In these days, there will be a great deal of talk about the work of Umberto Eco, his seven novels and countless essays, the Bustine di Minerva (his weekly column in L’Espresso), semiotics, his studies on the Middle Ages, the critical analyses of media and society, his taste for puzzles and puns, humor, erudition, instructions on how to write a dissertation and how to travel with a salmon, and in general about his overwhelming intellectual energy.
But I would like to speak of Eco as a professor. Not only because he was my professor — that is how I met him, and I continued to consider him my professor even after we became friends — but mostly because that is the role that defines him better than any other.
Professor is a discredited word in Italian: arrogant, privileged, pedantic, slackers, abstruse, fanciful and vain. Eco was exactly the opposite.
Professor by vocation, he did not miss a lesson, did not arrive late, did not delegate less rewarding tasks to younger employees, did not pretend to read the theses: He would add notes and would dog-ear the pages to find the marks quickly, and then he discussed them in the way they are discussed among colleagues, without intimidating students with his overwhelming cultural advantage, except for the jokes with which he kindly probed the temperament of his interlocutors.
He wasn’t interested in hierarchies because they hindered the free exchange of ideas, and what else should you do at the university but compare intelligent, informed interpretations to determine which one is better? He prepared the courses with the enthusiasm and tenacity of a beginner, but when in the classroom, his notes took life, and his listeners remained enraptured: not only by his wisdom, which by itself could blunt the critical sense of inexperienced listeners, but by the rigor of his reasoning, accompanied by curious anecdotes and examples shown with the utmost clarity, so as to encourage counter-examples and attempts at refutation. Therein lies the essence of the scientific method, of which Eco was a champion.
An endless challenge
But even when he was a professor, Eco did other things. It has been said that his novels are didactic, essays packaged in a narrative form. This is partly true, but also the opposite is true: His essays have a markedly narrative structure. After all, we know that the two activities were carried out in parallel: The Name of the Rose reclaimed from his studies of Peirce and abduction, Foucault’s Pendulum from his analysis on the limits of interpretation, The Island of the Day Before went hand in hand with the search for perfect languages, and so on, in a continuous coming and going between narration and theory that constitutes the core of Eco’s labor (from here on, I will speak of him in the present tense: The author is no longer here, but the books thankfully remain).
The unity of his work is the product of a mind stretched to reach other minds, in permanent tension, a constant challenge to laziness. For Eco, no creative effort is worth showing to the public if it does not contribute to making the recipients smarter, whether it’s a game, a story or a treaty of general semiotics. Fighting stupidity in all its forms — as noted in a famous passage of Foucault’s Pendulum — is his goal, and not coincidentally he has devoted many pages to the logical aberrations the human mind is capable of. A professor’s goal? Yes, because knowing and understanding are not boring, but fun, like his beloved Aristotle said. Not understanding and not knowing, if anything, are boring.
Eco is quite the opposite of a snob. There is no object not worthy of his undivided attention.
And then Eco is quite the opposite of a snob. There is no object (as there was no student, no matter how shy and awkward) not worthy of his undivided attention. Under his analytical gaze, the most diverse phenomena of mass culture end up, investigated with the same acumen that he applies to medieval aesthetics or the poetics of Joyce. From paraliterature to advertising, from industrial design to journalism, from soccer cheering to comics, from nonsense to political slogans, during his many years of semiotic militancy Eco has educated Italy (and not just Italy) to think about all aspects of its culture, in the belief that even in an instruction booklet, a photograph, or a cliché there are perversions of sense to be brought into the light.
Lopsided logic to laugh at, always in the name of the fight against stupidity, especially when it is put to the service of bullies.
There’s also his humor — irresistible, contagious; Eco rightly has his own chapter in the history of humor — as a professor. Not the sarcastic professor that persecutes a helpless interlocutor, but the witty professor who makes him complicit in an unpredictable game.
No wonder some of his funniest articles (for example “40 Rules to Speak Italian Well”) are viral on the Facebook profiles of 16-year-olds, exhilarated by sentences like, “Avoid clichés: They are heated soup,” “Do not use incongruent metaphors even if they seem to ‘sing’: They are like a derailed swan,” and, not least, “Only assholes use swear words.”
The challenge is to teach and have fun, creating complicity, inducing the listener to turn the usual places and flush out every bombastic statement, devious manipulation and idiotic dogmatism.
For Eco, stupidity is death. “The only way to prepare for death is to convince yourself that all the others are assholes,” he writes in a memorable article in 1997. It is most painful to accept the inevitability of your own demise if you think that life is full of delights and the world is populated by people of value. But if you take note of the meanness, dullness and foolishness of those around us, then you can die without excessive regrets. The important thing is not reaching this conclusion too early (otherwise life is no longer worth living), but getting there step by step, through a series of progressive disappointment. “Only then, at the end, you will have the overwhelming revelation that all of them are assholes. At that point, you’ll be ready for your encounter with death.”
On Feb. 19, 2016, Umberto Eco ended his personal struggle against universal stupidity. Today it’s up to us to continue to live.