Misreadings by Umberto Eco

  Umberto Eco Misreadings Translated from the Italian by Willtam Weaver A HARVEST ORIGINAL A HELEN AND KURT WOLFF BOOK HARCOURT BRACE & COMPANY San Dgo New York London

  � 1963 Arnoldo Mondadori Editore S.p.A., Milano English translation copyright � 1993 by Harcourt Brace & Company and Jonathan Cape Limited All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any memos, electronic or mechani- cal, includin- _t. ............. n,, ,r nv information storage and r, g e work Requests fo sho Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Eco, Umberto. [Diario minimo. English] Misreadings/Umberto Eco: trmslated from the Italian by William Weaver. p. cm. "A Helen and Kurt Wolff book." ISBN 0-15-660752-2 I. Title. PQ4865.C6D513 1993 854'.914--dc20 93-249 OCT 29 D igned by Lori J. McThomas Printed in the United States of America First edition ABCDE !993

  Contents Preface � 1 Granita � 7 Fragments � 15 The Socratic Strip � 27 Regretfully, We Are Returning Your.. � 33 Esquisse d'un nouveau chat � 47 The Latest from Heaven � 53 The Thing � 62 Industry and Sexual Repression in a Po Valley Society � 69 The End Is at Hand � 94 Letter to My Son � 117 Three Eccentric Reviews � 126 The Discovery of America � 135 Make Your Own Movie � 145 The Phenomenology of Mike Bongiorno � 156 My Exagmination. � 165

  Music-hall, not poetry, is a criticism of life. --]ames ]oyce


  Preface In 1959, for II Verri, a literary magazine whose contributors comprised many of the writers later to form the "Gruppo 63," I began writing a monthly column entitled Diario minimo, a title dictated as much by prudence as modesty. Into a pu, blication filled with linguistic experiments of the neo-avant- garde and impressive essays on Ezra Pound and Chinese ideograms, I was introducing pages of free- wheeling reflections on some minor subjects that, often, were meant to parody the writings of other contributors to the magazine, more zealous than I. So, right at-the outset, I wanted to apologize to the readers for having written those pages, pages delib- erately comic and grotesque, and therefore less dig- nified than the rest of the magazine. The first texts, whether by me or by my friends, from the point of view of literary genre resembled the Mythologies of Roland Barthes. Barthes' book had appeared in 1957, but at the time I began writing for Diario minimo I was not yet acquainted with it.

  MISREADINGS Otherwise I would never have dared devote, in 1960, an essay to striptease. And, I believe, it was after reading Barthes that, out of humility, I abandoned the Mythologies style and moved on, gradually, to pastiche. I had a further, deeper reason for adopting pas- tiche: If the work of the neo-avant-garde consisted in turning inside out the languages of daily life and of literature, the comic and the grotesque should be a part of that program. The tradition of pastiche-- which in France could boast such illustrious practi- tioners as'Proust, Queneau, and the Oulipo group-- had been generally less fortunate in Italian literature. Hence the presence of Diario minimo in the pages of II Verri. Later, in 1963, when the pieces I had published in the magazine were collected in a volume, it Was given the same title, even though the contents were not a diary in the accepted sense. That volume went through several editions, and now serves as the basis for this English-language version. Since a literal translation of the title, Minimal Diary, would be meaningless, I have preferred to call it Misreadings. Parody, like all comic writing, is linked to space and time. The tragic stories of Oedipus and of An- tigone move us still, but if we lack a knowledge of classic Athens, we will be baffled by many of the allusions in Aristophanes. I apologize for employing such eminent examples, but it is easier to make my point through them. Though the contents of this volume represent a choice, and though a couple of the most "Italian" pieces have been omitted, I feel I owe the foreign

  Preface reader a few words of explanation. Explaining a joke inevitably kills its effect; but--siparva licet compo- nere magnis many of Panurge's words remain in- comprehensible without a footnote explaining that his was the language of the Sorbonne. "Granita" was meant as a parody of Nabokov's Lolita, exploiting also the fact that the translation of the protagonist's name is Umberto Umberto. Of course, my piece is not so much a parody of Nabokov as of the Italian translation of his novel; but what I wrote, even translated from Italian, is still readable, I think. The parody is set in the small towns of Piedmont, the region where I was born. In "Fragments," obviously, I used the words of Italian popular songs, which in the translation have been replaced by American equivalents. In the final quotation, however, Shakespeare and Italian songs mix (in the original, instead of Shakespeare I used D'Annunzio). As my translator indicates in a prefatory note, Mike Bongiorno, while unknown to non-Italians, be- longs to a familiar, international category; and, per- sonally, I continue to consider him a genius. Obviously "Esquisse d'un nouveau chat" refers to Alain Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman. As in other instances, the parody here is meant as a tribute. "The Latest from Heaven" reports from the next world in terms of current political jargon. It was written several decades ago, but I think it will be comprehensible also in the age of Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan. The classics of Anglo-Saxon anthropology (Mar-

