Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Name of the Rose

Way back when (meaning a couple of posts ago), I asked you, the faithful reader, to suggest what fiction book I should read. Since I have wanted to read The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco for a long time, it was the easy winner. What a beautiful and frustrating book. Beautiful in that, even though it is a translation from the Italian original, its prose is crisp and every word is full of meaning and import for the story. No surprise considering the author is a professor of semiotics, the study of symbols and signs. The plot of the book revolves around a series of strange, almost apocalyptic, murders at a 14th century Northern Italian Benedictine monastery. The story takes seven days (reminiscent of the seven trumpets, bowls, etc. of Revelation), all broken down according to Benedictine time (matins, compline, etc.). The narrator, Adso of Melk, is a novice monk assigned to William of Baskerville (a Franciscan monk). They travel to the unnamed monastery on the Emperor's business: to facilitate a meeting between the Franciscans (who claim that Christ was, of necessity, poor and the church should follow him in this) and the Papal legations (all about the Benjamins), which is really a cover reason to debate how much temporal power the church should have. In the midst of this is the murders, the inquisitions, the Song of Songs peasant girl love, and debates as to whether the world has any order. While the book can be slow at points, it keeps the reader riveted with its discourses about the meaning of the arts (especially comedy and laughter), love (carnal and spiritual), and meaning in a breaking-down world.

The frustrating part about the book is the postmodern bent at the end, when William denies any meaning to the universe except what man gives it. There is, in the end (as Adso so insightfully points out), no God to give meaning since to say there is an order in the universe limits God's absolute sovereignty (at this point, Dooyeweerdians and VanTillians should cringe, but the book is written in the middle ages when the Philosopher reigned supreme). Even the book, such a wonderful chronicle, ends with a depressing "I don't know why I'm even writing this." It does, however, bring up the question that every humanistic philosophy must deal with: if man is not transcendent, how can he apply lasting meaning to any part of reality? Eco, himself not a Christian (as far as I can tell), answers it by correctly saying, "He can't." All man has is signs, but they don't point to any true order, intepretations change and signs can point in many different directions at once. In other words, without some human standard, mankind is lost in translation.

Another interesting thing is how this movie is juxtaposed with its cinema rendition. While the ultimate meaning of the book is meaningless, the movie tends to say that love--even sinful love--conquers all the narrow-mindedness of the world, especially the religious world. This is shown in the love story between Adso and the peasant girl and the story of William and his love of rationality. Concerning Adso and the girl, the juxtaposition is most extreme. In the book, their carnal encounter is beautifully and tastefully narrated with direct quotations and allusions to the Song of Songs, whereas in the movie it borders on the pornographic. In the book, the peasant girl says to Adso that he is "young and handsome", in her vernacular, whereas in the movie all she can do is grunt like an ape. In the special features section of the DVD, Eco is interviewed and grants interpretive license to the movie makers (how delightfully postmodern), which in essence changes the book's content and message. The develops a sense of irony that Eco elaborates in the appendix to the book's revised version: there is no innocence, what we can say has already been said and we now know it.

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