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Inventing the Enemy: Essays
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
First introduced to Umberto Eco after seeing the 1986 film "The Name of the Rose" shortly after it was released, I was enthusiastically describing the performances by Sean Connery and F. Murray Abraham to a friend. She asked if I had read the book, which I had not, and she offered to loan me her copy. I read it and had to get my own, and The Name of the Rose became a personal favorite, closely followed by Foucault's Pendulum (1988), my favored conspiracy theory novel.

But the author is also an excellent essayist, and his new title Inventing the Enemy: Essays does not disappoint. Always informative, often thought provoking, and frequently entertaining, this one will appeal to fans of this Italian novelist, philosopher, semiotician and literary critic. For those who are new to Umberto Eco and want a sampler, it's an excellent place to start.

The title essay here, "Inventing the Enemy" is the first, and ties in to a topic of his earlier novel, The Prague Cemetery, by illustrating how the presence of an enemy is essential to a nation's success. The first pages set the theme, as one finds early into this essay:

"Having an enemy is important to not only define our identity but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our system of values and, in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth. So when there is no enemy, we have to invent one."

The author skillfully illustrates his hypothesis, using Osama bin Laden, 'The Negro', Austrians and gypsies who 'stink', and Jews to illustrate how we cannot seem to manage without an enemy. Romanians (in Italy), along with criminals and prostitutes, witches, "ugly ducklings" (quoting from Shakespeare's 'Richard III'), and the excesses of hate in George Orwell's novel 'Nineteen Eighty-Four,' to name a few.

His essay "Absolute and Relative" delves into several philosophies relating to the ideas presented in the title, and while the author explains concepts regarding both the absolute and the relative, he concurrently shows how neither term can be exactly understood. We are left without the pleasure of solving the ambiguities of the absolute and the relative, but the process of investigating these notions is entirely satisfying in its own right.

Eco's following essay, "The Beauty of the Flame," focuses on fire, and the author notes how fire, the "divine element" can help support life, but can also extinguish it. The flame has such enormously conflicting attributes, and the author takes an outwardly understandable subject and builds it to a captivating mystery.

"Treasure Hunting" delves into various religious icons, both known and unfamiliar, from the Crown of Thorns to the swaddling clothes of Jesus, to name a few. And it isn't just religious artifacts that Eco touches upon; there are such diverse items as Elvis Presley's Cadillac(s) to the items offered in Christie's auction catalogs. And one senses the author's dry wit just below the surface with some of these.

Each essay here offers something fascinating. "Fermented Delights" will surprise the reader. "No Embryos in Paradise" will be provocative for some readers, where Eco assesses St. Thomas Aquinas's theories regarding embryos and their souls. The author skillfully avoids taking a hard stance on issues such as abortion, using this essay to assess Thomas's beliefs. It does, however, offer food for thought to a topic that does cause much debate in the contemporary world.

Without delving into these, Eco examines the controversial with his typical depth of view. "Thoughts on WikiLeaks" looks at the ongoing WikiLeaks scandal, and some will agree with Eco's observations, while others will not. "Censorship and Silence" examines various means of restricting the media, noting that "Noise becomes a cover." And regarding noise, I had to laugh at his comment: "Look at that idiot walking along the street, wearing his iPod headphones..." The rest of his observations here in this essay are profound.

Eco's explorations of "Imaginary Astronomies," complete with historical illustrations is highly entertaining, while his essay, "Why the Island Is Never Found," is to this reader one of the more fascinating, offering a geographical combination of fact and fantasy, highly illustrated, and why islands become lost... and are never found.

There are other essays here, and all of them are good to excellent. I've left no spoilers here, but leave the reader to find the joy of exploring them and their diversity, as they are always good food for thought.

For those who enjoy Eco in essay form, his earlier Misreadings (1993) is still in print, and offer the reader vintage satires written between 1959 and 1972. In this his "The Discovery of America" chronicles Columbus' 1492 landing via news casting techniques used for man's first walk on the moon. His highly irreverent How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays show this curmudgeon at his literary best, and is a personal favorite.

The author's creativity knows no bounds. These essays in this book illustrate the range of the wit and wisdom of this author, and it doesn't take long to understand why Umberto Eco is considered by many to be one of the greatest essayists and authors of our time. If you like to think and read at the same time, this book of essays is highly recommended.

