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Il Nome della Rosa by Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose) Tom Send a noteboard - 02/05/2012 06:01:04 PM
The knowledge of humanity is a fragile thing. Although in recent centuries the diffusion of information has gathered pace exponentially, first with the printing press and now with electronic means of dissemination, our understanding of the world around us and our common cultural heritage remain subject to the vagaries of time and human folly. We may never know whether Amr ibn al-‘As really ordered the burning of the famed Library of Alexandria on the basis that the books contained within were either in accordance with the Quran and therefore unnecessary, or at odds with it and therefore heretical. However, we do know that Hülegü Khan, in the process of butchering the hundreds of thousands of inhabitants of Baghdad, destroyed the library there, causing the waters of the Tigris to run black with ink. The works of Catullus survive on the basis of what appears to have been a single copy made ten centuries ago, which was so corrupted the translator apologized to any reading it and expressed his desperation. The participants of the Fourth Crusade destroyed countless works of art when they sacked Constantinople in 1204, and in modern memory the Taliban, in their infinite stupidity and barbarism, destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas and almost all the art in the Afghan National Museum.

Il Nome della Rosa, The Name of the Rose, is first and foremost a story about the struggle of civilization, humanity, knowledge and reason against barbarism, ignorance and hatred. Much has been postulated about the name, and Eco himself apparently wanted to originally call the story Adso di Melk before his publishers nixed the idea. The restored title is, I think all would agree, much more evocative. Eco, as a professor of semiotics (or “symbology” for any Dan Brown afficionados who may come across this review), understands the full deeper meaning of the rose as a symbol. To my mind, it refers to both the girl who seduces Adso halfway through the novel and whose name he never finds out (Dell’unico amore terreno della mia vita non sapevo, e non seppi mai, il nome, says the narrator at the close of the Fifth Day), as well as an allusion to all the books which were lost in the Dark Ages, for which we only have a name.

The book is, for those who have not heard of it, a complex story that is at once a detective novel of sorts, in which two monks search for a killer in a medieval monastery, as well as historical fiction covering events during the Avignon papacy of John XXII concerning the Franciscan order. The debates of the Scholastic thinkers of the Middle Ages spring from its pages, and, although it is impossible for a modern reader to know for certain, Eco has done a convincing job of making us believe that people from an age long past (only the name remains) are speaking in their own voice, with their own perspective and their own understanding of the world.

For those who are familiar with Eco, all of the themes that he later developed in his other novels are present, in particular Baudolino. The reader will immediately note Eco’s love of mysteries and the occult, his interest in books and the transmission of knowledge, his love of endless lists, his fascination with the grotesque and his love of the unreliable author. Though I must confess I do not share Eco’s obsession with monstrosities, he does not overwhelm the reader with them as he does in Baudolino. Il Nome della Rosa is an aesthetically pleasing book, illuminating a period of history and expounding on common human themes, while telling a good story at the same time.

I previously read this novel in English and was struck by how the Italian original seemed almost like an entirely different book. A small part of this may have to do with the fact that the Latin phrases which are liberally scattered throughout the book do not break the continuity of the narrative since the Latin is so similar to (and in the case of some words identical with) the Italian that at times I didn’t even notice that Eco had switched languages. However, I think that the primary reason for the difference is that because I wanted to make sure I understood every word and phase, I paid far closer attention to the text and didn’t let myself skim through sections I had found somewhat tedious when reading in English. As with almost any intellectually significant book, the effort was rewarded with insight and a deeper appreciation of the novel as a whole.

I am not sure why Eco’s novel is termed a “postmodern” novel. It may be in part that the term “postmodern” has been expanded to the point where it no longer has any meaning. Certainly, the two pages of notes at the end of the book in which Eco talks about post-modernism reek of the entirely useless mental masturbation that has come to dominate much of academia. He makes some inane point about a loss of innocence and a sense of self-referentialism. As I understand it, however, postmodern is a Nietzschean response to the modernist movement’s belief in progress. I see nothing of this response in Eco’s novel.

On the contrary, it is clear from the novel that technology is improving the world slowly but surely, and the world in which Adso and Guglielmo (William) live is noticeably better than the world of the barbarian invasions and the true “Dark Ages”. In contrast to earlier centuries, knowledge is preserved and passed along, and the Scholastic spirit of the theologians of Paris and St. Thomas Aquinas is moving people to invent and better the world around them. This improvement is seen materially in the glasses that Guglielmo has had made in order to be able to read despite his failing eyesight.

