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ENDLESS LISTS

- Histories of excess

Inventing The Enemy And Other Occasional Writings By Umberto Eco, Harvill Secker, Rs 599

In recent times, I have come across too many articles beginning with the writer landing in New York and getting into a cab outside JFK to find himself being driven by a highly opinionated immigrant from Pakistan, who then goes on to provide much of the meat for the article (usually on America’s way with the rest of the world). It makes me wonder if the Pakistani-cabbie-outside-JFK has become a convenient rhetorical device — like the medieval dreamer of seven centuries ago — for letting the Other in through the backdoor of post-9/11, liberal-white writing. The first, and eponymous, essay in Umberto Eco’s Inventing the Enemy is of that species. Eco’s cabbie wanted to know where he was from, and hearing that he was Italian, asked him who Italy’s enemies were, current or historical: “those who kill us and whom we kill”.

Eco gives his hapless interlocutor a 22-page answer that turns into a lecture at Bologna University in 2008. His giddy-making roller-coaster ride, or card-index shuffle, through Europe’s demonization of its immigrants, Jews, Saracens, prostitutes, witches , lepers, heretics and a host of Others ranges from Berlusconi against the judiciary — through Cicero, Augustine, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Liutprand of Cremona, Giuseppe Giusti, Gerolamo Cardano, Wagner and Chaucer — to Martial’s ageing whore Vetustilla whose buttocks “are like those of a withered duck’s bottom” and Ian Fleming’s Soviet lesbian Rosa Klebb in From Russia, with Love who smells “of the Metro on a hot evening — cheap scent concealing animal odours”.

This bravura display of endless quotations from canonical as well as highly obscure texts is most often rumbustiously entertaining and sometimes plain tedious. But the tedious ones can be skipped easily without losing the thread of the argument, because the argument itself is — anti- climactically, after all that illustrative fanfare — rather familiar: we are beings who “need an enemy”, and we “recognize ourselves only in the presence of the Other”. (“What?” asked my Neanderthal friend when I read out this sentence to her on my Neanderthal phone, “we recognize ourselves only in the presence of the udder?” “The OTHER,” I shouted back at her. But it strikes me now that “udder” makes the statement just as profoundly true.)

I am rambling, and my sentences are turning out to be monstrously long. But that really is Eco’s fault. Having devoured this book over the last couple of days, I now find myself doing rather ineptly in this review what Eco has perfected into something like a grand style of writing, scholarship, teaching and conversation. What we see in these pieces of only nominally ‘critical’ prose is the triumphant eruption of volubility and copiousness, a baroque excess, which is both supremely self- conscious, conscious of its own resplendent history in Europe, Britain and America, and unabashed about overturning the conventions of criticism and history-writing for the greedier pleasures of creating stories, fantasies and other kinds of verbal extravaganza.

This is why a subject that demands analytical rigour, like that of the first essay, falls a little flat intellectually. And naming the book after that essay is misleading, as is the starkly typographic dust-jacket, because reading Inventing the Enemy is ultimately an invigorating experience. Yet, it also produces at its core a feeling of enervation, satiety and even, at times, repugnance. This is a physical feeling of the sort that you carry away from a dinner where your hostess turns out to be one of those terrifying Empresses of Abundance who force-feed you into a state of gasping stupor. This is unlike, say, Rushdie, whose fictional imagination and prose, at its best and worst, is also baroque, but whose occasional writings are chiselled and cerebral.

Holding an unlit cigar in his hand, and surrounded by his library of 30,000 books (with another 20,000 at his manor), Eco — in whom Shakespeare’s Don Armado meets Bellow’s Ravelstein and Borges’s all- remembering Funes — tells the Paris Review that he developed a passion for the Middle Ages “the same way some people develop a passion for coconuts”. This passion, evident in the beautiful and infinitely clever philosophical whodunnit Eco is most famous for, informs the two most exquisite essays in this book. The first, “The Beauty of the Flame”, was originally a lecture. It is about the danger of a gradual diminishment of our experience of fire as invisible forms of energy take over our everyday lives: “we have separated our idea of light from that of the flame.”

It starts with the observation that his children lost all interest in television once they got addicted to watching the logs burn in their new home with a traditional hearth. From this, it moves on through an extraordinarily evocative as well as learned exploration of the role of fire in medieval theology, alchemy. aesthetics and eschatology, from the Celestial Hierarchy of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (some sort of a tutelary spirit in this book) to the Buddha’s Fire Sermon. This opens up a spectacular axis of descent and ascent, going down to hellfire and rising up to the blaze of Paradise, illuminating and also re-enacting, in condensed form, the achievements of Dante, who vitally informs Eco’s understanding of ugliness and beauty.

But it is the little gem of a piece, called “Treasure Hunting” — part caprice, part Arcimboldian grotesque and part history — that provides the most delicious clue to what draws Eco to the subjects of his occasional pieces, and how we must read them against the grain of conventional history-writing and alongside his works of fiction. Eco’s subject here are the reliquaries, church-crypts, treasuries, cabinets of curiosity and Wunderkammern of Europe, with their unspeakably rich collections of bizarre objects and artefacts that confound the distinctions between a devotional fetish, a curiosity and a work of art: “here are the skulls of Saint Adelbert and Saint Wenceslas, the sword of Saint Stephen, a fragment of the Cross, the tablecloth from the Last Supper, a tooth of Saint Margaret, a fragment of the tibia of Saint Vitalis, a rib of Saint Sophia, the chin of Saint Eiban, Moses’ staff, and Our Lady’s robe”.

In piling on inventory after inventory of such objects, “mystically repugnant, pathetic, and mysterious”, this essay becomes an example of the principal form of excess in Eco — “the Endless List”. The list is perhaps the hidden template that links the various subjects of these essays. It also links them to the aesthetics of “manic accumulation” in Eco’s own imaginative universe and prose, making him, at once, incorrigibly Early Modern (hobnobbing with the likes of Thomas Aquinas, John Mandeville, Robert Burton, Thomas Browne and François Rabelais), and self-reflexively Modern (a descendent of Joyce, Borges and Calvino, and the literary progenitor of Dan Brown). It is the irrepressible copiousness of the list, with its capacity to invest its items with a sort of pseudo-sacred, semi-symbolic value, that asks of the modern reader something more than the “scientific mind”, something resembling, though distinct from, religious faith: “We have to forget what we have read in the art history books, to lose our sense of the difference between curio and masterpiece, to enjoy above all the mass of wonders, the procession of marvels, the epiphany of the incredible.”

So, Victor Hugo becomes, in Eco’s reading of his poetry and fiction, the embodiment of a “sublime excess…[that] can turn even bad writing and banality into a Wagnerian tempest”. In learning to read Hugo from Eco, we also learn to read Eco himself, “through the inventories, lists, catalogs like a flow of music”. But the metaphor changes soon from the incorporeality of music to the fleshlier enticements of food and sex. “If we have the stomach to join the orgy,” the gourmet of excess both warns and assures his guests at the banquet, “it will be an unforgettable experience.”