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How to meet Umberto Eco
First, you have to spend three months searching the internet, seeking out everyone he might possibly know, scouring Italian university telephone directories and questioning all his secretaries, literary agents and colleagues, only to arrive at the conclusion that he ‘probably even has difficulty finding himself’ and deducing that he just doesn’t respond to letters, faxes or e-mails, because ‘if someone really has something important to say to me they’ll find a way of doing so’. Then you have to wait six months, ask an old friend of his to write a personal recommendation and send a letter to his secretary requesting a meeting. Next, you have to make an intrepid journey to Milan armed with Eco’s private address and Origen’s treatise Peri Euches (On Prayer), which describes in detail the inner state necessary for prayer. When you exit this state of mind, you have to act on the first thought that comes into your head and set off in search of the address you’ve been given, and having found the right apartment building and discovered that the list of names on the door includes Studio U.E., you explain to the porter that you’re there to meet U.E. When he asks if you’ve got an appointment, you cross the street, sit down in the shade of a tree and continue reading Origen. When you see a taxi pull up outside the building and the person who gets out looks like Umberto Eco’s son, you position yourself near the main entrance to the building and wait for two and a half minutes. Then, glancing to your right you see a figure striding off in the opposite direction. This is the man who wrote The Name of the Rose. You wait until the porter has shut the door and then you hurry after him, apologise, ask if he really is Professor Umberto Eco, and when he asks, ‘What are you doing in Milan?’ you reply, ‘I’ve come here to speak to you.’ In response to his next question, ‘How long are you staying in Milan?’ you answer, ‘Until I’ve had a chance to speak to you.’ Then you calmly listen as he explains that he’s been away for the last two weeks, only arrived back in Milan yesterday and that he’s leaving for Bologna tomorrow for two days, from where he’ll travel on to Jerusalem for three days, followed directly by a five-day seminar in Oxford and a three-week lecture tour of the USA. Realising that this was the only day over a period of a month and a half that it was even possible to meet him in Milan, and that on this single day, this was the only moment you could have encountered him, when, after sitting at his computer for eight hours, he’s stepped out to withdraw some money from a cash machine, you remind yourself of the reason you’ve come here and have no choice but to take advantage of his offer to talk to him there and then.
How to interview Umberto Eco
First, don’t rush. When you’ve lingered for two hours over a gin martini during which your conversation has been constantly punctuated by cries of ‘Professore!’ from every passer-by and waiter, and your meeting is brought to a close with the words ‘Well, I have to go now. I told my wife I was just popping out to withdraw some cash’, you finally have to admit that you want to interview him, and when he says, ‘You understand that I don’t have any time: I’m going to Bologna tomorrow’, you reply, ‘So am I.’ The next day you buy a first class train ticket to Bologna and then you stand and wait for the grand old man of erudition to arrive, swamped in his wide-brimmed hat. You have to realise that you’re the 5,737th person to interview him, and that this is someone who knows the interview genre as well as he knows the back of his hand and mediaeval cultural history. Realise, too, that he detests interviews because they require him to adopt a narcissistic attitude, and you have to remember that after his novel, Baudolino, was published in German translation, he spent three months giving between three and five interviews a day, in honour of which he and his German translator put together a list of the ten most stupid questions he had been asked (and how he had responded). The first question on this list was ‘Why did you choose this title for your novel?’ (Answer: ‘Because the rights to the title Pinocchio belong to a different publisher.’) The last question was: ‘What is the most stupid question you’ve ever been asked?’ (Answer: ‘That one.’) Take all this into account and you won’t feel disconcerted if, after the first few questions, you’re faced with an awkward silence.
