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The Riddle of Umberto Eco

The Limits of Interpretation

by Umberto Eco
Indiana University Press, 304 pp., $27.95; $14.95 (paper)

Interpretation and Overinterpretation

by Umberto Eco, by Richard Rorty, by Jonathan Culler, by Christine Brooke-Rose, edited by Stefan Collini
The Tanner Lectures, Cambridge University Press, 151 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Six Walks in the Fictional Woods

by Umberto Eco
The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, Harvard University Press, 153 pp., $18.95

Apocalypse Postponed

by Umberto Eco, translated and edited by Robert Lumley
Indiana University Press/British Film Institute, 242 pp., $29.95


by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver
Harcourt Brace, 180 pp., $12.95

How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays

by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver
Harcourt Brace, 248 pp., $18.95

At the beginning of Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum, there are two epigraphs. Every chapter of this book also has an epigraph, so these are particularly prominent—they come before everything else. One is a quotation from an occultist writer, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim. The other is from a contemporary logician, Raymond Smullyan: “Superstitition brings bad luck.” The quotations bring together two obsessions in which much of Eco’s work is involved, one with logical paradox, the other with obscure facts about Hermetic traditions, magical riddles, prophecies, the cabbala, and interpretations of history and nature according to complex, hidden, and often conspiratorial patterns.

As its many readers know, such things are themselves the subject of Foucault’s Pendulum. At its center is the idea of a vast trans-historical Plan, initiated by the Knights Templar and involving the Holy Grail, the Society of the Rosy Cross, numerological ratios, the Great Pyramid, Freemasons, the Seven Dwarfs, and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In the novel, the contemporary characters, Milanese publishers who get sucked into the world of this conspiracy, turn out to have been deluded; “the interpretative frenzy of my monomaniacs,” as Eco calls it in Interpretation and Overinterpretation, is checked when a young woman, more sensible than her friends, plausibly conjectures that the central document is a “laundry list,” as it is from then on unquestioningly called: though while it is a list, it does not seem to be a list of laundry.

However, even if the Plan turns out in the book, as in history, to be a myth, Eco does not think that nothing is left over from it. We are invited into the “excess of wonder” that leads the Hermetic interpreter on, and at the end of the novel there are some strange events to wonder at. Moreover, we are invited, by the existence of the novel and the material that Eco assembled in it, to wonder at the strange processes of “Hermetic semiosis” itself.

Eco sees quite clearly what is wrong with the principles of interpretation (mainly of texts, but also of events) that lead to the paranoid belief in the Plan. They permit everything, because any similarity or association, of the many different kinds that were exploited, as Eco explains, by the Renaissance “art of memory,” is enough to get them going; the plant called orchis can stand for the testicles (by similarity of shape), or the crow for the Ethiopians (by similarity of color), or the ant for Providence (by a hieroglyphic relation), and since, as Eco says, “from a certain point of view, everything bears relationships of analogy, contiguity and similarity to everything else,” by exploiting “a false transitivity” you can get anywhere from anywhere. As a result, there can be no final Hermetic secret:

Every object…hides a secret… The ultimate secret of hermetic initiation is that everything is secret…Hermetic thought transforms the whole world theatre into a linguistic phenomenon and at the same time denies language any power of communication.

It is not merely that each thing means something, but that each thing means almost anything. As a character in Foucault’s Pendulum says, “The more elusive and ambiguous a symbol is, the more it gains significance and power.” What is wrong is well illustrated (though I do not know whether Eco has mentioned it) by the activity, once quite popular, of finding messages coded in Shakespeare’s writings which revealed that they were written by Bacon. It seems to have stopped after researchers, using the same methods rather more elegantly, decoded messages to the effect that they were written by various other people, for instance by Shakespeare.

Just because these interpretative activities are unlimited, uncontrolled, indeterminate, they are quite specially and limitlessly boring. It does not follow that facts about the human appetite for this kind of interpretation are themselves boring. The discovery of those facts, after all, is not effortless or unconstrained, and the extraordinary range of information about such things that Eco mobilizes in Foucault’s Pendulum and elsewhere must have cost him an immense amount of work. However, it is the point of the novel that one should not just learn about this interpretative frenzy but take pleasure in sharing it, and, for me at least, Eco’s attempt to sustain one’s interest in that world is not entirely successful. It is less successful than it is with the world, also very densely illustrated, of The Name of the Rose, and I was a bad candidate for that book, too, with its combination of two things neither of which has much charm for me, the English detective story and the Middle Ages.

The self-destruction of unconstrained interpretation concerns Eco of course, not simply in the form of zealots tracing the tracks of the Templars across history. He is concerned with the directions taken by contemporary readers of literary texts, particularly of fiction, and several of the books under review address the question of how interpretation can be constrained, and of how reading, once it is freed from traditional (and poorly considered) conceptions of its limits, can be saved from falling into an indeterminacy as empty, and certainly as boring, as the fantasies of Rosicrucian paranoia.

