There are innumerable ways to approach The Name of the Rose. Its author, Umberto Eco, is an Italian, a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna. The book is a best-seller in Italy, France, Germany, and here; it has received awards including the Premio Strega, the Premio Viareggio, and the Prix Medicis. The book, translated into English by William Weaver, appeared in the U.S. last June, and before the summer was out, some 130,000 hardcover copies were in print and the paperback rights were sold to Warner Books for $550,000, which is reportedly the largest paper back sale for a translation. Clearly, The Name of the Rose is a curious cultural phenomenon. What are hundreds of thousands of people finding of interest in a text (yes, text) written by a man who is best known in circles where “works in movement” and other arcane formulations are inscripted in pages of scholarly journals and university pressbooks? Has Mr. Eco sold his credentials for a mess of cappuccino at Elaine’s? The answer to the second question is, unequivocally, no. The Name of the Rose can be carried around at Johns Hopkins and Yale without a smidgen of embarrassment. Mr. Eco is not a Neapolitan Sidney Sheldon. The Name of the Rose is a serious work of literature. So what is it doing on subways, held by people who aren’t on their way to the New York Institute for the Humanities? That, a variation on the first question (which some semiotician would note is an example of a paradigmatic relationship), cannot be answered simply, nor can it be answered finally. Only tentative thrusts can be made at it. These thrusts are as numerousas the approaches that can be taken on the way to an understanding of the text.
The permeability of The Name of the Rose is perhaps best understood through Mr. Eco’s “The Poetics of the Open Work,” which appears in The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1979). In it, Mr. Eco says, “the form of the work of art gains its aesthetic validity precisely in proportion to the number of different perspectives from which it can be viewed and understood.” Mr. Eco points out that an author creates a work with a specific end in mind. Certainly, the writer knows what he himself is trying to say. However, the recipients of the finished text are different from the author (e.g., culturally, intellectually), which is obvious. But while that may be so, what is often ignored is the different perspectives that they have. And, similarly, readers in Bologna of The Name of the Rose in Italian will have a different sight than this reader in Rockford. While the observation about validity and numerous perspectives might lead one to think that a dictionary would have the best form, that is not the case, as Mr. Eco explains that a work of art “is a complete and closed form in its uniqueness as a balanced organic whole, while at the same time constituting an open product on account of its susceptibility to countless different interpretations which do not impinge on its unadulterable specificity.” Mr. Eco is not promoting chaos. He is stating that there are various interpretations that can be brought to bear on a form that the author creates. He notes, for example, that in the Middle Ages (which is the setting of The Name of the Rose), the theory of allegory that was developed said that Scripture (“and eventually poetry, figurative arts”) could be read literally, morally, allegorically, and anagogically. Given that state, a work can be considered, at least partially, “open”:
The reader of the text knows that every sentence and every trope is ‘open’ to a multiplicity of meanings which he must hunt for and find. Indeed, according to how he feels at one particular moment, the reader might choose a possible interpretative key which strikes him as exemplary of this spiritual state.
From the standpoint of semiotics, it can be said that the reader in the Middle Ages, who was undoubtedly a member of the clergy, as the characters in The Name of the Rose are, worked with a huge number of signifiers and, ultimately, one signified: God. No matter which key he selected, the reader would end at God. The Name of the Rose is, in effect, written by a monk who lived during the 14th century. If one were to receive that manuscript from the hands of Adso, then that person would undoubtedly read the text as a gloss on the glory of God. But in today’s world, where in the Church is just one of many forms of belief, there is truly a “multiplicity of meanings” available in any given work of art. In the case of The Name of the Rose, there is almost an exponential increase in the number of meanings, as Mr. Eco undoubtedly worked to provide various perspectives.
One approach that some postmodern novelists employ to provide what they think is a multiplicity of meanings is to throw away all conventional literary forms, such as point of view and rudimentary rules of syntax. The pages are endless blocks of type or unmonolithic remarks that cannot even be described as being gnostic. While I will agree that there exists no final Word on what a novel should or should not be and that valid arguments can be made for the legitimacy of these bizarre productions (after all, if Richardson set the standard, then Tristram Shandy would be nothing more than a curious relic), it seems to me that such texts are usually unsatisfying because they are either over determined or too elusive. While the fault may lie in the reader and not in the text, my inability to find the authors’ “unadulterable specificity” because of those conditions–which are both matters, essentially, of form–causes the texts to be seen from no perspective.