What to do after Umberto Eco has died
What now after Umberto Eco has died? First, we must remember that ‘the author should die once he has finished writing. So as not to trouble the path of the text’ both because ‘the book is smarter than its author’ and because the author is an added obstacle to the reader’s extensive, yet limited possible interpretations. Then we must take into account that we should fear prophets and ‘people who are ready to die for the truth, because, as a rule, they make many die along with them, often before them and sometimes instead of them’, whereas there is no point in fearing a dead author who is certain that the one and only truth is that there is no one and only truth. We should also keep in mind that ‘in order to successfully die once, one must meditate on the art of dying in a timely and frequent manner’, independently of whatever all-inclusive category of humans—cretins, fools, idiots or imbeciles—one belongs. If Umberto Eco is right that man is not only a ‘religious animal’ but also the only living creature capable of appreciating the comical and that man possesses this ability precisely because only man is capable of being aware of his end and mortality, then nothing remains but to continue cultivating the main strategy of resistance to the fear of death, i.e. to continue seeing the comical in the world and human tragedy, and to laugh.
My first question will be a very long and broad one. Do you think that semioticians, structuralists and linguistic philosophers and the like, working in the sixties, had any real impact on scientific and philosophical thinking? Or, were their efforts a complete failure, or a partial failure? Or do you think their work still has some meaning?
You know, I have an anecdote. You know that in the sixties everybody in France was a structuralist. Then, during the ’68 movement, structuralism came to be considered bourgeois because everybody was a Marxist; so structuralism declined. Legend has it that, starting his lessons again after the events of 1968, Claude Lévi-Strauss said, ‘Maintenant, que la mode est finí, travaillons.’—‘And now, that fashion is gone, let’s work.’ So in the sixties, after 1964, after Roland Barthes et le monde de la sémiologie, there was this blow up, blowing up of semiotics. And it was an important movement, because it convinced people that within the universe of science, communication is an important matter. At that point everybody wanted to be a semiotician. I’ve seen people who studied literature, who published a book in literary criticism, create a new cover for their book: Semiotics in Literature. So there was this exaggeration. Then people who really wanted to work on semiotics, like Lotman, like Greimas, like myself, and others, continued their work. And a lot of people said: Oh, semiotics is dead—and they shifted to psychoanalysis, and then deconstructionism, and they shifted to… So, literary and scientific fashions always exist—it’s a natural phenomenon. I think now there are some more or less serious people working on the subject, and it’s OK. In a way, I would say we’re still exaggerating. I once read the programme for the international congress in Berkeley, it was 1994, and I made a list which I’d say was comic, but which showed an exaggerated imperialism. There was even semiotics of death, semiotics of microbes—yes—so maybe it’s an exaggeration, because the only thing I believe is that semiotics isn’t a single, unified science. In a way, it’s a manner of looking at the world so that you see significations and communication things everywhere, so you can apply certain semiotic instruments to a lot of different phenomena. And it’s basically, not only, but also, a philosophical approach. Because you have to define what you mean by things, signs, semiosis and meaning. In this sense, like in philosophy, like in the philosophy of language, you can be a hermeneutic, you can be an analytical philosopher, you can be… I mean there is no unified canon. Structuralists like Greimas are interested in certain problems; the line which has developed the ideas of Charles Sanders Peirce—and I rank in this line [of thought]—are developing another… There are people interested in structures of narrativity and people interested in cognitive science—the way we give meaning to something in perception—this, too, is a semiotic approach. So analytic philosophy has a very restricted canon—they read and study Frege and Wittgenstein; they have a unified language and everybody’s read the same books—and they work by answering each other: you write a paper, I write a paper to answer you; they work with a unified terminology. In semiotics, this isn’t the case. I think this can create confusion and misunderstandings, but it’s also a sign of the semiotic approach’s energy, its force.
Yes… I think it’s a sign of youth, yes? We’re still looking for the first time at certain things using the semiotic approach, while in analytic philosophy, it feels like you’re in an old mediaeval university—you continue to discuss the same concepts and you lack the courage to discover new approaches. And if you find new approaches, you break with analytic philosophy, as happened with Rorty and people like that.
But tell me, considering the work that’s been done and the work still being done within the semiotic approach, does it do any good for some new young mind to elaborate his own philosophical approach—does it help in any way?
