Sunday, November 18, 2007

Nonfiction: Travels in Hyperreality

Translated by William Weaver
Harcourt Brace & Company, 1986, ISBN 0-15-691321-6; Paperback $15.00.

Travels in Hyperreality is a conglomeration of essays from previous works and columns. It is mostly based on 1983’s Sette anni di desiderio: chronache 1977 - 1983 (Seven Year’s of Desire), which is a collection of essays written about Italian political unrest, leading to a “religiosity of the unconscious, of the vortex, of the absence of a center, or radical difference, of absolute otherness, of fracture.” Hyperreality, however, includes several other essays taken from the earlier untranslated works Il costume di casa (1973) and Dalla periferia dell’Impero (1977) as well as a 1975 essay on the American subculture of hyperrealism called “Faith in Fakes.” This essay, retitled “Travels in Hyperreality,” is the longest work in the book, and provides the collection with a new name.
Obviously most of the essays concern themselves with modern culture and the currents and trends that helped to shape it, which allows Eco a platform to analyze such things as the media and the “global village” concept; but more than a few essays revolve around some of Eco’s favorite topics such as Aquinas and semiotics. In short, the range of topics is broad and eclectic as usual. The title essay tracks Eco as he journeys through American wax museums and theme parks in search of the American Ideal, commenting on the American fondness for kitsch and “authentic copies” in the absence of a profound historical tradition. Other subjects include a shrewd analysis of MacLuhan’s “the medium is the message” slogan, an irascible but thoughtful diatribe against spectator sports, a modern refutation of the ideology of the “romantic” terrorist, an analysis of the movie Casablanca as a cult phenomena laden with archetypes, and a series of essays which expostulate that our modern love of certain images and systems is a sort of “return to the Middle Ages.”
Many of the essays are actually quite humorous as well as insightful, and as usual Eco manages to serve up his ideas through a witty use of satirical analysis and overinterpretation coupled with a sly sense of irreverent and occasionally backhanded humor. The barbs are well fashioned, the commentary suitably wry, and the theory well-explained. A superior collection that certainly rewards a careful reading and a thoughtful re-reading.
Here is the introductory note from back cover:

Umberto Eco – novelist, semiotician, and cultural critic extraordinary – displays here the same wit, learning, and lively intelligence that delighted readers of The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum. Eco’s range is wide – from pop culture to philosophy, from the People’s Temple to Thomas Aquinas, from Casablanca to Roland Barthes.

The opening essay shows us the tireless and questing author travelling the length and breadth of America in search of places that probe the boundaries of realism, copies that promise more than the originals: wax museums, halls of fame, theme parks, zoos. “The Return of the Middle Ages” asks searching questions about our modernity; “The Global Village” moves from mass media to mass sports. Small gems abound, like “Lumbar Thought,” in which Eco considers how blue jeans shape the man.

The insights in these essays are acute, frequently ironic, and often downright funny. To quote the San Francisco Chronicle, Eco has “a great deal to teach all of us about the importance (not to mention the pleasure) of observation and criticism, those twin privileges – and, as he says, duties – of all thinking human beings.”