Umberto Eco: History is Rich of Adventurous Men with a Highly Developed Instinct for their own Interests

Umberto Eco on History

Umberto Eco (1932-2016) believed in the value of subjecting what we read to inquiry. “History is rich with adventurous men, long on charisma, with a highly developed instinct for their own interests, who have pursued personal power —bypassing parliaments and constitutions, distributing favors to their minions, and conflating their own desires with the interests of the community,” he says.

Italian philosopher, semiotics professor, essayist, literary critic and author, he is widely known for his bestselling novel The Name of the Rose (Il nome della Rosa, 1983), which he spent only two years researching. He says in one of his last interviews that is because it was about the Middle Ages.

Among his other novels are Foucault’s Pendulum (Il Pendolo di Foucault, 1989), The Island of the Day Before (L’Isola del Giorno Prima, 1995), Baudolino (2000) and The Prague Cemetery (Il Cimitero di Praga, 2010), his darkest of all stories, in which all the characters except one—the main character—really existed. Of his last book, Eco says:

Even the hero’s grandfather, the author of a mysterious actual letter that triggered modern anti-Semitism, is historical.

And the hero himself, though fictional, is a personage who resembles many people we have all known, past and present. In the book, he serves as the author of diverse fabrications and plots against a backdrop of extraordinary coups de théâtre: sewers filled with corpses, ships that explode in the region of an erupting volcano, abbots stabbed to death, notaries with fake beards, hysterical female Satanists, the celebrants of black Masses, and so on.

I am expecting two kinds of readers. The first has no idea that all these things really happened, knows nothing about nineteenth-century literature, and might even have taken Dan Brown seriously. He or she should gain a certain sadistic satisfaction from what will seem a perverse invention—including the main character, whom I have tried to make the most cynical and disagreeable in all the history of literature.

The second, however, knows or senses that I am recounting things that really happened. The fact that history can be quite so devious may cause this reader’s brow to become lightly beaded with sweat. He will look anxiously behind him, switch on all the lights, and suspect that these things could happen again today. In fact, they may be happening in that very moment. And he will think, as I do: “They are among us…”

Eco founded of the Department of Media Studies at the University of the Republic of San Marina, was President of the Graduate School for the Study of the Humanities, University of Bologna, and member of the Accademia dei Lincei and an Honorary Fellow of Kellogg College, University of Oxford.

He divided his time between an apartment in Milan and a vacation house near Urbino, Italy —both residences have extensive libraries (30,000 volume and 20,000 volume).

“We like lists because we don't want to die,” he says, lists create culture.

The video below is of Umberto Eco's interview at his apartment in Milan, May 2015.


 Narrative and storytelling are our way of making sense of the world.