Ieri all'Istituto Italiano di Cultura di New York con Salman Rushdie, Siri Hustvedt, Michael Moore e Giorgio Van Straten abbiamo ricordato Umberto Eco. Commozione, risate, camaraderie in onore di un Maestro.
Questo è il canovaccio registrato, non rivisto, del mio intervento. Grazie.
It is strange now to talk, or write about Umberto, without his raspy voice, cigarette honed, heckling from the floor Hey the publishing date you just quoted ,1683 is wrong, there was an early print in 62, only three copies left, I own one by the way…
Or, write a review and in lieu of a Thank You receive by letter, when I was a young man, by e mail later on, three pages ranging from Why you should read Ezra Pound despite his fascist faith to Why pinball is a philosophical game and of course How can you even pretend to understand America if you have not read Dick Tracy and all of Chester Gould cartoons? have you read them no? and you want to understand Trump uh?
Umberto was a Web man, not a Spider man. He was a walking internet, a human Google. He would come to my house, pick up a book and start telling you what the author told him when they first met and abruptly encourage you to read a better new manuscript on the issue, oh of course the author of the new manuscript was just a trappist monk or a terrorist jailed for life or the widow of a billionare and the text was just a single copy, but do not worry, he had one and would let you read it, no no forget borrowing, no borrowing Umberto’s book, but come to my place, piazza Castello in Milan, we’ll have lunch with Renate Stefano and Carlotta and you’ll read it.
At lunch you would find Ilia Prigogine and gasp, he was one of the philosopher I sweated on in college, or Luciano Berio the musician, Carlo De Palma, photography director for Antonioni and Woody Allen. But you would be wrong assuming Umberto the human web was just an hub for the famous, the glitterati, the vips.
He taught us culture has no ups or downs, you can learn from an humble pulp fiction magazine and from Saint Thomas, you should study graffiti and political pamphlets while poring over de Saussure and Borges, listen to pop music and switch to Stravinsky. The same democratic approach he shared in his personal life. He could sing and play the clarinet with local musicians at his country house of Monte Cerignone, while dictating his last column to l’Espresso magazine. As a young editor at Il Manifesto and l’Espresso I saw Umberto share points with cub reporters, old columnists, oblivious to their standing in the profession just curios about their ideas.
He grow up under fascism and, like many in his generation including my Dad, loved democracy dearly, terrified of losing it yet again. In the bloody years of Italian terrorism, when many of his colleagues, friends and students were fascinated by the Red Brigades and their dystopia , Umberto wrote relentlessly on tolerance and justice, arguing you could fight without making a monster of your enemy, strive for democracy yes, but strictly on democracy terms. We were a fragile nervous generation, in a country new to liberty and tempted by violence and autocracy right and left. Thus Umberto opus was a beacon, funny, tantalizing, erudite, fair and he single handed steered legions of us away from the Sirens of violence, safely navigating the routes of dialogue and compassion.
William of Baskerville the Name of the Rose hero instructs his pupil Adso -as Umberto would teach us-
“Fear prophets, Adso, and those prepared to die for the Truth, for as a Rule they make many others die with Them, often before Them, at times instead of Them.” It was true at the time of the Red Brigades it is true today vis a vis Islamic terrorism.
I could go on and on, because Umberto was indeed a Web man and his net was filled with so many crucial nodes. He was a family man, and his grandchild eulogized him in Milan with an amazing speech you should catch on youtube. Nobody was funnier than Umberto in party, I see Barbara Jackobson here, he was a believer in stiff Martinis and cigarettes. He played the clarinet with Luciano Berio while Renate Furio and Alcie Colombo were jostling the puppets just to amuse my baby son Michelino on sunny Easter day. He fought with Pasolini on homosexuality and birth rates, he opposed Berlusconi and let the Italian left break his heart so many times. When the Democratic Party offered him to run as mayor of Milan he huffily declined I am a tenured professor I hate when people say no to my ideas and a politician should always lobby and compromise, sorry I too stiff for that.
Thinking all day yesterday, trying to sketch Umberto for you, was bittersweet, funny and deeply sad. I wanted to recite a few of his many jokes, he could have been a television comedian you know, but alas they were all to politically incorrect and director Van Straten would have kick me out of here pronto.
They were about Sicilians, cause I am Sicilian, gays, minorities, and of course Berlusconi. They were vicious and you could not resist laughing.
Yet Maestro I have a joke I could tell the Jesuit theologian and the Dominican Theologian saying their prayers in a church yard on a sunny afternoon. The Dominican is immersed in his Roman Breviary and the Jesuit prays while he puffes happily on a huge Cuban cigar. When the prayers and the meditation are over the Dominican scholar shyly approaches the Jesuit
Brother how come you were smoking? I asked permission to the Pope himself and he sternly denied it.
What did you exactly asked venerable brother the Jesuit asks with a wry smile
Well I asked –the Dominican answer- holy father can I smole while I pray and he went in a fit yelling Of course not prayer is sacred you cannot mingle it with earthly pleasures.
Ah. Too bad for you –the savvy Jesuit interjects- well I asked, Holy Father Can I Pray While I Smoke and he smiled and said But of course my dear son you can always pray, every minute of your life you can pray!
I know I know Umberto I did not say it properly I forgot this or that sorry okay? Laugh please or he scolds me…
So when I think of Eco as a human network, I am reminded you could not touch a single node of his personality without reaching out to the entire system. In the Foucault pendulum Eco states
“Any fact becomes important when it's connected to another” and clearly his work, as a professor a philosopher a columnist a writer was unrelenting the attempt to connect facts so that he could better understand the world and make it clearer for his students and readers.
Yet to see only an intellectual –rational- commitment however formidable, in Eco’s weaving his web, would be to lose a giant portion of our friend because he entered his herculean task of linking distant cultures and ideas spurred by love and the quest for joy. The bad guy in the Name of the Rose wants to censor laughter and happiness, placing the world under a cape of doom just as Isis terrorists execute comedians today in the XXI century.
So remember the last line in the Name of the Rose. It says
Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus
and yes yes maestro I know I know I did my homework this was of course as all of you know Bernard of Morlay, from his XII century opus De Contemptu Mundi quoted by Huizinga RIGHT???
The line means Only the name is preserved of the original ancient rose, we keep just naked names
It is a chilling melancholic verse and you wonder why Umberto would close his book with such doomed ending. He himself was not stranger to melancholic bouts, you could spot him sitting lonely while shying company and conversations. Many critics fought over with this line, the title itself owes its punch to Bernard. The name of the rose
Re reading it I realized for the first time it is not the cold inscription on a gravestone solemn and frightening, no.
It is an open invitation,
a call to action,
remember Foucalt pendulum connect all the facts and they will assume meaning?
In his final line Umberto Eco tells us we are given just naked names nomina nuda but if we start connect them one after the other in oh so many different languages and nuances then we can get to work and understand reality better whle, yes, keep laughing
Grazie Maestro e scusami per tutte le cavolate che ho detto ti voglio bene e mi manchi