In fact, the only sort of “progress” that the novel refutes is that human nature can be refined and improved, but this is a very conservative and religious notion. There is nothing postmodern about the idea that our vices keep us from realizing all the progress that logic and science can offer us. It is a decidedly traditional mindset that traces back to the ancient world and finds a more full expression in Christianity. It is quite clearly the vices of humanity that cause all of the misery in the novel. Adso comes close to drawing the attention of Bernardo Gui, the papal inquisitor, due to his erotic obsession with the young woman with whom he had sex (an act that he notes would not be worthy of reproach had he not taken vows). Many of the monks are overcome with unhealthy curiosity over forbidden books, leading ultimately to their deaths. Bernardo Gui is filled with hatred and anger, which leads him to condemn others to death. The abbot and Nicola are both obsessed with wealth and objects of art. And Guglielmo, the brilliant monk who is supposed to be sympathetic to the reader, is ultimately overcome by pride and anger, which leads to the final tragedy at the close of the novel (following his final encounter with the abbot, he says Eh no, questo Abbone non può permetterselo a nessun costo. Grazie frate Guglielmo, l’imperatore ha bisogno di voi, avete visto che bell’anello che ho, arrivederci. Ma ormai la sfida non è solo tra me e Abbone, è tra me e tutta la vicenda, io non esco da questa cinta prima di aver saputo, which mocks the abbot’s obsession with wealth and the abbot’s ring in particular, ending with the phrase “now the contest is not just between me and the abbot, but between me and everything happening here, and I will not leave this fortress before I know” ). In short, the message of Christ is ignored almost seriatim by an entire community of people who have devoted their lives to that message. And ultimately, what can we say, what does the narrator say? We are all human and we all fail.

Before finishing my review, I would like to mention that Eco has also engaged in something of a comic parody of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Guglielmo is set up at the beginning of the novel as a Sherlock Holmes sort of character, guessing upon his arrival at the monastery from some very specious clues that the abbot’s horse, Brunello, had gone missing, and telling the monks where to find Brunello. He explains to Adso how he guessed the horse was missing, that it was the abbot’s, that its name was Brunello and where it went. However, this is a set-up for the reader, tricking him into thinking that Guglielmo will continue to display a preternatural erudition and observational talent in the manner of Sherlock Holmes. However, as the story progresses we see Guglielmo paralyzed by endless speculation, unable to solve the crime taking place at the abbey in a meaningful way. He even seems to ignore his supposed friend’s contribution to philosophy, Occam’s Razor, and on numerous occasions ignores the most likely explanation for something to wildly speculate about what might be. He is an intellectual hamstrung by his own education and knowledge, unable on numerous occasions in the story to filter the information he has on hand to act decisively and prevent further loss of life. At several points he even admits this to Adso. Furthermore, all of his erudition is meaningless and powerless to stop Bernando Gui, who represents religious obscurantism and ignorance, and his confidence in the end causes massive destruction. In other words, Guglielmo’s Holmesian erudition does not, ultimately, help him at all. He is an anti-Holmes.

Il Nome della Rosa is a thoroughly enjoyable book that can be enjoyed at a number of levels and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys good books.

Political correctness is the pettiest form of casuistry.

ἡ δὲ κἀκ τριῶν τρυπημάτων ἐργαζομένη ἐνεκάλει τῇ φύσει, δυσφορουμένη, ὅτι δὴ μὴ καὶ τοὺς τιτθοὺς αὐτῇ εὐρύτερον ἢ νῦν εἰσι τρυπώη, ὅπως καὶ ἄλλην ἐνταῦθα μίξιν ἐπιτεχνᾶσθαι δυνατὴ εἴη. – Procopius

Ummaka qinnassa nīk!

This message last edited by Tom on 02/05/2012 at 06:42:29 PM
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Il Nome della Rosa by Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose) - 02/05/2012 06:01:04 PM 8613 Views
It's one of my favourites. - 02/05/2012 07:52:27 PM 1475 Views
Awful pun! - 03/05/2012 02:48:25 AM 1433 Views
You liked it. - 03/05/2012 04:21:17 PM 1374 Views
*groans* *NM* - 04/05/2012 12:12:59 AM 701 Views
I really need to reread that. I mostly remember loving the library. - 02/05/2012 08:09:48 PM 2043 Views
There is still speculation about the Amr story - 03/05/2012 02:53:46 AM 1425 Views
It is so lovely - 03/05/2012 11:31:31 AM 1460 Views
It seems an expansive use of the term "postmodern". - 04/05/2012 12:12:19 AM 1427 Views
My understanding of postmodernism... - 07/05/2012 08:14:06 AM 1752 Views
It's a great book. - 03/05/2012 07:15:03 PM 1341 Views
I think the re-read will be richly rewarded. - 04/05/2012 12:09:05 AM 1383 Views
One of my favorites - 04/05/2012 12:31:51 AM 1311 Views

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