  MISREADINGS garet Mead, Ruth Benedict, Kroeber, etc.) were the inspiration for "Industry and Sexual Repression in a Po Valley Society," the title borrowed from a work by Malinowski. Its philosophical parts are enhanced by some quotations (suitably modified) from Hus- serl, Binswanger, Heidegger, and others. The Porta Ludovica paradox has become, in Italy, a set subject for study in the architecture departments of several universities. In the same vein, "The End Is at Hand" is inspired by the social criticism of Adorno and the school of Frankfurt. Certain passages are indirect quotations from Italian authors who were given to "Adornizing" in those years. Like the piece that precedes it, this text is an exercise in what is called today "alternative anthropology" (not the world of others as seen by us, but our world as seen by others). Montesquieu already did this with Les Lettres Persanes. Some time ago, a group of anthropologists invited African re- searchers to France so that they could observe the French way of life. The Africans were amazed to find, for example, that the French were in the habit of walking their dogs. The TV coverage of the first moon walk suggested "The Discovery of America." In the original, the names of Italian anchormen were used; familiar American names have been substituted. The title "My Exagmination � "repeats almost literally that of a famous collection of essays on Finnegans Wake. Bearing in mind all the critical styles in fashion at American universities a few decades ago (from New Criticism to various forms of symbolic

  Preface criticism, and also a few hints at the criticism of Eliot), I adapted these attitudes of overinterpretation to the most famous Italian novel of the nineteenth century. Most English-language readers will not be familiar with I promessi sposi (though an English translation exists, The Betrothed), but it should suf- fice to know that my Joycean reading is applied to a classic that dates from the early nineteenth century, its style and narrative structure recalling Walter Scott (for example) more than Joyce. Today I realize that many recent exercises in "deconstructive reading" read as if inspired by my parody. This is parody's mission: it must never be afraid of going too far. If its aim is true, it simply heralds what others will later produce, unblushing, with impassive and assertive gravity. Umberto Eco 5

  Granita The present manuscript was given to me by the warden of the local jail in a small town in Piedmont. The unreliable information this man furnished us about the mysterious prisoner who left these papers behind in his cell, the obscurity that shrouds. the writer's fate, a widespread, inexplicable reticence in all whose paths crossed that of the author of the following pages oblige us to be content with what we know; as we must be content with what is left of the manuscript--after the voracity of the prison rats-- since we feel that even
in these circumstances the reader can form a notion of the extraordinary tale of this Umberto Umberto (unless the mysterious prisoner is perhaps Vla- dimir Nabokov, paradoxically a refugee in the Langhe region, and the manuscript shows the other face of that protean immoralist) and thus finally can draw from these pages the hidden lesson: the libertine garb conceals a higher morality. Granita. Flower of my adolescence, torment of my nights. Will I ever see you again? Granita. Granita.

  MISREADINGS Gran-i-ta. Three syllables, the second and third forming a diminutive, as if contradicting the first. Gran. Ita. Granita, may I remember you until your image has become a shadow and your abode the grave. My name is Umberto Umberto. When the crucial event occurred, I was submitting boldly to the triumph of adolescence. According to those who knew me then, and not those who see me now, Reader, in this cell, haggard, with the first traces of a prophet's beard stiffening my cheeks according to those who knew me then, I was an ephebe of parts, with that hint of melancholy due, I believe, to the Mediterra- nean chromosomes of a Calabrian ancestor. The young girls I met desired me with all the violence of their burgeoning wombs, transferring me into the telluric anguish of their lonely nights. I scarcely remember those girls, as I myself was the horrible prey of quite another passion; my eyes barely grazed their cheeks gilded in the slanting sunset light by a silken, trans- parent down. I loved, dear Reader, dear friend! And with the folly of my eager years, I loved those whom you would call, in your sluggish thoughtlessness, "old women." From the deepest labyrinth of my beardless being, I desired those creatures already marked by stern, implacable age, bent by the fatal rhythm of their eighty years, horribly undermined by the shadow of senescence. To denote those creatures ignored by the many, forgotten in the lubricious indifference of the customary usagers of sturdy Friulan milkmaids of twenty-five, I will employ, dear Reader--op-

