Day 11: A book by my favorite author

I have been neglecting the book challenge for a while now, simply because as I look ahead, I can’t really see myself addressing some of the upcoming challenges, i.e. “a book whose main character I’d like to marry.” I mean, what am I, 12? Moreover, it seems to me that this challenge is best-suited for people who have read only a moderate amount. Clearly someone who has not read at all, or too little, would find it impossible to complete, but it’s equally difficult for someone, like myself, who has read so much. It’s proven nearly impossible at every turn to come up with a single book to respond to the daily challenges. But I began this challenge and so I will press forward and see it through.

Today’s challenge, despite my complaining above, is not too difficult. My favorite author is Umberto Eco, and I think anyone who has been following my blog since the beginning will say that it’s obvious. I have written about him repeatedly (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), and as I was getting my blog off the ground I had to curb my desire to write about him more lest this become an Eco blog (not that it would be a bad thing). He has been my favorite writer since I was introduced to him in my first college English Comp. course, and have loved his work ever since, his fiction and non-fiction equally.

His work is superbly intelligent, philosophical, historically rich, and always challenging,  while at the same time expressing such a love of language and the written word that reading it evokes a feeling of sheer joy.  They are brimming with an almost excited intertextuality that create these wonderfully complex literary labyrinths. Through his brilliant and beautiful use language, his fiction, which often revolves around the theme of the power of words to shape reality, has the ability to create universes that the reader can easily lose themselves in, as I have repeatedly. In short, reading Eco’s work fills me with a giddy excitement and happiness that I seldom feel with other writers (except maybe Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, both who are linked to Eco in many ways).

Insofar as a particular fictional work by Eco, I’ll select my favorite to discuss briefly here, Foucault’s Pendulum. This is one of those books that I’ve read countless times, each subsequent reading revealing something new and unexpected. I mean no hyperbole when I say that no two readings of this book have been the same. The book, sometimes referred to as the “thinking man’s DaVinci Code,” (they’re in an entirely different league if you ask me), tells the story of three bored editors who, on a bit of a lark, start feeding random bits of a seeming never-ending list of conspiracy theories (think Freemasons, Illuminati, Templars, Rosicrucians, Blavatsky, etc.) into a computer program, Abulafia, who invents connections between their entries. As with many of Eco’s books however, what is written becomes reality, and as they re-write history, their immediate realities are greatly affected.

A superficial read will reveal an exciting and enthralling story, but it is far more than that. I am always surprised the level of historical detail, and although not a philosophy book, it is indeed deeply philosophical in nature. It is far less about the conspiracy theory than it is a book about language, symbol, text, and reality. It evokes Saussure and Meillet in the sense that in this narrative, language is a system where “tout se tient” or where “everything hangs together.” The narrative is only half as exciting as the revelation that language is everything, with lines such as “To arrive at the truth through the painstaking reconstruction of a false text.” or “what our lips said, our cells learned.”

Another thing that makes this book, well any book by Eco, so wonderful to read is the care he takes with words. The writing is beautiful and the joy he takes in the written word is clearly evident. These are the opening lines of the book…

That was when I saw the Pendulum. . . .

I knew- but anyone could have sensed it in the magic of that serene breathing – that the period was governed by the square root of the length of the wire and by π, that number which, however irrational to sublunar minds, through a higher rationality binds the circumference and diameter of all possible circles. The time it took the sphere to swing from end to end was determined by an arcane conspiracy between the most timeless of measures: the singularity of the point of suspension, the duality of the plane’s dimensions, the triadic beginning of π, the secret quadratic nature of the root, and the unnumbered perfection of the circle itself.

Eco wrote, in his essay “Postmodernism, Irony and the Enjoyable”  that the perfect postmodern book is one that can be enjoyed both for its surface story, but which also contains a rich philosophical subtext. This book, along with the rest of his novels including his most recent The Prague Cemetery, seamlessly fit that description.

Day 10: A Book that Changed My Life

This Thirty Day Book Challenge is turning out to be significantly more, well, challenging, than I had initially thought. I have spent the last few days giving today’s topic some serious thought…

There is no one, single book that has “changed my life.” No magic moment upon reading a book that as I finished it I knew that I was forever different. What there has been, however, is a series of books, from different authors and at different times, that have forced me to look at the world, my life, my ideas and my beliefs in new and different ways. This group of books, once I really began to think about them, have quite a lot in common. They are all in some way “academic” as opposed to more popular fiction, and all have an undeniable philosophical component, although some more than others. Perhaps what the strongest common thread between all of these texts is that they have all, in their own way, helped me form my intellectual curiosities, my personal philosophical outlook, my moral and ethical grounding, and my general sense of what life should be about.

