Simone Weil wrote, with respect to literature, that “nothing is more beautiful, wonderful, ever new, ever more surprising, more sweetly and lastingly intoxicating than the good. Nothing is more arid, sad, monotonous and cranky than the had. Such are authentic goodness and evil. The fictional good and bad are opposite. The fictional good is cranky and flat. The fictional bad is varied, interestingly attractive, profound, and full of seductions.”
This statement could well be applied to the two novels of the celebrated Italian semioticist Umberto Eco. One might even add that passage of Nietzsche’s which accuses Plato of “inventing good and evil . . . the most ominous of errors . . . [such that] Christianity is nothing more than platonism for the people.” It is indeed nihilism that hides behind the “nominalism” in Eco’s writings. In particular, The Name of the Rose (1980) paints a grandiose fresco intended to discredit the revealed truth of Christian faith.
This has long been the belief of the Italian Jesuit priest Guido Sommavilla, a literary critic and the translator into Italian of the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the Catholic theologian. In contrast to his Jesuit confreres in the United States (who awarded Eco a degree Honoris Causa at Loyola University), Father Sommavilla warns about the “little bottle of poison” spilled over the pages of Eco’s novel. Sommavilla’s comments about Eco in his 1993 book Uomo, Diavolo, e Dio nella Letteratura Contemporanea and about Eco’s most famous work. The Name of the Rose, in a widely publicized interview with Expresso (in November 1993) is what rekindled debate here in Italy over Eco’s work.
The controversy actually began back in 1981, with Sommavilla’s review of The Name of the Rose. The book’s underlying theses, he argued, were that good and evil are indistinguishable, that truth does not exist, and that “God” is solely a “name.” The Latin hexameter at the end of the novel (Nuda Nomina Tenemus: “We have only bare names”) seems to be the motto of structuralism, the school of thought to which Eco adheres. Besides, there is enough evidence to show how erroneous philosophical orientations lead to despair, how the nominalism of the structuralists paves the way for nihilism. Levi-Strauss had already affirmed in 1991 that “the ultimate end of the human sciences is not to constitute man, but to dissolve him.” Similarly, in a 1977 letter to writer Rodolfo Quadrelli, the Catholic Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce spoke of the “decadence” of the French Noveaux Philosophers of the 1960’s and defined structuralism as “barbarism without a name.”
From the literary point of view, The Name of the Rose has several obscure points. For example, the horse ride (First Day, “Prime”) looks a little too much like a page from Voltaire. In the 1980’s the Cretan writer Sokratous accused Eco of plagiarism. The trial that followed eventually ended in victory for Eco. But were the allegations valid? If so, then we must question Eco’s contention that he writes “for the pure love of writing.” The Name of the Rose is clearly an ideological novel, similar to the 18th-century works of the Enlightenment or to those of contemporary authors who attack the very idea of truth as well as the logical principle of noncontradiction.
Furthermore, the book (as well as J.J. Annaud’s 1985 film based on the book) presents a Middle Ages of “dark legend,” of violence, horror, obscurantism, cupidity, and darkness. Yet, as medievalist Marco Tangheroni of the University of Pisa has shown, this is a “deceitful account of the Middle Ages [that] was formulated in virtue of an anti-Christian hatred that emerged between the 18th and 19th centuries so as to deform consciously a glorious and enlightened epoch of the history of humanity . . . and to defame those ages because they were completely permeated by faith in the Gospel.” Thus, the apparently innocent narrative game of the semioticist is not an open play of signs but rather a secret plan for a precise goal: atheism.
The deception, however, does not go unobserved by the more attentive readers. The protagonist of Eco’s novel, Friar William, is the fictional transformation of the 14th-century Franciscan philosopher William of Ockham. Yet a distinguished Ockhamist, Professor Alessandro Ghisalberti from the Catholic University of Milan, observes that “Eco’s affirmations are completely false; they can be made only by someone who has never read the texts of Ockham firsthand.” The insinuation is strong, but Eco has not denied it. Perhaps it is enough, in tendentious books, to arouse superficially those doubts which are destined to ferment precisely in superficial minds.
In this way, The Name of the Rose almost resembles a programmatic manifesto of structuralist nominalism, the aim of which is to demonstrate that behind words, there is nothing—a vision contrary to that of realists who argue that every discourse refers always to some reality. Eco’s nominalism is, therefore, really a “short-circuit.” Every discourse refers to another discourse, in an infinite feedback, and this prevents any attainment of the real truth of things. This is the characteristic of structuralist paradigms by which the structure is a framework in which things do not exist “in themselves” but only in relation to each other, Man becomes defined as “a tangle of relations,” a network of intercommunications. Nothing means anything. Every (individual) thing refers always (and only) to itself.
All of which ends in nothingness, the nothing to which each thing is reduced. For Friar William, “the root of sin is the very same root of sanctity,” i.e., the hbido of Freud, the motor of history. The physical law of entropy asserts that “everything runs down.” At the time of the Greek Presocratic philosophers, Heraclitus said Panta Rei (everything moves). Umberto Eco took Heraclitus at his word and perhaps “moved” some pages from L. Pawel and J. Bergier’s Le matin des Magiciens (1960) to his Foucault’s Pendulum (1989), appropriating them (Part II. Chapter VII) in not too discreet a manner.
