Monday, May 21, 2012

Humbert Humbert, or – the Origins of Hateful Conspiracy Theories

My Humbert is Umberto Eco. My older daughter is the devotee of Nabakov. My Humbert connection is valid because we cannot trust the narrator in Lolita. Eco is all about the untrustworthiness of narratives.

I admit that I often write about things I don’t understand, but it is possible that none of us fully understands what we say most of the time. Gibberish? No, semiotics. Umberto Eco is an Italian scholar of semiotics and gifted novelist. Semiotics is about signs and metaphors and ultimately, meaning. (That is a simple definition that probably shows my lack of understanding of the subject.) It isn't just that we create meaning, but we create history, too, both backwards and forwards.

In the U.S. we learned of Eco in 1980 with the book and film, The Name of the Rose. In this work we learned that understanding and indeed, the meaning of things, is illusory. Only the idea of the rose is lasting; the rose is ephemeral. My favorite moment in the book and film is the dispute between the Franciscan monks and the representatives of the Vatican about whether or not Jesus was poor. If he was poor, the Franciscans are his loyal followers and the Pope is faithless. If Jesus was rich, the wealth of the Vatican is justified and the Franciscans are fools. No wonder that the argument which takes place in a refectory ends in a food fight worthy of Animal House. This is much more fun than Richard Dawkins.

I think that Foucault’s Pendulum (1989) was very likely the inspiration for Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. Claims about the Knights Templar are fed into a computer and generate narratives that may be all too real. This book has been described as delightful albeit esoteric “brain candy.”

Finally, I have finished The Prague Cemetery. This is the last word on racism, ethnic hatred, and conspiracy theories. Here we have a narrator and the diary of a 19th century Italian lawyer who has a hidden second personna. We have his ruminations, too. Simonini, the lawyer, learns to hate Jews and Germans from his grandfather. Perhaps this is the origin of all such hatreds. One of the things we learn right away is that such hatred suffers great inconsistencies and contradictions. On one page the Jews are all sneaky, dirty petty thieves of the ghetto. On the next page they are rich and powerful and about to own the world. Henry Ford, Hitler, and Osama bin Laden believed all this. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and assorted nazis and skin heads still do.

Simonini learns early a low craft related to the law: he is a forger of documents. He can help you prove that something happened which others thought had not. Like a marriage or a business contract. He helps Garibaldi’s Italian revolution but quickly finds more money is to be made by working for the secret service. Lies and betrayals become his way of life. He needs to leave Italy and becomes a Parisian snitch for the police and the secret services of France, Germany, and Russia. Only he (and his other who can tell him what he chooses not to remember, like murders) can balance the needs of a triple agent and forge the writings that each country needs.

Simonini is the creation of Eco, but everything else is true. (I.e., the characters were real people and they did or said many of the things reported.) Eco has created the person who wrote The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (first published in Russia in 1905, and re-printed over and over again and again). This is the book that catapulted hatred of the Jews from the Dreyfus affair to Hitler and the Holocaust to contemporary Iran. It was created from a vast library of diverse writings from the 19th century which were plagiarized, copied, translated, altered, and re-written to prove that the Jews planned to take over the world. Along the way conspiracies involving Jesuits, Masonic orders, Marxists, spiritualists, anarchists, French and Italian royalists explain the French Revolution, the rise of Germany, and every major event and social disruption of that century and before. And all of it must be true because it comports with what we have heard or suspected before!

Eco introduced the last graphic novel by Will Eisner called The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. An equally serious but great way to get the origins of the Big Lie into the hands of young people and those who won’t likely read Eco. Eisner details how information hidden in Soviet files until the last decade explains the origin of the Protocols. By the way, the Jewish cemetery in Prague apparently was quite large, and someone imagined Jewish leaders meeting at night in the middle of the cemetery to plot their machinations. One version had Jesuits plotting there.

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