The death of Umberto Eco took me by surprise, as have (already!) so many celebrity deaths this year. I was mildly saddened by the news, remembering ’The Name of the Rose’ from way back in college. I was also aware that Eco was an erudite philosopher of contemporary society and a semiotician, but I had never investigated his ideas outside of his novels, which also deal with philosophical problems beneath the fictional narratives.
Then I arrived in Italy and saw his new book, called “Pape Satàn Aleppe: Chronicle of a Liquid Society.” The book consists of a series of short philosophical essays originally published during the years 2000-2015 in the periodical l’Espresso, in the section entitled “La bustina di Minerva.” The book was originally scheduled to be published this May, but was rush-released a week after news of Eco’s death on February 19 was reported.
It was upon leafing through the book in Florence’s Feltrinelli bookstore that I was struck by the enormity of what we have lost, and what we continue to lose.
First, a little background. The title of the book comes from the famous line that opens Canto VII of Dante’s Inferno. The line; “Papé Satàn, papé Satàn aleppe,” is famous because, in the 700+ years since the poem’s publication, nobody has figured out what it means. In fact, the scholarly consensus is that it’s not supposed to be understood.
The line is spoken by Pluto, who is portrayed in the Divine Comedy as a demon guarding the fourth circle of the Inferno, where people who have abused their wealth through greed or waste are punished (do you see why this poem is still relevant today? Most of the contemporary world’s corporate boards and politicians would wind up here alongside their ancient and medieval counterparts). Virgil, the great ancient Roman poet and Dante’s guide through the Inferno and Purgatory, understands it, though. We know this because the text says, “And that kind Sage (meaning Virgil), who knew all things / Said to encourage me (meaning Dante): ‘Don’t let your fear / Harm you; for any power that he may have / Shall not prevent you going down this crag’”. Virgil’s instructions indicate that the line spoken by Pluto is a threat to Dante. Obviously, the line invokes Satan, and because Virgil says to Pluto, “Be silent, accursed wolf / Consume yourself inwardly with your rage”, we know it’s an expression of anger on Pluto’s part. If you want to read all of this for yourself, it’s in Dante’s Inferno, Canto VII, lines 1-15. Click here for the original Italian, and here for an English translation
Threat, anger, our inability to understand the exact meaning, these themes and more are what Eco’s essays on the liquid society are about. In fact, Eco explains in his introduction that “papé Satàn aleppe” is a phrase that we can attribute to some kind of devilry, since it confounds ideas, as does the liquid society he’s writing about.
The book is divided into 15 sections plus the introduction. 14 of the sections collect a series of essays under themes like “Online,”, “On cellphones,” “On the mass media,” “On hatred and death,” “Various forms of racism,” and one I’ve been puzzling over for the entire 21st century, “From stupidity to lunacy.”
The first section (after the introduction) consists of only one brief essay entitled “The Liquid Society.” It was one of his most recent, published in 2015, but it appears as the first essay in “Papé Satàn Aleppe,” since it acts as the umbrella theme for the rest of the essays in the book. The term “liquid society” comes from the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who has been writing on the theme since the year 2000. Eco explains that the phrase is used to describe the period we’re in now, where postmodernism – an approach that sought to dismantle the outdated grand narratives (like various religious, political, intellectual or organizational systems, to name a few of its themes) that held society together for so long – is on its way out, and we’re left in this temporary state of flow with no polar star to guide us all while a new, as yet unknown and unnamed organizational principle forms. The book’s dust jacket summarizes the signs of a liquid society as exhibiting people and politicians wearing political masks rather than holding concrete positions, an obsession with social media that everyone shares, interaction with our telephones as though they were also living organisms, bad education, and more.
In other words, the liquid society is a time of rapid social change, and we’ve seen this before. In the decades before the First World War, the world saw the creation of the electric lightbulb, the automobile, the airplane, the telephone, photography and moving pictures, abstraction in visual art, complex and harsh harmony in music, the abandonment of traditional patterns in dance, an attempt to capture the movement of thought in Modernist literature, the abandonment of Newtonian physics with Einstein’s discovery of relativity, the discovery in psychology that our mind controls us more than we control it, and many other inventions, discoveries, and approaches. The people of the time must have felt the same anxiety many people feel today. Some were thrilled by the change, others reacted with fear and tried to push back to an earlier time where they had a firmer handhold on daily life (think of the Nazi and Soviet attempts to control the content of art by outlawing anything new and different). The end result was two World Wars.
Eco seems to be one of those thinkers that delights in our current accelerating, unpredictable world. He acts as our own Virgil, guiding us in his essays through our current state of social affairs and indicating their perils. Now that he is gone, we’ve lost a reliable guide, and in the near future, we’ll lose many more. Zygmunt Bauman, who continues to write on the liquid society, is another reliable guide, but he is now 90 years old. Nevertheless, I have confidence that brilliant observers of society and world politics will continue to emerge. Great minds will always find a way to interpret the world they live in.
What is worrying is the thought that we may be less aware of them in the future. In the third paragraph, I mentioned that I was struck by what we continue to lose. Recently, there have been decisions by many universities in the United States (where I was born and am a citizen) and by the education ministry in Japan (where I currently live and work) to eliminate Humanities departments from universities. If this trend continues, fewer people will know how to navigate the liquid society we currently live in and what comes after. They won’t have the tools to conceptualize the issues brought on by a changing society or to build a reliable, constructive place for themselves in it. This can only result in seeking out leaders who promise stability, and those leaders are generally fundamentalists promising to wipe out all threats to a traditional lifestyle that really can’t ever come back.
Eco’s new book has not yet been published in English, but given his status, it will inevitably come out by the end of the year, and it will inevitably not be titled “Pape Satàn Aleppe,” which is a shame. The title evokes so much, but, given the current state of Humanities education, how many English speakers will be able to identify the line as being from the Divine Comedy? Even with an explanation in the introduction (which Eco provides), how many English speakers are familiar with the contents of Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” the greatest poem ever written in the West?
Allow me to end by deriving a wish from the arts and humanities. At the end of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s earthy, light-porn 1970s film version of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” one of the characters is guided by an angel through Hell (which is located on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily!). At one point, in a scene that can’t be unseen once it passes one’s eyegate and lodges in the mind, the guiding angel yells out to the devil, “Hey Satan! Show us where you keep the priests!” at which point Satan bends over, lifts his tails and farts all the corrupt medieval priests and monks out of his asshole. One hopes those trying to end the teaching of the Humanities suffer the same fate.
[November 8, 2017 note: Zygmunt Bauman died on January 9, 2017, almost a year after this essay was published. Also, Eco’s book was finally translated to English by Richard Dixon. The English edition is called “Chronicles of a Liquid Society,” and is published on November 14, 2017. It is available for purchase here. As I predicted, “Papé Satàn Aleppe” was not included in the title.]