Intellectual Alchemists

What distinguishes the American from the European intellectual? Does that matter?

“Since I have never produced gold, I am unable to provide an answer to this problem,” admits Umberto Eco in a 2017 lecture purporting to be on the ancient arts of alchemy. “And so,” he continues, one imagines with a grin, “I will move on to another type of fire, another alchemy, the artistic kind, where fire becomes the instrument of a new genesis and the artist sets himself up as imitator of the gods.”

From there, Eco quickly moves to a discussion of Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus, who “wasn’t exactly the smartest guy around”; then—just as abruptly—to an extended quotation from the 16th-century memoirs of Benvenuto Cellini. His mental associations foreshorten and condense until one can barely reconstruct their networks.

This playful and associative logic, an ease in leaping between one huge body of knowledge and another, constitutes the great charm and skill of Eco’s style. Indeed, this is a style that has now come to define—whether rightfully or not—an entire continent of writing. In Eco’s latest, posthumous collection, On the Shoulders of Giants (which includes his speech on alchemy), and in Emmanuel Carrère’s 97,196 Words, we encounter a full, well-established way of viewing and narrating the world: one without a care for the reader’s limitations, without boundaries between genre and discipline, and with infinite time on its hands.

What, exactly, is the style Eco is pursuing? In an essay published in 1986, he describes it as follows:

An American interviewer once asked me how I managed to reconcile my work as a scholar and university professor, author of books published by university presses, with my other work as what would be called in the United States a “columnist” … My answer was that this habit is common to all European intellectuals, in Germany, France, Spain, and, naturally, Italy: all countries where a scholar or scientist often feels required to speak out in the papers, to comment, if only from the point of view of his own interests and special field, on events that concern all citizens. And I added, somewhat maliciously, that if there was any problem with this it was not my problem as a European intellectual; it was more a problem of American intellectuals, who live in a country where the division of labor between university professors and militant intellectuals is much more strict than in our countries.1

Even 34 years ago, the distinction Eco draws here between the United States and Europe would have read as an exaggeration. It seems even more exaggerated today, as American academics sign op-eds for the New York Times almost daily. Yet such comparisons between urbane European intellectual flaneurs and American professionals remain tempting to Europeans: they set up a stylized rhetorical position.

The American writer—so goes the transatlantic stereotype—addresses the general public deliberately and democratically. Rapidly clarifying her argument and the research or experience behind it, she (over)emphasizes how little she takes this audience’s trust and attention for granted.

By a contrasting convention, the European essayist makes his genre and theme seem almost accidental. From as early as René de Chateaubriand—whose 19th-century Memoirs from Beyond the Grave describes him nearly falling into Niagara Falls when he first beholds it—European essayists have thrived on a sense of spontaneity and contingency, and on the bemusement with which the New World supposedly greets it. Their faux-amateurish air invokes—and arguably helps sustain—a reading public of the kind Eco valorizes in the above passage. This idealized centuries-old public is intellectual without being pedantic, unintimidated in its curiosity, open to idiosyncrasy, provocativeness, and delayed gratification.2

All of this is a pose, of course, and a weak claim to geographic or cultural exceptionality. Mark Twain breached this supposed oceanic divide almost two centuries ago, with The Innocents Abroad. Contemporary American writers such as David Sedaris and Teju Cole excel at the digressive, faux-ingenuous mode that Eco describes as the European’s birthright. But indisputably, one can hardly read European essays without noticing how their authors lean into, or chafe against, this meandering style’s expectations.

Eco and Carrère are among the European essayists who reveal its high aesthetic potential. A reader already accustomed to their style’s crafted appearance of spontaneity will be reminded why she might have patience for its willfully tortuous, highbrow airs; those to whom their aesthetic seems unfamiliar are likely to develop an indulgence for it. At their best, both writers help one discover the pleasures and edification of following the process of earnest, abstract thinking and studying its idiosyncrasy, not just receiving its perfected outcomes.

European essayists have thrived on a sense of spontaneity and contingency, and on the bemusement with which the New World supposedly greets it.

“The cultivated person’s first duty is to be always prepared to rewrite the encyclopedia,” Eco quips in an earlier essay, from Serendipities: Language and Lunacy (1998).3 The speeches collected in On the Shoulders of Giants follow this ironic-but-serious dictum, as Eco rearranges and reconstellates his vast learning to address one huge topic after the next: the age-old struggle between fathers and sons; beauty and ugliness; the absolute and the relative; the sacred and the invisible; the structure of paradoxes and aphorisms.

Eco (1932–2016) began his career as a historian of medieval aesthetics at the University of Turin. Then, following in the footsteps of Leo Spitzer and Roland Barthes, he adapted his discipline’s principles and expanded his analytic interests to nonliterary, popular-cultural phenomena: TV shows, globalized travel, advertising.

