Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco; drawing by David Levine

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.

Information about the empirical author is only one example of many things that it is, unsurprisingly, useful to know. In one of the essays in the collection called The Limits of Interpretation, Eco writes, in a discussion of Derrida:

If it is true that a notion of literal meaning is highly problematic; it cannot be denied that in order to explore all the possibilities of a text, even those that its author did not conceive of, the interpreter must first of all take for granted a zero-degree meaning, the one authorized by the dullest and simplest of the existing dictionaries, the one authorized by the state of a given language in a given historical moment, the one that every member of a community of healthy native speakers cannot deny.

Moreover, when Eco refers to a dictionary, even a dull one, he follows much contemporary philosophy in not wanting to distinguish it in principle from an encyclopedia.

This much seems (if the word is not too dampening) sensible; and Eco’s actual practice in bringing empirical information to bear on interpreting texts seems notably sensible, even if he sometimes permits himself a Derridean flourish which makes the actual world just another text: “In order to compare worlds,” he says in The Limits of Interpretation, “one must take even the real or actual world as a cultural construct. The so-called actual world is the world to which we refer—rightly or wrongly—as the world described by the Encyclopedia Britannica or Time magazine….” Here, particularly as we pass that sinister word “so-called,” we seem to be on our way to one of those more maniacal post-structuralist views about which a friend once said to me: Tell that to the Veterans of Foreign Texts. But clearly Eco’s heart is not in it; he is a respectable empiricist in these matters, who only looks as though he were taken with the suspect charms of Rien de Hors-Texte. Indeed, as soon as he has suggested his threat, he allows “rightly or wrongly” to take it away again, leaving us only with the alarming thought that the world could conceivably be as it is described by Time magazine.

Some of Eco’s critics think that he is too sensible. In Interpretation and Overinterpretation, the same volume of Tanner Lectures in which Eco’s essay appears, Jonathan Culler shrewdly remarks that “over-” begs some questions. “[L]ike most intellectual activities,” he claims, “interpretation is interesting only when it is extreme.” (The editor of the book, in his mildly condescending introduction, omits the word “intellectual” when he refers to this quotation, turning the contestable into the idiotic.) It depends, surely, on what interpretation is for. Culler is assuming, I take it, that what is at issue is the discussion of literature as such. In that connection he refers to a helpful distinction made by Wayne Booth between understanding a text and “overstanding” it, where the latter consists of “pursuing questions that the text does not pose to its model reader…it can be very important and productive to ask questions the text does not encourage one to ask about it.” As Culler says, “One advantage of Booth’s opposition over Eco’s is that it makes it easier to see the role and importance of overstanding than when this sort of practice is tendentiously called over-interpretation.” “Overstanding” is needed to correct overly respectful readings. Culler quotes Barthes to the effect that those who do not re-read condemn themselves to read the same story everywhere: “They recognize what they already think or know.”

That certainly is one reason for overstanding imaginative texts, for moving beyond the horizons of the Model Reader. Even with literature, however, it is not a reason for always overstanding them, for instance when they are being introduced to students who have never read them before. The teachers are indeed re-reading them, and have entirely intelligible reasons (as well as those of finding a market niche) for wanting to make something new of them, but their students (if they are going to read these texts at all, which is another matter) need in the first place to have something old made of them, to be shown how to be Model Readers.

But there is a quite different and more important reason for guarding against the idea that interpretation should always try to be extreme, or that it should constantly aspire, in Culler’s term, to be interesting. Eco’s history of paranoid fantasy, which culminates in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and their offspring, reminds us that interpretation is an urgently political matter, and not just in the sense in which the Secret Agents of literature departments take a re-reading of Heart of Darkness to be a political matter. Records are being interpreted when the Holocaust is denied, and then what is required of interpretation is not interesting extremity, but, to put it baldly, truth.

Because Eco is aware that the vicissitudes of interpretation can be seriously political, his novels speak to political issues, even if one does not go all the way with the suggestion Robert Lumley mentions in his informative introduction to Apocalypse Postponed, that they are “political allegories.” This introduction tells one a certain amount about Eco’s rather ambivalent relations over the years to Italian politics, particularly to movements of the left. (I also learned from Lumley that Eco is the author of the standard Italian work on how to write a doctoral thesis: Come si fa una tesi di laurea, a title in which the reflexive voice makes the task sound, at least to an imperfectly Italianate ear, agreeably easier than it is.) The book itself addresses politics, but they are almost entirely the politics of culture. It is not altogether a satisfactory collection. There are translations from a book published in 1964, Apocalittici e Integrati, followed by an assortment of pieces on popular culture and cultural politics, some of which are very dated (Italian events in the 1960s; Orwell in 1984; rather painfully, the Royal Wedding.)

