Umberto Eco changed my life.
He did so on a bright, warm day in Bologna—I think it was the late spring of 2003. I was an undergraduate student then, one year away from a degree in mass communication, and with too many ideas (my personal brand of not having a clue) about what to do next. Professor Eco was going to present the brand-new master’s degree in semiotics—the world’s first!—in the room B of the University of Bologna’s communications department, which boasted a total of three rooms.
I went out of curiosity—about him, not the course. I had bent my Italian practicality too much already, had heard far too many times that the path I was on was never going to get me a job, to even consider committing two more years to “the arcane field of semiotics“—the study of meaning or, as a relative of Steven Johnson’s brilliantly put it, ”the study of how plants grow in light. Very important field.” (No one ever knows what semiotics is. No one. Ever.)
I don’t remember much of the presentation before Eco spoke. My memory is just of a room that quickly got uncomfortably crowded and warm, and of the sunlight coming in, distracting, from the glass doors, strong enough that I could feel its particles hitting the corner of my eyes. I don’t think I even took notes—which is bizarre, as I always take notes—such was my commitment to not committing.
Semiotics was impractical. Speculative. Unknown to the real world. Which was all great, really, because it was terrifyingly challenging, and I could not wait to have a solid excuse to be done with something I thought above my capacities.
But Eco’s speech was a game changer. He spoke about the joys and wonders of a discipline that helps unlock the meaning of the world and gets there through analysis. He mentioned the great potential of knowing why and how things—words, images, situations—say what they do, of learning to read the way reality is written. He said then, as he had before, that “you’ll have to invent your own job”—which is perhaps the truest career advice anyone ever gave me.
He did not convince me to study semiotics there and then, but what he said started to chip away the plaster that caused the crack that made the hole that broke the dam that eventually got me, a year and change later, to enroll in the master’s degree—Italian commonsense, and my own fears, be damned.
It was a choice that changed my life path. But the truth is that Eco had changed my life long before. The very reason I had moved to Bologna to study communications was his reputation, his name a magical spell that dissolved people’s doubts on the merits of my education. (“What do you study?” “Communications in Bologna.” “That’s Eco’s, isn’t it?” That was his, indeed.)
I only saw the professor a handful of times, but whenever it happened I was bewildered by his joyous, playfully big personality, and overwhelmed by the vastness of his knowledge and of his insatiable thirst for it. As a colleague once described him, he was ”excessive—for culture and generosity:” he knew everything, about everything. He was exceptional in making very complex things clear and approachable, which is why his essays are such a gift to the curious mind. He embodied the definition of a bright mind.
Once, as a student of semiotics, in one of Bologna’s gorgeous palaces, I listened to him explain Aristotle’s poetics through the latest episode of a terrible TV show—nothing too high, nothing too low. My best friend, sitting by my side, turned to me: “Why can’t we be geniuses, too?” It was just like her to ask such a question, and it was just like him to casually, laughingly, lay in front of your eyes the sheer power of his genius—curious, captivating, awe-inspiring.
And outrageously funny.
It was, in the end, one funny sentence that tipped the scale of my life—that made me choose to study semiotics, and then do many other things that scared me—on that sunny, undergraduate Bologna day.
After having praised the value of semiotics as a key for reading the world, he warned that someone might ask us this: Does dedicating so much time to investigating the structures behind everything that amazes, disturbs, and bores us not dispel the magic, eventually, and dry up the experience of life, like knowing an illusionist’s trick?
“Well” he answered himself, and us all, “even gynecologists fall in love.”
Umberto Eco, born Jan. 5, 1932, died Feb. 19, 2016.