Monday, July 11, 2005

Book 15: The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco

Paperback: 552 pages
Publisher: Harvest Books; 1st Harvest ed edition (September 28, 1994)

The labyrinth. Employed as literary symbol down through the centuries. Greek myths centered around the blind twists of these rat maces. Later, contemporary Latin American fiction was turned on its head, when Borges imagined the universe as a library designed as an infinite labyrinth in which all things and all books, were possible. In The Name of the Rose, Italian novelist, professor of semiotics, and post-modern provocateur, Umberto Eco takes Borges’ idea of the labyrinthine library, makes it finite, and sets it down in the 14th century, anachronistically interjecting the ideas of today into a Catholic ideological battle of the middle ages. The Name of the Rose is perhaps the definitive post-modern novel, in as much as anything can be both post-modern and definitive.

Seldom does a piece of art ever completely exhibit all the characteristics of a given ideological movement. Critics and historians create labels like modernism and romanticism with broad, generalizing strokes of their pens, and then try to neatly fit all artists from specific time periods into these categories. Joyce is an example of modernism, Friedrich von Schiller of romanticism, the couplings ignoring the parts of the author’s work (Finnegan's Wake is a prime example) that don’t fit into the tenets of the nicely constructed artistic movement. Whether Faulkner intended for his novels to be the par exemplar of stream of consciousness literature is viewed as beside the point. How can authorial intention matter much to critics who hold that the text exists outside the author?

But whereas other authors shirk labels, Eco seemingly embraces them. What is perhaps most interesting about Eco’s novel, is how consciously he has constructed it as a work of postmodernism. In his afterward, he unabashedly discloses his surprisingly favorable position towards the assignation of postmodern onto his work, an “un-ideology” that writers like Pynchon and Delillo have refused to accept. What makes The Name of the Rose so distinctly postmodern? Using Frederic Jameson’s theory as a starting point, double coding is a key feature of postmodernism. No novel could hope to provide a greater abundance of this technique than The Name of the Rose.

William of Baskerville is a medieval monk visiting an abbey where a great meeting about the future of the Catholic church will take place. The church (and for this Eco’s becomes a historical novel, as the theological divide the book centers around actually did occur) is divided and William is attempting to mend fences. But when he arrives at the abbey, he ends up in the midst of a murder mystery, with one monk dying each of the seven days during his visit. He is Sherlock Holmes set down in another era and the story is told through his Watson, a young monk by the name of Adso.

As William probes for the murderer(s), The Name of the Rose comes to reveal itself as much more than a murder mystery. Eco is brilliant, combining philosophical thought from all ages with religious doctrines and modern day pop culture references. Every sign in this work signals something else. This is the double coding, the layering of layers mentioned earlier. For everything references something else and the number of levels The Name of the Rose can be read on are as seemingly limitless as Borges’ imagined library (that the head librarian and villain in the novel is a monk name Jorge of Borges is interesting, and in his afterward Eco, clearly indebted to the blind Argentinian author of Ficciones, states “there were debts to be paid”).

You could read The Name of the Rose simply for the solution to the murders. A more religious minded reader could read it strictly for the discussions on God. Not to mention the countless academic interpretations the novel allows. But perhaps such metatextuality, such endless possibility brings as many negative results as it does positive ones. As Eco points out in his afterward, we live in an age when everything has already been said. How can anything “true” exist anymore? He writes:

“But the moment comes when the avant-garde (the modern) can go no further, because it has produced a metalanguage that speaks of its impossible texts (conceptual art). The postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognizing that the past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction leads to silence, must be revisited: but with irony, not innocently. I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, “I love you madly,” because he knows that she knows (and that she knows that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say, “As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly.” At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly that it is no longer possible to speak innocently, he will nevertheless have said what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her, but he loves her in an age of lost innocence. If the woman goes along with this, she will have received a declaration of love all the same. Neither of the two speakers will feel innocent, both will have accepted the challenge of the past, of the already said, which cannot be eliminated; both will consciously and with pleasure play the game of irony…But both will have succeeded, once again, in speaking of love.” (531)

But is this the solution we want?

We’re left to wonder whether Eco’s embrace of postmodernism leaves us in a labyrinth without an exit. The book is thought-provoking, beautifully written and at points, as downright fun and indulgent as any cheap paperback thriller. And while it is clear Eco is a genius and it is clear that the man’s intellect knows no limits, running the gamut from obscure middle ages tracks to Aristotle to Roger Bacon to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, one wonders, as the abbey’s library burns down in the books final pages (sorry to ruin the ending, but this isn’t The Crying Game, and the book has been made into a movie, so the ending is hardly a “secret” anymore), if we, following Eco, have reached a dead end. The best aspect of postmodernism is that it incorporated the avant-garde idea of art as being apparent everywhere around us in our everyday lives. Postmodernism blurred and then extinguished the lines between high and low art, making highly intricate, yet accessible works such as The Name of the Rose possible. But when everything is art, so to nothing is. The Name of the Rose is a pleasure to read. But hopefully its not heralding the destruction of the very history of literature and thinking it so deftly exudes but ultimately upends. Eco warns of the cul-de-sac that is conceptual art, as when the blank canvas becomes art, art ceases to exist. But Eco might have just taken us into a different subdivision with the same dead-end. When the distinctions between Mozart and Jennifer Lopez are lost, there's the risk that art's position in our lives becomes precarious. The reader would be left to despair if Eco has left literature nowhere else to go.

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