A more honest way of framing today’s post would be to admit that it’s not necessarily books that have impacted me so strongly, rather thinkers and writers. If I were to list a few, I would include as varied a group as David Hume, Carl Sagan, Thomas Kuhn, Bertrand Russell, Isaiah Berlin, Erwin Schrödinger, Sigmund Freud, Aldous Huxley, Charles Darwin, and Michel Foucault. If I were to count fiction as well, then I would also include Umberto Eco, Aldous Huxley again, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Tom Robbins. If I included poetry, then the list would have to expand to also include William Blake and Allen Ginsberg. In other words, there is no way that I could sit and discuss a single text, or even a single author in regards to how they have changed my life.

I’ve been reading for a lifetime, and for that lifetime these thinkers and writers have had a certain and cumulative effect. They have, together, taught me to think critically and embrace reason, and to revel in questions instead of becoming entrenched in apparent answers. They have reminded me to never fail to pay attention to beauty that surrounds me, and to live curiously, openly, and passionately. They have taught me that a vigorous intellect is nothing to be ashamed of. Together they have reinforced the idea that kindness and generosity are the highest virtues, and that our significance is measured by how we love, how we think, and how our actions affect those around us. They have opened my eyes to the wonders of this universe, as well as the magnificence of our minds and our hearts. In short, they set me on the path to become the woman who I am, and every time I read anything by these scientists, writers, poets, and thinkers, I see a little of myself reflected in their words.

Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive as there are authors whose influence, although subtle, was nevertheless significant, and other authors who as a result of time have simply been forgotten, although their impact surely remains. Morevoer, and perhaps most importantly, I have not stopped reading. I encounter writers, historians, scientists, and philosophers who, on a daily basis, push me out of my intellectual comfort zone and cause me to rethink my ideas and question my realities, and I hope that this will forever be the case.

Umberto Eco’s Semiotic Schema for the World “Neanderthal”

from The Role of the Reader, Umberto Eco
via biblioklept and To a Dusty Shelf We Aspire

On Love and Forgetting: A personal note

Georges Seurat, Seated Woman (1883)

I’m breaking my rule about no personal posts, but what good are rules if we don’t break them every now and again?

I was recently left by someone who I was really and truly prepared to love for the long haul. It was sudden, painful, and awful in ways that we’ve all experienced but still don’t have the words to describe. Someone really should come up with a break-up specific vocabulary… don’t Eskimos have about a million words for snow?

Of course, I wanted to lock myself in my room and not emerge for days or weeks, allowing myself the time to mourn the loss of something I wasn’t ready to let go of, but being a single mom, that was not an option. I had to go on as if nothing had changed, at least in front of my daughter (she’s only three). Which got me to thinking about forgetting. If I could forget the emotions that tied me to him, if I could stop replaying the hundreds of conversations that seemed only possible between the two of us,  then maybe I could really go on as if nothing had happened. It would be as if Mr. Peabody pushed a button on his WABAC machine, and all was reset. Byron captured it best, at the end of his poem “To Caroline,”

And yet, my girl, we weep in vain,
In vain our fate in sighs deplore;
Remembrance only can remain,
But that, will make us weep the more.

Again, thou best belov’d, adieu!
Ah! if thou canst, o’ercome regret,
Nor let thy mind past joys review,
Our only hope is, to forget!

A while back I wrote that his words in this poem elicit, at least in me, powerfully contrasting emotions. On the one hand it stirs a yearning for such a deep love, while at the same time it evokes a palpable sense of fear of experiencing such a profound loss. I suppose I knew then, when I wrote about Byron and love, that experiencing that kind of loss was a real possibility. Perhaps that’s why it was so hard then to type out those last two stanzas.