I think so, I think so. I see my students…sorting out a sort of semiotic mind, a semiotic way of seeing. Then, even though they’re concerned with other problems or different activities, they’ve elaborated a mental method for approaching certain problems. Even though they work on the Internet or in advertising, they have a special analytical mind. So, I still believe… In Bologna, after the curriculum reform, we have the first three years, then the specialisation, and now we’re starting to offer a two-year programme in semiotics. And what we say is that after that you can do whatever you want. It gives you something, some mental ability… You can analyse newspaper articles, political speeches, novels or even social behaviour, but if you have semiotic training, according to me, you’ve acquired something.
If semiotics is a certain way of looking at things, is there something this approach cannot see, something it misses?
Yes, certainly, there are a lot of things. I once debated about whether semiotical literary criticism is possible. And they said no such literary criticism exists because when approaching a work of literature, maybe you’re interested in sociological aspects, historical aspects, you can use a lot of semiotics in making literary criticism. I will give you an example. Lotman was certainly a semiotician, but when analysing Pushkin, he also used a historical method, biography, Pushkin’s personality. I don’t know if that can be done with semiotic instruments. I don’t think it can. Normal historiographical instruments are enough. In The Role of the Reader, I said that, semiotically speaking, we have no interest in the author’s intentions; we’re interested in what the text says. The fact that the author wanted to say such and such is irrelevant. But say somebody tells me that in [reading] Rimbaud it’s important to know he was a homosexual, otherwise you don’t understand his poems. I have two answers: either his homosexuality is evident in the text, and then it becomes a textual issue, or not, and [then] it’s gossip. It is irrelevant. Let me give another example: whether or not Galileo Galilei was a homosexual, his equations and scientific discoveries are the same. We now know that the great Turing—the father of cybernetics, so to speak, the one who deciphered all the Nazi codes, the great mathematician, the father of modern computers—now a lot of biographies are being written and they say that he committed suicide because he was a homosexual, and that he suffered because of it in the England of that time. This is irrelevant to the scientific discoveries… He could have done what he did if he was a woman, heterosexual, etc. In other cases, homosexuality is embedded in the text. OK, if you want to write a psychological biography of Turing, which would be interesting, very human, you can do it without semiotic instruments, you do not need semiotics to play tennis. The world is full of… I wouldn’t like to exaggerate by saying that semiotics can look semiotically at everything, even at the way those seats are made. It does not solve every problem. For instance, the fact that this seat fits me comfortably, that the fabric is designed to help me sit comfortably…is probably a problem the semiotical point of view cannot approach, but it is a real problem.
Is it possible to consider the world as a whole from this point of view?
That is a metaphysical problem. Semiotics can help you analyse your philosophical language and criticise or not criticise your metaphysical approach. In my opinion, when Kant decided that you cannot apply the notion of causality to the world as a whole or to the origin [of the world], he was, in his way, making a good semiotic analysis. When he said we need a notion of freedom as a postulate for practical reason, this was another good semiotic analysis. But…
It was or was not?
Yes, it was, because he said that in order to have moral behaviour, I must build a certain vision of the world, certain beliefs. And the subject of beliefs and assumptions can be approached semiotically because it is a way we give sense to the world. So the world is not, probably, a semiotical problem. The way we give sense to the world is a semiotical problem—or, picture of the world, such as the one given by, I don’t know, a Mediaeval encyclopaedia—that’s a semiotical subject. The Big Bang is, probably, not a semiotical subject, but the way scientists can speak or not speak of the Big Bang, by interpreting certain traces, that is a semiotical subject.
I see the difference. Do you think a new turn away from current scientific or philosophical curricula is possible? If so, do you think any of the existing philosophical approaches could form the basis for a future philosophy, or some future approach to the world?
Listen, I am not a prophet.
The only thing I know is that in the same way human beings are religious animals, they are unique…
Do you think so?
