In front of Umberto Eco it is better to be two – How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read


A couple of days ago I saw on YouTube a very strange discussion on books between the Italian intellectual virtuoso, professor Umberto Eco, French psychoanalyst and a fellow professor Pierre Bayard, and the American-Austrian master conversationalist, writer Paul Holdengräber. “Nothing strange about that,” you would say – “That’s perfectly normal. Just three intellectuals having a random chat and building their legacy, so to say – engaging in a vanity spectacle”. And, yet you would be dead-wrong on this. Something really strange happened on that stage and I cannot yet fathom exactly what. If you have about 90 minutes of your precious time to sacrifice on this mystery, go watch the whole thing for yourself. In the very beginning you will notice that the Frenchmen is accompanied on stage by a woman, whom he introduces as his translator for the event. Mind you, he does this while speaking in excellent English. And now the stage is set and the show can begin. He continues talking in his excellent English without the service of the charming interpreter sitting to his right. But then, perhaps, something characteristically psychoanalytic happens – as soon as the Frenchmen has finished his verbal performance and a slimy question is put to him by Holdengräber or a comment said by Eco, he directs his attention to the translator, who immediately and dutifully starts providing a French translation.  Audience and fellow speakers seem to be baffled at first as if to say, how dare this arrogant Frenchmen make a public mockery of us? But then as the evening rolls on, they become genuinely amused and entertained (though Eco at one point seems particularly annoyed) by the whole charade. Everyone present in the room knows fully well that the Frenchmen understands what is being talked about and even contributes greatly to the substance of conversation, yet for some strange reason – when confronted with a question or a remark – he chooses to hide behind the feminine translator. It leads me to the obvious conclusion (and this, by the way, also is openly admitted by Bayard in the early stages of the conversation) – translation is only secondary. The primary reason to have a translator on the stage with him is because “in front of Umberto Eco it is better to be two”. One is not enough. But two is already too much. Hence, the awkwardness.
At the very end (at 134:10 minute mark) of the spectacle, the moderator Holdengräber opens the floor for the questions from the audience. As this happens, Eco silently whispers: “My God”. See all this and much more for yourself.

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