Eco and Extremism

“Texas Cowboy” by the illustrator Stanley L. Wood (1866–1928). Public domain.
“Texas Cowboy” by the illustrator Stanley L. Wood (1866–1928). Public domain.

I’m reading Umberto Eco’s last novel right now, Numero Zero. I had picked it up in Rome this March, right after the maestro passed away, and have been carrying it around with me until I knew I had some wide open road to spend with it. I wouldn’t have minded reading in the piazzas of Rome, of course — stumbling between cafes on the streets of the Eternal City’s classic sampietrini. But this summer I’m back in the Texas hill country, where the heat, the brush, and the music are giving me everything I need.

Eco towered over the Italian literary scene as a prolific novel-writer, academic, and journalist. He was a “public intellectual” before we ever needed to design labels and put other people’s exuberance in a box. I came to Eco when I was a college student in Washington back in the late 1990s when, strolling the campus bookstore for summer reading, I stumbled across a English course whose professor had assigned The Name of the Rose. Peeking at its mysteries, I spied that it filled with whole pages of Latin. And, because I had been just returned from six months studying classics in Rome, I picked it up. So began my now fifteen-year-long conversation with this brilliant, though sometimes maddening, Italian storyteller. 

The Name of the Rose, published in English translation in 1980, still resonates with me in strange ways. Set in the Middle Ages, the story is a murder mystery that takes place in a monastery, set against the backdrop of Christian heresy hunters and — outside the parochial world of the Church — of broader Christian-Muslim dialogue taking place throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Over the course of seven days in the monastery, seven monks are murdered for trying to gain access to one of the most prized books in its library: the second installment on the theory of art and literature written by the philosopher Aristotle, called The Poetics.
Today, Book 2 of Aristotle’s Poetics no longer exists in any version or copy. We only have Part 1. Monks of the Middle Ages did know of this text, and in Eco’s novel, that seemingly insignificant detail of history becomes the seed of murder, conspiracy, and a threat to Christian faith. In The Name of the Rose, a shadowy unknown figure in the monastery struggles to keep the pious, cloistered community from being exposed to Aristotle’s “dangerous” ideas all while fighting to keep the previous ancient book away from the eyes of the detective-investigator, a visiting Franciscan priest. By the end of the story, Aristotle’s book and the entire library of the monastery will be engulfed in flames — a symbol of the closing of the mind that we often associate with the end of classical antiquity, the rise of the Christian Middle Ages, and the plague of religious fanaticism. 

I love this story. Even though it’s set in the 13th century, it speaks to the stranglehold that zealous believers put on those endeavoring to build an open, pluralistic society. Naturally, the shape of the society has changed quite a bit since the time and place of Eco’s novel. In the intervening centuries, the values of science, experimental investigation, and rational inquiry have all challenged the place of religion in shaping our world. What Eco succeeded in doing, however, is giving the past a clever immediacy, and it is one that still has an urgent moral component.

If you ask a classicist or Bible scholar about their hopes— “What, to you, would be one of the most exciting developments in your field?” — many might give you a wish list that sounds like the plot of an Eco novel. “If only we had the text of a lost gospel or an early manuscript of a letter written by Paul or more of the poetry of Sappho…” The details don’t need to be filled in for everyone to feel the depth of their dreams. Who wouldn’t want to find, buried in a library somewhere in Europe, an Arabic copy of a lost Christian text or perhaps a torn piece of papyrus, unearthed in the Egyptian desert, that has the earliest story of Jesus’ life written on it? 

No doubt that’s what drove Steve Green. An evangelical Christian and owner of Hobby Lobby, the plaintiff in a dubious “religious freedom” case that eventually reached the Supreme Court, Green has — in an almost miraculously short time — acquired a collection of almost 40,000 such artifacts, all of which will soon be on display in Washington, DC, in a new, privately-funded “Museum of the Bible.” The story behind how these “Bible Museum” objects were acquired is not yet public, and the ethical conversation about who might have owned them or how, when, or where they came from is ongoing. None of that seems to matter to Green, who credits God with the opportunity to bring the history of “The Bible” to Americans walking around the National Mall. As Green told The Atlantic this January, “God’s given us the ability to be very successful in our business, and I think to some degree it’s providential.” 

That brings me, at last, to Eco’s humorous parable of the cowboy in Abilene. It’s a joke narrated by a character in Numero Zero, a young woman named Maia, an aspiring journalist who is commenting on (among other things) the absurdity of those who believe that God has revealed to them what choices to make in their daily lives. One day, Maia says, a cowboy is out riding in a prairie and hears a voice from the sky. The voice instructs the cowboy to go to Abilene and, once there, to go to the first saloon he sees to make a wager at the roulette table. “Put all your money on Number 5,” the voice tells him. Seduced by the heavenly order, the cowboy obeys. He goes to Abilene. He finds a saloon. He bets everything on ‘5.’ The wheel spins — and the ball lands on ‘18.’ At that point, the cowboy hears a voice whispering from the sky, “Well, that’s a shame. We lost.” 

It’s enough to make you wonder whether God really can speak through the success of an American arts and crafts chain.

Parts of this essay were delivered at “Iconoclash,” a symposium on cultural heritage held in Washington, DC, in April 2016, organized and sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute, New York University in Washington, DC; the Goethe Institute, and the Italian Institute of Culture (Istituto Italiano di Cultura). The story of the cowboy in Abilene appears in the Italian edition of Numero Zero (Milan: Bompiani, 2015) at p. 100. Fans of Professor Eco will recognize that he plagiarized himself (“recycled”) the story almost verbatim from a column he wrote for the Italian magazine L’Espresso about the absurdity of George W. Bush’s apologizing so casually for the intelligence missteps which led to the Iraq war (L’Espresso, December 12, 2008).

Cultural Heritage, Italy