I share two things with Umberto Eco. The first is that we have names that lend themselves to mockery, either self-generated or generously offered by others. How did Eco, in just one line, show what his surname meant in all languages, without having to translate it or shout it into a cave and have the word echo back to you? “My name is Umberto Umberto”, or so the protagonist introduces himself in the essay Granita, Eco’s parody of Nabokov’s Lolita.
My examples have more to do with errors, though it is still a comedy. My first name is often spelled without the final ‘h’. Once, when I pointed out to someone that it was “Mastura with an ‘h’, please”, my name got served back to me as a plate of pulverized potato—Mashtura.
My last name is often spelled as Atlas and once someone tried to cleverly remedy the botch-up by adapting—or rather anagramming—my first name (also here, for some reason, the ‘h’ disappeared) in order to make it a more suitable partner for Atlas. So I become Sumatra Atlas which I didn’t find alienating at all since it was a name that located me right in the region I grew up in. It is good to invent and reinvent names, and this leads me to the second thing that I share with Umberto Eco—a serious interest in a nineteenth-century Italian writer who wrote about Malaysia.
As far as I know, I don’t think Umberto Eco had ever visited Malaysia, or at least I have not come across anything he or anyone has written documenting that visit. But Eco had said that in his youth he obtained information about faraway, exotic places like Malaysia not from textbooks but by reading the adventure novels of Emilio Salgari, who likewise had never visited Malaysia.
In creative writing programs, we are told to avoid too much exposition. We are berated for ‘telling’ and not ‘showing’. But Eco came up with an even better name for what those guilty of too much exposition and telling do. He called it “excessive Salgarism” meaning that “if a character takes refuge in a baobab tree, the action is automatically suspended for a botanical lesson”.
What Eco has done is to take what we might consider today a poor writing skill, dignify it with the name of its practitioner, turn it into a concept to use in criticism while at the same time absolve Salgari of his flaws if he can make us feel so affectionately amused by them. It is giving importance to what is mistaken as unimportant. Emilio Salgari had no pretensions of producing art, according to Umberto Eco. “All he wanted to do was provide his public with a means of escape, with an attractive dream”. That means of escape and dream can happen only when there is pleasure in reading, even in reading something defective. Eco recognised this at a time when “Adornizing” (another Eco term) was fashionable; when, based on readings or misreadings of Theodor Adorno, it had become popular not to take popular culture seriously.
Umberto Eco, instead, put popular names to some of his sharpest cultural and political critiques. In the essay ‘The Phenomenology of Mike Bongiorno’, Eco explains why the television personality Mike Bongiorno, who is “not particularly good-looking or intelligent” and has “no sense of humour”, is idolized by millions of people. For Eco, this is because in the personality of Bongiorno spectators see their own limitations “glorified and supported by national authority”. In other words, television gives prestige to mediocrity because it is presented as an idol. Eco was performing this kind of analysis before politicians recognised the power of television in helping them get elected. Yet we are seeing an intensification of this system today, not a waning of it. In taking popular culture seriously, Eco tried to give us some kind of critical criteria and sensibility to make us ask ‘Who gives us the more attractive, less damaging dream? Emilio Salgari or Mike Bongiorno?’
Umberto Eco died on February 19, 2016, and many tribute articles are calling him a professor, writer, intellectual, semiotician, philosopher. The inventor of names has so many names. I think the one name he might have been the least happy with is Frank Kermode’s “academic novelist”. Eco wasn’t an academic who was also a novelist but a novelist or simply a writer—an incredibly prolific, versatile, eclectic writer—who also happened to be an academic. There is a difference. Novelist without the word academic focuses on the life and cultural exposure that must be lived to produce writing of which academia—Eco’s words and imagination make us feel—is only a small part. There is honour in being called just a writer even when one has made significant academic contributions. There is also honour in being called an Italian writer as Eco undeniably was because Italian was the language he wrote in. And not everything of his many brilliant writings has been translated, for example some of his columns in L’Espresso and Il Manifesto, the latter for which Eco signed his contributions under the pseudonym Dedalus.
On the other hand, there is something to be said of being called many names, even privileging the one of professor. In Eco we have a university professor, novelist, journalist and theorist who is known, read and loved by many ranging from high-school students to pensioners. Just hours after Eco’s death was announced, my Facebook feed was flooded with reactions from Italian students remembering how they had dog-earred, scribbled in, underlined and laughed over Eco’s How to Write a Thesis. This book, long before it was translated into English, has been a point of reference for generations of Italians who have all—and I mean all, in all disciplines from the sciences to the humanities—had to write, following tradition, their compulsory, final graduating thesis. This means that there is a huge archive of student theses much larger than the monastic, labyrinthine library in The Name of the Rose.
Alessandro Iskandar, 20, a Letters student in Rome’s La Sapienza university who read Eco in his science lyceum, said Baudolino was his favourite Eco novel. What does he like about Eco’s style in general? “Humour. But at the same time seriousness. Enjoyable to read. Good stories.” How many academics or professors can we name who have had such a far-reaching appeal across the disciplines, decades, generations and languages?
Many reports also like to remind readers that Umberto Eco was “the author of The Name of the Rose”. Not only has this novel become a reminder to the world of what made Eco famous in the world, but it has also become a kind of fetish of global, postmodernist literature. This diminishes, in some sense, all else that is Italian and modernist about the entire body of Eco’s work spanning the years.
Yes, there is substance in names. But there is also substance without constantly needing to name it.