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Le rire européen

Alastair B. Duncan
Anne Chamayou

Chapitre VI. Du rire européen au rire universel

Make truth laugh’. The Novels of Umberto Eco in the Context of his Thought

Christian Pentzold

Texte intégral

1In an interview given in 1975 Umberto Eco announced that he was planning to publish, ‘in twenty years, maybe’, a book on the comic. He justified this undertaking by arguing: ‘Signs and language [...] are no longer attributes exclusive to man. [...] The last remaining difference is laughter. Laughter is a mysterious and metaphysical mechanism’ (Eco in Capozzi 1989: 415). Since Eco is a highly prolific writer, it was not twenty but just five years later that he published The Name of the Rose, the novel which accounts for his fame beyond academic circles and which presents an erudite discussion of the ‘mysterious and metaphysical mechanism’ called laughter. However, it can equally be argued that humour and the comic are unifying themes in his writings (Farronato 2003). As such they are present in four different aspects (Santoro-Brienza, 2002: 325-337): first, there are some scattered writings expressly devoted to the topic, second there is The Name of the Rose, third a large number of his texts, especially his columns, squibs, and parodies, are humorously written and produce a humorous effect (e.g., the Diario minimo), and fourth, as Santoro-Brienza put it, all of his works are expressions of Eco’s humorous and playful disposition. The main focus of this article will be to trace how Eco’s theoretical views of laughter and humour are woven variously into his novels: The Name of the Rose (1980), Foucault’s Pendulum (1988), The Island of the Day Before (1994), and Baudolino (2000). I begin, however, by setting Eco’s views of laughter and humour in context. I show how they relate, on the one hand, to one traditional understanding of humour as the pivotal human differentia specifica and, on the other, to Eco’s semiotic writings on sign function, unlimited semiosis, and abduction.


2Humour and laughter have been studied since antiquity. Unfortunately, it is not possible to trace adequately the ancient theory of humour because of the loss of Aristotle’s second book of Poetics central to The Name of the Rose. However, some related passages can be detected in his first book of Poetics, in the Rhetoric, and in the Nicomachean Ethics. In brief, Aristotle’s attitude towards humour and laughter is more positive than that of his teacher Plato who lists both as parts of the field of the ‘ridiculous’ which belongs to the category of evil (Philebus, Chilcott 1923). Instead, although Aristotle condemns the excess of laughter, he sees humour not, like Plato, as an ‘overwhelming’ of the soul, but as ‘stimulation’ (Attardo 1994: 19-22). Moreover, he understands humour as a means of recognizing the truth which can be consciously employed by the orator. The influence of both Plato and Aristotle on modern humour theory cannot be exaggerated. Thus the former introduced the prototype of the ambivalence theory (humour comes from the perception of two contrasting feelings) as well as recognising the element of aggression in laughter, while the latter was the first to discuss the superiority which the scoffer enjoys over his victim. Additionally, Aristotle was the first to highlight the exclusive relation between humour and humans. Laughter and humour are fundamentally human faculties which distinguish mankind from the animals (De Partibus Animalium, 673 a 8).

3However, in the Christian Middle Ages these ancient roots were buried under a discussion between two lines of argumentation advanced by denigrators and supporters of humour. Broadly speaking, the denunciation of laughter (Kuschel 1994) was especially endorsed by monastic rules that drew on the authority of numerous Church Fathers like John Crysostomos, St Augustine, St Hieronymus, and on the example of Christ himself who was believed never to have laughed. Laughter was thought to be the most obscene way of breaking monastic silence. Thus the Rule of St Benedict forbade all vain and laughable chatter. Yet there was also an opposing argument that advocated the homo risibilis as a ‘man gifted with laughter’ (Le Goff 1997: 43). This too was based on biblical sources, e.g., the risus paschalis of Easter or the sequences of messianic jubilation.

  • 1 For a thorough discussion see the edited volumes by Ruch (1998), McGhee/Goldstein (1983), and the c (...)

4Today, modern theories of humour are usually classified into three groups (Morreall 1987): incongruity/contrast theories, hostility/superiority theories, and release/sublimination theories1. Yet Eco’s views of humour cannot be classified in any of these ways. In contrast, he is, like Bakhtin and Bergson, more concerned with the comprehensive theoretical and social foundations and functions of humour and laughter. However, one problem that impacts on all these approaches is the differentiation between humour and laughter. That this is not a trivial concern becomes obvious when looking at the common assumption that what makes people laugh is humour. Here, laughter and humour are seen as symmetrical or, as Bergson (1901) and Freud (1905) assumed, interchangeable (Attardo 1994: 10). Olbrechts-Tyteca (1974) has dissociated the two: laughter largely exceeds humour, it does not always have the same meaning, it is not directly proportional to humour, humour elicits sometimes a smile, sometimes laughter, and laughter cannot always be directly observed.

