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Book Group--The Name of the Rose [Oct. 19th, 2004|10:37 am]
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[coalescent]
It's come to my attention that not everyone nominates for the book group the way I nominate for the book group. I've been nominating books I want to read; books I haven't read before that I'm interested in. But when The Name of the Rose won, on finding out that I'd nominated it some people expressed surprise that I liked it, and I discovered that when they nominated something, they did it because they loved a book and wanted to share it with others. I'm not saying that one way of nominating is better than the other, just explaining something.

Not that I dislike the book. In fact, I enjoyed it once I got into it ... it's just that it took rather a long time for me to get into it, and even then I still had some problems with it. Some of those are, I'm sure, down to a lack of expertise. I know next to nothing about the period, and little in the way of philosophy; so all the comings and goings of Franciscans and Minorites and Dominicans and Benedictines left me somewhat bemused, and the lengthy debates about the importance of Christ's laughter failed to interest me until I started to realise their relevance to the larger plot. I think it was probably a good two hundred pages before the book really came alive for me, and until the last hundred before it became unputdownable; and I don't think I have a particularly deep understanding of the book, or its ideas. To achieve that, I feel as though I'd have to read at least half a dozen weighty academic texts, and then re-read the novel. If anyone wants to take me to task on nuances of politics or philosopy that I've missed, then, I'm not going to object.

Let's backtrack slightly, and make sure we're all on the same page: The Name of the Rose is a high-concept medieval murder-mystery. It gives us an isolated abbey that embodies a snapshot of the culture and politics of Italy and the Church at the end of the fourteenth century. Within the abbey are two things to pique the interest of the reader: an apparent crime, a death presumed to be a murder; and an extensive and mysterious library (which, we are relatively unsurprised to learn at the end of the book, is a sort of platonic library, the library of which all other libraries are only shadows on a cave wall). Investigating them both is a monk, William, who is (again, since he is 'of Baskerville', explicitly) Holmesian in his methodology, and accompanied by our narrator, Adso of Melk, who fulfills the Watson role but is not much like Watson in character.

I do think the concept is a thing of genius, if that wasn't obvious; transposing Sherlock Holmes into a context where he's a natural philosopher, a true seeker after all knowledge, is a great idea (it almost makes the 'real' Holmes seem another shadow on the cave wall), and for me it was the main thing sustaining my interest in the novel. I felt that other elements--the debates, the library, the murder investigation, the inquisitors--waxed and waned, some outstaying their welcome, some not staying long enough, but William was magnetic, and watching his deduction was as enjoyable to me as Doyle's original stories. It has to be said that it was slightly disturbing to sometimes imagine him speaking with the voish of Sean Connery, but even so he is for me the novel's strongest element.

The choice of protagonist is obviously quite deliberate, and not merely cool decoration, because it resonates so strongly with the novel's theme. The Name of the Rose is an examination of the purpose and application and scope of intellect and knowledge and wisdom. What else is a philosopher but a detective whose subject is reality? When the truth behind the deaths at the abbey is revealed, it's barely a stretch to say that the real poison is the misapplication of knowledge. It's also not a surprise that the ending amounts to a contrast between the Word of God and the word of the Philosopher--of man--because that is a subject Eco returns to again and again.

(I'm trying to stay away from questions of genre, honestly I am, but I couldn't help thinking that when Jorge was dismissing the Coena Cypriani he was, in effect, dismissing imagination. The obvious parallel is with The Name of the Rose itself, which is also a work of speculation that takes a known figure--Holmes--and puts him in a new environment, but it seems to me that Eco must have intended to make the more general argument for thought-experiments as well. And what is sf if not a home for thought-experiments? Indeed, The Name of the Rose is what many sf novels aspire to be: a novel of Ideas. It's just that the ideas are explored by debate rather than by demonstration.)

Where my admiration for the book falters somewhat is in its execution. Bluntly, it's not an easy read; or more accurately, while I'm sure it succeeds throughout as a philosophical treatise, it seems to me that it often fails as a novel. I think Eco's desire for precision in his arguments more than once overwhelms his sense of story. Certainly some of this is deliberate, with some of the characters portrayed as overly subject to doctrine at the expense of thought; but some of it is surely unnecessary. Adso's self-indulgent musings, for instance--do we need so many of them? And the speechifying of the monks--are quite so many pages needed to make the point?

