Sample text for On literature / Umberto Eco ; translated from the Italian by Martin McLaughlin.

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Legend has it, and if it is not true it is still a good story, that Stalin once asked how many divisions the Pope had. Subsequent events have proved to us that while divisions are indeed important in certain circumstances, they are not everything. There are nonmaterial forces, which cannot be measured precisely, but which nonetheless carry weight.

We are surrounded by intangible powers, and not just those spiritual values explored by the world's great religions. The power of square roots is also an intangible power: their rigid laws have survived for centuries, outliving not just Stalin's decrees but even the Pope's. And among these powers I would include that of the literary tradition; that is to say, the power of that network of texts which humanity has produced and still produces not for practical ends (such as records, commentaries on laws and scientific formulae, minutes of meetings or train schedules) but, rather, for its own sake, for humanity's own enjoyment-and which are read for pleasure, spiritual edification, broadening of knowledge, or maybe just to pass the time, without anyone forcing us to read them (apart from when we are obliged to do so at school or in the university).

True, literary objects are only partly intangible, since they usually come to us on paper. But at one stage they came to us through the voice of someone who was calling on an oral tradition, or written on stone, while today we are talking about the future of e-books, which apparently will allow us to read a collection of jokes or Dante's Divine Comedy on a liquid-crystal screen. Let me say at once that I do not intend to dwell this evening on the vexed question of the electronic book. I belong, of course, to those who prefer to read a novel or poem in the paper medium of books, whose dog-eared and crumpled pages I will even remember, though I am told that there is now a generation of digital hackers who, not having ever read a book in their lives, have now enjoyed Don Quixote for the first time thanks to the e-book. A clear gain for their minds but at a terrible cost for their eyesight. If future generations come to have a good (psychological and physical) relationship with the e-book, the power of Don Quixote will remain intact.

What use is this intangible power we call literature? The obvious reply is the one I have already made, namely, that it is consumed for its own sake and therefore does not have to serve any purpose. But such a disembodied view of the pleasure of literature risks reducing it to the status of jogging or doing crossword puzzles-both of which primarily serve some purpose, the former the health of the body, the latter the expansion of one's vocabulary. What I intend to discuss is therefore a series of roles that literature plays in both our individual and our social lives.

Above all, literature keeps language alive as our collective heritage. By definition language goes its own way; no decree from on high, emanating either from politicians or from the academy, can stop its progress and divert it toward situations that they claim are for the best. The Fascists tried to make Italians say mescita instead of bar, coda di gallo instead of cocktail, rete instead of goal, auto pubblica instead of taxi, and our language paid no attention. Then it suggested a lexical monstrosity, an unacceptable archaism like autista instead of chauffeur, and the language accepted it. Maybe because it avoided a sound unknown to Italian. It kept taxi, but gradually, at least in the spoken language, turned this into tassì.

Language goes where it wants to but is sensitive to the suggestions of literature. Without Dante there would have been no unified Italian language. When, in his De Vulgari Eloquentia (On Vernacular Eloquence), Dante analyzes and condemns the various Italian dialects and decides to forge a new "illustrious vernacular," nobody would have put money on such an act of arrogance, and yet with The Divine Comedy he won his bet. It is true that Dante's vernacular took several centuries to become the language spoken by all of us, but if it has succeeded it is because the community of those who believed in literature continued to be inspired by Dante's model. And if that model had not existed, then the idea of political unity might not have made any headway. Perhaps that is why Bossi does not speak an "illustrious vernacular."

Twenty years of Fascist talk of "Rome's fated hills" and "ineluctable destinies," of "unavoidable events" and "plows tracing furrows in the ground," have in the end left no trace in contemporary Italian, whereas traces have been left by certain virtuoso experiments of futurist prose, which were unacceptable at the time. And while I often hear people complain about the victory of a middle Italian that has been popularized by television, let us not forget that the appeal to a middle Italian, in its noblest form, came through the plain and perfectly acceptable prose of Manzoni, and later of Svevo or Moravia.

By helping to create language, literature creates a sense of identity and community. I spoke initially of Dante, but we might also think of what Greek civilization would have been like without Homer, German identity without Luther's translation of the Bible, the Russian language without Pushkin, or Indian civilization without its foundation epics.

And literature keeps the individual's language alive as well. These days many lament the birth of a new "telegraphese," which is being foisted on us through e-mail and mobile-phone text messages, where one can even say "I love you" with short-message symbols; but let us not forget that the youngsters who send messages in this new form of shorthand are, at least in part, the same young people who crowd those new cathedrals of the book, the multistory bookstores, and who, even when they flick through a book without buying it, come into contact with cultivated and elaborate literary styles to which their parents, and certainly their grandparents, had never been exposed.

Although there are more of them compared with the readers of previous generations, these young people clearly are a minority of the six billion inhabitants of this planet; nor am I idealistic enough to believe that literature can offer relief to the vast number of people who lack basic food and medicine. But I would like to make one point: the wretches who roam around aimlessly in gangs and kill people by throwing stones from a highway bridge or setting fire to a child-whoever these people are-turn out this way not because they have beenn corrupted by computer "new-speak" (they don't even have access to a computer) but rather because they are excluded from the universe of literature and from those places where, through education and discussion, they might be reached by a glimmer from the world of values that stems from and sends us back again to books.

Reading works of literature forces on us an exercise of fidelity and respect, albeit within a certain freedom of interpretation. There is a dangerous critical heresy, typical of our time, according to which we can do anything we like with a work of literature, reading into it whatever our most uncontrolled impulses dictate to us. This is not true. Literary works encourage freedom of interpretation, because they offer us a discourse that has many layers of reading and place before us the ambiguities of language and of real life. But in order to play this game, which allows every generation to read literary works in a different way, we must be moved by a profound respect for what I have called elsewhere the intention of the text.

On one hand the world seems to be a "closed" book, allowing of only one reading. If, for example, there is a law governing planetary gravitation, then it is either the right one or the wrong one. Compared with that, the universe of a book seems to us to be an open universe. But let us try to approach a narrative work with common sense and compare the assumptions we can make about it with those we can make about the world. As far as the world is concerned, we find that the laws of universal gravitation are those established by Newton, or that it is true that Napoleon died on Saint Helena on 5 May 1821. And yet, if we keep an open mind, we will always be prepared to revise our convictions the day science formulates the great laws of the cosmos differently, or a historian discovers unpublished documents proving that Napoleon died on a Bonapartist ship as he attempted to escape. On the other hand, as far as the world of books is concerned, propositions like "Sherlock Holmes was a bachelor," "Little Red Riding-Hood is eaten by the wolf and then freed by the woodcutter," or "Anna Karenina commits suicide" will remain true for eternity, and no one will ever be able to refute them. There are people who deny that Jesus was the son of God, others who doubt his historical existence, others who claim he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and still others who believe that the Messiah is yet to come, and however we might think about such questions, we treat these opinions with respect. But there is little respect for those who claim that Hamlet married Ophelia, or that Superman is not Clark Kent.

Copyright © 2002 RCS Libri S.p.A

English translation copyright © 2004 by Martin McLaughlin
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Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Literature -- History and criticism.