In the gaze of the other

"My mistress' eyes are nothing…"

Umberto Eco

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“I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.” 

― Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

I first learned of Eco after reading The Name of the Rose in graduate school, though I cannot remember whether it was the first round in 89 or the second in 2003. I saw the movie of the same name and cannot remember whether I saw it before reading the book or vice versa. I do know I enjoyed both immensely, so much so that I read a second book, the one from which the above quote comes, which I also enjoyed, though I believed that the text was far more about the title namesake than it was before reading it. I had read Michel Foucault, who I found as intriguing as mystifying, so naturally was drawn to the title. 

The text, like all Eco works, is complex and dense with plot and erudite history, lore and textual references–not your read on the beach in paradise. Eco demands you grapple. And while many details of both books I read are long forgotten, the words and specific scenes remain etched in the beautiful keepsakes section of my brain.

Like many faithful readers, I seek treasure–that unique turn of phrase or universal truth that hangs with me, bubbled to the surface when I need a lift, a reason or insight. Countless times the belief in mystery became and becomes my mantra. Some people often sigh, “It’s God’s will” when at a loss to explain the inexplicable and I just as often say, “Bow to the mystery.” Though both signal surrender, one does far less resignedly. 

That the “world is an enigma” satisfies, becalms and relieves humans of the burden of making sense of chaos and that which we cannot understand due to the size of our brains, undiscovered truths or components necessary to solving riddles, or both–or neither. That we madly “attempt to interpret” the world smacks of vanity or fruitlessness but not necessarily. Human’s drive to know, to understand and control is itself an enigma, one with benign origins though sometimes malignant intent or results. 

This quote counters another oft-pronounced snippet pulled out of pocket at the cause-effect chain’s logical end with no solution: “Everything happens for a reason.” Eco obviously disagreed and wrote legions against that idea, wracking ordered plots with disordered interferences from magic, evil intent, human contaminants and other messy interlocutors, all in historically altered (small and large) and imagined context. 

One thinker, writer and human I mourn, Umberto Eco died yesterday, a significant loss or gain for the mystery.

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