Although The Name of the Rose is Umberto Eco’s first novel, his name is far from unfamiliar. Eco is a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna and the author of several important works in the fields of cultural history, aesthetics, and the theory of signs. He has taught in American universities as well, and two of his books (A Theory of Semiotics and The Role of the Reader) have been published here. Although Eco’s Opera aperta (1962) is considered one of the theoretical bases for the work of the aggressively experimental Italian writers who gained notoriety in the early Sixties under the rubric “Gruppo ’63,” he himself has produced an entirely different kind of fiction: a “good read” (there is such a genre). The Name of the Rose is Italy’s most popular novel since Lampedusa’s Leopard, the success of which was such an irritant to Eco and the avant-gardists of 1963. Not surprisingly, Eco’s novel has been received in some circles as a kind of betrayal. One of his colleagues lamented recently that “Barthes and Jakobson are dead, Kristeva has turned into a psychoanalyst and Eco into a novelist,” as though all these desertions from the field of semiotic inquiry were equally definitive.

Eco claims not to have consciously aimed at conquering a popular audience: “If it’s true that the public was looking for theological discussions, Benedictine monks, just ten pages of love out of five hundred, and lots of Latin, then it’s true I showed an extremely keen sense of public taste.” But there is something disingenuous about this. Since the days of the Russian formalists, literary semiotics has been above all the theory of the device. It assumes that it is possible to view literature scientifically by reducing it to a set of techniques used for producing certain effects. It was, after all, Eco who wrote, in Il Superuomo di massa, that “whatever the critical disposition with which one goes to see Love Story, it would take a heart of stone to remain unaffected and refrain from crying . . . . And this is so for a very simple reason: films of this sort are built to make you cry. And therefore they do so. You can’t eat a candy and claim, on the grounds of your vast culture and strong control over your own sensations, to have tasted salt. Chemistry never fails.” The Name of the Rose, too, is capable of drawing a strong emotional response, though of a different order of complexity from that of Love Story. Even those theological discussions and dollops of Latin (suitably reduced for the American audience) are not necessarily alien to popular taste, which loves nothing better than to be educated, or to feel that it is being educated. But this still does not account entirely for the special appeal of this novel. The Name of the Rose works on several levels at once.

The protagonist is William of Baskerville, a learned Franciscan, former inquisitor, student of Roger Bacon, and friend of William of Ockham. The year is 1327. William has been sent on an important mission by the Holy Roman Emperor (Louis of Bavaria), a mission which leads him to an unnamed Benedictine abbey in northern Italy, where the main action of the novel takes place.

The Name of the Rose works on several levels at once.

William has been sent to arrange a meeting between a group of Franciscan theologians supported by the Emperor and representatives of Pope John XXII. Their differences center on Church doctrine and worldly politics. Five years earlier the Franciscans had affirmed the doctrine of the absolute poverty of Christ, but this doctrine is anathema to the Pope since it appears to lead to the doctrine of the poverty of the Church and to the conclusion that the Church should have no power in secular affairs. Now the Pope has demanded the presence of the Franciscans’ leader, Michael of Cesena, at the Papal court at Avignon. It is feared that the Pope intends to trap Michael with charges of heresy, or pressure him to recant through the threat of such charges. This meeting, then, is intended to set conditions for the later meeting at Avignon. William’s mission is to win permission for an imperial legation to accompany Michael to Avignon.

The abbey in which these forces play out their conflict is in many ways a relic of an earlier world. It is wealthy and learned at a time when the power and prestige of monasteries has waned along with the feudal economy that supported them, a time when urban merchant capital has become increasingly important and the universities have established themselves as the true centers of learning. William explains to his companion, Adso:

Money, in Italy, has a different function from what it has in your country, or in mine. Money circulates everywhere, but much of life elsewhere is still dominated and regulated by the bartering of goods . . . and money serves only to procure these goods. In the Italian city, on the contrary, you must have noticed that goods serve to procure money. And even priests, bishops, even religious orders have to take money into account. That is why, naturally, rebellion against power takes the form of a call to poverty.

