconstruction as a free for all. He got a big ovation on that one. He also got into a very funny and fast riff about characters that live outside the page forever, something about hypertextuality that had Hester Prynne marrying Ishmael and someone being sold as a slave to Scarlett O'Hara. This gave me an idea for a short movie! Which is why one goes to these things. To fire up the neurons.
Eco said that all human knowledge, including science, is communicated as narrative. He also talked about the new paradigm of knowledge that is the web. He didn't seem to be too alarmed by the nature of the web, but he said that the problem with the internet is that the art of discrimination has been lost, and that this is an art that should be taught at schools, because people have no way of knowing what is a reliable source and what isn't. To the question of whether in Europe there is hostility and fear against the onslaught of English, he replied that the internet has also allowed people everywhere to come in contact with all other languages in the world, and that languages are biological and they do whatever they please (whatever this means).
He told a funny story. His translator to Russian called to ask him once "how do you say the word mafia in Italian?" And also that story about Bush having gone to France and noticed that the French do not have a word for "entrepeneur".
Eco steered totally clear of politics and devoted his very entertaining talk to literature and what it does for us. It teaches us how to die, he said. When Gopnik asked him if he cared to talk about the state of America today, he gave a pregnant and very funny pause and then answered that a man that lives in the Italy of Berlusconi has no right to comment on what goes on here.
He was delightful and I bet he is an amazing lecturer in academy. I wish I could go to his classes.

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