Saturday, February 20, 2016

Umberto Eco


Umberto Eco was an Italian novelist and professor of semiotics (the study of symbols and metaphors, closely related to linguistics) who had a very big impact on me. He died yesterday at his home at the age of 84.


His first two novels, The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, were probably the first truly intellectual novels I read. I lived both twice, years apart. The Name of the Rose in college in 1986 and again in 2011; Foucault’s Pendulum as a respite from my wild band days in 1991 and later in 2003. Both are highly original historical detective mysteries, both have tight, compelling plots. Both are highly influenced by Jorge Luis Borges, another of my literary muses.

Both have long been on my list of All-Time Top Hundred Reads, over there to the left.

Eco wrote a couple of novels since, but they seemed instinctively to me to be departures from these first two, so I never read them. Perhaps I will; dunno, but I will keep my eye out for them.

Foucault’s Pendulum introduced me to the Knights Templar 25 years ago, way before they became dumbed-down denizens of our modern day culture’s conspiracy infatuation. The book is gripping, suspenseful, labyrinthine. Three bored Italian editors decide to feed historical conspiracy theories into a computer, and soon their hobby takes on a life of its own. We never know what is real and what is not, but apparently there are forces out there that take it all for reality.

In honor of the great writer I have reposted my review of The Name of the Rose from October of 2011:

With the exception of The Lord of the Rings, no other book has a greater association for me with the place that I’ve read it than Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Vividly do I recall those brisk fall nights I’d trek over to the college library, secure an isolated seat among the islands of privacy-walled desks, and hunker down for a two-hour reading session. Then, under cloudless moonlit nights, the crisp air swirling brown leaves about the labyrinth walkways leading back to my dorm, I’d hurry back, the 500-page hardcover nestled securely under arm. Already thinking about tomorrow night’s reading ... once I got tomorrow’s classes and cafeteria runs and homework and tests, studying and socializing out of the way.

I think it took about two weeks to finish Rose back then. Amidst rows and rows of furiously working students, I had only one objective: find out the murderer in the monastery. Oh, and I was in love with a girl in my hometown, so I counted the hours until Friday classes were done with and I could drive my battered 1969 Dodge Dart home. Of classes and knowledge ingested that November twenty-five years ago I have no recollection (I think I took an astronomy class). But the abbey and its mysterious library – the Aedificium – I have never forgotten.

The setting is an anonymous medieval monastery sometime in the early decades of the fourteenth century. Christianity – as practiced by human sinners, imperfect – is the axel about which all of society revolves. Indeed, civilization is continually thrust forward from the centers of learning populated invariably with Dominicans and Franciscans – the intelligentsia of the couple-century period between the “Dark Ages” and the “Enlightenment.”

Ostensibly, the book is a murder mystery. Who is slaying the monks of this abbey, at a rate of a killing a day, monks whose main task seem to be the copying of ancient and medieval texts (this being some 150 years before the invention of the printing press)? William of Baskerville is summoned to solve these crimes before the Inquisitor arrives under the pretext of settling some high-level political disputes between the Emperor, the Pope, and some orders which may or may not have fallen into heresy. The tale is narrated to us from William’s young but intelligent novice, Adso.

Soon it’s discovered that some cryptic book lies at the heart of the slayings. But the library, the “Aedificium,” is forbidden to all, William included, save the sole librarian of the abbey. The proto-detective and Adso soon sneak into the maze of the library, not once or twice but three times, in their search for the evil book which causes men to kill. The Aedificium is almost a full-fleshed character in the novel, so important is it to the plot, complete with its power to disorient and cause horrible visions and nearly frighten men to death. I was so taken with the Aedificium twenty-five years ago that I sketched out its layout, as done by William and Adso, intrigued at that ingenuous navigation scheme the builders designed within it.

