Seeking knowledge is like walking through a labyrinth. One fact leads to another and another as you wind around its path. Some facts lead you away from the ultimate answer you’re seeking. Others might be hidden behind secret walls that you can’t pass through without some additional knowledge. Sometimes you’ll find yourself doubling back, revisiting information you’ve already passed through. You may despair of ever reaching the center, or you may decide that the journey is as important as the destination.
In Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, the idea of knowledge as a labyrinth is given shape in the form of a library that actually is a labyrinth. This library, housed at the 14th-century Italian monastery, may contain the key to a series of murders that have taken place there. Investigating the murders is the Franciscan friar William of Baskerville, who has come to the monastery with a novice Benedictine monk named Adso—the novel’s narrator—to help settle a theological conflict. When William and Adso arrive, the first death, an apparent suicide, has just occurred. Before long, there’s another death—this one an obvious murder—and the quest begins in earnest.
The murder mystery is one of several vehicles within the novel for discussing how people pursue truth. As he’s investigating, William gets into long conversations with the monks about such questions as whether laughter is sinful or whether poverty is a virtue. (The latter belief among the Franciscans is a source of significant conflict and one of the questions William has come to the monastery to address.) For many readers, these conversations are likely to seem pointless and distracting, but they’re key to the novel as they illustrate the way the characters think. In the end, we see that significant clues appear in some of the conversations. In addition, all of them circle around big epistemological questions. Epistemology—how we know what we know—is the theme; the murder mystery is but one example of how we see it play out. Here’s how William describes his approach:
In the case of some inexplicable facts you must try to imagine many general laws, whose connection with your facts escapes you. Then suddenly, in the unexpected connection of a result, a specific situation, and one of those laws, you perceive a line of reasoning that seems more convincing than the others. You try applying it to all similar cases, to use it for making predictions, and you discover that your intuition was right. But until you reach the end you will never know which predicates to introduce into your reasoning and which to omit. And this is what I am doing now. I line up so many disjointed elements and I venture some hypotheses. I have to venture many, and many of them are so absurd that I would be ashamed to tell them to you.
William’s hypotheses do lead him in a useful direction, but not in an obvious way. He gets a lot of things wrong, but his activities naturally influence the murderer. A pattern emerges that might not have appeared otherwise, and the pursuer and pursued end up in a strange collaboration as they “read” each other’s actions.
One of my favorite seminary classes was in medieval theology, and I loved being re-introduced to the medieval way of thinking in this book. (Actually, I think Eco might say that modern thought is so colored by medieval thought that we’ve never gotten away from it, nor should we want to.) It’s easy to mischaracterize the Middle Ages in Europe as the “Dark Ages” and ignore the incredible intellectual work that was done during the period. Eco delves deeply into religious, philosophical, and political thinking of the time and shows how sophisticated it truly was. In his lengthy postscript to the novel, he remarks that several readers identified some of the characters’ statements as being too modern, and those statements were always drawn directly from 14th-century sources.
On the flip side, Eco doesn’t act as an apologist for the period. William himself is a former Inquisitor who gave up his post in disgust at the use of torture and other corrupt practices. The church itself is shown to be horribly compromised, although there are enough bright spots to keep the novel from feeling like a diatribe against the church. Eco also lets the medieval characters be medieval, with all the unfortunate attitudes toward women and sex that this includes. This is not historical fiction in which to be good is to have 21st-century values.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I’m not sure it’s a book for every reader, although I do think it’s the most accessible of the three novels by Eco that I’ve read (the others being Foucault’s Pendulum and The Prague Cemetery). There are points when it drags, and it’s sometimes hard to follow the political machinations in the background. In his postscript, Eco says that he went against his editor’s advice to trim the opening chapters because he wanted to use those sometimes turgid passages to develop ideal readers who would go where he was willing to take them. I’m not sure I’m quite his ideal reader, but I was more than willing to go along on this ride, and I think it’s one I would enjoy taking again.
If you decide to read this, I strongly recommend that you get an edition with Eco’s postscript; in fact, the postscript by itself is a great read, filled with information about Eco’s method and about the nature of writing, reading, and knowledge. A fascinating capstone to a thrilling novel.
Translated by William Weaver.