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There is a more radical way of thinking about war: in merely formal terms, in terms of internal consistency, by reflecting on its conditions of possibility – the conclusion being that you cannot make war because the existence of a society based on instant information, rapid transport, and continuous intercontinental migration, allied to the nature of the new technologies of war, has made war impossible and irrational. War is in contradiction with the very reasons for which it is waged.

If you have ever read The Name of the Rose perhaps you remember the passage when the character William of Baskerville explains to his young companion that the Latin language only survived the Dark Ages courtesy of Irish monks, who preserved what they could of it, along with numerous religious texts. Of course they could not retain the entirety of the language itself, so Umberto Eco alleges, the Irish invented it.

My people made up Latin. I do not care if that is not true – I love the anecdote.

This collection of essays represents some of Eco’s philosophical work, as opposed to his scholarly fictional novels. The theme of the pieces is broadly moralistic, with discussions of the 1991 Gulf War, the Italian press and a definition of fascism, taken from a speech given to an audience at Columbia University on 25 April 1995.

There is also an exchange with a Jesuit cardinal on the nature of God that draws heavily on Eco’s own personal reflections on religion. Eco’s warm and quizzical tone in the letter reveals a man more interested in the flow of the debate, than in achieving victory. While he has broken from his Catholic faith, he admits to still experiencing a shock of blasphemy when he witnesses a failure to abide by the strictures of faith in others. This is an admission of how much his Christian background informs his worldview, regardless of his own development as a thinker. He proposes to his correspondent Carlo Mario Martini a thought experiment. What if an alien species were to observe the human race arrive at the creation of a fictional Jesus Christ and live according to principals of compassion and love on the basis of that conception. Would that not justify the role of religion, despite existing in a universe that was an ‘accident’, of creation without any divine presence?

His assessment of the Italian media points out that politics and television have developed an increasingly close relationship, where the pursuit of soundbites and closely managed personalities have replaced the desire for factual investigation. He traces the emergence of televised media in Italy, its influence on the political arena, with Silvio Berlusconi particular symptomatic of the new order. He even predicts the role the internet could play in individual households, encouraging an insularity in its users that would remove any interest in a broader understanding in current affairs:

But a homemade paper could say only what users are interested in, and would cut them off from a flow of potentially stimulating information, judgements, and alerts; it would rob them of the chance to pick up, leafing through the rest of a conventional newspaper, unexpected or undesired news.

Eco’s assessment of the changing face of war bears almost more relevance today than it did during the 1991 conflict in the Gulf. I am reminded of how when the second invasion of Iraq by allied forces began, all of Bill Hicks’ early nineties material was funny again. His writing on the media proliferation, with managed coverage of the conflict versus the fracturing of war narratives due to multiple sources of media, feels prophetic in the present day era of uncensored video clips on youtube, or the multiplicities of websites with wildly divergent views on the war. Eco’s take on this is far more accessible to a general readership than, say Jean Baudrillard‘s The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.

His paper on the history of fascism is fascinating in how he defines what Italian fascism was not, drawing once again upon his own childhood growing up in Mussolini‘s Italy. While it shared with other totalitarian systems certain traits, such as the cult-worship of a dictator, Italian fascism, Eco insists, had no distinct philosophy, merely endless triumphalist rhetoric. What he terms Ur-Fascism is in fact a rejection of the values of The Enlightenment, embracing irrationalism.

Eco’s writing is both personable and not overly erudite, edifying the reader, while also charming. A fantastic introduction to the Italian philosopher.

‘Do you mean to say,’ he began, ‘that if I take the trouble to observe your directions – place myself in the condition which you demand: solitude, night, and a tallow candle – you can with your ghastliest work give me an uncomfortable sense of the supernatural, as you call it? Can you accelerate my pulse, make me start at sudden noises, send a nervous chill along my spine, and cause my hair to rise?’

Before Robert W. Chambers, before H.P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen, there was Ambrose Bierce. The increasingly more excessive supernatural tone of their stories, with an equal increase in the overwrought standard of prose – at least in certain examples of the above, was initially derived from Bierce’s use of melancholic horror.

His name is often mentioned as one of the founders of the Cthulu Mythos, which would have been much to his amusement I imagine. For the horrors he unleashes are neither squamous, nor cyclopean, but often the very real horror of war. Certainly this collection of short stories, divided into two sections ‘Soldiers’, and ‘Civilians’, is rooted heavily in the events of the American Civil War, with the division of families and loved ones a recurring theme. What there is of the supernatural on show is weighted by Bierce’s own agnosticism.

The afterlife here is not so much damnation below, or a heavenly reward, but that brief moment when the dying soldier imagines that they have escaped their fate. There’s an excellent line in the story Parker Adderson, Philosopher that illustrates Bierce’s perspective on religion. A Union soldier – the Union throughout is referred to as ‘Federal’, which was a term I was unfamiliar with in this context – has been arrested by the Confederate army as a spy. Parker Adderson proves to be a witty and bemused subject for interrogation, engaging the enemy Confederate general in a battle of words. When it is made clear that he will be executed, Adderson refuses to speak to any priest, as he says: You can hang me, general, but there your power of evil ends; you cannot condemn me to heaven.

A Horseman In The Sky and The Coup De Grace both treat of the costs the war brought to bear on families, with fathers turned against sons and husbands leaving wives and offspring to a doubtful fate when called to the field. The former story features a native Virginian following his principles and joining the army from the North, setting him against his family and community. The hallucinatory story Chickamauga, resembling at times a gory Hideo Nakata movie, shows how children playing soldier games are blind to the inhumanity of the battlefield.

Cthulu scholars should read An Inhabitant of Carcosa and Haita the Shepherd with interest as both stories feature names of gods and places referred to by successive authors, although the deity known as Hastur here appears in a far more benevolent form than in later supernatural fiction. The opening story The Suitable Surroundings, from which my opening quotation was taken, even has an early progenitor of the ‘evil book’, trope although once again, Bierce’s materialism does not allow for the amorphous threat posed by the Necronomicon. In fact I would argue his matter of fact scary story is far more frightening, as it is more plausible than outer gods threatening our reality through the gateway of mouldering, old books.

The real star of the collection though is Bierce’s seminal story An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge. This is an excellent study in suspense, with the protagonist a civilian devoted to the Confederate cause attempting to aid them and survive capture by the Federal soldiers. The story is as much a study of the lengths a man can go to when motivated by feelings of patriotism, as it is a mediation on death itself. An excellent story.

Many of Bierce’s writings can be found in different collections. This book that I have read was published in 1964 and his reputation has grown since then thanks to the generous credit given to him by contemporary Lovecraft scholars.

Suspenseful, thoughtful and chilling, this is classic supernatural fiction that does not stretch plausibility.

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