Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Name of the Rose

Well, I've been saying that I would read Umberto Eco for over a year now, and I've finally done it.  I read The Name of the Rose, though I'm too embarrassed to confess how long it took me to complete this task.  My friend Andrew, whose recommendations I always take with eagerness, loves Eco and wrote a great post for me about the author.  Please do yourselves a favor and read it here; it's a brilliant analysis.

Before I really get started, I think it might help if I gave a quick summary.  The Name of the Rose was published in 1980, so it just barely misses my criteria for "Contemporary Fiction."  The story is about a group of monks in the 1300s, and several are mysteriously killed at an Italian monastery.  The protagonist is William of Baskerville, who is modeled on Sherlock Holmes in more than just his name.  With logical reasoning and astute observation, William quickly pieces together confusing circumstances and stuns those who witness it.  Adso, the narrator of the story, acts as the "Dr. Watson" for William and assists him in his investigation.  The story follows a fairly typical mystery plot, and I was able to successfully detect the culprit based on the formula I've developed after reading way too many Agatha Christie novels.

However, the standard plot formula is surprisingly subverted at the very end, challenging the modern emphasis on structure and instead promoting postmodern fragmentation.  All along, we are led to believe that there is a complex and intricate pattern, but Eco challenges it with his ending.  This stimulates a fascinating conversation about analysis and meaning.  I believe this is why William was modeled so obviously on Holmes, to emphasize this sudden contrast.  The Modernist philosophy depended heavily upon Reason, but was that really a secure foundation?  Can Reason actually be trusted?

Another fascinating component of Eco's novel is that it is embedded and overflowing with historical, literary, and philosophical allusions.  I am very unfamiliar with the world of monks in the 14th century, so this was all new information for me.  We learn about the various factions within the monks, the important figures, and a whole lot of Latin phrases.  In addition, the story coincides with the Inquisition, and several of the monks share their encounters with it.  Ubertino of Casale, an actual historical figure, appears in the story as a refugee hidden in the monastery.  According to historical legend, Ubertino disappeared from record and was never heard of again after he was exiled for heresy.  William appears to have great respect for Ubertino and disdain for the Inquisition.  Eventually, the Inquisition comes directly to the monastery, and William and Adso are forced to watch a man get battered by an onslaught of unfounded accusation.  Throughout the novel, this an underlying critique of dogma in favor of tolerance is an interesting and modern perspective.

As I continue to think about it, I can see that The Name of the Rose can certainly be considered a postmodern text.  Adso's narration contributes to the questioning of Truth with his metanarrative style.  He breaks in and out of his narration, revealing that many years have passed since these events occurred, though they are still sharp in his memory.  He reflects on his actions with nostalgia, warmth, and also regret, adding a thoughtful commentary to the narrative.  Balancing and contrasting the narration, he divides the interpretation of the story between his perspective at the time as a youth and now as an old man.  This style highlights the shifting and uncertain discernment of morality and values, particularly through the lens of time.

Adding to the postmodern style, the monks all place extreme value on their literature, lauding the importance of story.  Their library is shaped as a complicated labyrinth, illustrating a protection of literature as well as a barrier to it.  The Name of the Rose is quite a dense novel, and I can't say that I breezed through it or was able to get lost in it as I read.  However, I recognize the ingenious and careful design Eco had in mind, and I'm glad I took the time to explore it.


Greg Zimmerman said...

It took me an embarrassingly long time to read this too - and really, the only thing I remember is the argument about whether or not Jesus ever laughed. Oh, and the fire. There was a fire, right?

Amy said...

Yes, both of those scenes are very memorable for me too. The debate about laughter was quite extended and seemed a bit overdone. But the fire at the end was shocking and so destructive that it almost felt senseless. All of that work and all of the care they took - for what? But perhaps that's exactly how Eco wanted us to feel. Hmm

Andrew Shaughnessy said...

Yeah, I think the destruction at the end is both symbolic (the labyrinth going up in flames, thus, the labyrinth that is postmodern existence going up in flames, knowledge, the mystery itself, etc...) and senseless destruction, much in the same manner as in postmodern literary criticism, interpretation and view of the world, life and art, everything is symbolic and, by extension, all symbol becomes meaningless. If everything is fascinating is anything fascinating? If everything is mystery is anything mysterious? Even if it is (and I think Eco's answer is that everything is more comlex and fascinating and cool than we could have ever imagined) often, in the postmodern world, everything ultimately ends in destruction and a form of nihilism.