Thursday, March 12, 2009

Umberto Eco, On Literature

Umberto Eco, On Literature, transl. Martin McLaughlin, Harvest, Orlando 2005

Language goes where it wants to but is sensitive to the suggestions of literature. Without Dante there would have been no unified Italian language. (On Some Functions of Literature, 3)

…the world of literature inspires the certainty that there are some unquestionable assumptions, and that literature therefore offers us a model, however fictitious, of truth. This literal truth impinges on what are often called hermeneutic truths: because whenever someone tries to tell us that D’Artagnan was motivated by a homosexual passion for Porthos, that Manzoni’s Innominato was driven to evil by an overwhelming Oedipus complex, that the Nun of Monza was corrupted by Communism, as certain politicians today might wish to suggest, or that Panurge acts the way he does out of hatred for nascent capitalism, we can always reply that it is not possible to find in the texts referred to any statement, suggestion, or insinuation that allows us to go along with such interpretive drift. The world of literature is a universe which it is possible to establish whether a reader has a sense of reality or is the victim of his own hallucinations. (On Some Functions of Literature, 7)

This is what all the great narratives tell us, even if they replace God with notions of fate or the inexorable laws of life. The function of “unchangeable” stories is precisely this: against all our (14) desires to change destiny, they make tangible the impossibility of changing it. And in so doing, no matter what story they are telling, they are also telling our own story, and that is why we read them and love them. We need their severe, “repressive” lesson. Hypertexual narrative has much to teach us about freedom and creativity. That is all well and good, but it is not everything. Stories that are “already made” also teach us how to die. (On Some Functions of Literature, 14-15)

Francesco De Sanctis in his History of Italian Literature (1871)…Romantic criticism downgraded the Paradiso…I want to maintain that the Paradiso is the finest of the three canticas of The Divine Comedy… (A Reading of the Paradiso, 16)

The contradiction in which De Sanctis is caught rests on …misunderstandings:…that this attempt to represent the divine merely through intensity of light and color is Dante’s original but (17) almost impossible to humanize what human beings cannot conceive… (A Reading of the Paradiso, 17-18)

The Middle Ages identified beauty with light and color (as well as with proportion), and this color was always a simple harmony of reds, blues, gold, silver, white, and green, without shading or chiaroscuro, where splendor is generated by the harmony of the whole rather than being determined by light enveloping things from the outside, or making color drip beyond the confines of the figures. In medieval miniatures, light seems to radiate outward from the objects. (A Reading of the Paradiso, 18)

At the root of this passion for light there were theological influences of distant Platonic and Neoplatonic origin (the Supreme Good as the sun of ideas, the simple beauty of a color given by a shape that dominated the darkness of matter, the vision of God as Light, Fire, or Luminous Fountain). (A Reading of the Paradiso, 19)

He once said to Stanislaus that Thomas Aquinas is a very complex thinker because what he says resembles exactly what ordinary people say, or what they would like to say—and for me this means that he had understood an awful lot, if not everything, of the philosophy of Saint Thomas. (A Portrait of the Artist as Bachelor, 85)

In the seventeenth century George Philipp Harsdorfer claimed that Adam could not have spoken anything but German, since only in German do word stems offer a perfect reflection of the nature of things (later, Heidegger would say that one could philosophize only in German and, in a generous concession, Greek). For Antoine de Rivarol [88] (Discours sur l’universalite de la langue francaise,1784), French was the only language in which the syntactic structure of sentences reflected the real structure of human reason, and therefore it was the only logical language in the world (German sounded too guttural, Italian too sweet, Spanish too redundant, English too obscure). (A Portrait of the Artist as Bachelor, 88-89)

…Dante himself expressed in his De Vulgari Eloquentia (On Vernacular Eloquence)…According to Dante the plurality of vernacular languages had been preceded, before the sin of Babel, by a perfect language that Adam used to speak with God, and his descendants used to speak with each other. After the confusion caused by Babel, languages multiplied…(A Portrait of the Artist as Bachelor, 89)

