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In Umberto Eco and the open text, Semiotics, fiction, popular culture, Peter Bondanella attempts "to provide a reliable, thought provoking, but necessarily brief account of Umberto Eco's intellectual development and major theoretical contributions during the past four decades" (p. xii). That's an ambitious project on its own: as semiotician, novelist, parodist, medieval scholar, journalist, and public intellectual, Umberto Eco has produced an amazingly diverse body of work. With bibliography and index, Umberto Eco and the Open Text runs to 218 pages, which is an extraordinarily limited space in which to cover so complex a career. What further complicates that project is Bondanella's intention of writing for both academics and educated non-academics interested in contemporary culture and literature. Since Eco's thought draws on everything from the scholastics to semiotics and other postmodern theories, that's a tall order to fill. Despite some problems, which may result from those self-imposed restrictions, Bondanella offers an overview which will be helpful to those unfamiliar with Eco's work.
Bondanella's account of Eco's intellectual development is particularly useful, and suggests that from the beginning of his career his thought was surprisingly wide ranging. While his doctoral thesis was nominally on the aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, Eco also used it to mount a challenge to the Crocean aesthetics which dominated postwar Italy. After completing his doctorate, Eco turned from Scholastic aesthetics to television, landing a position in a Milan studio. Characteristically, his experiences there ran from "high" to "low" culture. He collaborated on an Italian version of the American program "You Are There," which offered recreations of historical events, and also met the composer Luciano Berio, whose music would influence the theories developed in The Open Work (p. 6).
Drawing on structuralism, the fiction of James Joyce, and communications theory, The Open Work initially attracted hostile reviews. Eugenio Montale turned to outright mockery, while Claude Levi-Strauss stated that Eco's text
defends a formula that I absolutely cannot accept. What makes a work of art a work is not its being open but its being closed. A work of art is an object endowed with precise properties and [it possessed], as it were, the rigidity of a crystal.p. 25
Equally disturbing to some was Eco's willingness to discuss television with the same seriousness he brought to his analyses of serial music. That impulse would later underlie his turn to semiotics, the theoretical position with which he is perhaps most commonly associated. Searching for a general theory that could encompass Charles Schulz, Dante, and Steve Canyon, Eco turned to the work of Charles S. Peirce. In a discussion that is concise and lucid, Bondanella notes that Peirce's concept of unlimited semiosis was also useful since it supported Eco's theories of textual openness.
Bondanella also does an admirable service in tracing the relation of Eco's parodies and journalism to his more traditionally academic work. Inverting the standard notion that Eco's column in the Italian newsweekly L'Espresso represents a dumbing-down of his theoretical writing, Bondanella suggests that Eco's journalism has "helped to create precisely the kind of ironic, self-reflexive, and well-informed readership that both his fiction and his theoretical essays require" (p. 46). Bondanella's discussion of Eco's parodies is both instructive and entertaining. While still a student, Eco wrote La diacqua commedia (The Divine Water Comedy), which narrated events in his own family while imitating the voice of Dante (p. 1). Later he would parody Robbe-Grillet, as well as Nabokov's Lolita in a work entitled "Nonita," the story of a man attracted not to young girls but to old women (the English translation is "Granita"). Part of the humor of "Nonita" comes at Eco's expense, since the Italian translation of Nabokov's character Humbert Humbert is Umberto (pp. 35-6). Bondanella also notes that for a time Eco alternated a scholarly work with a parody or pastiche of that subject matter. In fact, Eco's long affiliation with the Italian publishing house Bompiani when his parody of the history of philosophy came to the attention of Valentino Bompiani (p. 19).
Less satisfying are the discussion of Eco's fiction. Bondanella offers the compelling argument that "much of [Eco's] intellectual development—especially his interest in the so-called 'open' work, as well as his fascination with the reader's role in literary response" reaches its culmination with the publication of The Name of The Rose . The problem is that because Bondanella seeks to provide a general overview, his chapters on Eco's fiction necessarily rely on extensive plot summary, interspersed with occasional explications of sources or incidents. Since much of the second half of the book is dedicated to the novels, that's a formidable problem.
Importantly, Eco's success as a novelist seems to have led him to reconsider some of his previous theoretical positions. He moves away from his notion of the open text in Interpretation and Overinterpretation , the volume which includes both his 1990 Tanner Lectures and responses from Richard Rorty, Jonathan Culler, and Christine Brooke-Rose, as well as in The Limits of Interpretation . The shortcomings of the book's overview format are readily apparent here. To summarize Eco's position requires an accurate account of the ideas with which he takes issue, which is always difficult given the complexity of postmodern theory. But Bondanella's summaries of the critical positions associated with deconstruction often seem closer to caricature. Presenting Eco's quarrel with deconstruction, he writes
Eco's position is relatively simple and is neatly summarized in his rebuttal to objections raised in his Tanner Lectures: "I accept the statement that a text can have many senses. I refuse the statement that a text can every sense".p. 130
If this seems like a less than compelling critique of deconstruction, that may be because the section from which Bondanella quotes is chiefly directed not at deconstruction, but toward Richard Rorty's pragmatist argument. (It's worth noting that in his essay "In Defense of Overinterpretation," Jonathan Culler, who was presumably chosen to "defend" deconstruction, gives almost as much time to a critique of Rorty as to his critique of Eco). Furthermore, Eco himself does not seem to believe that deconstruction licenses every interpretation of a text. Early in "Interpretation and History," he offers the hypothetical example of Jack the Ripper basing his actions on a reading of the Gospel of St Luke, and suggests that "even the most radical deconstructionist" would agree that that is a ludicrous interpretation, although Eco does add parenthetically "I hope, but who knows?"  Bondanella notes that Eco's critique cites very few specific works, then suggests that Derrida and Foucault are the implicit targets. In fact, Eco's argument is directed more at the American deconstruction usually associated with the Yale critics, and he explicitly takes issue with Geoffrey Hartman's reading of Wordsworth's "A slumber did my spirit seal" (Eco pp. 60-62).
Despite these problems, those unacquainted with the work of Italy's most prominent intellectual will find Umberto Eco and the open text, Semiotics, fiction, popular culture to be a useful introduction to this provocative and underappreciated thinker.
- Umberto Eco, with Richard Rorty, Jonathan Culler, Christine Brook-Rose, Interpretation and Overinterpretation, ed. Stefan Collini (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) p. 24.