Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose (1980)

You know, I don't think we—humans—tend to be all that good at conceptualizing the past. Hell, I have a great deal of difficulty imagining a world without ubiquitous internet access, and it's been half my life or less since that's been a thing. And if you go farther back, well: I remember looking out over a massive Mayan ruin in Guatemala and thinking: these people were people, like me and everyone else, and yet I cannot even begin to imagine what their lives were like, on any level. They might as well be from a distant solar system. So in this context, a book that shoves us as forcefully into the fourteenth century as The Name of the Rose does—not the same as the Mesoamerican example, of course, but similarly mysterious—is nothing to be scoffed at. Eco uses his erudition as a medievalist to great effect.

So it has that going for it. What else does it have going for it? Well, it's a pretty darn good mystery, too. As you may perhaps know, it's a murder mystery set in an abbey in Italy; a monk named William of Baskerville (based in part on Sherlock Holmes, clearly) is called in to investigate, and he brings with him a young novitiated named Adso, who is narrating these events to us from the vantage point of old age (and with the further conceit that the text is an ancient Latin manuscript that Eco happened to find somewhere and decided to translate—a notion with an honorable antecedent in Don Quixote). And it's all very twisty and literary and generally well-executed.

The fact that Eco is a big fan of Jorge Luis Borges would be, if not necessarily self-evident, at least easily-guessable, even if the novel didn't feature a character (a decidedly un-Borges-like character!) named after him. Major Borgesian preoccupations—signs, libraries, labyrinths—are present. In fact, I think that's what really brings the novel up a notch (and it was already pretty high up). People who don't like it complain a lot about all the allegedly-extraneous background information—all the stuff about papal politics and, especially, heresies. But all this stuff is there for a reason people. I mean, you may find it boring, but it's not gratuitous. Beyond merely adding to historical verisimilitude and creating so vivid a world, we can see that there are multiple labyrinths in the novel: there is the labyrinth that protects the abbey's library, and then there is the labyrinth of signs and meanings that may or may not conceal some truth. Who can navigate the maze of religious beliefs, some of which are considered legitimate and some heretical (for oft-counterintuitive reasons) even when there don't seem to be any significant differences between them? We tend to think of pre-modern times as being more stable than their successors—that's kind of the whole definition of “pre-modern”—but we may need to think harder about what exactly we mean by that.

Granted, the book is—justifiably—a bit of a downer in the end; it doesn't necessarily rule out religious belief, but it certainly paints a grim picture of official religion and its destructiveness and endless cruelties, small and great, in the name of the Prince of Peace. Still recommended, however.

Given my interests, it seems surprising that I hadn't read Eco before now, but that is my own fault and no one else's! Certainly not my parents, who kept buying me Eco books for holiday gifts that I kept not reading. I have no excuses, although actually, I did make an extremely abortive attempt at reading this one some time ago. I remember the clerk at the (late, lamented) Barnes and Noble in Pittsburgh where I used to spend many happy hours commenting that it was a hard book to get into but I should persist because it was worth it. Well, I have and it is, but at the time, I didn't: I read the first little section, where William deduces why some monks are out of the abbey and what they're looking for in a showily Sherlock-Holmes-y way, and thinking, hey, I don't want to read Sherlock Holmes! I'm stopping! More fool me, of course, especially as this Holmesian-ness gets at Eco's preoccupations as a semiotician. The novel's greatest tragedy is that, while William's deductions do ultimately allow him to figure out what's going wrong, they do so through an erroneous series of steps, and they don't do so in such a way as to allow him to actually save anyone or anything. It's a riff on a classic Christian theme, right? Back before the fall, signifier and signified corresponded perfectly, but now in our own, fallen age, fergeddaboudit. It's also, in that sense, rather postmodern (see Paul Auster's City of Glass, another postmodern text that treats of this very issue). You know, maybe it's good that I didn't read Eco back in the day; all this would've been lost on me. Very glad to have done it now, however.

(Why that title?  Well, it's never touched upon in-text, but it makes sense inasmuch as it brings together the novel's preoccupations: the "rose," of course, is freighted with Christian symbolism; and "the name of the rose" emphasizes the distinction between signifier and signified--not the rose itself, just the name, which is not the same thing.  Then too, given Eco's fandom, we might consider whether Borges' story "The Rose of Paracelsus" is relevant here.  At any rate, I think the title works rather well as a concise summing-up of the text.)


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