On February 19th, the world lost a brilliant mind and soul, perhaps the last true Renaissance man. Umberto Eco has been like a literary godfather to me over the years. It was The Name of the Rose that made me learn Latin in grade school. His work on semiotics opened me to a new way of thinking in college. While I never met the man, he never seemed to be far away, popping up again and again, to teach me about everything from fascism and antisemitism to Medieval spiritual beauty. There are very few writers today that can nourish the soul of their readers the way Eco could, and the world is a drearier place without him.
While most know him as a novelist, Eco was also a children’s author and an academic that contributed to the discourse on aesthetic (especially Medieval aesthetic), semiotics, and anthropology. He was a literary critic, a postmodernist, and researcher of modern media culture. His work has impacted sociology, political science, and many other disciplines. He was also a delightful skeptic and promoter of scientific investigation. Eco was an early and active member of Italian Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Pseudosciences.
What I loved about him as a writer was his commitment to intertextuality, a thoroughly postmodern style of writing. His works always felt like they were connected and part of a corpus much bigger than just one writer. James Joyce did this too, but unlike Joyce, Eco wasn’t being a snob. It wasn’t about excluding the reader through dense and incomprehensible prose. Eco made the reader feel part of something bigger. He made you want to pick up that Latin dictionary to understand just what that monk is going on about, or read a philosophical work mentioned in his writing. He was never demanding of his readers, he intreated and tempted gently. So while Joyce made me roll my eyes and take a nap, Eco got me to read Aristotle at 15 years old, which believe me was no small feet.
So goodnight Prof. Eco, you will be missed, and may your books never be lost to time.
Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus
Click here to see a fascinating lecture Eco did a few years ago On Beauty and Ugliness.