“Tis but thy name that is my enemy…/What’s in a name?”
There’s a fairly good chance that for the majority of us, these lines have been read, essayed about, or playacted at least once, provided we read our required Shakespeare in high school. What’s in a name, anyway? Or for that matter, what’s in a word? Most of us probably don’t care. Gertrude Stein might just have easily said that word is a word is a word. We’d prefer to think against the judgment of thousands of years of philosophical discourse and say that one day, language simply precipitated from the sky. Now that it’s here to stay, why bother any more with it than we have to?
After much deliberation, I’ve finally gotten around to reading Umberto Eco’s 1980 debut novel “The Name Of The Rose.” Eco’s a true polymath in the sense that he knows far too much for any one man. This is paraphrasing Anthony Burgess, but I only do so because I couldn’t have put it better myself. Novelist, theoretical philosopher, structural linguist, Eco is every inch the intellectual prima donna, or if you prefer, an older generation’s answer to James Franco. However, it is for his work within the field of semiotics (analysis of symbols is a poor definition) that he has conducted the majority of his academics, continuing the work of the previous philosophers Ferdinand de Saussure, Roland Barthes, and Vyacheslav Ivanov.
Even if you’re an English major, these names may not ring a bell. Suffice to say that these are a few of the fellows responsible for muddling up language and turning the server/served dynamic upside-down. A semiotician might say, depending on your geography and professors, that we are all slaves to symbols—no more able to escape them then we are able to sprout wings and fly to Mars. The analogy is meant to sound portentous for it is likely that less and less gravity will be placed upon our relationship to the symbol. A philosophy that boasts the supreme ignorance of our language sounded sexy at one point; now it’s become overshadowed by an emphasis on traditional storytelling. Critic James Wood is right to praise the works of David Mitchell and more recently, Rachel Kushner not for any imparted post-structuralism, but because of their inventiveness.
That being said, one cannot simply ignore philosophy in the hopes that it will one day go away. Though post-modernism cannot be defined, regimented, or understood, it still must be acknowledged, even if at the price of admitting our own ignorance and doubt. Eco, in describing the origin of his title, puts it well when he says that, “a title must muddle the reader’s ideas, not regiment them.” Obscurity, misunderstanding, and convolution are in vogue for the bearded pedants who insist that we must learn to distrust our words and what they mean in order to grasp the concept. Dedicated readers, confronted with these linguistic or semiotic philosophies, have been known to hurl the dense books across the room in frustration.
Yet all this talk about obscure words and misunderstanding is perhaps an unfair introduction to “The Name Of The Rose,” which is a damn fine read whichever way you look at it.
The year is 1327, an ominous date. With the Inquisition (not the Spanish one) still burning heretics left and right and the Black Death looming just ahead, it’s a dangerous time to be alive. Enter Brother William of Baskerville and Adso of Melk: one of them is a seasoned Franciscan monk and former Inquisitor; the other his young protégé. William has been dispatched to a wealthy Franciscan abbey to investigate charges of heresy, yet his role quickly becomes that of detective when a novice monk is discovered dead at the bottom of a cliff.
In the profession of problem solving, no others possess Brother William’s acumen. A medieval Sherlock, William deduces and rationalizes: his learning borrows straight from Aristotle and Roger Bacon and his tool is the syllogism, sharpened to cut throats.
This all serves him well later, of course. The fall from the cliff was but the first of what soon turns into a succession of increasingly bizarre murders committed in the abbey where (speaking of ominous) “the most interesting things happen at night.”
Then, in a perversion of the seven days of creation, seven monks succumb under similarly grisly circumstances, one after the other. William senses murder most foul and is quick to ascribe a perpetrator to the killings, killings which become more horrific as the monk discovers that they each vaguely resemble a segment of Saint John’s Book of Revelations. Death by hailstorm, blood baths, flood and fire in one form or another are to follow.
Maybe some of this sounds familiar to you. Highly visual texts such as the Book of Revelation, Dante’s “Inferno”, or even old clippings of the Jack the Ripper murders, provide exceedingly gory ways to dispatch characters. For his part, Eco sets himself apart from the Dan Browns and Matthew Pearls of the crime fiction world by claiming his inspiration as something other than sheer violence in literature. “I felt like poisoning a monk,” he writes.
