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, Serendipities is sure to entertain and enlighten any reader with a passion for the curious history of languages and ideas.
In The Force of Falsity Eco points out that falsity, as well as truth, has shaped the world in important ways, using many interesting examples including Columbus, Prester John and the Rosicrucians.
Languages in Paradise is an essay examining Dante’s beliefs about the language of Adam and the effects of Babel upon it. I can’t imagine a popular audience finding this interesting, or even wholly comprehensible.
Things become more interesting again with the essay From Marco Polo to Leibniz. Returning to the titular topic, he discusses again how cross- language/culture misunderstandings often produced serendipitous results
The final two essays are criticisms of linguistic academics – one pertaining to Foigny’s burlesque perfect language and the final deeply critical of Joseph De Maistre’s linguistics.
I can’t recommend this book to anyone who is not studying linguistics. If you are a huge fan of Eco’s nonfiction, I suggest you read the first and third essays and skim the others to see if anything catches your interest.
It's kind of an odd little book, really. Eco doesn't seem especially interested in giving a broad overview of his topic, but rather on poking into the specific little corners of it that interest him. It is, on the whole, probably a bit more detailed, dense and scholarly than I'd have preferred. I found that whenever his topic was something I already had some familiarity with, I got a fair bit out of it and appreciated Eco's thoughts and insights, and whenever he touched on subjects I had little knowledge of, I got a little lost.
It is a fascinating collection of five essays about language revised from lectures Eco gave in the 1990s. The lectures can be read separately, but they are related and make a good set. In them, Eco speculates on aspects of language, including the efforts over the ages to search for an original Hebrew, language of Adam; the evolution of language through misunderstandings, conquests and exchange; creation of a universal dictionary (much like the universal language of mathematics). Although there is much to absorb here, Eco's arguments are well laid out with broad cultural references, and beautifully written.