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Monday, May 07, 2012


First sentences: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, translated from the Italian by William Weaver

'What is a first sentence?', said the jesting postmodernist, and he did not stay for an answer.

No, that's not the first sentence of the book. A jeu d'espirit which combines the pulpy thrills of a traditional whodunnit with the cultural analysis and constant intertextuality we might expect from such a notable semiotician, The Name of the Rose is full of texts within texts and narratives within narratives, referring this way and that with a light touch, resolute only on the certainty that laughter must not be suppressed and truth must not be enforced with too brutal a literal-mindedness. 'Faith without smile' is the root of all evil in this world, and the narrative teases and winks at us from the beginning.

The first thing we read, then, is a 'translator's note', describing the book to follow as a fourteenth century manuscript, giving a fictional history of its discovery and discussing, straight-faced, the difficulties of translation and authentication. This is the first sentence of the first section:

On August 16, 1968, I was handed a book written by a certain Abbe Vallet, Le Manuscrit de Dom Adson de Melk, traduit en francais d'apres l'edition de Dom J. Mabillon (Aux Presses de l'Abbaye de la Source, Paris, 1842). 

He even attributes this imaginary text according to the correct academic standards of bibliography, with publisher, place of publication and date all present and correct in their proper sequence. In appearance the sentence is orderly and systematic, as would befit a scholar, but in its effect, it destablises the text before we've had the chance to read a line of it.

Even were we reading in the original Italian, we would be called upon to accept the fiction that we're reading not a direct narrative but a translation of a translation with some scholarly detours and questions of sourcing along the way; any definite certainties recede before us, not to be grasped. In a story where a real, original manuscript proves to be cataclysmic in its effect on the scholar-monks, we are presented with a version of scholarship that only reveals more doubts, more difficulties, the more rigorous it is.

In other words, this sentence is packed with irony. It's partly an amiable parody, the neat pastiche of a scholar who knows his conventions*, but a sentence that looks so tidy while so thoroughly upending any expectation that we can trust the whole rest of the book ... well, that's a sentence that paces sedately and simultaneously capers. A trick only a verbal medium, relying on the unique capacity of words to convey multiple and contradictory meanings, could pull off. And it's that capacity that semioticians love, that the book will celebrate.

At the same time, there's yet another literary joke at play. The novel nods to many pulp thrillers - most brazenly, appropriating much of the character of Sherlock Holmes for its detective monk 'William of Baskerville' (geddit? The joke is as blunt as the device is pulpy, suiting its tone to the genre). And here, in the history of pulp, we see the ancestors of the 'found manuscript' technique: it may be a play on uncertainty, but it's also a nod to the 'found manuscripts' so beloved of Gothic novelists looking to heighten the suspense with an air of verisimilitude. (So popular, in fact, that Jane Austen parodies it in Northanger Abbey with Catherine's discovery of mysterious papers that turn out to be a set of laundry lists.) The 'found manuscript' technique is handled here in a way that's both old and new, tossed in as a familiar trick from thrilling tales and juggled into immediate doubt. There is even, perhaps, a national joke: The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, the first of the famous Gothics, boasts the full title 'The Castle of Otranto. A Story. Translated by Willliam Marshal, Gent. From the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas at Otranto.' - in other words, it's the work of an Englishman pretending to present the work of an Italian. The Italian Eco with his English detective-hero flips this national pretence neatly on its head, cocking an affectionate snook at his predecessors.

So, that's the first first sentence. There follows a 'Note' explaining what Adso means when referring to different hours of the day as 'Matins', 'Lauds' and so on, requiring us to understand (with the proviso that the 'canonical hours' 'varied according to the place and the season', so let's not get too certain here) the foreign mindset that begins its day at 2.30 in the morning and finishes at 7pm. We are helpfully introduced to the strange custom, encouraged to look through unfamiliar eyes - as long as we understand that our understanding can only be approximate.