“Apocalyptic” and “integrated” intellectuals are distinguished by their attitudes to popular culture, and, as that choice of labels makes heavily obvious, Eco sides unequivocally with the latter, those who wish to make something of it, while the apocalyptics see in TV and “mass culture” the end of civilization. Eco salutes the apocalyptics, and indeed dedicates the book to them, but he thinks that their formulas—in particular the term “mass culture” itself—are fetishes, that their view of the past as contrasted with the present is unhistorical and most basically, that they snobbishly withhold themselves from manifestations that can be enjoyable, interesting, and rich with semiotic extravagance.

The apocalyptics whom Eco was addressing when he wrote these essays came supposedly from the left, even if (as in the case of Adorno) this represented a choice of rhetoric rather than anything else. But those at the present time who are drawn to American Straussianism or other versions of cultural pessimism will find themselves challenged by Eco, for instance in the short essay “The Future of Literacy,” to reflect on what exactly it is that they deplore and how exactly it differs from what it was in the past. In particular, he is good on showing the implications of simple McLuhanite assumptions about the image and the word. As he points out, in the Middle Ages visual communication was more important than writing. “Cathedrals were the TV of their times, and the difference with our TV was that the directors of medieval TV read good books, had a lot of imagination, and worked for the public good.” Admittedly, this takes us only as far as asking some better and harder questions about literacy, and Eco, at least in these pages, does not help us much in answering them. In this respect, the category of the “integrated” intellectual is something of a delusion. It registers, as contrasted with rejection, only the point that some intellectuals have absorbed popular culture to the point where they can sing along with it, as Eco does in his essay on Charlie Brown and Krazy Kat. In itself, it offers no hope that some intellectuals might be integrated into popular culture and have some influence on it, as Eco would clearly like to be the case when he compares the management of RAI unfavorably to the designers of Chartres.

In fact, Eco has been involved in TV, in publishing, and in journalism as well as being a professor. Many of the essays on cultural politics are reprinted from newspapers. However, besides these familiar activities of the academic critic, he has written a lot in lighter styles. Starting in 1959, he wrote for a literary magazine a monthly column called Diario Minimo, and Misreadings offers a selection of translated pieces from that column. They take the form of parodies—of Nabokov, Robbe-Grillet, Adorno, and Anglo-American anthropology, among other targets. They have come a long way by now, from originals in English, French, or other languages to Italian to English, and despite the linguistic skills of Eco and his translator, the parodic impulse that set them off has not always survived to the present volume. The other little book in Eco’s lighter manner, How to Travel with a Salmon, represents a translated selection of items from a second Diario Minimo, in this case put into a drawer as they were written and published later. These are comic numbers, on “How to Be a TV Host,” “How to Eat in Flight,” and so forth. One of them contains a genuine narratological discovery, which reappears in Six Walks: a sure way of telling whether a film is pornographic is that it contains many scenes in which the protagonists travel in a car, enter or leave buildings, pour drinks, and engage in other everyday activities, all of which are displayed in real time and take just as long as they would take in life (it is a device for separating the sex scenes without having to invent any plot). One piece about the gadgets advertised in airline magazines, is to me, at least, very funny:

LeafScoop is a glove that transforms your hands into those of a palmiped born, through radioactive mutation, from the cross-breeding of a duck with a pterodactyl via Dr. Quatermass. It is used in the collection of fallen leaves in your eighty-thousand acre park. Spending a mere $12.50, you save the salary of a gardener and a gamekeeper (we recommend it to Lord Chatterley’s attention). TieSaver covers your neckties with a protective oily film so that, Chez Maxim, you can eat tomato sandwiches without then appearing at the Board of Directors meeting looking like Dr. Barnard after a difficult transplant. Only fifteen dollars. Ideal for those who still use brilliantine. You can wipe your forehead with the tie.

Others, such as a laborious working out of Borges’s famous idea of a map on the scale of 1 to 1, seem to me notably unfunny, sometimes to a degree that I find almost bewildering.

Perhaps there is nothing to this except the usual vicissitudes of humorous writing—different times, different cultures, different temperaments, the joke that does not travel. But I suspect that that there is something deeper involved. It relates to a characteristic that Eco does share with many of his academic colleagues in literature, particularly those more dedicated than he is to literary theory. He is much more learned, steadier, more humorous, and when in the presence of solid fact more sensible than many of them, but he does share an affliction with them. This is paradoxic bulimia, an ungoverned appetite for seemingly contradictory conundrums. Its symptoms drive philosophers to fury, and the difference between the two parties in this respect marks, more than anything else, the contemporary front line in the age-old war between the troops of philosophy and the troops of literature.

