Friday, April 18, 2014

Umberto Eco: Heresy and Ur-Fascism

My local book club read Umberto Eco's In the Name of the Rose. While the book itself is a mixed bag through which I struggled (which is not an indictment of the novel, since I struggled through Moby Dick as well), there's a remarkable chapter about the origin of heresy. If you don't want to read the novel, it's worth borrowing it off the library or bookstore shelf and turning to Second Day, Chapter Nones (p. 196). Here are some highlights of the dialogue between William of Baskerville and his novice Adso of Melk.

I think the mistake is to believe that the heresy comes first, and then the simple folk who join it (and damn themselves for it.). Actually, first comes the condition of being simple, then the heresy.
The faith a movement proclaims doesn't count: what counts is the hope it offers. All heresies are the banner of a reality, an exclusion. Scratch the heresy and you will find the leper. Every battle against heresy wants only this: to keep the leper as he is. As for the lepers, what can you ask of them? That they distinguish in the Trinitarian dogma or in the definition of the Eucharist how much is correct and how much is wrong?
I had another encounter with the words of Umberto Eco while listening to Chris Hedges's American Fascists. In the introduction, Hedges reads from Eco's essay entitled "Ur-Fascism."
Fascism became an all-purpose term because one can eliminate from a fascist regime one or more features, and it will still be recognizable as fascist.
He then lists 14 features. " ... [I]t is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it." The third feature struck me as characteristic of the insurgents and terrorists who cannot hope to rule in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq but can succeed in making life impossible for those who try to accommodate the existing government.
Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action's sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection.
Also consider the seventh possible feature:
To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia. But the plot must also come from the inside: Jews are usually the best target because they have the advantage of being at the same time inside and outside.
Egyptian supporters of its military after the July 3, 2013 coup might consider the following:
For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. ... Wherever a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of a parliament because it no longer represents the Voice of the People, we can smell Ur-Fascism.
The entire essay is worth reading.

Updated February 20, 2016: Umberto Eco passed away yesterday.

Updated June 10, 2016: Professor Mohammad Fadel makes a similar claim about the heresies of ISIS being the result of political conditions.

Updated July 24, 2016