Deciphering codes

Just finished reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. It’s the story of the visit to a medieval monastery of a forward-thinking rationalist travelling monk called William, who is asked by the abbot to investigate (what becomes) a series of strange murders. The novel frames the crimes and the investigation, which quickly establishes that the deaths are linked with the abbey’s magnificent library, with details of a continent-wide conflict between different religious sects, and in particular between the established Catholic order and those who wish to reflect the poverty of Jesus in every aspect of their daily lives. The tale is narrated by William’s scribe and assistant, Watson to William’s Holmes: a novice monk called Adso, and takes place over the course of seven closely described days.

I found it a wonderful and satisfying read, although it took a lot of ‘getting in to’: Eco uses many references to a panoply of different monastic and other religious orders, and to countless different saints, contemporary texts and so on, which make (a bit more) sense after a while but make it heavy-going for a good couple of hundred pages. This is, I’m pretty sure, entirely intentional: the references form the first of a series of codes, the composite elements of which making little sense apart from when understood together and in relation to each other. For this is a novel about meaning, and in particular about how multiple meanings emerge from different contexts and correlations. This, Eco argues, is why those who see or seek ‘truth’ in the world are dangerous, because there are and can only ever be many truths. Or, as he (as William) puts it:

Perhaps the mission of those who love mankind is to make people laugh at the truth, to make truth laugh, because the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth. [Emphasis author’s own.]

And:

The order that our mind imagines is like a net, or like a ladder, built to attain something. But afterward you must throw the ladder away, because you discover that, even if it was useful, it was meaningless. […] The only truths that are useful are instruments to be thrown away.

When speaking of the knowledge contained in books, Brother William describes how books left unread are “dumb”, because only in reading many books and comparing what they say can they speak to each other and can meaning emerge. At one point he says:

Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means […]

The Name of the Rose is suffused with a lovely sense of the absurd and a rich humour, and the biggest joke of the whole novel relates to the preceding quote: in his introduction to the novel itself, Eco describes how he ‘found’ and transcribed the manuscript that we are about to read which, if we are to believe the ‘author’s’ (Adso’s) own prologue, was written decades after the actual events that unfolded. The dense detail of the writing – the lengthy passages of reported speech, the maps included, the detailed description of every twist and turn of the tail – make a mockery of this (these) claim(s). Eco is, in the very form of the novel itself, telling us to beware of books that purport to contain ‘the truth’.

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