Serendipities: Language and Lunacy

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9780156007511: Serendipities: Language and Lunacy

Serendipities is a careful unraveling of the fabulous and the false, a brilliant exposition of how unanticipated truths often spring from false ideas. From Leibniz's belief that the I Ching illustrated the principles of calculus to Marco Polo's mistaking a rhinoceros for a unicorn, Umberto Eco offers a dazzling tour of intellectual history, illuminating the ways in which we project the familiar onto the strange to make sense of the world. Uncovering layers of mistakes that have shaped human history, Eco offers with wit and clarity such instances as Columbus's voyage to the New World, the fictions that grew around the Rosicrucians and Knights Templar, and the linguistic endeavors to recreate the language of Babel, to show how serendipities can evolve out of mistakes. With erudition, anecdotes, and scholarly rigor, this new collection of essays is sure to entertain and enlighten any reader with a passion for the curious history of languages and ideas.

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Review:

The multitalented Umberto Eco--novelist, critic, and literary theorist--turns his attention to the history of linguistics. In linguistics, as in the other sciences, Eco explains, there are serendipities: "Even the most lunatic experiments can produce strange side effects, stimulating research that proves perhaps less amusing but scientifically more serious." In his earlier book The Search for the Perfect Language, for example, he discussed the project of discovering the language spoken before the collapse of the Tower of Babel. Although misconceived, the project by chance led to advances in mathematical logic, artificial intelligence, and even world peace--the goal of artificial languages like Esperanto and the unfortunately named Volapük. In the five essays in Serendipities, Eco explores some related serendipitous episodes in the history of linguistics; as always, his characteristic blend of playfulness and erudition is bound to be irresistible to any lover of language.

The first essay, "The Force of Falsity," discusses false documents with momentous repercussions, such as the letter of Prester John, which encouraged European explorers and conquerors to seek its supposed author, the Christian ruler of a distant and fantastically wealthy land. In the second essay, Eco considers Dante's relation to the idea of the perfect language. The third essay discusses early misinterpretations of Egyptian, Chinese, and Mexican ideograms. The Jesuit savant Athanasius Kircher, for example, devoted page upon page to mystical interpretations of a hieroglyph that later turned out to represent nothing more profound than the Greek letter lambda. The remaining two essays are devoted to single authors: "The Language of the Austral Land" concerns Gabriel de Foigny's instructive parody of contemporary attempts to devise the perfect language, while "The Linguistics of Joseph de Maistre" endeavors, with indifferent success, to make sense of the counterrevolutionary Savoyard's musings on the nature of language. --Glenn Branch

Book Description:

Umberto Eco unlocks the riddles of history in an exploration of the "linguistics of the lunatic," the stories told by scholars, scientists, poets, fanatics, and ordinary people to make sense of the world. By examining the "Force of the False," Eco reveals the layers of mistakes that have shaped human history and the serendipities that can spring from mistaken ideas. From Christopher Columbus's false assumptions about the size of the world to Marco Polo mistaking a rhinoceros for a unicorn, Eco tours the labyrinth of intellectual history, illuminating the ways in which we project the familiar onto the strange and the consequences of false knowledge. He ultimately shows the dangers we face do not lie in the rules we use to interpret other cultures but rather in our insistence on making such rules absolute.

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