Umberto Eco’s Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism

Umberto Eco’s Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism is a fascinating and eclectic group of essays by Italy’s most famous modern literary export.  Eco is probably most well known in America for his novels, but you really should do yourself the service of reading his essays and articles, of which there are many collections available.  This most recent collection (taken largely from Italian newspapers from 2000-2005) does not disappoint…at least not completely.

He entitled the book Turning Back the Clock because he sincerely believes that society is caught in a kind of devolution or regression.  The evidence that Eco lays out more than justifies this idea.

Do I detect a growing and increasing tone of grandfatherly common sense in Eco?  I think so, and we are, on the whole, better for his wisdom.  He is quite concerned about the dumbing effects of the mass media and about the education of young people, as well he should be.  I was also encouraged to see Eco’s frustration with the coarsening of society.  It is interesting to see the anecdotal examples that frustrate him:  reality television, a young woman dancing in front of the Pope with her navel showing, the carnivalization of society, etc.

There are flashes of sheer brilliance here.  His essays on “carnivalization” and the loss of privacy are both simply fantastic.  In the former he makes a compelling case that every sphere of society has now been turned into a carnival, a move that can only result in a mad dash for even more carnival.  In the latter he gives one of the most telling and convicting analyses of reality TV and talk shows that I’ve ever heard in my life.

Religiously, this book is encouraging, but insufficient.  Eco is not a believer, but he does seem to have a great respect for the Church and for sincere believers the world over.  In his essay discussing the possibility of a transcendent Enlightenment ethic he points to Jesus and “the Golden Rule” as the most exemplary picture of what that ethic should look like.  He curiously notes that Jesus was a great Enlightenment thinker in articulating such truths, whereas he should have more accurately noted that he, Eco, was being a Christian in quoting these truths!

I found his review of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” to be very interesting.  He passes on the humorous footnote that he received an irate letter from one reader after the review originally appeared telling Eco that he would never forgive him for “giving away the ending” of the movie before he was able to see it!

Eco is very concerned about “fundamentalisms”, be they Islamic or Christian.  This is a drum he beats again and again, and not without reason.  I, too, am concerned about fundamentalisms, though I cannot help but feel that Eco would lump all American evangelicals into that camp, a serious and unfortunate mistake.

My only complaint is that Eco seems to spend the majority of his time with northeastern, liberal, academic, pinheads when he comes to America.  How else to explain his unbelievably offensive characterization of the American Bible-belt as the most ignorant, backward part of the USA, and one that is “cut off from the rest of the world”?

Please!  Can you find that down here?  Sure.  Is that a fair assesment in general?  No way.  I might be inclined, on the contrary, to suggest that the type of blue state, wine-sipping, cheese-nibbling, leftist effete’s that populate the ivy schools that Eco probably is condemned to frequent on his trips here seem fairly “cut off from the world” to those of us who appreciate iced tea and grits, but that would be a rude thing to do.

I was immediately reminded, when I began reading this book, of Evelyn Waugh’s own experiment with the idea that society was moving backwards.  In his short story, “Out of Depth,” Rip has a dream of visiting London in the year 2500.  Society appears to have devolved into a state of primitivism and paganism.  It’s like some dark apocalyptic nightmare in which Rip realizes that all that he once knew is now gone.  In a sense, though the clock has moved forward, it has also moved backwards.

At the end of the story, however, Waugh writes this:

“And then later – how much later he could not tell – something that was new and yet ageless.  The word “Mission” painted on a board; a black man dressed as a Dominican friar…and a growing clearness Rip knew that out of strangeness, there had come into being something familiar; a shape in chaos.  Something was being done.  Something was being done that Rip knew; something that twenty-five centuries had not altered; of his own childhood which survived the age of the world.  In a log-built church at the coast town he was squatting among a native congregation; some of them in cast-off uniforms; the women had shapeless, convent-sewn frocks; all round him dishevelled white men were staring ahead with vague, uncomprehending eyes, to the end of the room where two candles burned.  The priest turned towards them his bland, black face.

“Ite, missa est.”

So perhaps the clock is moving backwards into a new dark age.  For Eco, there is a sense of frustration mingled with a restless optimism.  He is obviously wanting to hold onto hope, and yet his transcendent Enlightenment ethic seems insufficient.  (Eco’s essay on death is witty and tragic.  There is no hope of life beyond, only a sense that we should do the best we can here.)

For Waugh, however, the clock may very well be moving backwards, but the Gospel remains.  When the last vestiges of our “enlightened” society have been swept away, the Gospel still remains.

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