In just six days I finally get my hands on a book that I have been waiting to read for over a year. Umberto Eco‘s The Prague Cemetery will arrive at my door next Tuesday, and I feel like a child waiting for Christmas morning. When this book was released last year in its original Italian, I attempted to work my way through it, to no avail. My Italian is not nearly good enough to be able to appreciate the sheer beauty of Eco’s writing and the subtleties of his ideas. I tried in Spanish, and although my Spanish is decidedly far better than my Italian, it was just not good enough. So I waited, and pre-ordered, and then waited some more.
Now let me explain about my love (obsession?) with Umberto Eco. I first encountered him during my freshmen year of college in an English Comp. class. I was assigned The Name of the Rose. I don’t recall the essay I wrote (for which I received an A, that I do recollect), nor do I remember much more about the class or the professor, but I do remember finding myself so completely lost in the world that he created and the words that he used to create it, that I instantly fell in love. I began to obsessively read and reread everything that I could get my hands on that he had written. I read Foucault’s Pendulum (to this day, my favorite), Baudolino, The Island of the Day Before, and before long I was reading his non-fiction, knee-deep in semiotics, literary interpretation, and once again, his beautiful, beautiful words. For the last 20 years I have revisited Eco often, and always on the look-out for something new (I even celebrated his release of On Beauty with a relatively pricey bottle of champagne).
So here I am again, less then one week away from his new book. Impatient. Excited. And finding myself abandoning my other readings (even Peter Gay, another intellectual rock star), to immerse myself in Eco. For the moment, in his essays. Namely, “An Ars Oblivionalis? Forget it!,” a serious essay he penned in 1966 after not-so-serious conversation over a few glasses of wine with his friends and colleagues.
They attempted to construct non-existent (and impossible) new academic disciplines, of which ars oblivionaris, or the art of forgetting, was among these “impossible sciences.” The essay begins with Eco’s usual warmth and humor, and rapidly becomes quite a scholarly article on the impossibility of voluntary forgetting, since, as Eco explains, memory is grounded in semiotics, and semiotics produces presences not absences. He concludes that perhaps the only way to “produce oblivion” is via addition. Instead of attempting to remove a memory, confuse it. He writes,
“There are no voluntary devices for forgetting, but there are devices for remembering badly…. One forgets not by cancellation but by superimposition, not by producing absence but by multiplying presences.”
I think it was Cicero who once quoted Themistocles as saying “What I don’t want to remember, I remember; yet what I want to forget, I cannot forget” (Nam memini etiam quae nolo, oblivisci non possum quae volo). This common desire to occasionally and voluntarily sip from the River Lethe makes this essay strike a personal chord. Let’s face it, we all have things we would rather forget. But its not only the subject matter. As is the norm with Eco, his ideas and the expression of his intellect make any subject that he decides to tackle instantly consuming. His joy of language and of intellect is contagious, and reading his work invariably brightens my day.
Next on the Eco reading list, an interview with Eco regarding lists (yes, lists), and Baudolino, where “lying about the future produces history.”