Before settling into a discussion of The Name of the Rose, it’s best to dispel any visions of Sean Connery (William) and Christian Slater (Adso) monk-robing their way through 1986’s grayscale trudgefest. I watched the film after finishing the book, and if you watched it and enjoyed it, fantastic. If you didn’t watch or enjoy it, then take heart. The novel is a cornucopia of details, notions, visions, language, subtlety, subtext and tone in comparison. The film is the single stroke of a single color next to the canvas of a kaleidoscope.
However, this is also what preventing me from admitting, for a while, that I really, really loved The Name of the Rose. And make no mistake, I do.
My initial – and eventually subverted – reaction was that text was overly dialectic. For the first 150-200 pages (it takes a lot to convince me) I felt as though each conversation and each plot point was merely a didactic centerpiece – Adso interjecting during William’s monologues – and method for Eco to expunge some conundrum of historical-theological-literary theory that he’d been mulling over in his head for twenty years. There was nowhere for his saturation of mental information to go, and there was also no real pressing, inner thralldom driving Eco to write fiction; he just had a cool idea for a story and filled it with a lot (A LOT) of facts that practically spilled out his skull the second they found an avenue for release. At least, this is what it felt like for the first third of the book, till I got accustomed to his style and saw what I believe his purpose was.
Until then, it was the tone that held me. I found it odd that a playful tones, almost whimsical at times and sardonic at others, knowingly pervaded the text like a wink. That combined with fascination at how one mind could apparently house and redistribute into prose an athenaeum’s worth of knowledge.
The light, nearly carefree tone was especially interesting given the hefty topics at play (medieval monks, their prayer time, penance, morally nuanced discussions about Biblical interpretation, the afterlife, libraries full of hand-copied tomes, lost pince-nezzes). The main character William doesn’t really have what you’d describe as a conventional “arc”. Instead, the arc belongs to the main character’s companion and monk-in-training Adso. William more or less confirms what he already knows, but Adso’s naivety and youth are fully overturned by the time he’s penning the book as its narrator.
In fact, at first I wondered entirely at the need for Adso’s character, which seemed only there to supply quiet interrogatives or exclamations that served to galvanize William’s next litany about medieval history, Christian theology, the fastidiousness of monks’ various roles as record-keepers and the daily routines that bound them across the abbeys of Western Europe and the UK. If Adso was not present, I reasoned, there would be no need for the text to be presented as a sort of epistolary piece, a fragment of text about something else. We could simply have the narrator tell the events as they occur. However, I do understand the purpose behind presenting the events of the story as an eyewitness account. Mundanity serves to balance the eventual extremes of ancient conspiracies and secret societies embedded in both the architecture of the narrative and the architecture of the abbey, its dusty texts and suppressed history. If you’re wondering what Dan Brown might write after thirty years of professorship and linguistics training, then by all means, pick up this book instead.
William himself is a wry English monk, a veteran clergyman and ex-inquisitor who’s “come to the light” about his own faith and renounced his inquisitorial status but still serves the church as a sort of ingenious 13th century Sherlock Holmes with a cowl. In this book he and his reputation are off to solve an insidious set of increasingly devious murder mysteries in a far-flung, but revered abbey known for its replete, arcane library and selectivity of those who access it. But this is all window dressing. The true story, most simply, is about Christendom’s struggle for its central identity within layer upon layer, century upon century of human corruption that has served to distort and mask a very simple, universal truths rather than reveal it. And of course, this is already the case by the time the book is set in the 14th century. I wonder what William would think about televangelists and mega-churches.
William’s wisdom and insight are the key to the entire piece of work. He is a skeptic, possibly even agnostic, and most certainly an early precursor to modern secular humanists (read: Catholics). It’s as though the wryness of his wit and wisdom are the means of expressing his awareness of the ultimate transience of his theology in a literalist, pedantic sense – the rituals, the clothing, the phrases, the trappings, so to speak. The resultant playfulness of tone is doubly a means for the reader to find an emotional escape route from the corruption of those beliefs, factions of infighting monks, the remnants of inquisition and torture, and the wrongful use of public power for cruel, personally motivated ends.
In this way Eco approaches a brutally serious set of topics in an almost airy and very self-aware way, which in turn marks the ultimate vindication of William’s core Christian beliefs – charity, love, understanding, care – because they are embedded in truths of the natural world and human familial and tribal structures that transcend any form of generation-to-generation institutionalized dogma. William, as Eco’s mouthpiece, shrugs, “What are you gonna do?” towards the twisted underbelly of Christianity around him. But, it’s because he’s accepted the ultimate impermanence of the individuals responsible, and even of his faith itself, in a liturgical sense, full of ever-shifting “truths”, that he is able to approach the events of the book with a certain acceptance that seems to at times border on nonchalance.
