On Sunday night I went to hear literary critic, novelist and semioticist Umberto Eco speak at the final event of the PEN World Voices conference. The title of his lecture was "The Advantages of Fiction for Life and Death" and it was the third annual lecture in the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write series. Needless to say, it was an amazing time. Clint came with me and got a little dose of the literary-academic world. And afterward he got a torrent of opinions on the topic from me, as I'm a verbal processor.
It was a breath of fresh air for me to hear him speak with so much intelligence and simplicity about why we read and why we write. His line of argumentation was approximately this: Fiction is, in a way, more real than history. History is complex and difficult to summarize or draw conclusions about, whereas fiction is much more absolute. While we might find out new information that changes our positions on history, we cannot change the storylines in fiction as much as we may like to. Anna Karenina dies, whether we want her to or not. And even certain things that are not in the text are not in the text. He mentioned a story (I missed which one) that had a stray bullet shot in it and the absurdity of real people who went to the place where the story was set to "look for the stray bullet." But he maintained that the text doen't warrant a search for the lost bullet, it is forgotten, it has ceased to exist. It is not important at all to the interpretation of the text.
His point here is that we must limit ourselves to the text and that process fo submitting to it (not even to the author or historical situation or anything else) is something humans do to remind us that we cannot change or control our own circumstances. We need the "severe repressive lesson" that we cannot escape our fates. In other words, we read to remind ourselves of God or the gods or blind fate, that no one holds their own fate in their hands, we all die and none of us can do anything about that. At that point the lecture abruptly ended.
From there on there was a period of question and answer where Adam Gopnik, a staff writer from the New Yorker, asked him to clarify. "But there is a strain of interpretation that says that a text has no fixed meaning, only millions of personal interpretations. For example, couldn't Superman be a delusion of Clark Kent, or of the authors or perhaps even of Lois Lane?" This is where Eco said, "This is an American disease." And the whole room burst into laughter. "It is an American production on French license." Gopnik then said, "Are you saying that there is an absolute meaning for a text?" Eco responded that he believed there are some aspects of story that are absolute and some that are up for interpretation. That Hamlet delays revenge is a textual fact, why he does that is up for interpretation. That Hamlet marries Ophelia is a textual impossibility. While we may wish it or dream it or write another book about it is irrelevant. That is a different story than Hamlet altogether.
The more I reflected on this statement the more true I realized it to be, and I realized how much the untruth it combats has seeped into all of our culture. It made Europe seem so foreign with its idolized philosophers, writers and intellectuals.
I think that the heart of this disease came to me in a flash a bit later in the conversation when Gopnik cautiously asked for Eco's opinion on the U.S. political situation. At this point the whole crowd gasped at the audacity of the question. To everyones laughter and great relief, Eco responded, "A man from the country of Berlusconi cannot judge." But Gopnik sighed, "A man from the country of Bush can only invite judgement." A clever play on words, but for some reason that answer really ticked me off. Anyone who has traveled abroad as an American can understand that sense of shame. But we will never become european simply by rejecting our identity.
What this statement says to me is "I am embarassed to be an American because the majority of Americans are embarassingly backward (according to my estimation from the heights I have risen to.)" This attitude is part of the problem that the press has highlighted in the primary election, and it was part of the problem in the elections of 2000 and 2004. Our country is split into categories. Black/white, rich/poor, rural/urban, educated/uneducated, native/alien, republican/democrat, liberal/conservative and the list could go on. And instead of having intelligent conversations about it, developing town cultural centers, valuing local authors and prophets who ask hard questions, here we are. We refuse to shake hands with Obama because of mass emails that say he is a muslim. And we refuse to go back home to our rural areas with our knowledge from traveling the world because the people are uneducated and backward. So we sit in our Ivory Towers and are embarassed that our country doesn't work, while we're not doing the work to make it last. If America is going to survive, we have some very hard lessons to learn... and no one is exempt from them.