Book review: On the Shoulders of Giants, by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco, who died in 2016 aged 84, is best known in the English-speaking world for his 1980 novel The Name of the Rose, a historical mystery set in a 14th-century monastery; the film of the book starred Sean Connery. But he was already known in Italy as a literary critic, semiologist, authority on medieval philosophy and all-purpose intellectual. Unlike many academics, he had the ability to write in an accessible and engaging style. That said, he demands alertness from his readers and he was like an intellectual Catherine wheel – a firework throwing out sparks in every direction.

Umberto Eco PIC: Francois Guillot / AFP Photo/Getty Images
Umberto Eco PIC: Francois Guillot / AFP Photo/Getty Images

This book consists of 12 essays, ten of which were given as lectures at the Milan Festival of Culture. Reading them is exhilarating. Listening must have been also demanding, close attention being needed to keep up with the speed of his thought and remarkable range of reference. Happily, he is also very amusing. I doubt if many will read this book from beginning to end, and indeed, there is no reason why you should, because it doesn’t present a consistent argument. Better, therefore, to treat it as you would a magazine and begin by picking out the essays whose titles interest you.

The first, which gives its title to the book, takes off from the well-known observation that if we know more than past generations did, this is, at least in part, because we know first what they discovered or came to know; we are dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. Sometimes the transition is quick. People had thought of evolution a century before Darwin; the Scottish judge Lord Monboddo said that human beings had once has tails. Eco, speaking of philosophy, remarks that “Kant needed Hume to awaken him from his dogmatic slumbers” – very true and very nicely put.
Some of the essays are more easily accessible and enjoyable: “Conspiracies,” for example. Given that we live in an age dominated by science and technology such as our forefathers could scarcely have imagined, it’s interesting that, thanks in part to the internet, we are ready to see conspiracies everywhere.

Eco has great fun, while talking sense, about the myriad 9/11 conspiracy theories, the popularity of which suggests that we are at least every bit as credulous as villagers who believed in fairies, witches and werewolves. He also does a nice demolition job on the absurd “Da Vinci Code”.

There’s a nice observation from the Italian poet and filmmaker Pasolini that “conspiracies make us think crazy thoughts because they free us from the burden of having to face the truth”. When Pasolini himself was murdered, probably by a street pick-up, allegations of the involvement of the Italian secret services were made almost at once and widely believed.There are essays on beauty and ugliness, on absolute and relative truth, on lies and on when a lie is permissible, even on when it may not be a lie. Eco speculates on the relation of fiction to truth. Novelists are liars, but acceptable ones. Even so, some will construct a framework for their fiction, pretending it isn’t fiction. One way of doing this is to derive it from an anterior authority, a recently discovered manuscript, for instance.

Then, while we know that fictional characters aren’t really people, but only so many hundred or thousand words in a text, we can feel affection for them or dislike of them, and we can discuss Hamlet as if he was a real person with problems which invite argument: why does he believe his father’s ghost and why does he hesitate to act on the ghost’s instructions? And why shouldn’t we, since we may have a clearer idea of Hamlet than of our next-door neighbour?

He discusses authenticity. Why, for instance, do we consider Michelangelo’s David “better” than copies of the work, even though, if presented with the original and a copy, we might not be able to say which is which? Han van Meegeren forged a painting which was accepted as a genuine Vermeer and was sold at a high price. When eventually self-interest led him to come clean, did his Supper at Emmaus become a poor painting?
Almost every page of this entrancing book invites questions and provokes reflection. Allan Massie

On the Shoulders of Giants, by Umberto Eco, trans. Alastair McEwen, Harvill Secker, 412pp, £30