  Granita pressed here again by the reflux of an intrusive knowledge that impedes, arrests any innocent act I might venturema term that I do not despair of having chosen with precision: nornettes. How can I describe, O you who judge me (toi, hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frre!), the matutinal prey offered the crafty fancier of nornettes in this swamp of our buried world? How can I convey this to you, who course through afternoon gardens in banal pursuit of maidens beginning to bud? What can you know of the subdued, shadowy, grinning hunt that the lover of nornettes may conduct on the benches of old parks, in the scented penumbra of basilicas, on the graveled paths of suburban cem- eteries, in the Sunday hour at the corner of the nursing home, at the doors of the hospice, in the chanting ranks of parish processions, at charity ba- zaars: an amorous, intense, and alas--inexorably chaste ambush, to catch a closer glimpse of those faces furrowed by volcanic wrinkles, those eyes watering with cataract, the twitching movement of those dry lips sunken in the exquisite depression of a toothless mouth, lips enlivened at times by a glis- tening trickle of salivary ecstasy, those proudly gnarled hands, nervously, lustfully tremulous, provocative, as they tell a very si0w rosary! Can I ever recreate, Reader-friend, the sinking desperation on sighting that elusive prey, the spas- modic shiver at certain fleeting contacts: an elbow's nudge in a crowded tram--"Excuse me, madam, would you like a seat?" Oh, satanic friend, how dared you accept the moist look of gratitude and the 9

  MISREADINGS "Thank you, young man, how kind!", when you would have have preferred to enact on the spot a bacchic drama of possession?--the grazing of a ven- erable knee as your calf slides between two rows of seats in the pomeridian solitude of a neighborhood cinema, or the tender but controlled grasp--sporadic moments of extreme contact!--of the skeletal arm of a crone you helped cross at the light with the prim concern of an eagle scout. The vicissitudes of my idle youth afforded me other encounters. As I have said, I had a reasonably engaging appearance, with my dark cheeks and the tender countenance of a maiden oppressed by a del- icate virility. I was not unaware of adolescent love, but I submitted to it as if paying a toll, fulfilling the requirements of my age. I recall a May evening, shortly before sunset, when in the garden of a patri- cian villa .... it was in the Varese region, not far from the lake, red in the sinking sunmI lay in the shade of some bushes with a fledgling sixteen-year-old, all freckles and powerless in the grip of a dismaying storm of amorous feelings toward me. And it was at that moment, while I was listlessly granting her the desired wand of my pubescent thaumaturgy, that I saw, Reader, at a window of the upper floor, the form of a decrepit nanny' bent almost double as she unrolled down her leg the shapeless mass of a cotton stocking. The breathtaking sight of that swollen limb, with its varicose marbling, stroked by the clumsy movement of the old hands unrolling the lumpy article of clothing, seemed to me (to my concupiscent eyes!) a brutal and enviable phallus soothed by a

  Granita virginal caress: and it was at that moment that, seized by an ecstasy redoubled by distance, I exploded, gasping, in an effusion of biological assent that the maiden (foolish tadpole, how I hated you!) wel- comed, moaning, as a tribute to her own callow charms. Did you then ever realize, my dull-witted instru- ment of redirected passion, that you had enjoyed the food of another's repast, or did the dim vanity of your unripe years portray me to you as a fiery, unforgettable accomplice in sin? After leaving the next day with your family, you sent me a week later a postal card signed "Your old friend." Did you perceive the truth, revealing to me your perspicacity in the careful employment of that adjective, or was yours simply a bravado use of jargon, the mettlesome high-school girl rebelling against correct epistolary style ? Ah, after that, how I stared, trembling, at every window in the hope of glimpsing the flaccid silhou- ette of an octogenarian in the bath! How many evenings, half hidden by a tree, did I consummate my solitary debauches, my eyes trained on the shadow cast against a curtain, of some grandmother sweetly engaged in gumming a meal! And the horrid disap- pointment, immediat and destructive (tiens, donc, le salaud!), when the figure, abandoning the falsehood of those ombres chinoises, revealed itself at the sill for what she was, a naked ballerina with swelling breasts and the tanned hips of an Andalusian mare! So for months and years I coursed, unsated, in the deluded hunt for adorable nornettes, caught up 11