Re-reading this book, as is true with rereading most books, was paradoxically both a disappointment as well as a font of new revelation. On the negative side, I already knew the killer’s identity and his reasonings and rationalizations. On the plus side, I was able to pick up on Eco’s foreshadowing and telescoping techniques that sailed over my head the first time. Some of the more emotionally explosive scenes – and there were at least a half-dozen or so – lacked the sheer punch of twenty-five years ago. Part of my heart hardening with age, I suppose, and part of my self-identification with Adso as we both dealt with our first loves (though in radically different forms)

However, the second reading really flushed out the background for me. For one, I am magnitudes more knowledgeable concerning Christianity, its background, practices, the more famous writings produced by the heroes of the faith, and the structure of the Church. All this I was ignorant of way back in college, and most of it flew over my head. Now, I actually know the relationship of Aristotle to Aquinas, and I know the characteristics of Dominicans versus Franciscans, and I know how the role of the Papacy has evolved, devolved, and re-evolved over the centuries. The second time around, I was a much more attentive and involved reader.

Particularly so since so much of The Name of the Rose focuses on books. Or scrolls to be more precise, the ancient and esoteric texts in Greek and Arabic and Latin that filled the monasteries of the middle ages, tracts not only on religion and theology but on politics, science, emotions, sociology, psychology, alchemy, travelogues to semi-mythical lands, and, of course, pagan philosophy. All tread a fine line between heresy and orthodoxy with the Church, and most at least toed the sands of heretical thought. As a mad crazy bibliophile, always on the prowl for The Book That Will Change Everything (at least in my life and how I perceive it), this substantial part of the Rose fascinated me to no end.

The best analogy to compare the two readings of Eco’s book is the same one I used to describe my re-readings of Tolkien. The first time, I could not see the forest for the trees. The second time, I could not see the trees for the forest. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, I don’t know. I just know that it’s a different thing. If I’m still on walking on this earthly sphere in another twenty-five years, I’ll reread both again, and see if the third time is a charm.

All that aside, The Name of the Rose is a great intellectual read, but not without its shocking share of grit and goth to keep you firmly grounded. I wholeheartedly recommend it, and give it a solid A.


Second time around I picked up on a couple things, as well as read some revelations by Eco himself and from some online postings from his fans. For one, William of Baskerville is an homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his detective, Sherlock Holmes. The Hound of the Baskervilles, anyone?

I’ve also become a huge fan of Jorge Luis Borges over the past few years. The blind Argentinean writer and poet is known for his cryptic, esoteric, and philosophical fiction that never fails to raise goose bumps over my arms whenever I return to his short stories. How unfortunate that I cannot read him in the original Spanish but must rely on translations! A major character in The Name of the Rose is an ancient, blind monk named ... Jorge of Burgos. Another homage.

Speaking of Borges, Eco himself has said that, analogously, The Name of the Rose is to Borges’s “The Library of Babel” as Eco’s next novel, Foucault’s Pendulum is to Borges’s sublimely weird “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Now, if you’ve never read Borges or Eco, these titles will be meaningless to you. But if you have (or once you do, as I fervently encourage you booklovers to do), a wonderful a-ha! will click in your mind, prompting you to re-read them all again with a better understanding.

It’s been said elsewhere that everyone’s born either a Platonist or an Aristotelian. I myself fluctuate, but on any given day I’m perhaps 75% Plato, 25% Aristotle. That being said, I found it a bit difficult to agree with the villain that Aristotle will sow the seeds of destruction for the human race. Or at least the somewhat lighthearted treatise of Aristotle’s the bad guy has in mind. But, I was able to suspend some disbelief and allow a character from a different time period and different culture to have his own set of beliefs and prejudices.

By the way, the movie absolutely stunk! Admittedly, I have not seen it since the late 80s, but it was so bad compared to Eco's source novel, that I won't see it again. However, and it's a big however, the casting of Sean Connery – light years away from his James Bond persona – as William of Baskerville was enlightened. All throughout my second reading of the novel I envisioned William as Connery. But casting Christian Slater as Adso was just a travesty.

The title has absolutely nothing to do with the novel. I learned that Eco originally wanted to title the book Adso of Melk, but the publisher balked. According to wikipedia, he then came up with ten alternate titles and had friends select their favorite. The Name of the Rose was chosen. FWIW.

Bottom line: Good book, good read. Scheduled for a third reading sometime around 2035 or 2036.

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