Mr. Eco takes the opposite tack and submits himself to a very strict formal arrangement in The Name of the Rose, one that is delineated in Ms. Smarr’s Italian Renaissance Tales, a fascinating collection of, mainly, post-Boccaccio tales and novellas, for which she provides a valuable introduction. (The Decameron appeared 1348-1353; The Name of the Rose is set in November 1327, though it was “written” in the 1380’s or 1390’s.) One characteristic that most of the pieces that she presents and which The Name of the Rose shares is the use of the narrative frame. The frame goes back to ancient times (e.g., Apuleius’ Golden Ass), but Boccaccio was most influential in its widespread reemployment. Boccaccio frames The Decameron with days: 10 people tell tales during two weeks’ time. Mr. Eco also uses days, one week. Mr. Eco constructs a still finer grid: the days are divided into the liturgical hours (i.e.,Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, Compline). As mentioned, Boccaccio used 10 narrators; in The Name of the Rose, to ignore the prefatory material for the moment, there is just one. This seems to indicate an influence on Mr. Eco by Matteo Bandello (1485-c. 1561) who, Ms. Smarr says, “developed a longer, more elaborate narrative, often following the development of a character through many years and demonstrating in some cases a realism of observation and a depth of psychological interest unparalleled since Boccaccio.” The Name of the Rose is a long narrative by any standards, 502 pages in length, and is packed full of details that contribute to physical and psychological realism. Although Mr. Eco’s narrator could not have been influenced by Bandello, Mr. Eco could have been, so from the standpoint of hermeneutics, Bandello can be considered with regard to Mr. Eco’s use of the forms of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Mr. Eco’s narrator, Adso, is a participant in the events that he describes, which is another characteristic of the early Italian tales and novellas. About the authors of these works Ms. Smarr notes, “They seem to beaware of freezing onto paper the previously variable flow of narration and to be trying to capture in this translation from one medium to another some of the original feeling of fluidity.” Throughout The Name of the Rose there are instances when Adso is at a loss for words and when he starts to make a digression that would be natural for an oral telling, but which he realizes subverts the written linearity that he is trying to achieve. The modern novel is, of course, the progeny of the novella. Ms. Smarr points out that there are two facets to the novella: Fiction, unreal, perhaps fabulous tales is one aspect. Ms. Smarr says that novella also “meant ‘news’ and as such could be used to describe … recent events.” The Name of the Rose is replete with reports about the events that took place in the early 14th century with regard to the animosity that existed between Pope John XXII and the Franciscans; for a contemporary of Adso’s, the novel would be a chronicle of current events.
A move from the aspects of form to content also shows that The Name of the Rose is a child of the earlier works (in a genealogical sense, that is). Ms. Smarr says, “Renaissance novellas are not only full of illicit love affairs and clerical scandals, they show an immense interest in scatological humor and pranksterism.” Foremost in The Name of the Rose are clerical scandals. It is a tale of six deaths–murders, perhaps–that occur in a monastery. Illicit love affairs, it seems, are a motive. The scatology isn’t necessarily funny, but it is there. Only pranksterism seems absent, unless one defines a prankster as one who upsets the established order, in which case the criminal is a notorious prankster, as the consequences of his actions certainly destroy the order.
In Saving the Text: Literature/Derrida!Philosophy (Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1981), Geoffrey H. Hartman writes, “There is, its eems, no knowledge except in the form of a text–of ecriture–and that is devious and dissolving, very unabsolute, as it leads always to other texts and further writings.” Or, as one of Mr. Eco’s characters puts it, “Often books speak of other books,” which causes another to think: “it is as if they spoke among themselves.” If The Name of the Rose is taken up and even a partial effort is made to deconstruct it, to identify the fragments and the influences that pervade it, then my act of writing would be endless: not only would it be necessary to tag those objects which are Mr. Eco’s, but, as it is an open work, those that are my own. Already I have cited Boccaccio and Bandello. Perhaps Sacchetti, Sercambi, Salemo, and many others could be added. But let me try to spot the beams and leave the motes.
