Philosopher, semiologist, master of epic erudition, medieval aesthetic specialist, fiction and non-fiction writer, Eco oscillated gleefully between the roles of "Apocalyptic and Integrated" -- the title of one of his seminal books (1964). His trademark touch was a delightfully erudite synthesis of tragic optimism -- as if he was the supreme erudite dreamer.
Not only he wrote numerous, priceless essays on aesthetics, linguistics and philosophy, and criticized in depth the global mediascape; he was also a best-selling fiction author, from The Name of the Rose (1980) -- 14 million copies sold -- to Foucault's Pendulum (1988).Before he became Il Professore, enjoying iconic status, Eco plunged deep into St. Thomas Aquinas, ceased to believe in God and parted ways with the Catholic Church ("Thomas Aquinas miraculously cured me of my faith.") His 1954 philosophy thesis at the University of Turin -- guided by a master, Luigi Pareyson -- was on Aquinas's aesthetics.
With guilt -- and crucifixions -- out of the way, Eco was ready to bolt into the avant garde. Opera Aperta ("Open Work") comes out in 1962 -- a structuralist analysis of literature based on James Joyce which became the rage on campuses from Paris to Berkeley throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The heart of the matter was how to define art. Eco proposed that the work of art contains an ambiguous message, open to infinite interpretations, as many meanings cohabit inside a single signifier. So a text is not a finished object, but "open", which the reader cannot just accept passively; he must work to re-invent it and interpret it.
By 1971 Eco was already teaching semiotic sciences at the faculty of Letters and Philosophy in Bologna. He saw this experimental science -- launched by Roland Barthes -- as more than a method; it led him to probe beyond all intersections between erudite and pop culture.
Frantically imbibing pop culture, Il Professore could not but end up on TV, which he started to dissect with myriad scalps, alongside a toxic cocktail of kitsch, football, celebrity culture, advertising, fashion -- and terrorism. The embryo for all this critical frenzy was contained in Apocalyptic and Integrated.
The apocalyptic media attitude reflects an elitist and nostalgic view of culture, while the integrated attitude privileges free access to cultural products, without bothering about their mode of production. And that led Eco to propose a critical view of all media, which, unfortunately, few dared to apply.
Read, and You'll Live 5,000 Years
Eco was an avid reader; at least two newspapers every morning. He loved to brag he was faithful to Hegel's idea that reading the papers was "the daily prayer of modern man." And he was also a contributor to newspapers -- writing columns and essays.
As a fiction writer, he was totally post-modern. Post-modernism -- endlessly discussed throughout the go-go 1980s -- tried to establish critical and ironical thinking over the whole tradition of inter-textuality. But Eco was always careful to stress how the notion of post-modernism itself was muddled; post-modern in architecture did not follow Le Corbusier, in literature it did not follow the nouveau roman, it could even turn into the American school of criticism applied to narrative art, based on Borges and Garcia Marquez.
Eco considered that if post-modernism in literature meant an ironic reflection over the plurality of modes of narration, the whole thing would have started with Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Cervantes and maybe Rabelais. But if the James Joyce of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is "modern," in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake he's definitely post-modern.
Sooner or later, Il Professore would have to be confronted with The Ultimate Wizard; Borges. He came up to the conclusion that Borges gave meaning to a tradition even more ancient; the other face of avant-garde, with on one side the ruptures of the futurists and Dada, monochrome and abstract paintings; and on the other side, surrealism.