30 May, 2008

The Tourist

On the rôle of erudition in literature.

Umberto Eco, Baudolino (2000)

It is easy to be erudite. All you need is a moderate intelligence, and the time and desire to hunt. For this reason, erudition, in and of itself, does not much impress me. It is, as they say, what you do with it that counts.

I have a history with Eco. I first read The Name of the Rose when I was 18, a page at a time as I worked the scanner or photocopier for my bosses in insurance. It took me two nine-to-fives to finish. I was highly impressed by it: this is the reaction of a young man to an older man. There was a kindly lady at my job who liked to read. I asked her what she thought of Eco's book at an after-work social in a docklands bowling alley. (A bowling alley is one of the worst places in existence, like a multiplex. Off the lane itself, light was scarce; you could smell the ersatz butter in the popcorn, the stale imported beer, and most of all the sweat of feet and oxters. I don't bowl. I think I got one lucky spare.) She said that if you took away all the fancy philosophy and learning, it was just a standard detective novel. I said, Well, yes, but you can't take off the philosophy and learning, that's the whole point of the book. She replied that if you took away all the fancy philosophy and learning, it was just a standard detective novel. I dropped the matter with her. Now I'm inclined to think she was right. I returned to The Name of the Rose years later, and found its philosophical debates trite, and its magisterial erudition, well, a bit less magisterial.

I dare not re-read Foucault's Pendulum, which dazzled me sufficiently to make me quit my insurance job and learn about kabbalah and alchemy.

But lately I was sitting with some friends in the aureate environs of the Blackfriars, after Easter service in St. Paul's, when a couple of them encouraged me to read Baudolino. I had my doubts—my impression of him then was a writer much less clever than he thought himself. But I'd read precious little fiction in years, and so decided to give Baudolino a fair shot. Thus:


The novel is set largely in the second half of the twelfth century, told as a flashback to Niketas Choniates during the siege of Constantinople in 1204 AD. The narrator, Baudolino, is an Italian peasant boy adopted since early childhood by Frederick Barbarossa, who finds himself 'behind' many of the great events and texts of the late twelfth century. As a young man he goes to Paris and meets Robert de Boron and the Archpoet, with whom he fabricates the 'Prester John Letter'. He 'discovers' the Grail and composes real love-letters. Later he saves Alessandria—his own hometown and also Eco's—with his father Gagliaudo, in a retelling of a 'genuine' legend. Finally, after witnessing Frederick's death, he sets off for the Kingdom of Prester John, which he himself has fabricated; Baudolino never reaches John, though he has, of course, lots of scrapes and adventures along the way. Baudolino is, in effect, the twelfth-century Forrest Gump.

The narrative is designed to flatter mediaevalists. Look, they will say excitedly, there's Otto of Freising! And he's talking about Abelard! And there's Alexander III—and there's the Archpoet! And when Baudolino reaches the land of Prester John, he encounters the fabulous beasts from Pliny and the Travels of John Mandevillesciapods, blemmyes, panotians and so on. All those dusty obscurities cherished by the graduate are there revealed in their colours; she reads the book and feels part of a special learned club, just Eco and herself.

And within the special club of mediaevalists, the very special subclub of the broadly educated will twitter even more delightedly to itself—those who think of Quine when they see the name Gavagai, or those who, having read Eco's mediocre book on universal languages—or even a better book—can spot all the references to Dalgarno, Vairasse and other Enlightenment fantasists.

These references are supposed to be fun; but in fact they are smug and pointless. They add nothing to the book. In the Prester John section of the novel, Eco tries to demonstrate that he has digested modern philosophical problems and can redraw them in a fantastical setting; but it only comes across as that brand of science fiction desperate to show off its intellectual credentials. For instance, one of Baudolino's posse debates with the one-legged sciapod Gavagai:
Poet. "You are not friends [with the blemmyae] because you are different?"

Gavagai. "What you say? Different?"

"Well, in the sense that you are different from us and—"

"Why I different you?"

"Oh, for God's sake," the Poet said. "To begin with, you have only one leg! We and the blemmyae have two!"

"Also you and blemmyae if you raise one leg, you have only one."

"But you don't have another one to lower!"

