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

FROM Proust to Poe via The Three Musketeers and pornography, Six Walks in the Fictional Woods - a dashing and stylish series of six lectures - covers narrative time, authorship and reading. It displays Umberto Eco's enviable ability to transform arid semiotics and narrative theory into intellectual entertainment. This is no mean feat, but there are serious drawbacks to Eco's approach. Teresa De Lauretis calls him the John Ford of the semiological frontier. But he is also, like Chris the DJ from Northern Exposure, the patron saint of the ontologically twee.

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.

Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project