Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Name of the Rose

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?


Colin Toffelmire said...

It's been quite a long time and I don't remember puzzling over the final bit of that discourse. I do remember the first discourse and the body of the second where Brother William is talking about the logical problem of God's omnipotence. I remember thinking then, and I still react this way now, that William points out what I've always thought was a flawed way of thinking about God, this Greek idea of omnipotence. I don't think that it fits with the logical and metaphysical categories of the OT's conception of God at any rate. This is one of those problems that has led to the rise of things like Openness theology.

I'll need to think more about that Latin phrase though...I think my Latin was so non-existent the first time around that I didn't know what the phrase meant and just gave it a miss.

As for your rating, I do agree about the characters. Particularly the victims are fairly meaningless. Though I would say that Eco may spend more time on the villains and the heretics because it's in the acts of those characters that some of the themes come out. I'm also willing to grant the problem with the physical setting (not the temporal setting, I thought that was wonderful...and Eco is a specialist in Medieval history so I imagine he got most of it right), though with one caveat. The chapel doorway with the scene from Revelation is absolutely wonderful and terrifying. It's also a spectacularly poignant reading of the Apocalypse. I'd give the book more than 8 myself, but I do understand your rationales at least. Glad you liked it in any case :).

Dale Harris said...

I haven't read it, but I remember the movie was pretty gripping/odd/dark.

jon said...

Basically I think the first and second paragraphs are saying that one cannot believe in both God and an order to the universe because God (by definition) would be free (and not imprisoned by some universal laws) to act how God wished. Thus the speaker (William) considers the freedom of God his condemnation because his powers of reason are unreliable, based what appear to be, but cannot be, universal laws. He considers himself condemned by this, or at least considers his pride (or ambition) condemned by it.

As for the third paragraph, Adso then surmizes that if there are no universal laws then God, as free, is ultimately conceived of as chaos. So to affirm an absolutely powerful and free God is to basically say that God does not really exist. At least not God in any meaningful sense of the word as differentiated from "primigenial chaos".

William's reply in paragraph four is then to say that this is not only disconcerting for the religious person, but for th thinker and/or teacher/communicator as well. If at base there is no order, no universal law, only chaos, then what is the point of teaching. (Or in the second of Adso's interpretations, what is the point of teaching this, since no one would let you?)

Thus in the final paragraph, "God is not in the confusion" is a saying with multiple possible meanings. It could be saying that all is confusion, so GOd is not. Or it could be saying that the result of this must be that God is not absolutely free but must be ordered. Or it could be speaking of the actual destruction of the monastery as a sign that GOd is not there. OR . . . what else?

There are two thing that this all brings to mind for me:

One is the truth that for all THINKING there must either be a belief in the usefulness of supposing an order to the universe (and letting it take you as far as you can get it to take you, whether it turns out true or not), or there must be an actual belief in an order to the universe. All thought is based on a first premise that is taken by faith.

The other thing is that, yes, if there is a free God, if we are to value reason at all it must be because we believe that this God has covenanted with the universe to keep universal laws (more or less) consistent.

In other words, I don't know about other belief systems or thought systems, but for mine it is pretty crucial that God is seen as creator, as covenanter, and as incarnated. Otherwise there is not much sense thinking about him, let alone desiring to know him, or ourselves, or anything for that matter.

I'm straying from Eco's point by now, but that's where the whole thing eventually led me.

What he'd probably rather is that the whole thing led to a discussion of hermeneutics, and that would be pretty interesting in itself. But as it concerned the God comments (and that final line which I believe is from 1 Kings), that's where it took me.

Ring any bells Colin? Thoughts others?

Colin Toffelmire said...

I don't know that it's fair to say Eco would like the conversation to lead to hermeneutics...he does write about other issues (though semiotics is really his thing).

Though on the hermeneutical point, my guess is that Eco either means all of the options you've presented or has deliberately encoded the ambiguity. The latter seems most likely to me.

Indeed, isn't this really a way of doing precisely what's been done to us when we read this? Making us wrestle with the inevitable paradox of existence? I don't care who you are, any honest thinker realizes that there is are paradoxes for both the theist and the atheist, and you've laid out one of the monster ones. Is it possible that the creation of the paradox is meant to drive the reader to an agnostic response?

Trev said...


Question for you. Why do you feel that universal order is something that one has to "believe" in and is requiring of faith?

I might be missing you on your meaning of "universal law/order".

jon said...

Well, let's put it this way, trev: How do we know what is is? Do we know that our ideas correspond to reality? How do we know that what we observe, and our interpretations of those observations, are true and reliable, not only today, but tomorrow?

I'm better at reading this stuff than stating it, but that's a brief attempt.

Trev said...

I'm not sure if my last comment got posted...hmmm...

Trev said...

Brutal, I don't think it did...

Ok, sorry if this thought shows up twice, round 2...


I think consistency (the sun rises every day without fail), accurate prediction (the sun will rise tomorrow) and repetition (the sunrise has always occoured in the same fashion) all lend a hand to what makes reality.

