Thursday, July 23, 2015

The view from the Piedmont

kw: book reviews, essays, philosophy, semiotics

A friend gave me an old paperback copy of Travels in Hyperreality by Umberto Eco. He is one of those authors about whom I have heard a little, but really knew nothing more than his name. That made the reading a bit of an adventure.

Chapters 1, 7, and 8 are long essays in the form of extended travelogues. The other five chapters are collections of shorter essays, republished from newspaper columns, dating from the late 1960s to 1980. All were translated by William Weaver.

There was a certain sameness about the second and later chapters, once I could stand back and view them all. Though they are diverse in subject, they are all the views of a skeptical intellectual who revels in digging into less-traveled corners of this or that concept. Chapter one, from which the book gets its title, stands alone as a travelogue in two senses: physical travel experienced as cultural and conceptual travel. It soon becomes clear that "hyperreality" refers to the United States of America, and most specifically to the breadth of cultural milieus that form a different kind of national map. None of them can be found "across the pond". This is probably as true today as it was 40-50 years ago, even though Europe is getting populated with McDonalds joints, Disneylands, and so forth.

There is just something about certain places that you can say, as certain advertisements in the US have it, "Often imitated, never duplicated." Such places need but one name. In Europe, they are usually great capitals: Rome, Paris, London, Oslo, Berlin, and so forth. In the U.S., some are great cities: Chicago, Las Vegas, New York, New Orleans; but some are more regional: SoCal, The Valley, 'Bama, The Rockies, or Down East. (To be fair, Europe also has regional memes: The Loire Valley, Tuscany, the Alps…)

Eco delved into certain of these, but his interest was conceptual landscapes, which frequently transcended the geographic. Thus, he begins by exploring "Fortresses of Solitude", modeled in his telling on Superman's lair, because of the American penchant for greatly expanding the meaning of "Museum" far beyond the way the word is used elsewhere. Starting with the Lyndon B Johnson Library with its hyper-eclectic gathering of artifacts, including a full-size, detailed replica of the Oval Office (but brighter and shinier), he passes through several similar establishments sporting full-size replicas of this or that building or collection thereof, and winds up at a replica Colonial farm, complete with livestock…or as close as the proprietors could come to a replica, what with changes in farm animals over the past 3-4 centuries. I found myself wondering what he'd have thought of the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, the 175-room mansion of Henry F. du Pont, which is primarily composed of entire salons—walls, ceilings, floors, windows, furniture, art and all—bought from other mansion-builders who'd fallen on hard times all across America.

Then he dwells upon wax museums that go beyond the "statuary" genre of Madame Tussaud's, and this country has a great many of them. Wax replicas of people are one thing. Some of the items are replicas of works of art, such as one of Michaelangelo's David, but colored as the statue might once have been, and perhaps as David was in life. Is that more than a replica, or less?

In another turn, he starts with Wm. R. Hearst's "Castle" in San Simeon, remarking at length upon its confused mix of artifact and artifice, the real and the fake, the old and the new and the new-but-looks-old. He touches on other such American castles, and again, I was wondering what he'd have thought of the "summer cottages" in Newport, Rhode Island, where the Vanderbilt's and others escaped the oppressive summers of their "real" homes in the Carolinas. After contrasting these various kinds of "museums" with the Forest Lawn Cemetery's exhibits, he gets to the real meat of his essay, the real homes of hyperreality, the amusement parks. Quite simply, American entrepreneurs have turned the notion of a "house of amusement" inside-out, first with Disneyland, in California, and on a scale 150 times larger in Orlando, Florida, home of Disney World (and Mr. Disney meant it), yet not only the "Disneys", but also Knott's Berry Farm, the various Universal Studios properties, and sundry other places, all fitting the moniker "theme park". Why, my former favorite Mojave Desert destination, Calico Ghost Town, is well on its way to becoming a theme park, though its current admission fee is only 1/10 what it costs to visit a Disney for a day (but then, you can experience all that Calico has to offer in a day. Disney World? Not even close).

Nothing is off limits to the American amusement machine, it seems. Eco samples the religious fare; one of the "church celebrities" he saw must have been Kathryn Kulhman, by the description: she was a walking, talking, one-woman circus if ever there was one. And his conclusion of it all? That Americans must love fakery better than the genuine, for we certainly consume enough of it. And that's what hyperreality means, after all, not just a fake but an enhanced fake, a fake "on steroids", a fake that is a great deal more enjoyable than the original.

After all that, the rest of the book is "merely" brilliant. I gradually realized that Eco is a European intellectual with a capital I. The titles of the chapters and essays are elliptical, on purpose. If I get started commenting in detail, the foregoing will be a tenth of what comes after. I think instead I'll give it a rest, and say that Eco peers here, there and everywhere, and always has something to say that is at least interesting and thought-provoking, and is often useful.

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