Sunday, April 20, 2014

An Interview with Eco

With Marquez recently passing away, I relished this even more.

Some great snippets:

Have you read The Da Vinci Code?


Yes, I am guilty of that too.


That novel seems like a bizarre little offshoot of Foucault’s Pendulum.


The author, Dan Brown, is a character from Foucault’s Pendulum! I invented him. He shares my characters’ fascinations—the world conspiracy of Rosicrucians, Masons, and Jesuits. The role of the Knights Templar. The hermetic secret. The principle that everything is connected. I suspect Dan Brown might not even exist."


Many of your novels seem to rely upon clever concepts. Is that a natural way for you to bridge the chasm between theoretical work and novel writing? You once said that “those things about which we cannot theorize, we must narrate.”


It is a tongue-in-cheek allusion to a sentence by Wittgenstein. The truth is, I have written countless essays on semiotics, but I think I expressed my ideas better in Foucault’s Pendulum than in my essays. An idea you have might not be original—Aristotle will always have thought of it before you. But by creating a novel out of that idea you can make it original. Men love women. It’s not an original idea. But if you somehow write a terrific novel about it, then by a literary sleight of hand it becomes absolutely original. I simply believe that at the end of the day a story is always richer—it is an idea reshaped into an event, informed by a character, and sparked by crafted language. So naturally, when an idea is transformed into a living organism, it turns into something completely different and, likely, far more expressive.

On the other hand, contradiction can be the core of a novel. Killing old ladies is interesting. With that idea you get an F on an ethics paper. In a novel it becomes Crime and Punishment, a masterpiece of prose in which the character can’t tell whether killing old ladies is good or bad, and in which his ambivalence—the very contradiction in our statement—becomes a poetic and challenging matter."

I own a total of about fifty thousand books. But as a rare books collector I am fascinated by the human propensity for deviating thought. So I collect books about subjects in which I don’t believe, like kabbalah, alchemy, magic, invented languages. Books that lie, albeit unwittingly. I have Ptolemy, not Galileo, because Galileo told the truth. I prefer lunatic science."

If by intellectual you mean somebody who works only with his head and not with his hands, then the bank clerk is an intellectual and Michelangelo is not. And today, with a computer, everybody is an intellectual. So I don’t think it has anything to do with someone’s profession or with someone’s social class. According to me, an intellectual is anyone who is creatively producing new knowledge. A peasant who understands that a new kind of graft can produce a new species of apples has at that moment produced an intellectual activity. Whereas the professor of philosophy who all his life repeats the same lecture on Heidegger doesn’t amount to an intellectual. Critical creativity—criticizing what we are doing or inventing better ways of doing it—is the only mark of the intellectual function."

"If culture did not filter, it would be inane—as inane as the formless, boundless Internet is on its own. And if we all possessed the boundless knowledge of the Web, we would be idiots! Culture is an instrument for making a hierarchical system of intellectual labor. For you and for me it is enough to know that Einstein proposed the theory of relativity. But an absolute understanding of the theory we leave to the specialists. The real problem is that too many are granted the right to become a specialist."

I don’t believe one writes for oneself. I think that writing is an act of love—you write in order to give something to someone else. To communicate something. To have other people share your feelings. This problem of how long your work can survive is fundamental for every writer, not just for a novelist or a poet. The truth is, the philosopher writes his book in order to convince a lot of people of his theories, and he hopes that in the next three thousand years people will still read that book. It is just as you hope that your kids survive you, and that if you have a grandchild he survives your children. One hopes for a sense of continuity. When a writer says, I am not interested in the destiny of my book, he is simply a liar. He says so to please the interviewer."


Is comedy a specifically human invention, as you said lying is?


Yes, since it seems that animals are bereft of humor. We know that they have a sense of play, they feel sorry, they weep, they suffer. We have proof that they are happy, when they are playing with us, but not that they have comic feelings. It is a typical human experience, which consists of—no, I can’t exactly say.


Why not?


OK, fine. I have a suspicion that it is linked with the fact that we are the only animals who know we must die. The other animals don’t know it. They understand it only on the spot, in the moment that they die. They are unable to articulate anything like the statement: All men are mortal. We are able to do it, and that is probably why there are religions, rituals, and what have you. I think that comedy is the quintessential human reaction to the fear of death."

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Reading List

I'm not a Literature student but as the son of an English Literature Professor, I suppose my love of novels, short stories and poetry is innate.

