Umberto Eco Takes Semiotics to the Masses
Hale, Clinton, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Among the select group of literary critics who have had an impact upon popular culture, Umberto Eco, the Italian professor of Semiotics at the University of Bologna, should be considered one of the most influential of the past thirty years. Though he has produced a large number of academic treatises, his enduring fame is centered upon his popular novels in which he applies his theories in a practical format that can be (and is) enjoyed by the average reader, allowing him to spread his understanding and viewpoint via non-academic means. Although he has written several scholarly works, and continues to produce more, he is able to use the medium of the novel to connect and communicate with people from all walks of life. Through these avenues of communication--the academic work and the popular work--Eco demonstrates the power of symbols in both written form and images. He uses these symbols to identify with his audience and establishes a wonderful connection with his readers, as discussed by Birgit Eriksson in comments about Eco's novel The Name of The Rose:
[There is] a connection between the novel and his interests in both popular culture and medieval history and aesthetics. Nor [is] it difficult to see a connection to his semiotics, and the novel has often been read as 'really' being about something besides the dark monastery murders: for example as being just a fictionalized version of his theoretical work. (1-2)
By understanding this methodology, interpreters of Eco's works have a framework in which to function. He takes his own personal interests and makes application with this theoretical work. He believes that most people can better understand the world around them by reading fiction, rather than academic theories (Eriksson 4).
Eco's Background and Semiotics
Growing up in the 1930s and 1940s in Italy, Eco was profoundly shaped by the reign of Benito Mussolini and the events of World War II. This is evident in many of his works, especially The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. His work and study in Semiotics was further affected by his conversion from the Catholic Church to atheism, which had an impact upon his use of specific symbols. After first gaining recognition as a scholar and adept literary and social critic, Eco entered the world of fiction, publishing his first, and most famous, novel The Name of the Rose. He has since published five more popular novels, in addition to continuing to develop his theories on Semiotics and Literary Criticism.
Semiotics investigates signs and the delivery mechanisms "that humans use to convey feelings, thoughts, ideas, and ideologies" (Ryder). Eco exemplifies this sort of study as he describes, in an interview with Theodore Beale, his motivation for writing the novel The Island of the Day Before:
I asked myself if it was possible to speak in a liberated way about Nature. That's where I got the idea of an island, an island in the Pacific, untouched by human hands. It was interesting that in the case of my character arriving there for the first time--not only for himself, but for all humankind--and watching the things that no human eye had seen before, he didn't have names for them. I was excited about telling the story through metaphor, instead of using the names. From my semiotic point of view, it was an interesting experience.
In this response, we can see Eco creating a fictional setting in which a character must learn to recognize and relate to the world around him, while that world does not fit into any previous environment the character had experienced. Although the character cannot force that environment into a preconceived understanding, he must struggle with the type of language that should be used to describe the animals. This tension is the result of a prior determination by a cognitive model (Eco, Serendipities Language and Lunacy 55). Roberto, the main character in The Island of the Day Before, resorts to calling exotic birds by more common European names. …