Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose is a medieval whodunit written in the style of a postmodern Dostoevsky. I call it Dostoevskian because the murder mystery, set almost entirely in the confines of a 13th-century monastery, is propelled along most significantly by thoughtful (even philosophical) dialogue more effectively than anything else. I call it postmodern because the thrust of the philosophical dialogue seems more at home in our era than perhaps the one in which the story occurs (although I am not well-read enough in medieval history to be able to accuse Eco of anachronism).
No doubt, as my friend Colin pointed out, this is reader-response-hermeneutician Umberto Eco's literary magnum opus. As the plot and the sparkling dialogue unravel the reader is led to question not only the solidity of the link between words and meaning but also the link between thinking and reality. As a reader I must admit my surprise at the ending. I was anticipating something more sure and epistemologically optimistic. What I got was almost the opposite. It is probably no coincidence that the day I finished the book was also the day my blog post consisted of five words over and over: "Nothing I want to say."
For those who have a heart for some deeper thought, this book is certainly up there on the list of "must reads" from the last century. Even for those who have less of a penchant for such a thing, it would still be a good read. The murder mystery and the investigation are certainly quite gripping. The riddle of the labyrinthian library is also very enjoyable reading. The only place this book really fell short for me was in the area of setting and characterization. I never really felt all that drawn to any but the two main characters, and thus was not too emotionally invested in the crimes which drove the plot along. I also felt like there was great potential for captivation at the monastery-setting, but never felt like it grabbed me like it might have.
That said, it is no doubt that Eco's driving force was meant to be the investigator's thought processes and the dialogues he initiated, and in that regard with this novel he hit a home run. Thus I give it an 8/10 on the strength of this "postmodern Dostoevskian" brilliance.
Furthermore . . . . For those who have read the book (or want to take a stab at it) I offer the following excerpts for discussion:
I was particularly blown away and admittedly perplexed particularly by the following lines (which readers will recognize from the center and the climax of the book):
"The science Bacon spoke of rests unquestionably on these propositions. You understand, Adso, I must believe that my proposition works, because I learned it by experience; but to believe it I must assume there are universal laws. Yet I cannot speak of them, because the very concept that universal laws and an established order exist would imply that God is their prisoner, whereas God is something absolutely free, so that if He wanted, with a single act of His will He could make the world different. . . . In any case, this tells you why I feel so uncertain of my truth, even if I believe in it" (207).
"'The order that our mind imagines is like a net, or like a ladder, built to attain something. But afterward you must throw the ladder away, because you discover that, even if it was useful, it was meaningless. . . . The only truths that are useful are instruments to be thrown away. . . . It's hard to accept the idea that there cannot be an order in the universe because it would offend the free will of God and His omnipotence. So the freedom of God is our condemnation, or at least the condemnation of our pride.'
I dared, for the first and last time in my life, to express a theological conclusion: 'But how can a necessary being exist totally polluted with the possible? What difference is there, then, between God and primigenial chaos? Isn't affirming God's absolute omnipotence and His absolute freedom with regard to His own choices tantamount to demonstrating that God does not exist?'
William looked at me without betraying any feeling in his features, and he said, 'How could a learned man go on communicating his learning if he answered yes to your question?' I did not understand the meaning of his words. 'Do you mean,' I asked, 'that there would be no possible and communicable learning any more if the very criterion of truth were lacking, or do you mean you could no longer communicate what you know because others would not allow you to?'
At that moment a section of the dormitory roof collapsed . . . . 'There is too much confusion here,' William said. 'Non in commotione, non in commotione Dominus'" (492-493).
Roughly translated I think that means "God is not in the confusion".
I don't know what I make of this conclusion. Former readers: Want to help me out?