5Nevertheless, the most crucial underlying assumption of all humour theory is the topos of the human nature of humour and laughter. Apart from Aristotle, Rabelais is one of the cornerstones of the conviction that laughter is the conditio humana. Bergson (1901) as well as Pirandello (1908) refer to the conclusion of the dizain prefacing Gargantua: ‘rire est le propre de l’homme’. The nature of humour and laughter as necessary constituents of humanity have been described and analysed from a range of perspectives including psychological (Ruch 1998), physiological, sociological (Zijderveld 1983), and ethnological. Furthermore, one view that directly connects to the ancient foundations of the idea was formulated by Anthony, Earl of Shaftesbury, in his reply (1709) to Hobbes’s assault on humour in Human Nature and the Leviathan. He high lights wit as a means of discriminating between truth and falsehood, virtue and vice. Critchley (2002: 81) develops this view: humour, ‘the very height of reasonableness’, is a form of sensus communis because it points to a collective’s common ground, it ‘reveals the depth of what we share’ (ibid.: 18).

Humour is an exemplary practice because it is an universal human activity that invites us to become philosophical spectators upon our lives. It is practically enacted theory. I think this is why Wittgenstein once said that he could imagine a book of philosophy that would be written entirely in the form of jokes. The extraordinary thing about humour is that it returns us to common sense; by distancing us from it, humour familiarizes us with a common world through its miniature strategies of defamiliarization. (ibid.: 18-19)

6On the basis of laughter’s benign nature, a list of comic vices and virtues could be assembled. Thus Buckley (2003) proposes four social and three charismatic virtues ‘whose appeal tells us to attend to laughter’s message of the good life’ (p. 87). The social virtues of integrity, moderation, fortitude, and temperance are placed against the vices of excess (misanthrophy, priggishness, foolhardiness, excessive humility) and insufficiency (hypocrisy, moral sloth, cowardice, greed). Moreover, Buckley defines as charismatic virtues, grace, taste, and learning, set against vices of insufficiency (clumsiness, vulgarity, false pedantry) and excess (finesse, preciousness, true pedantry). It is debatable whether this set of comic norms paves the way to a form of the comic which ‘transcends the reality of ordinary, everyday experience’, as proposed by P. Berger (1997: 205). For him, ‘redeeming laughter’ makes life easier to bear and gives a glimpse of a ‘world that has been made whole’. But, Critchley (2002: 17) refutes this conclusion; for him, humour and laughter do not redeem us from the world. Rather, they return us to it by showing that there is no alternative.


7Eco’s concept of humour is directly connected to his theory of semiotics. Thus the turn to comedy, humour, and laughter is to be understood as one corollary of the instability and fuzziness introduced by the notion of unlimited semiosis and abduction.

  • 2 The formation of Eco’s semiotics could be reconstructed by reviewing his central studies La struttu (...)

8In his chief work A Theory of Semiotics (1976) Eco proposes a sign to mean anything which by social convention ‘stands for something else’ (p. 8, emphasis in original). Signs always correlate elements of expression and content, in Saussure’s terms, signifiant and signifié (Caesar 1999: 83-84). As a consequence of its conventional nature, Eco argues that the sign is neither a physical nor a fixed semiotic entity. Instead, it is a ‘meeting ground for independent elements’ (1976: 49). Therefore, he introduces the notion of ‘sign function’ which he gleans from L. Hjelmslev’s Prolegomena (1943). This conveys that signs are complex, dynamic networks of changing relationships dependent on the employed code. Eco argues that it is a misunderstanding to think of the referent as the precondition of the semiotic system. A sign can stand for something nonexistent or unavailable. It follows that semiotics is ‘in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie’ (1976: 7, emphasis in original). Consequently, semiotics should not engage in an investigation of the problems of reference or even truth (as correspondence theories of truth do) but in an examination of the processes of signification. The framework for such a project is constructed by C.S. Peirce’s triadic sign model which Eco embraces to distance himself from structuralist dyadic sign concepts2.

  • 3 Eco (1976: 68-73) argues that the interpretant could be a paraphrase, a conclusion, an equivalent s (...)
  • 4 For a detailed discussion of Peircean semiosis and the definition of the semiotic units see Nöth (1 (...)

9The Peircean model offers a connection of three abstract semiotic units: the representamen or sign, the interpretant, and the object (Peirce 1958: § 2.228, § 5.488 and Chandler 2002: 32-36) where the interpretant must not be confused with the interpreter. Peirce’s theory of signs is neither easily accessible nor intuitive. Yet it is essential to understand Eco’s strong rejection of ultimate truths and final judgements3. One way to approach the concept of the interpretant is to understand it as a sign’s effect on a mind. An interpretant is the result of the process of interpretation. Other sign models usually think of a sign standing for an object. For Peirce, the more interesting point is the sign’s effect, what he calls interpretant. The sign or representamen is anything saying something about something; and the object can be anything thinkable like events, relationships or arguments. The interaction between the three elements is called semiosis (§ 5.484). Semiosis as process is characterised by the constant reinterpretation of interpretants. So, in its turn, each interpretant becomes a sign, inviting other interpretants4. The regression thus initiated is termed ‘unlimited semiosis’. However, unlimited semiosis is not an infinite spiral of deconstructivist or hermetic drift. There is a virtual infinity but the semiosis is organised, reduced and stopped through objectives (Eco 1979a). These objectives are related to cognitive interests. Peirce is convinced that semiosis is not about endless cycles but about the production of knowledge: semiosis is halted by agreement.

