Forbidden Knowledge and a Love of Books: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

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Growing up, my parents’ home was always full of books. Most of the volumes on my dad’s shelf held a mystical fascination for me – they promised to be full of new and interesting facts and stories that I was excited to one day be able to read myself. The spines of The Lord of the Rings, Moby Dick, Dune, D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths, and more promised great things. (It’s partly why I tried to read Moby Dick when I was about six. I failed that time, but I did love it when I finally read it in its entirety at 27.) One of the books that tantalized me from the bookshelf was The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. I knew very little about it aside from: 1) it takes place in a medieval monastery, 2) there is gruesome murder, 3) I wasn’t allowed to watch the movie. Years later, I was in Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore in Minneapolis and wandered through the back into Uncle Edgar’s Mystery Bookstore where I saw The Name of the Rose sitting inconspicuously on a bookshelf. Because I can’t walk into a bookstore without buying something, I picked it up. I’m not sure what made me pull it from my large pile of to-read books a month ago, but I was delighted when I found that much of the story centers around a labyrinthian library and the quest for forbidden knowledge.

The story is told in retrospect by Adso, who at the time of the story is a naïve monk following his mentor, Brother William, to a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy. At this monastery, they plan to attend a debate between visiting Dominican and Franciscan monks on the matter of the Poverty of Christ – an idea which is opposed by the Pope and considered heretical. As soon as they arrive, however, they learn of the mysterious death of a young monk, which the abbot asks William to help smooth over in order to preserve the image of the monastery. Over the next several days, more monks are killed one at a time, in what seems to be some occult purpose related to a mysterious book hidden in the library. William, it turns out has a past as an Inquisitor, but also has ties to old friends associated with the Dulcinian heretics – a sect that had been inspired by the very Franciscan ideals that are up for debate. He attempts to solve the murders while Adso tags along and is exposed to previously unthinkable experiences including crawling through a crypt at midnight, sex, observed attempts at black magic, and accidentally smoking hashish.

I found it was a little difficult to get into the book right away for a couple reasons: firstly, I had just come from reading The Kingkiller Chronicle, which is written in such a way that the words and phrases require no thought or effort to be absorbed and simply flow into the reader allowing one to turn pages at an unbroken pace. The Name of the Rose is not this – it is thoughtful, complex. It forces you to slow down and take the time to really ponder what the narrator is going through, and what he is trying to convey. This is partly a function of the historical language, partly the result of being told from the point of view of an older man recollecting on his younger self, and partly because the characters themselves are in the dark about much of what is going one. Secondly, Eco includes a lot of historical detail and I sometimes found myself skimming this. He has a tendency to go into long monotonous descriptions – although I’m not sure if this is Eco himself, or his narrator. “The list could surely go on, and there is nothing more wonderful than a list, instrument of wonderous hypotyposis[…]” he says at one point and I found myself laughing out loud at the self-aware comment since so much of his description is simply itemization. Not all of it was tedious, however. I enjoyed many of the philosophical conversations between characters, especially as the character’s voices are so well done – I could hear the pompousness of abbot, the curmudgeonliness of Jorge, the caution and excitement by turns in William, and the open guilelessness of Adso in each of their dialogue.

Eco weaves together multiple themes about the pursuit of knowledge, the danger of obsession, and the lack of certainty or finality in any quest for truth. It is not just a historical novel or a mystery, but also a philosophical novel and a postmodern book about books and the meaning of books. What value do they have, who has access to them, what will people do to obtain them – or to keep others from reaching them? Eco shows multiple characters committing terrible acts in single-minded pursuit of an idea: a young man selling his body in exchange for a banned book, a group of monks going rogue and reputedly forming a sex cult, an Inquisitor burning someone for heresy, and an ideologue doing everything in his power to prevent opposing ideas from being heard. William observes that he previously left his life as an Inquisitor when he realized that an Inquisitor will always find a heretic… because a person who is determined to find something will make the facts fit in whatever way necessary to fit his hypothesis. Adso even remarks on the “evil” of his obsession with a peasant girl – not because of his broken vows (William assures Adso it’s okay that he had sex at least once, because at least now he knows what it’s all about), but simply because of the way thoughts of her completely overtake his mind (which I think anyone who has ever been in love will be able to recognize).

While reading, I had a hard time keeping straight the different orders of monks and which ones believed which ideas and which of those ideas were considered heresy or not. I’m not the only one, though – even Adso has a long conversation trying to sort out how to know if something is heresy or not and the older monk he questions gives him humorously frustrating non-answers which leave Adso perhaps more confused than before. I did enjoy some of the debates between characters on power and manipulation, the merits of laughter versus seriousness, and the nature of poverty – as well as the hypocrisy of some monks who argued in favor of poverty but nonetheless lived opulent lives. It was not until the end, however, that everything comes together in an explosive denouement and I realized how all the themes complemented one another and simultaneously commented on William’s futile search for meaning in the pattern of the deaths. While reading, I found the occasional humorous interaction or chapter title engaging, but after finishing the book, what really stuck with me was the reflection on our (both humanity’s and the individual’s) relationship with knowledge.

In Paris do they always have the true answer?”
“Never,” William said, “but they are very sure of their errors.”
“And you,” I said with childish impertinence, “never commit errors?”
“Often,” he answered. “But instead of conceiving only one, I imagine many, so I become the slave of none.”

For all his wisdom, William still commits fatal errors in judgement, but Adso’s remembrance and dedication provide the framework for us to inquire deeper – into belief, into certainty, and into skepticism.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

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