Representative of the abbey’s uncertain position is the abbot. He is unsympathetic to radical demands for the poverty of the Church, but nevertheless finds himself on the side of the Emperor against the Pope along with the Franciscans. He sees his support of them as one way of opposing the decline of monastic life and the growth of the secular clergy. And among his monks are a number of former “spiritual” Franciscans, radicals who in attempting to hold the order to the purity of its origins have come close to committing heresy. He has taken them into the Benedictine order to shield them from persecution.

But these are not the only problems on the abbot’s mind as he welcomes William and Adso. Just days before, a young monk was found dead under mysterious circumstances. It seems to be a case of either murder or suicide, possibly linked to sexual activity within the monastery. Knowing of William’s experience as an inquisitor, the abbot asks him to conduct a discreet investigation. William is given complete freedom of the abbey—with one exception: the abbey’s library, which is at all times forbidden to everyone except the abbot and the librarian himself. Unfortunately, the young monk probably died as the result of a fall or push from one of the library windows. Thus, another element is added to the mystery: How did the young monk come to be in the library?

William has barely begun his investigation when foul play claims the life of yet another monk. And this is not to be the last of the crimes within the abbey. William does not discover the truth about them until too late, however, and he is unable to prevent the Pope’s men from using the crimes (by connecting them—falsely—with the heretical pasts of the former “spirituals” in the abbey) to disrupt the Emperor’s plan and force Michael into going unprotected to Avignon.

William turns out to be a failure, then, but he is portrayed in the novel as a kind of hero. This is possible because The Name of the Rose is more than just a murder mystery. It is also a moral tale in which the discussion of events is as important as the events themselves. The clues in the mystery are like signs subject to various interpretations, and as the interpretations struggle against one another, the novel becomes an apology for the values William embodies. His first tenet is the priority of method over doctrine; like Charles Peirce, one of the most important sources for Eco’s semiotics, William is a pragmatist. Thus he is at odds with the theologians of Paris, who reason from first principles, and with the inquisitors, whose profession he was unable to stomach. Adso asks:

“In Paris do they always have the true answer?”

“Never,” William said, “but they are always very sure of their errors.”

“And you,” I said with childish impertinence, “never commit errors?”

“Often,” he answered. “But instead of conceiving only one, I imagine many, so I become the slave of none.”

William is a lucid interpreter of signs, but his method is based on an anti-dogmatic pluralism. He assumes not that there is a unique order to the world, but that there are various connections from which some provisory conclusions may be drawn. In his Theory of Semiotics Eco has written that “the interpreter of a text is at the same time obliged both to challenge the existing codes and to advance interpretive hypotheses that work as a more comprehensive, tentative and prospective form of codification.” The notion that the interpretation which is more comprehensive is also more tentative lies at the heart of William’s method—and the novel’s higher meaning.

At the moral and political level William’s methodological openness and pluralism correspond to a spirit of tolerance and skepticism which is nevertheless pessimistic about the possibility of achieving a just social order. Any ordered social entity, William reasons, has a center and a periphery, and this produces an antagonism which is mutually corrupting.

Saint Francis realized this, and his first decision was to go out and live among the lepers. The people of God cannot be changed until the outcasts are restored to its body . . . Francis didn’t succeed, and I say it with great bitterness. To recover the outcasts he had to act within the church, to act within the church he had to obtain the recognition of his rule, from which an order would emerge, and this order, as it emerged, would recompose the image of a circle, at whose margin the outcasts would remain.

William’s attitude is a compound of pessimism and hope.

The outcasts, the “lepers,” are always ripe for heretical movements. But what matters in their heresies is not the doctrinal content for which the Church condemns them; the marginal are ready to hear any doctrine as long as it promises that those at the center, the privileged, the powerful, will be punished. Therefore, “every battle against heresy wants only this: to keep the leper as he is.” William denies that the heresies have any progressive impetus; they merely exacerbate the division they seek to overcome, but at the same time he affirms the reactionary and hypocritical nature of the effort to put them down. He has no solution of his own to offer, but he does possess a lucid awareness of the problem and of the fact that no solution offers itself yet. Certainly he is aware that his own vague faith in science and democracy does not suffice. William’s attitude is a compound of pessimism and hope, skepticism and perseverance. It is the kind of attitude that makes it possible to survive historic disappointments without cynicism.

