First introduced to Umberto Eco after seeing the 1986 film "The Name of the Rose" shortly after it was released, I was enthusiastically describing the performances by Sean Connery and F. Murray Abraham to a friend. She asked if I had read the book, which I had not, and she offered to loan me her copy. I read it and had to get my own, and The Name of the Rose became a personal favorite, closely followed by Foucault's Pendulum (1988), my favored conspiracy theory novel.
But the author is also an excellent essayist, and his new title Inventing the Enemy: Essays does not disappoint. Always informative, often thought provoking, and frequently entertaining, this one will appeal to fans of this Italian novelist, philosopher, semiotician and literary critic. For those who are new to Umberto Eco and want a sampler, it's an excellent place to start.
The title essay here, "Inventing the Enemy" is the first, and ties in to a topic of his earlier novel, The Prague Cemetery, by illustrating how the presence of an enemy is essential to a nation's success. The first pages set the theme, as one finds early into this essay:
"Having an enemy is important to not only define our identity but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our system of values and, in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth. So when there is no enemy, we have to invent one."
The author skillfully illustrates his hypothesis, using Osama bin Laden, 'The Negro', Austrians and gypsies who 'stink', and Jews to illustrate how we cannot seem to manage without an enemy. Romanians (in Italy), along with criminals and prostitutes, witches, "ugly ducklings" (quoting from Shakespeare's 'Richard III'), and the excesses of hate in George Orwell's novel 'Nineteen Eighty-Four,' to name a few.
His essay "Absolute and Relative" delves into several philosophies relating to the ideas presented in the title, and while the author explains concepts regarding both the absolute and the relative, he concurrently shows how neither term can be exactly understood. We are left without the pleasure of solving the ambiguities of the absolute and the relative, but the process of investigating these notions is entirely satisfying in its own right.
Eco's following essay, "The Beauty of the Flame," focuses on fire, and the author notes how fire, the "divine element" can help support life, but can also extinguish it. The flame has such enormously conflicting attributes, and the author takes an outwardly understandable subject and builds it to a captivating mystery.
"Treasure Hunting" delves into various religious icons, both known and unfamiliar, from the Crown of Thorns to the swaddling clothes of Jesus, to name a few. And it isn't just religious artifacts that Eco touches upon; there are such diverse items as Elvis Presley's Cadillac(s) to the items offered in Christie's auction catalogs. And one senses the author's dry wit just below the surface with some of these.
Each essay here offers something fascinating. "Fermented Delights" will surprise the reader. "No Embryos in Paradise" will be provocative for some readers, where Eco assesses St. Thomas Aquinas's theories regarding embryos and their souls. The author skillfully avoids taking a hard stance on issues such as abortion, using this essay to assess Thomas's beliefs. It does, however, offer food for thought to a topic that does cause much debate in the contemporary world.
Without delving into these, Eco examines the controversial with his typical depth of view. "Thoughts on WikiLeaks" looks at the ongoing WikiLeaks scandal, and some will agree with Eco's observations, while others will not. "Censorship and Silence" examines various means of restricting the media, noting that "Noise becomes a cover." And regarding noise, I had to laugh at his comment: "Look at that idiot walking along the street, wearing his iPod headphones..." The rest of his observations here in this essay are profound.
Eco's explorations of "Imaginary Astronomies," complete with historical illustrations is highly entertaining, while his essay, "Why the Island Is Never Found," is to this reader one of the more fascinating, offering a geographical combination of fact and fantasy, highly illustrated, and why islands become lost... and are never found.
There are other essays here, and all of them are good to excellent. I've left no spoilers here, but leave the reader to find the joy of exploring them and their diversity, as they are always good food for thought.
For those who enjoy Eco in essay form, his earlier Misreadings (1993) is still in print, and offer the reader vintage satires written between 1959 and 1972. In this his "The Discovery of America" chronicles Columbus' 1492 landing via news casting techniques used for man's first walk on the moon. His highly irreverent How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays show this curmudgeon at his literary best, and is a personal favorite.
The author's creativity knows no bounds. These essays in this book illustrate the range of the wit and wisdom of this author, and it doesn't take long to understand why Umberto Eco is considered by many to be one of the greatest essayists and authors of our time. If you like to think and read at the same time, this book of essays is highly recommended.