"Why should I lower leg I don't has? Do you lower third leg you don't has?"
Eco's point is that Gavagai doesn't divide the world up into the same conceptual categories as us humans, differentiating individuals not by morphology but, as it happens, by theology. But the philosophical problems and debates instantiated in Baudolino are not only borrowed: they have no relevance to the novel's world, theme, or, worst of all, to its aesthetic, its qualities as an artwork. The best Eco can offer us is a reheated postmodern insistence on the narrative construction of reality—the world is as we tell it, and no more. This is what leads hack-reviews to call Baudolino 'a parable about storytelling, a meditation on truth'. Never trust anything described as a parable.
Laura Lilli: This book is an apology for the lie?

Umberto Eco: Rather it is an apology for utopia, for those inventions that move the world. Columbus discovered America by mistake: he thought that the earth was much smaller. It is not true that he was the only one thinking it was round, as people still say; that it was round they knew before Plato. And what can be said about El Dorado? A continent is conquered following a myth.
'Coincidentally', Eco had already published a scholarly work about influential mistakes, Serendipities (1998). It is a saunter around well-trodden academic fields, peeking into some pleasant books and episodes with only the pretence of original insight. It is a tourist's guide to scholarship, without any guts.

Eco has no serious prose style—at least, not in Weaver's English—no special gift for plot or character, no worthwhile message: and so in Baudolino he has to rely on his game of references with the reader. All the erudition is fine. But, like I said, erudition is easy. The problem is that he is no good at the game. He fails in two ways. Firstly, he's patronising. The conceit of the first chapter is that a fourteen year-old Baudolino snatches a bit of used parchment and writes some of his own macaronic Latin over it—the joke being that the original parchment, still legible in fragments, contains the opening of Otto of Freising's The Two Cities (1145). But in the next chapter he spoils the joke by telling you that the parchment contained The Two Cities. Eco is not confident enough to pitch the ball down the field—he has to roll it. The effect is nothing less than humdrum.

Again and again, Eco explains his references. When Baudolino meets Niketas, we get this sentence: 'Niketas Choniates, former court orator, supreme judge of the empire, judge of the Veil, logothete of secrets or—as the Latins would have said—chancellor of the basileus of Byzantium, as well as historian of many Comneni and Angelus emperors, regarded with curiosity the man facing him.' When Baudolino goes to Paris, we are told: 'Baudolino arrived in Paris a bit late: in those schools, students entered before they were fourteen, and he was two years older.' There is no immersion in Eco's world because is constantly feeding us facts and gobbets from the history books. Wanting to be storyteller and teacher at the same time, he fails at both.

The erudition is not just spoon-fed: it is also unimaginative. This is his second, and more serious failure. Eco reads, again, like a tourist in his own library. Thus, because he has chosen the period 1155-1204, his canvas is dictated: it includes all the famous kings, philosophers and poets. Eco wants to give us a panorama of the political and intellectual climate of his period; but this requires justice to each part of the picture. He has abdicated control. He is liberal and tolerant towards his world—not a tyrant, as the true artist must be. And so his description of twelfth-century history is unable to go very deep. You can get most of the references simply by reading Southern or Cantor.

Still worse. We are told repeatedly and with no subtlety that Baudolino is a liar, and that he may have fabricated some or all of his tale. The mediaevalist Tom Shippey, in his TLS review, writes:
Baudolino is in the habit of inventing works, sometimes only as titles, but also referring to them and quoting from them. But which are made up and which are genuine? A perfect reader, the perfect reader as constructed by the author in Eco's own theories, would know the answer, but who would care to declare himself perfect? I am fairly sure that the Venerable Bede did not write a work on the best kind of tripe (De optimitate triparum), and the Ars honesti petandi sounds securely spurious as well. . .
It is true that Bede did not write a De optimitate triparum, or an Ars honesti petandi. But then, Eco could not have come up with these either: he had to borrow them from a far better fantasist. Similarly, the only creature in the land of Prester John not plucked from the standard mediaeval bestiary is a female satyr called a 'hypatia'. The hypatia is Eco's invention, but only sort of. After all, she is named after the first philosopheress and feminist icon, Hypatia of Alexandria, and she expounds to Baudolino, with no narrative relevance, a doe-eyed version of Neoplatonist-Gnostic theology. It's all second-hand. Nothing in Eco's world is invented—this is what I mean when I say he is a tourist, or a slave to his erudition. He would rather be learned, with his allusions to Rabelais and Hypatia, than imaginative. He has no mastery over the material. And he does not have the cojones to make Baudolino a real liar.

