Books: Time to treat stupidity with respect

Serendipities: Language and Lunacy by Umberto Eco, trs William Weaver Weidenfeld pounds 12.99

Umberto Eco, I'd better say, is one of my favourite writers: and not simply for his achievement as a great and best-selling novelist, but as a journalist, social commentator and exceedingly cunning scholar. Anyone who is interested in the decoding of the strange hyper-reality of American culture - which becomes more and more the condition of our own - can be happily directed to the lively essays of his Faith in Fakes (1986). Anyone wanting to consider how, as serious literary critics, we might set out intelligently to interpret a text can be sent to Interpretation and Overinterpretation (1992), the outcome of a superb and sensible series of lectures delivered in Cambridge. And anyone who wishes to understand the magical and learned nature of the novel genre, as a playful modern master of the form has come to understand it, should read his Reflections on The Name of the Rose (1984).

Beyond the best-selling novelist, there is (thank goodness) a wise, learned and fascinating academic, a teasing Borgesian joker, a hunter through the great library of ideas that have shaped many of the events of our history and given us our fiction. This is the Eco that now reappears in Serendipities, a slim collection of five left-handed essays and lectures, mostly first delivered in the US. Eco calls them "exercises in erudition", and that is exactly what they are. They're a set of reflections and explanatory fictions - "errors" - that people once constructed to provide interpretations of history, mystery, society, the world.

Eco's fascination is with the power of the erroneous, the force of falsity. Much of our intellectual life, much of our understanding and interpretation, is made of wild misunderstandings, splendid follies. Yet ideas we now consider false or stupid have defined the world and changed it: sometimes for the better, sometimes the worse. The classic example is Christopher Columbus, who, using a false mental map, mistakenly discovered (and then misidentified) the New World. This is serendipity - or discovery by happy chance. As Eco says, it should teach us to treat stupidity, or fictions we consider erroneous or lunatic, with very great respect.

After all, as he says, we too have our own counter-falsities, erroneously believing, for example, that for much of history people thought the Earth was flat. They didn't; Ptolemy divided the globe into 360 degrees of meridian, a round world. But past thinkers, writers and travellers did mis-map its continents, misunderstand their own journeys, populate distant regions with strange and mythic contents. From this derived glorious fictions: the tale of Prester John and his eastern Christian kingdom, never found; the wonderful notion of the Rosicrucians, the secret community of the Rosy Cross (several times used by Eco in his novels).

The idea of a set of Mysterious Unknowns who direct the fate of the world without ever identifying themselves, even to each other, has had a very long history. In its Masonic form it played a vast role in upturning throne and altar in the 18th century; in the 19th it reputedly played a great part in seeking to restore them. Whether consciously created as deceptions or not, the stories are plausible. They are true fictions, both elegant and influential: stories far too interesting to be derailed by fact.

One such is a tale of prime importance to a Bologna professor of semiotics: the great tale of the paradisial or the universal language. In the beginning was the word: in what language was it spoken? When Babel destroyed the prime language that everyone spoke, what did it do? Was there once an original language (say Hebrew) that God gave to Adam, or did the Word perhaps give him deep grammar, a Chomskyian linguistics? And where Dante (to whom all matters must, as Eco says, return) sought to claim the vernacular as the natural language of poetry, was he trying to return to a Hebraic or even an Arabic, cabbalistic notion of an ultimate language?

Consider Marco Polo, another Ecovian hero. When we encounter another remote culture, how do we encounter it? Normally with error. Seeing the rhinoceros, Marco Polo identified it with the nearest thing he could think of - the unicorn. We are always decoding, deciphering, interpreting. When Leibniz looked for the universal language, he thought the answer might lie in China, in the hieroglyphs of the I Ching. In fact what he found there was neither Confucian wisdom nor meaning. Misinterpreting the signs, he observed the scheme of binary calculus. Serendipity.

The search for the universal language, the language of Utopia or some other paradise, has indeed run throughout the history of the human mind. Many imaginary and perfect languages have been devised, often attached to fictional places. In the 17th century, the age of utopias, it became an entire literary genre. Descartes believed in a universal language, with the one judicious proviso: "it presupposes great changes in the order of things, and the whole world would have to be nothing more than an earthly paradise, which can be proposed only in the land of novels."

How can we universalise knowledge and meaning? What might we need? A history? A library? An encyclopaedia? Perhaps a hyper-text - which is pretty much what was already theorised, Eco points out, in D'Alembert's and Diderot's Encyclopaedia, the great book of Enlightenment. In its sense of multiplicity, that venture more or less exhausted the notion of one total grammar of ideas based in the deep structures of our brain. The Encyclopaedia leads on the knowledge revolution, the search engine, the hyper-text. Yet the desire for the universal language, exemplified again in the ideas of Joseph de Maistre, is still with us. It may be error, but it leads us into the world of interpretation and decipherment, where scholars and writers meet.

Packed with intellectual meat, curious learning, strange clever connections, Serendipities is - for those of us who care to go into these arcane and frankly often quite difficult things - a small treasure of a book. Eco has always resembled his own busy scribes in the great monastic library of The Name of the Rose, or those ever-curious publishers' editors chasing the mysteries of Foucault's pendulum. He's a natural investigator of odd systems and connections, a finder of lost ideas and odd secrets, a reader of the rarest books. If you share his curious streak, this little volume is yet another cull from the treasures of a splendid, witty reader. In fact, it's full of serendipities - odd, labryinthine mental discoveries - that are essentially Eco's own.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Adolf Hitler's 1914 watercolour 'Altes Rathaus' and the original invoice from 1916

Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible