Many thanks for the bracing challenge of your letter. There’s nothing I like better than a quarrel over books, especially a book as important as Umberto Eco’s novel The Prague Cemetery. Any book by Eco is important by virtue of having been written by Eco. Few other men or women since the Renaissance have been capable of sweeping with such insight and authority across such a wide array of fields — semiotics, linguistics, literary criticism and theory, philosophy, aethetics, the history of ideas, anthropology, religion, and popular culture (to name only a few). Quite apart from all that, The Prague Cemetery is important because it tackles an important subject, and does so in a way that is important in its failure.
You are right that I don’t think The Prague Cemetery is much of a novel, although there is much to admire in it. It is packed tight with historical information about everything from the economics of authorship in 19th century France to the specific details (very nearly the recipes) of contemporary Parisian cuisine. There’s a reason for the data-driven quality of the prose. Eco believes even the driest of humanistic scholarship is a story. One of the world’s greatest living scholars, he sees it as no abandonment or betrayal of his vocation to present his research findings in the form of a novel. In fact, he has done more perhaps than anyone to broaden the scope of the contemporary novel — to retrieve it from preciosity and self-regarding aestheticism and make it a serious contribution to culture again.
Despite the learning and the ambition, though, The Prague Cemetery remains an unsatisfying novel. You disagree. You say I am wrong to have suggested, in my original review in COMMENTARY, that the book “would have been more successful as a literary history of anti-Semitism.” Even worse, according to you I have begged the entire question of fiction, and in doing so I have badly missed the point of the novel.
May I take up your objections in reverse order? The main problem with The Prague Cemetery, I wrote back in January, is that it fails to satisfy the “first requirement of narrative fiction.” I wasn’t laying down arbitrary rules for fiction. The requirement here is Eco’s own. I quoted from an interview that Eco gave to the academic journal Diacritics in spring 1987:
The principal requirement of narration is that the plot offer alternatives with a certain frequency, and these alternatives cannot be predetermined. The reader must not know exactly what decision a character will make.
In writing The Prague Cemetery, Eco forgot his own “principal requirement for narration.” At no time do any of his characters decide a question that might have been decided otherwise. There is no ethical dilemma anywhere in the novel, because Eco is absorbed with something else. The Prague Cemetery devotes its energy to spinning the web of intrigue that produced The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
The book’s core term is Next (“Next I called,” “the next hours,” “The next morning,” “The next day,” “The next to arrive,” “the next few days (or nights),” “over the next six months,” “Over the next few years”). In short, The Prague Cemetery is a chronicle of how The Protocols of the Elders of Zion came to be written — a fictional chronicle, a narrative with a historical theme and consisting of episodes arranged in chronological order and loosely connected by the passage of time, but it is not really a novel. Not, at least, by Eco’s own lights. In the Diacritics interview, Eco goes on to say this:
If I tell you that a tribe of Indians attacks a stagecoach and that right away the Seventh Cavalry comes to the rescue, that isn’t narrative. For it to be narrative, someone on the stagecoach must decide whether to fight or not. The reader’s identification is rooted in the characters’ decisions; he either supports them or rejects them. The ethical response to a text is rooted in this identification.
The invitation to identify with the decisions of the characters is, in my opinion, the distinguishing mark of narrative fiction. No other form of human knowledge relies upon identification (in Eco’s sense) to do what it sets out to do. The “ethical response to a text” is the magic by which fiction contributes to human understanding. Without it, a text is not a narration, but merely a chronicle.
The Prague Cemetery lacks this ethical dimension, because it leaves none of the characters’ decisions open to question. But that’s because the characters “writ[e] themselves into a structure that exists in a different fiction,” you protest. “The Protocols exists ‘outside’ [Eco’s] novel, and inasmuch as it has its own material history, theirs is of necessity predetermined.”
And so we arrive at the heart of our disagreement. I say The Prague Cemetery would have been better as a literary history of anti-Semitism, you say you’re “willing to have that textbook remain unwritten in exchange for The Prague Cemetery.” Tabulating the results of Google Scholar searches, you imply that quite enough scholarship has been written on the Protocols. (The reality is that, over the past half-century, there have been only a handful of full-length studies, most notably Norman Cohn’s Warrant for Genocide in 1967 and Cesare De Michelis’s The Non-Existent Manuscript in 1998.) You prefer The Prague Cemetery as fiction, because it reflects our “postmodern condition.”
