Sunday, December 04, 2005

On Technology

A friend was kind enough to send this brilliant article written by Umberto Eco in his column, La Bustina di Minerva, in the Italian news weekly, Espresso, in the September of 1994. I do not want to paste the entire text of an article into a post but this is something that I HAVE to share. This article is also something I did not find a hyperlink for - and I may not have looked around much!

Umberto Eco, professor of Semiotics at the University of Bologna, is one of those few writers whose authorship is an unmitigated joy to be involved in. And no matter how long his sentences or how waxiloquent you think his prose, he is a riveting and an utterly enlightening read. The only times I put The Name of the Rose down was to fill all the gaping holes in my education which, Eco so effortlessly exposed.

His writing is lyrical and witty, not something you would expect to find in a story of medieval religious intrigue and politics, set in a Italian monastery where a monk has been poisoned. A Franciscan monk, William of Baskerville, with his apprentice, Adso of Melk, has been sent to investigate the crime. Along the way, Jorge Luis Borges and Aristotle, the supression of knowledge and strong reasoning make for a enthralling journey. To say the least, the end is astonishing, and for any of you who think The Da Vinci Code is a good, well-researched book, I sincerely recommend you give The Name of the Rose a shot.

On a different note, the movie of the book is one of the few that attempts to do justice to the book. Personally, I do not see how that could ever be possible because the book is layered with stories within stories and you'd need to make a three week long film to do full justice to it. :-)

Among his other works, I savoured every word of Baudolino with its exquisite detail and subtlety and some of his essays and lectures on language and meaning sent me into raptures few writers, especially of the academic sort, can. However, I did not understand a word of Focault's Pendulum and am in the process of re-reading the book, this time hopefully to a modicum of comprehension.

When I grow up, I want to write like him - even if just one paragraph.

To meander back to the article on hand, I had myself a huge laugh at this one in the middle of mind-numbingly boring day at work and since I am in the business of technical writing, knowing the quirks of one side over the other, I found this even funnier!

I hope you enjoy this!


Friends, Italians, countrymen, I ask that a Committee for Public Health be set up, whose task would be to censor (by violent means, if necessary) discussion of the following topics in the Italian press. Each censored topic is followed by an alternative in brackets which is just as futile, but rich with the potential for polemic. Whether Joyce is boring (whether reading Thomas Mann gives one erections). Whether Heidegger is responsible for the crisis of the Left (whether Ariosto provoked the revocation of the Edict of Nantes). Whether semiotics has blurred the difference between Walt Disney and Dante (whether De Agostini does the right thing in putting Vimercate and the Sahara in the same atlas). Whether Italy boycotted quantum physics (whether France plots against the subjunctive).

Whether new technologies kill books and cinemas (whether zeppelins made bicycles redundant). Whether computers kill inspiration (whether fountain pens are Protestant). One can continue with: whether Moses was anti-semitic; whether Leon Bloy liked Calasso; whether Rousseau was responsible for the atomic bomb; whether Homer approved of investments in Treasury stocks; whether the Sacred Heart is monarchist or republican.

I asked above whether fountain pens were Protestant. Insufficient consideration has been given to the new underground religious war which is modifying the modern world. I find that whenever I tell people about it they immediately agree with me.

The fact is that the world is divided between users of the Macintosh computer and users of MS-DOS compatible computers. I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the ratio studiorum of the Jesuits.

It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory; it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach - if not the Kingdom of Heaven - the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: The essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.

DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself. Far away from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.

You may object that, with the passage to Windows, the DOS universe has come to resemble more closely the counter-reformist tolerance of the Macintosh. It's true: Windows represents an Anglican-style schism, big ceremonies in the cathedral, but there is always the possibility of a return to DOS to change things in accordance with bizarre decisions: When it comes down to it, you can decide to ordain women and gays if you want to.

Naturally, the Catholicism and Protestantism of the two systems have nothing to do with the cultural and religious positions of their users. ... One may wonder whether, as time goes by, the use of one system rather than another leads to profound inner changes. Can you use DOS and be a Vande supporter? And more: would Celine have written using Word, WordPerfect, or Wordstar? Would Descartes have programmed in Pascal?

