An editor, a cabalist, and a Templar scholar walk into a bar—this, essentially, is the setup for Umberto Eco's maximalist occult epic Foucault's Pendulum—and, out of boredom or desperation or something like existential ennui, these failed or failing intellectuals launch a sadly cynical investigation into the various conspiracy theories, urban legends, and supernatural spook stories that have possessed mankind for millennia. Hilarity obviously ensues, but I say "cynical," because none of these investigators, such as they are, believe in the supernatural designs in their work, or not at first. What they end up building through their satirical scheme, though, weaving together the myths of those Knights Templar, of the Bavarian Illuminati, the Rosicrucians, and every other famous cult or historical bogeyman is, ironically, nothing less than the secret history of the world.
This dense broth of story, ideas, intrigue, and dizzying weirdness is pure Eco. In his world, towering ambition very often runs in tandem with his characters' career failings, and staunch rationalism finds itself slumming into tawdry mysticism. Up is down and black is white, and everything is ripe for some bar-stool raconteur to rewrite as the mood suits. These tensions, and his utter glee for a ripping yarn well told, Eco says, were present even during his childhood in Piedmont during the '30s and '40s, as he shunted from the Fascist-inflected local schools of the time to the joys of his beloved comic books and fiction. Eco studied medieval philosophy at the University of Turin, and for many years he was a legendarily beloved professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna. For half a century, he has been an internationally famous essayist, writing often about media culture and literature. And it was in this capacity, as a sort of cultural conscience, that he first began to couple the seemingly disparate realms of his interests, mashing pop culture and philosophy in a way that we take for granted now as the vernacular of our era but that had never really been done before—theorizing Apple computers as Catholic (versus Protestant PCs), for example, or writing about the psychological and ethical impact of wearing jeans.
Eco's first and still most popular novel, The Name of the Rose, a murder mystery and a delicious bit of postmodernism set in a remote Benedictine abbey in the Middle Ages, was published in Italy in 1980, when he was 48, and owes so much to his beloved Jorge Luis Borges that it is difficult to even catalog all its many homages to the Argentine. Still, Rose is very much its own mature and exhilarating work—one of the best of the 20th century—and one that Sean Connery and a wee Christian Slater turned into a movie a few years later. In 1989, Eco published Foucault's Pendulum, the ne plus ultra of conspiracy-theory fiction, and one of my favorite books of all time. So big and enveloping was this book for me, and so perfect the timing of my first read, that I can't tell if my lifelong fascination with the occult, with secret societies, and with the search for the secret to life comes from this book, or if I loved the book so deeply because it is about all of my favorite things. Fittingly, what Eco does so well in Pendulum, as he would again writing about an amnesiac trying to re-create his identity in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2005), is to capture characters in precisely this sort of distress of living in search of meaning and reason.
Eco's latest book, Numero Zero, available now in the States (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) a few months before his 84th birthday, comes at this distress from yet another angle, when a failed newspaperman is introduced to the rumor of a secret society with designs on Italian politics—so, again, all my favorite stuff. In June, I called Eco at his labyrinthine home in Milan, where he lives and works surrounded by his library of more than 50,000 books, to talk about what it all means.
CHRIS WALLACE: When I was in Milan last month, I went running around like the characters in Foucault's Pendulum, trying to find the publishing house where they work. But alas... [both laugh]
UMBERTO ECO: It doesn't exist. I invented the street.
WALLACE: There's a line in Numero Zero: "The more a person knows, the more things have gone wrong." And Colonna seems to have this sort of anxiety of the over-examined life. I mean, he jokingly refers to himself as a loser. And this is a thread, seen most vividly in Loana, and running through all your work—that the intellectual life, the life read, comes at the cost of the life lived.
ECO: Certainly. In the case of Colonna, I tried to depict a character who was a complete failure in life, and he was more into his own personal literary fantasies than to the real life. And your question makes me think that probably even the characters of Foucault's Pendulum were a group of intellectuals who got lost in their literary fantasies without becoming able to cope with the reality.
