Authors: Umberto Eco

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Italian critic and novelist


By the late 1980’s, Umberto Eco (EHK-oh) had achieved a double fame: as one of the foremost theorists in the rarefied field of semiotics and as the author of two enormously successful and critically acclaimed novels. Born on January 5, 1932, in Alessandria, Italy, Eco began his career not as a semiotician but as a student of medieval philosophy, as cultural editor for Italian Television and Radio, and as lecturer in various subjects from aesthetics to architecture and visual communication at a number of Italian universities. The publication of his early books on medieval aesthetics (1956 and 1959) gave only partial indication of the direction Eco’s intellectual pursuits would take as his interest in aesthetics metamorphosed into a more expansive semiotic inquiry firmly grounded in cultural, and more especially literary, works.{$I[AN]9810001287}{$I[A]Eco, Umberto}{$I[geo]ITALY;Eco, Umberto}{$I[tim]1932;Eco, Umberto}

Beginning with the Opera aperta, and extending through the studies that would establish his reputation among a wide range of literary scholars and Anglo-American semioticians, A Theory of Semiotics, The Role of the Reader, and Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, Eco managed a double feat, at once summarizing an entire field of study and subtly shifting its nature, direction, and purpose. Both theoretical and practical, academic and accessible, even playful, he manages to be comprehensive without even pretending to be definitive. It is an approach particularly well suited both to the subject of semiotics and to the semiotic process, as he defines them. Eco accepts, with certain refinements, the triadic definition of the sign first proposed by Charles Saunders Peirce at the turn of the twentieth century: “something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity.” Like Peirce, Eco concentrates neither on the sign as object (a view he rejects) nor on the possibility of a larger metaphysical reality that may govern the semiotic world (about such a reality Eco remains playfully noncommittal); instead, he stresses the process by which signs are produced and interpreted. The semiotic world posited by Eco is one that has neither fixed meanings nor hidden essences. It is instead a world of endless semiosis: open, indeterminate, and arbitrary, but not at all anarchic. Individual signs and the codes by which they come to be understood (made meaningful) do not exist in isolation. Rather, they exist in the form of a network–a maze or a labyrinth–of interconnected meanings, which the interpretive codes do not so much regulate as make possible. Because the semiotician must stand within the field of his inquiry–within, that is, the semiotic process itself–semiotics, Eco believes, can never become an exact science (it is too subjective), only a necessary one. That is its chief limitation–and its greatest strength.

Not surprisingly, Eco has been especially attracted to those signs, those literary texts, that embody either the fullest possibilities of sign production and interpretation of signs or its opposite, the limiting of this freedom–but not the absolute freedom propounded by deconstructionists and certain reader-response critics. As Eco has taken pains to point out, the reader’s freedom to interpret must be weighed against not the rights of the author (authorial intention) but instead the rights of the text. The mazelike structure of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake embodies the possibilities inherent in any semiotic “text”; it is a sign that exists not to communicate a content but to stimulate a response that is at once intricately orchestrated and, paradoxically, open-ended. Superman comics and James Bond novels, on the other hand, embody the opposing tendency. They are machines combining a very limited number of simple narrative units (often simple oppositions such as good and evil, modern and primitive) in order to reproduce in the reader a similarly limited set of responses.

Against the closure of the latter stands the openness and indeterminacy not only of Joyce’s novel but indeed of all signs (at least potentially), and these include Eco’s novels. With The Name of the Rose, working within a genre that seems to demand mechanical reproduction and closure, Eco created a work that is, on one hand, a pastiche of detective fiction from Voltaire through Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle to Alain Robbe-Grillet, and on the other, a recapitulation in novel form of the author’s theory of semiotics. Not only does The Name of the Rose include clues and signs for its Holmesian detective to decode, but the novel is itself a sign that invites the reader’s active participation rather than passive consumption. The novel lures the reader deeper into its labyrinthine depths, its own narrative overrichness. Ultimately, it frustrates the reader’s efforts to define its meaning. In his Postscript to “The Name of the Rose,” Eco acknowledges the reader’s desire to have the writer speak the final, authoritative word only to frustrate that desire by using his postscript not to explain his novel but to use it as a starting point for new conjectures, all possible, none authoritative. An international best-seller, The Name of the Rose enabled Eco to reach a much wider audience than ever before and to help establish semiotics as something other than an academic specialization. That The Name of the Rose was not a fluke became clear with the publication of the equally erudite and entertaining Foucault’s Pendulum, which combines semiotic theory, computer technology, and conspiracy theories (paranoid narratives), and The Island of the Day Before, a learned but lively retelling of Robinson Crusoe. Baudolino returned to Eco’s medievalist roots, presenting a tall tale that may even have convinced its teller of its truth. In it, Eco tumbles the life of the Holy Roman emperor Frederick Barbarossa, the Crusades, the myth of Prester John, the Holy Grail, and many more aspects of the fantastic and mythologizing trends of medieval literature into a picaresque narrative of the fortunes of a peasant boy who becomes an emperor’s foster son and a knightly adventurer.

