Saturday, June 9, 2018

Umberto Eco, Charles Williams and the Bear

Umberto Eco
Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community...but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize Winner." - Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco
The Bear will circle back around to the quote, but by now, you know Bears prefer to stalk their subjects in an indirect manner.

The Bear received Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco as an early Father's Day present. Eco is best known for The Name of the Rose, which Hollywood made into a conventional mystery set in a medieval monastery. The first time the Bear read Foucault's Pendulum, he was baffled.

He hopes this time around he's onto Eco. It's not a conventional novel, but meant to engage the reader beyond plot and character arcs. If the Bear is right, the novel itself is the author's "metagame" that engages the reader on different levels. The Bear thinks he can illustrate this in a way he hopes that Eco wouldn't find too awful.

Imagine you receive a novel as a gift. However, the chapters are not bound, and part of the fun is using clues to puzzle out how they fit together in the right order. Furthermore, this process itself reveals meanings related to the novel. It is not, however, part of the text per se.

Maybe you never quite get all the chapters right, and so the communication is not one-hundred percent. Even so, you may have learned quite a bit, and, after all, you still get a novel to read. Please note this is much different from saying, as some academics have tried to say, that the text has no actual meaning and belongs to each reader.

Foucault's Pendulum is the story about bored editors who decide to turn theories of crackpot occult authors into a vast and secret conspiracy. However, their prank becomes dangerous when someone takes it seriously. Occultism is ripe for a send-up, although that's just one ball Eco juggles.

A Wicked Pack of Cards

To use a more personal example, the novel formerly known as Judging Angels is about--among other things--our world's starvation of a sense of the supernatural. From the first chapter to the last, there are references to what T.S. Eliot called in The Wasteland, "a wicked pack of cards." In the novel formerly known as Judging Angels, the Tarot--like a couple of the characters--are intrusions into the consensus world of materialism by the supernatural (or, perhaps, "preternatural" would be more precise from some perspectives).

Slaying the reductionist materialistic dragon is the primary goal of the artist in his culture today.

The Origin of the 22 Trumps in Christian Europe

Forget all the occult nonsense you might have heard about the Tarot. The cards are the product of Christian Europe in the 15th Century and their form was fixed in in the 17th and 18th Centuries in what is known as the Tarot de Marseille. The 22 trumps were used in a game where each was "trumped" by the higher-numbered card. Le Mat (The Fool) is the only unnumbered card, and survives as the Joker. The grim reaper (XIII) is the only unnamed card; perhaps it was considered unlucky in the plague era.

For example, the shady sleight-of-hand performer (whom silly Victorian occultists turned into an adept) is I and is trumped by La Papesse (the female pope) II.
This second card represents pagan religion, perhaps in the guise of the legend of Pope Joan. Contemporary art shows a classical goddess wearing a triple crown.

It is trumped by the Empress (III), then there's the Emperor (IIII), then the Pope (V), and so on. These would have been familiar figures to people of that age. The Renaissance was a time of rediscovery of the classical world and that is reflected in ways space does not permit the Bear to go into here.

Their Use in the Novel Formerly Known as Judging Angels

Anyway, there is a Tarot reading in one chapter of the novel formerly known as Judging Angels. No previous knowledge is necessary, and if readers don't catch on, they won't miss anything essential. If they think about it, though, it does provide clues to hidden connections among characters, their true identities, and an overview of the plot. The numbers 21 and 22 appear throughout the novel, also. Suffice it to say that 21 is missing one card. Who, what or where?

The relevance to the on-going discussion is that here we have one medium (a game with picture cards possessing their own associations) on top of a different medium (words used for description and dialogue). This is not gratuitous. Like them, fear them or just think they're silly, most people at least feel there's something mysterious about them. If they seem like an intrusion into this material world of an unseen reality our culture denies--just as they intrude into the story--it supports an important theme of the novel. And, unlike a motif or symbol, they have a resonant independent existence outside of it.

The Lead-Off Quote

Eco's quote probably sounds like an Italian academic with no appreciation for American ideals of free speech. However, the reason the Bear thought it was interesting was that it recognizes social media can harm the community. Eco is talking about content, but I'm sure he would have also been aware of it as a medium independent of content. As the Bear has argued, a medium limits and shapes content, and social media constricts it in harmful ways. What is your reaction?


  1. Are the harmful constrictions of social media any worse than those of traditional mass-media? The latter has after all been manipulated by scoundrels since the invention of the press, and being far more limited in scope is the more easily manipulated, no? Moreover, while the traditional gate-keeping role of, e.g. newspapers, could keep conversations civil, it also gave the progressivists who dominate it the power to control the conversation -a power they have been desperately trying to claw back ever since the internet took it from them.
    I am inspired to re-read Eco's FP. And to read JA.
    Have you read the (anonymously authored) "Meditations On The Tarot"? I found it extremely charming and even helpful.

    1. Mike, your points are well-taken. If you continue to follow this series, I hope to address them to your satisfaction.

      The novel formerly known as Judging Angels is currently unavailable. It will be re-released in a better (and shorter) version. I'll have more details, but I want everything ready to go before I talk more about it. All I'll say is I'm very excited about what I have up my sleeve.

      I did an article or two on Meditations on the Tarot. (Use the search box in the side bar if you're interested.) I even found a picture of the two-volume German edition sitting on the desk of St. Pope JPII, but while it was a trendy book among some Catholics, I have no idea if he read it or what he thought of it.

