he library was born according to a design that has remained
obscure throughout all centuries," says the Benedictine Abbot in Umberto Eco's
bestselling novel, The Name of the Rose
. Only that librarian knows the
contents of Eco's mystical library, and his lips are sealed about the secrets
contained in the great books.
"All truths," says the Abbot, "are not meant for all ears; not all lies can
be recognized as such by pious spirits. The book is a fragile creature," he
says, "it suffers from the use of time."
So the library must defend that fragile book. It must defend itself, unfathomable,
like the truth it hosts. Recalling that "monasterium sine libris est sicut
mensa sine cibis,
" Eco's 14th century Abbot calls his Benedictine Order
a "reserve of knowledge that threatens to disappear in fires, sackings and earthquakes."
In the pre-printing press centuries described by Eco, monastery libraries were
vital centers of knowledge. But they were shrouded in mystery because knowledge
was already a dangerous thing. Monk scholars spent their time in the Scriptorum
copying ecclesiastical books, illuminating, binding, and also preserving them.
Monasteries like the thirteen original ones founded by Saint Benedict in the
6th century in the mountains near Rome were Europe's major reserves of culture
during the subsequent barbarian invasions.
After Umberto Eco's novel described in such a mysterious manner life in a monastery
library, I decided to visit some of them. The Santa Scolastica Monastery in
Subiaco is the only one surviving of the original Benedictine monasteries. Today,
it is concealed in that fabulous town of Subiaco, isolated in the mountains
70 kilometers from Rome. Then, its monks spent their time in meditation and
copying books, while artists frescoed their church and chapels.
The arrival in Subiaco of two German printers from Mainz 550 years ago changed
monastery life. Suddenly progress was in the air. The printing press was to
end the work of illiterate monks who made the ink, prepared parchments from
sheep skins, and bound the great books while the more learned copied books in
artistic handwriting and artists illuminated the margins. But generally little
is known about the role of Subiaco in the diffusion of the art of printing in
the 15th century. History quickly passed it by.
The Germans, Arnoldus Pannartz and Conradus Sweynheym,
were diligent. Neither Paris nor Romesoon to become Europe's great printing
centershad yet begun when the Germans built their presses in isolated
Subiaco and produced Italy's first printed book: the philosophical-ethical work,
. Written by 4th century convert to Christianity Cecilio
Lattanzio, that book contains the first printed characters in Greek in the worlda
type devised for its extensive quotes in Greek, all in mobile letters now called
The book indicates Subiaco as the place of printing and is dated October 29,
The two monasteries of Santa Scolastica and the Sacro Speco, the Holy Grottowhere
Saint Benedict liveddominate medieval Subiaco. With its 100,000 precious
volumes, the Santa Scolastica is one of the richest of Italy's eleven great
abbey libraries. Its books constitute a veritable cultural-literary-historical-mystical
I have employed one of Eco's favorite techniques
and list here some of that library's works: 320 manuscripts-codices of the 10th17th
centuries that have never left the library, 2000 15th century books, 14,000
of the 17th century, a 10th century collection of Psalms and an 11th century
explanation of the Bible, the handwriting of which served as the model for the
Humanists and for Subiaco's printing characters four centuries later, a 13th
century missal bearing the volume number 2001 indicating how big the library
once was, and 280 incunabula
books printed between 1445 and 1500.
(The word, by the way, comes from the Latin cuna
, cradle, the cradle
of the new artthe printing press.)
The library is housed in a 12th century Romanesque cloister, topped by a bell
tower of 1052. A curiosity is the neo-classic church of Santa Scolastica by
the architect from Bergamo, Giacomo Quarenghi, who at 25 years of age built
this, his only church in Italy, before he was called to Russia by Catherine
II to become the Bernini of St. Petersburg.
Sacro Speco, cut into the rocks, on various levels, nearly totally frescoed
by 8th -13th century artists, is one of the most spectacular and lesser known
sites of Italy. An area of rugged mountains, narrow valleys, rushing waters,
rocky cliffs and thick woods, Umberto Eco could have captured there the mysterious
atmosphere of The Name of the Rose
. Yet monks insist that there are no
mysteries here, no intrigues, no romance. Just peace and silence.
Umberto Eco's famous novel was at the top of the USA TopTen for months, sales
around the world skyrocketed into many millions, and a film based on the work
was made. The New York Times
wrote of the phenomenon that "publishers
should learn from this that the public is ready for something more than the
usual prefabricated products."
