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Interview. The writer Alberto Asor Rosa speaks about his friend, Umberto Eco.

Umberto Eco, the global thinker who ‘broke through’

Italian literary critic Alberto Asor Rosa does not hide his emotion on the death of Umberto Eco, the novelist who died Friday. “We were brought together by the passion for the word. Each of us, in his own way, sought in literature and communication the key to understand the Italian reality. We have followed different paths, but we met many times with the curiosity to understand what point we had reached in our research avenues.”

Asor spoke to us by telephone from Milan in a candid interview. He talked about what he’s written, novels he’s read and of a cultural climate that now seems to belong to a distant past, although it has only been two or three decades.

“I wrote a review for The Name of the Rose in La Repubblica,” he said, referring to Eco’s most famous novel and one of Italy’s main daily newspapers. “I liked the book and wrote a praise. Many, however, pointed the finger at the novel and Umberto Eco. An operation decided at a table, planned to have the consent of the public — these were the frequent criticisms. However, I loved the book. I wrote citing another great writer, Italo Calvino. There were also critics against Calvino, we are at the beginning of the ‘80s and they were unkind. For both, I maintained that they had a lot of fun writing those novels referred to as mere publishing operation.”

The ‘80s, indeed the decade of consensus after the previous 20 years of open conflict with the apocalypse. These are the years that see the ripening of what Eco had suggested in his Apocalittici e integrati, in which he carefully analyzed the role of the then new media — especially television — in shaping public opinion.

The publication of The Name of the Rose actually started a controversy that involved Eco himself, Franco Fortini, Asor Rosa, Gian Carlo Ferretti (the latter was responsible for the expression of “quality best seller” to describe books like The Name of the Rose) and many other intellectuals.

And as it often happens, the reviews were an opportunity to take stock of the relationship between “literature and national life” and the role of the intellectual in a world characterized precisely by the dominant role of television, which from the early ‘80s onward, would be the medium that will shaped public opinion, reflecting and amplifying the deepest, darkest feelings. And it is the figure and the intellectual legacy of Umberto Eco that kicks off the interview with Asor.

What is the intellectual legacy of Umberto Eco?

It is difficult to give a simple, linear answer. Eco was a complex intellectual personality. Semiotician, philosopher, writer, journalist, passionate professor.

If you look at his intellectual life, and compare it with the current paucity of the Italian research, it is difficult to summarize. Two dimensions coexisted in him, a creative dimension — his novels — and a scientific dimension (the semiotician, philosopher).

He was an unusual personality. He is the first intellectual in Italy who broke through the boundary of mass consumption. He could produce novels and essays always greeted by high sales numbers.

And he was one of the few widely read Italian intellectuals beyond our national borders. An authoritative person, from France to the United States, for his undoubted ability to give voice to a widespread and never-acquiesced “feeling” to the reality of things. It had happened to other Italian intellectuals, but Eco managed to reach an intellectual international audience in an era of increasingly global media.

The present expression in some of Eco’s writings is the expression of public intellectual. Not organic nor militant intellectual. But he has never been a man of culture who has taken refuge in the reassuring halls of academia.

He was a public intellectual, but he was never pleased with himself and his role. I read him since his beginning.

But the book that impressed me deeply was The Open Work, in which Eco addresses the complex relationship between reader and public and where he is confronted with the knot of multiple receptions by readers who can make a novel or an essay different from what the author intended. The Open Work is the book that shows a capacity for innovation combined with a maximum erudition and an ironic detachment from academic clichés, by the scholar locked in a room that keeps out what is happening in the world.

This ironic detachment allowed Umberto Eco to reach a mass audience, crumbling the public’s wall of impatience and indifference toward issues and topics preferred by academia.

Umberto Eco remarked that he always enjoyed the fact that his novels were best sellers. What do you think of his ability to capture the audience’s attention?

I want to remember an episode of intellectual ties that bound me to him. When The Name of the Rose came out, the reactions of the critics were not generous. I wrote for La Repubblica a positive review, in which I praised his ability to weave the plot of a novel that captured the attention without ever being banal in the definition of the characters, in the historical reconstruction of the period and the issues he faced, as well as the freedom of research in a climate marked by dogmatism. Many criticized him too harshly for the way it had been produced and the implicit idea of the necessary independence of the scholar from political contingency.

I responded to a lot of criticism with another essay. Two authors were criticized at the time: Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino. I asserted that they had fun in writing their novels.

This fun is not a secondary matter, because it denotes passion, intentionality, even political intentionality. Then, of course, the fun can become a limit, if it becomes too strong a constraint, undermining the quality of the writing work.

Umberto Eco may have been discontinued, but it would be foolhardy to consider his novels negatively. Like I said, he had a complex personality, difficult to define sharply.

Yet the voice of Umberto Eco was less present over the years. Do you agree?

I do not agree. He has always taken a position for a defense of democratic institutions. Without any leniency for power and without populist tendencies. We can say he was less effective, but the loss of efficacy affects all intellectuals in this country.

How can we forget the weekly column “La Bustina di Minerva” published at the magazine L’Espresso. They constitute a real history of the present, where he did not forgive anyone. You could disagree or agree, but they are examples of his vital presence in the Italian cultural and political life.

PROFILE
Eco and Asor: the encounter of two parallel lines

Alberto Asor Rosa and Umberto Eco have woven a dialogue at a distance interrupted by vis-à-vis meetings. One of the most recent meetings was during the presentation of the volume of the Bulletin of the Society for Italian Studies at the University La Sapienza for Asor’s 80th birthday, published by Carocci.

Among the panelists were Paolo di Giovine, Ernesto Franco and Benedetta Tobagi, as well as Umberto Eco himself. Ironically, Eco recalled the “non-Euclidean rapport” that bound him to Asor, as two parallel lines.

On that occasion, Eco recalled the importance of reading “The Writer and the People” (“a liberating attack”) in his own theoretical journey that had similarities with what he claimed together with the other participants of Group 63, who were carrying out the rejection of “a consolatory and dense literature with only seemingly virtuous content.”

Also on that occasion, Eco spoke about Asor’s love for Dante, which can be read as the secret face of a “tireless working man and political fighter who, not surprisingly, is always defeated.”

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