Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Umberto Eco "The Name of the Rose"

Upon rereading Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose I am struck by the obvious influence of Jorge Luis Borges on the work. When I first read the book in 1984 I was not aware of Borges, and had only just put down my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. The book itself is presented, in Borgesian manner, as a reconstructed text based upon a partial translation of a now lost and otherwise undocumented manuscript from the late Middle Ages. The plot concerns the investigation of a murder mystery set in a fictional monastery renowned for its unique library, the largest collection of books in Christian Europe, supposedly holding works of Aristotle lost to modernity. The characters are primarily scribes or other intellectuals. Yet, unlike much of Borges' esoteric works, this novel is not merely a curiosity, an intellectual insider's joke, but a true intellectual adventure story rewarding on many levels.

The hero, William of Baskerville, a Franciscan brother, is a champion of reason who has abandoned his position with the inquisition. He saw that institution not as a means of pursuing the truth, but as the use of force to compel confessions, which, even when they implicate guilty parties, are an affront to God's justice and his gift to man of the intellect. Brother William is a follower of Thomas Aquinas, a student of Roger Bacon, and a proponent of the scientific method, although he does not, of course, explicitly identify his investigations as such.

The story is told in retrospect by the Benedictine monk Adso of Melk. At the time of the story Adso was in his teens but he writes his tale as a dying man who promises to "tell the facts without interpretation" so that the signs he conveys will speak for themselves, allowing other wiser men in the future to draw their own interpretations. Adso is a mystic, and not an intellectual, but he admires William as a sincere instrument of justice, better than he.

The novel is steeped in the intricacies of pre-reformation Catholic theology; the debates among the great Scholastic thinkers such as Abelard, Occam, Duns Scotus and the other thinkers at the universities of Paris and Oxford, the details of monastic life, the methods of copying and illuminating texts, the herbal lore of the high mediaeval period, the particulars of numerology and its place even in architectural symbolism, and of course, as one would expect in the tradition of Borges, a great deal of irony, symbolism, abstruse academic references, and the ever present contrast between substance and form, essence and accident, genus and species, and exemplar and type. We hear Latin on most every page, verse and speech in Middle English, and contemporary German, French, Italian, Spanish and Provencal. One character, Salvatore, is so deformed that not only does he physically resemble a monster sewn together from the parts of different corpses, his speech is an almost unintelligible farrago of words from Latin and all the vernacular tongues which he has encountered. Listening to him can be as fascinating (or as disconcerting) as listening to a conversation on the NYC subway between a mixed family of a Puerto Rican and an Orthodox Russian Jew whose children go to public school - English, Spanish, Yiddish, Russian, Hebrew and Ebonics all in one sentence.

Adso himself religiously promises on the first page of his memoirs not to relay "mere" visual details such as the expressions of speakers or the appearance of their faces, as they "will be long dead" by the time we read his description of events. This is an ironic promise which, thankfully for us, he breaks almost immediately. While some of the descriptions of architectural, sacrimonial and mythological details can become tedious, the book is visually vivid and his concretizations make the setting and characterizations immediate and lifelike.

While the murder mystery is the prime mover of the story, it serves as an excuse for many interesting digressions: lengthy discussions of Papal, local and Imperial politics, the details of everyday monastic life, not only spiritual, but also scribal and mundane, such as the details of animal slaughter and food preparation; the tensions between various factions within the Church advocating poverty versus temporal power, faith versus reason, tradition and the new learning, the tensions between the old feudal political and economic power of the monastic centers and the Pope versus the rising market power of the new trade centers and the monetary power of the princes.

Much of the content of this amazing and brilliant work is religious, specifically Catholic in substance. There is lengthy examination of religious themes such as temptation, sin, and penitence, the nature of God and Satan, heaven and hell, prophesy, heresy, schism and persecution, the Antichrist and the Second Coming and personal salvation through works and grace. This contemplation is counterposed to the main action of the hero, a true scholar and scientist who uses reason and observation, not suspicion and circular justifications, to solve his mystery and save much more.

This book has been made into a very satisfying movie. Yet, as with any great work of art, its adaptation into that medium has required that much be simplified, reduced or omitted. The movie retains the bare bones of the actual murder mystery, and makes Adso's love interest (Adso was Christian Slater's first movie role) much more important than in the novel. On film, cliche often replaces depth. In the novel, the first charcter to die is a young initiate who has had a homosexual encounter with another initiate. In the movie he is not, as in the book, seduced by another young man, but by an obese, leering old lecher. While the movie is a few hours diversion, this novel is an engrossing immersion in and education about a world of which many of us know little, but a world which is much closer in time than one might think. In a fictional monastery in the mountains of Italy in an age which many call dark we literally see the power of reason, the place of philosophy, and the fight of men of good will to preserve the light amidst that darkness.

1 comment:

Néstor said...

Do you think that Borges himself has read the book ? I've intended to search for a source (Borges speaking about it, someone saying he has read it for him,...) for a while with no success.