Inventing the Enemy: Essays on Everything by Umberto Eco

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 prompts 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”.

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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 Chap45 v25” 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, 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.

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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!

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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.

Two other interesting links are this Guardian Review by Nicholas Lezard is at http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/aug/27/nicholas-lezard-inventing-enemy-umberto-eco

and an interview with Jeremy Paxman is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLblYsHc7uI

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House of Exile by Evelyn Juers

Heinrick Mann and Nelly Kröger-Mann were in a constant state of hazardous exile after the rise of fascism inGermanyin 1933. He became like Zola, his favourite author, a socially committed novelist and political activist and fierce critic of militarism. He was convivial, having a wide circle of friends that contained many creative artists, playwrights, socialists. He seemed drawn to the bohemians and the demi-monde. This elegant and sometimes formal gentleman came from the Hanseatic town ofLubeckwhere his father belonged to a renowned grain merchant family. These might be described as the haute-bourgeoise. There was an unusual degree of sibling rivalry between him and his less robust brother, the famous author of “The magic Mountain, Thomas Mann, Hendrick possessed a sensual nature and fell passionately and easily in love with a number of women. Of these his relationship with the Nelly, a fascinating woman, a seamstress and nightclub hostess, as full of contradictions as himself, was the most successful and long lasting. She followed him on the long painful journey into exile at first in Nice and later to theUnited States.

The Mann Family

This is an unusual book which is termed by its author a collective memoir and portrays the attempts of a generation of writers and poets to continue their work in dark and terrifying times. Exile placed a severe stress on the community of authors acrossEurope, their dispersed families and friends. Jews and political activists, amongst others were to be viciously and systematically persecuted, tortured and executed by the Nazis and the heart-braking news appeared a tunnel of night to those exiled men and women who escaped from one country to another. Escapees were to be faced with the further eruption of civil war inSpainwhich lay in the path of their escape. Some were forcibly returned to their persecutors. The news of Stalin’s tergiversations and show trials made the formation of a United Front harder still. Sensibilities of women, like those of Virginia Woolf or like gentle Nelly, who had early in her life suffered the traumatic loss of a child, were strained to the limits of their endurance.

Heinrich and Nelly Mann

The first part of ‘’House of Exile’’ contains many moving and poetic passages. The writing, which has been compared with W.G.Sebald, is quietly dazzling and also reminiscent of the American novelist, Andrea Barrett.  A lyrical chapter concerns Heinrich’s sister, Carla, of whom he was deeply fond. This darkly romantic actress encounters some Scandinavian biologists whilst transporting a skull in which she has concealed cyanide. Mention is made of nasturtiums which glow at dusk and we are given an exposition on Goethe who read Linneaus, as well as his beloved Shakespeare and Spinoza. The writing thus appeals on two levels as prose poetry and simultaneously this illumines the literary and philosophical background. Goethe propounds the concept of Anschauung which maintains the importance of intuition as well as observation and can be expressed in English as the notion of the Gaze. Juers here is also exploring how the imagination works in reconstructing the past.

These were indeed dark times and although Heinrich and Nelly found a temporary refuge in the South of France, the pressure of events mounted on both a personal and political level. Heinrich takes Veronal, an unreliable barbiturate to calm his nerves. Juers reminds us that despite these pressures he manages to keep working on his biography of Henry IV. There are interesting parallels between his difficult relationship with his brother, which is mirrored by Virginia Woolf, stoically sticking at her novels between headaches which forced her to take refuge in her bed and rather envying her artist sister, Vanessa having her children. Family festivities maintain morale with copious quantities of champagne and Baumkukhen even as troops march, dictators thunder, air raids threaten as does the internment of those unable to escape the gathering storm.

Evelyn Juers’s fascinating work

Although Freud and the stream of consciousness and historical novels are major themes in this work it is difficult to tell if Evelyn Juers consciously intends the jump cuts in the later section to conveys the fractionated experience of these writers. The author has spent ten years in research. The result is an excellent introduction to intellectuals as varied as Joyce, Woolf and in particularly the Germans; Brecht, Döblin, Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Karl Schwitters and many, many others. It also describes the horrific realities of anti-semitism, mass aerial bombardment and consequent individual trauma. Juers is at her most moving in her depiction of the day to day harshness of life for women in exile and the personal cruelties dealt by fate and also men’s unkindness to poor Nelly Kroeger-Mann. She lost a child, her lover steals her story and destroys her manuscript and yet she transports him over mountains to escape, scrapes and scrimps to ensure their survival and is harassed by the FBI just as she was the brown-shirts. Finally she is constantly subjected to the snobbery of her brother-in-law. Little wonder she resorted to drink.

The Author

Exile literature is, of course ancient;’’ By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion’’. (Psalm 137). Classical authors such as Cicero and Ovid were subject to exile and the latter sang evocatively in the ‘’Tristia’’ in elegiac couplets. Evelyn Juers approach to imaginatively exploring this dark period of the European zeitgeist is striking; her innovative book, in its intensive exploration of the literary links of the German dissident writers from 1933 to 1945, known as exilliteratur contributes a new dimension to the understanding of post-war, post-modern consciousness – the state of loneliness, isolation and apprehensiveness in the face of political and military forces that threaten the individual and those he loves.

Yeats and Yeats; The lake at Coole Park and the River Liffey in Dublin

The Wild Swans at Coole by W.B.Yeats 1917

Wild Swans

The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry,

Under the October twilight the water

Mirrors a still sky;

Upon the brimming water among the stones

Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me

Since I first made my count;

I saw, before I had well finished,

All suddenly mount

And scatter wheeling in great broken rings

Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,

And now my heart is sore.

All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,

The first time on this shore,

The bell-beat of their wings above my head,

Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,

They paddle in the cold

Companionable streams or climb the air;

Their hearts have not grown old;

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,

Mysterious, beautiful;

Among what rushes will they build,

By what lake’s edge or pool

Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day

To find they have flown away?

The portrait of the poet above is by his brother Jack Butler Yeats. An interesting analysis  and exposition of this poem may be found at cercles.com/occasional/ops2009/noirard.pdf

With Olympics in the news at present it is interesting to read about the Silver Olympic Medal awarded to Jack Yeats. He thus became the first Irishman to win an Olympic Medal.

Silver Olympic Medal received by Jack B. Yeats
1924

which can be found on the National Gallery, Dublin website at http://www.nationalgallery.ie/en/Research/Library_and_Archives/Libraries%20and%20Archives%20highlights/Jack%20B%20Yeats%20Olympic%20Medal%201924.aspx Here it mentions, “Jack B. Yeats (1871–1957) won this silver olympic medal for his painting ‘The Liffey Swim’  (NGI 941) in 1924.  Art competitions formed part of the modern Olympic Games during its early years, from 1912 to 1948 and medals were awarded for works of art inspired by sport.  Works were divided into five categories: architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture.  The medals for the 1924 Olympic Games were designed by French medal artist André Adolphe Rivaud, (1892 – unknown).”

Jack Butler Yeats was strongly influenced by expressionism and was a friend of Samuel Beckett, J.M.Synge and the Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka. He was a magnificent painter of horses and Dublin life in general.like the Liffey Swim (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Liffey_Swim). There is also an engaging video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGnbLXru-qw Here are just three paintings by Jack Yates:-

Baggot Street Bridge

Title:The Liffey Swim by Jack B. Yeats (1871-1957)
Sketch of WBYeats