I also don't think the murder-mystery is quite as satisfactory as it might be. I'm uncomfortable with the number of times an elderly monk appears to deliver a plot point; I'm also not thrilled that the key to the mystery--the order of the succession of the librarians and abbotts--is not revealed, or even hinted at, until there are less than a hundred pages remaining. I don't think it's possible for the reader to deduce a solution to the mystery from other clues in the text, which seems a shame.

(But even here Eco is ahead of me, since the deductions that lead William to the correct solution are shown to have been false; it's quite possible that the way he structures his mystery is deliberate, and not cheap plotting.)

Lastly, I'm not sure what the uncertainty surrounding the narration--first in the supposedly dubious provenance of the manuscript itself, secondly in Adso's mistakes and elisions, and the fact that he baldly lies in some instances (about whether he will describe the characters in his story, for instance)--adds to the story. It makes a small point about the limits of knowledge, I suppose--more shadows on a cave wall--but on the whole it seems window-dressing. There was one element of the structure I liked: the division of the story into the segments of the day. It provided, like the ticking clock of 24, a very real sense of time in motion.

When I was chatting with Dan about the book, he expressed bemusement that it could ever have become a bestseller. Even if it was made into a film, this is still a novel in which characters have lengthy, multiple-page debates about fine points of doctrine on a regular basis. Sometimes the debates are even reported, rather than witnessed third-hand. At the time, I agreed with him; having finished the book, though, I think I begin to understand. There's a blurb on the back of one edition I've seen--it's not on the back of mine--which says something like 'this book will appeal to anyone who likes libraries, philosophy, mysteries or history. And who can that leave out?' I think it's a telling insight. I suspect that many, perhaps most, people are likely to love elements of this novel; I suspect that there are few that love the whole.

And as for that film, unfortunately I haven't managed to see it yet yet; it's tricky to get hold of without buying it outright, and as a newly released DVD it's a little experienced. I do think it would make a fascinating comparison, to see how much of the complexity of the novel makes it to the screen, so I'm definitely going to seek it out at some point. In the meantime, though, I hope someone else can step up to the plate ...

Agree? Disagree? It's over to you!
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: truecatachresis
2004-10-19 05:25 am (UTC)
as a newly released DVD it's a little experienced

Do I detect from this that you use a spellchecker?
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2004-10-19 05:28 am (UTC)
Oh no, much worse: my brain has developed the habit of dropping the wrong word into the middle of a sentence. Sometimes it's a word I'm going to need in a sentence or so's time, leaping in over-eager; sometimes it just comes out of nowhere.
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[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2004-10-19 07:31 am (UTC)
I think you make a little too much of William-as-Holmes - Eco has not transplanted Holmes into a medieval setting so much as he has used Conan-Doyle's character as an inspiration for his. Having said that, I agree that the use of a 'phorensic' detective in the context of the middle ages is a stroke of genius which not only allows an entertaingly complex murder mystery, but also directly sets modern thought against medieval thought.

And, for me, that is what the novel is about - the transition from superstitious, subordinate, knowledge to reasoned, individual knowledge that would occur in the 15th and 16th centuries. You criticise Eco for spending so long on the debates, and argue he could make the characters' points for them in far fewer pages. Well, yes. But the point is not the, er, point in these debates - it is their method, the way they cling to a teleological worldview, the way in which the monks revel in discussion of the arcane in order to prove a point about the real. It is a depiction of a decadent intellectual culture.

Ultimately, the abbey burns because its monks are so obsessed with the possession of knowledge - that ability to decide what trivialities will be used to debate which arguments. This is an intellectual culture so dishonest to itself, so riven with artificial divisions and tyrannical pedagogy, that it must fall - it cannot hold in the face of the emergent ideas of William of Occam, Marsilius of Padua, and William of Baskerville, who are as close to heretics as you could come in the 14th century without actually being a heretic.