  • 5 Simpkins (1990: 153) endorses the concept of unlimited semiosis because it stresses the character o (...)
  • 6 In his Postscript to The Name of the Rose (1984: 2) Eco refers to the text as a ‘machine for genera (...)

10The importance of unlimited semiosis becomes evident by looking at the problem of truth which plays a crucial role in The Name of the Rose. Unlimited semiosis shows that there is no direct connection between the object and the interpretant. Truth cannot be determined by logical calculation but through the development of a ‘habit’ (Eco 1979a: 194): ‘The real is the idea in which the community ultimately settles down’ (§ 6.610). The final interpretant, the point of rest where semiosis pauses, is defined by collective agreement and understood as being valid and reasonable. Eco concludes that the truth value of sentences is only conventionally assigned and the criterion ‘true’ is relative, not absolute – verisimilitude substitutes for truth (Carravetta 1998).5 However, Eco also denies Rorty’s (1991: 139) idea that ‘we can safely get along with less philosophizing about truth than we had thought we needed’. Instead, he advocates the importance of the object as activator of semiosis (Eco 1990: 436 and 1997: 58). This directly leads to his interpretation theory which aims to balance the relation between the text and the reader’s interpretations (Bondanella 1997: 81-84). Like the world, the text also opens up possibilities and boundaries for its audience. Eco postulates that an adequate interpretation of a text will be based on an assumption about its intention which relies neither on a radical reader-oriented understanding nor on a deciphering of the author’s intent6.

11One specific form of reasoning that can lead to valid interpretations about actions in the world as well as about textual meanings was introduced by Peirce as abduction (§ 5.171, 2.623). Eco’s adopts the idea of abduction as the inference of a (hypothetical) rule from a given result and a case. Contrary to its formalized counterparts induction and deduction, abduction is a creative, provisional conclusion. Although it is the most fallible and logically most inconsistent form of hypothesis, it is also the most productive one. Peirce argues that it presents a ‘flight of imagination’ (§ 5.196) and an ‘act of insight, although extremely fallible insight’ (§ 5.181).


12In his essay The Comic and the Rule (1981, Attardo 1994: 178-180) Eco revisits Aristotle’s theory of comedy by arguing that both tragedy and comedy violate some rule, code or convention. Eco thus joins the line of theorists who have argued that humour is based in forms of defamiliarization and estrangement. The presence of rules, their temporal violation and suspension also illuminate the argument that laughter is a human capacity. Because of their exclusive ability to see things otherwise, to break codes and to reformulate rules, only humans are able to experience comical acts.

13The pivotal point of rule breaking is reconsidered by Eco in his discussion of the ‘comic’ which functions as an umbrella term for diverse phenomena such as humour, comedy, the grotesque, parody, satire, and wit (1984b). After a further enumeration of Aristotle’s criteria, Eco points out that the broken frame must be presupposed though not made explicit; for instance, during the carnival, the rules which are transgressed are not spelt out yet they remain valid. Carnival is a mere authorized transgression because the subversion is only enjoyed by people who take the rules seriously. Consequently, carnival is not a form of revolution as envisioned by Bakhtin but a means by which the powerful use panem et circenses to keep the crowds quiet. In this form, the comic is an element of social control. Yet, there are other types of comic with more critical power. Eco defines these as humour and irony in which the relation between the rule and the violation is balanced. As a demonstration he introduces Pirandello’s example of an old woman dressed as a young girl and smeared with makeup (Eco 1990a). She obviously breaks the norm and should make people laugh –according to the theory on comedy. However, Pirandello remarks that the perception of her deformity might become a feeling of sympathy for her deformity. Eco concludes that ‘[i]n so doing, I lose my own sense of superiority because I think that I could be she. My laughter is mixed with pity; it becomes a smile\. I have moved from the Comic to Humor’ (ibid.: p. 167). Eco continues his discussion with reference to Pirandello’s poetics where humour is understood as a permanent exercise of disbelief and a questioning of existing codes. However, Eco objects that this is the definition of art, not humour and that Pirandello enters the field of philosophy with his argument that life itself is comic. Eco summarizes his train of thought: reality is an illusion, life in society exacts falsehood and forces us to act contrary to our will. As humans we are conditioned by our unconscious and therefore we do not have one but many minds and personalities and life is constant flux. From this background the question arises: what can the artist do? Quoting Pirandello, Eco suggests the resort to humour because it disrupts conventions and lifts the mask. Hence, humour is ‘halfways between tragedy and comedy’ (Eco 1984: 7) because it does not aim to destroy but to re-establish the broken frames.