Why I am bothering to complain about the poor standard of Eco's erudition? Can I not appreciate the book as a mere flight of literary fancy, with vivid colours and a few in-jokes? No. Eco is, in literary terms, a man's man—we are told his English grew up on Marvel comics and Finnegans Wake, those twin poles of the male reading spectrum—and he wants a man's response from his reader. He wants not to charm or delight us, but to impress us. This mood is present in all his writing. Consider this, from the New York Times, on the subject of Eco's 'inside jokes':
Take for instance, the love letters written by Baudolino, the new novel's title character, to the entrancingly beautiful wife of his patron, the Emperor Frederick. Many critics seized on these as obvious allusions to, or imitations of, what are known as the most famous love letters of the Middle Ages, those exchanged between Abelard and Heloïse.

But no, said a gleeful Mr. Eco in an interview. . . ''These love letters exist,'' he said, clearly pleased to have planted such a successful trap. ''Someone said Abelard and Heloïse, but no. It is a real epistolary exchange of love letters that was discovered recently.''
Eco does not name his source—but he is evidently referring to the love-letters published by Ewald Koensgen as Epistolae duorum amantium in 1976. These were taken from a 1470 manuscript (Troyes BM 1452) penned by Johannes de Vepria, and attributed by Koensgen to Abelard and Heloise, albeit with a twinkling question-mark. Constant Mews added his voice to this attribution in a well-known 1999 book; nonetheless, few are really convinced. So when Eco says that 'the German scholar' [Koensgen] 'was the only person in the whole world who could probably recognize' the letters in Baudolino, he is playing up the obscurity of his text. This is also why he is 'gleeful' and 'pleased' that he might have fooled his readers and one-upped his critics. (He seems a little unsure on the attribution, as he does accept Abelard-Heloise authorship here.) Here's an example of Eco's reuse. Vepria Letter 20 runs:
Stella polum variat et noctem luna colorat,
Sed michi sydus habet, quod me conducere debet.
Nunc mea si tenebris oriatur stella fugatis,
Mens mea iam tenebras meroris nesciet ullas.
Tu michi Lucifer es, que noctem pellere debes.
Te sine lux michi nox, tecum nox splendida lux est.
Eco has rendered this: 'The star illuminates the pole, and the moon colors the night. But my guide is a sole star and if, when the shadows have been dispelled, my star rises from the East, my mind will ignore the shadows of sorrow. You are my radiant star, who will dispel the night, and light itself without you is night, whereas with you night is splendid radiance.' Can we quibble? Polum is really 'sky', not 'pole'; Lucifer is specifically the morning-star, and there is no reason for the final lux to be translated 'radiance' and not 'light'. (Perhaps Weaver is to blame for inaccuracies—I have not seen the Italian.) The overall effect is a competent translation: nothing more. Again, Eco has not worked his material: it merely sits there in his book, translated but otherwise native. Lazy.

Now, I have no problem with erudition in literature, and no problem with books wanting to impress me, even by their authors' own admission. Hey, I'm game. I want to be impressed, not charmed or delighted. But if you are going to play a man's game, you'd better play it right—not botch a penalty and spend all night crying. And Umberto Eco is the John Terry of erudition.


There is a great history of erudition in literature. The first modern landmark is Gargantua and Pantagruel. In English, we have had Sterne, Carlyle and Joyce, most of all. There have even been brilliant novels of erudition in our time: the classic example for me is Alexander Theroux's Darconville's Cat—more on that next time—and to a lesser extent Pynchon's various books. These writers have all done what Eco has not: they have created a vocabulary of erudition. Their books are not mere heavens of references—they are constellations, with distinctive shape and character. Consider the rôle of classical medicine and law in Rabelais, idealist philosophy in Carlyle, Irish literature and the Jesuit curriculum in Joyce. In each case, raw materials of learning are picked out and wrought into an original perspective. As Joyce wrote to Harriet Weaver, 'I would not pay overmuch attention to [Vico's] theories, beyond using them for all they are worth'. Contrast Eco's genuflection before modern philosophy to Rabelais's parodic reinvention of scholastic logic:
Which was first, thirst or drinking? Thirst, for who in the time of innocence would have drunk without being athirst? Nay, sir, it was drinking; for privatio praesupponit habitum.
Contrast the exuberant and aggressive lists of books still to be found in Theroux, to the complacent and collusive winks glancing from the pages of Baudolino. The grand érudits ravish you: Eco tickles you. His is a limp handshake; instead of a confident argot of learning, he has a tourist's pidgin. The function of putting books into a novel is to create light and depth, personality through reach and considered choice. To put books into a novel is tell your reader who you are. This stamping of character is a practice of modernity, and of modernism. But Eco is decidedly a postmodern. Baudolino ends: 'You surely don't believe that you're the only writer of stories in this world. Sooner or later, someone—a greater liar than Baudolino—will tell it.' For Eco we are all storytellers, and so none of us is. By telling stories we create a world, but at the same time we take ourself out of that world, or rather we become just another part of it, indistinguishable from the rest.