Literary critics around the world dissected The Name of the Rose
to solve the mystery of the novel's extraordinary success. The book was labeled
a historic novel, a theological thriller, a philosophic novel, a Gothic novel,
a monumental exercise in mystification. The author was criticized for having
concocted the book artificially at the planning table and was, therefore, assured
of success from the start.
But then one Italian critic and an Eco admirer, Beniamino Placido, noted that
the book was only apparently a trip into medieval culture; behind its historic
design, he said, there blooms the history of the explosive tensions and the
anxieties of the modern world.
Eco himself agreed: "The Middle Ages are a mirror for the present. We find there
the roots of our problems, of our anguish, of our crises." Besides, Umberto
Eco has never believed in old convictions of inspiration and passion in art.
"People have not yet learned that every work of art is a game played out at
the worktable. Nothing," he says, "is more harmful to creativity than the passion
of inspiration. It's the fable of bad romantics that fascinates bad poets and
bad narrators. Art is a serious matter. Manzoni and Flaubert, Balzac and Stendhal
wrote at the worktable. That means to construct, like an architect plans a building.
Yet we prefer to believe that a novelist invents because he has a genius whispering
into his ear."
When his novel appeared, Eco had already written some 12 works, from the poetics
of Joyce to How To Write A Dissertation
. After having participated in
a group of young, left-wing writers known as Gruppo 63, Italy's major post-war
literary movement, he was involved with major participants of the 1968 protest
movement, many of whom later became the leaders of Italy's left-wing terrorism.
He, however, did not follow others into protest organizations or into politics.
When his novel appeared in 1980, Umberto Eco was already an internationally
known scholar, a brilliant speaker and professor of semiotics, an expert on
mass communications, essayist, journalistic writer, author, thinker; he was
a super-gifted man with a fabulous memory. He was 48. Overnight he became a
bestselling author. A rich author.
Like most foreign correspondents in Italy, I reported
on the Eco phenomenon. But before the novel appeared I had never read more than
a few of his journalistic articles and had never met him. After his success
he stopped giving interviewsunless to the New York Times
, or BBC. He agreed to a written interview with me, highlights of which
I have reported here. However, it should be said that his typed answers were
some 15 pages long. If he belittles "inspiration," Umberto Eco believes that
the impulse to narrate is common to us all. "That's why so many scientists and
philosophers and critics, too, write novels. Not only those that we remember
like Tolkien, Segal, Hoyle, Sartre, Asimov, and Harold Bloom who came from academia,
but many others we've forgotten. I think that writing is a way of revealing
the contradictions of life that one would like to resolve. Writing fiction,
like poetry, means simply to display those contradictions but not necessarily
to resolve them. In fact, the reader, through his interpretive cooperation,
decides what the story means.
"I wrote The Name of the Rose
simply because I wanted to. A good reason.
First comes the desire, like the desire to make love. Then one sits down at
the worktable and begins, I won't say to write, but to play, to construct a
possible world. The first year, after I got the desire, I didn't write, I designed,
I made a plan of the abbey, I sketched out the list of names, I even drew the
faces of the characters. So I believe one writes a novel because of the desire
to construct a world. And to communicate."
Already in the 1950s, Eco was writing about the Middle Ages; his university
dissertation was on St. Thomas Aquinas. In the explosive 1960s he worked for
the major Italian publishing house, Valentino Bompiani. One said then that at
editorial meetings, his was always the last word. Eco half closed his eyes,
drew on his pipe, and spouted a phrase that resolved matters. In those years
he was busy with "signs" and mass communications and became Italy's leading
semiologist, all while he published his academic works. Even then anecdotes
circulated that created a certain Eco image: Eco works 20 hours a day, Eco can
quote from memory half of what he reads, Eco's life is organized in a German
way, he has an extraordinary ability to associate diverse things. He wrote me
humorously that he also saves time by abbreviating interviews, then wrote 15
His success in the Chair of Semiotics at ancient Bologna University was immediate.
His famous lectures were attended by 400 students, fascinated by his charisma.
Narcissistic as he is, he responded by giving up to 250 lectures a year. Open
to dialogue, he is by nature simultaneously ironic and academic. You never know,
his friends say, if Eco is playing or working. He says he's an academic spider.
The Eco style is severe but marked by jokes, games and memory contests. He is
described as a "thinking machine."
