Umberto Eco has passed away, and with him we’ve lost one of our great thinkers about the meaning and implications of language. Like many people, I first encountered Eco as a fiction author. I remember seeing and loving The Name of the Rose as a high school student, going on to read the book, and being inspired to to make my way doggedly through Foucault’s Pendulum. Pendulum, like much of Eco’s work in fiction, depended on such deep cultural knowledge I’m sure I only understood a fraction of the references, but I remember the kudos I earned from my English teacher for knowing the book at all. Even in fictional work, Eco was dense and difficult, and rewarded slow absorption and reflection.
It was many years before I encountered Eco the Scholar. I was a postgraduate student in Oxford when he came to give the Weindenfeld lectures. He was gently disheveled, politely confused by the requirement of wearing an academic gown to lecture, by turns quiet and contemplative, and excitable and insistent. I was absorbed again and attended every one. His topic was translation. Not the technicalities of moving between Italian and English, for example, but the meanings, problems, losses and gains of doing so. He talked extensively about the experience of having Foucault’s Pendulum translated into English. The central figure of Casaubon is a sort of cipher for Eco himself; the ultimate intertextual person; a person constituted, motivated and to be understood almost completely by his literary and scholarly reminiscences and allusions. Eco talked about the thorny question of how to render classics of medieval Italian literature with which his initial readers would have been familiar into an English version, for instance. Transforming the words of Dante, or Boccaccio into English would not convey the same play of intertextual light and shade to an Anglophone mind. Simply replacing these references with contemporary English literature wouldn’t serve: the average Anglophone reader is less acquainted with and able to understand snippets of Chaucer than an Italian counterpart their Dante. In the end, some references had to be replaced with more modern English quotes, while others were transformed directly from Italian but couched to point towards their relevance and erudition. What happened to Pendulum in the process? Was it the same book? Fundamentally, yes. Like Abelard, Eco concluded that in translation it is intention that matters more than fidelity to the rules. The reader must understand what something really means, more than they must grasp the particular words.
In fact, those lectures, effectively the draft jottings of what would become his Mouse or Rat? Eco went on to demonstrate that all ‘rules’ for moving directly languages are fallacies, because language is fundamentally a cultural phenomenon. Human experience has many common features across cultures, and languages therefore also share many common features. We all have words, for example, for mother, baby, walk, and talk. But it isn’t merely a cliche to say that the Inuit have many words for types of snow that an English speaker isn’t capable of distinguishing. In the same way, Eco discussed, the native peoples of The Philippines have words for myriad shades of red that we would have to describe as colour codes, lacking the linguistic richness to discuss the differences between them. These distinctions of language are distinctions of culture. They reflect what matters to people in particular contexts; and the full meaning of the words is only properly conveyed by reference to that system of values and assumptions.
Looking back on his work, I can see how these topics to which he turned in the early 2000s were in long continuum with his interest in semiotics, the science (or art?) of meaning, since the 1960s. For my own work, one of Eco’s most influential books was The Limits of Interpretation. Here he reflected on the problematic anarchy of postmodernism’s attempts to kill the author. The death of the author, Eco observed, opened up the meaning of texts to any and all interpretations. But this isn’t representative of how texts work. In fact, they have limited possible interpretations. Admittedly, not all of them will be the intended meaning of an author/writer/producer of the text, but authors know this. As a result, the art of textual production, Eco argued, rests on anticipation of the reader and their assumptions, reference to likely shared patterns of structure and understanding, and the construction of a text which limits, for a given probable reader, the possible readings as closely as possible to the intended one, without simply reproducing a template. This insight was fundamental to me in understanding the relationship between medieval artes dictaminis, letter formularies, and the individual letter. It stimulated in me the idea that every medieval letter (and every modern one, perhaps) was a negotiation between reference to a notional ‘Ideal’ letter (the artes), common patterns of letter writing and meaning (formularies), and unique epistolary responses to the imperatives of context and correspondents.
Like Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco’s academic work is layered, dense and difficult. I don’t doubt it will continue to repay slow reflection and rumination for many years. Which is lucky, because there will be no more fresh thoughts from that wonderful, wide-ranging, provocative and stimulating mind. The world is a little dimmer.