It would seem that we search for God in the unknown because we can't find him in the known. If that notion disturbs us, we turn our reality back into an unknown. Hence, "God in the gaps".

I will, without hesitation, make note of our own poor, subjective interpretations of reality, but it's not interpretation that I'm confronting. I'm questioning why the substance that's being interpreted requires faith and belief.

Eg. I hold up a pen in the middle of a room full of people. Everyone serves a different account of my actions: "he held up a tooth brush" or "he had a long, skinny finger protruding from an odd part of his hand" or "he was holding up a pen".

They all saw something. There was no faith required to observe the substance of my hand.

Is it reasonable to deny/forsake our own senses over the belief that we're actually just plugged into the Matrix? If that's the case though, what kind of game is God playing? Talk about taking predestination to a sick level.

Jon, it just sounds like a philosophical attempt to place responsibility of reality back in God's hands and out of our own. They're fun questions to ask ("is what is IS") but when the day is said and done, the sun sets, just as we predicted it would.

It fascinates me how the christian will sacrifice their own five senses to protect the sovereignty of God; where the atheist will sacrifice the sovereignty of god to protect their own five senses.

The true agnostic will sacrifice neither.

jon said...

Trev. Thanks for taking the time to interact with me here.

Let me be clear what I'm saying.

Eco's book really does raise these metaphysical philosophical and hermeneutical interpretive questions. And not only him but many prominent thinkers in our time. I'm not leading a charge here, but I find it really interesting and think it has good questions to ask. (And I don't think they are asked just for fun. The modern era really has dissolved into the postmodern, and these are very real questions being asked today).

Fact is that Eco questions how we could trust our reason at all if we believed in a God who was absolutely free. In this case we would have no reason to rely on any universal laws at all, since God is not bound to them and they could change in a second.

This is why I said that the doctrine of creation and the incarnation are important. Our Christian belief is that GOd is Free, but has covenanted with creation. Thus we can trust that reason has some bearing on reality.

I hope that makes sense.

I love the way you put it when you said "the christian will sacrifice their own five senses to protect the sovereignty of God; where the atheist will sacrifice the sovereignty of god to protect their own five senses. The true agnostic will sacrifice neither."

But I do disagree. Certainly if Christianity held that God was disconnected from this world and not committed to it at all then this would be true. But, again, the doctrine of creation and incarnation tell us differently. So it is worth it for us to think and to have faith at the same time.

And the atheist is acting completely consistent with the atheist's worldview. We can only trust our senses and so we go forward on this alone. This makes more sense to me than most religions do. And I have no problem with agnostics. I love agnostics. The honesty and searching is great (provided its there). But is it true that "agnostics sacrifice neither"?
How do they do that exactly? Wouldn't it be more true that the sacrifice both?

Don't hear me being antagonistic. I'm glad to be engaged with here and appreciate your thoughts!Hopefully I've clarified what I was trying to say, and have given some sensible sounding questions in return.

Trev said...

Hey Jon,

Thanks for taking time on this! I'll respond in order of your given points.

First three paragraphs -- yep, understood, I'm tracking with you (at least I think I am ;).

5th paragraph -- right, the transcendant versus the iminent. Let me explain what I meant about the atheist/christian parallel.

When an atheist looks at a rock, he can touch it, taste it, smell it, listen to it and see it. All these senses confirm that it is no more than a rock. The Christian will present an idea that it is more than just a rock ("the rocks will cry out") because they believe it is a product of creation/intelligent design, suggesting that the five senses are inadequate, even irrelevent. Hence, they will surrender their own physical senses lest they limit their god.

An atheist will happily discard the christian's idea of the rock because he sees no reason to betray, contradict or belittle his own senses; the same senses that keep him alive and well in daily life.

An agnostic will trust his five senses without discarding the christian's view of the rock. If the agnostic denied both, he would implode.

So I guess I'm looking at substance versus ideas. I don't think we need faith to acknowledge substance, but we need faith to subscribe to another person's idea of what that substance means beyond what our own five senses can tell us.

I think everyone, deep down inside, wants to believe in magic of some nature or another. The "unknown" is so appealing to us because it's still up for interpretation.

Another question for you Jon. Why do you believe in God?

jon said...

Big question there Trev! Didn't expect to see that when I looked in on the old blog...

The tricky part of answering that question is that you never know if the person is asking for a personal answer or is asking Why THEY should believe in God. If it is the former, then just telling one's story and one's convictions and experiences is enough. But if they are really asking the latter, they can rip apart any experience you've had and say "Well how am I supposed to believe in GOd based on your experience? ANd what sets yours apart from the Hindus, or whoever? And where's MY experience?" and so on. . .

Regardless, I'll trust you aren't being underhanded, and I'll answer it with both questions in mind. Besides, personal experiences never carried a lot of weight with me when it came to the "why" question, and I take it that this question is part of the larger discussion. So my answer is somewhere between personal story and apologetc treatise. Don't expect it to be either. It is what it is . ..