The Name of the Rose is a detective story. Crimes are committed and/or bodies are discovered in such a way that the agent seems to be using the Apocalypse as a guide. Think of Agatha Christie. Although the monastery is in Italy, the “detective” is an Englishman, a very rational man, a student of Roger Bacon (“It is the intention of philosophy to work out the natures and properties of things”) and a friend of William of Occam. The detective is assisted, by an amanuensis who later writes the events down. The detective’s name is William of Baskerville. Think of Conan Doyle. While it might seem outrageous to bring Christie and Doyle to bear on the work, it isn’t necessarily so: chapter six of The Role of the Reader is entitled “Narrative Structures in (Ian) Fleming.” Various accidents that bring illumination to the narrator bring Robert Louis Stevenson to mind. Very copious descriptions of the layout of the environment seem to mark the influence of Robbe-Grillet.
Finally, there is a writer who looms in and above the text of The Name of the Rose, just as he does in and above postmodern literature. First, dues. Benedictine monasteries in the Middle Ages were centers of knowledge; they contained books and manuscripts that the monks laboriously copied and illuminated. The monastery in question in The Name of the Rose has a massive library. About it and the way that it is run, the abbot says:
‘The library was laid out on a plan which has remained obscure to all over the centuries…. Only the librarian has received the secret, from the librarian who preceded him, and he communicates it, while still alive, to the assistant librarian, so that death will not take him by surprise and rob the community of that knowledge. And the secret seals the lips of both men. Only the librarian has, in addition to that knowledge, the right to move through the labyrinth of the books, he alone knows where to find them and where to replace them, he alone is responsible for their safekeeping.’
Outside of Adso’s frame, but within the confines of the covers of The Name of the Rose, there is an introduction, or explanation, by someone who can be designated Mr. Echo. He describes, with meticulous detail, how he came upon a 19th-century edition of a book that was an annotated version of a 14th-century manuscript that had been discovered in the 18th century. Mr. Echo says that he read the book and then “completed a translation using some of those large notebooks from the Papeterie Joseph Gilbert in which it is so pleasant to write if you use a felt-tip pen.” Mr. Echo tried to authenticate the book and the manuscript, but he had great difficulty. Indeed, it seemed impossible, and Mr. Echo began to think that there exist ”visions of books as yet unwritten.” But in Buenos Aires he chanced upon On the Use of Mirrors in the Game of Chess which includes quotations from Adso’s manuscript.
Clearly, Mr. Eco, in the foregoing, is referring to two of the more influential stories of this century: “The Library of Babel” and “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” He goes further to make a point about the influence of Jorge Luis Borges on contemporary literature and the approaches taken to it. A central character is an old blind man. Mr. Borges is 84 and unsighted. That character’s name is Jorge of Burgos; only a little anagrammatic figuring is needed there. Mr. Borges isn’t used gratuitously, The Name of the Rose isn’t a simple roman a clef; Mr. Eco seems to use him to make a point about literature and philosophy, about learning and knowing–and about their consequences.
However, no matter how pat the evidence may seem, my conclusions may be incorrect with regard to the “unadulterable specificity” of the text, as they are nothing more than forms selected on the basis of my reading of mysteries, Mr. Borges’s writings, Ms. Smarr’s book, various other works, and The Name of the Rose. Still, even if those conclusions are wrong, the effort involved in reaching them is worth the trouble. Indeed, it would be impossible to read the book seriously and not make the effort: words are not transparent; the discourse is there to be interpreted. Or, as Mr. Eco succinctly puts it in The Name of the Rose, “Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry.” What is remarkable about The Name of the Rose is that it is a book that can sustain the onslaughts of critical inquiry while still existing as a work that can be read and appreciated by the common reader: “the form of the work of art gains its aesthetic validity precisely in proportion to the number of different perspectives from which it can be viewed and understood.” This rose is more than a flower.