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Who said: "When men stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing: they believe in anything"? The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations attributes it to G.K. Chesterton, but it cannot be found in any of his works and appears to have begun life as a paraphrase by his biographer Emile Cammaerts. One does not need to be a scholar to trace this cliché to its origin. Yet on the home page of the extensive website of Umberto Eco, one is greeted with the following quotation by the great man: "When men stop believing in God, it isn't that they then believe in nothing: they believe in everything." Undergraduates who tried to palm off such a hackneyed misquotation as their own might expect to be laughed at or even reprimanded by their teachers. But Eco is Europe's most celebrated living writer, with countless academic honours to his name. Why does a man so feted, who boasts that he owns 50,000 books (including 1,200 rare titles) "in my various homes", seek to appropriate Chesterton's gnomic wisdom? Is it possible that Umberto Eco is, as Henry IV of France said of James I of England, "the wisest fool in Christendom"?

In his own eyes, at least, Eco is the opposite: the most disillusioned of men, "fascinated by error, bad faith and idiocy", and thus perfectly equipped to expose everyone else as a fraud. In his recent published conversation with Jean-Claude Carrière, This is Not the End of the Book, he reveals that his vast library consists entirely of "books whose contents I don't believe";  these "lies" include a first edition of Joyce's Ulysses. Eco makes no distinction between fiction and forgery. He also assumes that most of his readers are hopelessly ignorant: "The current generation is probably tempted to think, as the Americans do, that what happened 300 years ago no longer matters..."

This pose of the learned sceptic, even the arch-cynic, has stood Eco in good stead. Without it he could never have written The Name of the Rose, the medieval whodunnit that became a film vehicle for Sean Connery and has gone on to sell more than 50 million copies. The novel is an exercise in debunking the monks to whom he owed his education and who immunised him from fascism. Eco's first book, based on his doctoral thesis, is his best: The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas. He still recalls the joy of being surrounded by old books and manuscripts at the Sainte-Geneviève Library in Paris. Then he lost his faith and has spent the rest of his life in search of a substitute.

Eco found his pseudo-religion in the pseudo-science of semiotics, which he has taught for many years. His novels are case studies in postmodernism, which elides all categories of truth, beauty, morality and politics into an esoteric game. The Plan, which forms the theme of Foucault's Pendulum, his second bestseller, shows Eco was already obsessed with conspiracy theories, involving everything from the Knights Templar to Kabbalah. But the subversive message of the novel is that conspiracy theories may after all be true, and secret societies may actually exist. The dissolution of reality into mere "narratives" lends the conspiracy theory new life.

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March 29th, 2012
1:03 AM
This article is one of the more spot-on illustrations of Hitchens's observation that "the literal mind is baffled by the ironic one."

Francis Fitzhugh
March 22nd, 2012
12:03 PM
There is an article responding to this one here:

F. Fitzhugh
March 21st, 2012
10:03 PM
Regarding the first paragraph: The website referred to in the paragraph is a fan website, not a personal website. I can't see any evidence that Eco ever said it, let alone said it without citing Chesterton, who he has referred once or twice in his published writings. Regarding the second paragraph: Is it really unreasonable not to believe in the contents of Joyce's Ulysses? It is a work of fiction, after all. Regarding the fourth paragraph: The message of Foucault's Pendulum (as other people have pointed out above) is not that 'conspiracy theories may after all be true, and secret societies may actually exist' but the opposite. The accusation of anti-Semitism in the second page of the essay seems rather baseless. If the case is so strong, why quote from the publisher's blog rather than the book itself? Anyway, to accuse Eco of trahison des clercs in the standard postmodernist model seems very unfair. As far as I know he has never flirted with the far left, opposed the academic boycott on Israel (and was accused of racism as a result), and constantly opposes the anti-Semitism of both the extreme right and the extreme left in his L'Espresso column. Daniel Johnson seems extremely unfamiliar with Eco's work, which makes the choice of subject here seem a bit strange.

March 21st, 2012
4:03 AM
Perhaps then you prefer the inherently totalitarian "certainties" of right-wing religious fundamentalism as described here?

March 16th, 2012
9:03 AM
I've only read 2 books by Eco over the years: "The Name of the Rose" (I still wish someone would explain the title to me) and "Foucault's Pendulum". I have not read "The Prague Cemetery", so I can't comment on it. Re the other two, I would like to express a pair of opinions: (a) Considering all of the effort invested in writing The Name of the Rose, you'd have thought that Eco would have been able to provide a more satisfying solution to the mystery occupying the overwhelming bulk of this lengthy novel; (b) When asked once to summarize the plot of "Foucault's Pendulum" in one sentence, I replied "People are as stupid and gullible today as they were 2000 years ago". In that context, I agree with the comment of ZD.

freddie omm
March 12th, 2012
5:03 PM
if post-modernism, as mr johnson implies, refuses to take anything seriously, in a culture cut adrift from mening, it seems harsh to blame it (and eco, as one of its prime proponents)for fanning anti-semitism... nor is it right to condemn umberto eco, de haut en bas, as anti-semitic. i too was quite baffled by "foucault's pendulum", and read it as a satire of its subject. i may have got that badly wrong, of course!

Adam Victor Nazareth Brandizzi
March 9th, 2012
6:03 PM
One could use the time spent on this article for reading a good, reasonable critic to Humberto Eco words. Really, mr. Johnson, if you really despise Eco this much you would make a better case by posting a link to some other critical article. Do you really think Eco's quote is the same as the allegedly Chesterton's one? Do you really see such a hollow postmodernist author when reading Eco's works? I have never read Foucault's Pendulum but that seems pretty unlikely that the conclusion you got can be made from it, given the books from Humberto Eco I've read. I cannot help but believe that your rant is just the result of a pretty prejudiced interpretation of Prague Cemetery. You see some kind of subtle anti-Semite message in the book and as a consequence feels obliged to bash all the writer's work. I have not read the book but your text just makes me believe that there is no such subtle plot in it. OTOH there is a really unsubtle misinterpretation in your critic, which ends as some defense of a grotesque untouchability of the history of Jewish people, an argument built upon some true statements, some somewhat debatable affirmations and one or two pretty nonsensical associations. So, if you really want to bash Mr. Eco, I really believe you would be well advised to outsource the critic to someone better prepared or, at least, more controlled.

March 7th, 2012
7:03 PM
Overrated: Daniel Johnson

March 7th, 2012
6:03 PM
Mr. Johnson might want to take a look at Eco's "Six Walks in the Fictional Woods" and pay particular attention to the sixth chapter, "Fictional Protocols".

March 7th, 2012
5:03 PM
Oh, I get it - the whole article is itself a post-modernist joke. Otherwise the factual inaccuracies (Foucault's Pendulum doesn't suggest that "secret societies may actually exist", rather that people want them to exist despite the fact that they don't) don't make sense - surely no-one can intentionally misunderstand Eco this much, can they?

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