The book goes on forever about heresies - Cathars, Waldensians, fraticelli - precisely because these are schools of thought which attempt to create a new way of interacting with knowledge. This is why they must be crushed - power in the middle ages, of course, rested on control of knowledge. This is such a medieval cliche as to be banal, but Eco focusses instead on the flip-side of that coin, which is simply that, when knowledge is so tightly controlled, those in control become obsessed not by that which they allow to be known but that which they must hide. Thus the Inquisition; thus the Finis Africae; and thus the murders. The debates, far from being irrelevant to the plot, in this way become the principal way in which the reader can understand that against which William's mind struggles.
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[User Picture]From: faramir_boromir
2004-10-19 08:17 am (UTC)
Amen. The book's debates about knowledge, about controlling access to knowledge are the core of its meaning. The burning of the library is the nuclear weapon in the arsenal of these folks, for to deny knowledge to others (even if it denies it to them as well) is the ultimate power. I found the murders, in the end, really to be an excuse for an exploration of a quite different culture and mindset that would be unfamiliar to modern readers, and the exploration happens in the debates...which really *are* the plot.

*jumps back into lurkers' closet*
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2004-10-19 09:11 am (UTC)
about controlling access to knowledge are the core of its meaning

I'm not sure. There are debates about so many different aspects of knowledge, I'm reluctant to single out those about access as more central than, say, those about limits.

I don't disagree that the debates are the point of the book, I just think they make the point more emphatically than they really need to.

And no more lurking. :-p
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[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2004-10-19 09:37 am (UTC)
I'm reluctant to single out those about access as more central than, say, those about limits.

I'm really not sure what you mean by this. Ithe medieval world, these were the same thing. Eco's point - his ideal modernity - is surely that there should be no limits on knowledge. He has not written a book particularly relevant to the way in which we think of knowledge today. Rather, he is writing about the past, and, in the past, access and limits are the same issue.

I just think they make the point more emphatically than they really need to.

These sort of debates happened. They happened every day in fourteenth-century monasteries. It was, as William notes, all they had to do. I'm at a loss to understand how you think Eco could have depicted characters obsessed with ideas - consumed by them - without having them constantly talk about them (without actually ever really thinking about them in our sense), as in fact they did.
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2004-10-19 09:53 am (UTC)
Eco's point - his ideal modernity - is surely that there should be no limits on knowledge

What? No, William talks repeatedly about what he can know and not know--about how far his reasoning can take him. I'm talking about the literal limits of what it is possible to know, not the sort of limits applied by the library.

without having them constantly talk about them

There is a point at which 'show, don't tell' becomes more of a hindrance than a help. Everything you're saying is obvious after the second or third time there's a debate.
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[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2004-10-19 10:02 am (UTC)
I'm talking about the literal limits of what it is possible to know, not the sort of limits applied by the library.

And you are therefore talking about the modern understanding of knowledge. This is precisely the separation the book seeks to explore! William believes that there are things he cannot understand, things that are simply unfathomable, and that he can try forever to understand but will always fail. Jorge, however, takes the medieval position - everything we ever need to know is told to us by God through the Bible. There is simply nothing else to know and nothing else to understand. That's why, in every debate he ever has, he uses the gospel and certain endorsed theologians to support his views and nothing else, whilst William uses anything he can possibly understand - and some things he cannot.

William believes there are limits to knowledge, as we do, because he believes in the accessibility of that which we can understand. The medieval world believed there were limits to knowledge because it believed in the inaccessibility of almost all knowledge as an article of faith.

Everything you're saying is obvious after the second or third time there's a debate.

Well, quite. There's something sterile about these debates, isn't there? Even redundant, one might say. Indeed, after a while they begin to be oppressive, do they not? They become almost comical to us, even as they remain deathly serious for their protagonists. I mean, by the time we get to the debate between the Pope's men and the Emperor's men, we have the feeling we've been hearing these same arguments for centuries and will never get to a resolution. In fact, the argument descends into a parody of itself, doesn't it?

Shall I stop now? :P
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2004-10-19 10:06 am (UTC)
And you are therefore talking about the modern understanding of knowledge.

Yes. But you weren't, at that point--you were talking about the control of knowledge, and saying it was central to the book. I said that it wasn't because I felt the discussion about what it's actually possible to know was equally important. They certainly inform each other--what you believe about knowledge informs how you treat knowledge--but neither is more important.

Shall I stop now? :P

No, no. You have to explain why Eco keeps going long after the point of parody. :-p
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[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2004-10-19 10:14 am (UTC)
But you weren't, at that point--you were talking about the control of knowledge, and saying it was central to the book.

You seem to be the under the impression that the book cares about the modern world. :P It doesn't - it is unashamedly a book with no pretension to modern relevance. Within the novel's sphere, 'limits' has a medieval meaning, not a modern one. Eco prefers the modern notion that, if we can understand it, we should seek to do so. This was not the medieval position - the medieval position as seen in The Name of the Rose sees no appreciable difference between 'access' and 'limits', and they are part of the same method of control.

