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    Infinite Winter: Umberto Eco Is Dead

    I’ve never seen David Foster Wallace connected to Umberto Eco.  That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. But sometimes it is too tempting to compare writers just because they happen to write long books that are intellectually driven.  There are many ways to conquer the beast of the novel of ideas and these two writers may not have shared many tactics.

    However, Eco is dead at 84, I am a fan of both writers, it is an unseasonably warm Sunday mid-morning and I will indulge a little bit.  Once thing that Wallace and Eco have in common is that they were both schooled in disciplines other than fiction.  Wallace had studied philosophy, Eco had studied semiotics.  Both were particularly concerned with how we share information and how the medium can itself be dangerous.  In The Name of the Rose a lost book kills its readers because its pages are poisoned.  In Infinite Jest, nobody can watch the titular movie without losing the will to live.

    In Infinite Jest, Joelle van Dyne (aka Madame Psychosis) is an artistic muse to James Incandenza, the director of the movie “Infinite Jest.”  Though she played a perhaps starring role, she has never seen the film and after Incandenza’s suicide by microwave ( he left her no note but a substantial lifetime trust fund) she has become a freebase cocaine addict.  She remembers her childhood and visiting multiplex movie theaters where, no matter what she saw, she always loved the show as she prepares to freebase cocaine for the last time (this is, potentially, a suicide).  She concludes that nothing in her life other than her childhood experience of those movies or her current drug addiction:

    “...made her feel quite so taken care of, never made her feel about to be entered by something she didn’t know was there and yet was all about making her feel good anyway, coming in.  Entertainment was blind.”

    Which brings us to what entertainment might be and a little essay by Eco, unearthed by my friend and former editor Tunku Varadarajan where Eco discussed the telltale signifiers of pornography not in terms of anything particularly dirty but in terms of all its captive mundanity.  A work becomes pornagraphy, in essence, when it has so little to say that it is actually forced to say something beyond all of the expected sex talk, just to fill the time.

    It’s always a little strange to talk about ethical obligations in making art, as there is really no obligation for anyone to do it in the first place. But Eco and Wallace are both moralists on this point.  If the art is to be something other than pornography or other than potentially harmful, the artist does have obligations to the audience and, here’s the thing -- you never know who you’re reaching.  We’d all agree (probably) that what you do and don’t say to friends and family has moral implications.  So what about what you might potentially say to millions of people if you write a mammoth book that defines a literary generation and then take your own life, like the auteur in said book, well shy of its 20th anniversary.

    Too bad Wallace and Eco are dead, as I think they’d have a lot to discuss.  Wish Wallace had stuck around to see 84.


    Yes, they're not much alike, and reading them feels very different, but they do clearly belong to the same extended clan.


    Genius is in the eyes of the beholder.

    Justice Brennan (who had four daughters, hahahahahah) thought that pornography was in the eyes of the beholder; but beholding what? hahahahahha

    Eco was a God to me!

    And I do not contend that I am some worthy critic!

    I read The Name of the Rose before I saw the saw presented in a movie.

    I was awed then as I am awed now.

    84 aint that bad an age to 'bite it'.

    And I never found myself with an erection whilst reading Eco!

    Thank you for remembering Eco.

    How can the individual; the genius survive in a world like this. How does one free oneself from the bonds of social/political/religious doctrines?

    Well, one does what one can.


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