Alongside his academic position, he began editing and writing short pieces on topics as varied as the rhetoric of quiz show host Mike Bongiorno and the design of airports. Collected in 1963 under the title Diario minimo, “a tiny diary” (published in English as Misreadings, in 1993), these essays won him initial fame across Europe. Scandalized by their irreverence—as a still-Catholic Polish teenager in the ’90s—I learned some passages by heart.

As Eco’s fame grew, his increasing output branched into new topics and genres. Alongside numberless newspaper columns, he turned out translations, works of literary and linguistic theory, and—from the ’80s onward, beginning with The Name of the Rose (1980; published in English in 1983)—a series of best-selling novels.


Great Liberations: Writing Beyond the Academy

By Kim Adrian et al.

Throughout, Eco’s authorial voice remains consistent. Dryly humorous, effortlessly and unapologetically erudite, he sounds convinced of—and slowly convinces the reader of—the mutual relevance and interconnectedness of contemporary Italian politics and Thomas Aquinas, James Joyce and 19th-century archeology, Michelle Obama and Anna Karenina.

On the Shoulders of Giants collects some of Eco’s last writings, a series of lectures composed for the annual cultural festival La Milanesiana. Eco delivered the first of these 12 lectures at this festival in 2001. He was not able to deliver the last one, composed shortly before his death, in February 2016.

This is not the best book through which to encounter Eco if one has never read him. That would be the Diario minimo, The Open Work, or Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages. All the same, even to a newcomer, the irreverence and relentless curiosity that drive these lectures will be charming and bracing. The occasionally quite moving felicity of Eco’s random-seeming connections—most manifest in his essay on aphorisms, amid whose many jumps a clarity slowly emerges—shows, time and again, why many serious writers might prefer this associative style to a more systematic and orderly one.

Eco does not merely lecture his reader but engages her, inviting elaborations on and additions to his always-open archive. He represents thinking as an activity that cannot orient itself in advance without blinkeredness and simplification. Thinking, for Eco, is a task that requires the participation of many brainstorming, reminiscing minds, rather than any singular logical method.

If Eco’s bête noire—and fascination—is the pedant, Carrère’s is the dangerously solipsistic dreamer.

Emmanuel Carrère wears his similarly academic background more lightly. The son of Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, a famous Holocaust historian, Carrère moved in rarefied intellectual environments from birth and rapidly found his niche in highbrow nonfiction. His writing offers a heady mixture of reportage, biography, and autobiography that he likes to describe as “nonfiction novels.”

If Eco’s bête noire—and fascination—is the pedant, Carrère’s is the dangerously solipsistic dreamer. From his first book, on Werner Herzog, each of his pieces of fiction and nonfiction revolves around a fantasizing personage who briefly manages to convince others of his dreams’ reality. Some of these solipsists, like Philip K. Dick, are artists or writers; others, like Jean-Claude Romand, appear to be mentally ill; many, like Eduard Limonov, hover between these two extremes.

The Kingdom, which follows upon the Herzog volume as well as Carrère’s studies of Limonov and Philip K. Dick, among others, imagines the enthusiastic faith that the apostle Paul would have inspired in the evangelist Luke and in his other followers during the crucial early decades of Christianity. With a purposely provocative honesty, of a kind that the younger Karl Ove Knausgaard pushes to its limits, Carrère also examines these solipsistic traits within himself.

Compelled by intricate private worlds, Carrère prizes the moments when outward reality floods into their idiosyncrasies, or when their workings are suddenly, shockingly exposed to unsympathetic others. Such moments of inadvertent exposure are experienced by his subjects as deep violations and often provoke emotional or physical violence in their own turn. Then the immediate shock tends to pale before his subjects’ broader, more existential astonishment that such a deep break from reality had been possible for them at all.

“The matricide Frank B., found entirely guilty of his act, left the courthouse free, and perhaps liberated,” Carrère narrates toward the end of one of his true crime stories, this one concerning an alienated teenage adoptee who kills his biological mother. “Two families, beside themselves with love, were waiting for him at the exit. He would now have to make the best of that.”

97,196 Words: Essays offers the reader a smorgasbord of these variations on Carrère’s recurring psychological themes. Many of the essays it collects are early versions of or later commentaries on Carrère’s book-length works. In “The Lost Hungarian” and “Nine Columns for an Italian Magazine,” we find the kernels of My Life as a Russian Novel; in “Three Crime Stories” and “The Romand Case,” Carrère is gearing up to write The Adversary; whereas “Capote, Romand, and Me” comments on The Adversary’s influences and reception. Some occasional pieces, like “Four Days in Davos” and “Orbiting Jupiter: My Week with Emmanuel Macron,” combine reportage with cultural commentary.

