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19 2 2016: Umberto Eco and The Death of the Author

Nearly 30 years ago, my first boss, Tony Klinger, gave me a hardback copy of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum for my birthday – at the time I thought it was to break me away from reading Stephen King. Tony had inscribed it “read, enjoy and learn”. I was 17 at the time, and it was hard going, but I liked the story about randomly making up a manuscript based on the Templars and the Rosicrucians, and then realising that it’s actually revealed a secret that’s upset those secret orders. (On reflection, this is likely to be one of the very early inspirations for The Gawain Legacy). I read Foucault's Pendulum again when I was in my early twenties, slightly more well versed in esoteric orders, and then, probably a decade later, partway through my PhD, I read it again and I think I finally started to “get it”. I won’t say that I’ve got it, because I don’t think I ever will, but I took what I could out of it. There was a great moment when talking about the random construction of literature. One of the characters feeds random lines into a computer, and in return the computer spits out a poem which is enticing in its nonsense. I was reading it in France and I read this section to my wife. Amused by one of the lines of this poem, whenever anything went wrong, we would tut and shake our heads and say “at least the rubber plant is free”. I have one of these poems on a slide in my Creative Writing classes. I ask the students to suggest what the poet meant and they offer their interpretations only to grumble when they realise that they’ve been had. It’s a fun exercise about literature and meaning, and then we have a discussion about reader interpretation: once the author has released a text into the world, their original intention no longer matters, it’s down to how the reader interprets it. In literature studies there are no “right” and “wrong” answers, there are simply well-argued and not-well-argued interpretations. But isn’t that was Eco was arguing? Essentially, it was Barthes “Death of the Author”, along with reader response theory and semiotics - how do we interpret signs and images? I did have an interesting conversation with a colleague who suggested that the publishing house described in Foucault’s Pendulum was based on EJ Brill, who published my first academic work. We did chat about this to my editor, but she denied having heard anything to that effect.

It has been an embarrassingly long time since I read The Name of the Rose – certainly before I went to University and engaged with Medieval Studies. I would probably get more from it now, rather than my original comment “A great story bogged down with impenetrable philosophical twaddle”. These days I use the image of Sean Connery grabbing the books from the burning library to describe what it might have been like when Sir Robert Cotton’s library caught fire at the unfortunately named Ashburnam House in 1731. My colleague, the poet Charles Bennett, has a poem in his Evenlode collection entitled “When Beowulf flew”. I may not have got so much from my reading of Rose then (not even the medieval symbolism of the rose), but I took what I could at that level.

Klinger was right: read, enjoy, learn. Let yourself be challenged by books. But to quote Merlin from the film Excalibur “There’s always something cleverer than yourself”. Find out more, but don’t feel disappointed that you haven’t unlocked all the secrets. Sometimes a book will change your life. Sometimes it will give you something that will amuse, because that’s the level you read it at.

Thank you for everything, Prof Eco. You are truly an author who has inspired me more than most. The world has become a lot less interesting.

But at least the rubber plant is free.

The random poetry generator can be found here:

Umberto Eco: 5 January 1932-19 February 2016

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