Farewell, phenomenal Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco top of NYT home page (1)

[ late addition below ]

A yellowing copy of ‘The Novel as Status Symbol,’ a 1989 book review by Alexander Stille not available on the net, happened to be lying on this desk when the divine imp Umberto Eco died on Friday. For several weeks, we had smiled every time we came across it, hunting for other pieces of paper. It made finding him honoured with an obituary portrait at the top of the home page of The New York Times a sad pleasure: he deserved no less.

What Stille recounted of the great semiotician-novelist’s fiction writing philosophy was quite wicked enough a quarter-century ago, when marketing chieftains in publishing companies were well on their way to wresting supreme veto power from editor-tsars. In our new age of scribes, book-promoters and whole literary communities bowing low to likey/no-likey social media, it is not impossible to envisage someone like Eco being burned at the stake for heresy, some day.

Some extracts from the most enthralling sketch we have ever read of the author of The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum:

Last June, Eco — a medieval scholar and a professor of semiotics at Italy’s University of Bologna — stood on the dais of the cavernous ballroom in the Washington Hilton before a crowd of more than a thousand American booksellers.

In open defiance of the usual laws of marketing, Eco told the booksellers, he had written his first novel for about a thousand readers and decided to write the second for five hundred. ‘With my first book I was criticized for putting in too many quotations in Latin, so I started my new book with a long quotation in Hebrew. That’s my challenge.’ But Eco is not a naïve professor who was catapulted to stardom by an unlikely turn of fate. As a professor of semiotics (the theory of signs), a former publishing executive, a journalist, and the author of some twenty books, Eco is an expert on mass media and the machinery of popular fiction. ‘The world of media is full of free gifts, wash-and-wear philosophy, and instant ecstasy,’ he explained to the booksellers. ‘Readers want a little more; they want to be discouraged in order to be respected.’

… Since its publication in Italy last fall Foucault’s Pendulum has provided several new twists to what has come to be known as the Eco phenomenon. The novel has sold more quickly than any book in Italian publishing history, while becoming the center of a fierce national controversy.

Rumors than Eco was working on the book were eagerly picked up by the Italian press as early as two years before the book appeared … Anticipation built up to such an extent that when the book finally appeared, 500,000 copies were sold before the first buyers had a chance to grapple with it and tell their friends what they thought.

But within several weeks the Eco phenomenon boomeranged. Readers who had bought the book for faddish reasons gave up when confronted with the labyrinthine complexities of a novel that explores the mysteries of the Jewish cabala, hermetic philosophy, and a thousand years of esoteric thought. Eco was accused of having shrewdly manipulated the press in a plot to push sales. ‘Eco is a genius of our culture,’ one critic wrote, ‘a genius of self-promotion.’ To his dismay, Eco has become a kind of literary Midas: everything he does makes news and sells copies. Even his decision not to appear on television was perceived as another clever maneuver to attract attention. But the attacks, predictably, only had the effect of selling more copies …

Harper’s, November 1989

But, as we discovered not long after we posted those Stille quotations, Eco hardly spared the editor-tsars. We had long wondered how any editor, no matter how skilled and revered, could have had any idea of how to edit his novels — known whether to add or substract as much as a comma — which could define idiosyncratic. What did Eco think of their role? On the site of The New York Review of Books, there was his concise answer to that question, in 1994: ‘Case for Textual Harrassment’. Skim-read it at your peril: after we stopped to re-read it with closer attention, we were shaking so excessively that we had to lie down for a minute-and-a-half. Unless you know Philip Larkin’s and T.S. Eliot’s most famous poems, you will not understand. (The ‘rites of vegetation,’ William Weaver’s translation of whatever Eco wrote in the Italian original, is a master-stroke. Oh, you poor lilacs …)

The miniature essay begins:

These days, especially in the United States, implacable copy editors demand of authors not only stylistic revisions but even changes in plot, new endings, whatever commercial necessity dictates. But … can we honestly say that they ordered things so differently in the past?