Humor does not pretend, like carnival, to lead us beyond our own limits. It gives us the feeling, or better, the picture of the structure of our own limits. It is never off limits, it undermines limits from inside. It does not fish for an impossible freedom, yet it is a true movement of freedom. Humor does not promise us liberation: on the contrary, it warns us about the impossibility of global liberation [...] Very seldom does the business of entertainment display real humor. More frequently it sells carnival. When a real piece of humor appears, entertainment becomes avant-garde: a supreme philosophical game. We smile because we feel sad for having discovered, only for a moment, the truth. (ibid.: 8)

  • 7 Eco’s argument comes close to an anecdote mentioned by Plato in his Theaetetus dialogue about Thale (...)

14Yet even this discovery cannot be a controlled exercise. Instead, the notion of abduction reminds us of the fallibility of our knowledge. Eco employs the concept again in his essay on the Power of Falsehood (2006). There, and in his book on Serendipities (1998), he develops the idea that a considerable part of our history is based on false beliefs. Doubting Thomas Aquinas’s praise of truth, he notes that perhaps something ‘dubious shows similar force’ (2006: 273). On that basis, Eco embarks on a tour d’horizon of various instances where false hood has been the engine behind historical events, instances which he also deals with in his novels, e.g., Ptolemy’s model, the Donation of Constantine, Prester John, the Rosicrucians. At a certain point of time these stories appeared convincing in narrative terms and Eco asks how it was possible for these stories to be replaced by others which are considered true today. According to him, the constant criterion for their truth is the practice of verification based on collective work –the Peircean community. So Eco recommends a humorous perspective to ‘maintain a sceptical distance from the series of delusions constantly offered to humankind’ (Farronato, 2003: 137), a view which comes close to Shaftesbury’s notion of humour as sensus communis7.


15On the dust jacket of The Name of the Rose Eco explains why he has written a novel by declaring: ‘those things about which you cannot theorize, we must narrate’ (Eco in Bondanella 1997: 95). Hence his novels ought to be understood as theoretical and entertaining texts. In the following part I will discuss four of his five novels, leaving out the semi-autobiographical The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2005). However, the richness of these texts renders it impossible to completely portray all instances of humour. Therefore, the task will be to extract some of the most significant elements which show how Eco integrated his theoretical considerations into the plot and characters.

The Name of the Rose

16Eco’s first novel could be described as the chance solving of a crime. The story centres on William of Baskerville and his novice Adso who arrive at a Benedictine abbey in Northern Italy to attend as imperial spectators a theological meeting of papal legates and Franciscan monks. Yet their disputations are interrupted by a series of murders and the arrival of the inquisitor Bernard Gui. In their investigations of the murders, William and Adso touch upon a secret kept by the blind brother Jorge of Burgos –the lost second volume of Aristotle’s Poetics which emerges to play a central role in the events.

  • 8 Here William refers to the ancient humoral medicine of the mix of fluids known as humours.

17The book is first mentioned during a debate in the scriptorium (p. 87-93). There, the fantastic figures on the margins of a manuscript amuse William and several other monks but their laughter is disrupted by Jorge who denounces their behaviour. A discussion unfolds in which William cites the Areopagite in saying that even such horrible and indecorous figures might reveal the truth. The same argument is produced by the monk Venantius who maintains that Aristotle demonstrated that laughter is an instrument of truth. The discussion is later taken up again by Jorge who quotes from the Benedictine Rule: ‘vulgarities, nonsense, and jests we condemn to perpetual imprisonment [...] And this goes for the marginalia we were discussing today’ (p. 108). He renews his attack on the validity and permissibility of comedy and adds that Christ himself never laughed. William replies to this attack by claiming that Christ could have laughed because laughter ‘is proper to man’ (ibid.). The controversy continues a little later in the novel. This time William reminds Jorge of their original conversation and brings forward the idea that laughter ‘is a good medicine, like baths, to treat humour and the other afflictions of the body, melancholy in particular’ (p. 149)8. His opponent denies such effects and remarks: ‘Laughter shakes the body, distorts the features of the face, makes man similar to the monkey’ (ibid.). The rejoinders culminate in William’s argument that ‘laughter is proper to man, it is a sign of his rationality’ (ibid.), thus a human faculty which helps man approach truth –to which Jorge counters that: ‘He who laughs does not believe in what he laughs at, but neither does he hate it’ (ibid.). Their positions diverge then concerning the importance of laughter in relation to truth. Whereas Jorge insists on the dogmatic certainty of truth, William demands a form of humility regarding human knowledge. Laughter might be a reasonable instrument to ‘undermine the false authority of an absurd proposition that offends reason’ (p. 152). ‘Laughter foments doubt’, as Jorge states, but ‘sometimes it is right to doubt’ (ibid.), as William replies. Laughter makes possible a humane and just response to the errors, stupidity and even depravities human beings are capable of committing (Golden 1986: 240).

