Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Umberto Eco’

16 JULY, 2015

Umberto Eco’s Advice to Writers

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“If we think that our reader is an idiot, we should not use rhetorical figures, but if we use them and feel the need to explain them, we are essentially calling the reader an idiot. In turn, he will take revenge by calling the author an idiot.”

In 1977, Umberto Eco (b. January 5, 1932) — beloved novelist, author of vintage semiotic children’s books, proponent of the “antilibrary”, intellectual champion of lists, lover of legendary lands — published a slim book for his students, titled How to Write a Thesis (public library). Although it was intended as an academic aid for graduate students of literature, it endures as a lively, friendly, and immensely potent packet of advice for all writers. Partway between, in both time and ethos, the Strunk and White classic The Elements of Style and the contemporary counterpart A Sense of Style by Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker, this tiny treasure makes a fine addition to celebrated writers’ collected advice on the craft.

While the book deals with the entire ecosystem of the writing process — from choosing a topic to conducting research to planning and revision — in one particularly potent section, Eco offers his most direct advice on the writing itself. After making a general case for the value of rewriting, he offers a number of specific pointers:

You are not Proust. Do not write long sentences. If they come into your head, write them, but then break them down. Do not be afraid to repeat the subject twice, and stay away from too many pronouns and subordinate clauses.

[…]

You are not e. e. cummings. Cummings was an American avant-garde poet who is known for having signed his name with lower-case initials. Naturally he used commas and periods with great thriftiness, he broke his lines into small pieces, and in short he did all the things that an avant-garde poet can and should do. But you are not an avant-garde poet. Not even if your thesis is on avant-garde poetry.

[…]

The pseudo-poet who writes his thesis in poetry is a pitiful writer (and probably a bad poet). From Dante to Eliot and from Eliot to Sanguineti, when avant-garde poets wanted to talk about their poetry, they wrote in clear prose.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from 'Enormous Smallness' by Mathhew Burgess, a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings. Click image for more.

With his signature blunt wisdom — a hard-earned bluntness — he adds:

Are you a poet? Then do not pursue a university degree.

(The great prose writer William Styron believed higher education is a waste of time for all writers.)

Despite admonishing against breaking up lines in the style of the avant-garde poets, Eco does urge writers to break their prose into digestible segments:

Begin new paragraphs often. Do so when logically necessary, and when the pace of the text requires it, but the more you do it, the better.

In another point of advice, he could have easily titled “You are not Hemingway,” Eco encourages students to seek feedback from their mentors and cautions:

Do not play the solitary genius.

Eco continues:

Do not use ellipsis and exclamation points, and do not explain ironies. It is possible to use language that is referential or language that is figurative. By referential language, I mean a language that is recognized by all, in which all things are called by their most common name, and that does not lend itself to misunderstandings.

[…]

We either use rhetorical figures effectively, or we do not use them at all. If we use them it is because we presume our reader is capable of catching them, and because we believe that we will appear more incisive and convincing. In this case, we should not be ashamed of them, and we should not explain them. If we think that our reader is an idiot, we should not use rhetorical figures, but if we use them and feel the need to explain them, we are essentially calling the reader an idiot. In turn, he will take revenge by calling the author an idiot.

Given my distaste for writers who use italics and exclamation points for emphasis — a way of falling back on font styling and punctuation as the lazy substitute for prose that makes a point — I was particularly delighted by Eco’s admonition against one of the key “bad habits of the amateur writer”:

[Avoid] the exclamation point to emphasize a statement. This is not appropriate in a critical essay… It is allowed once or twice, if the purpose is to make the reader jump in his seat and call his attention to a vehement statement like, “Pay attention, never make this mistake!” But it is a good rule to speak softly. The effect will be stronger if you simply say important things.

In this short video from the same Louisiana Museum of Modern Art series that gave us Patti Smith’s advice to the young, Eco offers a higher-order — and perhaps the most important — piece of wisdom to aspiring writers:

How to Write a Thesis brims with more of Eco’s practical, pleasurably stern yet sympathetic advice on the craft. Complement it with Eco on why unread books are more valuable to our lives than read ones and his captivating narrative maps to imaginary places, then revisit other excellent advice to writers from Susan Sontag, Grace Paley, Ann Patchett, Susan Orlean, and Neil Gaiman.

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17 FEBRUARY, 2014

Legendary Lands: Umberto Eco on the Greatest Maps of Imaginary Places and Why They Appeal to Us

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“Often the object of a desire, when desire is transformed into hope, becomes more real than reality itself.”

Celebrated Italian novelist, philosopher, essayist, literary critic, and list-lover Umberto Eco has had a long fascination with the symbolic and the metaphorical, extending all the way back to his vintage semiotic children’s books. Half a century later, he revisits the mesmerism of the metaphorical and the symbolic in The Book of Legendary Lands (public library) — an illustrated voyage into history’s greatest imaginary places, with all their fanciful inhabitants and odd customs, on scales as large as the mythic continent Atlantis and as small as the fictional location of Sherlock Holmes’s apartment. A dynamic tour guide for the human imagination, Eco sets out to illuminate the central mystery of why such utopias and dystopias appeal to us so powerfully and enduringly, what they reveal about our relationship with reality, and how they bespeak the quintessential human yearning to make sense of the world and find our place in it — after all, maps have always been one of our greatest sensemaking mechanisms for life, which we’ve applied to everything from the cosmos to time to emotional memory.

Eco writes in the introduction:

Legendary lands and places are of various kinds and have only one characteristic in common: whether they depend on ancient legends whose origins are lost in the mists of time or whether they are an effect of a modern invention, they have created flows of belief.

