Friday, August 1, 2008

Quote of the Day: Umberto Eco

I started reading Umberto Eco's On Literature today, and found some interesting snippets in his opening essay entitled, "On Some Functions of Literature." He discusses many issues, such as the formative influence of literature on language (like Dante's on Italian, Luther's on German, Homer's on Greek, etc.). The combination of different literatures and languages, in turn, shapes individual and communal identities. He discusses freedom and fidelity of interpretation. He has this to say about the relationship between the text and interpreter:
"The world of literature is a universe in which it is possible to establish whether a reader has a sense of reality or is the victim of his own hallucinations."
He also discusses how certain things are established in literature and cannot be changed because they have entered collective knowledge or can be directly looked up (like the identity of Superman as Clark Kent--Eco loves this example, interestingly enough), and finally how certain characters migrate from place to place, from literary text to literary text, from text to oral tradition and back again, and so on--like Little Red Riding Hood or Odysseus/Ulysses. On this latter matter, he writes:
"Where exactly are these fluctuating individuals? That depends on the format of our ontology, whether it also has room for square roots, the Etruscan language, and two different ideas on the Most Holy Trinity--the Roman one, which holds that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son ("ex Patre Filioque procedit"), and the Byzantine one, which has it that the Spirit proceeds only from the Father. But this region has a very imprecise status and contains entities of varying substance, for even the Patriarch of Constantinople (who is ready to fight the Pope over the "Filioque" question) would agree with the Pope (at least I hope he would) in saying that it is true that Sherlock Holmes lives on Baker Street, and that Clark Kent is the same person as Superman"
Another aspect of these characters is that the provide models for our behavior and to make sense of others' behavior, imposing literary characteristics in our conception of everyday life. In this way, literature also can shape our desires:
"We will have to find a space in the universe where these characters live and shape our behavior to such an extent that we choose them as role models for our life, and for the life of others, so that we are clear about what we mean when we say that someone has an Oedipus complex or a Gargantuan appetite, that someone behaves quixotically, is as jealous as Othello, doubts like Hamlet, is an incurable Don Juan, or is a Scrooge. And in literature this happens not only with characters but also with situations and objects. Why do the women who come and go, talking of Michaelangelo, Montale's sharp shards of bottles stuck in the wall in the dazzling sun, Gozzano's good things of bad taste, Eliot's fear that is shown us in a handful of dust, Leopardi's hedge, Petrarch's clear cool waters, Dante's bestial meal, become obsessive metaphors, ready to tell us over and over again who we are, what we want, where we are going, or what we are not and what we don't want?"
And, finally, literature teaches us that we are not always in control of our own destiny, and, in its fixity, that some things cannot be changed in the manner of Wikipedia:
"This is what all the great narratives tell us, even if they replace God with notions of fate or the inexorable laws of life. The function of 'unchangeable' stories is precisely this: against all our desires to change destiny, they make tangible the impossibility of changing it. And in so doing, no matter what story they are telling, they are also telling our own story, and that is why we read them and love them. We need their severe, 'repressive' lesson. Hypertextual narrative has much to teach us about freedom and creativity. That is all well and good, but it is not everything. Stories that are 'already made' also teach us how to die.'"
Literature, therefore, ultimately shapes our language, identity, behavior, desires, and, in its final less, our death.

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