This, I think, is one reason why The Name of the Rose has achieved a vast success in Italy, and elsewhere in Europe, where a broadly based Left is experiencing confusion and uncertainty. Established parties like the PCI have stalemated themselves in their search for a “third way” between the tepid reformism of the social democrats and Soviet-style Communism. Meanwhile, the hopes raised by the radical movements of the late Sixties and early Seventies have withered away as those movements have subsided into invisibility or random violence. One might risk a certain vulgar allegorization to make the parallel explicit: the Franciscans represent the Left, divided between reformists and those who wish to maintain a revolutionary stance even within the parliamentary system (in the novel’s terms, the Church); the heretics are the extra-parliamentary radicals, the revolutionary sects that spawned the Red Brigade. The confession of one of the abbey’s hidden heretics as he faces the Inquisition rivals the modern-day rhetoric of terrorism for arrogance and desperation:

And we burned and looted because we had proclaimed poverty the universal law, and we had the right to appropriate the illegitimate riches of others, and we wanted to strike at the heart of the network of greed that extended from parish to parish, but we never looted in order to possess, or killed in order to loot; we killed to punish, to purify the impure through blood . . . . We had to kill the innocent as well, in order to kill all of you more quickly. We wanted a better world, of peace and sweetness and happiness for all, we wanted to kill the war that you brought with your greed  . . . . 

The Name of the Rose does not resonate with our own recent past in quite this way. For an American audience the novel remains above all a middlebrow entertainment, though one so well wrought that the novel has made its way to the bestseller lists here, too. Eco’s prose may not match Calvino’s for musical richness or emotional depth, but at its center is a wryness of tone that is quite engaging. If his characters are not especially complicated, that is really beside the point; they embody various narrative and thematic functions. And in some cases these combine in ways complex enough to impart a special intensity of aspect that raises The Name of the Rose above the intellectual limitations of the common “good read.”

As an exercise in structure The Name of the Rose is truly masterful, imposing on its readers the same complexity of interpretations—the same dilemmas and choices—that are William’s great concern. Early in the book, for example, a blind, elderly monk, Jorge of Burgos, denounces the fantastic, grotesque images so common in Medieval art. In so doing, he repeats nearly verbatim a famous diatribe of Saint Bernard against the art of his time. Adso gives his reaction: “I admired the vivid memory thanks to which, blind perhaps for many years, he could still recall the images whose wickedness he descried. I was led to suspect they had greatly seduced him when he had seen them, since he could yet describe them with such passion.” Adso’s perception is very astute, and indeed very modern-seeming: a product more typical of a post-Freudian sensibility, one might say, than of a Medieval mind. In fact, it is a modern perception: it is Meyer Schapiro’s reaction, in his essay “On the Aesthetic Attitude in Romanesque Art,” to precisely that letter of Bernard’s from which Jorge’s words are taken. Schapiro wrote there:

We are impressed by the fact that although Bernard condemns these works as meaningless and wasteful, he has written so vivid an inventory of their subjects and characterized them with such precision . . . . The saint has perused these capitals no less attentively than the monks whom he reproaches for meditating the sculptures rather than the Bible or the Fathers. Only a mind deeply drawn to such things could recall them so fully . . . .

A little further thought, however, calls Adso’s interpretation of Jorge (but not Schapiro’s of Bernard) into question, for unlike Adso, Jorge is conscious of the fact that he is citing a text: thus, for all we know Jorge does not remember those profane images at all, but only Bernard’s attack on them. In just such ways, The Name of the Rose demands that we question interpretations, and settle for something less than definitive answers.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 2 Number 1, on page 79
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