FIVE MORAL PIECES
By Umberto Eco
Translated from the Italian by Alastair McEwen
Harcourt, $23, 111 pages
The first of these “Five Moral Pieces” (“Cinque Scritti Morali” in the more euphonious Italian) was published in La Rivista dei libri in April, 1991, at the time of the Gulf War. Arguing for the sheer impracticability of war at the end of the century as opposed to 50 years earlier Umberto Eco wrote that “… the new warfare, while it still enriches arms merchants, triggers a worldwide crisis for industries like air transport, entertainment and tourism, the media themselves (which lose out on advertising revenues), and the entire industry of the superfluous in general the backbone of the system from the construction market to car manufacturing.”
Today, we are experiencing the truth of that.
Mr. Eco, distinguished scholar (semiotician) and novelist (“The Name of the Rose”) is wearing the hat of public intellectual in these five articles and talks written during the years 1991-1997; and as with most intellectuals tackling large topics outside their fields of specialization, the discussion will make varying impressions on the reader depending on his or her own specialty and accompanying prejudices. I, for example, find Mr. Eco at his least original when he is listing the sins of the press.
But for the most part this little book of scarcely more than 100 pages offers challenging, and so nourishing, reading in these days of national peril and in cities like New York and Washington personal danger.
With personal danger in mind, consider the writer’s reflection on the position of the pope when he teaches that we must not make war but turn the other cheek: “But what am I to do if someone wants to kill me? ‘That’s your lookout,’ the pope ought to say, ‘your problem’ and casuistry on self-defense would then come into play only with a view to making up for human frailties, which no one ought to feel obliged to provide a heroic defense of.”
The thought is that since the end of World War II, the way we think about war has changed, continuing the horrified turn away from the “beauty of war” that after World War I led to Dada and other artistic and intellectual movements. Whether one agrees with Mr. Eco that war in our time cannot be allowed to have its heroic side, or not (and I don’t), the question is there and deserving of being answered.
More, though still far from wholly, persuasive to my mind is the writer’s contention that war no longer is monolithic in the way that a Clausewitz could have made sense of it. During the Gulf War there were American journalists in Baghdad and Iraqi Muslims living in countries of the allied coalition. In today’s kind of war, “everyone has an enemy behind the lines.” At the same time, high-speed information flow inevitably raises doubts in the minds of the civilian population and makes it impossible to remain unaware that the enemy is being killed.
Because of these self-generating tangles and contradictions of networking, Mr. Eco, without using the term “unintended consequences,” sees cause and effect running amok and war “no longer a phenomenon in which the calculations and intentions of the protagonists have any value.” The point, while interesting, is one for the intellectuals rather than, say, New York City’s firefighters. Still, from there it is but a step to charging that war has reached the stage at which it “annuls all human initiative,” and that it should be declared taboo.
Sitting here writing this, I am still faced with the question of what to do when someone is trying to kill me, which raises another problem with Mr. Eco’s remedy for the negative effects of contemporary warfare: It requires a minimum of consensus among the warring parties, and for so long as murderous zealots remain at large and there doesn’t seem to be any real shortage at present forget it.
The broad mix of these pieces gives them an air of the occasional, though the title “Moral” is kept in sight in each. The cultural climate is Italian, understandably, but with ramifications reaching further afield. The second essay is in the form of a letter to Cardinal Carol Maria Martini about whether it is possible for the conscientious individual living outside the observant faith demanded by the Church to carry an awareness of the spiritually supreme within himself and to live the good life.
Mr. Eco thinks so and enriches what is one of the two most personal of these pieces by starting with his own strict Catholic upbringing until age 22. The ethical dimension of life, to him, begins when the “other” comes into view and the other’s right to think and speak is recognized. The secret is to feel the presence of the other inside oneself, an outlook with which Alain Finkelkraut, the French philosopher, would agree, and so do I.
The book’s third and centrally positioned piece is an address given to some senators in what Mr. Eco calls a “cahier de doleances” (notebook of complaints) about the Italian press. These complaints could be applied almost as well to our own media. The writer traces a path through recent decades that includes blurring of news and commentary, language in crisis from an infection of cliche, daily newspapers taking on the aspects of weeklies with subordination of news stories to feature articles, an “ideology of entertainment,” dominance of television over print media and politicians adapting themselves to the demands of TV.
Mr. Eco’s prescription is similar to what has been experimented with here in so-called community journalism that focuses on serious, indeed “austere and reliable,” news coverage aimed at educating and informing the reader rather than entertaining. Also like here, the concept flies in the face of newspaper publishers’ having to compete, not least financially, with other media and changing cultural values across the board. It also forgets an admonishment favored by a late, great editor of mine when copy submitted to her threatened to bore: “Remember, nobody has to read this stuff!”
Another essay with a strong personal association for the writer and a more distinctly Italian coloring than the other four, is titled “Ur-fascism,” though it too has wider lessons. In 1942 at age 10, Mr. Eco won a first prize for young Italian fascists (officially all the boys and girls were), but the next year when partisans took Milan in April, he learned “that freedom of speech means freedom from rhetoric.” He finds fascism, in Italy and elsewhere, dictatorial without being thoroughly totalitarian. Benito Mussolini in his view was without any philosophy at all.
The Ur-fascism Mr. Eco is warning about is that which still bubbles up today in Italian electoral politics and other European countries (France, Austria). While not the same as the old fascism, it continues to trade in a traditionalism that rejects the modern, tilts toward pagan mythology and irrationalism, and is hostile to dissent and diversity. It employs Newspeak and is at home on TV and in “internet populism.” In other words, a phenomenon still worth keeping an eye on.
Mr. Eco’s fifth and concluding essay brings his discussion full circle, being devoted to “migration in the third millennium” with associated reflection on “tolerance” and “the intolerable.” He makes the distinction between “migration” and “immigration” to arrive at the unnerving prediction that the third world is going to be “knocking at our doors and it will come in even if we are not in agreement.” In such a situation, lack of tolerance could lead to bloodshed; and, for sure, we will be confronted with our share of responsibility for the intolerable plight of other peoples around the world.
On this front, Mr. Eco sees the need for new laws and other ways of dealing with a world that is changing (and in the very long view is always changing). Among his calls in these pages is for fresh consideration of the conditions under which it is appropriate to intervene in the affairs of another country. I can think an answer to that one: When certain parties in that other country want to kill us.