Take the usually overlooked fact that the first version of a well-known poem by Philip Larkin originally went: “They do you harm, your father and mother.” It was only the insistence of Larkin’s editor that inspired the now famous variant. And the first draft of Eliot’s Waste Land opened: “April is the cruelest month. And March isn’t all that great, either.” Weakened in its impact by this peevish insistence on climactic details, the earlier text denied April any implied link with the rites of vegetation. As everyone knows, Ariosto at first submitted to his publisher a very brief poem that went: “Of women and knights, arms, loves, courtly rituals, and bold ventures I have nothing to say.” And that was that. “How about developing it a bit?” the editor suggested. And Master Ludovico, who was having enough trouble as civil governor of a remote Tuscan province, said, “What’s the use? There are dozens of epics of chivalry already. Leave it. I want to urge poets to try new genres.” And the editor replied, “Yes, of course, I understand, and, personally, I agree with you. But why not try approaching the form from another angle? With irony, for instance. Anyway, we can’t sell a onepage book, particularly one with only two verses on the page. It looks like imitation Mallarmé. It would have to be a limited, numbered edition. So unless we can get Philip Morris to sponsor it, we’re screwed.” …

 

 

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Daffy spring doggerel break: from a treasured comments archive on the net, and a beloved doggerelist

Daffodils: postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

daffy cornucopia 2

An experience of helpless laughter … one of the most memorable in that category, ever?

Blame a doggerelist’s contributions to a discussion of William Wordsworth’s best-known poem in a 2007 thread on The Guardian’s books blog, one with no shortage of literary scholars weighing in. It comes to mind every spring — with heartache. We miss the doggerelist, @cynicalsteve — a scientist with a fine Cambridge pedigree and excellent taste in literature; a dearly cherished, cherishing, invisible, net friend snatched before his time by the Reaper.

The tone for the most impish reactions in that comments section was set by an irreverent post by Sam Jordison:

Terrible poet – great museum

Wordsworth’s appalling ‘Daffodils’ seems to me a terrible advertisement for the Lakes. But the Grasmere museum is just terrific.

Before we reproduce a few choice extracts – not necessarily in the right chronological order: please quote this thread whenever you have to suffer yet another blinkered enemy of commenters claiming that virtually all web comments are the work of evil trolls.

Finally, research is supporting those of us insisting for about a decade that comment sections are often friendly and enlightening places. The New York Times reported last month that

Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, a psychology professor at Skidmore College […] and her co-authors Aneta K. Molenda and Charlotte R. Cramer analyzed comments from three sources (The New York Times, the Discover magazine science blog and a Facebook group for science buffs) … They found some encouraging signs: Positive comments were more common than negative ones.

And here’s proof … although anyone appalled by English schoolboy wit gone off-leash will please stop reading after the second comment by @freepoland:

cynicalsteve 25 Apr 2007 1:35

I thought it was only me that thought the daffodil poem was a piece of third rate doggerel. It’s main drawback is the schoolboy-like monotonous rhythm of the piece – “I WANdered LONEly AS a CLOUD…”

Anyhow, it’s much improved in the real schoolboy version:

I wandered lonely as a cloud That floats on high oer hill and dale When all at once I saw a pub And went in for a pint of ale.

liberaldogooder 25 Apr 2007 2:22

Seems just a little unfair to slag off a great writer by more or less sole reference to perceptions of their most popular work, which by its nature isn’t normally going to be their most challenging. (with Wordsworth ‘The Preludes’ already been mentioned, but then you have ‘Immortality’, ‘Tintern Abbey’, ‘The Leech Gatherer’, etc, where tons of stuff are going on under the hood). By these standards Dickens is a writer of sentimental childrens’ tales, Chaucer a teller of dirty stories and TS Eliot a dyed-in-the-wool registered cat fetishist.

But having said that it’s a great way to cause controversy – I think you should put up a thread entitled ‘Shakespeare was shit’, and then we can play ‘The Ride of the Valkryes’, as the ranters come down on you like a wolf on the fold.

Henuttawy 25 Apr 2007 4:08

Well I blame anthologies for endlessly re-printing “Daffodils”. It appears so often, we are led to think that it’s great verse. But I personally think it comes so perilously near to doggerel that I wonder if Wordsworth was actually being a bit tongue-in-cheek when he wrote it.

Still, I wouldn’t say that he’s the best of the Romantics anyway – not by a long, long way. Keats was much better. And Byron, of course.

freepoland 25 Apr 2007 4:16

Nobody has improved on J.K.Stephen’s commentary on Wordsworth:

Two voices are there: one is of the deep; It learns the storm-cloud’s thunderous melody, Now roars, now murmurs with the changing sea, Now bird-like pipes, now closes soft in sleep: And one is of an old half-witted sheep Which bleats articulate monotony, And indicates that two and one are three, That grass is green, lakes damp, and mountains steep And, Wordsworth, both are thine. […]

israelvisitor 25 Apr 2007 4:20

I like “Daffodils”; I even knew it by heart once. Not maybe one to be put to a class of ten-year-old boys, though, who would instinctively vie to be the most openly unimpressed by it.

The rhyme of “gay” with “company” could quite easily be seen as bold and innovative, for what it’s worth.

The wild daffodils beside Ullswater – were they the ones that inspired Wordsworth? – certainly impressed me, when I saw them in 1980: they are not your garden King Alfreds, but delicate little wild ones that do flutter in the breeze, and are present in seemingly illimitable numbers along the shore. (In this way they contrast with WW’s solitude – and I am sure that even in the pluvial Lake District, solitary clouds are to be seen.)

[…]

No, I don’t think “Daffodils” is a crap poem. I think it’s nice. But I’m aware that many would say that means the same thing…

freepoland 25 Apr 2007 5:39

… Wordsworth and money were a curious combination. Raisley Calvert’s legacy enabled him to live out an idyll at Dove Cottage, where it is usually said he did his best work. Later, he took Lord Lonsdale’s shilling and the post of controller of Stamps for Westmorland. Poets shouldnt be wealthy. His career trajectory was rather modern, and his ideals probably suffered, but it is difficult to locate a socialist poet in the period 1800-1850. Ideals were a good deal more cerebral than fifty years later. Above, I suggested he was not perhaps worthy of the title of 3rd best poet, but at least he had a crack at the epic, and The Prelude has some good things in it. A useful comparison is with Tennyson, whose command of the technicalities of language were as good as WW’s, but who reads Idylls of the King now? Undergraduates are still subjected to the Prelude, and usually come out with something worthwhile. My favourite is Michael, and if you stroll up Helvellyn out of Grasmere and sit down there to read it, you get a real feel for what Wordsworth thought of as the rustic life and its disappointments.

cynicalsteve 26 Apr 2007 4:51

I wandered, desperate for a piss Whilst walking by the Canyon Grand Dare I let fly o’er the abyss? Or should I use a rubber band….

bouquet black backdrop

daffy long Screen Shot 2014-03-23 at 00.47.37

Could social, network-centred art knit sensuality, intelligence and the sublime into a John Heath-Stubbs love-at-dawn poem – or a Jane Wilson cloudscape?

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January sky  -- postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

January sky
— postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

Jane Wilson obituary in The New York Times, 20 January 2015

Jane Wilson obituary in The New York Times, 20 January 2015

As if bent on making sure that arts workers glimpsed nothing as frivolous as a ray of hope in entering a new year, the dear old Atlantic ushered in 2015 with this fanfare for a new order:

The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur

Hard-working artisan, solitary genius, credentialed professional—the image of the artist has changed radically over the centuries. What if the latest model to emerge means the end of art as we have known it?

The pessimism of William Deresiewicz, who wrote the piece, is understandably fiercest in passages weighing the most common advice meted out to anyone instructing artists, writers, musicians and their kin about the digital transition:

“Just get your name out there,” creative types are told. There seems to be a lot of building going on: you’re supposed to build your brand, your network, your social-media presence. 