The aim of De Vulgari Eloquentia was to find a more dignified and noble language, and for that reason Dante proceeded by way of a rigorous critical analysis of dialectal Italian. Since the best poets had, each in his own way, departed from the regional dialect, this suggested the possibility of finding a “noble dialect,” a “vulgare illustre” (“an illustrious vernacular,” i.e. one that “diffused light”) worthy of taking its place in the royal palace of a national kingdom, were the Italians ever to have one. This would be a dialect common to all Italians ever to have one. This would be a dialect common to all Italian cities but to none in particular, a kind of ideal model which the poets came close to and against which all existing dialects would have to be judged. / Consequently, to combat the confusion of different languages, Dante seemed to be proposing a poetic idiom that had affinities with Adam’s language and that was the same as the poetic language of which he proudly considered himself the founder. This perfect language, which Dante hunts down as though it were a “scented panther,” appears from time to time in the works of those poets that Dante considers great, albeit in a rather unformed way, not clearly codified, and with grammatical principles that are not quite explicit. [90] …If Dante had believed that the primordial language was to be identified with Hebrew he would have immediately decided to learn it and write in the language of the Bible. But Dante never thought about that possibility, because he was certain he could still find, through a perfecting of the various Italian dialects, that universal language of which Hebrew had simply been the most venerable incarnation. (A Portrait of the Artist as Bachelor, 90-91)

The history of Latin culture before the year 1000, particularly between the seventh and tenth centuries, charts the development of what has been called “Hisperic aesthetics,” a style that emerged and developed from Spain to the British Isles, and even parts of Gual. The classical Latin tradition had previously described (and condemned) this style as “Asianic” and later “African,” as opposed to the balance of the “Attic” style…Saint Jerome (in Adversus Iovinianum, I): “Such is the barbarism displayed by these writers, and so confused does their discourse become thanks to these stylistic vices, that we have reached the point where we do not understand who is talking and what is being discussed. [96] … A page of Hisperic writing no longer obeyed the laws of traditional syntax and rhetoric, the models of rhythm and meter were overthrown in order to produce expression that had a baroque flavor. Sequences of alliteration that the classical world would have considered cacophonous began to produce a new music, and Aldhelm of Malmesbury (Epistula ad Eahfridum, PL, 89, 91) had fun composing sentences where each word began with the same letter: “Primitus pantorum procerum praetorumque pio potissimum paternoque praesertim privilegio panegyricum poemataque passim prosatori sub polo promulgantes…” The Hisperic style’s lexis became enriched with incredible hybrid words, borrowing Hebrew and Hellenistic terms, and the text was studded with cryptograms and enigmas that defied any attempt at translation. If the ideal of classical aesthetics was clarity, the Hisperic ideal would be obscurity. If classical aesthetics exalted proportion, Hisperic aesthetics would prefer complexity, the abundance of epithets and paraphrases, the gigantic, the monstrous, the unrestrained, the immeasurable, the prodigious. (A Portrait of the Artist as Bachelor 96-97)

Perhaps also for quantitative reasons, I think one could define my writing as neo-baroque. Borges is fascinated intellectually by the baroque and the way the baroque maneuvers concept, but his writing is not baroque. His style is limpidly classical. (Borges and My Anxiety of Influence, 134)

…in the early years of its usage, the term indicates literary genres that are highly codified (the sublime, middle, low style; the Attic, Asian, or Rhodian style; the tragic, elegiac, or comic style). In this, as in so many other cases, style is a way of writing dictated by rules, usually very prescriptive rules; and it was accompanied by the idea of precepts, imitation, and close adherence to models…with mannerism and the baroque that the idea of originality and genius becomes associated with the notion of style—and not only in the arts, but also in life, since with the Renaissance idea of [161] “sprezzata disinvoltura” (effortless nonchalance) the man of style will be he who has the wit, courage (and social standing) to behave in violation of the rules—or to show that he has the privilege to break them. (On Style, 161-162)

The idea of a style that goes against the rules appears rather with Cesare Beccaria’s Ricerca intorno alla natura dello stile (Inquiry into the Nature of Style), and reappears later in organicist theories of art, so that with Goethe style will emerge when the work acquires an original, complete, inimitable harmony of its own. Finally we arrive at the Romantic notion of genius (Leopardi himself will say that style is the particular manner or facility that is called originality). So much so that by the end of the nineteenth century, with the advent of the dandy and Decadence, the concept has turned 360 degrees, to the point where style is identical with bizarre originality, the contempt for all models;… (On Style, 162)

