The Name of the Polymath

Scott McLemee pays tribute to the life of Umberto Eco, who had an attitude of mind condemned to tireless curiosity.

February 24, 2016
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Umberto Eco

“One of the most profoundly exciting moments of my life,” Gertrude Stein recalled in a lecture at Columbia University in the mid-1930s, “was when at about 16 I suddenly concluded that I would not make all knowledge my province.” It is one of her more readily intelligible sentences, but I have never been able to imagine the sentiment it expresses. Why “profoundly exciting”? To me it sounds profoundly depressing, but then we’re all wired differently.

Umberto Eco, who died last week at the age of 84, once defined the polymath as someone “interested in everything, and nothing else.” (Now that’s more like it!) The formulation is paradoxical, or almost: the twist comes from taking “nothing else” to mean “nothing more.” It would be clearer to say that polymaths are “interested in everything, and nothing less,” but also duller. Besides, the slight flavor of contradiction is appropriate -- for Eco is describing an attitude of mind condemned to tireless curiosity and endless dissatisfaction, first of all with its own limits.

Eco’s work has been a model and an inspiration for this column for almost 30 years now, which is about 20 more than I’ve been writing it. The seed was planted by Travels in Hyperreality, the first volume of his newspaper and magazine writings to appear in English. Last year “Intellectual Affairs” celebrated the long-overdue translation of Eco’s book of sage advice on writing a thesis. An earlier essay considered the public dialogues that he and Jürgen Habermas were carrying on with figures from the Vatican. And now -- as if to make a trilogy of it -- saying farewell to Eco seems like an occasion to discuss perhaps the most characteristic quality of Eco’s mind: its rare and distinctive omnivorousness.

Eco himself evidently restricted his own comments on polymathy to that one terse definition. I must be garrulous by contrast but will try to make only two fairly brief points.

(1) As his exchange of open letters with Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the former archbishop of Milan, indicated, Eco was a lapsed but not entirely ex-Catholic: one who no longer believed but -- for reasons of personal background and of scholarly expertise as a medievalist -- still carried much of the church’s cultural legacy inside himself. His first book, published in 1956, was a study of St. Thomas Aquinas’s aesthetics that began as a thesis written “in the spirit of the religious worldview” of its subject. And the encyclopedic range and dialectical intricacies of the Angelic Doctor’s Summa Theologica never lost their hold on Eco’s imagination.

“Within Thomas's theological architecture,” Eco wrote in an essay in 1986, “you understand why man knows things, why his body is made in a certain way, why he has to examine facts and opinions to make a decision, and resolve contradictions without concealing them, trying to reconcile them openly …. He aligned the divergent opinions [of established philosophers and theologians], clarified the meaning of each, questioned everything, even the revealed datum, enumerated the possible objections, and essayed the final mediation.”

Eco regarded the Summa’s transformation into an authoritative statement of religious doctrine as nothing less than a disaster. In the hands of his successors, “Thomas's constructive eagerness for a new system” degenerated into “the conservative vigilance of an untouchable system.” Eco was -- like Étienne Gilson and Alasdair MacIntyre, among others -- part of the 20th-century rediscovery of Aquinas as the builder of a dynamo rather than the framer of a dogma. And there’s no question but that the medieval theologian exemplified “an interest in everything, and nothing else.”

(2) In the early 1960s, Eco was invited to participate in an interdisciplinary symposium on “demythicization and image” in Rome, along with an impressive array of philosophers, theologians, historians and classical scholars. Among them would be Jesuit and Dominican monks. He felt an understandable twinge of anxiety. “What was I going to say to them?” he recalled thinking. Remembering his enormous collection of comic books, Eco had a flash of inspiration:

“Basically [Superman] is a myth of our time, the expression not of a religion but of an ideology …. So I arrive in Rome and began my paper with a pile of Superman comics on the table in front of me. What will they do, throw me out? No sirree, half the comic books disappeared; would you believe it, with all the air of wishing to examine them, the monks with their wide sleeves spirited them away ….”

The anecdote might be used as an example of Eco’s interest in semiotics: the direction his work took after establishing himself as a medievalist. Comic books, Leonardo da Vinci paintings, treatises in Latin on demonology …. all collections of signs in systems, and all potentially analyzable. Nor was his conference presentation on Superman the end of it. Not much later, Eco published an essay about the world of Charlie Brown called "On 'Krazy Kat' and 'Peanuts.'"

But in fact those two papers were written before Eco’s turn to semiotics -- or semiology, if you prefer -- in the late 1960s. (The one on Peanuts reads as being influenced by Sartre, as much as anyone else.) Eco’s attitude towards mass media and popular culture was never one either of slumming or of populist celebration. Nor was it a matter of showing off the power and sharpness of cool new theoretical tools by carving up otherwise neglected specimens. He took it as a given that cartoons, movies and the crappy books issued by Italy’s vanity-publishing racket were -- like theological speculation or political conflict -- things that merited analysis and critique or that could become so, given interesting questions about them.

At the end of his remarks on Aquinas 30 years ago, Eco tried to imagine how the author might conduct himself if suddenly returned to life. Of course there’s no way to judge the accuracy of such a thought experiment’s results, but Eco’s conclusion seems like a personal creed: “He would realize that one cannot and must not work out a definitive, concluded system, like a piece of architecture, but a sort of mobile system, a loose-leaf Summa, because in his encyclopedia of the sciences the notion of historical temporariness would have entered …. I know for sure that he would take part in celebrations of his work only to remind us that it is not a question of deciding how still to use what he thought, but to think new things.”

And, Eco might have added, how to avoid settling for less than everything your mind might drive itself to understand.


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