This doesn’t excuse Eco from rehashing an old and predictable premise for his story, but we can still believe what he tells us because “The Name Of The Rose” isn’t so much structured by murder as it is structured by William’s detection. A ‘detective fiction’ we may then call it—attributing that rather modern form to the work. For detective fiction, by its very nature, requires a crime, perpetrator and a final question to be resolved: who’s guilty?
The guilt question is troublesome. If we to answer for the crime of murder, it would spoil the novel to name names (though one will likely have little trouble discovering the murderer before the novel’s midway point). If the crime is heresy, more than one monk, or even one order of monks is guilty. If the crime is the distortion of the Bible and of Christ’s message, the Franciscans and even William are at fault.
The Franciscans, it should be said, occupy very unfortunate grounds. Eco’s extensive work as a medievalist (likely what Burgess was referencing when he said the author knew too much) characterizes the order as paralyzed by the constant threat of denunciation and heresy charges, abiding by a rigorously one-dimensional interpretation of the Biblical texts. Because the apostles were poor, the church should be poor. Because Jesus never laughed, laughter is sinful. Because God and His creations are perfect, anything that perverts natural order is considered daemonic.
“But as the Areopagite teaches,” William counters, “the more the simile becomes dissimilar, the more the truth is revealed to us under the guise of horrible and indecorous figures, the less the imagination is sated in carnal enjoyment, and is thus obliged to perceive the mysteries hidden under the turpitude of the images.”
‘All paths of learning lead to God’ seems to be William’s central thesis. It’s stuffed with more references and citations than a master’s thesis—enough to send an ambitious reader skimming Wikipedia for days. All converge into the possibility of a rational approach to understanding God. The Church, of course, will have none of it.
Rather than the Church however, it’s the blind librarian Jorge of Burgos who rages against William in the name of God impeachable. He is at once William’s foil and shadow, constantly reminding the reader that… the mental tools used to enlighten a beneficent God can also be used to corrupt and generate fear. “Laughter is weakness, corruption, the foolishness of our flesh…a defense for the simple, a mystery desecrated for the plebeians.” Jorge could just as easily be a vilified fuddy-duddy, were his logic not so dangerous. Here’s an extension of the same passage:
“Laughter frees the villein from fear of the devil, because in the feast of fools the Devil also appears poor and foolish, and therefore controllable…when he laughs, as the wine gurgles in his throat, the villein feels he is master, because he has overturned his position with respect to his lord…if laughter is the delight of the plebeians, the license of the plebeians must be restrained and humiliated, and intimidated by sternness…if one day somebody, brandishing the words of the Philosopher and therefore speaking as a philosopher, were to raise the weapon of laughter to the condition of subtle weapon…even you, William, and all your knowledge would be swept away.”
With logical duels like these, who needs felonies? The reader interested in the crime aspect of the novel, perhaps, though he should be warned that Eco’s story, in terms of plotting, falls short.
Rather, the novel is meant more for the reader who tackles the novel’s 500 pages more for its marvelous debate scenes and erudition than to learn who murdered some monks. For my part, I found the novel most moving when it appeared to be engaged in a dialogue with itself, conjuring long-dead scholars and long sequences of Latin (which I didn’t understand but liked reading all the same) to fill its own passages and discourse. Pastiche and allusion are the flashing sings that illuminate the road of trending fiction and Eco delights in them, though not with abandon. Adso of Melk, William’s protégé and the narrator of the story, provides a cautionary tale for the reader when, years later and long after the death of William, he describes his own library as a depository made up of “fragments, quotations, unfinished sentences, amputated stumps of books.” Logic and learning are not ends unto themselves, the monk learns too late.
That being said, we may still enjoy in what Eco gives us for the sheer sake of delight. Take for example, this lovemaking passage (alas, the only in the novel), which has been knitted together using texts and images from medieval romances and the Bible:
“ ‘Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair. Thy hair is as a flock of goats that lie along the side of Mount Gilead; thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, thy temples are like a piece of pomegranate, they neck is like the tower of David whereon there hang a thousand bucklers’…and she kissed me with the kisses of her mouth, and her loves were more delicious than wine and her ointments had a goodly fragrance, and her neck was beautiful among pearls, and her cheeks among earrings, behold thou art fair, my beloved, behold thou art fair.”
A more unsexing sex scene has yet to be written. It speaks well for the author to say that reading this only made me want to read more.