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Eco Shrugs

Umberto Eco's On the Shoulders of Giants

It is probably the case that Umberto Eco was a very good novelist. I would not know, since the one novel of his I tried to read defeated me a third of the way in (Foucault’s Pendulum). His book on the history of beauty (On Beauty) is definitely worth reading, even though in it, he explains that no one really knows what beauty is, but everyone believes it exists. His tour de force of the history of beauty, and the many forms it has assumed in different cultures and times, would seem to validate that view.

In his collection of speeches given over the last years of his life at various gatherings of “La Milanesiana”, Eco reprised this view of beauty, but with an interesting additional insight. While he continued to uphold the notion, richly illustrated in his history of beauty, that beauty is a primarily subjective and emotional experience, he added the musing that the experience of beauty is best gained against a backdrop suggesting immensity, majesty, and even transcendence. This is the second entry in On the Shoulders of Giants, and it is by far the best, at least in my view. The twelve addresses in this volume are not arranged chronologically, which suggests the publisher’s desire to represent, in some kind of order, the important ideas of Eco’s last years. 

The first and title essay outlines the idea of the collection. Through many of the various themes – including lectures entitled “Ugliness”, “The Absolute and the Relative”, “Untruth, Lies, Falsifications”, and “Some Revelations on Secrecy” – Eco does just that. He develops his ideas by interacting with thinkers who have gone before, some well known, others new (to me, at least). His addresses feature a good bit of name-dropping and a delight in brandishing, then translating for us, obscure foreign phrases. He draws on the writings of past giants, laying a trail of thoughts that roughly illustrate his own thinking, but which leads nowhere in particular. I would describe these essays as Eco thinking out loud, rather than articulating views, because he seldom concludes anything.

Indeed, these lectures seem to have been given more to impress than to inform, much less to edify. They show off a good bit of Eco’s erudition – which was considerable – shed sometimes quirky light on subjects, and end without inferring or concluding much of anything. The lecture on beauty is the high water mark for me, but it’s pretty much downhill from there. The final lecture, “Representations of the Sacred”, demonstrates the unbeliever Eco’s interest in spiritual matters, but again, with no statement of conviction or conclusion.

 Read these lectures, if only to get your mind thinking about things you might not otherwise consider; but don’t expect to gain much with which to bolster or further elaborate your Christian worldview. Standing on the shoulders of giants, Eco doesn’t really see much beyond those shoulders. He mostly just shrugs.

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