21.2.16

How to travel with Umberto Eco



I go a long way with Umberto Eco.

To that flight to New Delhi. A cramped aircraft with no space in the overhead bin. I still remember my red suitcase that just wouldn't fit. Sliding it in towards my window seat, my feet then propped up on it, I saw that the guy in the aisle seat was livid. “Waith,” I heard someone say right then. A largish man with a brown beard and a genial face flashed his boarding pass. He was to sit in the middle. Once settled in, he beckoned the flight stewardess and asked her to make space at the rear. Reluctantly, and given his insistence, she let him drag out my bag as well as his portfolio folder, and deposited them there. “Ah,” he said, as one would upon being too pleased about a task accomplished.

The flight was delayed and we were sweating in the April heat. When we did take off, it turned out to be a rough flight. Snacks were brought; I clearly recollect the aloo tikki wrapped in aluminium foil, for as the trolley passed later to serve the passengers behind, he put up his hand and asked for a couple of more of those. It was utterly childlike and charming.

I had a magazine on my lap. He asked if he could take a look. There was something on pornography. He seemed surprised. “Indian magazine?” Yes, I said. I asked him if Ilona Staller was really a big thing in Italy. (By then this is one thing we had shared — our nationalities.) Staller was a porn star and an MP of some prominence. We spoke a bit about politics and women in it.

He was in the corporate sector of a huge firm. “We have these social meetings with our Indian counterparts and their wives. They do not discuss these things. It is all money, money, money.”

The two hours passed soon. We landed with a big thud. He fetched my bag and we deplaned. It turned out that his transport had been delayed. I offered to drop him off. It then struck us that on air nameless as we both remained, earthly contact might require some nomenclature. I told him my name. He did not tell me his. Instead, he took out his passport and showed it to me. “See?”

“Umberto?”

“Si,”

“Like Umberto Eco!”

“You know Umberto Eco?”

“Yes, of course! OF COURSE1” Delhi’s dry heat seemed to be melting the bones.

“Guth…you read him?”

Yes…and then we left.

Here was Umberto, but not Umberto Eco.

Dear readers, this was not meant to be a tease. The reason the memory came out so powerfully was because I saw the numerous photographs of Eco accompanying the obit pieces soon after the great writer, philosopher, thinker died at 84. The Umberto I met on the flight bears a striking resemblance to a younger Eco. Eco had said that in a play the players are mere presentation and have no bearing on the play or the direction it might take. Like it happens in life.



Eco did not suffer from the self-righteousness of academic rigidity. “The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else,” he wrote. It was such open-ended thoughts that allow for debate. Here I’d interject: the false hero’s valour is then obviously dishonest. But is cowardice always honest and upfront? Often, people pretend to be doing something when they are in fact sneaking away.

The pretence too has a reason. In Eco’s words, “Nothing gives a fearful man more courage than another's fear.” This is probably something we already know, but the stunning simplicity of the statement stands out. It encapsulates the psychology of insecurity.

Similarly, he does not have much sympathy for ‘cause’ proponents: “Fear prophets, and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them.”
Indeed, it is foot soldiers who die first, not the chiefs; it is civilians being ‘protected’ from dictators and terrorists who get killed in the ‘true’ fight by drone-happy saviours.

He does not have very kind words for the new online saviours too. “Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community. Then they were quickly silenced, but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It’s the invasion of the idiots.”

He also moaned the fact that such people as well as journalists assumed the public was only ready for and seeking simple answers. Take a look around and you will notice that this is only an excuse for lack of nuance in the purveyors of news and opinion.


How do we learn then? I’ve been pottering around with my books for a couple of months now — I've discarded quite a few thinking that it was a waste if I were not to read them. If only I had discovered why Nassim Taleb explains Eco’s collection as an ‘antilibrary’:

“The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.”

We all have books, and things, we need to return to. While Umberto Eco did want to turn the pages, perhaps as many as he could, he wasn't so keen on remembering a great deal about life: “The function of memory is not only to preserve, but also to throw away. If you remembered everything from your entire life, you would be sick.”

It is because we do not know what has been thrown away by memory that we don’t get sick. It is memory hiding from us our own memory that keeps us in fine fettle. If we knew, we’d be rummaging through the waste. I’m not sure whether it’s such a bad thing. The Umberto of my Delhi flight had probably been thrown away, but not entirely. For Umberto Eco resurrected him. In such renewal, both now live with a new dimension in my mind.

