U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Center Would Be Lost

Last week I (finally!) read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. After the jump, I discuss a key theme of the text, a discussion that necessarily requires major plot spoilers.  So, caveat lector!

At its heart (or is it only at its periphery?), Eco’s novel is a detective story, a murder mystery set in a Benedictine abbey in Italy in the 14th century.  Instead of Sherlock Holmes and Watson, we have William of Baskerville and his young assistant Adso, the novel’s narrator.  William, who has arrived at the abbey to represent the interests of the emperor in a theological debate with members of a papal legation, is enlisted by the abbot to solve the mystery of one poor monk’s death.  Soon that mysterious death is compounded by another, and another; monks young and old are dropping like flies.  William realizes rather quickly that all these deaths are connected to some awful secret that lies within the monastery’s magnificent, forbidding (or, at least, forbidden), labyrinthine library. The story follows William and Adso as they solve the mystery of the library and so at last capture the culprit.

petroniusThe villain is Jorge of Burgos, a malevolent old monk who is not just humorless but absolutely hostile to humor, to laughter, to the subversive liberating power of the comedic.  Jorge has been hiding a secret in the secret chamber at the heart of the library’s labyrinth:  a codex containing the lost second book of Aristotle’s Poetics, in which the Philosopher expounds his theory of comedy.

When it became clear to Jorge that some of the young scholars in the monastery’s scriptorium were not just in “danger” of affirming the desacralizing power of laughter but were also on the trail of Aristotle’s treatise itself, he turned the book into a booby trap, coating its paper pages (and the paper itself was a wonder and rarity, since the other texts bound within that book, as well as the other books in the library, were written on vellum) with a deadly poison.  Thus those few monks who managed to get their hands on this long-concealed codex — the only known (if hidden) copy of Aristotle’s lost book in all the world — did not hold onto it, or onto life, for very long.  As they licked their fingers to turn the book’s pages, eagerly devouring Aristotle’s words, they unknowingly devoured Jorge’s poison.

During the climactic confrontation between William of Baskerville and Jorge of Burgos, in the secret chamber of the labyrinth at the center of the monastery’s library, Jorge explains why he was determined to keep Aristotle’s famous and long-sought work a secret. He says indignantly to William,

Look at the young monks who shamelessly read the parodizing buffoonery of the Coena Cypriani. What a diabolical transfiguration of the Holy Scripture! And yet as they read it they know it is evil. But on the day when the Philosopher’s word would justify the marginal jests of the debauched imagination, or when what has been marginal would leap to the center, every trace of the center would be lost….The prudence of our fathers made its choice: if laughter is the delight of the plebeians, the license of the plebeians must be restrained and humiliated, and intimidated by sternness (475).

Jorge feared that Aristotle’s great authority – he was the Philosopher for the Arab scholars and the Scholastic theologians alike – would “justify” the embrace of the comedic mode.  Aristotle’s authority would topple the authority of the gatekeepers – ecclesial, imperial, theological, epistemological — whose power could endure only as long as other, “lesser” men believed they must take the gatekeepers as seriously as they took themselves. The great Aristotle would grant common men permission to laugh at the great, and so bring an end to greatness.

I am both enchanted and intrigued, to say the least, that the climactic resolution of Eco’s bestselling novel, the reward for the curiosity of Baskerville and thus for the page-turning readers looking over the detective’s shoulder, entails an argument about the subversive potential of a lost treatise of Aristotle.  I don’t mean that I’m surprised that the resolution of the mystery/plot would entail such a thing, for the whole book is as much “about” Scholasticism, or 14th century ecclesial politics, or monastic traditions, or the 12th century renaissance, or Realism and Nominalism, as it is “about” a detective story (or, for that matter, semiotic theory).

The novel is not exactly light reading, and the reader who persisted in turning the pages would be expecting…something like this. But I’m curious about the effects of such ends and such endings on the novel’s doubtless many non-“model readers” (among whom I, with my minimal and very rusty Latin and my non-existent German, my scant reading of Borges, etc., etc., most surely belong).  What, I wonder (and am working on figuring out), did the hundreds and hundreds and thousands of readers who bought this novel in Italian, in French, in English, in all the other languages into which it was translated straightaway – what did they make of these heavy doses of philosophy, of theology, of intellectual history?  Many things, I am sure, depending on the reader – as Eco’s novel itself argues (or/and also dramatizes).