Malone said...

I still like "The Name of the Rose."

Could I suggest the addition of Jorge Luis Borges to your pantheon?

John Cowan said...

If Yaguello is better than Eco, Eco must be bad indeed, for Yaguello is a nightmare of crude blackwashing.

Anonymous said...

Borges was (very) hardly an erudite, he was a cultivated man, a fin-de-siècle man of letters. By the time he went blind his personal library was composed of merely a hundred books, none of which one would call highbrow literature. Kipling everywhere. He would revisit these same books over and over. He did have a considerable reading before he lost his sight, but it was extremely dilettantish. A lot on his intellectual character can be gathered from perusing Bioy Casares' recent diary extracts, ''Borges'', a mammoth of a book.

But anyway, who could pull the grand erudite stunt better than him to the public? An amazing act.

P.s.: great post. I only read Baudolino because the brazilian translator is himself an amazing erudite, full of heterodoxical language powers and arcane knowledge. A bit of an act too, but an entertaining one.

Malone said...

pedro e., it seems to me that you may be confusing erudition with taste. I would suggest that Borges's engagements with Western metaphysics and traditional narratives deriving from a variety of cultural backgrounds meet the standards of erudite literature as Conrad has defined them: the "raw materials of learning are picked out and wrought into an original perspective."

On the other hand, my admiration of Borges may be based on a personal weakness for literary forgers . . .

Anonymous said...

Everything you say about Eco goes double for Tom Stoppard. In Shakespeare in Love (you will note that I cite a movie, not a play, which tells you all you need to know about my own erudition) the Shakespeare character encounters a dirty boy torturing rats in the street, who introduces himself as "John Webster." This produces in me a sensation like stifling a sneeze in the concert hall: It's not entirely unfunny, but you can't be the sort of person who would laugh at it.

Languagehat said...

An excellent post, and now I am afeared to reread The Name of the Rose. But I must entirely disagree with Aaron about Stoppard, who is one of the great playwrights of our time and has genuine erudition to boot. If you are too refined to laugh at his jokes, you may be too refined for comedy.

Aaron Haspel said...

Anti-refinement is closer to the truth: an inability to disentangle, on the spot, my relief in knowing that John Webster wrote remarkably bloody plays from the actual humor in the joke. Even from this distance I'm not quite sure how much of the pleasure I take in the Webster joke is self-congratulation.

Which is not to say that comedy must be vulgar, although vulgar is fine; Evelyn Waugh, for instance, provides the wit without the status-seeking.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Persephone: Borges? I don't know. Great fantasist, clearly, and anyone who likes Thomas Browne and Thomas de Quincey has got to be worth taking seriously. I'm not sure how erudite he was, and haven't read Bioy Cesares. Labyrinths does have a well-deserved place on my shelf, though I didn't much care for his Book of Imaginary Creatures.

John: Well, I picked Yaguello not because it's great, but because it's light and accessible, and did what Eco did more concisely and with less pretension. Yaguello also has juicy appendices. More sophisticated books would be James Knowlson's Universal Language Schemes, to which Eco is heavily indebted, and Couturat's Histoire de la langue universelle. But I don't think anyone's written a masterpiece on the subject; well, not yet.

Aaron and LH: I have to admit, I do feel the same about Stoppard. The Webster joke was pure Eco, I winced. But then, I am biased against drama, and especially modern drama, so perhaps my assessment of Stoppard is not entirely fair.

A. Ominous said...

1. Lovely post... with useful applications in other arenas of argument.

2. Never re-read a book, as a (wo)man, you loved as a whelp(tress)...

Raminagrobis said...

