Standpoint’s Attack on Umberto Eco
Standpoint magazine has a section devoted to authors and other public figures that its columnists consider to be overrated. The purpose of the section, of course, is to irritate and to provoke. This month’s article, in which Daniel Johnson attempts to explain why Umberto Eco is a plagiarist, a bad author, and an anti-Semite, has succeeded in doing so.
Johnson’s evidence for plagiarism is ‘the home page of the extensive website of Umberto Eco’. On that website, sure enough, is written ‘When men stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing: they believing in anything’ - a line most commonly (though, as Johnson says, perhaps incorrectly) attributed to Chesterton. This would seem almost convincing as evidence of plagiarism – if not, that is, for the fact that the website referred to is a fan website neither affiliated with nor authorised by Eco (whose real personal website is here).
Next Johnson writes:
In his own eyes, at least, Eco is the opposite [of ‘the wisest fool in Christendom’]: the most disillusioned of men, ‘fascinated by error, bad faith and idiocy’, and thus perfectly equipped to expose everyone else as a fraud. In his recent published conversation with Jean-Claude Carrière, This is Not the End of the Book, he reveals that his vast library consists entirely of ‘books whose contents I don’t believe’; these ‘lies’ include a first edition of Joyce’s Ulysses.
The implication being, I guess, that it is unreasonable not to believe in the contents of Joyce’s Ulysses. But not believing in the contents of Ulysses seems about as reasonable as not believing in Gulliver’s Travels : it seems quite a lot to ask that Eco believe in the contents of works of fiction.
After a sentence or two on The Name of the Rose, Johnson makes yet another strange error. He writes:
[Eco’s] novels are case studies in postmodernism, which elides all categories of truth, beauty, morality and politics into an esoteric game. The Plan, which forms the theme of Foucault’s Pendulum, his second bestseller, shows Eco was already obsessed with conspiracy theories, involving everything from the Knights Templar to Kabbalah. But the subversive message of the novel is that conspiracy theories may after all be true, and secret societies may actually exist. The dissolution of reality into mere ‘narratives’ lends the conspiracy theory new life.
I do not think an intelligent person can have read Foucault’s Pendulum and come to this conclusion about it. The ‘subversive message’ of the book is, in fact, exactly the opposite of what Johnson claims it is: all the conspiracies are false. The polite assumption, then, would be that Johnson has not read Foucault’s Pendulum.
At any rate, he has nothing more to say about it, and instead spends the remainder of his brief article loosely discussing Eco’s recent novel The Prague Cemetery and accusing Eco of anti-Semitism. I have not read The Prague Cemetery, but I have read a fair few of Eco’s other books. That Eco is an anti-Semite will come as news to anyone even halfway familiar with those books.
Before that accusation comes, though, Johnson makes another. Try not to panic when you read this:
Eco claims that he has invented only one character, the protagonist Simone Simonini, whose fictitious diaries record how he forges the Protocols, frames Dreyfus, and infects Europe with anti-Semitism. ‘But on reflection,’ he adds, ‘even Simone Simonini… did in some sense exist. Indeed, to be frank, he is still with us.’ In other words, Eco deliberately confuses fact and fiction.
Eco deliberately confuses fact and fiction? Good grief: it’s almost as if he were a novelist or something. Are we seriously going to dismiss authors on the grounds that they confuse fact and fiction? We would be left with a slim canon indeed. Say goodbye to Cervantes, to Sterne, to Borges…
Ah, Johnson says, but the difference is this: Eco, in The Prague Cemetery, is writing about anti-Semitism: ‘Having immersed his readers in conspiracy theories against the Jews, he then leaves them wondering whether some of these vile slanders might, after all, be true.’ I think that Johnson would object to the inference that he was left wondering whether the Protocols were true. But if he wasn’t, who was? He doesn’t say, and probably made the accusation only in order to afford himself a final flourish:
The trouble with what his publisher calls “an inspired twisting of history and fiction” is that Eco is playing with fire. This time it is not a game. There is nothing esoteric about the Protocols, millions of copies of which circulate in the Muslim world. Anti-Semitism is on the march, not only in the Middle East but across the globe, including the West, fuelled by that multiplier of conspiracy theories, the internet. The leaders of Iran have made Holocaust denial state policy and signalled that they plan a second Holocaust, using nuclear technology supplied by, among others, Germany and Russia — the two worst persecutors of Jews in the recent past. Eco’s frivolous treatment of Jew-hatred as a cloak-and-dagger mystery, to fund his collection of incunabula, while real Jews are targeted by terrorists from New York to Mumbai and from London to Buenos Aires has left many readers feeling queasy.
The doubts sown by the book fall on fertile soil, for ours is a culture that long ago lost its bearings, thanks to the prestige of postmodernists such as Umberto Eco. He stands for the intellectuals of the 21st century who, like those of the last century, commit trahison des clercs by flirting with anti-Semitism when their duty is to take a clear stand against it.
But Eco has taken ‘a clear stand against’ anti-Semitism again and again throughout his career: he opposed the academic boycotts of Israel, writes against left- and right-wing anti-Semitism in his L’Espresso column, and otherwise makes pretty clear the contempt in which he holds anti-Semitism. It seems a bit much to assume that Eco is anti-Semitic on the basis of the opinions of a fictional character; to try and convince anyone else that he is on that basis - using only one quotation from one novel (and, bizarrely, a quotation from the publisher’s blurb) - seems tenuous indeed.
It’s difficult, frankly, to avoid the impression that Daniel Johnson wanted to write a piece explaining why Umberto Eco was overrated and, being unable to come up with anything more profound than personal dislike, decided to make an outlandish accusation of anti-Semitism. The general tone of snide sanctimony in Johnson’s article doesn’t exactly go against that impression. There are many postmodern intellectuals deserving of this sort of criticism - Standpoint often does a good job of criticising them - but Eco is not one of them.