Yes. In fact, religion was invented by human beings, not by dogs. It’s like smiling, something particular to human beings. We don’t know if monkeys have religion, but it’s certainly a human affair. Even atheists look at the world in a religious way. It is because of this that they’re atheists. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t care. So the religious problem is basic for human beings. Even if you don’t believe in a specific religion, if you do not believe in God, the religious question is still fundamental. And I think philosophical questions will always survive because in the beginning, philosophy was concerned with everything—in Aristotle’s time, philosophy discussed the form of skies, everything, and then science took over. But, philosophy is still basically concerned with the questions that have no answers. And I think, even though science can explain a lot, there will always be questions with no answers. Why are we born? Science can explain how the father fucked the mother, and so on… But why? Or the great Leibnitz question: Why is there being rather than nothing? That’s a question without an answer, or the one to which you can always give a different answer. This is a typical philosophical question. This type of question will survive, I think, till the end of our species. And then, it isn’t possible to predict how these questions will be answered in the next ten, fifty or one hundred years. I will tell you something. When I was a young student in aesthetics, my professor said to me, ‘Why don’t you write an essay about those new trends in semantics, in aesthetics?’ and I said, ‘No, I’m not interested, I don’t think it’s important.’ He asked me this question in 1960. In 1962 I was writing The Open Work; in 1962 I read Jakobson and I started to focus my attention on the relationship between semantics and aesthetics, semiology. This means that three years before that, I hadn’t realized a shift was about to occur, a turning. It’s not always easy to discern a shift. It
But you don’t feel any turn now?
No, I mean, in many directions yes, but I don’t know which will be the winning turn. Maybe in the next thirty years it will be New Age, or New Nazism. Turns can be… You cannot explain them, you can… In the first two decades of the 20th century, a lot of young people, even those with liberal ideas, were ferociously nationalist and they loved the war. They volunteered for the war freely, but they were not necessarily fascist. At that moment Europe was obsessed with the idea of war as a great mystic experience. For us, this is unthinkable; for them it was the dominant philosophy, before the war of 1915. You read texts written by people that you’d consider democratic, liberal, not totalitarian, but they had this idea of war as a mystic experience, capable of rejuvenating their country. Incredible, but for them it was a philosophical turn.
If you cannot predict which direction will win, could you say whether you like or dislike the current philosophical context?
What do you mean by ‘current philosophical context’? There are a lot of different contexts: the old Nietzschean; analytical philosophy; hermeneutics; the new philosophy of political science; the new philosophy of freedom and justice, like Rawls; there are semioticians rereading Pierce; there’s deconstruction. There is no one philosophical context. There is, probably, in Russia, a new mystic movement based on rereading Berdyaev; I don’t know. I don’t see a leading philosophical movement. Then, if you go to America, analytic philosophy seems to dominate the universities. This happens only in America, and partly in England, but outside the philosophy departments, deconstructionists make a lot of philosophy. So it’s only by mistake that you identify the American philosophy by looking at what they’re doing in philosophy departments. It’s as if in Galileo’s time, you were to identify philosophy with what the late Scholastics were doing in the universities, when real philosophy was being made by scientists. I think real philosophy was always where it wasn’t officially recognised. Descartes was not a professional philosopher, Pascal was not a professional philosopher; the idea of the professional philosopher starts in 19th century Germany with Hegel, Fichte…it’s very recent.
Do you think the real philosophers of today are outside recognized academic…
Sometimes they are, and we’re unable to recognize them. To get back to our subject, I think there’s a lot of good philosophy among semioticians.
But do you think there might be somebody outside the philosophical establishment, whose work will be discovered later?
Probably. You know, if you read the vulgarisation books written by Einstein or Heisenberg—the great scientists—they were great philosophers. But at that time, nobody thought they were philosophers. They wrote those books to explain their scientific discoveries, but I read them as great philosophical contributions.
You once said that we live in a babbling society, in a society of babble. Could you compare the 20th century with previous ones as far as level of intellect? Was it more stupid, or not?
No, rather there happens to be something… Philosophy, for example, became very, very technical. I mean, a man in the seventeenth century could read Descartes and understand him, he could read Pascal and understand, he could read Locke and understand perfectly, like any cultivated person nowadays can read Locke and find something there. In the same way, you could read Plato, except two or three very technical dialogues like Parmenides or Sophist. While today, to understand a contemporary philosophical text, you must be a professional philosopher. Until the moment in which… (Yes, I’ll have coffee. Yes, with sugar. Yes, thank you, I haven’t had anything today.) So maybe the real philosophical texts of our time are being written by somebody working on artificial intelligence, on medicine—I’m thinking of certain essays by Oliver Sacks—or on cognitive science, scientists like Gerald Edelman. Their texts are understandable for nonprofessional philosophers, and they’re full of philosophical wisdom. But, probably, we’ll only realize it in the next fifty years; you never realize it in its own time.