The reality of these illusions is the subject of this book.

Saint-Sever World Map, from the 'Saint-Sever Beatus' (1086), Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France

T and O map, Bartholomaeus Angelicus, 'Le livre des propriétés des choses' (1392)

Tobias Swinden, 'En Enquiry into the Nature and Place of Hell' (1714), London, Taylor

Section of the 'Tabula Peutingeriana' (12th-century copy)

Map of Palmanova, from Franz Hogenberg and Georg Braun, 'Civitates orbis terrarum' (1572–1616), Nuremberg

Eco considers the allure of utopias as a tangible manifesto for the possible:

Often the object of a desire, when desire is transformed into hope, becomes more real than reality itself. Out of a hope in a possible future, many people are prepared to make enormous sacrifices, and maybe even die, led on by prophets, visionaries, charismatic preachers, and spellbinders who fire the minds of their followers with the vision of a future heaven on Earth (or elsewhere).

Anonymous, 'Jain Cosmological Map' (c. 1890), gouache on canvas, Library of Congress

'Ulysses' Journey Was Far from Home' | M.O. MacCarthy, 'Carte du monde d'Homère' (1849), New York Public Library

Map of the world according to Hartmann Schedel, in 'Liber chronicarum' (Nuremberg Chronicle), Nuremberg (1493)

Woodcut map of the island of Utopia on frontispiece of the 1st edition of Thomas More's 'Utopia' (1516), British Library

There is, however, an inevitable dark side to utopias, whose very presupposition of perfect happiness can itself become a burdensome form of oppression. Eco writes:

We would not always want to live in those societies recommended to us by utopias, because they often resemble dictatorships that impose happiness on their citizens at the cost of their freedom. For example, [Thomas] More’s Utopia preaches freedom of speech and thought as well as religious tolerance, but limits them to believers and excludes atheists, who are barred from public office, while it warns that “if someone takes the license to wander far from his own district and is caught without the pass issued by the supreme magistrate … he is severely punished; if he dares to do so a second time, he is condemned to slavery.” Moreover, utopias have the quality, as literary works, of being somewhat repetitive, because in wishing for a perfect society, we always end up by making a copy of the same model.

Illustration for Jules Verne's 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869-1870)

Abraham Ortelius, 'Map of Iceland' (16th century)

Above all, however, Eco sees in the imaginary a counterintuitive assurance of reality — fictional narratives, in a strange way, is the only place where we can become unmoored from our existential discomfort with uncertainty, for in fiction everything is precisely and unambiguously as it was intended:

The possible world of narrative is the only universe in which we can be absolutely certain about something, and it gives us a very strong sense of truth. The credulous believe that El Dorado and Lemuria exist or existed somewhere or other, and skeptics are convinced that they never existed, but we all know that it is undeniably certain that Superman is Clark Kent and that Dr. Watson was never Nero Wolfe’s right-hand man, while it is equally certain that Anna Karenina died under a train and that she never married Prince Charming.

The Book of Legendary Lands is magnificent in its entirety. Complement it with Codex Seraphinianus, history’s most beautiful encyclopedia of imaginary things, and Where You Are, a wonderful case study in cartography as wayfinding for the soul.

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04 JUNE, 2012

The Gnomes of Gnù: Umberto Eco Teaches Kids About Ecology Through Abstract Art

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A beautiful allegory about ecological collapse and salvation.

In the 1960s, celebrated novelist, list-lover, and philosopher Umberto Eco partnered with illustrator Emilio Carmi on an unusual children’s trilogy. First came The Bomb and the General, a primer on semiotics that used language as a malleable toy to comment on the nuclear age and deliver a message of peace. Then followed The Three Astronauts, employing recurring symbols in teaching kids to draw connections between text and image. Finally, nearly three decades after the original two, in 1992, Eco and Carmi produced the last installment: The Gnomes of Gnù (public library) — an abstract allegory about ecological collapse and the capacity for change, told through a Space Explorer (“SE”) who sets out to find a beautiful new habitable planet to which to port human civilization. But when he does find Gnù, the gnomes that inhabit it turn out to be less than interested in receiving civilization.

The Gnomes of Gnù is fairly hard to find, but Ariel S. Winter has kindly scanned it and made it available on Flickr in its entirety.

We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie

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15 MARCH, 2012

The Three Astronauts: A Vintage Semiotic Children’s Book about Tolerance by Umberto Eco

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An American, a Russian, and a Chinese walk into a semiotic space rocket.

In 1966, shortly after the release of The Bomb and the General, beloved Italian novelist, list-lover, and philosopher Umberto Eco published The Three Astronauts (public library) — the second installment in the same unusual and wonderful children’s book trilogy offering a conceptual introduction to semiotics — the study of signs and symbols. With its recurring symbols and beautiful, abstract illustrations by Italian artist Eugenio Carmi, the story invites the child to draw connections between text and image.

It tells the inspired and irreverent story of space exploration and world peace as a Martian shows concern for a frightened bird and teaches three astronauts — an American, a Russian, and a Chinese — a lesson in tolerance despite difference.

One fine morning three rockets took off from three different places on Earth.

In the first there was an American, happily whistling a bit of jazz.
In the second there was a Russian, singing ‘The Song of the Volga Boatman.’
In the third there was a Chinese, singing a beautiful song — though the other two thought he was all out of tune.”

Like The Bomb and the General, The Three Astronauts is a fine addition to these littleknown but fantastic children’s books by famous authors of adult literature.

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