I didn't even recognize him until he began speaking, shaved face and all. He seems to really dislike publicity photos and has a Baudrillard-like attitude toward the media. The presenters greedily emphasized that Travels in Hyperreality predated Simulacra and Simulation. I wasn't surprised, considering how the latter is academically privileged over the former across the board.
Attending a lecture by Umberto Eco has been on my "top ten things to do before I die" list ever since I was introduced to his work in 1998. A decade later, I had purchased and consumed all of his fiction, read a large bulk of his cultural criticism, starting from his republished PhD thesis on medieval aesthetics, and took a crack at some of his strictly academic work in the field of semiotics.
Even my teenage days of standing in line in subzero midwestern temperatures to get concert tickets and be "rokken-like-dokken" couldn't match my literary fandom in this case. I changed my schedule and worked two full shifts with an hour of sleep in between in order to attend this event. Then I withstood the strategic, repeated bag-kicking and foot-stomping attack by an angry old lady, who evidently wanted our seats.
During this round table discussion, Eco focused on some of his more recent essays from the Turning Back the Clock collection. His talk included issues of technology: degrading from Vista to XP and politics: using 19th century methods to solve 21st century concerns. He took multiple jabs at Berlusconi and urged for a bilateral solution to the problem of migration and ethnic replacement in Europe.
The most surprising part of the lecture was not this scholar's runaway beard, but rather his demeanor. Beyond the level of cosmopolitan erudition, one of the most stand-out aspects of Eco's fiction is his subtle, clever sense of humor. I wasn't expecting it to translate well into the live environment with spontaneous audience questions. After all, some of my other literary favorites like Zoschenko and Iskander are also funny men. Yet, at least according to the Soviet rumor mill, they are publicly known to have unpleasant, dreary personalities. Charming and quick-witted, this Italian academic destroyed my expecations by having the audience laughing out loud throughout the entire lecture.
In the true, but inadvertent spirit of turning back the clock, I recycled an old illustration of mine to make Eco a thank-you postcard. I took away some hair, but the token beard stayed!