Now, if we may, I’d like to leave philosophy for a bit. You mentioned that you think humans are religious animals. Have you somehow defined your position towards religion?
No, I was a Catholic, and a good one, until the age of twenty-two. Now I have a secular vision, but I repeat, I think the religious questions are the important questions.
But are they important to you?
Yes, also for me. I had the exchange of letters with the cardinal of Milan, Monsignor Martini—he is a very brilliant and open mind—they were published. I asked him: How do you solve, say, the problem of abortion from a religious point of view? And he asked me questions like: How can you recognize an ethic, moral behaviour if you do not have a religious background? And I tried to answer him: I can have a notion of solidarity, respect, love for people; I think, I can give sense to my death, having a religious vision of mankind, of something continuing…
But what happened at the age of twenty-two?
That is a private question between me and God. Ask Him.
Martin Luther once said that everybody has his own God, something he trusts, that gives him meaning, power, etc. Who is your God in this sense?
If you want a philosophical answer, it’s Spinoza’s God. Read Spinoza and you will see.
When I asked you about the possibility of coming to Riga, you said the only reason for coming would be immortality. What kind of immortality do you imagine for yourself, and why do you want it?
The immortality of my works. I hope that in the next century, somebody—maybe two persons in the world—reads a page I’ve written, and so I’ll continue to speak, that’s all. Like my sons and grandchildren, that’s my immortality.
But that kind of immortality wouldn’t be a reason for going or not going anywhere, because it doesn’t depend on coming and going.
No, but as far as I remember, I said immortality would be a guarantee for coming to Riga, because if I cannot come next year, I cannot come in the next thirty or forty years. It was a joke. I told you why I’d like to come to Riga, because I’m always trying to… I have this idea of a backwards immortality, retracing my childhood, my origins. My last novel, Baudolino, is about my origins, my native city. Well, when we bought our first radio, it was an old Telefunken radio with the luminous panel, with the red and yellow, with the strange noises. At the time, I was fascinated by certain magic names I saw there and didn’t know before, one of them was ‘Riga’. And I went there with the short waves—twitch, twitch, eñg, eñg, twitch, eñg—and I listened and didn’t understand anything; they spoke another language. But there was music, and I remember I was exploring those strange places in the world. So coming to Riga would be the same… Two years ago, I went to Timbuktu. Why? Because it was a magic name from my childhood, it was in the adventure books I read.
Is there such a place?
In Mali; it’s still a magic city because it was this sort of great centre for the African empires, and it’s still a holy city now. The sand has completely destroyed the looks of the city, but they still have manuscripts. And I wanted to go to that magic place of my youth. It was sort of a revenge against my past; I couldn’t see it then, I wanted to see it before I die.
So Riga is in a sense another Timbuktu?
Another Timbuktu. There are cities that aren’t a Timbuktu for me. I’ve been in Tokyo, and Tokyo wasn’t a Timbuktu for me. But when I was in Beijing, it was a sort of Timbuktu.
Where is Alessandria, the city of your childhood and your last book?
It is a city of ninety thousand people that was established in the Middle Ages against the emperor Frederick Barbarossa, and he besieged it. So there are many legends about this siege and about this war. Nothing else, I think. The most important feature of contemporary Alessandria is that I was born there. (Laughs.)
Now it’s become an important city. Maybe in the future somebody will go there just because that’s where you were born.
Maybe there are already little kids who think of Alessandria as a kind of Timbuktu.
Since it was a figure in my last novel, why not? Probably, people who have read the novel will go to Alessandria to see if it’s as I described. But I described it as it was in the 12th century.
May I ask you a metaphysical question? From what I’ve read of your work, I see that you’re always looking for new ideas. Where do new ideas come from?
I have a combinatorial notion of ideas. They aren’t springing from nothing. They’re springing from a new combination of old ideas.
