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Saturday October 18, 2008

A literary icon visits U of T in Mississauga


 Umberto Eco addresses the inadequacies of the modern mass media

Lowly Italy, reduced to just a Vatican protectorate, deprived even of her historic tradition; a victim of her deepest fears, condemned to relive the mistakes of her past and to pay for the consequences, yet again.
This is Umberto Eco’s unmerciful analysis on the current state of affairs of the Belpaese. He considers it a country divided, adrift, guided by a modest leadership, a country that has to take care of the structural gaps in the media industry – an industry incapable of keeping the people properly informed, but always seeking the scoop and inflating the news. A country characterized by breakdowns, splits, wounds that never heal, a country that, over the years, has built its precarious, simmering equilibrium on these conflicts, like an edifice which is about to crumble and, in challenging the force of gravity, miraculously remains standing.
Eco was recently in Toronto for two engagements. The first was at the Mississauga campus of the University of Toronto for a lecture on beauty and ugliness and how it relates to the history of mankind over the ages. The second was a round table discussion on the English release of his book A passo di gambero (Turning Back the Clock), to discuss the deteriorating quality of media, and information.
“I always return to Toronto with pleasure,” the professor tells Corriere Canadese/Tandem. “It’s a city I feel particularly attached to.”
In an era such as this one, riddled with such stress that calls into question the very foundations of the society, what should the role of the intellectual be?
“In many countries, in the U.S. for example, people don’t understand how a university professor could be so interested in the politics of his country. Noam Chomsky is an exception from this point of view. For us in Italy, and also in France or Germany, it’s a normal thing. The role of the intellectual is must be that of Italo Calvino's The Baron in the Trees. He [the intellectual] must sit on the fence and talk badly especially about his friends. From this perspective, the intellectual is able to understand reality – he has a better chance of understanding what is going on, and so gets involved. This is, moreover, the theory of Italian philosopher Bobbio in his 1955 book Politics and Culture, a book that Calvino surely read and became enthralled by. I fully share Vittorini’s thesis: The intellectual must never play the penny-whistle tune of revolution because that is done by the press. And he should not be in an ivory tower.”

What do you think of the Church’s continual intrusion in Italian political debate?
“Italy is a Vatican protectorate. Cavour, to tell the truth, did not succeed in doing much of anything from this point of view, with perhaps the exception during the ratifying of the "Guarintige Law." Italy has truly been reduced to being a protectorate of the Vatican – a nation with limited sovereignty.”

Why have Italians decided to again entrust the fate of the nation to Silvio Berlusconi?
“I believe that De Felice was right: Italians strongly supported fascism. Italians have always been right-wing. It’s the left-wing – let’s not forget – that by creating the myth of the Italian rebellion against Fascism, tried to make us believe that the people really would identify with the values of the left. That's not ture! The Christian Democratic Party (DC) was able to put the brakes on Italy’s drift to the right – in substance it managed to de-regiment the nation. Just as it defended Italy, moreover, from the Church.”

From the Church?
“The Christian Democrats, made up of people from the parishes, knew how to hold the Vatican at bay. True secularism, in post-WWII, was represented by De Gasperi, while Togliatti, who voted for Article 7 of the Constitution, was a champion of clericalism. After Berlusconi’s first victory in 1994, there were those who said, ‘We thought that the DC had protected us against Communism for 40 years. But in reality, it defended us from Fascism.’ NATO would have been enough to defend us from Communism. Maybe the PCI [Italian Communist Party] would have been enough.”
Eventually this political scenario was completely swept away.
“Yes, and a power vacuum was the result. A precarious equilibrium collapsed – one on which the Italian Republic was founded and developed. With the chasm, it was easy to drift to the right. There’s also another key factor – that of people forgetting the lessons of history. I just read an article about an event days ago where a soccer player [Ed note: Christian Abbiati] emphasized how Fascism, beyond its abominable racist laws, also did some good, such as bringing order to the country. Unfortunately, as was brilliantly documented in the same article, there was a huge increase in the number of crimes committed under Fascism in comparison to earlier years.”

Is there anything salvageable from the rubble of the Communist experience?
“One has to distinguish between Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, Euro-communism: You run the risk of lumping together very different realities. I think there are many aspects of the Marxist analysis that are accurate – some which can explain, for example, what really happened with the Lehman Brothers. As far as Stalinism, I deem there’s really nothing there to salvage. When I visited the [former] Soviet Union for the first time, I noticed this right away. Because there were no production incentives, no one felt like working. From my point of view, there was something profoundly wrong with the actual Communist formula where initiative and free-market competition were nonexistent: This is the true cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union. I believe, on the other hand, there are Socialist ideas worth salvaging, and I’m not alone in that belief. Now we see the world crisis. It’s now understood that the crisis can only be handled with a Socialist approach, or Social-Democratic one: state intervention in the economy. Even President George W. Bush is being forced to become Socialist.”

Generally speaking, do you consider yourself more of a scientist or an artist?
“Don’t ask me this. It’s a conflict that I don’t see exists, frankly speaking. Certainly whoever cultivates the Social Sciences can never be a pure scientist although he does apply the rigours of scientific method. The artist, on the other hand, provides an outlet for his creativity and his imagination. Why does there need to be conflict between the two? There were young colleagues of mine, Goethe, for example, who busied themselves with optics and poetry…Believe me, there’s no contradiction at all.”

What three things would you never give up for anything?
“I’d be ready to give up everything – there you have it. Certainly it would greatly disappoint me if my library caught fire. There, maybe that’s what I wouldn’t be able to give up. But if the world collapsed, then the library could go to hell too. By now, I’ve managed to quit smoking. For now, I’m not able to give up Gin Martini on the rocks.”

What book do you currently have on your night table?
“It’s a collection of ontology writings I need in order to help me finish a project. But it’s not a significant project – it has no relevance. There’s no such thing as having books on a night table.”

As an Italian citizen, is there anything you’re envious of in Canada – something you’d like to take back to Italy?
“Let’s say that if I was forced to go into exile, Canada is on the list of nations where I’d probably want to live. It’s a country I like very much and to which I feel a strong tie. One can live well here. It has many advantages, like the U.S., but compared to the U.S., there’s a greater freedom, a greater agreeableness in the relationships among the people. So there, if I was forced to leave Italy, I’d consider coming to live here in this country.”

You came to Toronto to speak about information, mass media, and the breakdown and inadequacies of modern journalism. Briefly, what is the main problem afflicting this key sector of society?

“Quantity. This is the real drama that afflicts information: there’s too much of it. When a newspaper is forced to print 120 pages, it can’t do otherwise but inflate the news, continually seeking out the scoop, trying to turn peripheral news into major issues and events. That is why we find items in newspapers today that have been repeated 18 times. That is why we participate in this frenzied need of looking for mishaps, controversy, and confrontation. And that is why journalists often extract an admission, a phrase, half a word from an interview, extrapolating it out of context even if there is no need to.”

And what is the main risk we face in this nightmare scenario that you’ve just described?

“That information becomes a reality show.”