I’m currently reading a book titled Lethe: The Art and Critique of Forgetting, by Harald Weinrich. It had been sitting on my shelf for a while, and now it simply seemed like a good time to read it. The book traces “forgetting” through Western cultural history, from Homer, Vergil and Ovid, and Dante, to Kant, Freud, Proust, and Sartre (among others). This book actually reminds me quite a bit of Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight. Attlee searched for moonlight, Weinrich seeks forgetting. Although I’m only about halfway through the book, its been an interesting exercise to look at how others have sought forgetfulness; the countless poets, writers, and heroes that have chosen to exchange the weight of their memories for the lightness of a blank slate. If nothing else, its good to know that I’m in good company in wanting to forget.

Salvation and healing are sought in forgetting above all when a mortal is throated by pain and suffering. Forgetting one’s misfortune is already half of happiness.

Reading Lethe also brought to mind one Umberto Eco’s essay, “An Ars Oblivionaris, Forget it!” that I wrote about in the first days of this blog. In it Eco wrote about the impossibility of voluntary forgetfulness; that although we may employ several techniques to help us remember, there is, for better or worse, nothing we can do to help us forget. He suggests one way that we can if not quite forget, we can at least muddy the waters of memory,

“One forgets not by cancellation but by superimposition, not by producing absence but by multiplying presences.”

Needless to say, the application of that idea to this situation may have worked in my early twenties, but not now.  But if there was a method I could use to truly forget, would I use it? I’ve certainly fantasized about it this past month, but if seriously presented with the chance to “produce oblivion”, would I take it, even if it also meant forgetting all the good, too?

Then late last night I came across this post on the “Freshly Pressed” page. Needless to say, its title “On Eternal Sunshine, Erasing Memories, and Facebook Timeline” (okay, maybe not the Facebook part) immediately spoke to my current obsession with remembrance and forgetting. In the “Erasing Memories” segment of her post, she talked literally erasing her memories, or at least the evidence of them by deleting chat logs, Facebook messages, emails. (When I was in high school the equivalent would have been throwing away the letters, tearing apart the photographs and erasing the ubiquitous “mix tapes.) She refers to it as kind of “self-curating.” Its a great idea, in theory, but despite my desire to forget the love I felt and still feel, I’ve had no impulse whatsoever to delete anything. Although I’m nowhere near ready to go back and reread our exchanges, I imagine that one day looking back on them might provide a little clarity, some answers, or maybe just a chance to reminisce about something that was good.

She also mentioned the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I’ve seen the movie a couple of times in the past, and I’ve always liked it, although I could never really connect with it. I’ve always been a firm believer in some permutation of “no regrets,” and by extension that means “no forgetting.” I could never understand why Joel and Clementine chose to erase their memories of each other. Now I get it. There’s that part in the film where Joel (Jim Carey’s character) goes into Lacuna (which interestingly enough means  a blank space, gap, or missing part), to have the memories of his relationship with Clementine erased. The doctor then explains,

There’s an emotional core to each of our memories, and when you eradicate that core it starts its degradation process. By the time you wake up in the morning, all the memories we’ve targeted will have withered and disappeared, as in a dream upon waking.

An emotional core indeed. All my memories seem intertwined with emotion at the moment, and the urge to erase and forget is now strong. I suspect that if there did exist an ars oblivionaris, a Lacuna, Inc., or a river named Lethe for that matter, that I would be seriously tempted to use it, but I’m sure that if I did, that there would come a time when I would regret it. Even Joel, at the end of Eternal Sunshine, choses to remember. Erasing my memories would be erasing what was an incredibly loving, honest, passionate, and, well, a fundamentally good part of my life.

I suppose I’m glad that there’s no way to erase our memories, or to go back in time and reset everything. At the end of the day, despite the heartache of loss, I know that eventually the memories will be good ones. Today remembrance brings with it a mixed bag of hope, loss, regret, and longing, but although remembering is painful, maybe one day it will all make sense. After all, it’s all of these experiences that shape who we are. That, and of course only by acknowledging the past can we hope to make peace with it.

Gore Vidal (and others) on why Italo Calvino is so great

I’m currently in the midst of an Italo Calvino kick. I’ve just finished reading If on a winter’s night at traveler and am about to start re-visiting Cosmicomics, which, although I’ve read as individual stories, I’ve never read them together as a united work (post coming soon).

I remember reading Calvino many years ago, and absolutely falling in love with the seeming ease with which he told a story. His words seemed to play with me, pulling me effortlessly through the narrative. With a lightness unique to him, he could relate incredibly profound meaning. I’ve never smiled so much while reading any one else, and that is as true today as it was when I first encountered him.

