Saturday, September 27, 2014

Books read in 2014: No. 48 -- Inventing the Enemy: Essays

by Umberto Eco
translated by Richard Dixon

Started: Sept. 23
Finished: Sept. 27

Notes: These essays are actually based upon various lectures the author has given during the last decade or thereabouts. I loved reading Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, and I keep meaning to read more of his material; to that end, but also to expand my horizons somewhat, I decided to step into this non-fiction collection. I can't remember from where, but it seems some site highly suggested this book, so there's also that.

Mini review: Having the same title as the book, the first essay/lecture focuses upon the tendency for organizations (of any human type, from governments to nations to religions to cultures, sub-cultures, etc.) to create enemies for themselves, even when there is no enemy present. The author seems to be saying that this notion of creating enemies is a natural one, even among the most peace-loving among us (who create enemies not necessarily of other human groups, but of causes -- such as global warming, saving animals, etc.). For the most part I was familiar with the ideas expressed here, though I'll admit there were a few new to me.

The next essay is Eco's thoughts on the Absolute vs. the Relative within philosophy. For me this was a snoozefest hearkening back to the more boring and, in my opinion, less useful of my undergrad philosophy classes. When particular philosophical notions have little or no practical use and/or are unprovable and thus truly undefendable, I tire quickly of them. Like Aquinas on the question of whether or not the Earth is round or flat, what difference does it make if it's not a question of Salvation (though I don't necessarily mean that in a Christian sense, but Aquinas obviously did)?

The third essay is a lengthy one on the symbolism of fire through the ages, which is about as exciting as you want it to be. For me, not overly exciting.

The fourth essay takes a look at treasures of Europe, with a strong focus upon religious artifacts. All of this I found quite interesting, though I knew some of it, but the article gets bogged down with a long list of artifacts without many details. This would be a good jumping off point for anyone interested in the subject matter, but there's not in depth history here.

Now we come to a lecture on a late author and contemporary to Eco. Here Eco compares the writer's treatment of food, mainly cheese, with the writer's writings dealing with excrement and the like. Short and somewhat entertaining, even slightly funny, to tell the truth.

In the next lecture/essay, Eco takes a look at abortion and related material from a historical point of view, mainly that of antiquity with more than a little talk of Saint Thomas Aquinas, who on the subject matter would be considered quite the heretic today. This piece drew me in because of the historical angle, especially as too often we seem to consider abortion a modern dilemma.

Next the author gives us a fairly extensive study of the writings of Victor Hugo, especially Hugo's treatment of the grotesque vs. the beautiful and how Hugo kind of turns Romanticism upon its head. Quite the interesting read for Hugo fans and for writers drawn to the period.

From here Eco veers over into censorship, mainly from a modern Italian viewpoint, which is understandable considering the author and his audience for the lecture. Some interesting stuff here, especially about different types of censorship, some that are not so easily recognizable.

Eco then takes a look at geography and astronomy from a historical, mostly European angle with a touch of nostalgia on his part, especially for ancient maps which were either outright wrong in their interpretation or were meant to be fantastical, of imaginary places. Eco also paints a picture of the Middle Ages as not being as backward as is generally believed today, especially when it came to travel and general astronomy, that the world wasn't believed to be flat, at least not by those with knowledge.

Then we come to a mildly humorous piece in which the author gives an overview of a fictional nation that tried to live only by the wisdom found in old sayings, proverbs. One can expect things don't turn out very well for the country.

The next essay is a bold diatribe against James Joyce. The language here is so strong as to be comical, my thinking at first being that Eco was surely jesting. But then the author veers over into anti-Semitism and becomes quite ugly. I have to say, I was taken back by the anti-Semitism, but it didn't stop me from finishing the book as I was so near the end.

Veering over to less sensitive material, the author concerns himself with islands, real and fictional. I had never thought of it until reading this essay, but islands have played a lot of important roles in many a story, and real islands have of course had an influence upon the real world, from geography to politics, economy, etc.

Eco winds down his book with a look at the WikiLeaks scandal from a year or two back. His opinion seems to be that the actual information leaked was no big deal, stuff most people "in the know" already knew anyway, but that the important thing here is that Big Brother is no longer in total control but has a watchman of sorts through hackers and the like.

Overall, the historical aspects of this book were intriguing. There is no doubting Umberto Eco is a genius of ancient, Medieval and Renaissance history of Europe. However, in my opinion, his thoughts on the modern world have a major fault, a sense of the over importance of his homeland, Italy. I do not mean to disparage Italy or Italians, but to be frank, I don't think that nation plays as large or as an important a role in current world politics and economics as Eco seems to believe. But I've never been there, so I freely admit I could be talking out of my ass.

1 comment:

Charles Gramlich said...

Really liked The Name of the Rose but have read nothing else by him.