Wednesday July 06, 2022

Umberto Eco, Brother William and a thief

April 30, 2016

"Everywhere I have sought peace and not found it, except in a corner with a book." — Thomas Kempis

Book thieves are cruel bastards. I wasn’t done reeling at the disappearance from my library of a rare edition of Russell’s History of Western Philosophy when now, upon going back to my Umberto Eco collection, I find three of the books gone. Damn you to hell, Thief. This I discover only a day after I lost more than a thousand e-books to the incompetence of the men fixing my computer. I spent years locating and collecting them. To avenge the wrong done to me, it is only proper that I invoke the spirits of Umberto Eco and Brother William of Baskervilles – the protagonist of Eco’s first and most famous novel The Name of the Rose. My pain at this hour is no different from that of Eco’s 14th century Franciscan monk who is anguished to see a huge monastery library containing thousands of ancient books and scrolls burning and can do nothing about it. In tears he goes desperately about saving as many books as he can. The scene in the brilliantly directed film of the same name is one of the most heart-crushing a book lover will ever see. Brother William played by Sean Connery almost made me cry.

This brings me to the interesting fact that Sean Connery shot to fame as James Bond in the 1960s, the same time Umberto Eco published his semiotic study of Ian Fleming’s character. He detected a Manichean ideology at work in the James Bond novels – the breaking down of the world, through binary oppositions, into good and evil.

The good is indeed represented by the British secret agent who embodies the “Free World, Great Britain, Western civilization, sacrifice, duty, willingness to undergo pain, loyalty and physical attractiveness” and the bad must be the “Soviet Union, foreignness, physical deformity, luxury, excess, perversion, disloyalty etc.” According to Eco, “Bond represents beauty and virility as opposed to the Villain, who often appears monstrous and sexually impotent.” (This summation is borrowed from the brilliant film critic and theoretician David Walsh).

It is indeed interesting that this popular bout of racism and chauvinism happened exactly when Britain was losing its virility worldwide.

Eco wrote a lot on medieval philosophy and it was through his The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas that I discovered this ‘postmodernist’ in my university days. Incidentally, it is one of the three books stolen by the Son of a Bitch – the Thief. The book is not a difficult read despite Eco’s undeserved reputation for opaque prose. I read the book with a strongly prejudiced mind. My staunchly anti-scholastic orientation made, and still makes, it difficult for me to see Saint Thomas Aquinas representing anything other than the ugliness of anti-philosophy – the making of Aristotle into a servant of the Catholic Church. I was, and still am, too enamoured of the great Averroes, against whose most famous disciple in Paris – Siger of Brabant – Saint Aquinas took up the ‘Christian’ cudgels. The Saint was not exactly averse to executing heretics – after they failed to be persuaded, of course. But Aristotle did the Saint some good too with his ideas on beauty and its conditions, reflected as ‘integrity, proportion, and clarity’ in the aesthetics of Aquinas – the subject of Eco’s book. I think I should know better too. If I can love Iqbal as a poet of the most exalted human emotions despite his irrational and often third-rate scholasticism and his anti-philosophical bent, I should also be able to see Aquinas’ greatness where he is great.

As one who sees much of the postmodern intellectual output as mental garbage wrapped up in unintelligible language to hide poverty of thought, I could appreciate Eco when he confessed that he had never understood what philosophical postmodernism is:

“I realise that so-called postmodernism has something to do with Deconstruction – a typical American merchandise produced on French license. When I reduce this philosophical current to a simple and recognisable model, I only find the Nietzschean statement that there are no facts but only interpretation. I do not think that even the most fundamentalist among the postmodernist thinkers really thinks that there are no facts, since to carry out an interpretation one must have something to interpret.”

Much of the speech I have quoted from was an elaboration of the fact that philosophical postmodernism is the most fantastically stupid idea inflicted on human intellect in the modern world. Well, he didn’t say so exactly in this way since, you know, he was a postmodernist and had to say things in peculiar verbiage.

And as one who finds quite obscene the typically European worship of the postmodern intellectual, I see much to learn in Umberto Eco and as much to reject. But that is irrelevant to the spirit of this post. The Umberto Eco that will always stay with me is the one I fell victim to while reading the devastatingly seductive preface to The Name of the Rose. It describes how Eco came across an 1842 French book based on a 14th century manuscript by a certain monk Adso of the monastery of Melk and recounting the terrible goings-on in that monastery. Eco delineates his long and passionate search for the original manuscript or a more authentic version of it – a frustrating and frustrated search that spanned years and took him to many places and many sources. In the course of the endeavour he found different versions of the story leading to newer and deeper puzzles. Eco calls it a magic moment when – among the shelves of an antiquarian bookseller in Buenos Aires – he chanced upon something that, finally, quenched his thirst. And what magic Eco puts in his words! One is overwhelmed by a pensive wish that this were not a fictive account. Often – browsing the shelves of old bookshops, leaning over the book carts at Hassan Square, gazing into the piles of books on the footpaths of Regal Chowk and eyeing the Sunday bookstalls at Frere Hall – have I found myself filled with longing to suddenly find the manuscript of Adso of Melk. At such wistful moments I have felt the consoling presence of Brother William of Baskervilles around me, looking, as he was in Eco’s novel, for Aristotle’s lost Book of Laughter.

No, best not to invoke your noble spirits in vengeful anger, Dear Umberto and Brother William. Rest in peace, Umberto. And sit lost in a book, Brother William, in a solitary corner of heaven. For where I found you was a ‘tale of books, not of everyday worries.’

And – Damn you to hell, Thief.

The writer is editor oped, The News. Email: Twitter: @reditorzain