18The two conflicting principles are clearly expressed at the end the novel when William is able to enter the locked part of the library and to detect the presence of his interlocutor. For Jorge, the problem is not comedy as carnival. He recognizes that ‘the church in her wisdom has granted the moment of feast, carnival, fair, this diurnal pollution that releases humors and distracts from other desires’ (p. 576) –carnival as a tool of the powerful and an uncritical safety valve. His antagonism to Aristotle however is based on laughter’s potential, highlighted by Eco in his theoretical writings, to be ‘elevated to art, the doors of the learned of the world are open to it, it becomes the object of philosophy, and of perfidious theology’ (p. 577). Aristotle’s achievement of codifying comic theory to give it intellectual respectability threatens the stern alignment to the eternal and impeccable truth which demands only obedience. ‘That laughter is proper to man is a sign of our limitation, sinners that we are\. But from this book many corrupt minds like yours would draw the extreme syllogism, whereby laughter is man’s end!’ (p. 578f.). Awe-struck, Jorge lucidly identifies the power of humour and laughter lauded by Eco. But to Jorge’s explanations, William formulates a ferocious response: ‘You are the Devil. [...] the Devil is the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt’ (p. 581). In this passage, William finally clarifies the beneficial essence of laughter in promoting insight into the unsteadiness and tentative nature of our truths. Moreover, it casts a veil of doubt over all dimensions of human knowledge and supposedly eternal certainties and thus returns us to common sense. Humour is the most promising and sound form of human understanding because it helps us to maintain a sceptical distance from all forms of knowledge. Via defamiliarization it takes us back to the common ground we share with our fellows.

  • 9 William’s hypothetical inferences make him a literary parody of Sherlock Holmes’s investigative sty (...)

19Furthermore, the affirmation of the necessity of humour and laughter is reinforced by the dénouement at the end of the novel. First, William solves a number of riddles using abduction and is able to reconstruct the second book of Aristotle’s Poetics, an achievement that wins the acknowledgement even of his adversary Jorge of Burgos. In an ingenious act of abduction that also discloses Eco’s knowledge this field, William is able to define the central points of the book merely ‘by reading other books’ (p. 574), as Jorge admits.9 According to William’s explanation, these central points are that comedy inspires the pleasure of the ridiculous and leads to the purification of this passion; it excites laughter through action and speech. Comic actions violate the laws of nature and arise from the irrelevant and from the debasing of character. Finally, comedy is profoundly a human capability and therefore worthy of serious examination (Golden 1986).

20However, William finally pinpoints the murderer only via a train of reasoning that was completely mistaken (Richter 1986). This confirms the lesson of a previous episode. The imponderable, tentative and risky detection of correlations was impressively illustrated when William of Baskerville guesses the circumstances of the disappearance of the abbot’s horse Brunellus. At a later step, William explains his approach and its pitfalls:

In the face of some inexplicable facts you must try to imagine many general laws, whose connection with your facts escapes you. Then suddenly, in the unexpected connection of a result, a specific situation, and one of those laws, you perceive a line of reasoning that seems more convincing than the others. [...] And this is what I am doing now. I line up so many disjointed elements and I venture some hypotheses. [...] You see, in the case of the horse Brunellus, when I saw the clues I guessed many complementary and contradictory hypotheses [...] I won, but I might also have lost. (p. 366-367)

21He succeeded in this abduction but he failed in his attempt to solve the series of murders with the help of an abduction. Despite correct single abductions William erred in respect of the overall abduction that would determine the murderer. He assumes order where there is only random coherence.

22Eco himself concedes that the Name of the Rose is ‘a detective novel where precious little is discovered and where the detective is beaten in the end’ (Eco in Cannon 1986: 42). Realizing his failure William must ask himself: ‘Where is all my wisdom, then? I behave stubbornly, pursuing a semblance of order, when I should have known well that there is no order in the universe’ (p. 599) and warns Adso against

those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them. [...] Jorge feared the second book of Aristotle because it perhaps really did teach how to distort the face of every truth [...] 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 the insane passion for the truth. (p. 598)

Foucault’s Pendulum

  • 10 The name Casaubon is an allusion to Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch who strove to find the ‘ (...)
  • 11 Again, Eco employs a scholarly reference to Abraham Abulafia, a Jewish mystic from Zaragoza (born 1 (...)

23Whereas the action of The Name of the Rose takes place in the fourteenth century, Foucault’s Pendulum is a roughly contemporary story. The complex narrative is told in a flashback by the Italian Casaubon. He works for a publishing house as a consultant. Inspired by the sinister Colonel Ardenti who adumbrated a book about the secrets of the Templars, Casaubon and his colleagues Jacopo Belbo and Diotavelli conceive ‘the Plan’ out of their ‘desire to give shape to shapelessness, to transform into fantasized reality that fantasy that others wanted to be real’ (p. 337). First and foremost, the novel is an extensive treatment of interpretation theory, deconstruction, intertextuality10, and hermetic traditions including cabalistic, mystical and occult beliefs. One of the bases of the plan is an obscure text produced by Ardenti in one of his meetings with the publishers. It is a fragmentary list whose content is deciphered by the Colonel with a ‘final transcription and translation, based on surmises that are, if I do say so myself, unassailable’ (p. 135). The decoded text is ‘clear as mud’ (p. 136), as Belbo scornfully remarks, but Ardenti also offers an interpretation which depicts the text as a secret message about the Templars’plan of revenge to obtain world domination. In the following chapters the four work on a mysterious, universal plan with the help of Belbo’s computer Abulafia11 until the plan itself wondrously crosses the border between fiction and reality and starts to intrude upon its creators’ lives –to the extent that Ardenti is killed. What started as a parody on hermeticism becomes a serious threat because their ‘brains grew accustomed to connecting, connecting, connecting everything with everything else, until [they] did it automatically, out of habit’ (p. 467). Moreover, the fictitious secret society TRES proves to be alive.

