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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British Surrealism at Falmouth Art Gallery

Agar, Eileen (1899-1991): Untitled, signed, inscribed 18/75, lithograph, 75.5 x 57 cms. Presented by Tremayne Applied Arts, St Ives.

There has been a renewed interest in works of British Surrealism in recent years. In summing up an exhibition in The Independent on the 26th May 2008 at The Middlesborough Institute of Modern Art- http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/british-surrealists-minor-league-but-major-players-834236.html -Tom Lubbock wrote,” People have said that Britain was Surrealism’s original native land Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, William Blake, the gothic novel, Gulliver’s Travels etc. Perhaps we didn’t need the whole movement-and-manifesto thing. But it produced, slightly by accident, a group of very interesting pictures that ought to have a wider showing, and which the Sherwin Collection is willing to lend.” Clearly symbolism and surrealism have obvious links in mythology and archetypes and such matters were thrown into the generally creative and tempestuous furore which grasped interest in the period between the wars.This climaxed in in the organisation of the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936. There is some evidence of these issues in the paintings displayed in the current exhibition, mostly on loan in Falmouth from the Southampton Gallery. The artists on show include PAUL NASH,CECIL COLLINS, CERI RICHARDS, ROLAND PENROSE, JOHN TUNNARD, EILEEN AGAR &ITHELL COLQHOUN.

Some idea of the range of the Exhibition may be gained from the images to be found at this website, http://www.thisiscornwall.co.uk/pictures/Photos-British-Surrealists-Falmouth-Art-Gallery/pictures-16910494-detail/pictures.html

However, the most exuberant and baroque piece was a comparatively recent work by David Kemp – entitled “The Hanging Gardens of Basildon”. On his blog, Kemp comments, “It is one of a series of a dozen large plant forms, all influenced by “THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS” an enigmatic painting by the great Hieronymus Bosch, which  explored many  aspects of medieval life, many of which might still be seen as relevant to the human condition, in our modern world?” This comment on the fantastic botanical forms and the connection with Bosch is reminiscent of the work of the VienneseSchool of Fantastic Realism as explified by Arik Brauer whose interest in Bosch he derived from his own tutor, Albert Paris von Gütersloh.

Arik Erich Brauer Die Honigkaeuferin

No visitor can possibly fail to be impressed by the peculiar botanical drawing, named “Prophylactic sea-mouth” by Edith Rimmington. The haunting form appears as some kind of elongated mutation of a dogfish egg-case with a coiling eel like flagellum.

However, for those interested in the development of the work of Paul Nash, his oil painting, “The Archer” will doubtless attract attention both for its muted complementary colours and the charmingly odd bucolic setting. A friend comments in a personal communication, “The Nash is one of his complex compositions worked on for years with bits from all over the place.  There is a letter by Nash about it in Tate Archives. The central ‘archer’ feature was a structure he made from an old toy boat, glass tube, twig, seaweed etc.  I don’t think it exists anymore other than as a photo. It looks more compelling in the photo with strong echoes of surrealist sculptures by Giacometti, Man Ray etc.  He constructed (like Lanyon), collected and photographed sculptural objects from which he derived elements of his paintings.

Paul Nash The Archer

The ‘target’ is from Men-An-Tol of course + mirrors etc; the shadow of the girl bottom right, sampled from De Chirico etc.etc.  All very sexual with the ineffective arrow being merely the shadow of the archer….. I’m not convinced that he managed to get it to cohere as an image.  I wish he had left the landscape dominant as with ‘Landscape at Iden’ http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/nash-landscape-at-iden-n05047 where the symbolic elements infuse the composition naturally.”

Those interested in Roland Penrose’s work can consult http://www.rolandpenrose.co.uk/works.aspx