Umberto Eco died in Milan on February 19, 2016. Like the mathematician Giuseppe Peano, Eco was born in the Piedmont, the rice-growing region of Italy that slopes upward toward the Alps. There is a current of sympathy that flows between the two men. Peano was much taken with a form of Latin stripped of its declensions, what he called Latino sine flexione, and argued for its adoption in a paper published in the Revue de Mathématiques. A masterpiece in its own way, the paper begins in classical Latin and by its end is expressed entirely in pidgin; had he kept it up, Peano would, no doubt, have invented Italian. Like Peano, Eco was an accomplished Latinist, an incurable erudito, a great poker into obscure facts. His family name, an acronym of the phrase ex caelis oblatus (a gift from the skies), was bestowed by a city official on his grandfather, a foundling.

Eco studied medieval philosophy and literature at the University of Turin, writing his thesis on the aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas—Il problema estetico in San Tommaso. In the preface to the 1970 Italian edition of Il problema, Cristina Farronato argued that what originally inspired Eco to write about Aquinas was his immersion in the Thomistic religious universe. Fair enough. But while writing his dissertation, she adds, Eco “distanced himself more and more from [its] spiritual content and was left with a methodological experience.”1 This might suggest an enveloping sense of aridity on Eco’s part. Readers who know nothing of Eco’s story-telling gusto might imagine that he often required a glass of water.

Not at all. Eco was wet by nature.

Having misplaced or discarded or otherwise given up his faith, Eco abandoned the Catholic Church as a young man, but he never lost interest in its history and made himself a very reputable master of its doctrines and disputes. While lecturing at the University of Turin in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he began working as a cultural editor for Radiotelevisione Italiana, a state-owned corporation with almost as many directors as employees; in 1972, he established the first chair of semiotics at the University of Bologna, imperishably linking semiotics and Bologna in one rhetorical figure.

Fearing Berlusconi’s mainmise on the publishing industry—Arnoldo Mondadori Editore had just purchased RCS Libri, thus placing Berlusconi’s hot hands on the necks of both houses—Eco and a group of writers founded a new publishing house in 2015, La Nave di Teseo, the title alluding to an ancient paradox about identity. But well before then…

Momenta. What paradox?

A wooden ship is retrofitted plank by plank. Does it remain the same, even though in the end, it lacks all of its original parts?

It is pleasant to think of the editors at La Nave di Teseo hurling imprecations at one another as they discuss the issue with a sense of suffocating fury.

Basta, idiota! What about the second ship, the one fashioned from the discarded parts?

Umberto Eco published The Name of the Rose in 1980. It was his first novel, and an immense international success. A retro-medieval thriller, the novel follows a learned Franciscan, William of Baskerville, as he investigates what may or may not be a crime in a gloomy Italian abbey, all towers, turrets and transepts, at least in the movie. Baskerville’s story is recounted by his disciple, the Benedictine novice, Adso of Melk, a name whose quick careless pronunciation in French or Italian sounds something like Watson to quick careless French or Italians. Assigning to William origins in Baskerville is a nice, a delicate, touch. The place exists only as a typeface. The Benedictines were yet in the fourteenth century men who treasured comfort; and they led regular lives; but the Franciscans, their founder and namesake having taken up residence in an abandoned leper colony, were ostensibly indifferent to such Benedictine refinements as the fork. The novel is filled with dead paths, false ends, and a strange secret staircase. It deserved its great success, if only because Eco had the instinctive good sense of a great Italian story-teller. Readers interested in reading took his novel as a detective story; and left it to critics to insist that Eco’s novel was really about itself.

Both sides were well-satisfied.

Eco continued to drive zestfully down both sides of that particular autostrada for the rest of his literary life. His last novel, Numero Zero, pokes fun at the media, the Catholic Church, the Italian government, and, in the end, pokes fun at itself.

The ostensible diary of a born loser named Colonna, Numero Zero begins on the anniversary of D-Day. The title itself refers to the unpublished zeroth issue of the journal, in which its blueprint is established. Semioticians worldwide find the number zero fascinating:

The concept of nothing—the void, emptiness, that which has no being, the non-existent, that which is not—is a rich and immediate source of paradoxical thought: the sign “nothing” either indicates something outside itself and thereby attributes the condition of existence to that which has none, or the sign has no referent, it does not ostend, it points to nowhere, it indicates and means no more than what it says—nothing.2

Nothing to be seen here, folks, move right along.

