Thursday, December 10, 2009

'The Name of the Rose' Umberto Eco

What's in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet

Romeo and Juliet

Umberto Eco was Professor of Semiotics at Bologna University when The Name of The Rose was published in 1980. Semiotics is the study of sign systems, a more arcane and subtle version of the spurious field of symbiology invented by Dan Brown, a would-be Eco. The grandfather of semiotics, the American philosopher Peirce, defined a sign as ‘something that stands to somebody for something else in some respect or capacity’. In other words, a tripartite entity which involves a thing, an observer, and a sign mediating between the two and which is capable of different interpretations: a rose, its various names, and a seeing, scenting self. Eco’s novel is, among other things, an attempt to embody in artistic form the principles and practice of semiotics, and at the same time, to show how important it is for freedom of thought. The interpretation of signs is a key activity and theme of the book, and may be said to operate in two contrasting areas: interpretation from deduction, and interpretation from doctrine.

Interpretation from deduction operates at the level of the who-dunnit: crime deduction is the archetypal semiotic activity. William of Baskerville (a nice homage to the ur-semiotician Sherlock Holmes), and his young student Adso of Melk are asked to solve a mysterious death at an unnamed abbey in Northern Italy. Before they even set foot in the abbey, William is interpreting signs in the snow to show how a horse has escaped from the abbey stables, and where it has gone. Later, he also interprets prints in the snow to understand how another monk has been murdered and how the body has been brought to the place of its discovery. He meditates on the meaning of these signs in a dialogue with Adso: If the print exists there must have existed something whose print it is…. In other words, the print is the sign for an object, but the relationship between sign and the object it stands for is not fixed or stable: The print does not always have the same shape as the body that impressed it, and it doesn’t always derive from the pressure of the body. At times it reproduces the impressions a body has left in our mind, it is the print of an idea. William describes to Adso the process of deduction like this: … the search for explicative laws in natural facts proceeds in torturous fashion. In the face of some inexplicable facts you must try to imagine many general laws, whose connection with your facts escapes you. Then suddenly, in the unexpected connection of a result, a specific situation, and one of those laws, you perceive a line of reasoning that seems more convincing than the others. You try applying it to all similar cases, to use it for making predictions, and you discover that your intuition was right. But until you reach the end, you will never know which predicates to introduce into your line of reasoning and which to omit. For William, deduction is a process of the individual imagination, and thought is a tool, concepts which astonish Adso.

Interpretation from doctrine operates in the debates on poverty and knowledge which occur at key moments throughout the book. William and Adso are ostensibly at the abbey to participate at a Church Council on the nature of poverty between rival factions of the Catholic Church. One faction, loyal to Pope John, argue that Christ had possessions; the other faction, loyal to the Holy Roman Emperor Louis, seek to show that He did not. At its core, the argument is about power, specifically about the power of the Church to establish temporal dominions and accumulate treasure. At stake is the survival of the ‘poor’ orders of the Franciscans, the Clares, and other Minorite orders committed to a vow of poverty on the basis that Christ and his disciples had no possessions. Over them, if they lose the debate, hangs the terrifying spectre of the Inquisition, that well-known instrument of Christianity’s love and forgiveness. The debate hinges on the correct interpretation of signs: indications in the Gospels of Christ’s poverty. The Gospels contain signs (language) of events (Christ’s life), but these signs are difficult to interpret, and give rise to other signs (commentary and hermeneutics, both classical and medieval) cited by the monks in the debate. For it is the propensity of signs to proliferate, like the murders in the abbey, like the commentary on ancient texts, and even to obscure the thing they represent, so that signs come to represent previous signs rather than things, in a chain of representation: The idea is a sign of things, and the image is the sign of the idea, the sign of a sign. For both the deductive and the doctrinal semiotician the truth is obscured by the proliferation of signs, and part of the job of the semiotician is to find his way back along the chain to the truth of the original object.

The tension between interpretation from deduction and interpretation from doctrine sets up other binary oppositions throughout the novel, for example, between medievalism and modernity; between group authority and individual conscience; between the margin and the centre; between the idealism of Plato and Plotinus and the empiricism of Aristotle and Bacon.

While the Pope’s representative, the sinister Inquisitor Bernardo Gui, represents medievalism, with his arguments based on previous church authorities (other signs): William represents the modern use of deductive logic and science (the things behind the signs). William is a student of the only medieval scientist worthy of the name, Roger Bacon, and a friend of William of Occam, and uses Occam’s Razor brilliantly in his attempts to solve the clues to the murders. My dear Adso, one should not multiply explanations and causes unless it is strictly necessary… with my hypothesis, we need only Adelmo, his decision and a shift of some land. Everything is explained using a smaller number of causes. The debate between medievalism and modernity also delineates political attitudes of mind which still have contemporary relevancy. The medieval mindset seeks to restrict ideas, to safeguard information and control the way it is released into the world. In the novel the sign for this is the way the secrets of the library are known only to the librarian, who learns its secrets from the previous librarian, passing them on in turn to the next. The medieval mind relies on authority as the arbiter of truth. The individual is subsumed in the copying of signs, and restricted to expressing marginal comments only. Truth resides in accuracy of reproduction and reference to authority. In contrast, the modern mindset seeks to make ideas free and available to all, and recognises that, at best, truth is relative and transitory. The individuality of the imagination, of ratiocination, moves to the centre. It is not without a sense of cheeky historical irony that Eco introduces ideas from much later in history: Kant’s principle of individual rights, the humanist revolutions of Erasmus and Rebelais, the individualistic ‘heresies’ of Luther and Calvin, the relativism of the Renaissance and Enlightenment: all these anachronisms give sharpness through contrast to the depiction of the medieval mindset. At the same time, Gui and Baskerville respectively represent the two main approaches in semiotics: the linguistic, or the interpretation of signs as signs; and the pragmatic, or looking behind the signs to the things they represent: True learning must not be content with ideas which are, in fact, signs, but must discover things in their individual truth. And so I would like to go back from this print of a print to the individual unicorn that stands at the beginning of the chain, says William to his pupil Adso. At another level, this is perhaps also a debate between the Platonic way of seeing the world: as a manifestation of some eternal eidos beyond the physical; or the Aristotelian, as a collection of phenomena, things sufficient-unto-themselves. It is significant (intentional semiotic pun) that the main representative of the Platonic view is blind: old Jorge literally cannot see the things of the world, but experiences them only through ideas, traces of things haunting the dark night of his memory.

