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If James Joyce was a latter-day Colonna, Eco is the modern incarnation of Plutarch, the Ancient Greek essayist, public thinker and iconoclast. Eco writes regular columns for the Italian weekly L'Espresso and for the daily newspaper La Repubblica, tackling themes such as the mass media and the history of philosophy sometimes turning his fire on George W. Bush and his country's own premier, Silvio Berlusconi, both of whom he scorns for conservative policy and arrogant leadership. His long sojourns in the U.S., including teaching stints at Harvard and Yale, have helped form his perspective. "I feel profoundly European, but in some ways I can feel even more comfortable in the U.S. of course more in New York than in Houston," Eco remarks, just days before leaving for a U.S. book tour. "I can't relate in any way to Bush's fundamentalism. But I can take some comfort that he represents only half of America."
Reminded of Donald Rumsfeld's dismissal of "Old Europe" as a spent force, Eco suggests that the New World still has much to learn: "Sure, Europe is old. But age brings advantages, like experience. Unfortunately with our Continent's tragic history we've lived through centuries of massacres, and maybe our nerves are steadier for it. Not to be flip, but 3,000 died in the Twin Towers, and 6 million in the Holocaust. Europe's old age is one of wisdom, not of Alzheimer's."
His new book touches on politics, but also on faith. Raised Catholic, Eco has long since left the church. "Even though I'm still in love with that world, I stopped believing in God in my 20s after my doctoral studies on St. Thomas Aquinas. You could say he miraculously cured me of my faith," he says. He takes issue with other leading liberals' use of the word "fundamentalist" to describe Pope Benedict XVI's views. "Fundamentalism is a phenomenon that exists in Protestantism and Islam, among those who take the sacred texts literally," muses Eco. "Catholicism never experienced that because there was always the Church as a mediator to explain the texts." He adds that it is too early to judge Benedict's intentions: "They say the office changes the man."
The convulsion of public mourning that greeted the death of Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, interests Eco. He assumes that many who pressed into St. Peter's Square didn't even believe in God. "That means it needs more than a religious explanation," he says. "It was more like a mythological gathering. It's a sign that people today have a need for a King. John Paul was a classic figure of royalty, of a paternal transcendence." Perhaps Eco's own continuing appeal may signal another popular longing: for friendly mentors, to enrich and unravel the world for its bewildered inhabitants.