Top positive review
Interesting but uneven
on March 7, 2010
Although I admire Eco's broad learning and his usual clarity of expression, I did not find this book as revealing as I had hoped. He does have a wonderful definition: "a work of literature is a miracle of invention." I had hoped to get a better understanding of semiotics from the book, since he is a semiotician. He never quite gives it to me, although he includes some insights. For example, in relation to the passage just quoted, he says: "semiotic inquiry is reduced to the discovery of the same constants in every text and thus loses sight of the inventions." On the next page, he adds that "semiotic discourse often fails to distinguish between 'manner' and 'style.'" He then summarizes Hegel's points that manner is "a repetitive obsession of the author" (Eco's words) while style is "the capacity [of a writer] constantly to outdo himself. And yet it is textual semiotics that is the only critique capable of bringing out such differences."
So what is semiotics? He never specifies, but he does say, "In the realm of style (as a way of giving form) belongs not only the use of language (or of colors, or of sounds, according to the semiotic systems or universes used) but also the way of deploying narrative structures, portraying characters, and articulating points of view." Later he observes that "if proper criticism is understanding and making others understand how a text is made, and if the review and the history of literature are unable to do this adequately, the only true form of criticism is a semiotic analysis of the text." Further, "a critical review cannot be exempt, except in cases of exceptional cowardice, from pronouncing a verdict on what the text says," but "textual criticism . . . is always semiotic even when it does not know it is, or even when it denies it is."
Now Webster defines semiotics as "a general philosophical theory of signs and symbols that deals esp. with their function in both artificially constructed and natural languages and comprises syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics." Thus, I thought his essay "On Symbolism" would be helpful. It is to a degree, but though less obscure than Hayden White (for example), Eco is almost equally hard to pin down, intentionally I think. For example: "Sensitivity to the symbolic mode stems from having noticed that there is something in the text that has meaning and yet could easily not have been there, and one wonders why it is there." And: "A symbol is an epiphany with Magi whose origins and destination we do not know, nor whom they have come to adore."--a wonderful metaphor, but it is less than precise about what symbolism really is. A little more helpful, perhaps: "Today it is we who demand that poetry, and often fiction, supply us not just with the expression of emotions, or an account of actions, or morality, but also with symbolic flashes, pale ersatz elements of a truth we no longer seek in religion."
More helpful about deconstruction than symbol, he speaks of "today's deconstructionist heresy, which seems to assume that a divinity or malign subconscious made us talk always and only with a second meaning, and that everything we say is inessential because the essence of our discourse lies elsewhere, in a symbolic realm we are often unaware of. . . . [T]he symbolic diamond, . . . meant to flash in the dark and dazzle us at sudden but very rare moments, has become a neon strip that pervades the texture of every discourse. This is too much of a good thing." A bit further on, he says "the second heresy is to be found in the information world [including coded phrases], which seeks a secret meaning in every event and every expression. This is the curse of the contemporary writer." Since we are incapable of finding a real symbol, "we look for it even where it does not exist as a textual mode." This is hardly reassuring to anyone who feels obliged to identify and interpret what appear to be symbols in a text, although it gives useful hints.
There is much more, and the collection of essays is well worth reading if only for its bon mots and its fruitful ambiguities, but let me conclude with a pronouncement about philosophy, narrative, and truth: "Instead of going to look for truth in the philosophers of the past, much contemporary philosophy has gone to look for it in Proust or Kafka, Joyce or Mann." (I know this to be true from my own readings.) "Thus it is not so much that philosophers have given up pursuing the truth as that art and literature have also taken on that function."
Recommended for anyone interested in understanding literature and criticism who is not expecting every essay to be as insightful as some of them are.