Eco, intellectual with a knack for mass appeal

20160302_inq_op1blumgart02-a
Author Umberto Eco prepares to speak at Bryn Mawr College in 2002.

By Jake Blumgart

The works of Umberto Eco have an unnerving bulk. When choosing the next novel to add to the queue, his tome-like books may dissuade the average reader from plucking them off the shelf. My copy of The Name of the Rose is 536 pages long and, in hardback, could be employed to great effect as a murder weapon.

That's not the sole source of intimidation. There is also the Byzantine plot, which features in-depth considerations of 14th-century heresies and the works of Aristotle. Such elements don't sound like fruitful bedtime reading. And The Name of the Rose is considered his most accessible work! Later novels, like Foucault's Pendulum, are just as fat and manage to seem even less inviting. They certainly weren't adapted into 1980s thrillers, of dubious worth, starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater.

Yet Eco, who died at age 84 on Feb. 19, the same day as Harper Lee, managed to marry his towering intellect with a faculty for mass appeal. The Name of the Rose sold 10 million copies. His Baudolino, at 528 pages, became the best-selling hardcover novel of all time in Germany. It's difficult to imagine a professor of semiotics becoming so popular, especially one who insisted that he spent more time on his academic work than his popular fiction. Eco wrote more than 20 theoretical books, and "only" seven novels.

It takes a specific kind of rare talent to successfully drag academic theory into the public imagination. Those with scholarly expertise often suffer from an understandable arrogance, which reifies the notion of an Ivory Tower apart from the general order of things. Eco bridged that gap and issued an invitation into the castle. Read an interview with the man, or an essay by him, and his genius seems appealing, even approachable. "I suspect that there is no serious scholar who doesn't like to watch television," he told the Paris Review in 2008, before confessing a liking for CSI, Miami Vice, and ER.

Some in his field sneered at Eco as a popularizer, and there were critics who found his novels too stuffed with ideas to function properly. That is not how I found The Name of the Rose when assigned it in college. The book is indeed laced with untranslated Latin and serviceable as an introduction to late premodern theology, but it is also an immensely engrossing detective story. The main character, William of Baskerville, shares much in common with Sherlock Holmes, while his nemesis recalls a sanctimonious Moriarty.

Eco's love of his subjects, both high and low, is evident and his passion is infectious. In The Name of the Rose, the Medieval ages are revealed in all their complexity. The vague contours of an age are given definition by political debate, ideological strife, and an intricate network of beliefs that appear monolithic and drab from our preening postmodern perch, but are rendered luminous in Eco's words. Suddenly the Dark Ages are a subject worth knowing about, not an embarrassing epoch best forgotten or remembered as a brutal and bloody grind. (Yes, it's technically set during the High Middle Ages, but allow me a rhetorical point.)

Eco's chosen field was semiotics, the study of signs and symbols, and their conversation with each other. He apparently came to it in the 1950s because he loved culture of all kinds and was baffled, at first, that any sane person could love both philosophical inquiry and pop culture as he did.

His 1995 New York Review of Books essay "Ur-Fascism - which is essentially a listicle of the 14 features of fascist ideologies, shorn of specific German or Italian cultural touchstones - opens with his memories of the liberation of Italy. The African American U.S. Army troops who saved his community came bearing spearmint gum and comic books. Eco remained a fan of the medium throughout his life, among other pop cultural phenomena, like the James Bond series. ("Did you know that I once published a structural analysis of the archetypal Ian Fleming plot?" he asked his Paris Review interviewer.)

Eco's work imbues our everyday digressions with the eternal mysteries. His villains are those who would rob us of our pleasures, silence our laughter, and offer the balm of a vague and soothing tradition - useful for assuring ourselves of our own righteousness - against the uncertainties of life and of other people.

"The Devil is not the Prince of Matter," his hero remonstrates near the end of The Name of the Rose. "The Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt. The Devil is grim because he knows where he is going, he always returns whence he came."

Eco's death was certainly a tragedy. But there are few who can say they better accomplished their aspirations, and then shared them so successfully with the world.

Jake Blumgart is a writer in Philadelphia. jake.blumgart5@gmail.com