Faced with an apparent contradiction, philosophers, the friends of consistency, want to resolve it. Logicians such as Raymond Smullyan (whose good joke, quoted by Eco, I mentioned at the beginning) love paradoxes, but want to explain them. The other party, the friends of the conundrum, move in the opposite direction: given a boring fact, they do the best they can to represent it as a contradiction. Many years ago I read a little book called Zen and the Art of Archery, which tried to illustrate Zen teaching by telling you, for instance, that in archery one should aim by not aiming. This meant simply that if you were to hit the target you needed to get into a state of mind in which you were no longer consciously trying to do so. But this is true of most such activities. I remember clearly the irritation I felt, as a hardcore member of the consistency party, at what seemed an entirely gratuitous mystification.

That case was in fact, doubly bad, since the truth wrapped up in the contradiction was an obvious one, and the only point in wrapping it up, the Zen point, lay in a practice of meditation and discipline which no book was going to impart. Of course, in many other cases the party of consistency is rightly seen as consisting of clumsy wreckers, who feel threatened by the first sight of contradiction and reach for their rationalizing tool kit. They—that is to say, we—always run the risk of forgetting that the first sight of something worth understanding may take the form of a contradiction. The best way there may be of putting something worth saying may take that form, and, in personal life at least, it may sometimes be best to leave it that way, since the roots of the contradiction can sometimes only be found by digging up the plant. But if that is so, there is at any rate a consistent explanation of why it is so. Contradictions in themselves do not make life more abundant. They do not even, much of the time, make it more interesting, and this is for the same reason that the search for the Hermetic secret is so boring, that in themselves they leave you with something indeterminate and limitless, a world in which nothing is impossible and everything is the same. Hence one’s (literally) desperate weariness as the more mechanical forms of deconstruction grind out their paradoxes.

Eco is never boring in such a way or, most of the time, in any other. Yet he seems to have a serious problem, as they say in the eating disorder clinic, with paradox, and I think that this is why his jokes seem so uneven, since a shared sense of humor rests heavily on a common sense of what is paradoxical, and Eco is prepared to find amusingly paradoxical what some of his readers may see as merely elaborate or forced. He seeks out formulations that trip themselves up, ways of putting things that might be taken, at a pinch, to undo what they say. His sympathy with people who love contradictions is hard, at points, to distinguish from a sympathy with contradictions, and he occasionally stuns the principles of logic with a shot of cultural relativism, as when he refers in the Tanner Lectures to “the typical pattern of thinking of Western rationalism, the modus ponens: ‘if p then q; but p: therefore q.’ ” How far east do you have to go for that to stop being valid?

In Foucault’s Pendulum, they say to the narrator:

“You can always tell a genuine Piedmontese immediately by his skepticism.”

“I’m a skeptic.”

“No, you’re only incredulous, a doubter, and that’s different.”

A little later the narrator goes on:

Not that the incredulous person doesn’t believe in anything. It’s just that he doesn’t believe in everything. Or he believes in one thing at a time. He believes a second thing only if it somehow follows from the first thing. He is nearsighted and methodical, avoiding wide horizons. If two things don’t fit, but you believe both of them, thinking that somewhere, hidden, there must be a third thing that connects them, that’s credulity.

Incredulity doesn’t kill curiosity; it encourages it.

Umberto Eco, in his dealings with interpretation, is to a wonderful degree what the subject needs, someone who is incredulous without being a paralyzing skeptic. He is incredulous about skepticism itself: about the limitless space of unconstrained semiosis. At the same time he is incredulous concerning traditional assumptions about the author and the extent to which meaning can be determinately recovered. But in all his inventive dealings with these questions he shows, as well as vast learning and a high sense of fun, a robust belief in the obstinacy of fact, a historical past that can be recovered, if not as a large-scale story, at least as an assemblage of undeniable bits and pieces. It is only from time to time, in his dealings with logic, when he reveals a taste for paradox that is more unconstrained than he allows interpretation to be, that he seems to flirt with deep skepticism. But this may, finally, only be one of his games, for it is very clear that he recognizes that good sense and an understanding of the past, including the lunacies of its interpretations, are sustained in fact by a vigorous belief that one thing follows from another, and that wishful interpreters can no more empower contradictions than they can prove the existence of the Templars’ conspiracy.

This Issue

February 2, 1995