WALLACE: Well, absolutely. Which is why I identify with them so.
ECO: Which is not my problem! [both laugh] Just like I write stories about conspiracies and paranoid characters while I am, in fact, a very skeptical person. And I have been all my life involved in political affairs, so I was facing the reality. Sometimes, you know, it is not true what Flaubert said, that "Madame Bovary c'est moi." Sometimes my characters are not myself.
WALLACE: So your house in the countryside is not, in fact, where they're doing the druid rites in Foucault's Pendulum. It's not where Yambo kept his comic books in Loana. You're allowed to invent—despite people like me trying to read autobiography in everything you write. Speaking of which, you have a lot of fun at the expense of newspapers and the media in Numero Zero. This has been a longtime fascination of yours. At one point in the book, one of the editors asks, somewhat rhetorically, "Do newspapers follow trends or create trends?" The answer implicit there is that newspapers are driving the way we interpret history.
ECO: Right. As you know, for many years I have devoted articles and essays to newspapers, from the inside. So criticism of the newspapers was a topic that I practiced for a long time. At a certain moment I decided to transform that into a novel. One of the problems I have always discussed is the refusal to distinguish between comment and fact. The newspaper wraps every fact into a comment. It is impossible to give mere fact without establishing point of view. In this sense, it is obvious that the newspaper produces the opinion of the readers. Well, a newspaper can follow the compulsions, the desires of the readers. Take the English evening newspapers—they are following the readers' desires when they are interested only in the royal family gossip. But even the most objective, serious newspaper in the world designs the way in which the reader could or should think. That's unavoidable.
WALLACE: An interesting aside there is that the magazine you often write for, L'Espresso, recently leaked the Pope's statement on climate change, and it caused a sensation—though I'm not sure whether the tail is wagging the dog there or vice versa. But this designing of our thoughts, of our readings of history, is a central theme in Numero Zero. And in a lot of your work, including your nonfiction, you show us as a society continually rewriting history, fact-checking it, undoing it—in the way that the character Braggadocio is rewriting the history of Mussolini in Numero Zero. We always seem to be changing history, updating it, and writing in the margins. We do it with our own personal history, as well. We change our memories, reinterpreting them, like interpreting dreams.
ECO: I have always been fascinated by paranoid people imagining conspiracies. I am fascinated by this in a critical way. Foucault's Pendulum was a grotesque example of this kind of people, while The Da Vinci Code of Dan Brown took them seriously. I've said that Dan Brown is one of my characters from Foucault's Pendulum. [laughs] Okay, but personally, I have always written against this kind of cultural paranoia. You are right when you say we are always remaking history. Our memory is always an interpretive reconstruction of the past, so is perspective. But it is my characters that rewrote history. [both laugh] I tried to write it in the right way.
WALLACE: Why do you think we fall under the spell of these conspiracy theories? Our neuroses in this, the era of anxiety, seem to make them especially appealing.
ECO: Oh yes, if you open the internet, you find a lot of these kinds of things. So it is sort of a social sickness. You know, 60 or 70 years ago, a great philosopher, Karl Popper, wrote a very seminal essay on all the theories of conspiracy, showing that they were always a way to escape our responsibilities. It is a very important kind of social sickness by which we avoid recognizing reality such as it is and avoid our responsibilities, too. I'll give you a very stupid and elementary example: I take my car on Saturday afternoon, and I go on the highways, and there is a terrible traffic jam. And I say, "Who is responsible for all that?" The one responsible is me and all the stupids like me who took the car on the highway on Saturday afternoon. But you know, in order to avoid responsibility, I try to think of somebody else who is responsible. Conspiracies and all the theories of conspiracy are also a part of the canon of fakes. And I'm involved, in all of my writings, the theoretical ones as well as the novels, with the production of fakes. My collection of rare books concerns only books that don't tell the truth. [laughs] They are fake. For instance, I don't have Galileo because he told the truth. But I have Ptolemy because he was wrong. I have always been so interested in fakes and forgery, because as a philosopher, I am interested in truth. But to establish what is true is very difficult. Frequently it is easier to establish what is false. And, passing through the false, it's possible to understand something about truth—that's a philosophical statement, take it such as it is.