But that position prevents one from answering how the first ideas appeared.
No, we have no possible theory about the origin of language and no theory about the origin of ideas. Because you can only make science if you have objects. You can say that the dinosaurs and mammoths existed because there are bones. You can say that Troy existed because there are remnants of Troy. You cannot dig and find original sounds and original ideas. So, we are condemned to not solving this problem. Then, there’s a metaphysical idea that was very dangerous and heretical in the Mediaeval Ages, one I share with Averroes, the idea that the world is eternal. So maybe some other species before us nurtured ideas.
Yes, but if the world is eternal, God is useless.
But gods in the sense that they are older than humans.
Ah, yes, gods, why not? They were nice fellows.
If we can’t discover the origins, is there any dead man you’d like to talk with, if it were possible, anyone whose texts weren’t enough?
I would like to, but the texts are enough. The proof is that in my seventy years of life, I haven’t had enough time to read them all—so the texts are more than enough. Why would I want to talk with some Babylonian person if I haven’t read Gilgamesh yet?
Wouldn’t you like to talk with Plato?
No. I have a policy—I’ve always tried not to meet writers I admire. I admire them because of what they’ve written, but maybe, if I met them, they’d say silly things: How are you, or something like that. So it isn’t important. Sometimes life has made it necessary to meet people I admire, and I was very happy to become their friend. But I’m not the kind of person who says: I adore the works of Mr So-and-so, I want to meet him. No, no, I don’t want to meet him. I was good friends with Erving Goffman, you know, the great sociologist who analysed our everyday life and so on. Fortunately, I read his books before meeting him. Then I met him at a convention, and we became good friends. And one day, we were sitting in a bar, like you and me yesterday, and he looked around—there was a lot of traffic—and he said, ‘You know, Umberto, I think there are too many cars in modern cities.’ It was a triviality to the extreme, but he was a genius, he was certainly a genius. And even a genius…he was surprised by the quantity of cars; maybe he was contemplating it for the first time in his life. If I’d met him before reading his books, I would have said: No, Goffman isn’t so important because he has trivial ideas. On the contrary, he had brilliant ideas, but talking with him was not a great experience.
You said that you were friends.
Yes, we discussed various things. With a friend you can talk about the landscape or the weather… So, no… Maybe I’d like to meet a Neanderthal man, but I suspect communication would be difficult, and then I think he would stink, he would be too dirty.
Professor, why do you read books?
Who said I read books? I write books.
Well, you seem to have read a couple of books! Or don’t you read anymore?
No, no, I read. Once I wrote an article for a booklet intended for young people, an answer to the question: Why should you read books? Because you will live a longer life. For a poor, illiterate person, his life is very short; he or she remembers what happened in his childhood, in his adult life, and when dying, all he or she remembers are sixty, seventy years of life. I am able to remember the life of Julius Caesar, what happened to Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. So my memory is full of the lives of other people. I haven’t lived seventy years; I’ve lived seventy thousand years. My memory, my experience, is richer than that of a poor, illiterate person. So reading is a way to live longer and have more experiences.
But is living longer a good in itself?
Well, I think people would agree that everybody prefers to die at eighty rather than twenty, except suicides. There was this comic character on Italian TV who specialised in a very popular philosophy. Being a great wise man, he told only true things. For instance, he would reflect and say, ‘It’s better to be young, rich, beautiful and in good health than to be old, poor, ill and ugly.’ True. It was great philosophy. It is better to live two thousand lives instead of only one. Usually. I can imagine a Tibetan monk who has lived all his life on a mountain peak, always looking at the same landscape, whose interior life is such that his life is richer than mine. But he has simply invented what he hasn’t read. With a great interior life, you can, practically without realising it, recreate the wisdom of three thousand years. So this is a way to become wise without reading. But those are very exceptional cases; reading is easier.
Have you become wise by reading?
