Monday 22 February 2016

On Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco died on Saturday. By way of tribute here are two paragraphs indebted to Eco and to the late Gilbert Adair from my forthcoming book About a Girl: A Reader's Guide to Eimear McBride's A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing:

At this point I'm happy to admit that I owe Gilbert Adair a double debt - for the term sillage and for introducing me to the Perfect Specific. Both of these appeared in two of the many brilliant essays included in Myths and Memories, published the year Eimear McBride was born. I've been re-reading this and his two subsequent collections The Post-modernist Always Rings Twice (1992) and Surfing the Zeitgeist (1997) ever since. Few cultural commentators can match Adair's range, knowledge and intelligence - he writes in a way I'd like to think I think, and his cool ironic voice is much missed. I want to rope in Adair a third and final time, because he memorably summed up the shortcomings and attractions of post-modernism in  Flickers: An Illustrated Celebration of 100 Years of Cinema (1995). In a short piece about Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, he references Umberto Eco's Reflections on the Name of the Rose in which Eco, describing the genesis of his most celebrated novel, defines the postmodern attitude 'as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, "I love you madly", because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still,' continues Eco, 'there is a solution. He can say, "As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly."

Thus, Adair argues, the speaker avoids any false innocence and, in stating clearly that it is no longer possible to speak with true innocence, he is nevertheless able to say what he wants to say to the woman: that he loves her sincerely in an age of lost innocence, an age in which sincerity has been compromised by a pervasive and ironic self-consciousness. I'd suggest that in her writing McBride has shown us a way in which we can say, unironically, 'I love you madly' or (if we adhere to the Adair/Eco principle) she has given us an alternative to the ironic detachment of 'As Barbara Cartland would say, 'I love you madly' (which is me quoting Gilbert Adair quoting Umberto Eco quoting an imaginary suitor quoting Barbara Cartland). What we can now hypothetically say is (for instance) 'As Eimear McBride would say: 'There's no reason in the wide wide world' (to take a favourite phrase from the book). In other words she has given us a new literary standard against which human experience can be measured, and in doing so has stripped language of its disabling post-modern irony. That's quite something. More, she has introduced feeling to modernist writing, combining virtuosity with tenderness. She has brought life to the avant grade, and brought the avant-garde to life. 

About a Girl is published on 17th March by CB editions.

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