Now, you are surely right that its postmodern aspect must have been what initially attracted Eco to his subject. Simone Simonini, his main character, the notary, forger, plagiarist, and mouchard (police informer) whom Eco advances as the author of the Protocols, is the only character in the book without a historical counterpart. Partly this is because no one knows exactly who wrote the Protocols, but partly this is because the invention echoes Eco’s theme.
No one person wrote or could have written the fiction of Jewish world conspiracy. “An entire historical era was required,” as I said in my original review: “an era of instability and revolutionary ferment, a style of political thinking that preferred hidden nefarious enemies to good-faith public opponents, and a literary market in which a special kind of popular fiction known as the roman-feuilleton, the novel published in serial installments in partisan French newspapers, served as the press attaché to political ideology.” To adapt Eco’s remark about Dan Brown, which you quote, the real author of the Protocols was a creature of the 19th-century conspiracy-theorizing out of which anti-Semitism emerged (and which eagerly received it). Like any other forger and plagiarist, he had no other existence, no independent existence.
And this conception of the Protocols’ authorship also echoes Eco’s postmodernism. The postmodern era, according to Eco, is the “era of repetition.” Postmodern texts recycle bits and pieces of earlier texts, retaking them, remaking them, entering them into what Eco calls an “intertextual encyclopedia” in which more than half the fun is recognizing the excerpts, quotations, allusions, and parallels. The naïve reader reads for a message; the postmodern reader — the Model Reader, in Eco’s phrase — “enjoys the way in which the same story is worked over to make it appear to be different.” This Model Reader may be “culturally very sophisticated,” or he may only be immersed in a culture in which the same elements, the same excerpts and quotations and allusions and parallels, appear over and over and over till recognition, no longer a conscious act, becomes the satisfaction of familiarity.
What Eco is proposing in The Prague Cemetery is that some such culture of repetition and familiarity is the true author of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The fantasies and motifs of anti-Semitism were recycled and repeated and reworked and repeated in the 19th century until their original author could have been anyone who was intimate with the “intertextual encyclopedia” of Jew hatred. The thesis is daring: the cultural process of repetition, not any individual “author,” is responsible for the Protocols.
Eco does not present the thesis as a historical argument, however, but as a fictional character. If he had written The Prague Cemetery as the literary history of a forgery, he could not have invented the character of Simone Simonini, non-existent author of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but he might have had something better: a clear hypothesis. The gain would have been substantial; the loss, less so.
Fiction and the Figures of Anti-Semitism: A Rejoinder on The Prague Cemetery
Must-Reads from Magazine
The United Nations thinks the rest of the world needs a “21st Century makeover.” To accomplish that, the international body is turning toward some of the most outmoded ideas of the 19th Century.
Far from wringing his hands over the global trend toward populism and the nationalist extravagances that typify it, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi is wrapping himself in populist economic anxieties like a familiar old blanket.
“A combination of too much debt and too little demand at the global level has hampered sustained expansion of the world economy,” he said in a statement on Thursday, despite the fact that global economic growth has shown no signs of slowing. For this lamentable state of affairs, Kituyi’s agency didn’t blame governments that spend beyond their means and borrow when they should be investing. He didn’t even blame a pronounced global recession from which the world began to emerge only recently. Instead, the United Nations lays the blame on “neo-liberalism.”
“The whole neo-liberal mantra that ‘there is no alternative’ has begun to fall apart,” said UNCTAD’s globalization director, Richard Kozul-Wright. “There are plenty of alternatives out there, and they are urgently needed given the kind of economic and social imbalances that we are currently facing.”
What is “neo-liberalism?” It’s a lot like paleo-liberalism. You might better know it by its more popular moniker, which Kozul-Wright was careful to avoid: classical liberalism. In the context of a national economy, it is the belief in reduced or non-existent trade barriers, the free movement of capital, and the privatization of industry. It’s Adam Smith and David Ricardo. And it’s the bane of Keynesians’ existence.