WALLACE: I seem to remember you describing beauty the same way; that it's almost easier to describe ugliness than it is to describe beauty.
ECO: Well, that is only because ugliness is more inventive than beauty. [laughs] Beauty always follows certain camps. I think it's more amusing—ugliness—than beauty.
WALLACE: The secret societies that are either invoked in, or responsible for, controlling the conspiracies within your work are also alluring to me—in much the same way they are in, say, Borges or Kubrick. All secret societies, at least as they appear in fiction, appeal to me, I think, because there's this longing to belong to this group of elect who are in possession of some secret on how to live. But in real life I wouldn't want any part of it.
ECO: Listen, the secret societies, like conspiracies, exist. There was a conspiracy in order to kill Julius Caesar. There were many secret societies in the 19th century. The only problem is that, when they exist, they are, after a while, discovered. Either they have success, like the conspiracy against Julius Caesar, and they are discovered, or they don't have success, like the conspiracy against Napoleon III, and they are discovered. It is the same for the secret society. We know that, in Italy, there was a sort of secret society directed by Mr. Licio Gelli, and which determined a lot of the facts and events of Italian politics. The real problem is when you imagine secret societies when they are not there. There are a lot of articles and sites on the internet about, let's say, the Bilderberg Group [a group of political, financial, and cultural leaders from North America and Europe], and their annual meetings, which are not secret at all. People meet there. They talk. The president of the United States is not obliged to go to Davos in order to make a secret plot with, I don't know, the president of France. They do it by telephone. People imagine that these groups are plotting the destiny of the world. But to imagine secret societies and conspiracy is a way not to react to the social and political life. Because you say, "We don't know who they are. We cannot react without reasoning." So it is a way to keep people far from the political environment.
WALLACE: It's nihilistic, fatalistic. In fact, the greatest possible trick a secret society could play is to convince the people that secret societies exist, so that they would just go on feeling powerless and apathetic. How important to you was Jorge Luis Borges?
ECO: Enormously. There are two authors who have influenced me. One is Joyce, about whom I also wrote a book, and the other was Borges, whom I adored. There was a symposium in Spain about ten years ago on the idea of relationships between me and Borges. María Kodama, the wife of Borges, was there. Borges influenced me very much.
WALLACE: You have this really phenomenal memory. You've talked about the concept of the memory palace, which I'm absolutely gobsmacked by. As if I remembered enough things to need a mnemonic mansion in which to house it all. But maybe in the past people had far greater memories than we do now. In fact, at certain points in history, there were people who held in their heads all that was then known by mankind. What about you? What is your memory like now?
ECO: Listen, I have a good memory. But I would be interested in memory even if I had a bad memory, because I believe that memory is our soul. If we lose our memory completely, we are without a soul. Which is what strikes me about today—this general, planetary phenomenon, the loss of memory, especially the young generations. I mean, my generation knew pretty well what happened 50 years before our birth. Now I follow all the quiz programs because they are a paramount example of the span of memory of the young generation—they are able to remember everything that happened in their life but not before. And sometimes not even the events within their lifetimes. I think this is a sort of being condemned to an eternal present. Probably the internet plays a role in this because it displays an eternal present. It is true that through the internet, if you use it well, you can reconstruct history. But you have to be critically endowed to do that. On the contrary, it seems that, within the eternal present, people are losing their memory. I once wrote an article to show that if Bush had read all the documents about the Russians and British in Afghanistan in the 19th century, he would have not done what he did in the 21st. He would have understood how difficult it was to control this territory. He probably didn't read them. [laughs] So this is a loss of memory that we can find in politics. But even Hitler, if he was considering attentively what happened to Napoleon in invading Russia, he would have not invaded Russia so easily. Okay, so there are always losses of memory. But it seems to me, this is a main sickness of our time, and I am preoccupied with it. I am following my grandchildren to see what happens to them; if they make it into a good school, yes, but also if they even know what happens before their birth. But there is another reason by which I am interested in memory. In my rare books collection, there are old manuals of so-called mnemotechnics, which were important during the Renaissance, the Baroque period, and so on.