And machine code, which lies beneath and decides the destiny of both systems (or environments, if you prefer)? Ah, that belongs to the Old Testament, and is talmudic and cabalistic. The Jewish lobby, as always.


Niranjan said...

I felt the Name of the Rose varied between being gripping at instances and being too slow-paced at others, though I liked the way the plot unravels. I'd save my worst ire for the interspersed and untranslated latin passages. The book does provides an illuminating insight into the inquisitions and burn-at-the-stake practices of those times, which it represents with fine accuracy. And I agree about the movie - its a fine attempt though not the most comprehensive one, and sean connery does justice to the role of william.

madhavan said...

I didn't enjoy Umberto Eco's article. I thought your Blue on White poem was much better. Also, I want to read Name of the Rose but I have seen the movie and know the suspense (I wont tell). But I guess such dilemmas are the stuff with which life tests your inner mettle. I had hoped someday to see the light and buy the book. And since you so highly recommend it, let me see if I can filch it from a friend tomorrow and not return it ever

Anil said...

The last paragraph was such hilarious fun. Eco is one of my favorite authors, although I didn't like The Name of the Rose too much, I loved his Foucault's Pendulum. Even mentioning Da Vinci Code in the same breath as Foucaults Pendulum (this is the appropriate equivalent book not Name of the Rose I feel) is sacrilege. Yes, I did not get all the subtle references in the book but that is possible only if you have studied classics in college.

If you like Eco that much I strongly recommend Lawrence Norfolk (if you have not come across him already that is), in particular Lempriere's Dictionary. He is not as natural and easy to read as Eco perhaps but nevertheless a very very good author, cross-referencing everything from greek mythology to the hidden agenda of the East India company.

Geetanjali said...

Oh yes Umberto Eco. I haven't read "Name of the Rose" but "Foucault's Pendulum" just made me feel so ignorant! Like you I intend to read it again. As for those who think "Da Vinci Code" is a well-researched book or worse, good 'literature' - someone ought to introduce them to the difference between erudite writing and popular writing. I sound like a snob when I say that but it's true.

Great article - classic Eco style! I'm gonna copy and save it!

Excellent post Extempore - worth the wait! *thumbs up*

SaidBack said...

"waxiloquent" :D
You just had to pick this one right? :p

It is one of the best gifts I've received :)

Brood Mode said...

awesome post! i can't stop laughing!

GD said...

Did I ever thank you for introducing me to Eco? Well, I'm doing it now. Thanks!
I loved this piece, and 'Foucault's Pendulum' just blew me away. One of the most engrossing, entertaining, and at times moving books I've ever read. Stretched my mind all over the place. And far from spoiling the book, the having to hop around every now and then to look something up actually made it more fun.
And I'm so glad I won that bet with you. Am looking forward to reading 'The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana'. :-D
For those of you who enjoyed the piece, has links to more.

aristera says said...

i love eco's writings. am currently reading "on beauty", an overview on western aesthetic thought. awesome. but focault's pendulum even i didnt understand a word.

Extempore said...

@Niranjan: I don't know - Name of the Rose had me utterly gripped from the prologue! I'd sincerely suggest Baudolino

@Madhavan: Thanks, that's nice of you to say. Name of the Rose is a must - whenever you can!

@Anil: :))! I know! Will beat you later on for not adoring Name of the Rose! And yes, The Da Vinci Code is sacrilege but that was the point of the sentence! :P!

Not read Norfolk yet but will get to him soon. :-)

@Geets: Am glad you liked it! And snobbery is fine, darling. Us Lit types tend to be that way about Literatuh no? :-)

@Pepper: Was hoping you'd pick it up! Those bits were meant for you! :))

@Brood Mode: Thanks - am glad you liked it so!

@GD: Anytime! Since you said you don't mind the paperback (cretin!), wait till it comes out!

@Aristera: Me too! I haven't read the one you're talking about but you should sample some of his stuff on meaning and language. Try Calvino or Borges on Western aesthetics - awesome!

finnegan said...

The Name of the Rose is the sort of book which really demands "time off".

It's one of those rare reads where the scholarly and popular dance on the same floor---something I find intriguing.

That last paragraph was catholic with a small "c". Great fun!