Serendipities: Language and Lunacy

Overview

Best-selling author Umberto Eco's latest work unlocks the riddles of history in an exploration of the "linguistics of the lunatic," stories told by scholars, scientists, poets, fanatics, and ordinary people in order to make sense of the world. Exploring the "Force of the False," Eco uncovers layers of mistakes that have shaped human history, such as Columbus's assumption that the world was much smaller than it is, leading him to seek out a quick route to the East via the West and thus fortuitously "discovering" ...

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Serendipities: Language and Lunacy

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Overview

Best-selling author Umberto Eco's latest work unlocks the riddles of history in an exploration of the "linguistics of the lunatic," stories told by scholars, scientists, poets, fanatics, and ordinary people in order to make sense of the world. Exploring the "Force of the False," Eco uncovers layers of mistakes that have shaped human history, such as Columbus's assumption that the world was much smaller than it is, leading him to seek out a quick route to the East via the West and thus fortuitously "discovering" America. The fictions that grew up around the cults of the Rosicrucians and Knights Templar were the result of a letter from a mysterious "Prester John"--undoubtedly a hoax--that provided fertile ground for a series of delusions and conspiracy theories based on religious, ethnic, and racial prejudices. While some false tales produce new knowledge (like Columbus's discovery of America) and others create nothing but horror and shame (the Rosicrucian story wound up fueling European anti-Semitism) they are all powerfully persuasive.

In a careful unraveling of the fabulous and the false, Eco shows us how serendipities--unanticipated truths--often spring from mistaken ideas. From Leibniz's belief that the I Ching illustrated the principles of calculus to Marco Polo's mistaking a rhinoceros for a unicorn, Eco tours the labyrinth of intellectual history, illuminating the ways in which we project the familiar onto the strange.

Eco uncovers a rich history of linguistic endeavor--much of it ill-conceived--that sought to "heal the wound of Babel." Through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Greek, Hebrew, Chinese, and Egyptian were alternately proclaimed as the first language that God gave to Adam, while--in keeping with the colonial climate of the time--the complex language of the Amerindians in Mexico was viewed as crude and diabolical. In closing, Eco considers the erroneous notion of linguistic perfection and shrewdly observes that the dangers we face lie not in the rules we use to interpret other cultures but in our insistence on making these rules absolute.

With the startling combination of erudition and wit, bewildering anecdotes and scholarly rigor that are Eco's hallmarks, Serendipities is sure to entertain and enlighten any reader with a passion for the curious history of languages and ideas.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Atlantic Monthly

Erudite, wide-ranging, and slyly humorous.... The literary examples Eco employs range from Dante to Dumas, from Sterne to Spillane. His text is thought-provoking, often outright funny, and full of surprising juxtapositions.

The Daily Yomiuri - Scott Gordon

Eco cajoles his readers to go out and learn more, and perhaps, to disagree with him.

The Atlantic

Erudite, wide-ranging, and slyly humorous.... The literary examples Eco employs range from Dante to Dumas, from Sterne to Spillane. His text is thought-provoking, often outright funny, and full of surprising juxtapositions.

Booklist

Fans of Eco's novels will not be left dissatisfied--his fictional players are still present: Templars, Illuminati, Jesuits, Theosophists, and Masons. They all have a part in this intriguing look at how the study of language can be full of surprises.

Review of Contemporary Fiction

Eco's insistent curiosity, his vital imagination and his almost overwhelming erudition work together like forces of nature to push and pull the book's five essays in unpredictable directions.

Scotland on Sunday

These essays are equally entertaining and unusual.

World Literature Today

Informative, instructive, and entertaining.