  • 12 Coletti (1997) engages in a profound discussion of women in Foucault’s Pendulum, arguing they ‘repr (...)

24Thus Eco enacts in his novel a proliferation of intertextual echoes to ironize the circles of hermetic drift (Hutcheon 1998). The exaggeration of its consequences challenges the deconstructivist idea that a ‘sign is something by knowing which we know something else’ (Eco 1990b: 28, emphasis in original) which Eco contrasts with Peirce’s definition ‘A sign is something by knowing which we know something more’ (§ 8.332, my emphasis) as the only reasonable and productive form of semiosis that yields acceptable interpretations. An antidote to the proliferation of relations is provided by Casaubon’s girlfriend Lia. Her commonsensical view helps him to elude the ‘demon of resemblance’ (p. 360). First, she demystifies the cabalistic magic numbers with ‘the wisdom of life and birth’ (p. 365) and second she unravels the great plan by pointing to the mundane origin of its foundation, the codified chit of paper from Ardenti, which for Lia is an ‘out-and-out fraud’ (p. 533). She starts her interpretation with the advice ‘Listen carefully, Pow [Casaubon’s nickname], because I’m going to demonstrate to you that the simplest explanation is always the best’ (ibid.) and claims ‘the message is ordinary. It’s a laundry list’ (p. 534). So she exercises one of humour’s best characteristics which William already praised but failed to employ: humour as a means of critical distancing and instrument of prudence. The only aids she needed were her intellect and a tourist guide to Provins, the place of origin of the document, to postulate a much more reasonable, comprehensible, and appropriate analysis. According to Eco, humour teaches suspicion and he reminds us that ‘all knowledge is based upon the exercise of suspicion. To suspect is important. It is necessary, however, to distinguish between “healthy” and “sick” suspicion’ (Eco in Cannon 1992: 902). Thus Lia reduces the cosmic plan to a laundry list, but Casaubon and his colleagues generate a universal plot from a crumpled piece of paper. The virtue of humour establishes common sense as the common ground of a community. This ‘consensus of the community’ (Eco 1992: 144), to which Lia connects by means of the most obvious interpretative steps, functions as a check upon paranoid or outlandish interpretations (Bondanella 1997: 134)12.

The Island of the Day Before

25The Island of the Day Before can be read as a historical novel about the adventures of the Piedmont nobleman Roberto della Griva in the seventeenth century, reconstructed from his letters to his lover Lilia. Like William and Casaubon he is deeply concerned with the interpretation of signs and symbols. Early in his eventful life, as a teenager, he joins his father at the siege of Casale. After his father is killed in battle, Roberto moves to Paris and attains access to the decadent salons. There he is arrested by order of Mazarin who sends him on a secret mission to uncover the British attempt to find the Punto Fijo from which the lines of longitudes could be established. However, the Amarilli shipwrecks and he finds himself on a second abandoned ship filled with exotic plants and strange objects. Together with another passenger, the German Jesuit Wanderdrossel, he attempts in vain to arrive at the promised island: Wanderdrossel drowns in a primitive submarine and Roberto finally disappears into the ocean (Bouchard 1995).

26As foreseen by William in The Name of the Rose, Roberto too must realize that the world and the universe are not precisely ordered. Instead of being ‘stable and round [...] the whole was disposed as a spiral, a snail shell, a vortex’ (p. 510f.). The ‘helical configuration’ (Bouchard 1995: 196) of the world during the seventeenth century is fostered by a number of events including the disastrous Thirty Years War, the implementation of the Copernican revolution, and the proceeding discovery of the world. Faced with the awe-inspiring presence of nature, the pursuit of knowledge, and the limitations of insight, the novel again advocates the way of ‘reasonability’. Bouchard (1995) points out that a connecting theme of Eco’s novels is a critique of the search for absolute truth. She quotes Eco who argued that in a world where there is not only one ‘reason’ we ‘ought to be not rational but reasonable’(p. 199, emphasis in original) like William in The Name of the Rose and Lia in Foucault’s Pendulum.