Isn’t the complaint here not so much to do with erudition but specifically to do with the nature of the historical novel? All historical novels are constructed on a framework of erudition, and rely on the careful deployment of significant details intended either to instruct the reader, or to provoke the pleasure of recognition based on shared knowledge. I realize your complaint is that Eco does not do this very well – but I wonder if you can think of any historical novels where it is done well. I’m struggling to think of any myself. Perhaps it’s a problem with the genre itself: I think it’s basically impossible for the historical novel to succeed on artistic terms precisely because it relies on erudition at the expense of imagination.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Steven, thanks. #2 is very true, a couple of years ago I completely ruined Henry Miller for myself.

R: I agree that the historical novel is difficult to pull off, but I don't think there is an intrinsic impossibility. Flaubert's Salammbo is terrific, or more recently Pynchon's Mason and Dixon and Barth's Sot-Weed Factor did a good job of the erudite historical novel. (I exclude as more ambiguous the modern semi-historical novels like DeLillo's Underworld.)

Andrew W. said...

Having recently read Foucault's Pendulum, I would say it escapes the bulk of your criticisms, simply because it is not a historical novel in the vein of The Name of the Rose or Baudolino.

Pendulum is less concerned with erudition than its dangers. However, like the first edition of Werther, the cautionary aspect doesn't come across as clearly as it could, although perhaps this is intentional.

And from your analysis, it seems as though Eco has failed to heed his own cautionary tale...anyway, I don't think you would be too traumatized by rereading it!

Anonymous said...

I haven't read Baudolino, but my past experiences with Eco certainly coincide with your expressed viewpoint here. What you call tourism I think of as theory, the inclination of the author to avoid inhabiting his material and instead treating it from a critical viewpoint, something deadly to a novel (see also: post-Sot Weed John Barth, Robert Coover).

As for other constellations of erudition, the Latin American boom seems prominent: Cabrera Infante, Lezama Lima, Lins, Fuentes, Cortazar, and obviously Borges. Let me also defend Borges' erudition: anyone who can spin out cogent fantasias involving Lull, Swedenborg, Dante, Akutagawa, Meyrink, Dunne, Berkeley, &c. earns my genuflection. The world could use more dilettantes of his caliber; Guy Davenport is the only other one that strikes me, though some would also claim Calasso. Yes, Borges and Bioy Casares and Ocampo were asses, but we wouldn't have any writers left if that were a criterion for exclusion.

The Oulipo writers also qualify, I would say: Mathews, Queneau, Roubaud and Perec more than Calvino.

Other random names that occur to me are Robert Burton, Gunter Grass at his best, Robert Musil, Hans Blumenberg, W. Humboldt, Vico himself, and perhaps Giordano Bruno. In poetry, I think of David Jones, Yeats, and Geoffrey Hill.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Andrew: Good to know I am probably safe with that one!

Waggish: thanks. I actually don't have a problem with later Barth or Coover, having enjoyed both Tidewater Tales (well, parts of it at least) and The Public Burning.

As for your list, I don't know the Latins except Borges. I don't know Davenport either. I like Calasso, but not for his erudition, any more than, say, Beckett. The same goes for the OuLiPo (though I haven't read Roubaud), whose strengths have always been experimental and imaginative rather than learned. I suppose the obvious Queneau novel for erudition is Children of Clay, though the learning is second-hand in that. (His source, Brunet, was pretty impressive though.) As for Burton, Humboldt, Vico and Bruno--well, they weren't novelists, or even fictionists, at least not in the traditional sense, as much of what all four writers produced was, admittedly, pure fiction.

I didn't intend my original small list to be in any way exhaustive. Perhaps the golden age of erudite literature in England was the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries--I think of Carroll (Sylvie and Bruno), Robert Southey (The Doctor), Thomas Amory (John Buncle), and other novels barely straining to keep the narrative in line with the magnificent and idiosyncratic learning.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the review, Conrad. I read the first two Eco books about the same time you did, then found myself rather disappointed with The Island of the Day Before and sort of gave up. I guess I'll stay the course. I'm still rather fond of Kant and the Platypus, though, and pick at it every so often (like a dessert, not like a scab). I liked aspects of his book on universal languages, too, but agree with you that it seems a bit phoned in.

It's interesting that you picked out The Sotweed Factor for special mention. It would seem to be an example of what Eco could have done in Baudolino but did not manage to pull off -- combine historical detail with a considerable bit of pastiche and a postmodern sensibility.

