Inventing the Enemy: Essays on Everything by Umberto Eco

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Inventing the Enemy: Essays on Everything by Umberto Eco

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: George Care
Reviewed by George Care
Summary: Inventing the Enemy covers a huge variety of topics on which Umberto Eco has pronounced over the last ten years, from the discussion of ideas that have inspired his earlier novels like The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: September 2013
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0099553946

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Imagine a sumptuous Italian feast in the sunlit-bathed ancient countryside near Milan. Next to you a gentleman talks and eats with furious energy. He tells of Dante, Cicero, and St Augustine and quotes a multitude of obscure troubadours from the Middle Ages. He repeats himself, gestures flamboyantly, nudges you sharply in the ribs, belches and even breaks wind. His conversation contains nuggets of information but in the flow of his discourse there is a fondness for iteration and reiteration. He throws bones over his shoulder and when he reaches the cheese course - definitely too much information on the mouldy bacteria! When you finally get up things the elderly gentleman has said prompt your imagination. You are better informed, intrigued and prodded to examine his discourse again and again, even if only to challenge what you have heard. Such are the effects of reading Eco’s essays in Inventing the Enemy.

The first essay, discloses what your choice of opponent or indeed those you victimise says about yourself. Eco splendidly quotes from Cicero’s Orations against Catiline lecturing the Senate on his opponent’s seditious moral perversity. Within a few pages we read of Pliny the Younger on his persecution of Christians, Odo of Cluny’s disgust with women and, time and again more poisonous invective against the Jews. The reader will recall Peter Porter or perhaps, Cavafy:

Because the barbarians are to arrive today.
What laws can the Senators pass any more?
When the barbarians come they will make the laws.

Since theology is never distant from Umberto Eco’s thought there is an echo of the unkindness mentioned in Matthew 45:25 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

This eclectic collection covers matters as varied as St Thomas Aquinas on whether Embryos have souls to this famous cultural critic’s latest thoughts on Wikileaks. The philosophical chapter comparing Absolute and Relativism is particularly interesting. Touching on questions about the nature of contingency, the verification principle, positivism and post-modernism Eco provides the reader, given an interest in such matters, with plenty to stimulate the little grey cells. Significantly, he mentions how Pope John Paul II thought modern philosophy had become dominated by questions about the theory of knowledge rather than issues about the nature of being (ontology). The orphic resonances of Mallarmé’s symbolic communication, Kafka’s opinions on interacting with the Absolute, quoted by Elie Wiesel, and Nietzsche’s advocacy of the subtlety of art all get a mention. This is not an easy read; it is indeed something of an intellectual tour de force.

The lengthy chapter concerning Victor Hugo, The Poetics of Excess begins by outlining Gide and Cocteau's concern that the writer's insufferable style is thoroughly bombastic. However, Eco is entranced by Hugo's lengthy descriptions, his penchant for making lists and constructing unstable rough-hewn characters. Frequently Eco seems attracted by the ugliness and brutality that conveys the cruel forces of destiny which characterise Hugo's highly romantic writing. Memorably, the guillotine on its rough wooden scaffold with its glinting sharp blade becomes a devouring beast. Umberto Eco concentrates on Hugo's novel about revolution and reaction, Ninety Three where the lengthy lists of villages, crossings and homesteads provide the reader with a convincing panorama of the scale of the social upheaval. Redemption it seems to Hugo, quoting de Maistre, necessitates human sacrifice.

Eco is explaining how in becoming more radical by 1870 and supporting the Communards he feels too he must justify The Terror. This engaging chapter with the portrayal of the Royalist Vendée, led by the clergy and by peasants who were chosen in each locale, cost more than 240,000 lives. The trendy professor convinces us of the necessity of reading Hugo's inimitable contribution to the historical novel. Even attempting a few selected paragraphs in French would prove a rewarding challenge! Plunging deeper into this very varied collection, Inventing the Enemy, the reader becomes beguiled by Eco's verbal fire display. The chapter on Imaginary Astronomies delves into the curiosities of approaches, ancient and modern to explain the structure and shape of the firmament. First as a glorious tabernacle progressively he illustrates cosmologies linked with how man's inventions alter too his conception of himself and society. Humour and irony are freely sprinkled through the text which leaps into convolutions that mirror the Ptolemaic system of epicycles of the planets that are described. The story is enlivened too by an engaging display of strange maps. By the end of these essays, the reader will have a sense of the strange, entertaining pleasure of Umberto Eco's company and an introduction to the diversity of ingenuity and fun to be found among otherwise neglected archives.

Our thanks to Vintage for providing the review copy.

If this book appeals then you might also like to try:

Modernism: The Lure of Heresy - From Baudelaire to Beckett and Beyond by Peter Gay

Dante's Inferno by Hunt Emerson and Kevin Jackson

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