No, no. You have to explain why Eco keeps going long after the point of parody. :-p

Because the fourteenth century did, Niall. Because the fourteenth century did. :)
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[User Picture]From: faramir_boromir
2004-10-19 09:52 am (UTC)
I suppose my focus upon the debates in the book may well be a function of my work and family (spouse is a medievalist in academia, and I am in academics also). One reason I did not participate in discussing this one--aside from having only joined the comm recently--was a fear of trumping the discussion with words like 'medievalists think about the book this way..."

Perhaps the debates are overlong; certainly a modern reader would likely think that (I know one of my sisters thought so!), yet to me, they were the proof that Eco actually understood what he was writing about. He did not try to wrap up the medieval world in a neat bundle and hand it to us in a way we expect to see. If one had to work, to struggle through the long passages, that (to me) simply pulled one deeper into his ultimate message about 'understanding' a different time and place.

And I've stopped lurking. Though I wish we were reading Hatton next month, not Rushdie. :(
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2004-10-19 10:01 am (UTC)
One reason I did not participate in discussing this one--aside from having only joined the comm recently--was a fear of trumping the discussion with words like 'medievalists think about the book this way..."

No, no, really, this would be great! I said at the start of my writeup that I feel like I just don't have the context to properly appreciate the book; don't stay quiet just because you do. :)

they were the proof that Eco actually understood what he was writing about.

See, I don't doubt that he understood what he was writing about--in fact, I think it may have been a slight hindrance. People always say that if you're a writer, the thing about research is knowing what to leave out. For you, all the detail pulled you deeper into the book; for me, it seemed unnecessary. I'm still baffled as to how it became a bestseller!
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[User Picture]From: faramir_boromir
2004-10-19 10:25 am (UTC)
On detail:

I see your point. I'm a sucker for attention to detail--probably explains my desire to read Dickens and the like, the longer and more intricate the better--but I can see how that would be a turnoff after a certain point.

I'm still baffled as to how it became a bestseller!

We are in complete agreement on this one. I was also mystified, for this seemed so far away from what the mainstream might be interested in reading that the record sales were astonishing.
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2004-10-19 10:02 am (UTC)
Also:

And I've stopped lurking.

Woo!

Though I wish we were reading Hatton next month, not Rushdie. :(

Well, I wish we were reading Ilium, even though I'm the one that nominated Rushdie ... so it goes. People keep on nominating Haddon, though, so it's bound to win one of these times.

On the upside, I'm enjoying Ghostwritten.
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[User Picture]From: faramir_boromir
2004-10-19 10:26 am (UTC)
I'm assuming Ilium is connected to Troy. What's it about?
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2004-10-19 11:19 am (UTC)
I don't know in detail,but it sounds cool. Plus, was a Hugo nominee this year. The blurb says 'ILIUM takes the epic subject matter and the themes of Homer's Iliad and views them through the lens of SF.' It has recreated Greek heroes fighting the Trojan war on Olympos Mons on Mars. Or something like that. The downside is that it's part one of two--the sequel, Olympos, is due in february.
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[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2004-10-19 09:31 am (UTC)
the debates...which really *are* the plot.

Yes! The Name of the Rose is a book not about murdery mysteries but about how differently we once thought about the world. And it's better than a dozen academic texts at doing that, I think.
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2004-10-19 09:16 am (UTC)
Eco has not transplanted Holmes into a medieval setting so much as he has used Conan-Doyle's character as an inspiration for his

He's not different in any substantive ways, though--he's different in what he knows, not in how he thinks.

directly sets modern thought against medieval thought.

Well, sets early 20th century thought against medieval thought, anyway. Modern thought would probably be CSI. ;-)

the transition from superstitious, subordinate, knowledge to reasoned, individual knowledge

No, that's what (I'm told) the Baroque Cycle is about. :-p

The debates, far from being irrelevant to the plot, in this way become the principal way in which the reader can understand that against which William's mind struggles.

I'm not saying they're irrelevant to the plot, I'm saying they're more extensive than is really necessary, in the same way that Adso's internal monologues are longer than they need to be. When I say it reads more like a philosophy text than a novel, what I mean is that I don't get the sense that Eco is portraying characters obsessessed with these ideas, I get the sense that he is obsessed with these ideas.

