23 November 2011

Umberto Eco on conspiracy theory

From his new novel, The Prague Cemetery, translated by Richard Dixon: the reminiscence of a forger and agent provocateur, and a riff on Alexander Dumas's novel about Cagliostro, Joseph Balsamo.

Dumas had a truly clear understanding of the human mind. What does everyone desire, and desire more fervently the more wretched and unfortunate they are? To earn money easily, to have power (the enormous pleasure in commanding and humiliating your fellow man) and to avenge every wrong suffered (everyone in life has suffered at least one wrong, no matter how small it might be). And that is why in Monte Cristo he shows how to amass great wealth, enough to give you superhuman power, and how to make your enemies pay back every debt. But why, everybody asks, am I not blessed by fortune (or at least not as blessed as I would like to be)? Why have I not been favored like others who are less deserving? No one believes their misfortunes are attributable to any shortcomings of their own; that is why they must find a culprit. Dumas offers to the frustration of everyone (individuals as well as countries) the explanation for their failure. It was someone else, on Thunder Mountain, who planned your ruin.

On reflection, Dumas had invented nothing. He had merely put into story form what ... Abbe Barruel had already shown. This led me to think, even then, that if I wanted to sell the story of a conspiracy, I didn't have to offer the buyer anything original, but simply something he already knew or could have found out more easily in other ways. People believe only what they already know, and this is the beauty of the Universal Form of Conspiracy.

No comments: