Thursday, November 10, 2011

Umberto Eco in New York City

On Tuesday night I ventured into New York City. I had some misgivings about this, because I've been sick since I returned from the UK. I am not one for going to the doctor; to paraphrase Dave Barry, if my arm was severed and dangling, I'd sooner wrap it up with duct tape and keep going than go to the hospital. This is nothing personal against my doctors; it's just another thing I have to add to my already-busy schedule, and illness is something I just don't have time for. However, there are a few things on my "see the doctor" checklist, and coughing up blood is one of them. I started doing that on Monday morning, so I made an appointment. Fortunately the blood was not coming from my lungs, and I just had a very bad sinus infection. I'm feeling much better with some antibiotics and nettle tea.

But all of that is background. I went into New York to go to NYPL Live's conversation between Paul Holdengraber and Umberto Eco. I'd bought my ticket before going to the UK, which was a good thing, as the event was sold out. I stopped by St. Andrew's first, for some dinner and Belhaven's. I was sitting next to the bar next to two very cute young Scottish men, who had just arrived here for an 8 day vacation. One of them informed me that they don't drink Belhaven's in Scotland, even though it's a Scottish beer. I was not surprised--I didn't recall seeing it on draft anywhere in Glasgow. Of course, they have other fine beer selections in Scotland, like the Dark Island ale, from an Orkney brewery. Anyway, we got chatting, and they flattered me by guessing my age was 26. We were discussing Kearny for some reason, and I realized later that I was thinking of Keansburg rather than Kearny. I have no idea in the world why; I'm going to blame it on antibiotics haze.

Tuesday was a gorgeous day, 68 degrees and sunny, so it was a nice evening to be queued outside the New York Public Library. I was chatting with a woman in front of me in the queue about Europe, and she told me that she was able to stay in Paris in the 1970s for about $8 a day. Clearly I've started traveling too late in life.

In between grading papers on the train over, and waiting for the event to start once we got seated, I was reading De La Torre and Hernandez's book, "The Quest for the Historical Satan". This turned out to be quite synchronous with the Eco event, as the theme of human evil came up more than once in the conversation. Paul Holdengraber is a very entertaining emcee, and his questions are very well-informed. He asks his guests to provide him with a biography in 7 words. Eco's 7 words were: "High is the moon on Prague, gosh."

Holdengraber started by asking Eco about his impetus for writing his new book,"The Prague Cemetery". Eco said it was an "irritation" about human lying and forgery. All of the characters in the book are based on people that really existed, except for one, and Holdengraber said that Eco managed to make this one fictional character utterly despicable. Eco said that was certainly the point--though he also felt his fictional character was also the most authentic, in human terms. Returning to the theme of forgery--he said it was a type of lying, and that forgeries, even when acknowledged as such, are still believed by people and become prejudices. He mentioned forgeries like the Protocols of Zion, and other anti-Semitic Jewish "conspiracy" works. When at least one of these was acknowledged as a forgery, the response was, "well, maybe the book was a forgery, but it reflects how the Jews really think." So, a false prejudice is created with a false work originally presumed to be true. If you think about human behavior in this context, it is well known from studies that when factual evidence is shown that disproves a belief, people will cling to the false belief even more tightly.

I also started thinking about the line between fiction and reality. Often, we have a difficult time sorting the two, and that can have negative consequences. In a quote from Eco that was from an original version of his new book, he talks about people who believe that Dan Brown's stories are true. Certainly there was a lot of hoopla over the Da Vinci Code and its follow-up novel, which was quite unbelievable to watch. People simply could not accept that the book was fiction. The Church didn't help much by getting into the fray to tell people the book was fiction--that only convinced believers that there was a "cover-up." In general, though, one of the things that does worry me about modern society is the ability to discriminate between different kinds of information received. As I am reviewing research paper drafts, I realize that my students, even with guidance, can't tell a valid source from an invalid source. It's all one big screen or book full of words, all equally true or untrue relative to our own prejudices.

Eco contrasted hate with love by suggesting that love is a very selective thing, while hate is much more general. We love individuals, we hate groups. Holdengraber noted that Eco was quite animated by hate, and Eco replied, "I am animated by my hatred of hate." He then made the rather interesting point that the "enemy" in stories must follow a certain pattern. The archetypal image for the enemy in Western culture is the Antichrist.

Holdengraber asked him about his evil character in his new book and his relationships with women--why do women gravitate towards such horrible people, and conversely, why was the character so obsessed with women, who he claimed to hate? Eco replied that in order to really hate something, you have to be attracted by it. One might "hate" the guy who cuts him off in traffic, but that person will be quickly forgotten. Real hate requires an obsessive attraction to the object of contempt. Holdengraber quoted from one of Eco's books (might have been the new one) about a man who was an "erotic anti-Semite". The hate has so much devotion, it's almost a kind of love.

Holdengraber then tried to pin Eco down on the subject of psychoanalysis. He felt that this was a real theme of Eco's, as Eco is interested in the re-reading of things. Eco demurred from the idea that he had an interest in psychoanalysis, or that re-reading had anything to do with it, though he went on to say that his ego prevents him from having a committed relationship to psychoanalysis. Holdengraber said, "You're worried about what it might turn up for you?" "Yes, I would worry about that very much!"

On the subject of the places Eco chooses to locate his stories, the choice apparently has to do with where he wants to visit. If he wants to visit a place, he'll write about it as an excuse to go there. Sounds fair enough to me--I should do more of that with my own work.

I had to leave at this point, as my chest felt like there was a rock sitting inside of it, and I did not want to erupt into a massive coughing fit inside the auditorium. But the talk made me think about what it is that attracts me to Eco's work, and I think it's this deliberate attempt that he makes to "discombobulate" the reader. Leaving you in this uneasy state between truth and fiction is a means of cultivating awareness. You have to pay attention, and have some idea about context and background to be able to discriminate between the two. Eco continually challenges his readers to do that.

As a side note, someone on the John Foxx tour (either John, Sefa, or Benge) told me that the new Eco book did not receive good reviews. Nonetheless, I will have to read it myself, as the conversation has left me intrigued about the characters.

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