In his delightful, rich review essay of Eco’s novel, Walter E. Stephens observes, “Eco, who made Jorge the Minotaur of a bibliomorphic labyrinth, wrote his Rosa for what must be acknowledged as an elitist implied reader, but his perspective on popular literature is not exclusively elitist: Superman and James Bond have attended classes at Bologna, and the alter eco has mimicked his own Guglielmo by writing a hand-book on dissertation-writing for the vast despised vulgus of Italian students…Infinite semiosis destroys any idea, theocratic or political, of an ‘elect.'”[1]

Jorge, hidden within the mirror of Eco’s 1980s fiction, worried that the unassailable authority of Aristotle – an authority long established by the hierarchies of the erudite – would unseat all authority, including erudition, knowledge, truth itself.  On the other side of the mirror – the “history” side, I suppose – some cultural critics in the 1980s worried that the unseating of Aristotle (or Plato, or Shakespeare) from the curriculum would not just upend cultural hierarchies and canons of taste, but would also imperil erudition, knowledge, truth itself.   If universities began to teach Toni Morrison’s Beloved alongside (or, heaven forbid, instead of) Augustine’s Confessions, then the end would be upon them – upon us.

That was the apocalyptic vision – a bit exaggerated, perhaps, a bit alarmist.  And yet perhaps not alarmist enough.  But a proximate danger awaits, on either side of the mirror:  the menace of those who, finding themselves no longer at the center, resolve to burn it all down.


[1] Walter E. Stephens, “Ec[h]o in Fabula,” Diacritics 13, No. 2 (Summer 1983), 64.

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  1. The great Aristotle would grant common men permission to laugh at the great, and so bring an end to greatness

    I’m not a specialist in Aristotelian ethics either, but I imagine that such contents of a lost book would *upend* Aristotle himself, given his qualifactions (aside from the virtues of “reason”) for eudaimonia. I enjoyed the post.

    “But the Spell broke when at this Juncture some Gallants jumped from the Pitt onto the Stage and behaved as so many Merry-Andrews among the Actors, which reduced all to Confusion. I laugh’d with them also, for I like to make Merry among the Fallen and there is pleasure to be had in the Observation of the Deformity of Things”–Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor.

  2. … I imagine that such contents of a lost book would *upend* Aristotle himself…

    I think so, though I think that has less to do (in Eco’s telling) with what Aristotle has argued elsewhere than with the instability inherent interpretation, the crisis of authority instantiated by every text in the hands of a reader — even (or especially?) the “authorized” ones (texts or, I guess, readers). Or, put another way, this “lost treatise” of Aristotle, this missing sign, (re)construed in the way that Eco has done (and that others have done also), is the perfect plot device for the story — it’s a missing and an unfixed sign that he can read in this particular way, not arbitrarily but with some (outside) warrant, though the ultimate authorization for Eco’s construal of Aristotle’s lost work has to come from within Eco’s story itself.

  3. Thanks for the plot summary! I haven’t read the book, and probably won’t get to it soon, so I am pleased you unleashed some of its mysteries.

  4. Thanks Tim. Happily, the glory of Eco’s narrative is in the telling (though the detective/suspense element is also important). However, there’s also fun in knowing how a story ends and reading it accordingly — a different sort of fun, though.

    I just got a copy of Theresa Coletti’s book, Naming the Rose: Eco, Medieval Signs, and Modern Theory, so I will be delving into her take soon. (I am still awaiting my copy of Naming the Rose: Essays on Eco’s Name of the Rose, edited by Thomas Inge.)

    I guess the theme I’m looking at here — one of them — is “‘postmodern’/semiotic theory in mass culture.” Mihai Nadin has an intriguing throwaway line in his essay on NOTR (available for download at his website) that sticks with me. He said that the novel enjoyed a “life as a special kind of literacy (a cultural artifact acknowledged in the marketplace).” So I’m throwing that into the hopper here. (If I could read German, I would throw Nadin’s doctoral dissertation into the hopper — it’s a discussion of value and Peircean semiotics. Instead, we will be meeting to chat about it — which ain’t half bad.)

    As to the closing line of the post — which should begin with a “For” rather than a “But”!!!! (what can I say? cranking up the writing engine has been an ugly business these days) — what I had in mind was the “burn it all down crowd” within/surrounding the university. (I’ve tackled some of those issues before here at the blog.) I wasn’t even thinking (mercifully!) of current presidential politics. But in light of Jorge’s hostility to laughter, I thought the lede from this recent NYT analysis of Trump’s motivations for running for president was pretty interesting:

    …That evening of public abasement [at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner], rather than sending Mr. Trump away, accelerated his ferocious efforts to gain stature within the political world. And it captured the degree to which Mr. Trump’s campaign is driven by a deep yearning sometimes obscured by his bluster and bragging: a desire to be taken seriously.

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