Thursday, June 09, 2005


Beseiged by too many books, and indirectly proportionate to any desire to actually read, I am somewhat foolishly entertaining thoughts of buying the new new Umberto Eco novel (I'm curious what he does with the theme of nostalgia, one so obviously close to his heart, and the first chapter was a genuine joy to read, if a bit disturbingly similar to Murakami in...benign freight? But his critical essays seem less sentimental and...well I won't say "less Catholic," but somehow...better). I'm troubled, moreover, by this review:
Still, Eco treats lowbrow cultural phenomena with the same seriousness as higher-flown accomplishments. In one essay, for example, he analyzes the essence of Italian society by observing Mike Bongiorno, a TV game show host; another dissects the design of the 1,000-lire note. He has also described how comic-book hero Flash Gordon imparted American ideals to children growing up in Mussolini's Italy. Everything is grist for his mill. Eco's catholic approach is reflected by the way in which contemporary paintings on the walls of his spacious apartment are interspersed with drawings by his grandson, and the alacrity with which he leaps up to show off his antique-book collection. Unlocking the glass case he pulls out a copy of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a richly illustrated 1499 volume, most often ascribed to a monk, Francesco Colonna, whom Eco describes as "the Joyce of his time."

If James Joyce was a latter-day Colonna, Eco is the modern incarnation of Plutarch, the Ancient Greek essayist, public thinker and iconoclast.

If such flippant remarks as I'm about to make have any positive value (and I'm not convinced they do): is there not a strain of Catholicism that lends excessive support to such conflations, of the high and low culture sort? Where Eco begins to sound like Baz Luhrmann (I see there's no online version of his embarrassing interview, the one in which he pufferfishes this high/low argument whilst claiming expertise in the interpretation of Shakespeare), I start to roll my eyes. This link is admittedly tenuous at best (Luhrmann's alleged "postmodernism" run amok—he is one of those sad, theory-speak-infested directors prone to proclaiming his fervent "postmodern" sensibility from every hilltop—is no match for the, what, breadth of actual knowledge found in Eco, who I greatly admire). But there does seem a connection here (thinking of those other subtle Catholics, Girard and Agamben), as well as the comments in footnotes Derrida makes about a certain "proto-Catholic" tradition (but to whom is he referring there besides Heidegger?) Anyway, the theme of "captivation" and its proper place or potential force in a politics of 'resistance', rather broadly speaking, would be an interesting one to trace, I think. But hopefully, you know, not too broadly. And without any hint of Zizek or Baudrillard.

Update: Here's a review of the book, typically decent, sappy and unexceptional. For Umberto Eco I'll venture to start the latest virus: He owns approximately 50,000 books. Well, no surprise there. He's certainly a man high in demand for interviews these days.

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