Do you mind if I throw out another name for this discussion? John Crowley uses erudition -- and a good bit of the Frances Yates material -- in his books, but it generally serves his narrative, rather than runs away with it. He is also rather up front in his blogging about not being much of an expert, but rather a bit of a pirate, when it comes to using erudition.

Languagehat said...

though the learning is second-hand

Surely you don't expect novelists to do original research! (Aside from the diversion of energy, could they be expected to be any good at it?)

Conrad H. Roth said...

Ashley: "John Crowley"

Yes, Mr. Waggish once recommended Little, Big on these pages in response to Sylvie and Bruno. I bought it for my wife's birthday, but she didn't much care for it. I haven't looked at it myself. Raminagrobis was not too flattering about Aegypt, either.

LH: "Surely you don't expect novelists to do original research!"

Very droll.

Anonymous said...

I found "Name of the Rose" a good story, and found its erudition not too hard to figure out. For example, the murder by poison on the pages' corners is derived from the story of the composition of the Chinese pornographic novel Chin Ping Mei. "Foucault's Pendulum" is not so tightly written. It is evident that Eco has read several of Dame Frances Yates's books. Either Eco or his translator has got the names of several of the degrees of the A.A.S.R. slightly wrong. The book's division into sections based on the sephiroth is possibly copied from Wilson's and Shea's earlier occult conspiracy novel "Illuminatus."

My impression is that Eco's erudition is, as the Mississippi river is said to be, broad but shallow.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"The book's division into sections based on the sephiroth is possibly copied from Wilson's and Shea's earlier occult conspiracy novel "Illuminatus.""

Yes, I wondered about that at the time as well.

goofy said...

I'd be interested in knowing what you think of Foucault's Pendulum... it had quite an effect on me as well.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with your assessment of Baudolino, Conrad. Following as it did the disappointments of The Island of the Day Before, it rather soured my hopes for any future fiction that I might love as much as his first two. It seemed to me that he'd run out of actual stories to tell, and was putting on an empty performance.

It's been a number of years since I've reread Rose or Pendulum, and perhaps it's time to find out if they're as appealing to my current tastes as they were to those of my larval self.

Regarding William Weaver: his translations are not flashy, but I've always felt that they captured something essential to the Italianness of the work, whether Eco or Calvino. This may just be romantic fancy, though, as I do not, in fact, read Italian.

Is Darconville's Cat really worth reading? I picked up a copy a few years back, but lost interest not far in. I happened across it while shuffling my shelves recently, and contemplated giving it another try.

But, my dear Mr. Roth...Silvie and Bruno as an exemplar of erudite literature? I am aghast. It's a soppy, maundery, plotless mass of cheerless fairy fantasy larded with thoroughly execrable poetry and tedious moralism. (And I do write this as a lover of Carroll). There is some shallow play of ideas, but it utterly lacks the clever charm of Alice or the wit of the Snark. In truth, its only ray of light is the song of the mad gardener, a thin thread to hold one for the hundreds of painful pages.

raminagrobis: For historical novels, you might try Lindsay Davis's Falco mysteries. The period details are well-mobilized in support of the story and provide some mild edification for the reader without ending up as an novel that is erudite only for the sake of erudition.

Conrad H. Roth said...

On Darconville, see my next post. On Sylvie and Bruno, my opinions have been laid out at length, starting here. I appreciate that I am the only person in the known universe to prefer it to Alice, but I suppose we all have our foibles. Perhaps I have a taste for the grotesque; Sylvie may be horrible, but it is anything but boring.

Robert said...

I hate detective stories as a rule but loved this one. I am not sure it is best consumed young, one should savour it for a time when one has seen more of life!

Sid Leavitt said...

Conrad, I apologize for the number of times I have described you solely as 'erudite,' which you are, because you obviously are also imaginative and very good at the game. Best regards.

chris miller said...

And so I'm wondering, Conrad - what about the stuff that's not erudite -- that just seems void of specific references to the literature that preceded it.

Has anything like that -- ever won your esteem?

Conrad H. Roth said...

Sid, no need of course to apologise for your many very kind comments!

Chris, yes of course! For me the classic example of completely un-erudite, in fact hermetic (modern) literature is late Beckett: but I don't need to say this, because I'm happy to make the more general point that literature succeeds and fails on its own terms, with or without the complement of erudition. The majority of fiction I appreciate is not erudite, or only contingently so: but rather essentially imaginative.

