BOOK REVIEW / Beyond the global village idiot: 'Six Walks in the Fictional Woods' - Umberto Eco: Harvard University Press, 14.95; 'Apocalypse Postponed' - Umberto Eco: BFI, 35 pounds / 13.95
Sunday 08 May 1994
How this has happened is illustrated by Apocalypse Postponed, a series of theoretical flashbacks from the early Sixties to the late Eighties that features previously untranslated work on Mass Culture, Media, Counter-Culture and Italian identity. It is a timely book, not least for the essay 'Does the Audience have Bad Effects on Television?' This quasi-deconstructive inversion is an imaginative sleight of hand, but the essay never strays far from the assumptions of reader-reception theory. The tactical reversal is less fruitful in 'A Dollar for a Deputy: La Cicciolina', who, Eco argues, would be more effective in a Chanel suit. But as a whole, Apocalypse Postponed is an elegant and significant barometer of changing attitudes towards popular culture.
The title refers to the pessimism of critics such as Adorno and Horkheimer, who regarded popular culture as an ideological distraction and political anaesthetic. It was crystallised by Bruno Bauer, a young Hegelian of the 19th century: 'The worst evidence in favour of a work is the enthusiasm with which it is greeted by the masses . . . All the great feats of history have until now been . . . devoid of real success because the mass took an interest and were enthusiastic about them.' Updated by Marcuse in the 1960s, we were to become Global Village Idiots.
Eco's early interest in the lowbrow was vindicated, and the Apocalypse didn't come to pass. But something almost as critical did: popular culture became intellectually worthy. In his 1965 essay on Charles Schulz, Eco discovered in Peanuts a sophistication and imagination to equal any highbrow tragi-comedy. Like much of Eco's work, the relaxed wit of 'The World of Charlie Brown' is almost irresistible. Utterly consumed by a voracious inferiority complex, Charlie Brown is the neurotic Everyman of modern society.
Eco believes that Charlie's real tragedy is not his inferiority, it's that he's normal. And his mental constipation is a result of his innocent quest for life- formulas in a culture of upbeat self- improvement, 'the art of making friends, the pursuit of happiness, how to make out with girls . . . he has been ruined by Dr Kinsey, Dale Carnegie, Erich Fromm and Lin Yutang'.
The problem with this essay is not that Eco has read Charlie Brown as a modern tragic hero instead of the existential whinger he really is. Rather, it is the efficiency with which he civilises popular culture, which can do nothing but submit to his easy erudition and homespun cosmopolitanism.
Eco's work is but the most sophisticated example of the continuing process by which theorists and analysts reclaim and re-zone the intellectual wasteland of popular culture. Marxist critics, disappointed at political rejection, do this by swapping the material world for the material word. Popular culture is good when it 'empowers', 'liberates', 'emancipates'. Then there are those engaged in the gentrification of popular culture, of whom Eco, an intellectual bon viveur, is the most supple and seductive.
But have the gentrifiers lost the plot? Commenting on changes to The Late Show, the editor Mike Poole remarked, 'I think it's accepted now that on the same day someone might wake up to rap music, watch a soccer match, go to the opera and read a contemporary novel.' Who is this monster? It is Charlie Brown's formula for the Nineties culture creep.
The gentrifiers have ignored the energy and obsessiveness surrounding pop culture, while the so-called apocalyptic critics understood, like the medieval iconoclasts who recognised the power of icons, its demonic attraction. In 'Apocalyptic and Integrated Intellectuals', Eco diagnoses this anxiety as a pathology of highbrow criticism of pop: 'It resembles . . . the neurotic display of a repressed sensuality, similar to that of the moralist who, in the very act of denouncing the obscenity of an image, pauses at such length and with such voluptuousness to contemplate the loathsome object of his contempt that his true nature - that of a carnal, lustful animal - is betrayed.'
A whole swathe of intellectuals and academics want to find their inner beast in the lowbrow. In the time it took to form the question, 'Is Keats better than Dylan?' culture critics were transformed from Rubber Johnnies into Iron Johnnies.
It's clear that Eco understands the connection between enthusiasm and pop. But at heart, like Brother William in The Name of the Rose, he is moved by the fundamental Aristotelian virtues of moderation and proportion. Despite his genuine commitment to an analysis of lowbrow art forms, Eco seeks critical sanctuary in the tepid golden mean of Aristotle instead of the hot golden showers of pop.
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