Rebecca's Reviews > Serendipities: Language and Lunacy

Serendipities by Umberto Eco
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's review
Feb 22, 2011

did not like it

This book is so terrible that I don't even feel remotely bad for abandoning it about 30 pages in. Frankly, those 30 pages were a waste of my time, and I'm only glad to have read them because I can now write this review. This book represented my first foray into the smoky and confusing world of Umberto Eco (not counting a few failed attempts to get past page 1 of The Name of the Rose over the years), and I hope never to return.

The first problem is that no one knows what this book is about, not even Eco himself. The title is Serendipities: Language and Lunacy. "Serendipities" refers to the accidental discoveries made when someone is looking for something else, such as Columbus accidentally discovering America on his way to the Indies. The first chapter, in a nutshell, is about how various errors and false beliefs (such as the mistaken belief that the sun orbits the earth) have influenced the course of history.

What's so noteworthy about this chapter is how distinctly un-noteworthy it is. Eco's thesis is: People have believed some crazy stuff that we now know to be untrue! And that's, like, had an effect on stuff. And stuff. Wow, deep. But a lack of originality, while disappointing, isn't sufficient to fill me with the kind of rage that this book inspired in me.

For that, it takes truly cringe-worthy writing.

Eco's writing makes me embarrassed to have ever been a participant in academia. His writing isn't just dry and deeply, profoundly boring -- which, after all, is par for the course among these types of intellectual windbags -- no, his writing descends to even deeper levels of ugliness than this. Nothing he says is clear. Consider the following paragraph:

"Why reject the story of the Rosicrucians, when it satisfied an expectation of religious harmony? And why reject the story of the Protocols, if they could explain so many historic events by the myth of the conspiracy? Karl Popper has reminded us that the social theory of conspiracy is like the one we find in Homer. Homer conceived the power of the gods in such a way that everything taking place on the plain before Troy represented only a reflection of the countless conspiracies devised on Olympus. The social theory of conspiracy, Popper says, is a consequence of the end of God as a reference point and of the consequent question, Who is there in his place? This place is now occupied by various men and powerful, sinister groups that can be blamed for having organized the Great Depression and all the evils we suffer. Why consider absurd the belief in plots and conspiracies when today they are still used to explain the failure of our own actions or the reason that events have taken a different turn from that desired?"

Aside from the fact that Eco seems to be justifying an unfounded belief in conspiracies simply because people can use those unfounded beliefs to provide false explanations about the world (which makes no sense at all), this paragraph is horrible from the point of view of clarity and readability. He writes like he's desperately trying to earn a PhD in literary criticism.

But, more to the point, what does any of that have to do with language or lunacy? Also, why exactly should I care about any of this? I open every book with a gesture of goodwill towards the author, giving them the benefit of the doubt that they will try their best to explain things helpfully and have something interesting to say. But you can't just make passing references to other authors, ask rhetorical questions that never lead to a coherent thesis, paraphrase other people's ideas, or string random thoughts together and still expect me to maintain that goodwill.

I'm guessing that at some point Eco read a lot of Dante, and maybe even earned a degree or two from all that Dante reading. Good for him. But unless Dante is self-evidently relevant to what you're talking about, there's no place for it. And yet every couple of pages, it would be, "In Dante, blah blah blah." You can't just throw together a list of things you've noticed during your reading, give the whole thing a vague title, and slap a picture of the Tower of Babel on the cover. Or I guess you can if you're Umberto Eco.

I think I stopped reading right around the point where he began discussing whether, in Genesis, Adam named the fish (because it only says that he named the beasts of the field and the fowl of the air!!). After all, it is difficult to imagine God dragging all the fish up from the ocean and parading them through the Garden of Eden, as Eco points out (but gathering together all the beasts and fowl and parading them through the garden? That's easy to believe). Before you ask yourself what this has to do with anything and why you are spending your time reading about it, just wait for a second and let me explain why this is a truly earth-shatteringly important question that warrants inclusion in a scholarly book. Oh wait -- that's what I was hoping Eco was going to say, but didn't.

Here is my conclusion about Umberto Eco: either he is a charlatan who knows he's an awful writer, but he's smug and devious enough to continue churning out books because he can, or he genuinely doesn't know he's a bad writer and believes that he is actually doing someone a favor by writing down the fevered disconnections of his pompous, overeducated mind. He may have a bigger vocabulary and be better-read than your average undergraduate student, but his writing has the same meandering, name-dropping, list-like quality to it, with page after page of "Look what I know!"

Honestly, I sometimes believe that elderly scholars like Eco believe that if they speak or write too clearly, younger souls will be able to gain the knowledge that they have hoarded like dragons over the decades and which they had hoped to take with them to the grave. I can find no other explanation for the pernicious obscurantism and ugliness of Eco's writing.
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Naomi '[E]ither he is a charlatan [...] or he [...] believes that he is actually doing someone a favor by writing down the fevered disconnections of his pompous, overeducated mind.'

Or maybe you were uninterested in the subject or didn't understand it. If one raises a question, it can provoke thought—an enriching and interesting experience; the question need not be answered.

And what do you mean by 'overeducated'? Do you mean you are jealous of his knowledge and understanding? What is wrong with learning a large amount and sharing parts of it with others? I'm guessing you tried reading this to educate yourself. To what end? For your own enjoyment, I presume. So what makes you not 'overeducated' by your idea of the word?

As it happens, I'm not doing very well with this book and feel it's not one of his better works, but I loved his 'The Name of the Rose' and so far have been enjoying his 'The Search for the Perfect Language', from which this was an offshoot.

I just don't feel your cutting remarks against the author himself were necessary.

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