27In the Island too there are such characters, humorous interrogators and signposts to reason. First, Roberto’s parents, old Pozzo and his wife. Neither of these engage in philosophical or diplomatic discourse. However, especially Pozzo, in his simple and straight manner, is able to see through the confusing war-time coalitions. In contrast to the sophisticated French and Spanish commanders he is characterized by mother-wit, bravery, and honesty –virtues connected to the comic norms of fortitude and integrity, as outlined by Buckley. Second, a Monsieur de Saint-Savin enters the story. He warns young Robert of the risks of using one’s intellect:

you see that if we philosophers are quick of tongue, it is not simply, as that gentlemen said the other evening, to give ourselves bon ton. It is to put the tongue to good use before they rip it out. Or, rather, jesting aside, to dispel prejudice and to discover the natural cause of creation. (p. 79)

28And addressing the issue of the non-existence of god, he produces a list of virtues sufficient for a social life: ‘I am loyal to my friends, I do not lie [...] I love knowledge, and they say I write good verses’ (ibid.). Despite the perils, Saint-Savin tells Robert that the ‘philosopher must have the courage to criticize all false teachings that have been inculcated in us’ (p. 82). In a world without a centre, operating in a ‘void without God and without rule’ (p. 145), Saint-Savin instructs Robert to follow the ‘Compass of Prudence’ (p. 124). At the end of the novel, when he is already capsized in the South Seas and consigned to the wonder of being, Robert recalls the lesson that erudition could be lightly worn, one ‘could be learned in a playful fashion’ (p. 431).


29After excursions to baroque and modern times, Eco returns with Baudolino to the Middle Ages. The book narrates how Baudolino, born in the thirties of the twelfth century in Eco’s own hometown of Alessandria, lived a life which is marked by serendipitous encounters. Thus the boy of humble origins becomes the protégé of Frederick Barbarossa. While in Eco’s earlier novels, wit and humour often appear in minor characters like Lia or Pozzo, Baudolino himself acts as a prototype of humorous story teller and story maker. At the very beginning of the narrative, the Byzantine courtier Niketas observes that Baudolino ‘would glance furtively at his interlocutor, as if warning him not to take him seriously’ (p. 13). The whole book could be read as a literary plea for the power of falsehood and the success of historical fakes because its protagonist is a genial and imaginative inventor of traditions. For instance, in his picaresque adventures, he and his accomplices fabricate some letters of the mysterious Prester John as ‘a jocus, a ludibrium’ (p. 169). At the same time he is clear-sighted enough to realize that how he weighs his words matters:

I thought, whatever I say is true because I said it... When we were heading for Rome, a priest by the name of Corrado told me about the mirabilia of that urbs [...] Then we arrived in Rome, and that day, when they were killing each other along the Tiber, I took my legs and wandered through the city. As I walked, I saw only flocks of sheep among ancient ruins [...] As for mirabilia, not a sign [...] Yet, on our return journey, when they were all asking me what I had seen, what could I say? That in Rome there were only sheep among the ruins and ruins among the sheep? They would have never believed me. So I told of the mirabilia that I had been told about and I added a few of my own [...]. (p. 35f.)

30Again, the question of truth and the limits of knowledge is unfolded. However, this time Baudolino is not only aware of the impossibility of absolute proofs and eternal truths but actively engages in creating new stories that are, if not true, at least plausible in the context of their own narratives. As there is no direct access to the world and signs can be used to lie, all attempts of verification are fallible. Here, this circumstance is not only accepted, but exploited. Baudolino constructs his and other’s lives as well as history through fantastic narrations. Yet he is not depicted as an untrustworthy liar. Instead, complementary to his insight into the power of story-making, he is also a reliable and loyal friend and advisor. Hence he is the only one to confess open-heartedly his disapproval of the emperor’s political and military actions and he notices with disgust the plunder of Constantinople. His ‘creations are wellmeant, “a fin di bene”, performed in complete faith and respect for his fellows’ (Farronato 2003a: 434).

31Despite his good intentions, Baudolino’s life is in some ways a failure. He is a successful propagator of imginary stories, but he fails while attempting to do and say the truth. Thus, at one point Baudolino tries to start a family with a girl from his home area. Yet he fails ‘to do something true, with the most sincere of women’ (p. 232). The child, the awesome reassurance of our physical existence, was ‘a little monster’ (p. 231). Then, at the end of the story, Baudolino has to accept that he is guilty of killing Barbarossa. Unintentionally, he threw the seemingly dead emperor into the river Saleph. Frederick the Great, who had just been poisoned by smoke and was unconscious, drowned. After this revelation, Baudolino attempts to change his life and become an ascetic living on a column. However, he has to recognise that ‘[t]he one time in my life I told the truth and only the truth, they stoned me’ (p. 518). Conscious of the power of the false and at the same time disappointed by a world living under false pretences, Baudolino leaves the West to quest the realm of Prester John.


