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.