When I read the news that Umberto Eco, my lodestar of the mind, had shuffled off this
When I read the news that Umberto Eco, my lodestar of the mind, had shuffled off thismortal coil, I felt bereft, remembering my first brush with Eco’s novels and essays, and the sense of limitless horizons that they seemed to contain. This philosopher of the word, master linguist and semiotician, was also adept in conjuring up incredible worlds—some real, others fantastical—where you could lose yourself. His books were gripping, immersive. I was in my late teens when I read the classics, The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum. They were dense, difficult works, especially the latter, but endlessly rewarding, because they also contained an innate enthusiasm to engage with the world that was extremely attractive to a young mind.
At the time, I was devouring writers as disparate as Jack Kerouac, Gerald Durrell, J.R.R. Tolkien, Salman Rushdie, each with their own distinct visions of the world. Through their books I would roam everywhere, yearning for the time when I could travel on my own, unfettered by family and convention. Whether it was Tolkien’s epic landscapes—all sweeping mountains and undulating highlands and crashing cataracts and rolling downs—or Kerouac’s equally mythical America, not really a country but an ideal of wide horizons and limitless freedom, or Durrell’s sun-drenched, drowsy, golden Corfu, these landscapes were as much of the mind as they were real things. As a result, they could exist anywhere. Indeed, Middle-earth could be in the Himalaya, Corfu in Calcutta. Tying up this universe of the mind was Eco, with his relentless inventiveness, and astute observations on the nature of reality, of narrative, of interpretation. It was due to him that I discovered that I could arrive without travelling, anywhere at all. That there was nothing greater than imagination, and without it, even the most amazing places could be pedestrian, mundane.
A case in point is that amazing fable, Baudolino. Published in 2002, while I was still in university, it’s the autobiography of an Italian polyglot trickster in 13th-century Europe, who, among other exploits, travels to a fantastic Asia that never existed except in the ill-informed but imaginative minds of medieval Europeans. But what a wondrous world he created, peopled by legendary creatures like unicorns and satyrs, blemmeys and skiapods, basilisks and manticores. Coming as this does, in the latter half of the book, when the first half had described in great detail the politics and intrigues of a very real Europe of dying empires and rising city states, it gives a real jolt, a very palpable step into the unknown. Of course, I loved it. Eco’s talent lay in making both the worlds equally vivid and lived-in. And to me, he was this impossibly erudite, funny, cool, avuncular guide who’d take me to impossible places, and then tell me their stories. To this day, whenever I’m, say, trekking in Ladakh, I expect a basilisk to emerge, “from a cliff, splitting the rock, as Pliny had said. It had a cock’s head and talons, and in the place of a crest it had a red excrescence, in the shape of a crown, yellow protruding eyes like a toad’s, and a snake’s body. It was emerald green, with silver glints, and at first sight it seemed almost beautiful…” Travel is incomplete without the mind, and for this I have Eco to thank.
I’ve never been to Italy, but if I do I know the things I want to see, through Eco’s eyes. I would try to locate, perhaps in vain, the coffeehouses of Milan where radical students would gather in the early 70s and spin conspiracy theories about the Knights Templars, or to some ruined Benedictine monastery in the north where Aristotle’s lost book on Comedy might still be lurking. If I were to go to Paris, I would like to sneak into the Musée des Arts et Métiers after hours to see if some secret cabal was holding an esoteric meeting, or attend an Umbanda rite in Rio. I remember reading The Da Vinci Code and guffawing out loud. It was basically Foucault’s Pendulum barring the, well, brilliance. In fact, Eco once said in an interview, “Dan Brown is a character from Foucault’s Pendulum. I invented him…I suspect Dan Brown might not even exist.” That may well be true.
This extends to places as well. We’re constantly inventing places by the sheer act of bearing witness. After all, what are the remains of Nalanda or the temples of Khajuraho worth without the viewer’s imagination? Unless you can close your eyes and imagine Buddhist devotees under bright murals at the ruined temple of Tara or Chandella craftsmen sculpting an elephant from a sandstone block, these heritage sites are but empty ciphers. Eco’s academic work had always investigated the constitution of truth and the daily negotiations that are needed to establish it. So too with travel, and the act of seeing. Eco taught me a valuable lesson: you can stay at home and enjoy the full richness of a place, or travel and leave your critical mind at home. The key is your imagination. Rest In Peace.