The Name of the Rose

by Umberto Eco

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1854

      Entering a book as wonderfully rich and complicated as The Name of the Rose is both exhilarating and frightening. Where to begin? How to read? What ought a reader do with the vast quantities of information Eco spills out on every page? One helpful way of entering the text is to first consider two of Eco’s controlling metaphors—the labyrinth and the encyclopedia—then to examine the idea of the model reader, and finally to imagine a number of possible (but by no means exhaustive) entry points.

      That Eco wants readers to consider the idea of the labyrinth is clear. Early in the book, Abo tells William to beware of the library: “The library defends itself, immeasurable as the truth it houses, deceitful as the falsehood it preserves. A spiritual labyrinth, it is also a terrestrial labyrinth. You might enter and you might not emerge.” In addition, Eco has written extensively on the idea of the labyrinth in his essays on semiotics. Rochelle Sibley, in her chapter “Aspects of the Labyrinth in The Name of the Rose: Chaos and Order in the Abbey Library,” both reviews and comments on Eco’s use of labyrinths. According to Sibley, Eco classifies labyrinths in three ways: the “classical;” the “Mannerist maze;” and the “rhizome,” or net. The classical labyrinth has just one path in and out, and no decisions are required of the labyrinth walker. The maze, on the other hand, has several entrances, and many dead ends, cross roads, and mis-directions. The abbot’s statement to William seems to refer to this kind of labyrinth; there is always the danger that those entering a maze may become so hopelessly lost that they will never find their way out. Indeed, it is this notion of the labyrinth that may intimidate readers of The Name of the Rose. For readers accustomed to thinking about the labyrinth as a maze where one must choose the right path to reach the center, or heart of the maze, choosing the “right” path into The Name of the Rose is nothing if not daunting. What if the reader makes a mistake and finds him or herself in a blind alley? Further, given the sheer number of entry points the novel offers, choosing just one may prove an impossibility.

      However, Eco posits a third kind of labyrinth which he calls the rhizome or net. Sibley quotes Eco’s definition of a net from Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (1984):

The main feature of a net is that every point can be connected with every other point, and, where connections are not yet designed, they are, however, conceivable and designable. A net is an unlimited territory. . . . the abstract model of a net has neither a center nor an outside.

      Thus, in a rhizome, a labyrinth walker may move from point to point because all points are connected. Moreover, the pathways between the points are not yet fully defined; connections may still be made. Considering the labyrinth in this sense provides the reader with nearly endless possibilities for interpretation. Indeed, wandering in a rhizome ought not elicit fear, but rather laughter, as the reader moves from node to node, recognizing that walking in circles in this kind of maze is not necessarily a bad thing, as new connections might reveal themselves at any moment. As Jorge Hernández Martín writes in his book Readers and Labyrinths: Detective Fiction in Borges, Bustos Domecq and Eco, “The possibilities for reading The Name of the Rose are as varied as the many individuals who appropriate the text by their readings.”

      An additional metaphor employed by Eco that is helpful in reading The Name of the Rose is the encyclopedia. Again, this term surfaces primarily in Eco’s semiotic work, and it has technical meanings beyond the scope of this essay. Nonetheless, the reader of The Name of the Rose can think of an encyclopedia in the more common usage of the term: a collection of knowledge, comprised of many sources, categorized and organized so that that a reader can move from topic to topic. Not surprisingly, delving into an encyclopedia often pushes a reader to make new connections. The encyclopedia is a particularly apt metaphor for a novel set in the Middle Ages, which was a time of great encyclopedists. As Christina Farronato observes in her book Eco’s Chaosmos: From the Middle Ages to Postmodernity, “The medieval thinkers had an encyclopaedic approach to the reality of the universe. They elaborated a series of encyclopaedias that served to catalogue every object or event in the universe.” Moreover, the fourteenth century in particular was a time of great social, religious, and political upheaval. Consequently, the medieval encyclopedists felt great pressure to recover and preserve the treasure troves of knowledge endangered by the fall of Rome and the crises of their own time.