3 comments:

  1. Hi Farzana,

    I didn't read any of the tributes save yours. What I recollect of what I've read *of* Umberto Eco is that he was an orphan; which explained, in part, his name. That's what informed how I read *your* Umberto's tardy, cryptic-seeming introduction of himself. Plus, prefacing your anecdote, you said you had a magazine on your lap and he asked if he could take a look.

    Now, magazine reading was fairly commonplace aboard airlines, as I recall. Then, if unprepared to while-away the hours sleeping and daydreaming, there was the airline's sort of travel-journal to read, there was the airport gift shop's fare, there was the lottery as to whether a news or glamor magazine might be found wedged behind the safety-literature in the seat-back pouch. On certain flights, there was an in-flight movie, with or without sound. There was also borrowing something to read from your better-prepared seatmates when they were done with it. My recollection of these things also informed how I read his odd manner of introducing himself upon landing.

    Given the (then, perhaps) solicitous, self-possessed manner in which he initially arranged things for your (and his) comfort on the two-hour flight, I want to say it was decidely out-of-character for him not to have introduced himself immediately upon settling in. I want to say you befuddled him, Farzana, from the moment he discovered what you were reading until your offer to drop him. I want to say he'd forgotten his name, hence the (really) funny business with his passport. :)

    >>We all have books, and things, we need to return to. While Umberto Eco did want to turn the pages, perhaps as many as he could, he wasn't so keen on remembering a great deal about life: “The function of memory is not only to preserve, but also to throw away. If you remembered everything from your entire life, you would be sick.”<<

    Interesting logic. Perhaps he came to regret it? :)

    M.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Mark:

      I know precious little about 'my' Umberto, but I don't really think his introduction of himself was cryptic.

      It happens often that the thread of conversation becomes us, and the air compression in the cabin just makes it all so... er...compressed? I did not give my name too, but I don't recall handing him ID papers for it! The passport thing perhaps happened because he imagined I'd not 'catch' his accent right?

      {I want to say you befuddled him, Farzana, from the moment he discovered what you were reading until your offer to drop him. I want to say he'd forgotten his name, hence the (really) funny business with his passport. :)}

      Come now, Mark, surely you can be generous? Maybe he was charmed and not befuddled?!

      Nice thoughts on reading material on flights. I was once reading Levi-Strauss on the Delhi-Mumbai sector. The gentleman next to me (a corporate guy) asked, "So you like jeans?"

      {Interesting logic. Perhaps he came to regret it? :)}

      Logic is always regrettable ��

      But I guess the reason Eco spoke about not remembering all is also about selective nostalgia embellishing life.

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    2. Hi Farzana,

      >>Logic is always regrettable ??<<

      Well, maybe. Wouldn't it depend on how far it's taken?

      >>While Umberto Eco did want to turn the pages, perhaps as many as he could, he wasn't so keen on remembering a great deal about life: “The function of memory is not only to preserve, but also to throw away. If you remembered everything from your entire life, you would be sick.”<<

      Yours was impeccable -- or, rather, as impeccable as it gets. Yes, your Eco quote, "The function of memory is not only to preserve, but also to throw away. If you remembered everything from your entire life, you would be sick," certainly does suggest Eco himself "wasn't so keen on remembering a great deal about life." Indeed, who would want to be sick, reminded thus of foibles that, for some, and in hindsight, may well be nigh unto irrecoverably sick-making. Beyond sore disappointment -- beyond acute embarrassment. More like "crushing," as it might seem to some.

      >>It is because we do not know what has been thrown away by memory that we don’t get sick. It is memory hiding from us our own memory that keeps us in fine fettle. If we knew, we’d be rummaging through the waste. I’m not sure whether it’s such a bad thing. The Umberto of my Delhi flight had probably been thrown away, but not entirely. For Umberto Eco resurrected him. In such renewal, both now live with a new dimension in my mind.<<

      Yes, Eco's suggestion that memory's function is "not only to preserve, but also to throw away" does imply some perhaps "autonomic" process lending to the retention and discarding of a memory -- maybe a matter of self-preservation in certain instances. Your point, however, seems to be that the "process" is not so much discarding -- "throwing away" -- in its literal sense as it is figuratively hiding, i.e. more in the sense of "out-of-sight; out-of-mind?"

      Regret seems a fairly common response to the sudden re-emergence into the foreground of a memory long (and if only inadvertently, carelessly, thoughtlessly) relegated to the background of one's internal canvas. It thus may also be that Eco simply neglected to articulate his thought with precision. Indeed, "throw away" where, exactly? :)

      M.

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