Umberto Eco introduces Inventing the Enemy as a compilation of “occasional writings” (xi); indeed, the essays in this collection were written intermittently throughout the past decade and expound upon a vast array of subject matters. Several of the essays were originally presented as lectures at various gatherings (ranging from film festivals to scholarly conferences) while others first appeared as articles in an assortment of Italian publications. Certain pieces are actually assemblages of multiple works: “Hugo, Hélas!: The Poetics of Excess” combines three of Eco’s past lectures and writings. This variety of sources generates the diverse themes of these essays, which range from a study of the various uses (both physical and symbolic) of fire to an inspection of current issues such as censorship and abortion; Eco gives the sense that there is no topic too provocative or too trivial.

Inventing the Enemy acquires its title from the initial essay in the collection. Here, Eco develops a theme of his earlier novel, The Prague Cemetery, by demonstrating how the existence of an enemy is crucial to a nation’s success—so crucial, in fact, that if an enemy does not exist, a nation must create one. Such a target may well be an outsider, but people can apply the term “enemy” even to an insider who conducts himself differently than those around him (as evidence, Eco cites several examples such as the Church’s persecution of heretics). Eco maintains that this creation of an adversary is unavoidable:

It seems we cannot manage without an enemy. The figure of the enemy cannot be abolished from the processes of civilization. The need is second nature even to a mild man of peace. In his case the image of the enemy is simply shifted from a human object to a natural or social force that in some way threatens us and has to be defeated. (17)

While such discrimination against a person or a belief often amounts to tragedy, Eco maintains the necessity of the enemy through the end of this essay. He asserts that the existence of an enemy creates a sense of community and nationalism that is essential to a country, one of the more provocative claims that Eco makes about society as a whole.

In several of the succeeding essays, Eco moves away from modern society and heads into a more mystifying realm. The piece “Absolute and Relative” explores various philosophies relating to the concepts introduced in the title. While Eco explains theories regarding the absolute and the relative, however, he simultaneously demonstrates how neither term can be exactly comprehended. He explains that, if an absolute exists, “it is neither imaginable nor attainable” (43) and is therefore outside the realm of human understanding. He also maintains that “different people mean different things when they talk about relativism,” (37) suggesting the concept cannot possess a single definition. The reader is left without the satisfaction of solving the mysteries of the absolute and the relative; however, the process of exploring these concepts is entirely fulfilling in its own right.

The subsequent essay, “The Beauty of the Flame,” focuses on a more tangible concept—fire. It is almost immediately clear, however, that to Eco fire is no less mystifying than the absolute and the relative: “As well as a physical phenomenon, [fire] becomes a symbol, and like all symbols is ambiguous, polysemic, evoking different meanings according to the circumstances” (46). Moreover, the “meanings” of fire tend to contradict one another. Fire can help sustain life, but can also destroy it. It can represent the divinity of God and his Kingdom, but also has a prominent place in the depiction of Hell. By demonstrating how fire possesses such vastly conflicting traits, Eco enriches a seemingly comprehensible subject with intriguing mystery.

A later essay in Inventing the Enemy, “No Embryos in Paradise,” moves away from this elusiveness, yet remains particularly provocative. In this piece, Eco examines St. Thomas Aquinas’s theories regarding embryos and their souls (or lack thereof). Eco maintains that he is not taking a stance on any issues such as abortion or stem cells; rather, this essay serves solely to examine Thomas’s beliefs. In short, he maintains that an embryo is not endowed with a rational soul at the moment of conception:

Thomas has a very biological view about the formation of the fetus. God introduces the soul only when the fetus acquires, stage by stage, first a vegetative soul and then a sensitive soul. Only at that point, in a body already formed, is the rational soul created…therefore the embryo only has a sensitive soul. (90)

Eco goes on to explain Thomas’s various defenses of this view. In addition, he addresses how this belief would affect other topics in Christian doctrine, such original sin and resurrection. Thomas’s views, though formulated hundreds of years ago, add to the fascinating pool of opinions regarding the soul of an unborn child that are a significant cause of international debate in the modern world.
While several subsequent essays in Inventing the Enemy also touch on current controversies (“Censorship and Silence” discusses various means of restricting the media while “Thoughts on WikiLeaks” touches on the WikiLeaks scandal), Eco uses various others to explore the world of literature. “Hugo, Hélas!: The Poetics of Excess” discusses the characteristics of Victor Hugo’s writing. Eco surveys the author’s various works, demonstrating how Hugo takes features seen throughout the Romantic movement—“the temptation and fascination of sin” and the “passage from the depths of poverty to the magnificence of the court” (106) among others—and exaggerates everything to create his touted “poetics of excess.” Eco’s essays “Fermented Delights” and “Ulysses: That’s All We Needed…” also focus on literature: the former delves into the works of Piero Camporesi while the latter discusses reviews of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses.

There are several other essays in this collection, each with its own characteristics and merits. The great range in subject matter could put Inventing the Enemy in danger of seeming overly sporadic; however, the pieces complement each other in subtle ways, making them each seem to be part of the larger whole. These occasional writings serve as a window into the singularity of a fascinating mind at work.


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Inventing the Enemy
By Umberto Eco
Translated by Richard Dixon
Reviewed by Kathryn Longenbach
240 pages, hardcover
ISBN: 9780547640976
$25.00
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