Frank Kermode on the horse of the Baskervilles

  • The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver
    Secker, 502 pp, £8.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 436 14089 6

Semiotics is a fashionable subject, but semioticians do not normally become international best-sellers, which is the fate that, in apparent violation of this familiar cultural assumption, has befallen the Professor of Semiotics at Bologna, Umberto Eco. Academic novelists aren’t rare, of course, but it’s hard to think of one who regards fiction as not only entertainment but material for the practice of a professional discipline. Eco’s novel is a very complicated instance of what he would call semiosis, of the production of signs and their vicissitudes in a network of codes. It also contains many disquisitions on semiotics and related subjects. If that were all, it might be expected to give keen pleasure to a rather small audience: but it seems to go down well with a very large one. That is because it is also, for the most part, as lively and interesting as it is weird and extravagant.

Eco’s best-known book before this one was his Theory of Semiotics (1976), a vigorous but difficult treatise. One point it makes is that signs are not meaningful in themselves but only in relation to the codes in which they are seen to function: a sign, that is, means nothing save in terms of a network of changing relationships. It has no fixed referent beyond the codes, whose relationship to the world is determined by cultural predispositions, and is thus fundamentally arbitrary. It is accordingly possible to understand a set of facts or clues in very different ways, for the reading depends on the code chosen. This state of affairs is well known, whether by intuition or ratiocination, to writers of detective stories. That a cultural assumption may lead to false interpretation of clues is a donnée of all those crime stories in which a nursery rhyme seems to provide a key to a sequence of murders – Ten Little Indians, for instance. And of course the work of the detective often consists in distinguishing between the apparent relations of the clues, which might well be a creation of the murderer (intuitively or otherwise aware of our weakness for pre-established or coded consonance), and a relation more occult, arbitrary and novel, which happens to be the right one. Eco makes some mention of this literary convention in his Theory, where he contrasts clues with symptoms. Red spots on the face mean ‘this child has measles’: but clues can be falsified and are seldom coded. Their interpretation ‘is a matter of complex inference ... which makes criminal novels more interesting than the detection of pneumonia’.

It is not difficult, then, to see why Eco might want to try his hand at some kind of detective novel, like many a don before him, though with a special semiotician’s twist. But this book has so much in it that differs from any known kind of detective story that we must look to Eco’s pre-semiotic career for help. He began as a Medievalist, and his first book was about scholastic philosophy. Evidently he takes extraordinary pleasure in the art and architecture, the learning and the politics, of the 13th and 14th centuries: a world ‘so organised’ – to quote again from Theory of Semiotics – ‘that a cultural unit corresponding to say “transubstantiation” could find a place within it, i.e. could be a precisely segmented portion of the content of a given cultural background’. The background included fantastically elaborate symbolic systems for herbs, gems, devils and vast agglomerative allegorical codes. Eco likes to describe these as they might have appeared to a forward-looking monk who had been a disciple of Roger Bacon, and therefore believed in machines and science, and a friend of William of Ockham, and was therefore opposed to the multiplication of beings (and signs), sceptical of universals, a sort of proto-semiotician but also a common-sense Englishman, suspicious of Continental flimflam. He is called William of Baskerville, and takes drugs to assist intuition, though he appears not to play a musical instrument.

In case all this sounds a bit tricky to lovers of the historical novel, it should be added that Eco gives his story a solid foundation in the politics and theology of the early 14th century. John XXII is Pope in Avignon. A decision of his predecessor had opened a division among the Franciscans by relaxing the original Rule in respect of poverty. The Spiritual Franciscans, who adhered to the letter of the Rule, were condemned by John, and became allied to his mighty opposite, the Emperor Louis of Bavaria. So the Pope, anyway much disliked in Italy and England because he was French and preferred French cardinals, had more than one grudge against the Spiritual Franciscans, who were his enemies in politics as well as in doctrine.