Apparently I’m in pretty good company with this opinion, as is evidenced by this New York Times Audio Special: Celebrating Italo Calvino, where literary luminaries such as Umberto Eco, Carlos Fuentes, and Salman Rushdie, Wallace Shawn, and many others met to read from and sing the praises of this writer. Another big fan of his is Gore Vidal, who, from what I’ve read doesn’t seem to be a “big fan” of many. He had this to say of Calvino,

Where Calvino was there was literature. Like it or not.

Below is the interview where Vidal explains why Calvino, at least for him, holds such a remarkable place in the modern literary world.

Enjoy!

Reading is alive and well.

I spent a large part of this past weekend at the bookstore getting some last-minute Christmas shopping done. Although not as crammed as, say, Toys-r-Us (that was another nightmare entirely), it was relatively full of people, young, old, and every age in between. There were teens sprawled on the floor reading, several young kids, my daughter included, listening to an employee read to them, and hundreds of others browsing the shelves.

As I stood in line I started thinking about the state of reading in our culture. As a teacher, I sometimes get the sense that reading is becoming a lost art, but then I got to thinking about several books and essays that I had recently read, and things seemed just a little less grim.

A few weeks back, I wrote a post about Pierre Bayard’s book How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, and in that post I included a link to the New York Library’s talk with both Bayard and Eco (who is mentioned often in the book, and who, if you watched the exchange, had quite a lot to say).

Here is a short video excerpt (you should watch this, it’s very funny)  about “how school helps us not to read books.” What an interesting way to look at the role that a formal education plays in our lives as readers. According to eco,  school allows us to develop a context in which to understand books and their authors, whether or not we have even read said books.

Considering the number of books published in the world and the process of the evolution of mankind the lifespan of a single person is not enough read all of them. So we speak about a book we have not read. Okay. And at the school we study history of American literature, history of French literature, which means to be informed about books that we have not read and that we shall never, never, read!

But before the controversy begins, and before I stray too far from my intended point, Eco does not at all intend for us not to read, nor, for that matter, does he imply that reading is an endangered species. In fact, at the start of that same interview (not in the excerpt, but you can see it in the complete version), Paul Holdengräber quotes Eco,

“Every season,” he [Eco] told me, “there is an article on the end of the novel, the end of literature, the end of literacy. The fact of the matter is, there are thousands of stores full of books and full of young people all over the world, and never, in the history of mankind, have there been so many books, so many places selling books, so many young people visiting these places, and so many people buying the books.”

At least according to Eco, not only are books and reading not “endangered,” they are more prevalent than ever before.

My local bookstore, Books and Books

On that note, last week, Farjad Manjoo over at Slate  wrote quite a controversial article titled “Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller.” Manjoo’s basic argument is essentially that if our goal is to foster a society of readers, who better to do it than an entity like Amazon, who can efficiently, affordably, consistently, and quickly (instantly with Kindle) get people reading. Local independent booksellers, despite their “mythical” status in fomenting literary culture, actually do comparatively little in getting books into people’s hands. According to Manjoo,

As much as I despise some of its recent tactics, no company in recent years has done more than Amazon to ignite a national passion for buying, reading, and even writing new books.  . . .But if you’re a novelist—not to mention a reader, a book publisher, or anyone else who cares about a vibrant book industry—you should thank him (Bezos) for crushing that precious indie on the corner.

I have to admit that I felt quite uncomfortable reading, and reluctantly and partially agreeing with the Slate article. I do love the idea of walking into a bookstore, with its smell of old books and coffee, plenty of invited authors, and book groups meeting regularly. But that’s exactly the myth of the independent bookseller that Manjoo warns us against. Yes, its difficult to let go of our romanticized notions of what exactly a “literary culture” is, but if we can all agree that at the core of its definition lies the basic fact that people must read, then its difficult to argue against him.

So, sure, Amazon doesn’t host readings and it doesn’t give you a poofy couch to sit on while you peruse the latest best-sellers. But what it does do—allow people to buy books anytime they want—is hardly killing literary culture. In fact, it’s probably the only thing saving it.

Like I said, I love my local bookstores (although I live in Miami, and they are few and far between), but when its time to buy books, more often than not, I buy through Amazon. I probably order on average two to three books a week, not including the kindle downloads, and I have been buying from them since they launched in 1995. Will I stop visiting my local, independent bookstores as a result? Absolutely not.

