Umberto Eco: for an aesthetic of memory

In Italy his new novel just came out, Numero Zero, a tale set in the recent history, once again showing how art and knowledge, aesthetics and philosophy can feed one another, with no limits or prejudices. And it does so by choosing one more time the theme of collective memory, particularly close to his heart, a topic that Umberto Ecoamong the world most famous novelists and intellectuals – addressed just a few months ago on ICS Magzine. Starting from an important reflection: the idea that the lack of memory leads to the “triumph of the eternal present” and of its (false) promise of happiness, with all that goes with the delicate balances of culture and art, more and more ephemeral, hedonistic and “without history”.


The eternal promise of happiness, typical of the digital age, is also the prelude to an eternal competition to reach it. Maybe it is not by chance that among talent shows and self-publishing it seems now necessary to put any artistic or cultural talent to the test. What do you think of this mounting competitive interpretation of culture?

I think there are different degrees. From the boasters parade, of those who are only interested in being recognized in the café close to home, to those who are instead motivated by a genuine wish to express themselves and therefore they save money, make sacrifices and self-publish their books.
Of course, reading a couple of typed pages in front of a jury made up of three members saying respectively that they are amazing or indecent doesn’t mean to be judged, nor to invite others to pass judgment on them, but only to pass an absence of criticism off as competitive spirit, thus fuelling that perpetual tendency to take the floor and speak out which, as I said, ends up depriving of authority any cultural consistency.

Still, a demand for culture does exist. Cultural festivals, for instance, seem to be meeting at least part of this demand.

They do, absolutely. In this terrible situation the success of festivals, where people pays to attend conferences on Plato, is the sign that there is a part of the audience, if only a minimum percentage, which feels a deep unrest and reacts, looking for spaces where it is possible to satisfy the need for culture and debate. Television is no longer able to do it, nor is publishing, which mixes up on the shelf cookery books, humorous books and Iliad. That is why there is a search for substitutes.

Some time ago you maintained that e-publishing might have worked for reference books, not for books to read for mere pleasure. Haven’t you changed your mind meanwhile?

No, I haven’t, but I think that if I have a leg cut off, it is right that I use a prosthesis. So, if I’m going on a journey and cannot tuck ten books in my suitcase I welcome the possibility to upload all of them, and even more, in my iPad. I would reach out for my paper books as soon as I get home, though. Because on a paper book I can dog-ear a page, underline it, turn over the pages years later and find signs of a previous reading. I can get out of the eternal present. That is no small thing.

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