WALLACE: It's interesting that you say memory is sort of our soul. I'm fascinated by the way people online now are making avatars of themselves. In other words, they are presenting the world not themselves, necessarily, but a symbol, and they are making of themselves a sort of brand. Do you know what I'm talking about—where people are performing their public-facing self?
ECO: Showing off?
WALLACE: Yeah, kind of. The personality that they show to the world is just like a logo, an avatar.
ECO: There is a Polish sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman, who had the very persuasive theory of the liquid society. We are living in a society that has lost, in many places, the idea of state, of nation. The great parties of Italy—the Christian Democrats, the Communists—were dissolved. There is no more a community center. So the only solution for individuals who haven't that point of reference is to appear on TV. They are even ready to appear on TV to say they are cuckolds or things like that. [both laugh] All the things that were once kept a secret with a certain shame are now made public. All the blogs, Facebook, Twitter are made by people who want to show their own private affairs at the price of making fakes, to try to appear such as they are not, to construct another personality, which is a veritable loss of identity.
WALLACE: Are you online? On Twitter? What is your media diet?
ECO: No, no. I am an old consumer of papers. I cannot avoid reading my newspapers every morning. I use the TV for the news, for the quiz shows, and sometimes, for good movies. I am not on Facebook and on Twitter because the purpose of my life is to avoid messages. I receive too many messages from the world, and so I try to avoid that. I use internet, e-mail, obviously, every time it is needed. And sometimes I go to see what happens with inventions of people on Twitter, the blogs, and so on. Recently, in a press conference, I was asked about the internet. And I said that, given that there are seven billion people living on this earth, there is a consistent quantity of imbecile or idiot, okay. [Wallace laughs] Previously, these people could express themselves only with their friends or at the bar after two or three glasses of something, and they said every silliness, and people laughed. Now they have the possibility to show up on the internet. And so, on the internet, along with the messages of a lot of interesting and important people—even the Pope is writing on Twitter—we have a great quantity of idiots. A great problem of the internet is how to filter information, how to discard what is not relevant or what is silly and to keep only the important information. But you cannot imagine what kind of revolt there was in the Italian newspapers about my saying this.
WALLACE: I wanted to ask you about our recent focus on the Confederate flag and the power of symbol. Our response to the shooting in Charleston has been, in part, to try to take down the Confederate flag, which had been flying on the grounds of the State House in South Carolina—a symbolic move to remove another symbol.
ECO: But, you know, there are remnants of racism all over the world. The fact is that you are living in a global society, and therefore people are moving, people are meeting. In Italy at this moment, hundreds of Africans are coming to our coast every day. And so we have this renaissance of racists in our country. There was always a subterranean level of racists in the States. And in your country, there is another element—that you have too many guns. Here, when somebody gets crazy, he mostly takes his car and tries to kill people with his car. [both laugh] In the case of the young man who killed all the people in the church, it seems that the father gave him this gun for his birthday. So that is a peculiar problem you have.
WALLACE: One of the things that you're known for, at least in the States, is this sort of blending of what we consider to be high- and lowbrow culture. Thomas Aquinas with comic books, The Count of Monte Cristo with Aristotle; it's all on the page together, and it's all very alive together. I think we have come toward that kind of mash-up as a culture.