I’ve strayed far from my original point again. The thing is this, much like with the e-reader vs. “real book” debate, I find that this doesn’t have to be a question of mutual exclusivity. Both play an important role (in different ways for different individuals and communities, to be sure) in our literary lives, and will surely continue to do so. As Eco stated at the start of that interview, the important thing is that people are reading, and now more than ever before. Whatever way they prefer to access their books (library, kindle, independent bookstore, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, etc), seems almost trivial. Just as there’s room in a reader’s life for both the Kindle and the book, there is certainly not only space, but a distinct purpose, for both Amazon and the independent bookstore, and I don’t really see that changing any time soon.

The Vertigo of Lists

Giovanni Paolo Pannini, Picture Galleries with Views of Ancient Rome, 1759

As the end of the year approaches, it seems as if everyone is compiling or discussing lists. This morning on my drive into work there must have been at least five different “end-of-year” lists referenced (and I live very close to my workplace), including “Top 100 Songs of 2011,” “NPR‘s Favorite 50 Albums of 2011,” and “Top 20 Books by Readers of 2011.” With this endless listing, it seems as if we attempt, looking back on the year, to make sense of it by creating these tidy catalogues. But that’s exactly the function of the list, to create order out of chaos; to organize, categorize, rank, and define. To reference a post from a couple of weeks ago, lists essentially act as a cultural Maxwell’s Demon.

But for Umberto Eco, lists do more than simply impose or express order, they function as creators of culture and windows into history. In late 2009, Eco curated an exhibition at the Louvre where his chosen subject was “The Vertigo of Lists.” Through this subject he intended to take us on a grand tour of art, literature, and music, all through the focus of lists. He was interviewed by Spiegel about this exhibit, and when asked why he chose the seemingly commonplace subject of lists for his work, he explained,

The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.

He then continues to say,

The list doesn’t destroy culture; it creates it. Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists. In fact, there is a dizzying array: lists of saints, armies and medicinal plants, or of treasures and book titles. Think of the nature collections of the 16th century. My novels, by the way, are full of lists.

According to Jean-Marc Terrasse, auditorium manager of the Louvre,

his central thesis is that in Western culture a passion for accumulation is recurring: lists of saints, catalogues of plants, collections of art, all show how in the right hands there can be a ‘poetics of catalogues’.

Based on his work at the Louvre, Eco wrote a truly beautiful book  titled The Vertigo of Lists (or The Infinity of Lists in the US). This book is a continuation of the work he had begun with his books History of Beauty and On Ugliness.  It is replete with vivid images of the art he wants us to look at as exemplifying his argument, and selections of the literature he cites. In this book, as with his work with the Louvre, he takes one on a whirlwind tour of Western art, literature, and music, selecting pieces that not only reinforce the idea of enumeration, but that also give one the sense of voluptuousness, abundance, infinity, or “vertigo.”

He certainly succeeds at conveying this sense of the infinite through his meticulously chosen examples. In literature he begins with Homer’s Iliad, and continues with lists care of Vergil, Dante, Shakespeare, Proust, Calvino, Zola, Cervantes, Rimbaud, Neruda, etcetera (he even includes a selection from his book, The Name of the Rose, a book full of lists). In art, the list is also exhaustive, including the works of Pannini, Bosch, Dürer, Brueghel, Goya, Ernst, Warhol, among hundreds of others. This along with myriad reliquaries, scenes from Hollywood musicals, images of nerve cells, and photographs of collections. Merely listing what he includes seems to give one that sense of vertigo. In addition to all of this, he also cites music, my favorite mention of which is Ravel, of whose “Bolero” he writes that  “its obsessive rhythms suggests that it could continue infinitely.”

For Eco, in both the exhibit and the book, the list is a “cutout of infinity,” an intimation of what may lay beyond the frame of a painting, or behind the shop window. It is not only what is explicitly mentioned in the list that is significant, but also the ellipses and “etcetera” at the end of that list; the indication that there is more that cannot even be mentioned, the implication of the infinite.

We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.

Although I never had an opportunity to view the exhibition at the Louvre, I did recently read the book (I purchased a copy for my grandmother for Christmas, and bought one for myself, too). I’m sure on some level I had always thought about the significance of list and listing, on personal, cultural, and aesthetic levels. That being said, I’d never quite thought it all the way through in the way that Eco proposed. The list, not as the obvious expression of the finite, but as the intimation of the infinite and the ineffable.