Kozul-Wright speaks so contemptuously of the phrase “there is no alternative” because, like so many of his fellow travelers at Turtle Bay, he came of age at a time when the pejorative “TINA” was a dirty word. It was Margaret Thatcher’s battle cry when she successfully privatized the utilities and industries that Clement Atlee nationalized. It was the slogan that marshaled support in a newly united Germany for the transition in the East toward a market economy. It was a phrase coined by the philosopher and early conservative thinker Herbert Spencer whose Darwinian maxims are still resented by, well, people who use the word “neoliberalism” like it were a slur.
Kozul-Wright has a point about tackling government debt and inflation, which is nearing the point of crisis in the United States and the United Kingdom respectively. His prescriptions—the end of austerity and a massive drunken government spending spree—would seem to miss the mark. More important, though, Kozul-Wright is right about something else. There absolutely is an alternative to the classically liberal economic ethos that conquered the world when the Berlin Wall fell. For the historically literate, however, it’s not a desirable alternative.
As COMMENTARY’s Sohrab Ahmari has chronicled for over a year, classical liberal economics are opposed not merely by Keynesians but by a more reactionary sort. Advanced economies transitioning away from heavy industry have produced armies of the dispossessed and disillusioned. These legions span the traditional right-left political spectrum. They are united by protectionism, economic nationalism, and a robust social safety net (one extended only to the right kind of people).
These movements, like Kozul-Wright, are backward looking. And while he would no doubt consider himself hostile toward the forces of reaction that have assumed power over the course of this decade, the policies he advocates are both populist and nationalist. They are the products of despair and hopelessness, and it is no accident that illiberal economies are so often stewarded by illiberal governments.
There is no shortage of irony in the fact that UNCTAD’s “globalism director” shares a set of economic prescriptions with millions of Westerners who reject globalization. “Prosperity for all cannot be delivered by austerity-minded politicians, rent-seeking corporations, and speculative bankers,” Kozul-Wright wrote for The Guardian on Thursday. “Unlike the textbook concept of pure competition, our hyper-globalized world has been accompanied by a considerable concentration of economic power and wealth in the hands of a remarkably small number of people.” This is the perfect synthesis of the Occupy Wall Street creed with Steve Bannon-style economic chauvinism—two ideologies that share more in common than either would prefer to admit. Neither is especially friendly toward the kind of enlightened republicanism that has made the West a beacon of freedom and prosperity unmatched in human history.
Many have set out to prove that there is, in fact, an alternative to economic liberalism. They lead prison states that subject their people to authoritarianism and privation. While Venezuela’s Bolivarians lecture the West on the folly of TINA, their ministers are advising the public how to avoid starvation by raising rabbits. Meanwhile, in the heart of a city where the bounty of unfettered capitalism overflows, men like Richard Kozul-Wright and Mukhisa Kituyi lead comfortable lives lecturing the public on the excesses of Adam Smith. The very lives they lead stand as an irrefutable testament to the hollowness of their ideas.
An awful new normal.
At least 22 people were injured after an improvised explosive device detonated aboard a London Underground train on Friday. The crude bomb–apparently contained in a white bucket wrapped in a plastic bag–went off as the train was leaving toward central London from Parsons Green station, 15 minutes from where I live. Several victims suffered flash burns while others were crushed in the stampede that ensued.
Across the English Channel, meanwhile, a hammer-wielding assailant struck two women in the eastern French town of Chalon-sur-Saone. The women survived. The attacker had shouted Allahu Akbar.
This is the West’s new normal.
Some officials wish we would put up with terrorism much as we accept other urban nuisances such as traffic, vermin, and pickpocketing. Recall former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls’s words following the Nice truck attack in July 2016 that killed 86: “Times have changed, and we should learn to live with terrorism.” According to the Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, former President Obama liked to remind his staff that Americans are more likely to die from slipping in their bathtubs than from terror attacks.
But these glib assertions can never calm people frightened of taking the Tube or boarding a plane, knowing there is always chance, however slight, of something going boom or gunshots ringing out to cries of Allahu Akbar! Bathtub slips may be more deadly, statistically speaking, but they are by definition accidental. They don’t possess that malign, war-like aspect that defines modern Islamic terrorism.