The playfulness of the tone also seemed to me a way for Eco to indicate to us, the readers, that he is in on the joke of his own nerdy, compulsive need to deconstruct every minor detail of Benedictine or Franciscan chronology and clash of power between the Pope and various groups vying for his favor or taking up arms against his overly centralized power.
As to the name of the book itself, there can be no clearer sign (literary pun!) of the semiotician in Eco. The edition of the book I myself have (Vintage, 2004) is a gorgeous edition with thicker paper and a lovely, bold cover art that includes in the back a bit of a background story from Eco regarding the creation of the book. He basically hand waves, “The name just sounded good”, but I’m going to go an additional step of unraveling how the title of the book does in fact tightly relate to the text at hand in a completely non-random way.
When looking at the name of the book, it’s clear simply by mouthing the words The Name of the Rose that the title is a puzzle of sorts, or a call to interpretation. It’s an outstretched hand that presents itself as a force to pull you inward that at the same time hints that you’ve got to be on your toes while you read if you want to pick up on the subtext, symbolism, etc.
The most obvious question there is to ask is: “Well, what is the name of the rose?” At least, this was my first read on it. Like, maybe the rose’s name is Bertrand, or Jesse, or Calliope. But then I saw the title as a sort of placeholder for an actual proper noun. In others words, what if the name of the book actually was Meredith or Krystal, and that name *was* the name of the rose. Instead, the title as it is more or less means, The Unspoken Name of That Rose That Is Named but Not Known. It’s as though the name of the rose was omitted and asks you, the reader, to find out what it is, or why it matters.
So then, why does it matter what the rose is named? This question is, given Eco’s background, very clearly semiotic. In short, the name of the rose is important because it is the only way to know that one, particular rose. And roses, on a whole, like any other group of nouns, are composed of individuals with shared characteristics. So if I use a word like “rose”, it’s a signifier that calls to a sign – the word on paper – which itself is an abstraction of a type of flower. Even though we have a fairly decent shared idea of what a rose is, and even though it’s a qualified species of a genus, none of us bring to mind the same image of a the object is I simply say the word “rose”.
Likewise, if I say crayon, or car, or lion, we can generally agree upon what these things are because they are concrete and fairly inflexible, much more so than words like integrity, normal, or worthy. And we can say: yes, a car is a car because of its clearly defined details, such as windshields and four wheels and a steering wheel inside, and a gear shift and a dashboard, etc. etc. A lion (if male) has that puffy fur around its neck called a mane, and is likely of a sandy color to better blend into the savannahs where he resides, and so on. But beyond that, we have to go to the most detailed level in order to truly know an individual, even as that individual is representative of a group and shares characteristics with the group.
If you get a new dog from the local shelter, it is no longer simply a dog, it is Rufus or Screwball or Tiptoe. It becomes a singular, individual thing that is no longer merely a type of thing – dog – but is unique and can be known on a one-on-one basic. It matters more, so to speak, on a personal level. Name it and it stays. Name it and know it. Name it and it’s hard to tear it away. Name it and it’s yours. Even the writer(s) of Genesis cite this understanding when they bestowed the power of naming on Adam. It represents true knowledge, awareness, and stewardship.
This semiotic backdrop speaks to us, the readers of The Name of the Rose, about how we ought to approach the text itself. No longer should we read about concepts like monks and abbeys as random, faceless dudes in cloaks in stony places scribing away by daylight only to rest their cramped hands on the way to pray at Nones. Here, in Eco’s text, is a way to get to know these monks as real, living individuals who were, fundamentally, no different from us. This idea is bolstered by the narrative itself, which presents all the monks in the story not as chaste, hopelessly pious individuals with no sense of the real world and what drives humans’ hearts, but as corrupt, derisive, even depraved individuals who are either just trying to make the best of their circumstances, or striving to collude via power plays and petty interpersonal struggles, using weaponized politics or abstract theology as an excuse for cruel behavior. Sound familiar?
At present, if I walked up to a random pedestrian in the street and said, “Hey, what do you know about medieval monks?” I’m betting the most I’d hear in response is, “Uh, yeah, they wore grey robes and lived away from people, right?” But now, because of Adso’s personal account (the narrative of the text) we can know these monks (read: roses) for who they actually were. We can know them by name. If this echoes the recent, brilliant film Call Me By Your Name, then ding ding ding, you’ve got an idea what the title of that movie (and its source material) mean.
And so what is the name of the rose? It’s each proper name in the text, each character and each life, the ones that Adso himself, decades after the events of the book, hasn’t forgotten, down to the details. The Name itself is a willingness to approach holy men as simply men, or any person as a person removed from the intrinsic biases of assumed power, group identity, or surface-level characteristics, and to see the fundamentals beyond role, station, or personal power. The name of the rose, whatever it is, is the only way to know the individual, and through the individual know the universal: a common person, fellow-feeling and identical in loves, desires, fears, and animosities. Truthfully, I can’t think of a better use for fiction, nor an era for which this lesson is more sorely needed.