Semiotics, Eco believes, is not separate from life; it is life. He remains so passionate (as well as playful) about his semiotic theory because he sees in it the opportunity and basis for political freedom. The wide acceptance of his theory and the immense international popularity of his novels, as well as the forums these have provided him for advancing his views, have made Eco a leading figure in those seemingly divergent worlds–theoretical and practical, analytical and imaginative, academic and popular–that his critics are coming to understand are governed by the same semiotic process.

BibliographyBondanella, Peter E. Umberto Eco and the Open Text: Semiotics, Fiction, Popular Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Bondanella offers a study of Eco’s work, demonstrating how his fiction grows out of his intense study of both medievalism and semiotics.Bouchard, Norma, and Veronica Pravadelli, eds. Umberto Eco’s Alternative: The Politics of Culture and the Ambiguities of Interpretation. New York: P. Lang, 1998. A collection of academically oriented essays; some background in semiotics would be useful before reading these. Includes an essay by Eco titled “How and Why I Write.”Boym, Svetlana. “Conspiracy Theories and Literary Ethics: Umberto Eco, Danilo Kis, and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Comparative Literature 51 (Spring, 1999): 97-122. Analyzes Eco’s use of the Protocols, themselves fictions taken as true, in writing a fiction, Foucualt’s Pendulum, in which the fictional has real-life results.Caesar, Michael. Umberto Eco: Philosophy, Semiotics, and the Work of Fiction. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1999. Summarizes Eco’s theories, focusing largely on his academic work. Intended as an introductory guide.Coletti, Theresa. Naming the Rose: Eco, Medieval Signs, and Modern Theory, 1988.Haft, Adele J., Jane G. White, and Robert J. White. The Key to “The Name of the Rose”: Demystifying Umberto Eco’s Novel, “The Name of the Rose.” Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. An essential guidebook to Eco’s novel. Contains useful chapters on the Middle Ages and semiotics as well as translations of all non-English passages, and a complete bibliography.Inge, Thomas M., ed. Naming the Rose: Essays on Eco’s “The Name of the Rose.” Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988. A collection of essays by different writers offering critical readings of The Name of the Rose. Also contains a comprehensive list of English-language criticism of the novel.Martín, Jorge Hernández. “The Text as Web: A Case for Conjecture in The Name of the Rose.” In Readers and Labyrinths: Detective Fiction in Borges, Bustos Domecq, and Eco. New York: Garland, 1995. Provides a discussion of the similarities between Eco’s detective fiction and that of Jorge Luis Borges, including the central images of a library and labyrinth. Details the main conventions of detective fiction and the ways that Eco and Borges break these conventions.Modern Language Notes 107, no. 5 (1992). Special issue devoted to Foucault’s Pendulum.Muller, Beate. “Sea Voyages into Time and Space: Postmodern Topographies in Umberto Eco’s L’isola del giono prima and Christoph Ransmayr’s Die Schrecken des Eises un der Finsternis.” Modern Language Review 95 (January, 2000): 1-17. Examines the motif of the sea journey in Eco’s The Island of the Day Before as an opportunity for meta-literary reflection.Radford, Gary P. On Eco. Belmont, Calif.: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2003. A short, accessible book that encompasses Eco’s life and theories. An excellent place to start for any student of Eco’s work.Richter, David H. “Eco’s Echoes: Semiotic Theory and Detective Practice in The Name of the Rose,” in Studies in Twentieth-Century Literature. X (Spring, 1986), pp. 213-236.Robey, David. “Umberto Eco,” in Writer and Society in Contemporary Italy, 1984. Edited by Michael Caesar and Peter Hammondsworth.Rosso, Stefano. “A Correspondence with Umberto Eco,” in Boundary 2. XII (1983), pp. 1-13.Tani, Stefano. The Doomed Detective: The Contribution of the Detective Novel to Postmodern American and Italian Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984. A cogent and accessible discussion of the rise of the “antidetective” novel, demonstrating how Eco’s work both innovates and undermines the conventional detective novel.
Categories: Authors