Books

Sweetness

The Name of the RoseThe Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First read in 2001

And so now I feel free to tell, for sheer narrative pleasure, the story of Adso of Melk, and I am comforted and consoled in finding it immeasurably remote in time… gloriously lacking in any relevance for our day, atemporally alien to our hopes and our certainties… For this is a tale of books

The Name of the Rose has a throwaway frame story that makes many new senses of an already extremely polysemous labyrinth of signs. When I feel myself struggling to keep up with the highly detailed (meticulously researched or ingeniously imagined) accounts of ecclesiastical wranglings, fierce (occasionally hilarious) debates of heresies and controversies I feel the frame-story-readers also shifting their attention, perhaps becoming bored, waiting for the next piece of murder-mystery action to unfurl, or the next tasty morsel of quotidian detail, the next Song-of-Songs inspired poetic flight on the subject of love, the next list or Latin phrase, the next piece of the secret puzzle, whatever floats your boat… it’s all here, something for everyone.

For all this detail is Adso’s world, and its excess gives his account its realism. Fortunately, Eco is a superb writer and savourer of writing; all of the detail is lush and luxuriant, as if to make this book a psalter illuminated with fanciful marginalia. Here are villagers hunting for truffles, slaughtering the pigs; here are the needlessly long names recounted for their music (Akutagawa also sometimes named his characters to embroider the surface of his stories), and here is the little complaint rebelliously written by the tired monk.

I love how the brilliant master of deductive thinking is from ‘Baskerville’, and I love his character as a person who reveres doubt, genius and good sense. I love how the object of desire, terrible as an army with banners, flings away the fleshy heart that brought her to the abbey. I love how the mechanical monkish misogyny and homophobia are carefully, quietly unwritten, uninscribed, unsignified by actions and absences, and how love/lust/desire is transformed in feeling-thought into sharpened faculties and connection to materiality and community

Reading this right after
The Truth About Stories
I am especially sensitive to the hierarchical and authoritarian tendencies of the Christian world-view that are well exemplified in this book. The hint that laughter could overturn the hierarchy of mind and matter delights me. I’ve read that Aquinas drew on Aristotle to enrich the weak moral and epistemological philosophy offered by Christ’s teachings, and it’s fascinating to see how resistance to this might have looked: the idea that those curious pagan Greeks were dangerous to the idea of perfect and complete scriptural revelation.

Oh and I love how all sorts of possible significances and meanings sort of run screaming into the denouement at least four times over, frustrated and muddled, how the unpredictability of nature reasserts itself after so many levels of order seemed to have been discerned in it, only to be brushed off and re-examined and re-ordered, as if sense-making is impossible to not do. We cannot look at a word in a language of our literacy and not read it.

In 1327, I think I would have been happiest a monk, singing all day, eating herb-stuffed pastries and poring over books, contemplating mysteries.

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2 thoughts on “Sweetness

  1. It was one of my favourite books at the time. The movie made from it made it come alive in many (but not all) ways. It did make me appreciate and accept solitude in a way

    1. I didn’t know there was a film but while I was reading I kept imagining film scenes… For me it’s community as opposed to nuclear family that appeals about the monastic life = )

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