Wednesday, February 8, 2012


WHEN I FIRST STARTED WE TOO WERE CHILDREN, MR. BARRIE, one of the things I hoped to examine was the way in which an author accustomed to writing for adults conceived of writing for children. Why? Because, as many authors included on the blog have noted, childhood reading is often the reading that is most influential on a writer (or on any individual). Consequently, if a writer who is aware of the importance of childhood reading writes what he hopes will be an influential text for the next generation, how does what he includes in that text reveal what he thinks is most important to literature?

This question takes on new meaning when it comes to the works of Umberto Eco, an author who so understands the influence of childhood reading that he wrote an entire novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2005), in which the main character seeks to define his very identity from the books and comic books of his youth. Eco, most famous for his novel In the Name of the Rose (1980), first rose to prominence in academic circles as a Medievalist, philosopher, and semiotician.

Semiotics is the study of signs and their meanings. This includes the way in which words signify actual objects. For example, we call an apple by the word "apple," but a physical apple does not actually contain the word "apple." How then, does the word "apple" relate to the physical object? In what way does the word "apple" cause people to relate to the object? And how does the word "apple" function in a variety of contexts? These questions are of special importance when dealing with children, because children are only just learning about the world, and a lot of that learning is done through language acquisition. So, to a baby, the object apple is simply an observable object. But through language acquisition, it acquires the sign "apple." And as the child ages, the sign "apple" also comes to encompass secondary contextual meanings, say New York City's nickname "The Big Apple," or the symbolic meaning of an apple in the Adam and Eve story. Since so much of this learning comes from books (think of all of the "My first word..." books, which are simply photographs of objects paired with the relevant word), a semiotician writing a children's book, would not only bring concerns of its literary impact, but also of its linguistic, semiotic impact as well.

Which brings us to Umberto Eco. Almost. Eco's major contribution to semiotics is in the application of semiotics to literature. Eco expostulated the theory of "open texts" and "closed texts." An "open text" is one that allows multiple interpretations. A "closed text" dictates one interpretation. It is a question of whether a whole sequence of signs, the words and sentences that make up a story, can have different meanings than the signs usually have. Children's books, picture books in particular, are usually "closed texts." They have a specific message that is dictated to the child, a moral or lesson a child is supposed to take away from the story. Despite the myriad of interpretations his adult novels invite, Eco's picture books are no exception. They preach peace, understanding, and environmentalism.

Are you still with me? It's almost story time. I promise. Let's just go back a paragraph for a moment.

Remember the "My first word..." books? Picture = word, right? Eco's books seem at first to almost take that approach. All the books are done in two page spreads. The page on the left contains nothing but text. The page on the right contains nothing but a picture. But the picture is often abstract (see the "atom" in the spread on the left). These books don't teach words. They are highly representational. But the books' messages are closed, dictated, and even the abstract images contribute to that effect.

How? For that I must direct you to the article by Maria Truglio, Wise Gnomes, Nervous Astronauts, and a Very Bad General: The Children's Books of Umberto Eco and Eugenio Carmi, in Children's Literature, Volume 36, 2008, which is where I got pretty much all of my much watered-down version. Basically, while the illustrations Carmi uses are abstract, they contain their own recurring symbols--follow those little atom circles up above and the general to the right as we go forward. Those symbols then reiterate the story, reinforcing its message.

And of my original question, what do all of these concerns reveal about Eco's idea of literature? I'll let you decide.

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN ITALIAN IN 1966, The Bomb and the General is the first of Eco and Carmi's three picture books. Revised and reissued in 1988, the books received English translations (by William Weaver, the translator of most of Eco's novels), which Truglio notes in her essay, are sometimes interpretations of the original text in a way.

"Once upon a time there was an atom."

"And once upon a time there was a bad general who wore a uniform covered with gold braid."

Atoms are the building blocks of the world. "Mom is made of atoms. Milk is made of atoms." And when all of the atoms are in harmony, then life is good.

But when atoms are broken, "A terrifying explosion takes place! This is atomic death."

Well, the atom had been put in a bomb, and the general had a lot of bombs. "'When I have lots and lots,' he said, 'I'll start a beautiful war!'"

"How can you help but become bad when you have all of those bombs within reach?"

The atom, along with his fellow atoms, don't want to blow up the world and cause death and destruction. So they sneak out of the bombs, which are in the attic, and hang out in the cellar.

Finally, goaded by his financial backers, the general does declare war. He loads the bombs onto airplanes and starts dropping them.

The people begin to run around in a panic. "But where could they find refuge?"

But the bombs sans atoms, don't explode, and everyone is happy, and they realize life is better without war. They decide to never make war again.

"And what about the general?" He becomes a doorman at a hotel "to make use of his uniform with all the braid." Everyone treats him as a lowly menial, even people who once had to obey him, and the general is embarrassed. "Because now he was of no importance at all."

TO SEE MORE OF THE BOMB AND THE GENERAL, check out my Flickr set here. And anyone who wants to correct my discussion on semiotics or to extend it, please do. I am by no means an expert.

Coming soon: Umberto Eco and Eugenio Carmi's Three Astronauts.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

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