Ray Davis said...

I second Mr. Waggish's suggestion: Guy Davenport strives to wear deep learning lightly, and although I'm not quite convinced, neither have I ever been able to work out the source of my skepticism. If you like Davenport's fiction, you'll win; if you don't and feel compelled to explain why, I'll win.

Although I appreciate Eco as an unusually jovial public intellectual, I could never force myself through more than a chapter or two of his novels. Credentials disestablished, I must say your description of the latest reminds me most of Walter Pater's edutainments. Of course Pater didn't work very hard to hide his schoolmasterly side, and that may in the end make his rambling "You Are There" serials a bit better as literature.

(As so often happens these days, a very tardy addition. My apologies.)

Anonymous said...

Wow what a fine and subtle erudite you must think you are, sir, to claim you know everything about Eco's references and that you even find them cheap! But, one question, did you know them before reading the novels, or did you research them afterwards? ;)
So, from your complaints on Eco's lack of original ideas and characters, I take it you generally prefer fantasy over history? So instead of the blemmyaes, panotti, skiapodes and so on, he should have invented monstruous beings of his own and placed them in a novel set in the Middle Ages, and it would've been better? Or, perhaps, if Prester John would've been King *insertacooloriginalnamehere* and he lived in, say, a floating bathtub above the Pacific, all placed in a medieval context, would you have enjoyed it more? (there's no fancy symbol of the floating bathtub, so no need to go research it) Or perhaps you generally dislike historical novels? How do think a contemporary novel with historical themes should be written then?
I'm looking forward to hearing your valuable and original opinion about it! (and if you happen to have written yourself a few novels of a greater quality than Eco, as an example of how you believe literature should be written, I'd be more than curious to read them)

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks for this olla podrida of criticism and counter-sneers. We can immediately separate out a few valueless complaints:

First, "if you happen to have written yourself a few novels of a greater quality than Eco"

Of course I have not. My sole teenage attempt at writing a novel was laughable and far worse than anything Eco has ever published. But I never had the temerity to send it to a press. Nonetheless, my own lack of a better novel in no way disqualifies me from passing judgement on others' efforts, a broader point which--unless you want to reject 99% of criticism in all fields of human endeavour--you will be forced to agree with.

Second, "did you know them before reading the novels, or did you research them afterwards?"

In all honesty and humility, I knew them beforehand, at least, the ones I pick up on here. No doubt there are many references I did not get; I am not a mediaevalist, for one thing. Although I have read Otto of Freising, etc.

But it is beside the point: I'm sure there are a great many novels full of references unknown to me, so the fact that I got these ones is entirely irrelevant, and not germane to the criticism. (That is, it would still have applied if I had had to look them up.) My complaint was with Eco's creative use of erudition, not the fact of its existence on the page.


"I take it you generally prefer fantasy over history?"

I am not hugely interested in the notion of fantasy. I would prefer to think about creativity. And I prefer fictional works set in the 'real' past to engage with history more creatively, and, dare I say it, more idiosyncratically. I prefer them to use historical facts to articulate creative ideas or themes, rather than relying on them simply because they happen to be historical.

"So instead of the... would you have enjoyed it more?"

Only if these inventions were achieved with meaning and beauty. Fantasy entirely unmoored from reality (insofar as it ever cane be) does not interest me. I have no taste at all for the genre known as 'fantasy', in the narrow sense.

"Or perhaps you generally dislike historical novels?"

Yes, but only as an empirical observation, not a matter of principle. See my earlier comment on this thread: "I agree that the historical novel is difficult to pull off, but I don't think there is an intrinsic impossibility. Flaubert's Salammbo is terrific, or more recently Pynchon's Mason and Dixon and Barth's Sot-Weed Factor did a good job of the erudite historical novel. (I exclude as more ambiguous the modern semi-historical novels like DeLillo's Underworld.)"

"what a fine and subtle erudite you must think you are"

Reasonably so, but feel free to scoff away from your anonymity.

John Cowan said...

Fantasy entirely unmoored from reality would not be fantasy at all, but rubbish.

"Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough -- though it may already be a more potent thing than many a 'thumbnail sketch' or 'transcript of life' that receives literary praise.

"To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode."

—Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories"

Conrad H. Roth said...