I think that first and foremost we must distinguish between discussing literary works and literary criticism…history of…sociological…history of ideas,…psychological…moral…Now all these approaches are legitimate in and of themselves, except that as soon as they come into play, they presume, imply, suggest, or refer to a critical or aesthetic judgment that someone else, or perhaps even the author himself in another work, already pronounced. / This kind of discussion is the discourse of criticism in its proper sense, and it can be articulated in three ways…the first type the “review,” where one tells readers about a book they have not yet read…In the best cases, a review can restrict itself to giving its readers a summary idea of a work that they have not yet read, and then imposing on them the critic’s judgment (of taste). [165] …In a review…the reader does not see the work, he only hears it spoken of by a third party. / The second critical mode (the history of literature) discusses texts that the reader does know or at least ought to know, since he has previously heard people talk about them. These texts are often only mentioned, or sometimes summarized, maybe with the help of some typical quotation, and are then grouped together, assigned to various schools, and organized in chronological sequence…In the best cases, historical criticism pushes the reader toward a final and comprehensive understanding of the work, establishes the reader’s horizon of expectation and his tastes, and opens up infinite panoramas. [166] … in the case of a review he does not have sufficient space to tell us in depth how the work is made (and therefore to reveal to us the machinations of its style), while a history of literature has to maintain its analysis on a level of enforced generality. Unfortunately, it takes a hundred pages to lay bare the style of one page…third mode, textual criticism. In it the critic has to assume that the reader knows nothing about the work, even if it is as well known as The Divine Comedy. He has to make the reader discover it for the first time. If the text is not brief enough to be quoted in its entirety, and subdivided into sections of prose or verse, he has to presume that the reader has access to it in some other way, since the goal of this discourse is to lead him, step by step, in the discovery of how the text has been put together and why it functions as it does…such criticism cannot be anything other than a semiotic analysis of the text. / Consequently, if proper criticism is understanding and making others understanding how a text is made, and if the review and the history of literature are unable to do this adequately, the only true form of criticism is a semiotic reading of the text. [167] …Because it has to make recommendations, a critical review cannot be exempt, except in cases of exceptional cowardice, from pronouncing a verdict on what the text says; historical criticism shows us at most that a work has enjoyed a varied and fluctuating critical fortune, and has aroused different responses. Textual criticism, by contrast, which is always semiotic even when it does not know it is, or even when it denies it is, fulfills that function which was admirably described by Hume in “On the Standard of Taste,” which cites a passage from Don Quixote: ‘Two of my kinsmen were once called to give their opinion of a hogshead, which was supposed to be excellent, being old and of a good vintage. One of them tastes it; considers it, and after mature reflection pronounces the wine to be good, were it not for a final taste of leather, which he perceived in it. The other after using the same precautions, gives also his verdict in favor of the wine; but with the reserve of a taste of iron. You cannot imagine how much they were both ridiculed for their judgment. But who laughed in the end? On empty the hogshead, there was found at the bottom, an old key with a leathern thong tied to it.’ [David Hume, “Of the Standard of Taste,” in Four Dissertations and Essays on Suicide and the Immortality of the Soul, ed. John Immerwahr, John Valdimir Price, and James Fieser (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 1995,) 216-217.) My point is that proper criticism always has the last laugh, because it allows everyone to have his own pleasure, but it also shows the reason for that pleasure. (On Style, 161-168)

…narratological theories are of no use either to the reading or to the criticism of a text. We could say that they are simply protocols of multiple readings, and that they serve the same purpose as the theory of physics, which explains how bodies fall according to one single law without telling us whether this is good or bad…We could say their purpose is to understand not texts but the function of storytelling in its totality, [170] and that they therefore seem more like a chapter in psychology or cultural anthropology than like a chapter in literary criticism…if nothing else, they would be useful for teaching people how to read. (On Style, 170-171)

My generation…began to understand that reading was not just a picnic where one gathered here and there, almost by chance, the hawthorns and buttercups of “poesia,” which were hidden amid the manure of structural fillers. Rather, one looked at the text as a whole, as something animated with life at every level…Why is it now forgetting all this? Why are young people now being taught that to discuss a text they do not need a strong theoretical repertoire, and a capacity to examine all levels? Why are they being taught…the only ideal critic (now famous again!) is one with a free mind that reacts freely to the occasional solicitations provided by the text? (On Style, 174)

And in fact Longinus, Pseudo or not, lists the five sources of the sublime: the capacity “to conceive noble thoughts,” the ability “to display and arouse noble passions,” the way “to create appropriate rhetorical figures,” ingenuity in nobility of expression through “the choice of lexis and the accurate use of figures,” and lastly the “general overall arrangement of the text.” These are the sources of a dignified and elevated style. (On Style, 176)

