The OF Blog: A few thoughts on the passings of Harper Lee and Umberto Eco

Sunday, February 21, 2016

A few thoughts on the passings of Harper Lee and Umberto Eco

This past Friday saw the passing of two of my favorite writers, Harper Lee and Umberto Eco.  For very different reasons, each has influenced me as a reader.  At the risk of writing treacly tripe, I just wanted to share a bit about what I enjoyed about their works.

I first encountered Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird as part of my college prep junior English summer reading list.  Although there were several other "worthy" books there that I also enjoyed (Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon being one of them), there was something special about Lee's book that took me years to understand.  Perhaps it was a shared affinity for our hometowns, despite the ugliness that underlay local society.  Perhaps it was just the games of youth created before the age of internet and advanced video games that captivated me.  Or maybe it was this nascent, barely self-aware, sense of outrage at the world's cruelties that fascinated me.  But I suspect, in addition to these possibilities suggested to me through my experiences as an adult, what I really enjoyed about To Kill a Mockingbird was that it was a story of juvenile growth that did not dismiss the worries and concerns of childhood, but instead it was a story of humaneness in the midst of casual injustice.

Lee's interest in exploring Scout's growing awareness of the social hypocrisies around her is seen even further in the pre-Mockingbird draft, Go Set a Watchman, that was published last year.  Despite the controversies surrounding its publication and some of the character arcs, I found that novel exploring certain intriguing avenues (such as Jean Louise's clashes with her father and uncle) that the later To Kill a Mockingbird obfuscated due to its switch in focus to Scout's formative years.  As a Southerner who has conflicted views about his native region, I found Lee's exploration of similar concerns to be comforting, as her characters worked through certain doubts and conflicts in a fashion that enabled me to work through my own issues as a teenager.

But if Lee's works sparked an emotional response to matters of society and racism (and the hypocrisies that exist at their merging bounds), then Umberto Eco's works, fiction and non-fiction alike, stimulated a more intellectual response to human conflicts and the desire to understand collected knowledge.  I remember first discovering Eco by accident a little over twenty years ago, when I was outside looking through the free bin at the Knoxville McKay's used book and music store when I discovered a battered paperback, missing the front cover.  The blurb about a medieval mystery intrigued me, so I kept it for Christmas Break reading a few weeks later. 

Having taken courses in medieval intellectual history and Latin provided me with some insights into what Eco's characters were discussing and what really fascinated me was how easily he mixed the arcane with the familiar, the secular with the religious.  There was a very palpable narrative tension (William Weaver did an outstanding job with the translation; the original Italian was only slightly smoother in shifting between the erudite discussions in Latin and the vernacular) throughout the novel, yet the source of this tension was something I had never really encountered in fiction before.  Over the next few years, I read his latter novels (reading the last three soon upon their publications, the last two in Italian before the English translation was published) and found myself mesmerized by how he could mix in conspiracy theories, legenda, and humor to create engrossing tales.

Yet the more I read Eco, the more curious I became about his non-fiction.  I knew something of semiotics from grad school, but reading translations of Serendipities, Kant and the Platypus, and Mouse or Rat?, not to mention his illustrated books on beauty, ugliness, and lists, deepened my appreciation for him as a thinker.  Reading Eco is not best for more passive readers.  He wants the reader to engage with the texts, both as if they were veritable scriptures and as if they were elaborate forgeries that had to be cracked.  He "lies" to us, or perhaps reveals our possible self-deceptions through his examination of texts.  As he states in the opening chapter, "The Force of Falsity," to Serendipities regarding historical forgeries:

And yet each of these stories had a virtue:  as narratives, they seemed plausible, more than everyday or historical reality, which is far more complex and less credible.  The stories seemed to explain something that was otherwise hard to understand. (p. 17)
This "falsification" of the inexplicable in order to create coherency (albeit not a truthful one) is something he explores in multiple fashions across his works.  It is, as he said in the introduction to his book Dire Quasi la Stessa Cosa (Saying Almost the Same Thing):

Ecco il senso dei capitoli che seguono:  cercare di capire come, pur sapendo che non si dice mai la stessa cosa, si possa dire quasi la stessa cosa.  A questo punto ciò che fa problema non è più tanto l'idea della stessa cosa, né quella della stessa cosa, bensì l'idea di quel quasi. (p. 10)
This is the meaning of the following chapters: trying to understand how, despite knowing that although one never says the same thing, you can say almost the same thing. At this point the problem arises is not so much the idea of the same thing, nor that of the same thing, but the idea of that almost.

As my Italian reading comprehension is weaker than my Spanish or Portuguese, the translation is likely "rough," but yet that roughness and imprecision serves to underscore Eco's point.  It is never about saying the exact thing, providing the exact truth, but rather it's more about those almost truths from which we construct our understandings of the world and our perceived realities.  Embedded within this are our semantic memories (a topic he explores within his relatively underrated The Flame of Queen Loana), the fount from which our world views arise.

In reading Eco, especially his non-fiction, I found my interpretations of reality to be tested.  Certain narratives were rejected in favor of other, perhaps equally "false" but still more plausible, ones.  Sometimes it felt as though I were slowly being let in on a grand joke, albeit one in which I was partially the punchline.  In re-reading some of his works these past two days, I cannot help but feel we have lost a great thinker and forger of plausible lies.  Coupled with the emotional resonance I found in Lee's work, these two now-departed writers perhaps, more than most, if not all other writers, have helped mold me as a reader.  But while in certain senses the Authors are Dead, their texts still live on.  Now to free up some time to delve back into them and see how I shall be touched again on a re-read and how I might still be transformed as a reader.

1 comment:


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