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Serendipities: Language and Lunacy

Umberto Eco
Copyright Date: 1998
Pages: 128
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Best-selling author Umberto Eco's latest work unlocks the riddles of history in an exploration of the "linguistics of the lunatic," stories told by scholars, scientists, poets, fanatics, and ordinary people in order to make sense of the world. Exploring the "Force of the False," Eco uncovers layers of mistakes that have shaped human history, such as Columbus's assumption that the world was much smaller than it is, leading him to seek out a quick route to the East via the West and thus fortuitously "discovering" America. The fictions that grew up around the cults of the Rosicrucians and Knights Templar were the result of a letter from a mysterious "Prester John" -- undoubtedly a hoax -- that provided fertile ground for a series of delusions and conspiracy theories based on religious, ethnic, and racial prejudices. While some false tales produce new knowledge (like Columbus's discovery of America) and others create nothing but horror and shame (the Rosicrucian story wound up fueling European anti-Semitism) they are all powerfully persuasive.

    In a careful unraveling of the fabulous and the false, Eco shows us how serendipities -- unanticipated truths -- often spring from mistaken ideas. From Leibniz's belief that the I Ching illustrated the principles of calculus to Marco Polo's mistaking a rhinoceros for a unicorn, Eco tours the labyrinth of intellectual history, illuminating the ways in which we project the familiar onto the strange.

    Eco uncovers a rich history of linguistic endeavor -- much of it ill-conceived -- that sought to "heal the wound of Babel." Through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Greek, Hebrew, Chinese, and Egyptian were alternately proclaimed as the first language that God gave to Adam, while -- in keeping with the colonial climate of the time -- the complex language of the Amerindians in Mexico was viewed as crude and diabolical. In closing, Eco considers the erroneous notion of linguistic perfection and shrewdly observes that the dangers we face lie not in the rules we use to interpret other cultures but in our insistence on making these rules absolute.

    With the startling combination of erudition and wit, bewildering anecdotes and scholarly rigor that are Eco's hallmarks,Serendipitiesis sure to entertain and enlighten any reader with a passion for the curious history of languages and ideas.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50014-2
    Subjects: Linguistics, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-xii)
    (pp. 1-22)

    In the QuaestioquodlibetalisXII, I4, Saint Thomas declares “utrum veritas sit fortior inter vinum et regem et mulierem,” raising, that is, the question of which is more powerful, more convincing, more constrictive: the power of the king, the influence of wine, the charms of woman, or the strength of truth.

    Aquinas’s reply respected the king, at whose table he did not, I believe, reject a few good glasses of wine, though he proved he could resist woman's charms by pursuing with a glowing firebrand the naked courtesan his brothers had introduced into his room to convince him to become a...

    (pp. 23-52)

    This story starts in the Garden of Eden, where Adam speaks with God, and ends at the Heaven of the Fixed Stars, where Dante Ahghieri (Paradisexxvi) meets Adam and speaks with him.

    Afterward, language will play a lesser role in Dante’s travels. Even though he still talks with Saint Peter, Beatrice, or Saint Bernard, he is coming closer and closer to the site of the highest angelical hierarchies, and, as everybody knows, angels do not speak because they understand each other through a sort of instantaneous mental reading, and they know everything they are allowed to know (according to their...

  6. 3 FROM MARCO POLO TO LEIBNIZ Stories of Intellectual Misunderstandings
    (pp. 53-76)

    The first essay of this book showed how misunderstandings can take place inside a given culture. They can also take place between different cultures, when people are unable to understand that these cultures have different languages and world visions. The fact that—through serendipity—those mistakes have led to new discoveries means only that even errors can produce interesting side effects.

    When two different cultures meet, there is a shock, a result of their reciprocal diversity. At this point, there are three possibilities:

    Conquest: The members of culture A cannot recognize the members of culture B as normal human beings...

    (pp. 77-96)

    The subject of a perfect language has appeared in the cultural history of every people. Throughout the first period of this search, which continued until the seventeenth century, this utopia consisted in the search for the primigenial Hebrew in which God spoke to Adam or that Adam invented when giving names to the animals and in which he had had his first dialogue with Eve. But already in Dante'sDe Vulgari Eloquentiaanother possibility had been broached: that God had not given Adam primordial Hebrew but rather a general grammar, a transcendental form with which to construct all possible languages....

    (pp. 97-116)

    In the story of the centuries-long search for a perfect language, a central chapter should be devoted to the rediscovery of a series of matrix languages or of a primordial mother tongue. For many centuries, the leading claimant for the position of mother tongue was Hebrew. Then other candidates would appear on the scene (Chinese, for example), and finally the search would lose its utopian fervor and its mystical tension as the science of linguistics was born and, with it, the Indo-European hypothesis. For a long time, though, the idea of a prirnigenial language not only had a historical validity...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 117-120)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 121-130)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 131-132)