Jan. 5, 2011

First Light

by Jim Powell

Graying chest hair emerging from his apron-top in tufts
dusted with a snow of flour
above the swelling rondure of his oven belly,
sleeves rolled, arms folded, at ease on the porch steps
outside the back door of the bakery

in the lively air of the early hour taking a break
while the bread cools on the racks inside
and a breeze picks up off the bay: the mist lifts
and the swarming dust of starlight reappears,
the constellations that were given names

beside the hive-domed ovens of Chaldea and of Ur—
near first light, thick arms cradling rolls
and crusty loaves, a gift for late returning revelers,
for the derelict who washes in the creek
under the bridge his daily bread at daybreak.

"First Light" by Jim Powell, from Substrate. © Pantheon Books, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the man who said, "Those things about which we cannot theorize, we must narrate." That's philosopher, medievalist, literary critic, and best-selling novelist Umberto Eco, (books by this author) born in Alessandria, Italy (1932). His first novel, The Name of the Rose, has sold millions of copies around the world.

He grew up in Italy when Mussolini was in power. As a child, he joined the Fascist youth movement, and on weekends he cheerfully dressed up in military garb and went out to rallies. That's what every Italian school kid was doing at the time, he said. And he said: "The whole movement for us as children was something natural, like snow in the winter and heat in the summer. We couldn't imagine that there was another way of living. I remember that period with the same tenderness with which anyone remembers childhood." And then Italy was bombed by the Allies during World War II. He said, "I even remember the bombings, and the nights we spent in the shelter, with tenderness."

After Fascism collapsed and the war was over, he joined a different Italian youth organization — a Catholic one. He even became president. But then his club, which was active in social justice movements, was denounced by the Vatican as heretical and communist. Eco left the Church but retained his love for church history, especially medieval history. He once said he's drawn to the Middle Ages for the same sort of inexplicable reasons that people fall in love.

He went to graduate school, wrote a dissertation on the aesthetics of medieval church philosopher Thomas Aquinas, and started working in television, which he really loved. He wondered if he had some sort of split personality, since he was so passionately interested in television and medieval aesthetics, fields that seemed like polar opposites. But he realized that what it came down to was that he was interested in how cultures communicate with signs and symbols, otherwise known as semiotics.

Eco became a serious scholarly semiotician, publishing books like The Picture History of Inventions from Plough to Polaris (1963), Theory of Semiotics, (1976), Travels in Hyper Reality (1986), The Limits of Interpretation (1990), Apocalypse Postponed: Essays (1994), Six Walks in the Fictional Woods (1994), The Aesthetics of Chaosmos: The Middle Ages of James Joyce (1989), and Serendipities: Language and Lunacy (1998). He once wrote a structural analysis of an archetypal James Bond plot.

A publisher friend of his wanted to put out an anthology of detective stories by amateur writers and mentioned it to Eco, who said, "[There's] no way I could write a detective story, but if I ever did write one it would be a five-hundred-page book with medieval monks as characters." He went home that night and started making a list of names for "fictional medieval monks." Later, the image of a poisoned monk emerged in his mind, and he said he became sort of fixated on the one image.

He wrote a murder mystery about poisoned monks, set in the year 1327. He describes it as "an intellectual mystery combining semiotics in fiction, biblical analysis, medieval studies, and literary theory." The Name of the Rose, published in Italian in 1980 and in English in 1983, became an international best-seller. His other novels include Foucault's Pendulum (1988), Mysterious Flame of the Queen Loana (2004), and most recently, The Cemetery of Prague (2010).

He's an incredibly prolific scholar. He said he's good at using what he calls the "interstices" of time. He told a Paris Review interviewer: "There is a lot of space between atom and atom and electron and electron, and if we reduced the matter of the universe by eliminating all the space in between, the entire universe would be compressed into a ball. Our lives are full of interstices. This morning you rang, but then you had to wait for the elevator, and several seconds elapsed before you showed up at the door. During those seconds, waiting for you, I was thinking of this new piece I'm writing. I can work in the water closet, in the train. While swimming I produce a lot of things, especially in the sea. Less so in the bathtub, but there too.

And he said, "Writing doesn't mean necessarily putting words on a sheet of paper. You can write a chapter while walking or eating."

He collects books and he owns about 50,000 of them. In The Name of the Rose, he wrote:
"A monk should surely love his books with humility, wishing their good and not the glory of his own curiosity; but what the temptation of adultery is for laymen and the yearning for riches is for secular ecclesiastics, the seduction of knowledge is for monks. … Why should they not have risked death to satisfy a curiosity of their minds, or have killed to prevent someone from appropriating a jealously guarded secret of their own?"
(translated by William Weaver)

Umberto Eco said: "An idea you have might not be original — Aristotle will always have thought of it before you. But by creating a novel out of that idea you can make it original. Men love women. It's not an original idea. But if you somehow write a terrific novel about it, then by a literary sleight of hand it becomes absolutely original. I simply believe that at the end of the day a story is always richer — it is an idea reshaped into an event, informed by a character, and sparked by crafted language."
(from Umberto Eco's recent Paris Review interview, which can be found here.)

And he said, "I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth."

And, "Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of Walter Mondale, (books by this author) born in the small town of Ceylon, Minnesota, in 1928. He was vice president of the United States under Jimmy Carter's presidency, and the day he was sworn in he became the fourth vice president in just four years. During his administration, Mondale made the role of vice president a more influential one than it ever had been before. He started the custom of weekly lunches with the president, and he was the first vice president ever to have an office at the White House.

It's the birthday of the poet W.D. Snodgrass, (books by this author) born William De Witt Snodgrass in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania (1926). He wrote poems about his failed marriage, even though personal poetry wasn't trendy in the 1950s. But he kept doing it anyway, and his first book was published in 1959, Heart's Needle, and it won the Pulitzer Prize.

Snodgrass was one of the people who helped popularize personal poetry, so he is often labeled as one of the founders of "confessional poetry," even though he didn't like that label. W.D. Snodgrass also translated songs and poems from many languages, collected in the book Selected Translations (1998).

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