      Eco uses the notion of encyclopedia on a personal level. Each person is like a continually growing encyclopedia. Thus, for Eco, The Name of the Rose is not merely a novel, but also a cataloguing of his own encyclopedia. It is this encyclopedia that creates the labyrinth and the world of the novel. Why is this important for the reader to know? Because the way a reader brings his or her own encyclopedia to bear on The Name of the Rose will deeply impact the text the reader and the author collaboratively create. As Eco writes in the “Postscript,” “What model reader did I want as I was writing? An accomplice, to be sure, one who would play my game.”

      Consequently, because Eco’s encyclopedia is vast, there are many The Name of the Rose novels. It is in format a detective novel. Thus, readers who are aficionados of this genre will have no difficulty recognizing William of Baskerville and Adso of Melk as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. In addition, these readers know from their own experience that there will be murders to be solved and evidence to observe. However, because Eco is also playing a game with the reader, most reader expectations of how the crime will be solved are undermined, not because the crimes go unsolved, but because William turns out to be utterly wrong in his assessment of the situation. He tells Adso, “I have never doubted the truth of signs, Adso; they are the only things man has with which to orient himself in the world. What I did not understand was the relation among signs. I arrived at Jorge through an apocalyptic pattern that seemed to underlie all the crimes, and yet it was accidental.” For the reader of detective novels, such an admission is unheard of; although the detective might follow several blind leads, he or she ought to always find the truth in the end. In The Name of the Rose, however, William simply finds accident, not order, and chaos, not truth.

      Readers who hold the literature of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges in their personal encyclopedias, likewise, will have no difficulty recognizing other structural influences. Eco uses several of Borges’s stories; he also creates the character of Jorge of Borgos as a blind librarian. Any reader of Borges knows that Borges himself was both a librarian, and blind. Specifically, Eco borrows both style and content from Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” a story that opens with these lines: “I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia.” Borges goes on to write about the loss of an article in an encyclopedia and his search to recover it. The story is remarkably similar to the opening of The Name of the Rose, called by Eco, “Naturally, a Manuscript.” The insertion of a labyrinth in The Name of the Rose also has its roots in another short story by Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths.” In this story, Borges creates a labyrinth that is not a physical labyrinth, but is instead a book. Finally, in Borges’s famous detective story, “Death and the Compass,” the detective follows a series of clues that seem to point to a particular pattern. He fails to apply Ockham’s razor, “the principle that one should not postulate the existence of a greater number of entities or factors when fewer will suffice,” according to Frederick C. Copleston’s Medieval Philosophy. Instead, the detective chooses an elaborate pattern based on the Cabbala to explain a series of murders. Like William, this detective finally finds the answers he seeks, but only accidentally.

      Finally, readers who bring to the novel an encyclopedia that includes knowledge of medieval history, literature, philosophy, aesthetics, and religion will find a very different kind of reading and will find evidence of Eco’s use of Roger Bacon, William of Ockham, and Thomas Aquinas, among many others. Such a reader will understand the intricacies of the debate between the papal legation and the Franciscans, and will delight in the finer points of orthodoxy and heresy. It is also likely that such a reader will have at least a rudimentary knowledge of Latin, and perhaps German, and so, will find the text less opaque than readers who do not know these languages.

      There are countless entries into the labyrinth that is The Name of the Rose, some of them not even yet discovered. This is because, according to Teresa De Lauretis in her essay “Gaudy Rose: Eco and Narcissism,” The Name of the Rose “is a novel made up almost entirely of other texts, of tales already told, of names either well known or sounding as if they should be known to us from literary and cultural history; a medley of famous passages and obscure quotations, specialized lexicons and subcodes . . . and characters cut out in strips from a generic World Encyclopedia.” Lauretis here echoes Adso’s epiphany:

Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library seemed all the more disturbing to me. It was then the place of long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or had been their conveyors.”

      Eco welcomes readers into the murmuring labyrinth he has created in The Name of the Rose, and eagerly shares his encyclopedia with those readers who dare to play his game. He invites readers to move quickly from node to node, seeking knowledge, building connections, seemingly finding a pattern in the novel, and in the world. In the end, however, The Name of the Rose does not offer a glimpse of the truth at all, but rather provides only Adso’s “lesser library . . . a library made up of fragments, quotations, unfinished sentences, amputated stumps of books.”

Source: Diane Andrews Henningfeld, Critical Essay on The Name of the Rose, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

 

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