Here is a video of Eco discussing his work at the Louvre, his book, and, of course, lists. Umberto Eco: The Vertigo of Lists.

And if you haven’t heard (or are haven’t listened in a while) to Ravel’s “Bolero,” here it is…

 

I’ll end this post with the words that Eco used to end his introduction to his book …

In conclusion, the search for lists was a most exciting experience not so much for what we managed to include in this volume as for all the things that had to be left out. What I mean to say, in other words, is that this book cannot but end with an etcetera.

You can’t step into the same river twice… but what about books?

A few weeks ago, in response to my post about book covers, a fellow blogger linked me to this fantastic cover of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.  Every decade or so this book tends to find its way back into my mind and back into my hands, and linking me this image did just that, and a couple of weeks ago I reread the book.

I first read this book in college in a  class titled “Science and Literature, a joint effort of the English, Physics, and Biology departments, taught by multiple professors. I was a physics major with a Literature minor, and this class seemed to merge my interests seamlessly. We had finished a series of lectures on thermodynamics, and of course, my favorite, Maxwell’s Demon (that little imaginary guy that can stop a closed system from become entropic), then were assigned Pynchon’s novel.  I read it in day, then reread it again the next day, since I wasn’t sure about what I had just read at all. After I closed the book for a second time, I remember thinking that for such a small book, it sure packed one hell of a punch.

At the time it was a book that spoke to both my love of science and words. It was playful yet insightful, it included my guilty pleasure (lots of conspiracy theories… did the Tristero actually exist?), and it spoke to some universal truths about trying to stop our lives from becoming entropic, and about our constant struggle to separate real information from all the “noise” around us. In short, it was the right book at the right time.

So a couple of weeks ago I contentedly reread the words that had elicited such a powerful reaction from me so many years ago, yet, when I put the book down, I felt, I don’t know, different. It was not as powerful as I had remembered, and the story now seemed thinner, with far less substance. Then Ken borrowed and read the book, and upon returning it to me he asked what it was about the book that I liked so much. I found myself answering with one word, nostalgia. The book was a signpost in my life, it represented some aspect of who I was at 19. But I’m clearly not 19 anymore, I’ve experienced 20 years of life between then and now, and I began to realize, that the book had changed. Not the text, but what I brought to the text, and that, as Eco would undoubtedly agree, fundamentally changed my reading of the book.

Then last week I wrote about Byron. Here a similar but reverse thing had happened. When I first encountered Byron in high school, I thought he was trite, superficial, and clichéd. But it wasn’t Byron that was lacking, it was my lack of experience. I had nothing to reference. I had not loved nor lost love yet. How could I possible “feel” Byron without a life full of experience to bring to the reading? In the case of the poetry of Lord Byron, it was the wrong text at the wrong time, and it took a lot of living on my part to make it the right text for me. Once again, what I brought to the reading changed my experience of it.

Now just a few days ago, I read this article announcing that Jack Kerouac’s “lost” first novel, The Sea is My Brother, was about to be released. The next day, another blogger posted this, where he said that he probably won’t read it, that Kerouac exists in the past for him, and I thought, is he right?

There was a time when I lived and breathed the Beats.  from Kerouac and Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti, to Corso, McClure, and Burroughs… all of them. I immersed myself in them and their lifestyle to such an extent, that I even began to write a book about them (an excuse to lose myself in their more intimate, personal material… letters, diaries, drawings). I got nearly 200 pages into the book before I stopped. I suppose that at the time I was using their lives more as an example then a cautionary tale (that would come later), and I just never finished it. Be that as it may, the Beats occupy a very important place in my personal history with books, and I’m afraid of attempting to step into that river twice. I share Chaz’s hesitation to read this new (well, old) novel, in the fear that it will change what he and the rest of them signify to me, I almost rather leave them untouched, frozen in time, where they are.

Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote,

This book will perhaps be understood only by those who have themselves already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it – or similar thoughts. It is therefore not a text book. Its purpose would be achieved if there were one person who read it with understanding and to whom it gave pleasure.

and he’s absolutely correct. Books are experienced in light of what we bring to them, and our experiences of our texts are constantly reformed… as we change, so do they. Sometime for the better, as with Byron, and sometimes I suppose it’s better to leave the books where we first experienced them, our memory of them unmarred by the passage of time. This, however, should never stop us from enjoying all that books have to offer.  As Eco writes,

The “reader” is excited by the new freedom of the work, by its infinite potential for proliferation, by its inner wealth and the unconscious projections that it inspires. The canvas itself invites him not to avoid causal connection and the temptations of univocality, and to commit himself to an exchange rich in unforeseeable discoveries.


The Prague Cemetery … finished.

The last page.

After sneaking a read every time I had a free moment, I finished Eco’s book, The Prague Cemetery late last night.  I was going to write as soon as I finished, but I realized that I had to let the book sit for a while, as I wasn’t sure what I was feeling when I put it down. Part of it, I’m sure, was separation anxiety … that book had practically become a physical extension of my arm these past 2 days, even my students were making fun of how I would read even while walking.  That always happens when I finish a book that I’ve become so involved with – the physical act of putting it down is draining, difficult, and sad.

But there was something else, this book was a decidedly uncomfortable and at times unpleasant read.  As one reviewer put it,

In our world of political correctness, it’s something of a visceral shock to be plunged into the slime of group invective.

It put the reader in a position of being complicit in terrible, hate-driven events, and part of me felt like I need some kind of ritual ablution to wash off the guilt. That very unsettling feeling, however, was what made the book such a powerful read.  Let me backtrack a bit before I get too far ahead of myself…

The basic storyline is as follows.  Our protagonist, Simone Simonini, after describing in discomfiting detail just how much he hates everyone (and I do mean everyone), realizes that he has lost his memory of recent events.  He recalls the day he met Sigmund Freud (“Dr. Froïde,” whom he doesn’t trust because, of course, he’s Jewish “Jew and German are a mix I don’t much like”) and where Freud explained his early, not yet fully formed, ideas that would eventually become the foundations of his Psychoanalytic theory, such as “talking cures,” in which talking about past events help unearth buried memories. This recollection causes Simonini to decide to start a diary to attempt to get at his lost memories.  Here is where the story really begins.

Simonini soon realizes that he is not alone. He seems to share his home (via a secret passage way), and perhaps even his body with a priest, the Abbé Dalla Piccola, and through their diary entries  (and the occasional interjection by the mysterious “Narrator”), we get thrust into the world of 19th century conspiracy theories, freemasons, patriotic wars, secret services, Satanic Black Masses, forgeries, murder, and betrayal.  We begin to understand why these memories have been lost – they contain exactly the kind of things that we would rather forget.  The story culminates with Simonini’s role in forging/creating the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (the recurring theme of forging fake documents, of plagiarizing plagiarisms, reminded me very much of Jorge Luis Borges).

The Prague Cemetery, in true Eco fashion is incredibly historically rich. Nearly every single character in the book “actually existed, and said and did what they are described as saying and doing in this novel.”  From big names like  Dumas, Hugo, Dostoyevsky (Eco is quite adept at intertextuality), to minor, but just as significant individuals, Eco’s impeccable research shines here, immersing the reader in the late nineteenth-century Europe. The story underscores many, if not all, of the darker ideas and ideologies of this period, such as the pseudo-scientifically grounded theories of race and racism (Gobineau makes his appearance), the fusion of nationalism and racism and xenophobia, the near institutionalized hatred of anything perceived as “the other,” and of course, what forms the core of this book, rampant anti-Semitism.

But the book is much more than simply a narrative history of the seedier side of the Belle Époque.  For Eco (and in typical Eco fashion), the real story lies in the manipulation of our cultural narratives and stereotypes to strengthen the incredibly dangerous sense of “us and them.”  Here is where our anti-here, Simonini, comes in.  Simonini is man so prejudiced against everyone that he borders on misanthropic.  He is a liar, a forger, and a murderer.  The only thing he talks about with any tenderness is food (and libraries), but those exceptions hardly serve to make him any less spiteful.  Hardly a protagonist that the reader can rally behind, but that is precisely the point.  Our anti-hero forges, lies, betrays, and murders his way through Italian Unification, the Paris Commune, the Dreyfus Affair, the Franco-Prussian War, the Russian secret service, and ultimately the publication of the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Always underscoring the way preexisting prejudices are reformed to substantiate and justify incredibly hateful, and/or politically expedient, acts. As Eco states early in the book,

If what is written is written, then it has actually happened. Believe in what is written.

