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.