Umberto Eco was internationally known as a best-selling Italian novelist whose works have been translated in all the major languages in the world. Besides a novelist, he was also a semiotician, a literary critic and an expert in aesthetics. His speech on Indian Aesthetics in the French Institute of Pondicherry, on October 20, 2005, was indeed an enthralling experience for us.
Eco had written only seven novels. The Name of the Rose (1980), Foucault’s Pendulum (1988), The Island of the Day Before (1994), Baudolino (2000), The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2005), The Prague Cemetery (2010) and Numero Zero (2015). All of them were instant successes. But only the last-mentioned novel, Numero Zero, has a contemporary setting. All the others plunge into a mysterious past, involving a lot of symbolical elements that could only be elicited from a semiotic point of view. Though the average reader can enjoy reading them, the overall feeling he gets in the end is one of mystification.
Eco summed up his approach to writing in an interview at a live event in London, organised by The Guardian, in 2015. “I don’t know what the reader expects. I think that Barbara Cartland writes what the readers expect. I think an author should write what the reader does not expect. The problem is not to ask what they need, but to change them … to produce the kind of reader you want for each story.”
Although his fame rests chiefly on his novels, he evinced keen interest in various intellectual fields. He had once said: “I am a philosopher; I write novels only on the weekends.”
Eco had made a mark in the field of semiotics, which was prevalent in 1980s and which attempted to interpret cultures through their symbols and signs. In literary works, symbols and signs challenge the reader and provoke them into an intellectual exercise which would only increase the pleasure of reading. The title of his first novel The Name of the Rose may lead to several interpretations. One interpretation often given is that the ‘rose’ of the tile, if it refers to an Aritotle’s manuscript, is to be never discovered in the novel: It is just ‘named’. Similarly, in Foucault’s Pendulum, the pendulum constantly swings, making it impossible to arrive at a single, fixed interpretation.
In a series of articles on Superman, which appeared between 1962 and 1978, he lays bare the superficiality of the superhuman heroes of popular fiction, like the heroes of Alexandre Dumas. They condemn vices, save the defenseless poor and damsels in distress (like the swashbuckling heroes of our films), but there is nothing ‘revolutionary’ in their acts, capable of changing the existing political or social setup.
Scholar in the field of Aesthetics
Umberto Eco is also an important thinker on aesthetics. His book On Beauty: A History of a Western Idea is an encyclopedia of images and ideas about beauty, from ancient Greece to the contemporary period. He had also a thorough knowledge of Indian aesthetics, as evidenced by his Lecture given in Pondicherry for a Transcultura Meeting (October 2005). His lecture focused particularly on the Indian ‘rasa’ theory.
He was in fact attempting a analysis of ‘rasa’ concept, denouncing the confusion that arises when we equate it, or make it appear synonymous, with the concept of ‘taste’ in Western Culture.
Every attempt to translate not only the words but the concepts of a given culture into the terms of another one depends on the same principles we use for translating from a given language into another. We know that there are no synonymous terms and that before translating we must compare the different semantic structures of two languages, to ascertain identities and differences, and then to negotiate a prudent translation able to take into account similarities and diversities in meaning.
He showed the danger of approaching Indian concepts with the prism of the Western mind nourished only by the Indian books translated into western languages. His speech was interspersed with amusing anecdotes, like the one about Marco Polo: When Marco Polo travelled to China, he was obviously looking for unicorns. Marco Polo was a merchant, not an intellectual, and moreover he was too young, when he started travelling, to have read too many books. But he certainly knew all the legends that at his time were circulating about exotic countries, so that he was prepared to meet unicorns, and he looked for them. Thus, in his way back, probably in Java, he saw certain animals that looked as unicorns, because they had a single horn upon their muse. Since an entire tradition prepared him to see unicorns, he identified them with unicorns. But since he was honest, he could not refrain from telling the truth. And the truth was that the unicorns he saw were very different from those represented by a millenary tradition. They were not white, but black. They had the hair of a buffalo, and their hoof was as big as that of an elephant, their tongue was thorny, their head looked as that of a wild boar. As a matter of fact what Marco Polo saw were rhinoceroses.
Eco cited Raniero Gnoli, who, in his introduction to the Italian translation of Abhinavagupta's Tantrashara, wrote that "those who want to understand Indian philosophy on the light of Western philosophy risk to understand very little if not nothing".
Eco quoted extensively Indian scholars, which shows how deep and sincere was his attempt to define the ‘rasa’ concept. He pointed out the contradiction that exist among Indian scholars:
Batta Lollata assumed that art is an imitation of reality and that the effect of a drama is a spiritual state of particular intensity (and it seems that his interpretation is a homeopathic one), but Sankuka said that the rasa is not an intensified spiritual state because art cannot be an imitation.
Eco listed out his own findings :
So far, I think we have identified at least 15 different aesthetic phenomena that I list by translating them in terms of Western aesthetics.… All of them, in some way, cover an aspect of the notion of rasa, without exhausting its whole semantic space. Not only, can't they be accepted all together because if the rasa is to be identified with one of them, then it cannot be identified with the others.
Finally, he concluded that ‘rasa’ cannot be equated with the concept of ‘taste’ in the Western culture:
It is not easy to decide how many theories of rasa existed and to what an extent they are mutually compatible; and I believe that a comparison with Western concepts cannot help so much to find identities at any cost, but rather to describe discrepancies. Umberto Eco’s intellectual journey transcended the narrow frontiers of fiction, trying to reach the unfathomable intricacies of the universal mind.
The writer is former head of department of French, and dean of School of Humanities, Pondichery University.