Friday, March 26, 2010

"Baudolino" by Umberto Eco

I have become a huge fan of the writings of Umberto Eco, Professor of Semiotics at the University of Bologna. His novels, "The Name of the Rose," and "Foucault's Pendulum" are masterful in their complexity and erudition. So, I dove into "Baudolino" with eager anticipation. I must admit that I found the early chapters tough going. I was not sure that I cared about the characters that Eco had introduced. It felt like I was slogging through the first section of the book, but then I got my bearings and figured out what Eco was doing through the travels and adventures of the pathological liar and protagonist, Baudolino.

The author uses this character - and the rest of the menagerie that flesh out this picaresque tale - as foils that allow Eco to lay bare the absurdity of many intellectual and theological arguments that have created wars and rifts down through the centuries. Using "reductio ad absurdum" as a uniting motif, he puts into the minds and mouths of his characters some of the most ridiculous arguments ever to influence gullible minds. Eco is clearly having fun at the expense of some of history's most notorious charlatans, including those who have offered counterfeit relics. Eco takes great delight in poking fun at hypocrisy of every stripe.

In the excerpt to follow, he pillories the nitpicking Arian controversy that rocked the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 in which the nature of the substance of Christ became the cause for schism within the young Christian church:

"Caught up in the debate, the Poet asked: 'But if the Son, not incarnated, was only a ghost, then why in the Garden of Olives does he utter words of desperation and moan on the cross? What would a divine ghost care if they drove nails into a body that is pure apparition? Was he only putting on an act, like a mummer?' He said this, thinking to seduce - displaying acumen and desire for knowledge - the blemmy female he had his eye on, but he achieved the opposite effect. The whole assembly started shouting: 'Anathema! Anathema!' and our friends realized this was the moment to leave that Sanhedrin. And so it was that the Poet, through an excess of theological refinement, was unable to satisfy his coarse carnal passion." (Pages 397-398)

Along the way, the author treats the reader to adventures that test one's view of the nature of reality, truth, free will, faith, and the role of religion - for good and for ill - in the shaping of human history. The book is not for the intellectually faint of heart, but is a wonderful, rollicking and thoroughly satisfying journey that is worth taking.



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