An involuntary witness to a conspiracy, Colonna is holed up in his apartment, writing his diary from memory, although his own notes about the conspiracy are no further away than his jacket pocket, entombed within a diskette.

Colonna has, in fact, been hired by an editor named Simei to write a fraudulent memoir, one recounting the foundling of an equally fraudulent daily newspaper called Domani. The memoir is called Domani: Ieri or Tomorrow: Yesterday. Domani, in turn, was commissioned and so created by a certain Il Commendatore Vimercate, a shady mogul-magnate whose empire includes hotels, retirement homes, and television stations. Vimercate is a northern Italian city. A recent issue of the Giornali di Vimercate asked with obvious concern whether Angelina Jolie had become anorexigenic. If Il Commendatore Vimercate is at home in Vimercate, so is Il Cavaliere Berlusconi, so much so that he often appears beaming in the pages of the Giornali, and when not otherwise occupied with pressing legal issues, presides over a villa in the commune of Arcore.

Domani is to be Vimercate’s doorway into the inner sancta of finance and politics. In turn, Domani: Ieri is to be Simei’s guarantee that if the newspaper is closed he will be able to blackmail Vimercate.

Tutto è chiaro?

Simei hires five editors for his newspaper, all of them scoundrels or schnooks. Their task is to generate articles that will be pre-dated so that it looks as though they have predicted the future. This is, of course, the strategy of Eco’s novel itself. Although published in 2015, it is set in 1992. Simei’s opinion of the enterprise over which he is presiding does not suggest a sanctified view of journalism. His readers, he quite understands, are credulous dolts, disposed to regard references to Eve’s husband as challenging cross-word puzzle clues. “The newspapers lie,” Simei observes sourly, “historians lie, now the television lies.”3 Had Simei written about the Internet, he would have observed that the Internet lies as well.

Ultimately the newspaper closes up shop precipitously when one of the editors, Braggadocio, is murdered. While pursuing a secret investigation of his own, Braggadocio has stumbled on a vast and complex conspiracy, one revealing that Benito Mussolini successfully faked his own death. The Vatican, Gladio, the CIA, the Mafia, the government, and the media are all involved.4

By the time the Freemasons make their appearance, Numero Zero has managed to recycle all of Eco’s old echograms.

Veni, vidi, Vico.

Umberto Eco was fascinated by secrets and conspiracies. He was an alert and intelligent writer living in a country in which no conspiracy theory ever turns out to be crackpot. Eco became a great connoisseur of secrets, regarding who did it? as more a metaphysical question than an invitation to an evening with Agatha Christie.5 For all that, it is the secret that is never penetrated, the empty secret, that retains an ultimate power.6 Like the empty set, from which all numbers may be generated, the impenetrable secret has a queer primordial urgency.

Some of this, Eco borrowed from Georg Simmel:

Secrecy gives the person enshrouded by it an exceptional position; it works as a stimulus of purely social derivation, which is in principle quite independent of its casual content, but is naturally heightened in the degree in which the exclusively possessed secret is significant and comprehensive.7

And some of it he cranked out on his own:

Fascinated by infinity, the Greek civilization, alongside the concept of identity and non-contradiction, constructs the idea of continuous metamorphosis, symbolized by Hermes…. As a consequence, interpretation is infinite. The attempt to look for a final, unattainable meaning leads to the acceptance of a never-ending drift or sliding of meaning.8

By the time that Eco discerned that “[t]he ultimate secret of Hermetic initiation is that everything is secret,” he was ready to conclude that the Hermetic secret must be an empty one.9

Borges was an important influence on Eco. In an essay entitled “Borges and My Anxiety of Influence”—Ciao Harold, Ciao—well-read Eco wrote that “…one cannot speak of influence in literature, in philosophy, or even in scientific research, if one does not place an X at the top of the triangle.”10

Up it goes.

“Shall we call this X culture,” Eco asks? Or,

the chain of previous influences? … One has to take this X into account, and above all in the case of Borges, since, like Joyce, although in a different way, he used universal culture as an instrument of play.11

Although writing about Borges, Eco is speaking modestly of himself.

Umberto Eco was also a great admirer of Charles Sanders Peirce. There are in Peirce a few interesting dusty remarks about signs and symbols.12 In A Theory of Semiotics, Eco persuaded this particular desert to bloom:

The most fruitful hypothesis would seem to be that of conceiving the interpretant as another representation which is referred to the same “object.” In other words, in order to establish what the interpreter of a sign is, it is necessary to name it by means of another sign which in turn has another interpretant to be named by another sign and so on. At this point there begins a process of unlimited semiosis, which, paradoxical as it may be, is the only guarantee for the foundation of a semiotic system capable of checking itself entirely by its own means. Language would then be an auto-clarificatory system, or rather one which is clarified by successive systems of conventions that explain each other.13

This sounds very much as if the semiotician, like the chiropractor, has no other benefit to confer on readers, or back patients, beyond scheduling another visit. Eco certainly knew where this particular argument would wind up. He thought prudently to draw the line. In The Limits of Interpretation, he argued that “the notion of unlimited semiosis does not lead to the conclusion that interpretation has no criteria.”14

Why not, one might ask? Just what criteria are at work in an auto-clarificatory system that are not themselves matters of auto-clarification? The question betrays a tendency to take Eco at his word. Bad Think. “To say that a text has potentially no end does not mean,” Eco wrote, “that every act of interpretation can have a happy end.”15 Readers interpret texts according to their intellectual level and historical background. Some readers are better than others. God forbid that they should interpret Numero Zero by the standards of the Giornali di Vimercate.

But this heartfelt injunction, it, too, is a matter of interpretation, yet another text. If good taste is unavailing, it remains for Eco, as Mieke Bal remarks, to make a “plea for a distinction between indeterminacy and infinite regression.”16

And that is what he did.

  1. Christina Farronato, Eco’s Chaosmos: From the Middle Ages to Postmodernity (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), 12, 11. 
  2. Brian Rotman, Signifying Nothing: The Semiotics of Zero (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987), 58, 71. 
  3. Umberto Eco, Numero Zero, trans. Richard Dixon (London, UK: Penguin Random House, 2015), 147, 31. 
  4. Operation Gladio was the Italian branch of a clandestine “stay-behind” operation in Western European countries that was implemented by NATO during the Cold War. The goal of the operation was to create, train, and supply a series of secret armed groups that could form the basis for a pro-Western resistance in the event of a ground invasion by Soviet or Warsaw Pact forces. It has been suggested that Gladio operatives orchestrated or were responsible for acts of terrorism in Italy during the so-called “Years of Lead” (1960s–1980s), such as the Piazza Fontana bombing (1969), Peteano bombing (1972), Bologna train station bombing (1980), and numerous assassinations. The existence of Gladio was confirmed by Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti in 1990, although he claimed they had not been involved in any of the bombings. See: Wikipedia, “Operation Gladio”; Wikipedia, “The Years of Lead (Italy).” 
  5. Considering pragmatist and realist points of view on truth, Richard Rorty concludes that “[I]t may be true that some philosophical problems have no solution. I suspect that this is true of the deepest and oldest of them. They show us the limits of our understanding.” Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism (University of Minnesota Press, 1998), xxxi. 
  6. Umberto Eco, Les limites de l’interpretation (Paris: Grasset, 1992). 
  7. Georg Simmel, “The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies,” American Journal of Sociology 11, no. 4 (1906). 
  8. Umberto Eco, Interpretation and Overinterpretation (Tanner Lectures in Human Values) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992). 
  9. Umberto Eco, Interpretation and Overinterpretation (Tanner Lectures in Human Values) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992). 
  10. Umberto Eco, “Borges and My Anxiety of Influence”, conference on “Relaciones literarias entre Jorge Luis Borges y Umberto Eco,” University of Castilla-La Mancha, 1997, in On Literature (Florida: Harcourt, Inc. 2004). 
  11. Umberto Eco, “Borges and My Anxiety of Influence”, conference on “Relaciones literarias entre Jorge Luis Borges y Umberto Eco,” University of Castilla-La Mancha, 1997, in On Literature (Florida: Harcourt, Inc. 2004). 
  12. “In opposition to the dominant mentalist tradition that has defined signs as the expressions of minds, Peirce proposed a thoroughgoing semiotic perspective in which the reality of mind is seen as essentially the development of a system of signs. The mind is a species of semiosis.” Vincent Colapietro, Peirce’s Approach to the Self, A Semiotic Perspective on Human Subjectivity (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1989), xx. 
  13. Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978), 68–69. 
  14. Umberto Eco, The Limits of Interpretation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 6. 
  15. Umberto Eco, Interpretation and Overinterpretation: World, History, Texts, The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, (Delivered at Clare Hall, Cambridge University, March 7 and 8, 1990). 
  16. Mieke Bal, “The Predicament of Semiotics,” Poetics Today 13, no. 3 (1992): 549.