These are not merely insinuations. Originality moves to the second floor when the intent of artistic creation is to reduce the multiplicity of reality’s phenomena to a single ground, to Freudian “lust,” to Schopenhauer’s vitalistic, biological panting. In this way differences become nullified, goodness equivalent to wickedness, love to sin, Christ to Judas. There is scorn for any suggestion of truth because everything is up for ridicule. Of course, according to such logic, even this assertion becomes ridiculous. Indeed, as Aristotle pointed out, even the statement “truth does not exist” amounts nevertheless to the affirmation of a truth, since the effort to free oneself from metaphysics always requires another metaphysic. At one point in the book. Friar William shows his true hand: “What I wanted to say is that there is little difference between the ardor of the Seraphim and the ardor of Lucifer, since they are born always from a drastic explosion of the will. . . . I dread not knowing the distinction any longer.” As Pascal observed, it is only the fool who cannot grasp the differences between things.
It is known that nominalism originated with John Roscelin at the end of the 11th century, and arose from the conviction that “universals”—ideas or essences—were merely names, not reality. This may well explain the “laughter” of contemporary nominalists. Augusto Del Noce opined in his letter to Quadrelli that “the fashionable nihilism of today is a gay nihilism, in the two senses that it is smug and that it has as its symbol homosexuality. . . . Such a nihilism is exactly the reduction of every value to the value of exchange.'” Is this a return to the “gay science” of Nietzsche? Will laughter dissolve moral reflection? The answer lies in that historic rupture with tradition: the Enlightenment.
Eco cunningly defines himself as a person of “Byzantine Enlightenment— one who does not exclude the possibility that even in that labyrinth which is the universe of signs—in which we are immersed—there is a hidden explanation.” Nevertheless, as is the case with all Enlightenment types, he rejects the decisive thing, namely, evil or sin. The Name of the Rose is an invitation to laugh at everything, above all sanctity, sin, and the Incarnation.
For Father Sommavilla, “the book seeks to acknowledge the ridiculous substance of all reality, the confusion of the highest values with the lowest.” There is a passage in the novel that makes this clear: “to attempt to redeem (with a diabolical reversal) the highest through the acceptance of the lowest.” Here gnosticism rears its head and leads author and reader to that incomprehensible garden of signs and meanings. But gnosticism is the inveterate enemy of truth, as the Fathers of the Church had pointed out—from St. Irenaeus of Lyon to St. Augustine; and in the 20th century, from Eric Voegelin to Augusto Del Noce.
Emblematic, therefore, is Eco’s contention that “if God exists, it is the God of St. Thomas Aquinas; with him one can reason. We have studied the same books. We arc both former students of the same university.” Beneath the alibi of a facile irony lie the “seeds” of a nostalgia for the Christian truth not yet completely canceled by gnostic dualism. Thus even the work and the life of Umberto Eco confirm the maxim of Louis Pasteur: “A little science alienates one from God; more science brings one to Him.”
The loss of a center and the death of light in modern art have a “religious” origin. As in the famous “Prologue in Heaven” of Goethe’s Faust, the questions of our secularized age proceed from uneasiness with God. The root of the evils that besiege us is not “social” but “metaphysical.” It grows in the spirit and is nurtured by an equivocation that separates the soul from the body. The results of this line of thinking are apparent in Eco himself, who responded to the Progressives’ defeat in Italy’s March 1994 election by declaring: “Cazzo! l’abbiamo presa nel culo per mille anni!” If things are as Eco believes—if “we have only bare names” and no longer reality—then his obscene comment (that “we have taken it in the backside for 1,000 years”) is appropriate. In fact, it is only symptomatic. For the nominalist intellectual of the left there remain only “bare words” and vulgarity, obscene language, indeed coprolalia.
But, thank God, in order to contemplate the authentic white rose of revealed truth, there is the third Canto, the Paradise of Dante Alighieri’s “divine comedy,” rather than an elaborate neo-Enlightenment fiction whose apotheosis is dissolution.
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Postscript from the translator: It may be recalled that Umberto Eco, together with Jacques Derrida and 38 other intellectuals, signed a document called “The Appeal to Vigilance” that was published in Le Monde on July 13, 1993. The document deplores the rise of conservatism (which these intellectuals called the “far right”) as a threat to democracy and human lives on one hand and as the emergence of a new fascism on the other. The signatories resolved to form a committee that would “out” any institutions (publishing houses, the press, universities) that have a connection with the far right. They also resolved to refuse all collaboration in journals, collective works, radio and TV programs as well as in colloquia directed and organized by people with such political beliefs. This tyrannical zealotry has fortunately been deplored by honest journals of the American left such as Telos. It is a display of intolerance not out of character for such enlightened ironists as Eco and Derrida.
This article was translated by Nino Langiulli, a professor of philosophy at St. Francis College in Brooklyn.