8/6/2012
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon July 26, 2012
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I've always found Umberto Eco's novels rather frustrating, since I end up spending most of my energy in trying (usually unsuccessfully) to solve the puzzles rather than in enjoying the story. This book is unencumbered with narrative and gives us Eco's insights into a wide variety of subjects. He's a fox rather than a hedgehog, and I've rarely seen a collection of essays that ranged over a wider area! We hear his thoughts on relics, both sacred (Christ's foreskin) and secular (Elvis's Cadillac), an astonishing collection of quotes from irate Italian fascisti on James Joyce, and a remarkable appreciation of Victor Hugo, to name only a few. The title essay, on the need to invent enemies from within when lacking ones from without, is probably the highlight, but all of them are worth reading. And the variety is such that if you don't like what you're reading, just hang on for a few pages.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on December 30, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Inventing the Enemy and Other Occasional Writings is an exceptionally eclectic collection of previously published or presented essays written in a variety of styles, from scholastic to wistful, and dense to delightful.

Just as I was in a café reading the first essay, "Inventing the Enemy" a young man with Planet Enemy walked by. In Eco's piece, from a lecture at Bologna University on May 15, 2008, he explores the notion of the enemy - who we, collectively and individually, regard as our historical enemies, but also our cultural enemies, whether real or perceived or invented. For example, he cites ancient to contemporary texts to illustrate his point, from Marcus Cicero's 63BC Orations against Catiline to Jean-Paul Satre's No Exit (1944) to George Orwell's Nineteen Eight-Four (1949), as well as historical events (global conflicts). He writes of people's intolerance of other races, lower classes, and of people who are different from "us." "The enemy is ugly," he states, and adds, "The need (for an enemy) is second nature even to a mild man of peace. In his case the image of the enemy is simply shifted from a human object to a natural or social force that in some way threatens us and has to be defeated, whether it be capitalistic exploitation, environmental pollution, or third-world hunger."

Basing our lives on "this Other" and finding "this Other intolerable because to some degree he is not us" we "create our own hell," Eco writes. The enemy springs from our own fears, insecurities, intolerances, and even virtuous causes. So when we see Planet Enemy on a T-shirt we remember our own fictional heroes and villains, but we may also reflect on good versus evil, and them against us.

In his second essay, "Absolute and Relative" - a lecture presented during the Milanesiana festival on July 9, 2007, Eco explores the idea of truth, of cultural relativism, of moral relativism, and of faith and conviction. He examines the history of truth, what is a subjective fact, and that which may be open to interpretation (and therefore open to dispute) according to a set of definitions, rules of physics, or some other means, such as history, philosophy, or divinity. Each has their own "various degrees of verifiability or acceptability." He ponders whether "if there were no facts but only interpretations, then an interpretation would be an interpretation of what?" and "if interpretation interprets each other, there would still have to have been an object or event in the first place that has spurred us to interpret."

Not all of Eco's 14 essays are as esoteric as the two mentioned above. The light-hearted "Living by Proverbs" is comical, and the "Censorship and Silence" is a thought-provoking off-the-cuff piece, while "Thoughts on Wikileaks" is sure to evoke controversy. "Why the Island is Never Found" talks of the fascination people have for islands, and the creation of maps as explorers sought far off islands: islands lost and islands found and islands that don't exist.

Readers will find something of interest in this heterogeneous collection. And with the density of some essays, re-reading will bring twice the pleasure, or twice the pain. And because one does not lead into the other, the essays can be cherry-picked according to a reader's moods and concentration levels. At any level, the "occasional writings" are intellectual and influential.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose, Foucault's Pendulum, Baudolino, The mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, The Prague Cemetery) is an Italian semiotician, essayist, philosopher, literary critic, and novelist. This collection offers fourteen `occasional pieces', or writing created for specific events and in essence are thought provoking and sometimes intimidating essays. Though always maintaining the dignity and stance of a humanities academic, Eco appears to play joyfully through topics, such as the human need for enemies; the beauty, importance, and history of fire; whether the fallout from WikiLeaks will require espionage technology to regress to "a lonely street corner, at midnight." Most of these dazzling little words adhere to conventional essay formats, two humorous collage-style works (one on the danger of proverbs, another composed of Fascist critiques of Ulysses) provide the kind of spice for which the dour Eco is known. Avoiding exaggeration, Eco's thoughts are nuanced, reserved, and refreshingly reader friendly. Some of the essays do become thick with content and may in those cases put off the light reader. He often jumps into a topic in medias res (not providing too significant background information for his subject at hand), often dipping into other languages without bothering to translate his quotes. Some readers will find the writing and the subjects a bit too obtuse, but for those who love the melodic manner in which he writes so seductively well, then this collection will well satisfy. and seems reluctant to clue in readers to helpful background information, as hinted at by many a snippet quotation in another language included without translation or elaboration.