Another problem with the question is that it really only asks about God in general. So I could just say why I believe there is a God and leave it at that. It is another question entirely why I believe Jesus is God; and that changes everything!

But here goes:

I believe in God probably largely because I was brought up with it. I don't recall ever really thinking much about the world around me as anything but a created thing. I learned a lot about the Christian God. I accepted Jesus as God pretty early on. I didn't have many other options, but it did make a lot of sense to me that the world was good, had gone bad, and needed fixing, and that God had come (and is coming) to do that in Jesus. That really did make sense to me and so I swore by it.

Still makes the most sense to me now.

So the critic will say that my faith is a cultural one. Like everyone I adopted the faith I was taught.

I suppose. But I also grew up seeing the underbelly and crap of the Christian religion. By jr. high I had had enough of it. Also, being around Christian teaching so much I got to think a lot about each nitty gritty detail, and by college and since then was more than ready to rip it apart. I spent a good portion of my adolescence giving Christian teaching the cold shoulder. I have spent ever month since nearly questioning it to death. I have had doubts, I have had anger with the church, I have read up on other worldviews, and so on. At times I have rebelled and been stubborn; I have been cynical and jaded.

That doesn't give me pure objectivity, nor does it remove me from my upbringing's influence. Christianity has always been the default for me. But for me it is a faith that keeps coming back for more.

So now I believe God for entirely different reasons than I did growing up.

I believe in GOd because I find it much more sane and compelling to view the world (with all its order and personalities and social and moral dynamics and longings for community and so on) as something with a Personal origin (i.e. the Triune God) rather than as the result of impersonal forces (i.e. evolutionary processes on one lucky sphere in the multiverse).

I also believe in God because of things like artistic beauty and scientific discovery. It seems to me there is an Artist who wants to be discovered.

I also find it more likely that the many religions and god-myths of the ages have been after something that is there than that they have been mere projections of the ambitious human race.

I am fully aware that there are other ways to look at all these things, and that therefore there is a reasonable doubt. I won't pretend that I have crossed from belief to certainty. It is a faith.

But then there are those personal experiences. I have prayed and read the Bible and found it not only bang-on about life, but about my life. Often it has been right where I've been wrong. It corrects and challenges me in ways I later find true and good, but at the time do not go looking for. It also has this simplicity to it that makes it accessible and yet a profundity that allows it to rise to every question and never leaves even its most serious student feeling as if they have solved it forever. I believe the Bible to be God's Word.

I believe that life makes most sense--both on a historical, global and a local, personal scale--as part of the Christian "story". I've heard other explanations for life as we know it and don't feel they hit the mark on as many levels as they need to.

And in order to avoid Jesus I'd have to be a historical revisionist with an a priori decision not to admit the possibility of miracles.

I could go on, but basically I'm saying that I believe in God in general, and then when I examine life and religion and art and sociology and so on I come to the conclusion that the God revealed to us in and by Jesus Christ is the one that makes most sense.

Then you add to that the fact that Jesus has changed my life and in fact saved me from a great many wayward and disastrous tendencies and darknesses, and, well, you've got the reason I believe in God.

This personal encounter would be one thing if it was just mine, or if it didn't make sense of a whole lot of the evidence about humanity being not-what-it's-supposed-to-be, but I line up my encounters with Jesus with those of millions before me and I line it up with the very problems and hopes and longings of our world, past and present, and I just think the Christ-ian story is THE STORY. There is SO MUCH more I could say about that. I mean, that's what I blog about half the time. There is just so much veracity to it. As Chesterton said: After a while you see it not so much as a Truth you've arrived at once and for all but as a Truth-telling thing.

I could go on, and will not pretend I've written a great apologetic masterpiece above, but I hope that answers your question somewhat, however briefly and inadequately. I'd like to write more but I have a baby on my lap whose squirming has reduced me to typing with one finger.

Trev said...

Thank you for getting back to me Jon. I understand you have a busy life (Jeff has told me how the twins like to trade-off on nap schedules). So it means a lot to me that despite being reduced to one-finger-transcription, you gave a sincere and concise response.

Although, as you can imagine, it leads me to fifty (give or take) more questions, I'll refrain ;)

Perhaps we'll pick this up sometime in the future when life's craziness settles down a bit.

Thanks again Jon!

jon said...

Hmm, yeah, I feel like I'm shutting you down. Didn't mean to make it like that. But yeah, I don't want to get in over my head. I'd be happy to hear a few questions here though, just can't promise lengthy or amazing answers right now. Whether it is now or later that we discuss this further, I say keep asking, searching, finding.

Trev said...

No worries Jon, I'm a new dad -- all I have to do is multiply my duties as a father by 4 and I probably get an idea of how busy you are! (I'm shamelessly over-simplifying for personal pleasure).

I made a comment on the "Mythographer" site (I swear I'm not stalking you!), perhaps what little conversation you can partake in can happen over there.

I was so pleased with our recent exchange that I just had to copy/paste it onto my blog, hope that's ok.

Talk to 'ya later.

jon said...

sounds good, and congrats! i'd heard you'd become a father, but somehow forgot.