Why does Fiction influence us to the extent that we believe certain canons to be true and immutable? The great Italian writer, semiotician and philosopher Umberto Eco, who passed away on Friday, discussed the influence Fiction has on the real world, on our daily lives and on our imagination, in a wide-ranging lecture delivered at the PEN Third Annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture series.
Eco, known internationally for The Name of the Rose, a murder mystery set in a 14th monastery, began his lecture by asking, ‘How can discourse, which doesn’t concern the real world, with persons that do not exist, with events that never happened…have an influence on our life and death?’ He quotes the French writer Alexander Dumas’ visit to the Château d’If island, where Edmond Dante, Dumas’ fictional hero from The Count of Monte Cristo, had been imprisoned. There, Eco said, Dumas found guides showing tourists the various places where Dante had been ‘imprisoned’, thus leading Dumas to comment, ‘It is the privilege of the novelist to kill characters created by historians’.
Eco posits an intriguing thought on the impact Fiction has on our imaginations: we treat multiple opinions about Jesus and his historicity with respect, but ‘no one will treat with respect anyone who claims that Hamlet married Ophelia, or that Superman is not Clark Kent’.