32At the end of his novels, Eco’s protagonists either find themselves at the threshold of death or at least await an ambiguous fate. In The Name of the Rose after William reportedly dies, Adso diagnoses that ‘the earth is dancing the dance of Macabré’ (p. 610) and he can ‘no longer believe that it is the God of glory’ (ibid.) who welcomes him to heaven. In Foucault’s Pendulum Casaubon awaits his persecutors on the slope of a mountain. There he experiences a rare moment of pure presence: ‘So I might as well stay here, wait, and look at the hill. It’s so beautiful.’ (p. 641). Roberto prepares for his farewell to the wreckage but ‘before destiny, and the waters, decide for him’ (p. 513), he catches a glimpse of the mystical ‘Orange Dove’ Pater Wanderdrossel spoke of. Finally, Baudolino also leaves the world, ‘heading straight for the kingdom of Prester John’ (p. 519).

33One of the outstanding qualities of Eco’s novel is that they are very entertaining and often full of wit and playful allusions. But above all, perhaps, they are vivid examples of a broader theoretical preoccupation with the themes of humour and laughter. Against the background of Eco’s semiotics and the incertitude introduced by Peirce’s semiosis, humour and laughter present, for Eco, viable ways of understanding the world and his fellow human beings. Whereas Eco accepts Olbrechts-Tyteca’s postulate that humour and laughter are not interchangeable he adds that the significance of humour may go beyond that of laughter. Humour has critical power as a reasonable tool to distinguish between truth and falsehood. It can be understood as form of common sense that promotes human virtues such as those outlined by Buckley. Consequently, Eco’s protagonists are not simply comical or laughable. Instead, they exemplify social and charismatic virtues. For instance, William and Adso personify the virtues of learning and moderation, Baudolino those of integrity and fortitude. These men attempt to adhere to humour as ‘the height of reasonableness’ and to the norms of the comic but they are not welcomed by the world as a matter of course. Instead, although gifted with humour as the instrument to discriminate between truth and falsehood, they must accept that this ‘supreme philosophical game’ may carry them, as Eco aptly put it, ‘halfways between tragedy and comedy’.


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1 For a thorough discussion see the edited volumes by Ruch (1998), McGhee/Goldstein (1983), and the chapters in Parkin (1997).

2 The formation of Eco’s semiotics could be reconstructed by reviewing his central studies La struttura assente (1968), Il segno (1971), A Theory of Semiotics (1976), Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (1984a), and Kant and the Platypus (1999).

3 Eco (1976: 68-73) argues that the interpretant could be a paraphrase, a conclusion, an equivalent sign or the like produced in the so-called quasi-mind (which could be the interpreter).

4 For a detailed discussion of Peircean semiosis and the definition of the semiotic units see Nöth (1990) and Liszka (1996).

5 Simpkins (1990: 153) endorses the concept of unlimited semiosis because it stresses the character of signs as an ‘unsystematic, fluid vortex’ whose infinite operations can be stopped.

6 In his Postscript to The Name of the Rose (1984: 2) Eco refers to the text as a ‘machine for generating interpretations’. For the gradual development of Eco’s text pragmatics see Eco 1989, 1981, 1990, 1992, and 1994.

7 Eco’s argument comes close to an anecdote mentioned by Plato in his Theaetetus dialogue about Thales of Milet who, while studying the stars, fell into a well. He thus became an object of amusement to a Thracian handmaid who laughed at him because he wanting passionately to discover everything in the sky he failed to see the obvious. This episode also inspired Erasmus of Rotterdam to his characterisation of the philosopher in The Praise of the Folly.

8 Here William refers to the ancient humoral medicine of the mix of fluids known as humours.

9 William’s hypothetical inferences make him a literary parody of Sherlock Holmes’s investigative style. Moreover, Eco integrates various erudite references. Thus William discusses an abduction with the help of animal footprints. This motif has a long tradition including Aristotle and Voltaire’s Zadig. Additionally, Eco is also aware of G. Sercambi’s Novelle of the King Serendippo –a book that inspired H. Walpole to coin the expression ‘serendipity’ for a happy and unexpected discovery. See Eco/Sebeok 1983 and Eco 1998.

10 The name Casaubon is an allusion to Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch who strove to find the ‘key to all mythologies’ and to the Renaissance philologist Isaac Casaubon. See Hutcheon 1998.

11 Again, Eco employs a scholarly reference to Abraham Abulafia, a Jewish mystic from Zaragoza (born 1240) who immersed himself in the study of the Sefer Yetzirah, the structure of which determined the chapters of the Pendulum.

12 Coletti (1997) engages in a profound discussion of women in Foucault’s Pendulum, arguing they ‘represent the power of reason’ (p. 300).


Doctoral candidate and research assistant at the Institute of German, Media and Intercultural Communication at Chemnitz University of Technology, Germany. In spring 2009 he was a visiting researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. Broadly based at the intersection of media and communication studies, linguistics and sociology, his research currently revolves around Internet-based cooperation and communication. He is interested in semiotics and qualitative methods for document analysis. His most recent publications include: «Fixing the Floating Gap. The Online Encyclopaedia Wikipedia as a Global Memory Place», Memory Studies, 2 (2), 2009, and «Wikipedia» in Martin Albrow et al. (eds), Global Civil Society 2007/08: Communicative Power and Democracy (2008)

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