ECO: You know, they are celebrating the 50th anniversary of my book Apocalittici e integrati. I published it in '64, so they celebrated last year, but I have just received the book with a lot of discussion. Yes, I certainly have not been the first of these people to be interested in mass culture. I've written on Superman, Charlie Brown, and so forth. I was always interested in popular literature, Count of Monte Cristo, but even less important productions. I've said that once you reach your fifties, you have to stop being interested in the present and write only on Elizabethan poets. I've never written on Elizabethan poets, but I wanted to say that my students, young people, are more equipped for understanding what happens today. And when you get older, it's better that you speak of things you know better than them. So I am not following so much what happens now in the new productions of comic books, which look too difficult for me. [laughs] I continue to follow popular literature, but for personal pleasure. If I cannot sleep at night, I read a detective novel, as does every normal human being. When I tried to do something about mass culture was the '60s, I tried to apply the same critical instrument normally reserved for the highbrow culture. That was the scandal. Some people said, "How can you analyze Superman with the same instrument by which you analyze The Divine Comedy?" And I answered that the dignity of research is not given by the objects, but by the method. The problem is to use the correct method. That's what I did at that time, to use the correct critical method to analyze what for many was only trash.
WALLACE: You wrote then that Superman was a new take on religion, and nowadays that may be the principle popular mythos in America—the DC and Marvel universes. It's all very Umberto Eco. The way that we fly the flags for our favorite brands. You wrote in 1994 that Mac is Catholic and IBM is Protestant, but now they are all cults, and celebrities our new deities.
ECO: Yes, yes. But in every time there was pop literature. You know, there is the old Roman story that they were performing a tragedy, and someone found out that in a circus there were bears fighting, and all the people abandoned the tragedy to go see the bears. [both laugh] It's common to every civilization and culture. I don't find it so tragic because, well, I think in your country, people are not only going to watch the superheroes; there is something else. Our TV is enormously full of trash. Berlusconi operated by the principle that the average viewers of his shows were 12 years old.
WALLACE: In all of your books, people go to the cantina, to the trattoria, to the bar after work and talk about life, about politics, and it seems kind of wonderful. This is where the narrative seeds are always laid, where people become bewitched, intoxicated, where they fall in love, form bonds, and make fun or hideous plots. Is that true to your life? After work today, will you go sit with students or colleagues, drink wine and talk about jeans and politics and the secret rulers of the universe?
ECO: Well, this is important to feature. I go less now because of diet. I was always happy to teach at the University of Bologna because Bologna is a city with an old historical center made exclusively by arcades. Arcades mean that people, old people but also young people, can walk even if it rains. And under the arcades, there are many restaurants and bars. The students went there, as I did. And I have always appreciated that, in the doctoral dissertations of my students, I found in the footnotes reference to other doctoral dissertations that other students were on the verge of finishing. That meant to me that, at the bar, at the taverns, the students were exchanging ideas. Consider that the same thing happened at the beginning of the European universities in the Middle Ages. There were also songs sung when we were in the tavern. Most of our life was in the tavern. To stay together, to chat, is enormously important. I am worried by people who today spend their nights on the internet instead of going to the bar.
WALLACE: Right. [laughs] I'm one of them, when I'm not at home reading your books. And one of the things I always take away from your work is the tension, balancing the rational, logic, with the power of the symbol, a kind of magic. And all of your characters are searching for identity, searching for meaning within, balancing these two worlds. Does that come from your own life? How are you searching for meaning?
ECO: That's very difficult to answer because I do it all day. [laughs] If I read the newspaper, if I read a book, if I watch the people around me, I try... You know, Roland Barthes once said that the semiotician, or the "semiologist" as they were called at the time, is the person who walks in the street and where other people see things, he sees the meaning. That is a real attitude—to see everything as being meaningful, even the less important things, to prove something, even the greater problems of life. Being a professional philosopher is, I would say, feeling natural to think about small and great problems. It is the only pleasure. [laughs]
CHRIS WALLACE IS INTERVIEW'S SENIOR EDITOR.