Lawrence Norfolk

Who Named the Fish?

Serendipities: Language and Lunacy


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CLEVER YOUTHS CRAVE intellectual baubles. They like to toss them about, and then, once broken, they like even more to hurl them from the playpen. One envies, therefore, the students of Bologna University who gathered at the beginning of the 1994-5 academic year to hear Professor Eco deliver ‘The Force of Falsity’, which is the opening essay of his new collection, Serendipities.

Serendipity is here defined as the mechanism by which ‘false beliefs and discoveries totally without credibility could then lead to the discovery of something true’. Whatever ‘true’ or ‘false’ may mean in that formula, Eco takes ‘recorded in the encyclopaedia’ as his criterion of truth, hopes that he has avoided being ‘too dogmatic’, then gets on with the job in hand, which is entertaining the students.

He starts with a quotation (in Latin) from Aquinas’s Quaestio quodlibetalis XII, followed by an anecdote about Saint Thomas chasing a naked courtesan out of his bedroom with a burning stick. Next question: Is the Earth round or flat? The answer is ‘flat’, according to Cosmas Indicopleustes, and ‘round’ according to everyone else. Eco’s point, and a good one, is that the Church Fathers never believed the Earth was flat, that their alleged canard was itself the canard. This is suggestive, but not for long; it is discarded in favour of another ‘serendipity’: the construction of the Sistine Chapel only having been possible because the Donation of Constantine (a forgery) was thought to be genuine. This leads, naturally enough, to accounts of the fabulous kingdom of Prester John, which, although fabricated, had real effects as ‘an alibi for the expansion of the Christian world toward Africa and Asia, a welcome argument favouring the white man’s burden’. A similar mental leap takes Eco from the Rosicrucians to another forgery which had unpleasant consequences, for one Rosicrucian text ‘was probably a primary source for The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’.

So far, so enjoyable, although that ‘probably’ is a little worrying. And where is the evidence that Christian Europe ever felt it needed an alibi for its aggressions in Africa and Asia? Eco slides sideways at this point, and talks about ‘plausibility’ , or perhaps ‘utility’, as the agency by which delusions grip the popular consciousness and impel it hither and thither. He then relapses into a sentiment which brings the whole house down: ‘After all, the cultivated person’s first duty is to be always prepared to rewrite the encyclopaedia.’

Cue applause, fireworks , encores. It turns out that the lucky students of Bologna did not even have to go to the trouble of throwing out their own broken toys: their professor did it for them.

It may seem overly technical, or even churlish, to ask what happened to the eventual ‘reality’ towards which Eco harries this list of persuasive falsehoods. It seems to lurk somewhere between inherent credibility, a corresponding public credulousness, and their effects and consequences. In the lecture hall, it may be fun to chide analytic philosophers for not believing in unicorns; on the page, the same joke provokes only a nervous giggle.

The remaining essays shuck the onus of defining reality by either avoiding it or confining themselves to the subject of language. The best is ‘Language in Paradise’, in which Eco surveys and tussles with the question of what language was spoken by Adam in the Garden of Eden. It is irritating to have Luther quoted in German for no good reason, but Eco’s intellectual pace is furious on this more secure ground. The turning point in the quest for this linguistic Holy Grail comes when thinkers give up the attempt to reconstruct Adam’s language from the fragments of the collapsed Tower of Babel and begin to try and synthesise their own universal language. Eco finds this moment, albeit in reverse, in the difference between Dante’s De Vulgari Eloquentia and Canto XXVI of the Paradiso, and links the change to the possible influence of the Cabalist writer Abraham Abulafia. Abulafia attempted to divine the real language buried within the confusion of tongues by ‘a process of free linguistic creativity’, while Dante sought the certam formam locutionis which seems to have been the hallmark of that language. Eco draws on the large bibliography that treats of how one should translate the latter phrase (‘a certain form of speaking’? ‘a decided mould of utterance’?) but does his case no favours by dropping almost immediately the certam part of the quotation. Surely Adam the animal-namer was elf-assured above all else, and his speech likewise? On the other hand, as Eco notes, there is no mention in the Bible of Adam – or anyone else – naming the fish. A moment of self-doubt?

The remaining three pieces range from the impact of Chinese and Egyptian culture on the European intellectual tradition (‘From Marco Polo to Leibniz: Stories of Intellectual Misunderstanding’) to the attempted invention of a perfect universal language (‘The Language of the Austral Land’) and thence to an analysis, or demolition, of the linguistic theories of Joseph Le Maistre. These last two would seem to be somewhat undermotivated. In the first, Eco painstakingly reconstructs the language outlined in a few pages of a seventeenth-century satire by Gabriel de Foigny, then, discovering that this has served no useful purpose, quotes some passages from Jorge Luis Borges, and signs off. In the second, he discredits the ‘absolutely risible etymological games’ of the already discredited father of Continental conservatism, Le Maistre.

‘From Marco Polo to Leibniz’ is intermittently mad, but much better. Here, Eco invents the notion of ‘background books’ which the sages of Europe carried in their heads, and through which they understood the cultures of China and ancient Egypt. The twist comes when he demonstrates the reciprocal re-rereading made necessary by incoming alien texts, and the further accommodation forced upon the latter by the rebound of the former. ‘The text had not changed, but the voice supposed to utter it was endowed with a different charisma.’ Points like this, which can be made by touching upon and briefly linking very disparate cultural products, are where Eco’s levity and light-footedness serve him best. His other examples – Marco Polo’s mistaking a rhinoceros for a unicorn, and Leibniz’s fleeting interest in the hexagrams of the I ching – are amusing anecdotes, but hardly advance the argument. Certainly, Leibniz ‘contributed to the development of modern logic’ but I suspect he might have done so with or without the I ching.

The theoretical weakness of all these essays shows itself always at the point where Eco attempts to demonstrate the real effects of cultural influences and ideas. He is honest about this: a sprinkling of ‘probably’, ‘possibly’, and ‘perhaps’ dusts the text in self-doubt whenever he attempts to link what people thought to what they did. He has no workable concept of agency, and so these prodigal effusions of erudition too often remain anthologies of marvels and anecdotes.

But that, I think, is their point. Quotations from the obscurest sources are offered in Hebrew, German, Latin, Italian, French, and the aforementioned invented languages. A vocabulary that includes ‘euhemerism’, ‘the Nomothete’ and ‘glottogonic force’ is designed to dazzle rather than enlighten. Eco is never less than entertaining, but then, he is never more than that. On the genocide of the Amerindians: ‘It really is a pity that Western scholars finally discovered this [the abstract signifying potential of Amerindian pictograms] only some centuries after we had destroyed those civilisations on the grounds of their semiotical inferiority’.

I suppose it is only logical that the inhabitants of a world in which everything is a sign should all be semioticians. But when this includes the conquistadors of South America I wonder whether Umberto Eco’s self-assured world is not an intellectual prison rather than a playpen. His questions tease and intrigue, but finally frustrate, for too many remain unanswered. In the end one wants to know who did name the fish?


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