So, after that, have we earned entrance to the book proper? Not entirely, we fear, because the next section is entitled 'Prologue'. It begins thus:

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Bookish Adso's first words to us are a quotation, not personal speech. But the choice of quotation is telling: in a story all about the play and war between texts, we begin with an assertion that the Word is divine, absolute truth. Adso quickly moves on to lament, still in intertextually Biblical terms ('But now we see through a glass darkly, and the truth, before it is revealed to all, face to face, we see in fragments') that the truth is in fact unclear. He holds the conviction that the Word is true, but does not know what this truth may be; William, his mentor, moves further, questioning the very possibility that truth may reside in the word at all. Not to mention the fact that in this context, we can hardly fail to note that this sentence is itself composed of words - that this character is composed of nothing but words, that this whole book is composed of words, assembled in a novel that's not so much self-contained as part of a literary continuum to which it endlessly gestures. The very word 'word', in other words, already begins to take on multiple and uncertain meanings. What, in this context, does the word 'word' actually mean? We cannot be entirely sure, because words in this philosophy resist such fixity.

To a religious, then, this assertion of faith is a touchstone because it belongs to an unquestionable text ... but the story will show in gruesome detail just how much one must question oneself and others in the light of this text, even if one believes in it. The sentence may proclaim that 'the Word was God', but it's a proclamation whose clarion certainty has the same effect as the scholarly attribution of the first first sentence: it looks neat and clear, but in its context, it immediately raises more questions than it answers.

And finally, we move to what Adso considers the story proper, beginning on 'First Day':

It was a beautiful morning at the end of November.
After the elaborations of scholarship, philosophy and theology, the narrative disarms us with a simple sentence that could come out of the most guileless storybook. There are texts and texts, and straight narratives must have their place alongside scholarly ones if we are not to become too rigid about the truth. Having blown us this way and that with the winds of semiotic ambiguity, the novel suddenly seduces us with familiar storytelling - familiar to us from pulp genres, that most cosy of forms. From here, events will be Gothic in the extreme, while interwoven with modern linguistic complexities for good measure.

And since we're talking of difficult places to start, it would really be remiss of me to omit the title - which is, after all, the pre-first sentence of the book. In the original Italian, the title is 'Il nome della rosa', so 'The Name of the Rose' is a faithful translation. Teasingly, however, we will have to read to the very last sentence before we will know why it's called that:

I leave this manuscript, I do not know for whom; I no longer know what it is about: stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.

Or in English, according to Wikipedia at least, 'Yesterday's rose endures in its name, we hold empty names.' The title, in fact, is a warning that the sign is not the signified, that words exist and last beyond that which they represent, and may, in consequence, be meaningless. Or at least, of questionable meaning. Fittingly, for a book so full of references, the title loops the whole novel in a circle, so its Alpha and Omega become references to each other.

Texts, in other words, are thrown together, reflecting and interacting, imitating and referencing. Sentences proclaim and disavow in the same short space; meaning shifts in endless, contradictory tension. We have no definite starting point, and we can't entirely trust any of the possible options; we must dance into the text if we aren't going to stumble.

The Name of the Rose is a difficult book to analyse, not because there's nothing to say but because there's too much: its cerebral ramifications are so numerous, so tight-packed and quick-moving, that there's no way my typing fingers can keep pace with my echoing brain. But this, in itself, is the point. It's a book that may delight the well-read critic, but it's not really written to be analysed: it's written to be, in a learned sort of way, grooved on. The rhythm of its references is so rapid and complex that it would slow us to boredom to unpack each of them in full detail as we go, and to be bored would be to miss its essential spirit: instead, it pushes us into a new way of reading, a state of mind in which words are at once quotations and mere sound, where books are an unravelling universe, where understanding is fluid. This is a book that enacts its philosophy as it expounds it, and that manipulates us into becoming, at least until we close its covers, semioticians ourselves.

I believe there's value in analysing first sentences; they're our entry point to a book, and we can learn a great deal from them. But it's refreshing, and indeed amusing, to remind myself that even avoiding a first sentence can be an entry point! In this case, I yield: Umberto Eco has outfoxed me and I have no shame in owning it. I do believe that's what he set out to do, and it would be churlish not to acknowledge his success. Ridentem dicere verum quid vetat.

*One might compare it, for instance, to the wonderful ghost stories of M.R. James, another scholar-author who creates a witty and cosy world with his erudite parodies of the academic context - which he then disrupts with the inexorable introduction of thin-skinned, cold-knuckled monstrosities crawling across the pages. A scholar having fun at his own discipline's expense is not to be underestimated.