As is the case when many novelists approach the essay (Harold Brodkey comes to mind, among others) the audience changes. But for anyone who has read at least one of Eco's delicious novels, then there is bound to be food for thought and mind, as well as Eco's passion, curiosity, and obsession for knowledge in this sterling collection. Grady Harp, July 12
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 24, 2012
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
It is difficult to summarize this collection of essays, or "occasional writings." Perhaps Mr. Eco says it best when he writes: "...here I will limit myself to confounding your ideas rather than clarifying them. These essays engage and stimulate the reader, but they do not reach firm conclusions.

Mr. Eco has previously written several entertaining but difficult novels. I have read The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum. I read them before the internet was available, which is significant because his writing is interspersed with references to history, geography, literature, science and almost everything else, giving an average reader up to despair if they have no references at hand. This writer produces a densely packed prose which is nevertheless highly readable. I stopped frequently to look up the things I could not understand, had never heard of, or just wanted to understand better, so these were long books for me. I can't say that they were my favorite books of all time, but they have a special place on my shelf, because I did enjoy them, and I learned so much from them (except for that chapter about James Joyce). All difficulties aside, I have a soft spot for an author who loves books as much as I do, and especially a man who loves lists.

Inventing the Enemy is a book of essays, easier and faster to read than the novels, but more difficult to digest. Mr Eco delves into philosophy, thinking about thinking, about who we are as a species, and why we are so contradictory. I don't agree with some of his ramblings, but they did make me think, which is typical of his writing. His conclusions are reasoned, not extreme, and backed up by examples, which serve to bolster his arguments (except for that chapter about James Joyce).

In short, enthusiasts of Umberto Eco will welcome and enjoy these essays. Some who know nothing of the man will fall under his spell by way of this collection, others may be put off forever. Such is the way of things. I eventually found myself re-reading some of the essays, a process which I heartily endorse, even though I do it rarely.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 23, 2012
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is my second book of essays by Umberto Eco (I read Travels in Hyperreality some years ago), after heaving read several of his novels. The eponymous essay is a studied look at the ways in which a country's or a people's success is often tied into their relationship to a perceived enemy. It's an interesting concept, and one that he explored in his most recent novel, Prague Cemetery. Naturally, there is a discussion of the current American intervention in the Middle East. And, really, does it seem tragic or merely convenient that not a decade after the United States lost its greatest moral/intellectual foe with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Islamic fundamentalists arose as an obscure enemy to design the lives of the next generation of Americans?

However, while this is certainly a fascinating essay, I found a couple of other entries even more intriguing. One is titled "No Embryos in Paradise," and examines Thomas Aquinas' position on the spirituality of the human embryo. Most interesting of all for me is the very short, "Thoughts on WikiLeaks." Here, Eco suggests that Julian Assange revealed to the world nothing that was not already public knowledge. The highlight is an imagined scenario in which Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, fearing the prying eyes of Internet hackers, meet clandestinely during a masquerade ball to determine the future of the Eurozone.

In all, this collection is a wonderful mishmash of thoughts and analyses from one the great living essayists, with equal parts savvy and humor. I would most highly and enthusiastically recommend.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Eco explains "occasional writings" as its proper subtitle: he had no interest on the topics herein at first, but being commissioned or encouraged to contribute these pieces as essays, he reflected more on them out of necessity. Over the past decade, so they emerged to entertain himself and his audience as "an exercise in baroque rhetoric." Like that style, its ornamentation may intrigue some and lull others.

Any reader coming to Eco not for the first time expects erudition and range. His medievalism engages us in many entries. The titular one considers how his native Italy lacks enemies for the past sixty years, and how this undermines a national identity. So, enemies if not real must be invented, against which a people test their self-worth. Eco uses an array of classical, medieval, and fascist examples to prove this point, as well as Shakespeare, Sartre, and Orwell. He conveys with well-chosen excerpts, as throughout this collection, the lively spirit of rhetorical and intellectual excess.

"Absolute and Relative" takes on the present pope as well as Nicholas of Cusa, Pseudo-Dionysius, Lenin and Aquinas. These enliven the more bookish analyses of logic he applies. Fire in "The Beauty of the Flame" uses its metaphorical themes, with a dutiful citation from Bachelard before going back to hellfire, heavenly light, alchemy, luminosity, destruction, ekpyrosis, and even Joycean epiphany. This exemplifies Eco's range efficiently.

So does "Treasure Hunting," allowing him another romp into medieval relics displayed all over the Christian world. As with fellow scholar Piero Camporesi, a wonderfully eclectic investigator of odd lore, Umberto Eco in his tribute to this "gourmet of lists" as well as tastes and smells finds a fitting subject. Same for the stolid but offbeat "No Embyros in Paradise," to find what Thomas Aquinas thinks (as opposed to Catholic orthodoxy today!) about stem cells, embryos, abortion, and "the so-called right to life." Eco finds, no surprise, that the Angelic Doctor differed from the modern Church in when ensoulment entered the fetus.