… Creative entrepreneurship, to start with what is most apparent, is far more interactive, at least in terms of how we understand the word today, than the model of the artist-as-genius, turning his back on the world, and even than the model of the artist as professional, operating within a relatively small and stable set of relationships.

Yet on the evidence in his well-argued essay, Deresiewicz neither sees nor proposes an alternative to accepting this – and accepts a future with no one crafting jewels like this poem:

 

THE UNPREDICTED

The goddess Fortune be praised (on her toothed wheel

I have been mincemeat these several years)

Last night, for a whole night, the unpredictable

Lay in my arms, in a tender and unquiet rest –

(I perceived the irrelevance of my former tears) –

Lay and at dawn departed, I rose and walked the streets

Where a whitsuntide wind blew fresh and blackbirds

Incontestably sang, and the people were beautiful.

John Heath-Stubbs (1918-2006)

 

This poet had no interest in fame — was, in the extreme degree, a solitary worker, and died all but unknown, except in certain poetry circles. He mocked ‘the kind of poet who follows literary fashion,’ according to a biographical note on the Poetry Archive site, He was pigeon-holed ‘first as a Romantic and then as a Classicist,’ but his work defied categorisation – ‘refused the labels critics tried to pin on it,’ and ‘often ran counter to prevailing currents’.

Scholarly critics are apt to draw attention to this failure to mould himself to any slot, even when classing ‘The Unpredicted’ as a species whose existence comes as a revelation to the non-expert reader – the aubade, ‘a song or poem about lovers parting at dawn’. That definition comes from a blog post on this form in The Guardian by Billy Mills –an Irish experimental poet and scholar – who wrote that ‘John Heath-Stubbs, in The Unpredicted, contrives to write an aubade that is both traditional and perfectly of his own moment’.

We at post-Gutenberg enjoyed encountering that description of the poem over a year after we came upon it we forget exactly where, and admired it enough to copy it into the back of our diary in January of 2008. Works of art and their makers always somehow mean more to us when we discover them independently – rather than by being lectured about their importance and place in the canon or, for that matter, by decisions based on counting ‘like’s.

To the joy of accidental discovery, in online life, we can add the more frequent delight of coming across similarities between modest records we make of some phenomenon or other — a striking thought, or a scene or image that arrests our attention — and an expert response to virtually the same phenomenon by a celebrated practitioner of an art or craft in which we claim no expertise whatsoever.

Deresiewicz only barely controls his irritation with the effect of putting digital equivalents of traditional tools of artistic creation into non-professional hands:

The democratization of taste, abetted by the Web, coincides with the democratization of creativity. … Everybody seems to fancy himself a writer, a musician, a visual artist. Apple figured this out a long time ago: that the best way to sell us its expensive tools is to convince us that we all have something unique and urgent to express.

But that is surely the wrong conclusion. We might have absolutely nothing to communicate to anyone else when we turn to those tools. We might be trying to do no more than kiss a sunbeam, metaphorically speaking – when, say, glancing out of the window and being startled by back-lit and under-lit clouds turned epiphanic by a sinking sun.

We spent not much more than five minutes capturing what we could of the skyscape in the photographs in this entry. Imagine the surprise, two days later, of staring at Jane Wilson’s ‘American Horizon’ – over which she, with her paint and canvas, probably laboured for hours, if not days. Her record of what she saw is an artistic feat; ours, capturing what we spotted, the gift of digital cameras and fast reflexes.

We had no idea this striking Jane Wilson had ever existed before we read the obituary that accompanied the photograph of her painting. Now, we are trying to learn more about the evolution of her style.

Tentative conclusions about the Deresiewicz lament:

• Artistic loners like Heath-Stubbs will always exist to make the greatest true art: collaborative originality is rare enough to be virtually an oxymoron.

• The more amateurs – gifted or not – in the audience are allowed to share the stage, or deploy tools for art and craft, the keener and deeper will be their appreciation of mastery.

Think of sports fans. Think of how many David Beckham fans love him all the more for all their years spent kicking footballs in vain – knowing they have no chance of ever learning to ‘bend it’ remotely as he can. Football, like other sports, has always been democratic.

 

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