I don't think "we hold empty names" is the best translation of "nomina nuda tenemus". Isn't it more that the names are bare, uncluttered by anything else (ie any connection to reality)? I would read it as "names are all we are left with"
Well, as I'm no Latinist, I leave that question to those who are. I don't think it affects the main point of the post much one way or another.
Thanks for this, Kit! When I first read The Name of the Rose, I enjoyed its cleverness, wit, and forays into history, theology and philosophy -- but at the same time I was aware that I was still missing a great deal, and my brain kept trying to kick itself into high gear just to keep up with the text.

I've since reread it several times, and now I'm convinced that the whodunit plot is merely a device, the narrative thread like a breadcrumb trail to lead the reader through the author's fluid, glittering semiotic universe where meanings seem to be unpacked from more meanings like Russian dolls until finally the lot vanishes into thin air.

He doesn't leave the reader forlorn "on the cold hills' side", but you do sort of blink and wonder what just happened. :)

One of my favourite images comes from a side conversation between Adso and William on the nature of books, where Adso learns from his mentor that frequently books talk of other books. Adso imagines a vast library with all the books whispering things to each other that humans know nothing about. It's a fantastic creepy sort of image.
@anef -- Well, it's a tricky bit of translation considering the context.

It comes (probably) from a verse by Bernard of Clairvaux, who of course was an ultra-Realist -- that is, rather than accepting the Nominalist position that the "universals" (what Plato first identified as Ideals or Forms) were mental abstractions or "names" only, held that they had *real* existence in the Mind of God -- and as such were anything but "empty" -- in this sense, the "name of the Rose" is actually more real, more permanent than the individual rose itself.

So in isolation, your translation might be more precise.

Except that *in this particular case*, Bernard is employing the image as an "Ubi sunt" reference; in fact, the evocative "rosa" is probably a scribal error for "Roma".

In its full context, therefore, the quote alludes to several heroes of ancient Rome, and laments that all we hold now of them are their "empty names", since only the things of Heaven are eternal and meaningful.

Quite contrary to Eco's own thinking!
Sorry for getting distracted by Latinate musings...

I loved this post, because I love Eco's writing, and I think that the graceful combination of playfulness, erudition, and generosity here is a marvellous celebration of his art)

(Though I must confess THE NAME OF THE ROSE is *not* my favorite of his books; that place is held by the glorious shaggy-dog story of FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM, closely followed by his surrealistic meditation on a Tarot spread in the CASTLE OF CROSSED DESTINIES)

I was lucky enough to hear Eco lecture a while back, just when The Name of the Rose was hitting big -- it was an odd audience, mostly semiotician, my group of medieval theologians (the importance of understanding the relationship between the signifier and the signified cannot be overstressed in Christian theology) and then a passel of popular novel enthusiasts who were utterly baffled by content of the lecture.

One thing that sticks vividly in my mind was his patent, visceral, CORPOREAL passion for words and narrative. He was describing the chapter in TNOTR in which Adso, er, breaks his monastic vows (beautifully constructed almost entirely from Scriptural quotes), and how as he typed that passage, he found his hands on the keys surging and ebbing, speeding and slowing, pounding and stroking in rhythm with the sexual acts he was describing...

Since you're willing to take on literature in translation, how about Gunter Grass's TIN DRUM? Or, if you're up to genre classics, I'd love to hear your take on the opening sentence to FRANKENSTEIN.
I'm glad you feel it's a good celebration! I have to say that semiotics is far from my favourite thing - I'm all in favour of corporeal passion for language, but I prefer to keep my echoes semi-conscious, and I also was an undergraduate at a time when such ideas were being pushed in a rather excessive way, which put me off. But as long as I'm analysing a sentence, I think it's only fair to try to do it justice on its own terms. And really, it was probably good for me to have the exercise; it obliged me to temporarily take the semiotic philosophy's side, which is always good for broadening one's mind!

The Castle of Crossed Destinies was written by Italo Calvino, another famous italian author who did his fair share of text analysis.
About TNOTR's title, I always thought it was both a play on the Nominalist/Realist querelle and on how names can become empty [vessel-like?] words (Latin learning for italians -at the time of the book's publishing- started with rosa, rosae).
This is an aspect of TNOTR that I failed to get. I read it when I was younger, in college, and while I loved it, I have to agree that I felt like there was... something I wasn't quite getting. The subtle hints that you are all bringing to the light o day here is *fascinating!*
@PB -- you're absolutely correct. And I'd plead that I mixed up the Calvino with all of Eco's many other Tarot-themed writings, but I actually haven't read any of them.

Something I should remedy, I suppose.
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