After twenty years or more, I’ve now re-read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. I essayed this mildly formidable, if enjoyable book, for several rea...moreAfter twenty years or more, I’ve now re-read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. I essayed this mildly formidable, if enjoyable book, for several reasons. He’s pretty famous for the depth of his thought, which is pretty much what one would expect from a person with the impressive profession of “semioticist”. (Semiotics: the study of cultural sign processes analogy, metaphor, signification and communication, signs and symbols.) Per his Goodreads biography page,
Eco’s brilliant fiction is known for its playful use of language and symbols, its astonishing array of allusions and references, and clever use of puzzles and narrative inventions.
I’ve always tended to enjoy complexity in my fiction, and the foregoing description hits all the right notes. I was suspicious that my first reading of this novel, many years ago and shortly after the movie version (excellent, by the way) would have been a fairly superficial reading. In addition, I discovered that Eco wrote a Postscript about the book, and I wanted the opportunity to peer into the mind of such a writer.
I read the Postscript first, since I’m not concerned about spoilers. Much of it was good, with some interesting opinions on how to write and how he felt about (and responded to) the book’s reception. The last portion gets into a discussion of post-modern and avante garde and all sorts of stuff that bear more on his history as an academic, not so much on the book per se. That part: not so interesting.
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I was right about having missed much of the deeper portions of the novel. There is a great deal of text dealing with the turmoil within the Catholic church at the time (late middle ages, 1327 to be exact) that I don’t recall and probably didn’t get much out of. Even now, while I’m trying for a richer experience, it bogs down. Perhaps it would help to be fluent in Latin, since that language is central to the life within the story and is often used by the monks without any translation for the ignorant reader. It would undoubtedly also help to be a historian of the Catholic church, since I’m sure Eco has littered the text with inside jokes and clever allusions. Of course, it would be even better to be an Italian semioticist who studies medieval history — only then would a reader be fully prepared to understand everything within these pages. Well, perhaps even then not everything.
But the internecine politics of the church during this period is proving to be much more intriguing now than I probably found it to be in my callow youth. That Brother William of Baskerville, the protagonist, is the uncomfortable emissary for one side in these political wars was something I’d completely forgotten. It isn’t just that the various movements and their associated heresies are cataloged, but that the protagonist’s meditations on why such schisms proliferate and how the church instinctively reacts to them individually and collectively: that has become pertinent. Those same whys and hows are replicated in the political rifts of our time.
William of Baskerville describes for his young assistant how one can see the population as a series of concentric rings, with each outer layer feeling more outcast from the church than the next layer inside, with the outermost population being the lepers, both really and metaphorically. Those outcast groups attract the attention and sympathy of priests and monks that realize that they, too, require ministration. But those guerilla ministries inevitably have something unorthodox about them, which challenges the legitimacy and authority of the social power structure, including the church hierarchy. The church’s response to to label the more threatening ones are heretical, which tends to end in the fiery deaths of those apostates.
But banning the movement and killing its leaders doesn’t solve to problem of the huge numbers of outcasts, so the trend recurs. Each time, the theological and philosophical basis for the movement is a little different, so the labels proliferate over the centuries.
Meanwhile, as the ministers are attracted to the outcast, the latter are attracted to their potential saviors. But the “simple” (a critical if ambiguous term in the book) don’t understand the nuances of their leaders’ theology: they are primarily interested in not being cold and hungry, for example. Imagine that one generation’s movement permitted killing corrupt church leaders, but that a later one sees killing as a mortal sin but permits taking of property acquired through simoniacal practices. That might not be clear to the followers, who heard their grandparents and parents stories about how satisfying such vengeance was, and who recapitulate the practice. Thus, even though the new leaders disavow such things, they aren’t sufficiently in control of the social movement to prevent it. This gives the church the weapon it needs to brand the new movement as heretical based on the practices of its followers.
The point being made by William is to explain the paradox of his discussions on heresy with different people. In one discussion, he is emphasizing the commonality of all these movements and heresies: all are rooted in the profound poverty and injustice of the time, so drawing distinctions between them can be misleading. In another discussion, he is arguing that just because one movement is heretical doesn’t mean that another is: each movement must be carefully examined on its own terms and judged individually. In the two discussions William is taking the nuanced approach in response to a much more extreme partner, so in a sense he is standing in the middle, facing outwards in opposing directions. His young (and often not-to-bright) assistant recognized the Janus-like contradiction, and prompts his teacher for an explanation.
What I found most interesting is the parallel between the ecclesiastical outcast and today’s political outcasts. The Tea Party movement in the United States is the obvious example: these are people that feel they are profoundly alienated from political power and representation, and have attracted leadership that then challenges orthodoxy. What voices are heretical, and which are reformist? Can the established “church” of the Republican party respond productively? It seems quite possible that the “simple” motives at the grassroots might be completely incompatible with the core ideology, to say nothing of the practical desire of the party's leadership to keep winning elections. Are these calls for change on the scale of the Protestant revolution, or are they more like the Pentecostal Revival of a century or so ago?
Eco’s 1983 novel can’t help us with the specifics of today’s imbroglio, but that parallels have encouraged me to examine questions that I otherwise would not asked. I’m doubtful whether that will help me understand today’s situation, but I appreciate the fact that his book has that kind of power. Some books specialize in escapist entertainment, others in getting us to wonder and ponder. Analogy, allusion and metaphor are critical tools to the authors of the latter, and these are what Umberto Eco specializes in.
In the end, although I’m glad I re-read the book, I didn’t get as much out of it as I had hoped. There were many places where, for page after page, Eco was demonstrating how a medieval would monk pen an ecstatic inventory the contents of a image-laden dream, or a catalog of the contents of a crypt of treasures, or of a hidden library. Eco, after all, studies manuscripts of those times and undoubtedly his tribute is well formed and well intentioned… but, for me at least, it makes for some pretty dull passages. At the same time, it can also create very entertaining tension. One portion started as though it would be merely another interminably dense recital of middle ages arcana, but then the monks started disagreeing, and the learned debate turned into a brawl. (I suspect that Eco was channeling some of his frustrations at sitting through academic staff meetings, which are also notorious for their elevated language and base motivations.)
Anyway, it is somewhat ironic that, in a book rich with allusions and symbols, one of my most pleasant surprises was that it could now be read as, in part, an allegory of our contemporary political scene. This wouldn’t actually have surprised Eco, since he makes clear in his Postscript that an author cannot hope to predict, much less control, what a reader will make of his story. In fact, he espouses a rule that the author should never even try to influence the reader beyond the scope of the text. Even the title of this book was chosen to be neutral and not hint at what should be found within.
So does writing a review make me apostate? That doesn’t bother me, as long as my words here encourage others to delve into this excellent book. A detective novel set in a monastery in the middle ages at the dynamic intersection of politics and theology, in which the poor translation of a fragment of Latin is a clue to a riddle protecting a madman who has hidden away a revolutionary artifact.
Yes, although not without flaws, it is a very good book to read.