Illustration by David Smith
Who said: "When men stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing: they believe in anything"? The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations attributes it to G.K. Chesterton, but it cannot be found in any of his works and appears to have begun life as a paraphrase by his biographer Emile Cammaerts. One does not need to be a scholar to trace this cliché to its origin. Yet on the home page of the extensive website of Umberto Eco, one is greeted with the following quotation by the great man: "When men stop believing in God, it isn't that they then believe in nothing: they believe in everything." Undergraduates who tried to palm off such a hackneyed misquotation as their own might expect to be laughed at or even reprimanded by their teachers. But Eco is Europe's most celebrated living writer, with countless academic honours to his name. Why does a man so feted, who boasts that he owns 50,000 books (including 1,200 rare titles) "in my various homes", seek to appropriate Chesterton's gnomic wisdom? Is it possible that Umberto Eco is, as Henry IV of France said of James I of England, "the wisest fool in Christendom"?
In his own eyes, at least, Eco is the opposite: the most disillusioned of men, "fascinated by error, bad faith and idiocy", and thus perfectly equipped to expose everyone else as a fraud. In his recent published conversation with Jean-Claude Carrière, This is Not the End of the Book, he reveals that his vast library consists entirely of "books whose contents I don't believe"; these "lies" include a first edition of Joyce's Ulysses. Eco makes no distinction between fiction and forgery. He also assumes that most of his readers are hopelessly ignorant: "The current generation is probably tempted to think, as the Americans do, that what happened 300 years ago no longer matters..."
This pose of the learned sceptic, even the arch-cynic, has stood Eco in good stead. Without it he could never have written The Name of the Rose, the medieval whodunnit that became a film vehicle for Sean Connery and has gone on to sell more than 50 million copies. The novel is an exercise in debunking the monks to whom he owed his education and who immunised him from fascism. Eco's first book, based on his doctoral thesis, is his best: The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas. He still recalls the joy of being surrounded by old books and manuscripts at the Sainte-Geneviève Library in Paris. Then he lost his faith and has spent the rest of his life in search of a substitute.
Eco found his pseudo-religion in the pseudo-science of semiotics, which he has taught for many years. His novels are case studies in postmodernism, which elides all categories of truth, beauty, morality and politics into an esoteric game. The Plan, which forms the theme of Foucault's Pendulum, his second bestseller, shows Eco was already obsessed with conspiracy theories, involving everything from the Knights Templar to Kabbalah. But the subversive message of the novel is that conspiracy theories may after all be true, and secret societies may actually exist. The dissolution of reality into mere "narratives" lends the conspiracy theory new life.