I think so. Also by thinking and reflecting. I think I am wise to the extent to which wisdom exists. As the ability to analyse a situation, to understand a situation. To be wise means also to be indulgent with other people’s weaknesses. That’s also a sort of wisdom. I have great pieces of wisdom that help me in life. Suppose a plumber comes to adjust my tap and is unable to do it. The water leaks again, and my wife is desperate and says, ‘How can he be so stupid?’ I say, ‘If he were intelligent, he would be a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna.’ (Laughs.) So I cannot be severe towards him. With this idea in mind I can understand a lot of people. And I think this is wisdom.
But you remember that philosophy was first defined in contrast to wisdom: wisdom was for the gods, while we humans could at best be lovers of wisdom. How does your notion of wisdom relate to wisdom as an object of eternal search? How does the wisdom you have relate to the one that is unattainable?
Since I have to communicate with you, I only choose pieces of wisdom that are understandable. Then there’s unattainable wisdom, which is also part of wisdom: I don’t know enough. But I know why the plumber was unable to fix the tap, so I understand him. Then I know other things; for instance, I believe myself to be wise, because, after I’ve written something, I immediately suspect it’s false. Yes. This helps me to go on. You know Woody Allen: I would never become a member of a club willing to accept me. (Laughs.)
I’d like to ask you about the media. There was a time when the media were understood to be a means for communicating a message. Then came Marshall McLuhan who said the medium is the message. Can you make sense of this oxymoron?
No. At the time, I wrote a piece criticizing McLuhan; the title was ‘Cogito interruptus’, so Descartes’ cogito and coitus interruptus. Cogito interruptus because from a semiotic point of view, he mixed up… By ‘medium’ he intended a lot of things: signifier, signified, channel; his notion of medium was really confused. So I said that if by ‘the medium is the message’ he meant that being exposed to TV every day changes your mind, irrespective of content, that’s true and is true a lot of the time. The medium was the message, and the French people were uninterested in elections because they were bombarded by TV every day, by politicians saying the same things, but when they discovered a new message, that Le Pen was winning, 80% of the French went to vote and voted for Chirac. That was a case where the message was the message. The French were shocked by the message. Sometimes, for people watching TV every night, the medium really is the message; it says: I am here, I am consoling you—the content is irrelevant, but at other times it isn’t the message. So McLuhan’s phrase was a paradox saying something true for certain situations.
But how exactly is a mind changed by watching TV every night?
You come to need this sort of nervous excitation—the content of the message is really irrelevant, provided you have a sensation of being in touch with the world through the television. In this sense, the medium is the message; it is irrelevant what is said. But, I repeat, if suddenly on TV they say that an atomic bomb was exploded three miles away, I think you would realise that there’s a message, and you’d do something different.
To my mind, there’s been a real obsession with the media in the second half of the 20th century…
Do you think the media’s omnipresence and explosive growth have made us lose something?
I once said that media like TV damage the rich but are useful for the poor. I mean, obviously, an intellectual, a cultivated person, even a local rich person, who consumes too much media loses a lot—he doesn’t read books, etc. But there were other people… You know, in Italy, until the fifties, Italian wasn’t the real national language; the dialects were enormously important, and TV unified a standard Italian. I had an old aunt, who had a horrible life, closed up in a room because she was sick, and we gave her a TV. For her it was a way to be in touch with the world, it changed her life… Her life was better. That’s why I say TV is bad for rich people but it can be good for poor people. This too is a paradox. OK, but there are situations in which the media expand our information, make us more sensitive to what’s happening in the world, and other times when they make us less sensitive. A new terrorist attack in Jerusalem—one per day and you become accustomed to it. I think sometimes… Somebody asked me: Can the computer change our way of writing? It’s like asking whether aspirin helps to prevent heart attacks or not. Aspirin has been around for a hundred years, and there haven’t been enough experiences to tell if it’s good or bad. How can you tell what influence computers will have on writing, when the first personal computers arrived twenty years ago? This is a very short time. Even the media, our notion of them, TV, etc.—it’s been fifty years; it’s difficult to tell. To lose a tail or develop language, the species needed millions and millions of years. Today everything goes faster, but sometimes fifty years isn’t enough to say to what extent a new thing has changed the species. Also, the species is reacting to changes. The invention of trains and cars has certainly reduced our body force; we walk less because we’re transported. Five centuries ago, we would go from Milan to Bologna walking—fifteen days and we’d be there. But at the same time, the species has invented sports and many activities to strengthen the body, getting a sort of balance. So, maybe we don’t understand how, but probably we are… You know, when young people are sitting together in a square being silent or talking to each other, we think they’re stupid, but maybe it’s their reaction to the media’s influence—finding places where they’re free from technological influences. And they touch each other, they have this new kind of communitarian experience, which isn’t mine, OK, I belong to another generation. But probably it’s a way for the species to react… It’s too early to get any statistics on this, but it seems that young people watch less and less TV and they’re using the Internet more. If this is true, will it be a passage, a real turn? positive or negative? Who knows, but it could be a trend.