And Simonini takes a behind-the-scenes, yet pivotal, role in creating the texts that shaped history (i.e. the forgery that convicted Captain Dreyfus of treason, and, of course, what the book is about, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion).

This book is unique in that the story is presented to reader through three distinct voices, those of Simonini and of his “second self,” the Abbé Dalla Piccola through the diary mentioned above, and The Narrator, the mysterious voice that reads their diaries, interprets their texts, and, most importantly, that speaks directly to us, the Reader. Whereas both of Simonini’s personas write for themselves (each other?), the Narrator writes to us, directly drawing us into the narrative.  By doing this, he makes us forced accomplices in these terrible events that unfold.  WIthout his unique voice, we could remain comfortably outside of the text, passive readers instead of active participants.  The Narrator’s presence doesn’t give us that option.

One of the many anti-Semitic images shown to the reader.

At the end, this book felt like a much-needed cautionary tale.  We live in incredibly scary times; the economy is collapsing, we’re as politically divided as we have ever been, anti-intellectualism is gaining popularity by the second, and pseudo-science is being used to justify all manner of dangerous and costly ideas.  Moreover, we are a jaded generation, and a sterile book laying out the minefield that we are walking through would be completely ineffective.  By surrounding the reader with uncensored hatred, both through text and image (most of the images coming from Eco’s personal collection), and by forcing the reader into a position of accomplice, Eco successfully shocks and shakes the reader out of comfort and complacency and highlights the process by which normal people are seduced an manipulated into believing in scapegoats, and how stereotypes are used to create real enemies.  In the book, it was the Jews (the book ends towards the end of the nineteenth century, and every reader knows the horrors that were to await them  in the twentieth century), and if written during the Cold War it could have been the Russians or the Chinese.  Who would it be about if it was written today?

We live in a time when it feels that we are standing on a precipice, and this fear for our futures leaves us susceptible to exactly the kind of manipulations described in this book. Eco, by laying the process shockingly bare, warns us against our darker natures and inclinations.  We should listen to the warning.

First Impressions of The Prague Cemetery

I’ve been reading The Prague Cemetery every chance I’ve had since I received the book yesterday afternoon.  So far, so good!  The main character, Simone, a truly hateful and hate-filled man, is a fascinating study of the prejudices of 19th century Europe, and the fact that he is the one fictional character set amongst a rich array of historical characters (both major and minor), and is at the center of some of the era’s major events, just adds to his role as a reflection of the darker side of the times.  It has called to memory a book that I just recently finished, Peter Gay‘s Cultivation of Hatred, but I’ll leave that train of thought for another post.  I will also leave any detailed discussion about the book for later, as I want to get just a little further into it (I haven’t even reached the halfway point).

I did, however, want to mention how much I am enjoying Eco’s blurring of the lines between Reader, Narrator, and Author.  In fact, one of the narrators (there are three, although two may be the same person), is writer (of diary entries that the other narrators read), reader (of the diary entries of his possible “second self”), and narrator.  One of the voices “The Narrator” speaks (writes) directly to The Reader (in this case, me), after reading the diaries and letters of the two others, further complicating this already intricate dance between text and reader.  Have I mentioned how much fun I’m having with all of this?

I’m reminded of what he wrote in regards to constructing the perfect reader in his Postscript to the Name of the Rose, where he states,

What model reader did I want as I was writing? An accomplice, to be sure, one who would play my game.. . . But at the same time, with all my might, I wanted to create a type of reader who, once the initiation was past, who would become by prey – or, rather, the prey of the text – and would think he wanted nothing but what the text was offering him.  A text is meant to be an experience of transformation for its reader.

He’s succeeded, I’ve fallen prey once again and I’m certainly more than willing to play his game.

There so much else going on here that I will have to sit and write more when I have more time.  There’s the story itself, the history, the conspiracy theories (reminiscent of Foucault’s Pendulum), the notion of memory and loss thereof (a theme he explored in his previous novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana), the concept of the word as a cosmological force (a reoccurring theme for Eco, as we’ve seen in Baudolino, Foucault’s Pendulum, and The Island of the Day Before) the question of the reliability of every word printed on the page, and, of course, what role I, the reader, am playing in all of this.

The book calls…