Victor Hugo's "sublime excess" and that of the gothic (the original version!) novel slots Eco into the grotesque adroitly. Even if I lacked knowledge (as often in this wide-ranging book) of the source texts quoted often at wonderful length and astute choice, Eco's pleasure is infectious. "Censorship and Silence" takes a more serious turn, if Italy's "television showgirls" can pass as that via the term "valina" or "veline." He moves this discussion into current fears of censorship, and the ethical problem of how in a media-drenched world "to return to silence."

"Imaginary Astronomies" benefits by its charts and maps; how the earth and sky were charted by our ancestors segues into Jules Verne and science fiction and finally "true history." A "spurious review" titled "Living by Proverbs" follows as the first of three pieces of "real entertainment." The next on "sentimental digressions on early times" expounds (tediously at times for my tastes) on "anagnorisis" or "the change from ignorance to knowledge." These two felt fustier if perhaps intentionally so, more a drawing-room exercise by a wit. But, they preface my favorite, hauntingly and disorientingly composed of seventeen real excerpts from 1920-30s Italian reviews of James Joyce's "Ulysses" by fascist critics.

The penultimate essay looks at why utopia is lost and its islands never found, in visual and textual illustrations. The last, from December 2010, combines two articles on WikiLeaks as a "false scandal"--one that becomes public but which was known widely and whispered about in private long before. While subsequent events perhaps show the power of the authorities bent on taking its mastermind down, Eco leaves us with another smart remark: "technology moves like a crayfish, in other words, backwards." That is, compromised spies and duplicitous diplomats may have to retreat from electronic databases and networked communiques to the days of "meetings in the steam room of a Turkish bath, or messages left in the alcove by some Mata Hari."

Richard Dixon translates these assorted essays with vigor. It's fun to learn so much from 222 fast-paced, smart, and thoughtful pages. Intellectuals can have a blast too, and Umberto Eco in his lectures and discussions teaches us how to look fresh at the world of the past as well as the foibles that literature and history and philosophy (and theology and alchemy and astronomy) dutifully investigate, satirize, and pontificate upon.
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on March 4, 2015
Format: Paperback
It is harder than ever to write objectively about an author that you are blinded by. The source of this ocular diminution is an emotion at best, a revered thought at worst. I cannot say that I have read all of Eco but I have made my way through the famous novels and now through this slim book of essays. I am already several steps into being swept up in my own feelings about Eco because I love the way he writes and am tickled by the way he thinks. He is a very funny man and has few who can hold a candle to his audacious knowledge, scholarship and talent.

These short essays run the gamut from totally obscure, where our hero indulges his lust and fetish for lists and onwards to the profound, introspective, informative, etc. The first essay, which lends itself to the title of the collection is very good and is well placed to begin our journey into Eco-land. The essay on Victor Hugo took me a while to see where he was coming from but I found myself delighted by the incredible humor of the subject. The material in the essay on Imaginary Astronomies we have seen before in several of his novels. Outlining how unique and novel our ancient ancestors were in determining the lay of the heavens and how much sticking power and glue was provided by the fire breathing Church, we can only laugh when we read these things in light of the Hubble Space Telescope and other modern wonders of technology.

The essay Living by Proverbs I couldn't grasp until the very end when he pointed out that all of the material in the essay was gleaned from multiple real sources. Then it hits you how utterly absurd all the proverbs really were and still are.

At best these essays offer intellectual electric jolts that stimulate while they entertain and educate. If you look for new avenues of history or general knowledge that you want to be led into, Eco gently shows rooms full of potential visits, so many doors you can open if you have this or that interest. He is a living museum and I so enjoy reading him. One of the finest minds to grace our bookshelves, he does not disappoint and probably could not even if he tried.
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on June 24, 2013
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Difficult to review because it covers such a wide range of subjects, this compendium of "occasional writings," essays and lectures is nonetheless interesting and - as usual with Umberto Eco - well written and learned, covering a discussion of the essential points on matters of interest to the author. After only one reading, I have already memorized my list of favorites to which I will no doubt return again and again in the future. This is the beauty of a book such as this - occasional writings that are perfect for occasional reading. Therefore, Inventing The Enemy will make a comfortable traveler's companion, or be a stand-out read in a waiting-room, or the way to enjoy a relaxing moment at the coffee table, and, above all, it will be a friend at your beside table, well into the night. A joy to read and contemplate.
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on April 19, 2013
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
As allways, Umberto Eco shows deep knowlegde of history and filology to write a good collection of essays based on a series of lectures. As a transcription of those levtures sometimes the reading gets too repetitive but nothing that shall bore the reader. If you like a skeptik thinking way of view and can understand the true message behind the "prage Cemitery" author this is a worthwhile book.
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