Several Eastern texts have this image of an angel of death who recognizes the person at his moment of passing by a sign that’s particular to that person alone. Can you imagine what your particular sign might be, the one that will make you recognizable to the angel of death?
Ask the angel of death. No, we don’t know what our real sign is; maybe we’ve spent all our life around that sign without realising it was there. For my seventieth birthday, there was a feast at my countryside house; all my old students came—fifty people—and they gave me fifty balls of glass with a hole in each, and inside the hole was a message, in every one. In the evening, I read all the messages, and each in a way said how they loved me and why, and what they had learned from me. I discovered that each had learned something different from what I taught them. They loved me for other reasons, not the reasons I believed. So what is my sign? Maybe they know it; I don’t. They received something from me that was enormously different from what I thought I had given them.
Now, here’s the very stupid question: Who are you?
That is the very stupid question.
There’s a story about this Sufi who knocked at the door. When he was asked, ‘Who’s there?’ he replied, ‘If I knew, I wouldn’t be standing here.’
I can give you a Zen answer. (Claps his hands.)
There are some people who’d like to know if you are a Jew.
No, I am not.
Isn’t it strange that you’re so wise but you’re not a Jew?
Someone said that everyone is a bit of a Jew.
I think I have a very Talmudic mind. So in this sense I could be culturally Jewish, but biologically, as far as I know, I’m not. Maybe some of my ancestors were, unknown to me.
It seems that you really like living, that you enjoy it. What is your source of joy in life?
But I don’t know if I really enjoy living. I give that impression out of politeness. When I talk to people, I try to be brilliant, to tell jokes and nice stories in order to please people. Maybe personally I’m not so happy. But then…joys are always transitory. The day after tomorrow, I’ll go see my grandchild, and at that moment, I’ll be very happy. Yesterday I had two gin martinis, and I was really happy. If I’ve been searching for a book for years and I find it in some catalogue, I’m very happy. It only lasts a short time.
So you wouldn’t agree with Gilbert Keith Chesterton who said that he likes the being, the fact that there is something; he loved the fact that he is.
Yes, but this applies even to animals. Since we are being, we love being. It’s our situation. For this same reason, I like oxygen. I prefer oxygen instead of no-oxygen.
Do you prefer being to no-being?
That isn’t clear because I’ve had seventy years’ experience of being and no experience of not being. And you’ll never be able to ask the question about no-being when I’ve had this experience. Again, for difficulties in communication.
You said that you can give sense to death without any religious understanding. What sense can you give it?
This was told to me by an old communist, when I was a young Catholic. I asked him, ‘You don’t believe in God; if you died tomorrow, how would you give sense to your life and your death?’ And he said, ‘I’ll ask for a civil, not a religious, funeral. I’ll be dead, but I’ll leave a lesson, an ideological lesson, with this gesture. So even my death will be useful—it will tell others what I believed and what I thought was right.’
Will your death be a lesson?
I have an advantage over that man—I’ve written books, so I’ve already left something behind. I have no problems with my last message. I’ve put in my testament that I want the last two lines of ‘La Città del Sole’ by the Renaissance philosopher, Campanella, written on my tombstone. It’s a dialogue between a knight and a mariner, and the last lines are ‘Aspetta, aspetta!—Non posso, non posso.’ ‘Wait, wait!—I cannot, I cannot.’
Questions by Arnis Rītups