Serendipities: Language & Lunacy

Serendipities: Language & Lunacy

Serendipities: Language & Lunacy

Serendipities: Language & Lunacy

Synopsis

Best-selling author Umberto Eco's latest work unlocks the riddles of history in an exploration of the "linguistics of the lunatic," stories told by scholars, scientists, poets, fanatics, and ordinary people in order to make sense of the world. Exploring the "Force of the False," Eco uncovers layers of mistakes that have shaped human history, such as Columbus's assumption that the world was much smaller than it is, leading him to seek out a quick route to the East via the West and thus fortuitously "discovering" America. The fictions that grew up around the cults of the Rosicrucians and Knights Templar were the result of a letter from a mysterious "Prester John" -- undoubtedly a hoax -- that provided fertile ground for a series of delusions and conspiracy theories based on religious, ethnic, and racial prejudices. While some false tales produce new knowledge (like Columbus's discovery of America) and others create nothing but horror and shame (the Rosicrucian story wound up fueling European anti-Semitism) they are all powerfully persuasive. In a careful unraveling of the fabulous and the false, Eco shows us how serendipities -- unanticipated truths -- often spring from mistaken ideas. From Leibniz's belief that the I Ching illustrated the principles of calculus to Marco Polo's mistaking a rhinoceros for a unicorn, Eco tours the labyrinth of intellectual history, illuminating the ways in which we project the familiar onto the strange. Eco uncovers a rich history of linguistic endeavor -- much of it ill-conceived -- that sought to "heal the wound of Babel." Through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Greek, Hebrew, Chinese, and Egyptian were alternately proclaimed as the first language that God gave to Adam, while -- in keeping with the colonial climate of the time -- the complex language of the Amerindians in Mexico was viewed as crude and diabolical. In closing, Eco considers the erroneous notion of linguistic perfection and shrewdly observes that the dangers we face lie not in the rules we use to interpret other cultures but in our insistence on making these rules absolute. With the startling combination of erudition and wit, bewildering anecdotes and scholarly rigor that are Eco's hallmarks, Serendipities is sure to entertain and enlighten any reader with a passion for the curious history of languages and ideas.

Excerpt

In the introduction to my Search for a Perfect Language (1995), I informed the reader that, bearing in mind the physical limits of a book, I had been forced to omit many curious episodes, and I concluded: “I console myself that I have the material for future excursions in erudition” (6).

I made some of these excursions subsequently, and two of them were the subject of two lectures I gave during my term as Fellow in Residence at the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies at Columbia University in New York (October–December 1996); of these, I have included in this collection only one, the third essay. the second piece in this volume, on the languages of Paradise, I read in April 1997 at a colloquium held in Jerusalem on the concept of Paradise in the three monotheistic religions. the papers on Gabriel de Foigny and Joseph de Maistre were published in Italian in two collections dedicated to the memory of Luigi Rosiello. All these essays have been revised for the present volume, even though I could not avoid some repetition (which will be convenient, however, for the reader who does not read the chapters from the first to the last).

In collecting these pieces I saw that not only are they parts of the history of the search for a perfect language but they also have something else in common: they speak of errors (such as the European incomprehension of non-European languages or the mystical-reactionary view of language in Maistre, which leads him to absolutely risible etymological games) or else of fictional inven-

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