Throughout, Carrère’s prose is classical, dryly witty, and pellucid, in a way that John Lambert’s translation renders with admirable acuity. “The man does not perspire,” begins Carrère’s profile of Macron for the Guardian:

I discovered that on September 12, on the island of Saint Martin, a French territory in the Caribbean that had been devastated a few days earlier by Hurricane Irma. Uprooted trees, roofs ripped from houses, streets blocked by mountains of debris: for three hours Emmanuel Macron, president of France, has been walking through what remains of the village of Grand Case in the sweltering, clammy heat amid the strong odor of burst sewage pipes—or, in other words, of shit. Everyone accompanying him, including the author of these lines, is dripping with sweat, literally soaked, with large circles under their arms. Not him. Although he hasn’t had a second to change or freshen up, his white shirt with elegantly rolled-up sleeves is impeccable. So it will remain until late at night, when the rest of us are exhausted, haggard, and reeking, and he’s still as fresh as a daisy, always ready to shake new hands.

The passage is worth quoting at length for how much content it packs, with cinematic vividness, into a single paragraph. Carrère zooms away to span the international catastrophe around him, then refocuses on Macron in a way that highlights his incongruity within the scene. Macron’s visual discreteness from these environments is enhanced, syntactically, by the commas and full stops that separate his figure within the long sensory descriptions and by the many paraphrases that distance him from their most direct, physical elements. In Macron’s lexical proximity, “shit” is no more than “burst sewage pipes”; one does not “reek” or “sweat” but “perspire.”

The contrast between the well-ironed, spotlessly clean Macron and the journalists, victims, and debris around him is tinged with admiration but also irony. It is not hard to tell, even so early on, that Carrère is imputing to Macron something like what Steve Jobs’s collaborators used to call a “reality distortion field.” And he does not merely impute it: he allows himself, and us, to fall for it, with a self-mocking irony whose edge he does not bare until the essay’s final pages.

What distinguishes Eco and Carrère? And what binds them together?

Eco emulates Roland Barthes and Thomas Aquinas. Carrère’s greatest models—as is evident here—are novelists. One senses in him the ironic snobbery of Marcel Proust, the sensorial clarity of Gustave Flaubert, the stark emotional precision of Marguerite Yourcenar.

Transposing these writers’ preoccupation with psychological realism into the realm of reportage, Carrère participates in a much broader, global tendency. Throughout the world, journalism, the novel, and the personal essay have slowly been merging, into what Serge Doubrovsky was the first to term “autofiction.”

But in Carrère’s case, his private self is always just a springboard to concerns that extend far beyond it. Earnest without being indulgent, diligent but never naive in his attention to others, Carrère inhabits dream worlds to show how much of a dream world each of our own self-narratives is—until we recognize, with a shiver, both how necessary our fantasies, idealizations, and white lies are to our personal happiness, and how often they bring us to the brink of madness.

From his more academic perch, Eco would not disagree with this aesthetic and philosophical goal. Though less directly personal, his essays share a similar kind of intellectual intimacy, an interest in the process of thinking itself, not just in that process’s perfected outcomes. Both writers use their immense erudition in ways that feel serious but also irrational, idiosyncratic, and flamboyant: a glorious expenditure of thinking whose pleasure does not come merely from its immediate usefulness. These essays may occasionally feel indulgent, and they are; but in that way, they are also a reminder why the luxury of such endless mental space remains so many intellectuals’ dream.


This article was commissioned by Leah Priceicon

  1. Umberto Eco, “Preface to the American Edition,” in Travels in Hyperreality, translated from the Italian by William Weaver (Harcourt, 1986), p. ix.
  2. As an extreme but telling instance of this self-conscious European style, marking its difference from American pragmatism, consider Karl Ove Knausgaard’s 2015 account of his road trip across America for the New York Times. The essay walks a comic tightrope between Knausgaard’s whimsical scatterbrained-ness and the American editors’ gentle reminders of his assigned themes and deadlines. “I got an email from the editor at The Times, wondering how things were going,” Knausgaard tells us after a long digression on Vikings. “I saw no other option than to tell him the truth. I was stranded in St. Anthony for the third day without a driver’s license.” While many of the readers’ comments on Knausgaard’s feature were angry (along the lines of “How did this man get his assignment?”), his unworldliness was precisely the point.
  3. Umberto Eco, Serendipities: Language and Lunacy, translated from the Italian by William Weaver (Columbia University Press, 1998), p. 20.
Featured image: The Alchemist's Laboratory from Heinrich Khunrath, Amphiteatrum sapientiae aeternae (detail), attributed to Peter van der Doort (1590–1605). Metropolitan Museum of Art