Nowadays when you step into a Tube train, you are aware that you are entering a battleground. Even the most enlightened, progressive commuter can’t help but notice the woman in the burka or that young man with the long beard scowling in one corner of the carriage. The sight raises a dozen anxious questions and emotions. Now, statistically speaking, that woman or that young man is just “trying to get on with life.” But as the French philosopher Pierre Manent wrote in his book Beyond Radical Secularism:
The immense majority of our Muslim citizens have nothing to do with terrorism, but terrorism would not be what it is, it would not have the same reach nor the same significance, if the terrorists did not belong to this population and were not our fellow citizens. These terrorist acts would simply be odious crimes subject to ordinary justice if they were not guided by an aim of war and by the intent to ruin the very possibility of a common life.
So long as a small but significant minority of Muslims takes a war footing against the West, terror will persist, and no amount of statistical sophistry and empty rhetoric from leaders will assuage legitimate fear.
The best opponent Democrats could hope for.
Mere days ago, Breitbart’s Steve Bannon told “60 Minutes” that “our purpose is to support Donald Trump.” Then, on Wednesday, Trump decided to make an immigration deal with Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi over Chinese food. Within minutes, Breitbart was dubbing the president it had pledged to support “Amnesty Don.”
For Breitbart, accusing someone of supporting “Amnesty” is tantamount to calling him a child molester, so negative is its understanding of the word. That is why a White House spokesman declared afterward that Trump “will not be discussing amnesty.” But in the next sentence, the spokesman said Trump would consider “legal citizenship over a period of time.”
That, my friends, is the very definition of amnesty, pure and simple. Forget his Orwellian newspeak: The Trump spokesman was acknowledging his boss had agreed to follow the provisions of the so-called DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for 800,000 people.
Yes, follow this. Donald Trump, the most anti-immigration president in a century, and maybe of all time, is going to oversee the first wide-scale amnesty since the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli Act led to the legalization of 3 million illegals.
I like this plan, by the way. But let’s face it. With this deal, Trump has betrayed his core followers and a significant campaign promise—the most startling such turnabout since the first President Bush went back on his “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge.
What gives? When it comes to the DREAMers, Trump surely knows that polls show a near-majority of Republicans (46 percent in the latest Morning Consult survey) support citizenship for those brought to America by their illegal-alien parents as children and who know no other home.
But he didn’t stage his takeover of the Republican Party by gaining the support of those Republicans. No, Trump came to power in the GOP by consolidating the party’s extremes and then moving on the center, which was split among a dozen other candidates. And he did so in large measure by talking about immigration and immigrants in a startlingly hostile manner.
This gave him a reputation for politically correct plain speaking and a willingness to consider wild policy options—a deportation force and the construction of a 1,900-mile wall even through deep river beds—no conventional politician had or would.
And he gained the passionate support of all those who claimed the GOP had become a party of wimps mired in the Washington swamp, unwilling to bring the fight to the Democrats, unable to crush liberals. And what has he done over the past two weeks? He has struck deals with Schumer and Pelosi and gave those two signature Democrats almost everything they could have hoped for.
This is a potentially significant moment on the American Right, which is a far more complex agglomeration than either its leaders or its most hostile critics tend to acknowledge. Trump is abandoning his true believers in favor of an explicitly anti-ideological, anti-partisan approach—only a month after it appeared he was retreating into their loving arms.
He is not a systematic man. He is an improviser. It would be a mistake to see any kind of deliberate long-term strategy here. Last week Trump knew he wanted the debt-limit fight to go away and he made it go away with no fuss for three months. This week he knew he wanted to dispose of the DREAMer issue before it became a total pain and he made that happen, too.
Trump once said his followers would stand behind him even if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue. Becoming “Amnesty Don” is as close to firing that shot as anything any politician in recent times has ever done.
Three modest proposals.
Podcast: Who saw this coming? We did.
Yes, we told you so, and we say it again and again on the second of this week’s COMMENTARY podcasts. Noah Rothman, Abe Greenwald, and I attempt to examine the political menage-a-trois between Trump, Schumer, and Pelosi, whom it helps, whom it hurts, and the pain and agony of people who took Donald Trump at his word. Give a listen.
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