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LIVE from the NYPL: UMBERTO ECO in conversation with Paul Holdengräber: On Ugliness, Hot Wars & Media Populism


On Ugliness is an extraordinary road map to the perception of the grotesque over the centuries. Following on the heels of the book, History of Beauty, writer and scholar Umberto Eco considers how we perceive and define the corollary the depiction of ugliness the complete absence of beauty from Ancient Greece to the present day.

Eco begins his fascinating discussion with the observation that the aesthetics of beauty have been defined and documented through the ages by philosophers, artists, and writers, while the same cannot be said for ugliness. Though ostensibly opposites, one thing beauty and ugliness share is the fact that they are defined by the culture and by the times what is ugly in Paris may be beautiful in Papua, and what was beautiful in the 19th century, may be considered ugly in the 21st. Quoting from Hegel and Nietzsche, Plutarch, Aristotle and Darwin, Eco identifies three different phenomena: ugliness in itself, formal ugliness, and the artistic portrayal of both. As Eco states, we can almost always infer what the first two types of ugliness were [in a given time in history, and a particular society] solely based on the evidence of the third type.

Eco intertwines his own lively, provocative text with the writings of philosophers, novelists, and poets to explore his subject matter which includes:

• Ugliness in the classical world such as pagan monsters and mythological creatures whose ugly forms reinforce their frightening cultural purpose

• The ugly side of Christianity as demonstrated by vivid depictions of the suffering of Christ and the Crucifixion, the martyrdom of saints, and the concept of Death

•The apocalypse, hell, and the devil to symbolize the consequences of digression from the path of faith

• The ugly, the comic, the obscene examines satire and caricature

•The ugliness of woman in the analysis of the demonization of women by men to reveal their supposed malice and threatening sexual powers

•Deformity, birth defects, and disfiguring disease along with distasteful racial and religious stereotyping by physiognomy

• Ugliness made manifest through disturbing events, fear-filled dreams, horror and fantasy

• The ugliness inherent in industrialization of society and the low life of poverty

• The avant-garde and how it demonstrates the evolution of the acceptance of the ugly in art

•The ugliness of kitsch and camp a social phenomenon defined by taste distinctions of class and wealth

• Ugliness today in the selected writings of Stephen King and Italo Calvino, images of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Star Wars? Yoda, and performer Marilyn Manson

In Turning Back The Clock, Hot Wars and Media Populism, the time is 2000 to 2005, the years of neoconservatism, terrorism, the twenty-four-hour news cycle, the ascension of Bush, Blair, and Berlusconi, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Umberto Eco's response is a provocative, passionate, and witty series of essays which originally appeared in the Italian newspapers La Repubblica and L’Espresso that leaves no slogan unexamined, no innovation unexposed. What led us into this age of hot wars and media populism, and how was it sold to us as progress Eco discusses such topics as racism, mythology, the European Union, rhetoric, the Middle East, technology, September 11, medieval Latin, television ads, globalization, Harry Potter, anti-Semitism, logic, the Tower of Babel, intelligent design, Italian street demonstrations, fundamentalism, The Da Vinci Code, and magic and magical thinking.

Eco shows his practical, engaged side: an intellectual involved in events both local and global, a man concerned about taste, politics, education, ethics, and where our troubled world is headed.

About Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco teaches Semiotics and is the President of the Scuola superiore di Studi Umanistici at the University of Bologna. In 1980 Eco debuted as a novelist with The Name of the Rose for which he received the Strega Award. Since then his books include Foucault's Pendulum, The Island of the Day Before, Baudolino, and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. Amongst his essays are The Open Work, A Theory of Semiotics, The Role of the Reader, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, The Limits of Interpretation, The Search for the Perfect Language, Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, Kant and the Plathypus, and On Literature. He is the author of the History of Beauty. His new books are On Ugliness and Turning Back The Clock, Hot Wars and Media Populism


About Paul Holdengräber

Paul Holdengräber is the Director of Public Programs now known as "LIVE from the NYPL" for The Research Libraries of The New York Public Library.