Eco wants us to allow a play of many interpretations of fiction and poetry, and he often quotes Verlaine’s saying that there is no one true sense of a poem; but some interpretations are definitely out. He would agree with the classical scholar I know who admitted, perhaps a shade reluctantly, that the free play of the signifier did not extend to the possibility that the word “album” in a poem of Horace could be taken to suggest a book of photographs. He notes approvingly that Geoffrey Hartman refrained from reading Wordsworth’s line “A poet could not but be gay” in the sense that it might now suggest, and he remarks that this has something to do with knowing when it was written (a point which, I shall suggest, may go rather further than Eco wants).

Eco’s desire to step back from uncontrolled interpretation is expressly encouraged by the thought that he may have done something to encourage it. In his book Opera Aperta of 19621 he writes, he “advocated the active role of the interpreter…I have the impression that, in the course of the last decades, the rights of the interpreters have been overstressed.” In his writings from that time on, Eco has taken part in developing, along with others such as Wolfgang Iser,2 the concept of an implicit reader, now called by Eco “the Model Reader,” who is the reader having the linguistic understanding, the empirical knowledge, and more generally the expectations (for instance, of a text of that form) which the text can be taken to assume. The Model Reader is “a sort of ideal type whom the text not only foresees as a collaborator but also tries to create.”

Along with that, equally, can be constructed various notions of implied authors, among whom the narrator, as contrasted with the empirical author (the historical figure who wrote the book) is only the most familiar.3 Some of the most interesting chapters in the attractive set of lectures Six Walks in the Fictional Woods are concerned with these themes, particularly in relation to a text that has fascinated Eco for a long time, Gérard de Nerval’s tale Sylvie. In this case, besides the empirical author (who was in fact called Gérard Labrunie, and hanged himself in 1855), there is a first-person narrator (“Je-rard”), and behind him, further, a model author, an impersonal voice which says everything that is said in the novella. Eco does ingenious work with these elements, as he also does with the temporal intricacies of the book, starting with the tense of the verbs in its first sentence and opening out into elaborate formalist analyses of flashback.

The Model Reader is, so to speak, the location of the constraints on interpretation. This does not mean that the idea provides a criterion for acceptable interpretation. Clearly it could not, since the Model Reader is himself or herself constructed only from the text itself; indeed, Eco is just as happy to express the limits of interpretation in terms of “the intention of the text.” There is no criterion of acceptable reading, only plausible or implausible readings, and the idea of a Model Reader offers a focus or a frame for assembling the constraints that seem appropriate. Among the examples and explanations that he gives in Interpretation and Overinterpretation are some comments on his own novels, where, with scrupulous and winning denials of authorial privilege, he casts himself as a Model Reader and tells us, with perhaps a little help from his empirical memory, that the “Foucault” of Foucault’s Pendulum of course has to have an echo of Michel Foucault, as well as of Léon Foucault (the one who invented the pendulum). Eco wants the Model Reader to understand that the leading character called “Casaubon” was named after the Renaissance scholar Isaac Casaubon, not for Dorothea’s husband in Middle-march (so much the book indicates); but he also tells us, surprisingly, that it simply had not occurred to him that the work on which George Eliot’s character was endlessly working was “A Key to All Mythologies.” But: “As a Model Reader, I feel bound to accept that innuendo.”

That surely is right: the “innuendo” is totally within the range of the associations that this book can appropriately invoke, and it could be helpfully put into the head of a reader who was being told what the book meant. According to Eco’s own testimony, it was not part of the empirical author’s intentions. This, for Eco as theorist, is of no interest, since the empirical author is the figure in this galère who gets, officially, the least attention, and is treated most of the time with contempt. “I’ll tell you at once,” Eco says early in Six Walks, “that I couldn’t really care less about the empirical author of a narrative text (or, indeed, of any text),” and he goes on to say that knowing the author’s age will not help you to judge whether Le Diable au Corps is a masterpiece, or tell you why Kant introduced twelve categories. This is indisputable, but not much of an argument: you might as well say against formalism that knowing the number of words to the page will not answer those questions either.

The questions are not only, or mainly, about a writer’s intentions, though it is worth saying that Eco’s objections to intentionalism, like many other people’s, do seem to rely on a very crude notion of an intention. He sometimes gives the impression that on an intentionalist account an author would have to have in his head at each moment a cartoonist’s balloon containing an expository paraphrase of what he was writing; but that is not a sensible account of doing anything intentionally. Quite apart from questions about intention, however, Eco’s wholesale dismissal of the empirical author does seem a manifest case of repression. In fact—and it is hardly surprising—Eco keeps his interpretations under control, and supplies the Model Reader with what the Model Reader needs, by appealing all the time to facts about the empirical author: who he was, when he wrote, and, indeed, what sort of book he took himself to be writing—i.e., his intentions in a broad sense. He has an elaborate and quite enjoyable argument about street names in The Three Musketeers which turns on the date when Dumas wrote the book, the topography of Paris at the time, and what Dumas (the actual Dumas) might reasonably be expected to expect his reader to know.

  1. 1

    Translated as The Open Work (Harvard University Press, 1989).

  2. 2

    Der Implizite Leser (Munich: Fink, 1972); English translation, The Implied Reader (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974). Der Akt des Lesens (Munich: Fink, 1976); English translation, The Act of Reading (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).

  3. 3

    Eco gives some history of these ideas in “Intentio Lectoris,” one of the articles collected in The Limits of Interpretation; he particularly picks out Wayne Booth’s conception of an “implied author,” which was first published in 1961.

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