The Emperor had his own theological supporters, notably Marsilio of Padua, an intellectual imperialist in the tradition of Dante; and William of Ockham was to support the Spirituals on the issue of poverty. But they were disobedient and in certain respects heretical at a time when it was very dangerous to be so. In the previous century the successes of the Cathars and other heretics had led to the development of the Inquisition, which retained the equipment necessary to deal with the extremists among the Fraticelli, as they came to be called. Among them there were those who had a special animus against John XXII because of their Joachimite opinions.

These men accepted the teaching of Joachim of Fiore and his followers: a new age should have started about 1250, organised by doctrinally pure Franciscans; and one of the signs of this new age would be the advent of the Angelic Pope. John XXII in Avignon was clearly not this personage. The logic of the situation as the Spirituals understood it is neatly expressed by Marjorie Reeves: ‘the true Pope could not err, the Rule of St Francis could not be modified, therefore a pontiff who did so and manifestly erred must be the pseudo-Pope of prophecy.’ John XXII, then, was the pseudo-Pope, or Antichrist. To get all this straight, Eco introduces into his novel the historical figure of Ubertino of Casale, who had been an influence on Dante, and who believed that the Papal assault on the Spirituals was the final conflict with Antichrist. There was an imperialist element in this kind of apocalyptic speculation, for there was also expected an emperor, probably a Hohenstaufen, who would preside with the Angelic Pope over a renewed world in a Third Age. The desire for such an emperor led to all sorts of extraordinary charismatic outbursts, familiar from the work of Norman Cohn. Fra Dolcino, one of the chiliasts Cohn mentions, figures prominently in Eco’s book.

The story is supposed to be told by an old Benedictine monk, Adso of Melk, writing near the end of the 14th century. As a very young man he had become the scribe of William of Baskerville, who, equipped with his newfangled spectacles, compass and hallucinogens, undertook a mission on behalf of the emperor. The Pope, professing a desire to mend his relations with the Order, has summoned the General of the Franciscans to Avignon, They fear a trick; John will perhaps arrest the General and have him tried for heresy. It is arranged that a delegation from Avignon will meet representatives of the other side for preliminary discussions at a Benedictine abbey in Tuscany; and William, with his scribe, makes his way there to attend the discussions. However, he discovers on arrival that a monk has just been murdered, and the abbot asks him to investigate.

This narrative is doubly framed. There is a joky introduction describing how the author discovered Adso’s manuscript, and a prologue in which Adso provides information about the general political scene. This is also whimsical (‘heaven grant,’ he says of John XXII, ‘that no pontiff take again a name now so distasteful to the righteous’). And there are bits of fun like this in the story itself. This taste for pleasantry doesn’t prevent Eco from going all out in his creation or reproduction of period detail. The abbey is very minutely described, and its plan appears on the endpapers – though we are denied the help given to Italian readers, who also have a plan of the labyrinth. The heart of the abbey is its library, which preserves, under the protection of various secret signs and architectural complexities, all the learning of the past, licit and illicit. It seems that in the most secret recesses there is a book thought by somebody to be so dangerous that it ought to be kept from readers even if to do so necessitates the killing of monk after monk. Of course that is only one possibility.

William of Baskerville interpolates into his inquiries many lectures on logic, poison, love, metaphor, poverty, laughter, heresy, the millennium, and so forth; he is by no means our only informant, for Adso picks up elsewhere all sorts of information about the Cohn-like vagrants, about necromancy and witchcraft; but, as the abbot seems to notice, William, who also has long periods of simply lying down and doing nothing, exhibits a strange lack of urgency, especially considering that monks are being put down at the rate of one a day. He is interested in everything as an instance of meaning-production; and right at the outset we get a simple introduction to his semiotic detective methods. As he rides up to the abbey with Adso they meet a band of monks and servants led by one who announces himself as the cellarer, and greets them courteously. William thanks him, the more appreciative of his courtesy in that the cellarer is engaged in an urgent search.

  ‘But don’t worry. The horse came this way and took the path to the right. He will not get far, because he will have to stop when he reaches the dungheap. He is too intelligent to plunge down that precipitous slope ... ’

  ‘When did you see him?’ the cellarer asked.