Scott Gordon
Eco cajoles his readers to go out and learn more, and perhaps, to disagree with him.
Atlantic Monthly
Erudite, wide-ranging, and slyly humorous. . . . The literary examples Eco employs range from Dante to Dumas, from Sterne to Spillane. His text is thought-provoking, often outright funny, and full of surprising juxtapositions.
Atlantic Monthly
Eco examines, with wit and elegance, some of the many cases in which a mistaken belief has led to a sound result....Readers who enjoy [Eco's] grace of style and mastery of odd anecdote will find his reflections delightful.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Consider the platypus. With its famous molelike body carrying a beaver's tail and a duck's beak, the beast confounded the first Western scientists who studied it in 1798. Was it a mammal or a reptile? Did it lay eggs? Was it just a taxonomic hoax? The platypus eventually found its rightful place in the animal kingdom, but as Eco (Travels in Hyperreality, etc.) shows in these challenging essays, the questions it raised about language and perception still animate some sharply contested semiotic debates. Writing with his customary keenness of intellect, Eco ranges widely over metaphysical terrain, drawing on Aristotle, Heidegger and C.S. Peirce to inform his discussions. Revising aspects of Kant's philosophy in terms of cognitive studies, Eco ponders how we identify the things around us and argues that meaning in the world is ultimately contractual and negotiable. When Aztecs first saw horses ridden by Spanish conquistadors, for example, they used their previous knowledge to surmise that the invaders were riding deer. In another example, Eco investigates how we can recognize a Bach suite for solo cello, even when played by different soloists or transcribed for the recorder. Throughout, Eco gamely reconsiders his 1976 work, A Theory of Semiotics, over which many a gauntlet was testily thrown, and revisits other key moments in the history of semiotic research. This collection will certainly appeal to specialists. But Eco's ability to balance technical subject matter with broadly intelligible anecdotes and illustrations should make it valuable and pleasurable for anyone seeking a gallant introduction to the philosophy of language. (Nov.) FYI: Also in November Harvest will release Eco's Serendipities in paperback ($12, ISBN 0-15-600751-7) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
Eco, a best-selling novelist and a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, unlocks the riddles of history in an exploration of the "linguistics of the lunatic," stories told by scholars, scientists, poets, fanatics, and ordinary people in order to make sense of the world. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Kirkus Reviews
Italy's most celebrated public intellectual gathers five essays that focus (more or less) on how lunatic misunderstandings concerning the perfect language have led to new discoveries (sort of). Eco (The Name of the Rose) remains Italy's most successful and prolific writer. He is a novelist, cultural commentator, essayist, literary critic, and scholar of language. The present volume of essays is spun off his work on the historical search for the "perfect language", i.e., the language that God gave Adam, the one that was lost in the catastrophe at the Tower of Babel. But the conceit with which he rather unsuccessfully attempts to unify the book is this: the search in the cases he explores always involves either outright errors or otherwise fictional inventions that have somehow led to positive discovery. After all, Columbus accidentally discovered the New World owing to miscalculations about the size of the earth. Eco sees similar situations in the history of language. For example, a 16th-century Jesuit, Father Athanasius Kircher, fancifully and elaborately interpreted ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics as the lost language of the Garden of Eden. "Kircher was wildly wrong. Still, notwithstanding his eventual failure, he is the father of Egyptology." This and similar disappointingly general findings do not satisfyingly deliver on the promise that the errors serendipitously produce truth. But all is not lost. The meandering erudition of Eco's book is interesting enough in its own right. He speculates, for example, that Dante believed his own Italian vernacular, as distinct from official Latin, was in fact an echo of Adam's perfect language. And, he examines philosophical attempts byLeibniz and others to recreate a perfect language and Joseph de Maistre's combination of linguistic mysticism and reactionary politics.

The genial Eco may have had the lay reader in mind when he wrote these essays (which were originally lectures), but his book of linguistic arcana is also of avowedly esoteric interest.

From the Publisher
"Examines, with wit and elegance, some of the many cases in which a mistaken belief has led to a sound result . . . Delightful."-The Atlantic Monthly
"Rich in historical anecdotes . . . Throughout, his treatments are informative, intellectually sophisticated, and thoroughly entertaining."-Library Journal
The Daily Yomiuri
Eco cajoles his readers to go out and learn more, and perhaps, to disagree with him.

— Scott Gordon

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231111355
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 5/6/2014
  • Series: Italian Academy Lectures Series
  • Pages: 128
  • Sales rank: 804,363
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco is the author of five best-selling novels and numerous collections of essays. He is a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna and lives in Italy.

Columbia University Press

Biography

Back in the 1970s, long before the cyberpunk era or the Internet boom, an Italian academic was dissecting the elements of codes, information exchange and mass communication. Umberto Eco, chair of semiotics at the University of Bologna, developed a widely influential theory that continues to inform studies in linguistics, philosophy, anthropology, cultural studies and critical theory.

Most readers, however, had never heard of him before the 1980 publication of The Name of the Rose, a mystery novel set in medieval Italy. Dense with historical and literary allusions, the book was a surprise international hit, selling millions of copies in dozens of languages. Its popularity got an additional boost when it was made into a Hollywood movie starring Sean Connery. Eco followed his first bestseller with another, Foucault's Pendulum, an intellectual thriller that interweaves semiotic theory with a twisty tale of occult texts and world conspiracy.

Since then, Eco has shifted topics and genres with protean agility, producing fiction, academic texts, criticism, humor columns and children's books. As a culture critic, his interests encompass everything from comic books to computer operating systems, and he punctures avant-garde elitism and mass-media vacuity with equal glee.

More recently, Eco has ventured into a new field: ethics. Belief or Nonbelief? is a thoughtful exchange of letters on religion and ethics between Eco and Carlo Maria Martini, the Roman Catholic cardinal of Milan; Five Moral Pieces is a timely exploration of the concept of justice in an increasingly borderless world.

Eco also continues to write books on language, literature and semiotics for both popular and academic audiences. His efforts have netted him a pile of honorary degrees, the French Legion of Honor, and a place among the most widely read and discussed thinkers of our time.

Good To Know

Eco is a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, though in 2002 he was at Oxford University as a visiting lecturer. He has also taught at several top universities in the U.S., including Columbia, Harvard, Yale, and Northwestern.

Pressured by his father to become a lawyer, Eco studied law at the University of Turn before abandoning that course (against his father's wishes) and pursuing medieval philosophy and literature.

His studies led naturally to the setting of The Name of the Rose in the medieval period. The original tentative title was Murder in the Abbey.

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    1. Hometown:
      Bologna, Italy
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 5, 1932
    2. Place of Birth:
      Alessandria, Italy
    1. Education:
      Ph.D., University of Turin, 1954

Table of Contents

Preface1. The Force of Falsity2. Languages in Paradise3. From Marco Polo to Leibniz: Stories of Intellectual Misunderstandings4. The Language of the Austral Land5. The Linguistics of Joseph de MaistreNotes Index

Columbia University Press

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