The good interpreter, who has penetrated the work, is also he who, even at the peak of his enthusiasm for an author, says every now and again, “I don’t like this,” or even “I would have put it better”…interpretation as an exercise that can also accentuate, attenuate, and put into perspective the work’s various aspects, and therefore—out of loyalty to the spirit of the work—also correct it. (The Flaws in the Form, 204)

Metanarrative, inasmuch as it is a reflection that the text carries out on itself and its own nature, or the intrusion of the authorial voice reflecting on what it is narrating, and perhaps appealing to the reader to share its reflections, is much more ancient than the postmodern. Deep down, metanarrative in this sense is already present in Homer’s “Sing, Muse…,” (Intertextual Irony and Levels of Reading, 213)

…from nineteenth-century Idealism to Croce, Italian culture was dominated over the course of a hundred years [236] by the rejection of all rhetoric and all poetics. Under an Idealist aesthetics that read all language as founded from the outset on aesthetic creativity, the phenomenon of poetry could be described no longer as the deviation from a preexisting norm but rather as a new dawn. The few pages devoted to Croce to Aristotle show irredeemable prejudices, which resulted in a formally impeccable syllogism: aesthetics began with Baumgarten’s idea of a “scientia cognitionis sensitivae, gnoseologia inferior” (a science of sensory cognition, a lower gnoseology); Aristotle was unable to read Baumgarten, and thus Aristotle had nothing to say on aesthetics. / I remember the shivers I experienced as a young man, feeling as marginalized as a young homosexual in Victorian society, when I discovered that the Anglo-Saxon tradition had continued to take Aristotle’s poetics seriously, and without interruption. (The Poetics and Us, 236-237)

According to Gerald Frank Else, only a tenth of all Greek tragedies meet the structures posited by Aristotle. [Aristotle’s Poetics, Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University press, 1957] (The Poetics and Us, 241)

Poetics…We know that catharsis can be interpreted in two ways, and both interpretations are upheld by that enigmatic expression appearing at 1449b 27-28: tragedy accomplishes “ten ton toiouton pathematon catharsin” (the catharsis of such passions). / The first interpretation is that Aristotle is thinking of a purification that releases us through the intense experience of our own passions [243]… The second interpretation understand catharsis in an allopathetic sense, as a purification undergone by the passions themselves, inasmuch as they are “beautifully” represented and seen from afar as the passions of others, through the cold gaze of a spectator who becomes a pure, disembodied eye—and who enjoys not the passions he experiences but the text that puts them onstage. (The Poetics and Us, 243-244)

Aquinas…proved that he could resist the temptations of women by chasing with a burning brand the naked courtesan whom his brothers had introduced into his bedroom to persuade him to become a Benedictine and not dishonor the family by donning the mendicant habit of the Dominicans… (The Power of Falsehood, 272)

Let us stick, then, to a less contentious notion of truth and falsehood, even though it is philosophically contestable—but we all know that if we listened to philosophers everything would be contested, and we would never get anywhere. Let us stick to the criterion of scientific or historical truth that has been accepted by Western culture; in other words, to the criterion whereby we all accept that…sulphuric acid is H2SO4, or that the dolphin is a mammal. (The Power of Falsehood, 274)

Ptolemy knew, of course, that the earth was round; otherwise he would not have been able to divide it into 360 meridian degrees. Eratosthenes knew it as well, since in the third century B.C. he calculated the length of the Equator in broadly accurate terms. In fact, Pythagoras, Parmenides, Eudoxus, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Aristarchus, Archimedes all knew of it—and it turns out that the only people who did not believe it were two materialist philosophers, Leucippus and Democritus. (The Power of Falsehood, 277)

What, then, was the question at issue in Columbus’s time? It was that the learned men of Salamanca had made more precise calculations than his, and believed that the totally spherical earth was bigger than our Genoese mariner thought, and therefore that he was mad to try to circumnavigate the globe and arrive in the East by sailing West. Columbus, though, inspired by sacred fire, and a good sailor, if a hopeless astronomer, thought the earth was smaller than it was. Naturally neither he nor the wise men of Salamanca suspected that another continent lay between Europe and Asia…Augustine, Albertus Magnus, and Aquinas knew very well that the earth was round. (The Power of Falsehood, 278)


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home