I don't think we're going to even reach ten comments on this book, let alone a hundred. :-/
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[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2004-10-19 09:29 am (UTC)
he's different in what he knows, not in how he thinks

And, for a character as cerebral as the Holmesian, that makes all the difference. Now, if William was addicted to a drug, wore a deerstalker, and played the violin, you'd have a case. But as it is he simply applies Holmes's intellectual methods to a completely different milieu. He sees everything, like the other monks, in terms of religion - it's just that his is a more personal, less destructive, kind of faith. If we're going to argue that William is Holmes, then we may as well argue that Poirot is Holmes, that Spade is Marlow, or that Mal Reynolds is Han Solo.

I don't get the sense that Eco is portraying characters obsessessed with these ideas, I get the sense that he is obsessed with these ideas.

I don't understand why. In fact, I think it's a misrepresentation of Eco. Eco is obsessed with Christ's laughter? Eco is obsessed with proving that a Cathar is a fraticelli is a Beghard? No - far from it! Eco is rather interested in why the medieval world was obsessed with these things, and explores the difference between their way of thinking with ours (and we are represented by William). Is it because you have a problem believing that all these people could be so totally obsessed with these (to your mind surely ludicrous) ideas? How could Eco have better depicted their sterile preoccupations?

let alone a hundred.

Or, as a certain Discussion Genius (tm) achieved, over 200. Ahem.
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2004-10-19 09:56 am (UTC)
And, for a character as cerebral as the Holmesian, that makes all the difference.

I'd argue that for a character as cerebral as Holmes it makes no difference at all. His thinking, not his circumstances, is what defines him--or, if you like, William and Holmes are both representations of a root archetype.

Is it because you have a problem believing that all these people could be so totally obsessed with these (to your mind surely ludicrous) ideas?

No, it's because he keeps on making very subtle variations on the same point over and over, long past the point at which the reader Has Got It. I can't see any other explanation for that than the fact that Eco is interested himself, and wants to explore the ideas in detail.

How could Eco have better depicted their sterile preoccupations?

Less is more.
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[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2004-10-19 10:09 am (UTC)
His thinking, not his circumstances, is what defines him--or, if you like, William and Holmes are both representations of a root archetype.

Ah, much better! Agreed. :)

long past the point at which the reader Has Got It.

I think you're missing the point. :P It doesn't matter a damn if the reader Has Got It - The Name of the Rose seeks to depict the medieval world as realistically as possible. And, as faramir_boromir says above, the endless debating actually enhances understanding of the medieval world. See, it isn't what they're arguing about that is important, really. It isn't even why they argue about it. It's how they do it - it's precisely the interminably tedious, utterly fatuous, and painfully - that word again - sterile form of the debates that is important. It is this which helps the reader understand the fourteenth-century. Find the debates dull, distracting, pointless and irrelevant? Good. That's precisely what they were.
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2004-10-19 10:13 am (UTC)
Find the debates dull, distracting, pointless and irrelevant? Good. That's precisely what they were.

OK, but I'm meant to want to read something dull, distracting, pointless and irrelevant because ...? :)

I think there are ways of making the reader recognise it without making her live through it, that's all.
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[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2004-10-19 10:17 am (UTC)
OK, but I'm meant to want to read something dull, distracting, pointless and irrelevant because ...? :)

Because, if you're interested in the middle ages, it's anything but dull to read those debates. Yes, they themselves are dull, but in each and every one of them there's some new insight into the medieval way of thinking, if you're looking for them. Again - what they're talking about it uninteresting. It's why and, even more importantly, how that really keeps you going.

I thoroughly enjoyed them - reading them made me nostalgic for studying the period, and they reminded me of things I had forgotten. This is why I'm surprised it was ever a best seller - this is a book, it seems to me, that can only be enjoyed by people with a passion for the middle ages. And there ain't many of them around.
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2004-10-19 10:02 am (UTC)
Or, as a certain Discussion Genius (tm) achieved, over 200. Ahem.

Don't be smug. It's not attractive. :-p
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[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2004-10-19 10:10 am (UTC)
Note to self: Things you've been doing wrong #4,238 ...
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2004-10-19 11:14 am (UTC)
On an entirely different note, did I remember to point you at this blog?
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[User Picture]From: immortalradical
2004-10-19 03:16 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure, but I thank you for it now. :)
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