On (Crankily) Asking Questions About Life & Death

Chronicles of a Liquid Society | Umberto Eco | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Though he is best known to American readers as a novelist, Umberto Eco (1932-2016) was a more constant presence in the lives of Italian readers through his weekly column in the periodical, L’Espresso. For the better part of a decade, he would opine on topics as varied as the obsession with reality television, the policies of George W. Bush, or why famous authors should never write forewords for their friends’ books. Chronicles of a Liquid Society posthumously collects the best of this writing. His entire column is available on the web (at least to Italian speakers), but Eco himself argues that a curated and selectively edited book can offer what the internet never will: “education is about not only transmitting information but also teaching the criteria for selecting it. This is the role of a teacher [and] the function of a schoolbook.” If we acknowledge these terms, we can begin to think of Eco as our self-appointed teacher.

When Eco speaks of a “liquid” society, he is not referring to Postmodernity, but identifying our age as the aftermath of Postmodernity. Every structure that lent Modernity its coherence has been eroded, nothing has arisen to take their place and, as Yeats said, “things fall apart.” “The certainty of the law is lost, the judiciary is regarded as an enemy, and the only solutions for individuals who have no points of reference are to make themselves conspicuous at all costs, to treat conspicuousness as a value, and to follow consumerism.” Enter Eco, who believes the “interregnum” between Modernity and whatever comes next is likely to last a long time. In the meantime, he has determined to be an island of sanity in conversations about every modern concern.

Admittedly, in the pages of Chronicles of a Liquid Society Eco comes through as a bit of a crank. He describes lengthy attempts to downgrade his Windows operating system, and frequently expresses frustration with new technologies. “I was annoyed the other day, in class, to find I had to use an expensive new electronic machine that projects hazy images—the old luminous blackboard, or even the ancient overhead projector, does a better job.” He is also hard on the thoughtless or careless adopters of those technologies: “I can only hope her cell phone broke when it fell,” he jibes during an anecdote about a distracted young woman who plowed into him on the sidewalk. But, he opines, “a master must always challenge his pupils,” and a little crankiness can be vital to that vocation. The teacher’s ambivalence toward the new offers his students a fixed touchstone in an older world.

The title of Eco’s L’Espresso column was “La bustina di Minerva” (“the bust of Minerva”), and a plaster bust of the goddess of wisdom is a wonderfully solid contrast to the liquid age he is writing into. It is an icon of his project to bring contemporary matters into contact with more classical perspectives. He insists, for example, that “instant communication provided by the cell phone has little to do with the great questions of life and death, it’s of no use to someone who is reading Aristotle, nor to someone struggling over the existence of God.” Elsewhere, while attempting to explain the affinity of the very learned for detective stories, he casually asserts that “the five ways to demonstrate the existence of God, studied in the writing of St. Thomas Aquinas, were also a masterpiece of crime investigation.”

Of course, every good crank—like many a great teacher—risks being dismissed as a madman, but Eco is comfortable enough to embrace the possibility. “I go along with Saul Bellow that in an age of madness, to expect to be untouched by madness is itself a form of madness. So don’t take the things you have just read as pure gold.” Still, in an age of liquidity, even impure gold is thrillingly solid.

Sean Johnson is an associate editor of the Forma Journal and the FORMA Review. He teaches humanities at Trinitas Christian School in Pensacola, Florida.

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