I was going through a Reading List online and I thought this one compiled by UCL's English Department was a good one. I love the fact that there are still loads of books, supposedly for '14 year olds' and '16 year olds' that I haven't read. I look forward to reading them and crossing off this list one by one:

For 14 Year-olds

Adams, Douglas, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Alcott, Louisa May, Little Women
Austen, Jane, Northanger Abbey
Blake, William, Songs of Innocence and Experience
Bradbury, Ray, Fahrenheit 451
Buchan, John, The Thirty-Nine Steps
Card, Orson Scott, Ender's Game
Collins, Wilkie, The Woman in White
Cope, Wendy, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis
Dickens, Charles, David Copperfield
du Maurier, Daphne, Rebecca
Dumas, Alexandre, The Count of Monte Cristo
Durrell, Gerald, My Family and Other Animals
Faulks, Sebastian, Birdsong
Gaarder, Jostein, Sophie's World
Gibbons, Stella, Cold Comfort Farm
Ginsberg, Allen, Howl!
Golding, William, Lord of the Flies
Holm, Ann, I Am David
Hornby, Nick, Fever Pitch
Household, Geoffrey, A Rough Shoot
Joyce, James, Dubliners
Kipling, Rudyard, Kim
Lee, Harper, To Kill a Mockingbird
Maugham, W. Somerset, Stories
Maupassant, Guy de, Stories
McCullers, Carson, The Ballad of the Sad Café
Mitchell, Margaret, Gone With the Wind
Mitford, Nancy, The Pursuit of Love
O'Connor, Flannery, Everything That Rises Must Converge
Orwell, George, Animal Farm
Plath, Sylvia, The Bell Jar
Rhinehart, Luke, The Dice Man
Salinger, J. D., The Catcher in the Rye
Sartre, Jean-Paul, The Roads to Freedom
Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Sheldon, Sidney, Rage of Angels
Shields, Carol, Mary Swann
Smith, Dodie, I Capture the Castle
Stevenson, Robert Louis, Kidnapped
Twain, Mark, Huckleberry Finn
Tyler, Anne, The Accidental Tourist
Waugh, Evelyn, Scoop
White, T. H., The Once and Future King
Wodehouse, P. G., The Inimitable Jeeves
Wyndham, John, The Day of the Triffids

For 14-16 Year-Olds 

Achebe, Chinua, Things Fall Apart
Amis, Kingsley, Lucky Jim
Arnim, Elizabeth von, The Enchanted April
Asimov, Isaac, The Foundation Trilogy
Banks, Lynne Reid, The L Shaped Room
Barrett Browning, Elizabeth, 'Sonnets from the Portuguese'
Borges, Jorge Luis, Labyrinths
Bradbury, Malcolm, Eating People is Wrong
Brittain, Vera, Testament of Youth
Brontë, Charlotte, Jane Eyre
Brontë, Emily, Wuthering Heights
Burgess, Anthony, A Clockwork Orange
Butler, Samuel, The Way of All Flesh
Byatt, A. S., Possession
Camus, Albert, The Outsider
Coelho, Pablo, The Alchemist
Corso, Gregory, Marriage
de Bernières, Louis, The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts
Defoe, Daniel, Moll Flanders
Drabble, Margaret, The Millstone
Eliot, T. S., Prufrock and Other Observations
Fitzgerald, F. Scott, The Great Gatsby
Forster, E.M, Howards End
Fry, Stephen, The Hippopotamus
Gaskell, Elizabeth, Wives and Daughters
Gunn, Thom, Collected Poems
Hardy, Thomas, Far From the Madding Crowd
Hartley, L.P., The Go-Between
Heaney, Seamus, tr., Beowulf
Hemingway, Ernest, The Sun also Rises
Hoban, Russell, Kleinzeit
Hughes, Ted, Birthday Letters
Hugo, Victor, Les Miserables
James, Henry, Washington Square
Joyce, James, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Kafka, Franz, The Trial
Lawrence, D. H., Sons and Lovers
Le Carré, John, The Honourable Schoolboy
Lehmann, Rosamund, The Weather in the Streets
Lewis, C.S., The Screwtape Letters
Lodge, David, Nice Work
Mann, Thomas, Death in Venice
McPhee, John, Pieces of the Frame
Michener, James, The Source
Moliere, Le Misanthrope
Morrison, Toni, Beloved
Neruda, Pablo, The Captain's Verses
Orwell, George, Nineteen Eighty-Four
Owen, Wilfred, Poems
Pasternak, Boris, Dr Zhivago
Peake, Mervyn, Gormenghast
Plath, Sylvia, Ariel
Pynchon, Thomas, The Crying of Lot 49
Sassoon, Siegfried, Memoirs of A Foxhunting Man
Scott, Paul, The Raj Quartet
Selzer, Richard, Notes on the Art of Surgery
Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein
Soyinka, Wole, The Trial of Brother Jero
St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul
Stoker, Bram, Dracula
Swift, Jonathan, Gulliver's Travels
Thomas, Dylan, Poems
Trollope, Anthony, Ayala's Angel
Vonnegut, Kurt, Slaughterhouse-five
Wells, H.G., The Invisible Man
West, Rebecca, The Fountain Overflows
White, Gilbert, The Natural History of Selborne
Winterson, Jeannette, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
Wolfe, Tom, The Bonfire of the Vanities
Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One's Own
Wynd, Oswald, The Ginger Tree

