The Department of Oxymoronics and Hitler’s testicles

We were younger and very much under the spell-illusion that we were changing the world. I read Foucault’s Pendulum and I loved that book that mixed the Knights Templar and Rosicrucian with conspiracies with truths and falsehoods. And I laughed contagiously over reading of a special college department specializing in impossible studies. This is the second great moment in my memory of Umberto Eco’s readings. The first was The Name of the Rose. Other books I read too, like The Island of the Day Before, and the next ones. But those three stayed in my mind.

They all fall under the heading of Tetrapyloctomy. . . . The art of splitting a hair four ways. This is the department of useless techniques.

[See A conspiracy to rule the world, by Anthony Burgess, The New York Times, October 15, 1989.]

This department tends to educate on the sense of irrelevance. The School of Comparative Irrelevance, on the other hand would “turn out scholars capable of endlessly increasing the number of unnecessary subjects”. It contains courses like Potio-section, the art of slicing soup.

We’re not sure, though, if Pylocatabasis belongs, since it’s the art of being saved by a hair. Somehow that doesn’t seem completely useless.”

“The Tetrapyloctomy department has a preparatory function; its purpose is to inculcate a sense of irrelevance.”

Umberto Eco

Another important department is “Impossibilia. . . . The essence of the discipline is the comprehension of the underlying reasons for a thing’s absurdity. We have courses in Morse syntax, the history of antarctic agriculture, the history of Easter Island painting, contemporary Sumerian literature, Montessori grading, the technology of the wheel in pre-Columbian empires, and the phonetics of the silent film. . . .”

The best is the Department of Oxymoronics, with courses such as Tradition in Revolution, Democratic Oligarchy,… Tautological Dialectics. . .

Goodbye Umberto Eco. The news of his death has stricken me. He is one of the few people that I have come to read and enjoy widely over the years. I read many of his books. I loved his obsession with paradox and fakes mirroring humankinds’s obsession with lists and conspiracies.

I read his column La bustina di Minerva religiously for years. Unfortunately L’Espresso magazine buried it under a paywall recently, but I read them whenever I could. Few today remember that Minerva means not only the goddess of knowledge, but was (is?) also the name of that small package (bustina) of flat matches. And I passed many times in front of the Minerva statue at the University of Rome, her symbol, one that brought bad luck if you looked at it just before an exam!

He was a snob. Like Borges, perhaps, and like Borges he was the last 20th-century erudite. Who knew so much, and wanted to share it. I especially admired his knowledge of the middle ages. And the connection between the middle ages and communication theory. Yes, unlike the typical bar, where the fool can talk with the unfortunate few, on the networks of the Web everyone can be a moron. Or a dog. However, I swear I know a few morons who do their job live without Internets.

Only Eco could remember that the recent thing about Hitler having one testicle was a meme as old as WWII itself. YouTube helped find the song that British soldiers sang at the time under the tune of Bridge over River Kwai:

Hitler, has only got one ball
Goering has two but very small
Himmler is very similar
but doctor Goebbels has no balls at all.

Just pronounce “similar” so it rimes with Himmler! Here is an excellent interpretation by Steve Buscemi, from the movie City of War: The story of John Rabe.

Let’s go back to our own departments.

About Antonio Vantaggiato

Professor, web2.0 enthusiast, and didactic chef.
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