Turning Back the Clock

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 November, 2007, 12:00am

Turning Back the Clock

by Umberto Eco, translated by Alastair McEwen

Harvill Secker, HK$288

It is Umberto Eco's wry contention that we're experiencing deja vu all over again - atlases look like they did before 1914, 'the wily Afghans' are attacking the Khyber Pass, the Crusades have made a comeback, and pay-per-view television and the internet have taken communications full circle to Alexander Graham Bell.

'The resurgence of the anti-Darwinian polemic marks the reappearance of a Christian fundamentalism that seemed to belong to the chronicles of the nineteenth century, while the ghost of the yellow peril has risen again (albeit only in a demographic and economic form),' he writes in his introduction to Turning Back the Clock - Hot Wars and Mass Media Popularism.

'Almost as if history, breathless after the leaps forward made in the last two millennia, is drawing back into itself, returning to the comfortable splendours of tradition.'

The Italian philosopher, one of the cleverest people alive and whose job it is as the guru of semiotics to decode the world's cultural symbols and diagnose what ails humanity, is unhappy with how the first half of the decade has gone.

This collection of 41 articles, speeches and essays on seven topics and running to 369 pages, including the index, gives a snapshot of the 'momentous' period of 2000 to 2005 as it relates to events in politics and the media.

Eco opens with Some Reflections on War and Peace, an address he gave in Milan in July 2002 that carries on from his essays in Five Moral Pieces (2001) and his reflections on the Gulf war.

He is probably only half-joking when he observes the next global conflict is likely to be a replay of the historical conflicts between Christian and Muslim, and 'would be the first war in which the enemy not only lives in your own country, but also has the right to national health insurance'.

In a 'science-fiction scenario that I would never want to see come to pass', the mob massacres millions on all sides 'without any need to trouble the armed forces', millions more are tossed into the sea and long lines form outside McDonald's 'for a daily ration consisting of a slice of bran bread topped by a lettuce leaf' with only one hour of television for relief.

Eco rationalises: 'In the era of globalisation, a global war is impossible - that is, it would lead to defeat for everyone.' But global peace is impossible too, he says, though 'we are all fascinated by the ideal of peace', which he likens to 'an energy-sapping struggle like trench warfare, a few yards at a time and at the cost of many lives'.

Yet little peaces help, 'even if only between the Montagues and the Capulets'.

'The work of reducing local conflicts inspires us with the confidence that one day it will also be possible to solve global conflicts. A foolish hope, but sometimes you have to lie by example.

'If you lie with words, you lie badly, but if - through action - you let it be thought that others may act likewise, then you lie well, making people believe that a particular proposition can be transformed into a universal proposition,' he says.

'But this is why ethics and rhetoric are not part of formal logic. Our only hope is to work for local peace.'

Many of the pieces follow a similar vein, essentially hopeful that common sense governed by ethical principles built up throughout the centuries will ultimately prevail in a climate of reason.

Eco is no pessimist even though he admits to doubts.

He devotes considerable attention to what has happened to Italy under the influence of the fascist corporatism of Silvio Berlusconi and the unfettered power of a mass media devoted to the proliferation of ignorance - it has wider ramifications for greater Europe and beyond, and the watchword is vigilance.

'I worry about young people, because, as we know, it's hard to get old people to change their minds,' he says in Holy Wars, Passion and Religion, which appeared in La Repubblica in October 2001 and is the key to this collection.

'All the wars of religion that spilled blood in the world for centuries sprang from emotional loyalties and simplistic antagonisms, such as Us versus Them, good guys versus bad guys, black versus white. If western culture has shown itself to be fertile ... it is because it made an effort - in the spirit of inquiry and critical thinking - to undo harmful simplifications.'

It is, he says, 'the finer aspects of our culture that we should discuss with young people, of whatever stripe, if we wish to avoid the collapse of new towers in the future, when we have passed away'.

In his final piece, On the Disadvantages and Advantages of Death, which first appeared as a conclusion to La Mort et l'Immortalite (2004), Eco says: 'The beauty of growing and maturing is in realising that life is a marvellous accumulation of knowledge.'

Again maybe only half-jokingly, the philosopher says life is a progression towards a realisation that everyone is a complete idiot, except, of course, you.