  ‘We haven’t seen him at all, have we, Adso?’ Wiliam said, turning toward me with an amused look. ‘But if you are hunting for Brunellus, the horse can only be where I have said.’

  ‘ ... Brunellus? How did you know?’

  ‘Come come ... it is obvious you are hunting for Brunellus, the abbot’s favourite horse, fifteen hands, the fastest in your stables, with a dark coat, a full tail, small round hoofs, but a very steady gait; small head, sharp ears, big eyes. He went to the right, as I said ... ’

A few minutes later the servants come back rejoicing, leading Brunellus. Adso, of course, asks how it was done. The world, William explains, is an endless array of symbols, some obscurely related ‘to the ultimate things’, some speaking clearly of what is at hand. William had observed a horse’s footprints in the snow, headed to their left. From the spacing and the shape he could tell that the hoofs were small and round, and that the animal was galloping regularly, not in a panic. Above, some twigs were broken off at a height of about five feet, and some long black hairs had caught in a bramble. What about the small head, sharp ears and big eyes? Well, whether the horse had these features or not, the people of the abbey would think it did: Isidore of Seville affirms that beauty in a horse requires them. The missing horse must be the finest in the stable, for otherwise the cellarer wouldn’t turn out himself to conduct the search, he would send stableboys; being a monk, the cellarer would be able to see an excellent horse only in the light of what the auctoritates say such a horse ought to be. Why Brunellus, though? Well, in logical examples, horses are always given that name.

The method, then, is Holmesian, with a touch of upmarket Father Brown, and a dash of semiotics. Using it in conjunction with his vast learning, William solves the problem of the library, understands the repeated discussion of comedy and laughter, and evaluates the relevance of the apocalyptic symbolism which heavily punctuates the narrative – whether correctly or not perhaps depends on one’s own reading of the final scenes.

Here one is compelled to treat the book as a detective story, and prevented from saying what really needs to be said about the coding operations, whether of the type that diagnoses pneumonia or the type that interprets novel constellations of clues. Perhaps one can enigmatically say that carnival and metaphor, inversions of normal cultural style, may, as Aristotle possibly hinted, be enemies of the normal and the literal, without being enemies of the truth. And since in our own time we have seen a major change in the understanding of signs, and also a serious reappraisal of the meaning of carnival, it may appear that Eco is alluding to this more recent renovatio when he sets against the stored and controlled learning of the Benedictine library the anti-traditionalist scepticism of the modernist William.

But that certainly makes the book sound too heavy. I am told by Italian friends that Eco is not considered to be a writer of very distinguished prose, but his translator William Weaver contrives to give him, in English, an extraordinary richness and energy. This is true, for example, of the breathless descriptions of heretical vagrants and frauds, of the abbot on the abbey’s possessions, of Adso’s one-night affair with a village girl, after which William discourses on the relation between physical and spiritual love. There is a dream of Adso’s, a dream of carnivalesque reversals which is a remarkable feat of invention (if, as I ignorantly assume, the book Caena Cypriani, which is said to be its source, is also Eco’s invention). Another achievement is the coming together of the diplomatic and the murder plots; when the Papal delegation arrives the inquisitor takes a hand, ensuring the failure of the peace move, and handing out a tremendous grilling (probably based on the plentiful records of the Inquisition) to a monk suspected of both heresy and murder.

In one of his lectures to Adso, William observes that ‘books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means ... ’ So perhaps one ought to treat this book as a complicated footprint from which to infer horses and the names of horses. Certainly it has itself something of the carnival spirit, and something of Borges and perhaps the Nabokov of Pale Fire. People not particularly interested in receiving detailed instruction on 14th-century imagery, theology and philosophy may find some of the supply of information redundant, and although I have observed the conventions about giving too much away, single-minded lovers of detective fiction may find their progress a bit painful. But take it all together and The Name of the Rose, though it complies with no genre (logically it couldn’t, it must be ageneric), is a wonderfully interesting book – a very odd thing to be born of a passion for the Middle Ages and for semiotics, and a very modern pleasure.