For 16-18 Year-olds 

Albee, Edward, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Amis, Martin, The Rachel Papers
Asena, Duygu, The Woman Has No Name
Atwood, Margaret, The Blind Assassin
Austen, Jane, Emma
Barker, Pat, Regeneration
Barnes, Djuna, Nightwood
Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal
Bellow, Saul, Herzog
Bennett, Arnold, The Old Wives' Tale
Browning, Robert, Men and Women
Camus, Albert, La Chute
Carver, Raymond, Elephant
Castaneda, Carlos, The Teachings of Don Juan
Cather, Willa, My Antonía
Cheever, John, Collected Stories
Conrad, Joseph, Nostromo
Davies, Robertson, The Deptford Trilogy
Dormandy, Thomas, The White Death
Dostoevsky, Fyodor, Crime and Punishment
Duffy, Carol Ann, Standing Female Nude
Eliot, George, Middlemarch
Ellis, Bret Easton, American Psycho
Fielding, Henry, Tom Jones
García Márquez, Gabriel, Love in the Time of Cholera
Grass, Gunter, The Tin Drum,
Greene, Graham, A Burnt-Out Case
Hardy, Thomas, Jude the Obscure
Hawthorne, Nathaniel, The Scarlet Letter
Hesse, Hermann, Steppenwolf
Hogg, James, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
Hopkins, Gerard Manley, Poems
Huxley, Aldous, Brave New World
Kafka, Franz, The Castle
Keats, John, Odes
Kerouac, Jack, On the Road
Kundera, Milan, Life is Elsewhere
Laclos, Choderlos de, Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Lampedusa, Tommaso di, The Leopard
Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity
McEwan, Ian, Atonement
Melville, Herman, Moby Dick
Milton, John, Paradise Lost
Nabokov, Vladimir, Lolita
Narayan, R. K., The English Teacher
O'Brien, Flann, At-Swim-Two-Birds
Pinker, Steven, The Language Instinct
Pound, Ezra, ed., Confucius to Cummings
Rabelais, François, Gargantua
Rhys, Jean, Good Morning Midnight
Richardson, Samuel, Pamela
Rimbaud, Arthur, Poems
Sartre, Jean-Paul, Nausea
Scott, Walter, Redgauntlet
Sei Shonagon, The Pillow-Book
Shakespeare, Macbeth
Sophocles, Oedipus
St. Aubin de Teran, Lisa, The Slow Train to Milan
Steinbeck, John, East of Eden
Tennyson, Alfred, Poems
Thackeray, W. M., Vanity Fair
Tolstoy, Leo, War and Peace
Vergil, Aeneid
Voltaire, Candide
Waugh, Evelyn, Decline and Fall
Welsh, Irvine, Trainspotting
Wharton, Edith, The House of Mirth
Woolf, Virginia, To the Lighthouse
Wordsworth, William, The Prelude
Zamyatin, Yevgeny, We

So much to read! Perhaps, I'll add a "World Literature" List in another, future post.



Cathcart, Brian, "The Fly in the Cathedral: How a Group of Cambridge Scientists Won the International Race to Split the Atom"
Damasio, Anthony, "Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain"
Ridley, Matt, "Genome"
Weiner, Jonathan, "The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time" 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Barbara Frietchie

Barbara Frietchie
by John Greenleaf Whittier

Up from the meadows rich with corn,
Clear in the cool September morn,
The clustered spires of Frederick stand
Green-walled by the hills of Maryland.

Round about them orchards sweep,
Apple and peach tree fruited deep,
Fair as the garden of the Lord
To the eyes of the famished rebel horde,

On that pleasant morn of the early fall
When Lee marched over the mountain-wall;
Over the mountains winding down,
Horse and foot, into Frederick town.

Forty flags with their silver stars,
Forty flags with their crimson bars,
Flapped in the morning wind: the sun
Of noon looked down, and saw not one.

Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then,
Bowed with her fourscore years and ten;
Bravest of all in Frederick town,
She took up the flag the men hauled down;

In her attic window the staff she set,
To show that one heart was loyal yet,
Up the street came the rebel tread,
Stonewall Jackson riding ahead.

Under his slouched hat left and right
He glanced; the old flag met his sight.
'Halt!' - the dust-brown ranks stood fast.
'Fire!' - out blazed the rifle-blast.

It shivered the window, pane and sash;
It rent the banner with seam and gash.
Quick, as it fell, from the broken staff
Dame Barbara snatched the silken scarf.

She leaned far out on the window-sill,
And shook it forth with a royal will.
'Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country's flag,' she said.

A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
Over the face of the leader came;
The nobler nature within him stirred
To life at that woman's deed and word;

'Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!' he said.
All day long through Frederick street
Sounded the tread of marching feet:

All day long that free flag tost
Over the heads of the rebel host.
Ever its torn folds rose and fell
On the loyal winds that loved it well;

And through the hill-gaps sunset light
Shone over it with a warm good-night.
Barbara Frietchie's work is o'er,
And the Rebel rides on his raids nor more.

Honor to her! and let a tear
Fall, for her sake, on Stonewalls' bier.
Over Barbara Frietchie's grave,
Flag of Freedom and Union, wave!

Peace and order and beauty draw
Round thy symbol of light and law;
And ever the stars above look down
On thy stars below in Frederick town!