Both sides are of course united in their recognition of the power of the book, which becomes a sacred object for both of them, albeit in different ways. Books are not made to be believed but to be subjected to enquiry. When we consider a book we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says, but what it means, a precept that the commentators of the holy books had very clearly in mind, asserts William, while his adversary counters: Every book by that man[Aristotle] has destroyed a part of the learning that Christianity had accumulated over the centuries.

Now, the semiotician may be lead astray by two means: coincidence and the spurious sign. Jorge describes how his murders followed the Book of Revelation by a coincidence that he himself was slow to recognise, and that it was not intentional on his part to arrange the corpses according to corresponding signs in the Apocalypse of St John. The signs interpreted by William, therefore, as having significance, were not real signs, but just coincidences. The spurious sign, related to the coincidental sign, is represented at the level of deduction by the red-herring: a false clue deliberately left by the perpetrator of the crime to mislead the detective. At the level of doctrine, the spurious sign is heresy. The novel is full of both kinds of spurious signs, and indeed the notion of the spurious is one of the other key themes in the book, adding a layer of Borgesian fantasy and delight.
The text is full of spurious books, which stand in their way for ‘the book’ as object, for ‘the book’ as fiction. Adso’s manuscript, handed to ‘the author’, is hedged about with spurious scholarship of a most intricate kind. When Adso and William enter the library, we are treated to excerpts from spurious ‘lost’ works. The archetypal spurious book, Aristotle’s Second Book of Poetics, is recreated by William from the signs left in other works. I can always and only speak of something that speaks to me of something else and so on. But the final something, the true one, - does that never exist? Adso asks. Eco almost convinces us that the lost Aristotle is real, and his ‘excerpt’ from it, a lengthy humanist pean to the value of laughter, delights and tantalises. All these (spurious?) citations of (spurious?) books blur the boundaries between real knowledge and false, between science and fiction. In order to check what is real and what is spurious in this welter of citations, the concerned reader must go off on a semiotic trail, hunting down references with the aid of Google and libraries and bibliographies; in order to decide what is real and what is spurious, the concerned reader must refer to their own sense of truth by challenging or accepting the authorities, a process which enacts the novel’s themes and recreates the semiotic activity of the novel’s protagonists in the reader’s own mind.

Do you mean that there would be no possible and communicable learning any more if the very criterion of truth were lacking, or do you mean you could no longer communicate what you know because others would not allow you to?

Often a harmless book is like a seed that will blossom into a dangerous book, or it is the other way round: it is the sweet fruit of a bitter stem.

The library was a place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death o those who had produced them or had been their conveyors.

There is a mysterious wisdom by which phenomena among themselves disparate can be called by analogous names, just as divine things can be designated by terrestrial terms, and through equivocal symbols, God can be called lion or leopard; and death can be called sword; joy, flame; flame, death; death, abyss; abyss, perdition; perdition, raving; and raving, passion.

In the beginning was the Word.


Makifat said...

A masterful review of one of my favorite books. I look forward to coming back to chew on it some more.

Your writing is always such a pleasure to read!


aalochana said...

Thanks for the informative review.

Gerry said...

Thank you for this very interesting review. I would like to propose an extension.
The namer of the rose is what we have left of the rose once the actual rose has gone. Similarly les neiges d'antan exist only in the words of Francois Villon. in fact the past only exists in the signs that denote it as used in the community that sustains them. Language, or at any rate symbolic activity gives rise to time and the irretrievable past. In addition, because signs are the repository of the past ad past existence, which is absent, we can also encounter misleading signs like the unicorn. The abbey libraty was an attempt to capture the signs that constutute the past of Christendom and tehreby enforce a particular fixed interpretation upon it. This is what Catholicism did in claining to be the only authoritative interpretation of scripture. Williams proto-empiricist approach to knowledge, in which he begins from observation of the existin particulars, uses Bacon-inspired inducti0n to guess the general rule and proceeds to deduce its consequences (a precursor of the Protestant revolution that placed responsibility for interpretation on the individual) is an enormous threat to this and to its authoritarian political consequences.
Sadly, Adso is not capable of fully absorbing either this or his own encounter with the girl that undermines his fixed categories of lust and love and makes them leak into each other. As a consequence in his subsequent life he does not develop or communicate the insights or experiences of his youth but simply ponders them until near the end of his life, when he remains unable to interpret what they mean for his own view of the world. This seems to me to be the emotional heart of the novel. Poor old Adso can't quite get his head round the most significant events of his life.