Six Walks in Fictional Woods

Six lectures. like six walks with a fascinating companion who’s courteous, humorous gentle with the reader. He’s erudite, of course, but his insights come unforced and ‘natural’. Natural ‘talking’ as opposed to ‘articificial’ – one of the dyads he mentions in passing almost as a casual observation about fictional theory. The only demand he asks of his ‘model’ reader is attention 0 and, well, fascination. It feels inappropriate to say much about anything where Eco is concerned since he says it all so perfectly,  and I think no matter how nuanced the reading the nuances of the writing may well be missed. One could say must be missed, for the woods are not some well-ordered landscape manufacture but “Sacred…tangled and twisted like the forests of the Druids.” In any case, anything I or anybody else says about this or any other text is at best an interesting, or even useful, diagram but nothing like the richly experiential, one may – or may not – appeal to the noumenal – immersion within the woods, within the text. I’d say that if you only read one page of this book read the last one to see what ‘immersion’ and precision may mean.

There are interesting methods that can be learned for approaching fiction if one takes one refraction of Eco’s book, one thin layer, as a guide. I’ve suggested this in practice by glimpsing Dermot Healy through a few of the ways. In particular, the dyads of model reader and empirical reader, the use of a text and the interpretation of a text are seminal. I’ll be returning to the empirical reader as the substance of this post. Suffice it to say that the attention Eco requests from his reader is a requirement to realise the distinction between empirical usage of a text for whatsoever pleasure or other employment a reader may make, and a nuanced sensibility to a text (which does not, of course, exhaust a text’s possibilities: he has been returning to his beloved Sylvie year upon year).

Not surprisingly, another dyad is the fiction-truth twinship that wriggles, writhes, and spreads rhizomes throughout the woods – for I as empirical reader may, even as model reader, legitimately take with me on my walks not only my own memories but the collective memories of my ancestors including Deleuze or whomsoever. There is a type of mainly male psyche which I shall be looking at in a later review of A Goat’s Song which is angrily opposed to ‘mere fiction’ and thereby an unconscious victim to the personal and cultural fictional narratives that effect subjectivity (including, a point Eco makes merely in passing, the subjective narrative of continuing self). As Eco’s lecture series reaches its final point, the fact that a knowledge of narrativity is absent moves from being innocent to being deadly serious.

In an early lecture he suggests that the ‘completion’ of narrative against the messiness and contradictoriness of the world was behind much of the appeal of fiction, myth (and, I think, by implication art generally, including poetry). I marked the passage in rather angry pencil; in my brain I etched cliche, and ‘depoliticised speech’. Yet as the series moved on it came as no surprise that Eco began by asking at the start of his final lecture whether the world could be read as fiction, and whether a ‘work’ of fiction could be constructed to represent the actual (non-neat narratological) mess of living. Swiftly moving through some interesting asides about language and theories of the semiotic-narrative (and I think he was resurrecting tthe possibility of looking again at the idea of grammar’s fundamental axis around activity, that each sentence is a story), he relates the dreadful history of the fictions-as-truths beginning with the Knights Templar of the fourteenth century, through the Rosicruceans, Scottish Freemasons, Jesuits, and all the other stuff – read it, it’s only a few pages – to that dreadful moment of protofascism beginning in nineteenth century France, informing Germany and with us still today in an ugly and terrifying antisemitism. This empirical reader sees fiction as too important to be ignored by the ideology of fact cataloguing.

It is good and human to move back the other way, to that innocence and beauty, the thrill of walking in the woods. We need consoling fictions too, the ones that are neat and well ordered, the way we would like life to be. It’s important too that we know the other end of the spectrum. Life is a struggle, it’s political  and ends with death. As Eco ends his sixth lecture: “..since life is cruel, for you and for me, here I am.”


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