Overrated: Umberto Eco

Europe’s most celebrated author is playing with fire in his latest novel

Judaism Literature Overrated
Illustration by David Smith

Who said: “When men stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing: they believe in anything”? The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations attributes it to G.K. Chesterton, but it cannot be found in any of his works and appears to have begun life as a paraphrase by his biographer Emile Cammaerts. One does not need to be a scholar to trace this cliché to its origin. Yet on the home page of the extensive website of Umberto Eco, one is greeted with the following quotation by the great man: “When men stop believing in God, it isn’t that they then believe in nothing: they believe in everything.” Undergraduates who tried to palm off such a hackneyed misquotation as their own might expect to be laughed at or even reprimanded by their teachers. But Eco is Europe’s most celebrated living writer, with countless academic honours to his name. Why does a man so feted, who boasts that he owns 50,000 books (including 1,200 rare titles) “in my various homes”, seek to appropriate Chesterton’s gnomic wisdom? Is it possible that Umberto Eco is, as Henry IV of France said of James I of England, “the wisest fool in Christendom”?

In his own eyes, at least, Eco is the opposite: the most disillusioned of men, “fascinated by error, bad faith and idiocy”, and thus perfectly equipped to expose everyone else as a fraud. In his recent published conversation with Jean-Claude Carrière, This is Not the End of the Book, he reveals that his vast library consists entirely of “books whose contents I don’t believe”;  these “lies” include a first edition of Joyce’s Ulysses. Eco makes no distinction between fiction and forgery. He also assumes that most of his readers are hopelessly ignorant: “The current generation is probably tempted to think, as the Americans do, that what happened 300 years ago no longer matters…”

This pose of the learned sceptic, even the arch-cynic, has stood Eco in good stead. Without it he could never have written The Name of the Rose, the medieval whodunnit that became a film vehicle for Sean Connery and has gone on to sell more than 50 million copies. The novel is an exercise in debunking the monks to whom he owed his education and who immunised him from fascism. Eco’s first book, based on his doctoral thesis, is his best: The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas. He still recalls the joy of being surrounded by old books and manuscripts at the Sainte-Geneviève Library in Paris. Then he lost his faith and has spent the rest of his life in search of a substitute.

Eco found his pseudo-religion in the pseudo-science of semiotics, which he has taught for many years. His novels are case studies in postmodernism, which elides all categories of truth, beauty, morality and politics into an esoteric game. The Plan, which forms the theme of Foucault’s Pendulum, his second bestseller, shows Eco was already obsessed with conspiracy theories, involving everything from the Knights Templar to Kabbalah. But the subversive message of the novel is that conspiracy theories may after all be true, and secret societies may actually exist. The dissolution of reality into mere “narratives” lends the conspiracy theory new life.

In Eco’s latest novel, The Prague Cemetery, his idée fixe mutates into a gothic fantasy embracing Jesuits, Freemasons and above all Jews, culminating in the most pernicious conspiracy theory of them all: the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Eco claims that he has invented only one character, the protagonist Simone Simonini, whose fictitious diaries record how he forges the Protocols, frames Dreyfus and infects Europe with anti-Semitism. “But on reflection,” he adds, “even Simone Simonini … did in some sense exist. Indeed, to be frank, he is still with us.” In other words, Eco deliberately confuses fact and fiction. Having immersed his readers in conspiracy theories against the Jews, he then leaves them wondering whether some of these vile slanders might, after all, be true.

The trouble with what his publisher calls “an inspired twisting of history and fiction” is that Eco is playing with fire. This time it is not a game. There is nothing esoteric about the Protocols, millions of copies of which circulate in the Muslim world. Anti-Semitism is on the march, not only in the Middle East but across the globe, including the West, fuelled by that multiplier of conspiracy theories, the internet. The leaders of Iran have made Holocaust denial state policy and signalled that they plan a second Holocaust, using nuclear technology supplied by, among others, Germany and Russia — the two worst persecutors of Jews in the recent past. Eco’s frivolous treatment of Jew-hatred as a cloak-and-dagger mystery, to fund his collection of incunabula, while real Jews are targeted by terrorists from New York to Mumbai and from London to Buenos Aires has left many readers feeling queasy. 

The doubts sown by the book fall on fertile soil, for ours is a culture that long ago lost its bearings, thanks to the prestige of postmodernists such as Umberto Eco. He stands for the intellectuals of the 21st century who, like those of the last century, commit trahison des clercs by flirting with anti-Semitism when their duty is to take a clear stand against it.