Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Sign of the Rose - on Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco, the scholar, semiotician, and writer, was a touchstone for me as both a theorist and practitioner, for what he wrote and how he thought about writing.

Some books, a handful over a lifetime perhaps, have the authentic power to change how we think, and I still remember reading my father's copy of The Name of the Rose while on holiday, in a car by the lake in the rain, through the long evenings in the High Country bach without TV, captivated by the mix of whimsey, mystery, medievalism, and ideas that this singular novel combined. The Name of the Rose is more than a mystery about a book, it traces the mystery of books themselves: how, why, and for what we might read, and why that matters. Its qualities are too much to contain in a single blog post, but it was compelling enough that I have long used The Name of the Rose as a measure of the kind of books I wanted to write: intelligent, atmospheric, and entertaining.

Years later, as I worked on my Masters dissertation on detective fiction, The Name of the Rose was an obvious choice, and it was then that I also began to delve into the other labyrinth of Eco's thought: semiotics and literary theory. His thinking was dense, sometimes mathematical, but I found in it also a rigor, not to mention a humor and humanity, absent from the linguistic vagaries and anti-humanism (not to mention the anti-realism) of the deconstructionists. Eco, to my mind, saw that the text was a machine for generating interpretations, that metaphor sparked in the friction between signifier and signified, that intertextuality was a labyrinth and that fictional worlds were grounded in a sort of encyclopedia. But that did not mean that any interpretation was viable, or that the map was also the terrain without reference to anything else. Perhaps because he was also an author, Eco's work was sensitive to the role of the reader and the writer, to the endless fascination and pleasures of story-making.

As I learnt from Eco, semiotics anchor reading and writing as clues anchor detection. And in honour of his methods, I will indulge in a little literary detection. The Name of the Rose (Il nome della rosa) is a fine and memorable title, but there is very little reference to it in the actual text (which deals with monks, libraries, heresies, witchcraft, murder, and hermeneutics, among other things), so what does the title allude to? It is attractive to think of Juliet's remark (a rose by any other name) as a kind of appeal to realism, but this hardly connects with the mystery. On the other hand, we have a labyrinthine library guarded by a blind librarian whose name happens to be Borges. Now, Jorge Luis Borges wrote two stories about a rose, and though one, "The Rose of Paracelsus", serves our purpose only indirectly, the other, "A Yellow Rose", ends on the same note of skepticism as The Name of the Rose:
Marino saw the rose as Adam might have seen it in Paradise, and he thought that the rose was to be found in its own eternity and not in his words; and that we may mention or allude to a thing, but not express it; and that the tall, proud volumes casting a golden shadow in a corner were not — as his vanity had dreamed — a mirror of the world, but rather one thing more added to the world.
The writer's rose, the semiotician's sign, the detective's clue: they refer to things but do not capture them, they are hints, allusions, pointers. Writing is not a mirror of the world, which persists beyond words, but our faltering attempt to trace it, the only knowledge we have to hold on to.

Farewell, maestro!