      I have read it more than once. (I think it takes about three times, anyway.) So nobody is out there freaking out, it's not about fortune-telling or occultism. The author (who's known, but I'll respect his desire for posthumous anonymity) riffs off of each of the 22 trumps as a Catholic.

      Having said that, while there's a lot of great stuff, there's also some weird stuff. The obvious example is he claims reincarnation is a fact, but not a heresy because one might go straight to Heaven without it. He doesn't make it part of a "system," and kind of lays it out there for the reader to take or leave, but, obviously this is an issue. However, it's interesting the Church found it necessary to condemn reincarnation more than once, the last being at the Council of Florence IIRC. No, I don't believe in reincarnation.

      I think Meditations on the Tarot is an interesting book for intellectually mature Catholics who know how to separate the wheat from the chaff. His discussions of Le Bateleur and La Papesse, for example, are psychologically brilliant and practical, unlike anything I've ever seen. While I, personally, enjoy it, I just can't recommend it to others because of the aforementioned problems. I guess that's what makes me different from Hans Urs von Balthasar (who wrote the forward) and elements of the Catholic press who recommended it. Hmm, JPII did pick the former as a Cardinal despite his involvement with the book...

    2. P.S. as for your question, for now I'll say that we are well beyond the point where analogies to previous methods of handling communication are relevant. I'll be showing why.

  2. Yes, MOT -for all its admitted charms- will induce some head-scratching in the educated Catholic reader. But I do not fear it falling into the hands of the poorly educated -or poorly catechized: they are reliably too dull to get through more than a page or two.
    An interesting report about the sad fate of your friend who experimented with hermeticism. I am reminded of my own adolescent play with the deck: It seemed to reveal too much that was true, and yet not enough -proof to me that it was not a thing to fool with, and I dropped it. Notably, it was reading von B that led me to MOT in the first place.
    I look forward to further exposition in this series.

    1. I think the book itself is difficult enough that you have to be pretty motivated to get very far. Some new ager who picks it up as a “tarot book” is quickly going to feel hoodwinked that it has next to nothing about that and a whole lot about Catholicism. It is very tough sledding, which is just as well.

  3. One more thing: if you don't know it, you might find an amusing companion piece to Foucault's Pendulum in Theodore Roszak's "Flicker": more fun with paranoia and secret hermetic organizations.

    1. I’ll look at it. I am enjoying FP very much this time around. I am trying to resist looking up everything on the theory all these obscure terms and references are themselves examples of the impenetrability of Hermeticism. Eco is quite capable of decent writing, so when he starts some rhapsody using alchemical terms even I don’t know, the old fox is playing with me.

  4. Eco seems also to be commenting on the “flood the world with everything” aspect of social media, in that there are no longer any real gateways to worldwide exposure of words and images. To take his thought further, social media also allow many smart and articulate people to speak to the world, but one must wade through miles of dreck to find each worthwhile utterance.
    I must say, his “legions of idiots” label does a fine job of summing up one important aspect of my experiences with SM, which led me to abandon Facebook a couple of months back. What really hurt was that so many of my “friends” turned out to be members of that legion. The other important factor in deciding to dump the Zuckerberg enterprise was the realization that it is designed to profit from encouraging activity based on pride, which makes it a near occasion of sin for me. My tolerance for Twitter is wearing out, as well. Its sole utility at this point seems to be to satisfy my urge to “spread the word” when I read something particularly interesting or timely, or that agrees with my views. In truth, it is more likely a combination of all those factors, which means it poses much the same danger to me as did Facebook, that of feeding my ego in the guise of something benign or even laudable. Come to think of it, hat’s how Old Scratch works, isn’t it?
    I may have just talked myself into dumping my Twitter account, too. :)

    Carry on, Bear! This is a fascinating exercise.

    1. You get it, Frank. (Although you’ll see there’s even worse.) Ego is a huge factor, especially since we’re all keeping score. How many likes? Retweets? How many views on the article? As a blogger and writer, I must make a deal with the devil. At least I am trying to not feed into the negativity or join the Legion, but who knows? I’m just a Bear. Thank you for the positive feedback.

  5. Bear, Did you read "The Name of the Rose"? Was it much like the 80s movie? I saw it in the late 80s on vhs. It made an impression. I saw his book once but passed on it. From what I understand his beliefs are problematic and if given a choice of reading a schematic heritic who dislikes the Church and something else, I'll choose something else everytime.

    1. The movie is the bare bones of the book. I remember just being depressed when I finished The Name of the Rose, although that was a long time ago. Foucault’s Pendulum seems much more playful and engaging to me.

  6. Ego, without being apparent to most senders on social media, is the driving force of Facebook. The idea that we all need to know everyone's opinion, everyone's children's pictures, everyone's goings on is either pride at it's worst or 'legions of idiots' let loose on the general public.

    1. I think the key words are "without being apparent to most senders on social media." If I'm right (well, there are a lot of internet critics now, but only one Bear) that's exactly the problem. Bear is saying "the internet is making you stupid and wicked, and here's why." But it's a big topic and will take time to prove.


Moderation is On.

Featured Post

Judging Angels Chapter 1 Read by Author

Quick commercial for free, no-strings-attached gift of a professionally produced audio book of Judging Angels, Chapter 1: Last Things, read...