Jog your imagination a little and envisage a sumptuous Swedish winter smörgåsbord replete with mouthwatering choices: a fine assortment of cold and hot foods and desserts, of course. It’s an exaggerated analogy, but Umberto Eco’s ‘Inventing the Enemy’ gives you a similar experience. ‘Inventing the Enemy’ compiles a diverse selection of Umberto Eco’s essays and lectures, all written and delivered between 2008 and 2011. Interestingly, Eco remarks that all the essays form a part of his occasional writing exercise and as such, the topics are of no specific interest to him. If Eco is serious and I am not questioning his sanity, then, the breadth and the depth of his command on the topics of ‘occasional interest’ could leave you amazed. Eco to me, is an intellectual giant, the master of beautiful narratives and scintillating eloquence.
Apparently, the book derives its title from what Eco describes as an intriguing need of a civilization: to have an enemy. He declares,“It seems we cannot manage without an enemy. The figure of the enemy cannot be abolished from the processes of civilization. The need is second nature, even to a mild man of peace.” Eco’s indictment might upset some people, but his premise is based on a strong rationale. Having an enemy gives a state or a civilization a rallying point when crisis strikes. It helps even more if your enemy happens to be an exact opposite. The more antithetic your enemy is, the easier it is to crank up the nationalist propaganda machine. Hitler made Jews the focal point of all his hate-filled agitprop and rallied a whole nation’s sentiment against them. Even saints, poets and other learned men, over the course of centuries, often through their preposterous portrayals of certain individuals and races kicked off the stereotypes that continue to live on until today – antisemitism, for instance. Fittingly, Eco cites Sartre’s existential views that we can only recognize ourselves only in the presence of an Other whom in all likelihood we will find intolerable because he is not us.
Eco possesses the wonderful and subtle ability to take a sharp left turn on a subject when you least expect him to. His writings can leave you drenched in mixed feelings. For instance, take his fantastic dissertation on the beauty of fire and its superiority over other primordial elements. He describes fire as the most intangible and the purest of all matter, refers to several historical accounts eulogizing fire and then, slams the door shut by almost prophesying ekpyrosis (the great fire) and the inevitable destruction it will bring.
The piece on censorship stands testimony to Eco’s virtuosity. His brilliance shines through not only in his powerful narratives, but also in the profundity of his arguments. His allegations over the deliberate adoption of ‘noise’ to censor the relevant by the present day media sound counterintuitive, but make perfect sense on close inspection. Eco announces,“To make a noise, you don’t have to invent stories. All you have to do is report a story that is real, but irrelevant, yet creates a hint of suspicion by the simple fact that it has been reported.” While some of his viewpoints – in this essay and others – might not find general consensus, but they are bound to resonate with a larger part of the above-average-intelligence audience.
There is no doubt in my mind that Eco enjoys diving into choppy waters and take on controversial subjects, but there is something else, too, that may not have come to the attention of many. In a chapter titled ‘Hugo, Helas!’, Eco charges Victor Hugo with exhibiting ‘poetics of excess’ – a trait that he himself evidently seems to have embraced. Just as the formidable French novelist, Eco’s narrative structures brim with protracted catalogues, and never-ending collages of excerpts, too. ‘Treasure Hunting’, ‘Fermented Delights’, ‘I am Edmond Dantes!’ and ‘Living by proverbs’ provide ample proof of Eco’s little-acknowledged knack. As a side note, ‘Living by proverbs’ is a must read chapter for its sheer entertainment quotient.
Two essays that I enjoyed reading the most were ‘Imaginary Astronomies’ and ‘Why the Island is Never Found’. If I may recommend, these two should be read in tandem and savored towards the last. Eco reflects, “There is not only a history of imaginary astronomy, but also an imaginary history of astronomy, which still survives today....” His investigation reveals that gratification is not a modern day pursuit. Medieval adventurers ardently pursued it, too. Eco regurgitates a list (again) of fictitious islands, godforsaken territories, apocryphal characters like the mythical sailer Prester John and even, fanciful chemicals, too, like the ‘powder of sympathy’. To pique your imagination further, there are handful of weird, ancient maps, too, originally drawn and used by the navigators of the medieval times.
But Eco is not always insightful and humorous. His scathing, implacable criticism of the Irish author James Joyce’s work ‘Ulysses’ stunned me! Eco thinks that Ulysses is a monstrous chaos and undeserving of even being called a novel. Some of his swipes at Joyce border on the absurd.“Joyce’s work lacks measure, like a goat forced to give birth to a dog,” writes an infuriated Eco. Personally, I would rather have Eco limit himself to attacking Joyce’s works, but he doesn’t stop there. He crosses well over into personal domain: “Joyce is a shower of ash that suffocates everything.” Even reading through this character carnage makes you appreciate Eco, for his narration is so compelling that you can’t help but feel like a bystander in the abuse.
Umberto Eco belongs to the rarefied class of literary geniuses who are good at both mesmerizing you with their words and holding your rapt attention with their erudition and sagacity. I recommend ‘Inventing the Enemy’ to all those who share an inclination toward knowing the past in all its fullness: wholesome and sinister aspects including and to those, too, who appreciate the ecclesiastical literature.