The late Colombian novelist grabbed reality by the throat – and made it behave otherwise.
The news of the death of someone like Umberto Eco hits you like a thunderbolt – when you least expect it, and you don’t know what hit you. It leaves you blank, suddenly emptied, eerily silent. What does that even mean? “Umberto Eco, 84, best-selling academic who navigated two worlds, dies.”
I have had that feeling before – three or four times I think: when my most immediate teachers George Makdisi and Philip Rieff died, and then when Edward Said died, and then when Ingmar Bergman died while I was, in fact, in Sweden.
You stare into the world, but for a moment you don’t see anything. It is as if the light in your eyes is gone. You cannot hear anything. It is as if your life has been suddenly silenced.
A towering presence
I met Eco in the late 1980s, or maybe in the early 1990s – I cannot remember now – soon after I had joined Columbia and he had come there by the invitation of our Casa Italiana (Italian Academy) to deliver a lecture series. I had read him long before and I read him long after.
Eco had found his gradual, systematic, and increasingly towering presence in the scholarly world first and foremost as an exquisite semiotician and, soon after that, as a hermeneutician.
With two particular books, Open Work (1962) and Limits of Interpretation (1990), he had opened and delimited the field of hermeneutics to such a wondrous humanistic spectrum no one ever before or after could imagine.
His fame, however, suddenly became wildly global with the publication of his first novel, The Name of the Rose (1980), which was later turned into a movie starring Sean Connery in the lead role of William of Baskerville.
His prose was replete with the vertiginous wit of a polyglot thriving at intertexuality and virtuoso performance of his astounding erudition.
The Name of the Rose is a study in semiotics, hermeneutics, biblical exegesis, and medieval philosophy cast ingeniously as a murder mystery.
He would write a few other novels, and his sublime wit and exquisite sense of humour were for many years on display when he wrote regular columns in Italian newspapers. His prose was replete with the vertiginous wit of a polyglot thriving at intertextuality and virtuoso performance of his astounding erudition.
Flying like Peter Pan
In his writing, he flew with the ease and playfulness of Peter Pan from medieval aesthetics to literary criticism, semiotics, hermeneutics, media and cultural studies, and then diving with all his literary might for a quick column in a newspaper before soaring into a dazzlingly brilliant novel that would take the world by storm.
No one would know what he had up his sleeve. Jealous novelists such as Salman Rushdie did not like him; professional reviewers criticised his novels. But readers around the globe devoured his dazzling brilliance.
Soon after 9/11, when his fellow Italian journalist and novelist Oriana Fallaci was suddenly afflicted and diagnosed with a nasty case of the racist disease of Islamophobia and began spewing hatred of unfathomable depth and ferocity against Muslims, Eco wrote a gentle but dismantling piece against her without even mentioning her name, insisting on placing the civilised discourse on track of his own exemplary humanism.
A few years ago, while I was in Milan, I was invited to the University of Bologna where he was the president of the Graduate School for the Study of the Humanities. I went to Bologna happily hoping I might get to see him. I could not.
He was too ill to attend my talk, but he had asked for a copy of my World of Persian Literary Humanism which had just been published. I left a copy for him with mutual friends and colleagues with a note of humility and gratitude written for him on the first page.
The mind of the sublime
I spent that day in Bologna with friends and colleagues, walking around Piazza Maggiore, visiting San Petronio Basilica, sitting down for a quick bite and a coffee, imagining Eco inhabiting that space. Right in front of the City Hall, I remember there was a demonstration against a proposed plan to privatise water resources.
For Eco, aesthetics, politics, and hermeneutics dwelled somewhere between the heart of the mundane and the mind of the sublime.
All my students know my enduring indebtedness to his theories of hermeneutics and semiotics, to his happy, hopeful, joyous swinging from Homer to Mickey Mouse.
One particular gem among his myriad ideas is his famous triangular theory of interpretation: located somewhere among the intention of the author, the intention of the reader, and the intention of the text.
The name Umberto, long before he passed away, had transcended his mortal coil and became a citation informing his texts.
The intention of the author Umberto Eco became the voice resonating in the intention of his texts: varied, vivacious, brilliant, dizzying.
All that now remains is the enduring gaze and grace of those texts awaiting any and all those fortunate enough to find their lost way into the labyrinth of his magnificent, enabling, beautiful thoughts.
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.