  MISREADINGS in a pursuit that was born, indestructible, I am sure, at the moment of my birth, when a toothless old midwife--my father's desperate search at that hour of the night had produced only this hag, with one foot in the grave ! -- rescued me from the viscous prison of the maternal womb and revealed to me, in the light of life, her immortal countenance: a jeune parque. I seek no justification from you who read me (a la guerre comme la guerre); I am merely explaining to you how inevitable was the concurrence of events that brought me to my triumph. The soiree to which I had been invited was a sordid petting party with young models and pimply university students. The sinuous lewdness of those aroused maidens, the negligent offering of their breasts through unbuttoned blouses in the swirl of the dance, disgusted me. I was already thinking to run away from that place of banal traffic among crotches as yet intact, when a shrill, strident sound (will I ever be able to express the dizzying pitch, the hoarse descent of those vocal cords, long exhausted, the allure su- preme de ce cri centenaire?), the tremulous lament of an ancient female, plunged the assembly into silence. And in the frame of the doorway I saw her, the face of the remote Norn of my natal shock, the cascading enthusiasm of her lasciviously white locks, the stifl- ened body that stretched the stuff of the little, thread- bare black dress into acute angles, the legs now thin and bent opposing arcs, the fragile line of her vul- nerable femur outlined under the ancient modesty of the venerable skirt. 12

  Granita The insipid maiden who was our hostess made a show of tolerant politeness. She raised her eyes to heaven as she said, "She's my granny . " At this point the intact part of the manuscript ends. What can be inferred from the scattered lines that follow suggests that the story continued more or less in this fashion: A few days later, Umberto Umberto abducts his hostess's grandmother, carrying her off on the handlebars of his bicycle, toward P
iedmont. At first he takes her to a home for the aged poor, where, that same night, he possesses her, discovering among other things that the woman is not without previous experience. At daybreak, as he is smoking a cigarette in the semidarkness of the garden, he is ap- proached by a dubious-looking youth who asks him slyly if the old woman is really his grandmother. Alarmed, Umberto Umberto leaves the institution with Granita and begins a dizzying race over the roads of Piedmont. He visits the wine fair at Canelli, the annual truffle festival at Alba, participates in the historical pageant at Caglianetto, inspects the livestock market at Nizza Monferrato, and follows the election of Miss Milkmaid in Ivrea and the sack race in honor of the patron saint's day in Condove. At the end of his mad odyssey through that northern region, he realizes that for some time his bicycle has been slyly followed by an eagle scout on a motorscooter, who eludes every attempt to trap him. One day, at Incisa Scapaccino, when he takes Granita to a chiropodist, leaving her alone for a few minutes while he goes to buy cigarettes, he discovers, on returning, that the old woman has abandoned him, running off with her new kidnapper. For several months he sinks into deep depression, but finally finds the 13

  MISREADINGS old woman again, fresh from a beauty farm where her seducer has taken her. Her face is without a wrinkle, her hair is a coppery blond, her smile is dazzling. Umberto Umberto is overwhelmed by a profound sense of pity and a resigned despair at the sight of this destruction. Without a word, he purchases a shotgun and sets out in search of the villain. He finds the young scout at a campsite rubbing two sticks together to light a fire. He shoots once, twice, three times, repeatedly missing the youth, until finally two priests wearing leather jackets and black berets overpower him. Promptly arrested, he is sentenced to six months for illegal possession of firearms and hunting out of season. 1959

  Fragments Proceedings, IV Intergalactic Congress of Archeological Studies, Sirius, 4th section, Mathematical Year 121. Paper read by chair Profi Anouk Ooma of the Department of Archeology, Prince Joseph's Land University, Arctica, Earth. Distinguished colleagues, You are surely not unaware that for some time Arctic scholars have been engaged in intense research and have, as a result, brought to light numerous relics of the ancient civilization that flourished in the temper- ate and tropical zones of 6ur planet before the catas- trophe of the year then known as 1980, in the ancient era, or, more correctly, Year One, after the Explo- sion destroyed every trace of life in those zones. For millennia afterward, as everyone knows, they re- mained so contaminated by radioactivity that until a few decades ago our expeditions could approach these territories only at extreme risk, despite the eagerness of scientists to reveal to the whole Galaxy the degree

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