Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Umberto Eco on Beauty

Last Thursday, I was lucky/sneaky enough to get tickets to the New York Public Library's "LIVE" series interview with Umberto Eco. Actually, how the tickets worked out were like this: Robert the Publisher is a donating sponsor, so when his daughter calls for tickets, they get her as many as she wants and we get to sit up in the nice front reserved section. Rockin'.

I was pretty excited about going to see him. My relationship with Eco has been like this thus far: I read and LOVED The Name of the Rose. I loved loved loved loved it. Then I tried to read Foucault's Pendulum. I got through page 29 and realized not only was I not enjoying it at all but I really had no idea what was going on, and there were probably other ways I could be spending my time without making myself feel stupid. Then I bought a remaindered hardcover copy of Baudolino at The Strand for like 4 bucks or something. I was charmed by the opening sequence (the virgin who catches the unicorn) but then gave up after 400 pages (which I rarely, rarely do, because if I don't finish it I don't let myself write it in The Book Book) because it was just boring. So I don't know. You take a literary average there.

I have heard that Foucault's Pendulum is amazing, and one just has to work beyond the unusually obtuse first 30 pages. So I may give it another shot someday. Who knows.

At any rate, I loved The Name of the Rose so much that I was happy to forgive this professor of semiotics (yeah, I'll admit it... I only bothered to figure out what "semiotics" was relatively recently...like, more specifically, last week) for his intellectual density (ok, I'm going to go ahead and say it--I think it's snobby to deliberately write so densely that even the elitely educated among your fans might not enjoy what they're reading. I'm just going to go ahead and put that out there.). I thought that surely I would learn something from the discussion, even if he was way, way over my head.

And I think I did, actually--the discussion was on the natures of Beauty and Ugliness (based on his two recent books on those topics). He drew some interesting lines for me to connect subjects--stuff I'm sure if tripe for students of semiotics but for me was pretty interesting because I'd never thought about it.

For example, the concept of beauty changes a lot--he put up visual representations of Venus from the archaic period, when she was a clay lump with giant breasts and no other distinguishing features, to medieval portrayals, when she was decidedly plump with rolls of fat at her knees, to a nineteenth century painting that had her sylph-like and gauzy. Beauty has no constant; the only thing that is constant is ugliness, which is simply the opposite of beauty. Aha.

He also talked about the difference between Beauty and Kitsch--apparently, kitsch is anything that inspires desire. A viewer looks upon beauty and appreciates it strictly as an aesthetic experience. Anything that inspires desire, however, is pornographic. This made me mad to hear, because everything inspires desire (for me, at least)--I can look at a landscape painting and feel desire. I would say if something DOESN'T inspire desire in me it is boring. Does that mean I find anything beautiful boring? Or anything unpornographic?

The worst part about the discussion for me was when the interviewer (who was really good, by the way) read a passage from Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre talks about how when he was younger he knew that he loved to look at his beautiful mother and to "kiss her sweet smelling cheek" but that he derived a greater satisfaction from the company of middle-aged highbrow men, from sitting around a table and talking with them about this and that, which he perceived as a much higher and more honorable joy. He said they were ugly and fat and the idea of having to embrace them made him feel vague distaste, but that the distaste was part of what made their company desirable. He mistook disgust for beauty, he said. In other words, "I was pretentious."

I started to think about how pretentious the whole thing was then--sitting around at this wine reception in the New York Public Library, listening to a cello quartet and rubbing elbows with the other people who could afford to be donating sponsors of the author readings program. Real Eco fans couldn't even have gotten those tickets--they were so elite and sold out so far in advance. And there we were listening to this celebrated author who purposefully makes his own material too difficult to enjoy while he talks about the nature of higher art.

That's not to say I blame Eco for being involved; I don't. That's just who he is, what he writes, what he knows, the life he has worked hard to make for himself. It's just that I felt really guilty for being involved.

Now there's a slightly too-long public confession that most people won't have been able to make it through the end of (I probably wouldn't have made it through to the end if this weren't my own blog). I just wanted to get it out there.


angelle said...

i am really disappointed with mysterious flame right now. i'm only about 90 pages out, and had it been any other book, i woulda just taken the hour it requires to finish it already. but with everything else that's been going on, coupled with the density of the book, im kinda like eh...

and you know how i feel about pretentious writers....

cyn said...

i was given an eco book in high school or was it college. can't even remember the title. the only thing that stuck with me was that the wife couldn't admit she would never take her current husband again in a next life as a mate.

i didn't finish it. i think he may be too intellectual/literary for me. i do love murdoch, who is philosophical--but she is more accessible to me.

Lisa said...

I really appreciate this post. Somehow, I think we all strive to appreciate and understand art. Since I live with a painter, I spend nearly as much time looking at discussing paintings as I spend reading and writing. But I've found that there are times when some events and discussions feel uncomfortable and we suspect things have gotten snobby and pretentious. I used to think that it was just because I wasn't smart enough to "get" what was being discussed, but now I give myself a little more credit. Some forums are just snobby, elitist and pretentious.

Bernita said...

You got further than I.
I quit Baudolino at page 98.

pacatrue said...

I owned Eco's Kant and the Platypus, but never read it past a few pages.

I wonder how many of his book sales are like this.

Anonymous said...

Frankly, my dear, I read for pleasure...not torture.
Umberto Eco reminds me of one of those ponderous effette intellectuals who sit around with other effette intellectuals who amuse themselves by vying to see who can be the most brilliantly obtuse. Kind of a circle jerk for elitist eunuchs. But then again, who cares what my opinion is. Give me the unwashed masses paperback with a cracking good story that has me turning the page in low-brow anticipation.