Since semiotics is easily applicable to the Middle Ages, so rich in signs
and a less complex society, I asked him about his fascination with that period
and its importance for our world today.
"The fashion for the Middle Ages, the Medieval
dream, cuts through all of European civilization. The Middle Ages were the
crucible of Europe and modern civilizations: we're still reckoning with things
born thenbanks and bank drafts, administrative structures and community
politics, class struggles and pauperism, the diatribe between state and church,
the university, mystic terrorism, trial based on suspicion, the hospital and
the episcopate, the modern city, modern tourism, how one should respect one's
wife while languishing for one's lovebecause the Middle Ages also created
the concept of love in the West.
"We reconstruct classical antiquity excavating
in the Roman Forum, one props up the Coliseum, cleans up the Acropolis; but
they are not filled up again. Once rediscovered, they are only contemplated.
But that which remains of the Middle Ages can be botched and one continues
to re-utilize it as a container, putting something into it that is not radically
different from what was there originally. I mean a bank is still a bank. And
one adapts as one can Chartres or San Gimignano, but not to venerate them
but to continue to live in them. You pay for a ticket to visit a Greek temple
but you go to a mass in the Milan Cathedral.
"I mean to say here that the dream of the Middle
Ages is acted out on that which can be adapted, not on that which can only
be a museum."
He seems to have views on everything that has happened since the Middle Ages.
Umberto Eco's ideas about libraries have often been quoted. He likes to muse
on what a library should and should not be. He has said that he especially
likes the Sterling Library at Yalea neo-Gothic monastery, he calls it.
He deplores the labyrinth-like libraries of Italy and advances theoretical
organizational plans for an ideal library.
He has described how clothes condition man,
recalling how "warriors in past centuries dressed in armor lived exteriorly,
while monks had invented a dressmajestic, fluid, all of a piecethat
left the body free and forgotten (inside and under!). Monks were thus rich
in interior life, and filthy, because their bodies, defended by a dress that
while it ennobled the body also liberated it to think and forget itself."
His irony emerges in full force in his advice
on "intelligent vacations." Noting that people who are not criminals or terrorists
are more exigent in their recreational reading matter, he made a series of
proposals: for people who want to keep up with Third World problems he suggested
the delightful Kitab al-s ada wa'l is'ad, by Abdul'l Al'Amiri, of which
a critical edition of 1957 is available in Teheran. Or, the Zefir Yezirah;
the Zohar naturally, for some good reading on the Cabalistic tradition.
Or you can simply take along to the seashore Die Grundrisse, the apocryphal
New Testament and some unpublished microfiches by the semiologist Peirce.
At another place he reflects on how much it
costs to write a masterpiece, from expensive works like Magic Mountain
(sanatorium, furs, etc.) to Death in Venice (Lido hotels, gondolas
and Vuitton bags) to cheap works like For Whom the Bell Tolls (clandestine
trip to Spain, room and board furnished by Republicans, and sleeping bag with
girl), or Robinson Crusoe (just embarkation costs).
I have listed Eco's diverse subjects also to
underline his predilection for lists. His subjects make up a long list. His
mind catalogues, transforms and applies. I asked him why all those lists in
The Name of the Rose.
"I've always loved the technique of the list.
For many years I made a collection of examples and considered writing a book
on the use of lists, from classic literature down to Joyce. Moreover, the
list is a typical medieval descriptive strategy. Therefore, I used the list
in this book because it is so medieval.
"In the tendency of the list there is something
even more important: it is typical of both primitive epochs and overly cultivated
epochs. When one doesn't yet know, or one no longer knows what is the form
of the world, instead of describing a form, one lists its aspects. One proceeds
by aggregation instead of by organization. In substance, my character Adso
in The Name of the Rose does not understand well what is happening
nor what has happened; therefore, he lists what he sees or what he hears,
and what he believes to have seenand he knows only because he has heard
or read other lists."
Apparently Umberto Eco is the intellectual per
se. He is considered such in Italian and in international society. His analogy
between the intellectual and the critic is a cogent reflection of the role
he sees for himself in society. "I often say that the intellectual is something
like Italo Calvino's Baron Rampante: he sits in the trees but follows and
criticizes things, thus participating in the events of his era. The intellectual's
participation in political life is a critical activity that sometimes can
assume forms of apparently disinterested research, even if as a private citizen
he can be both committed in public life and able to put his knowledge at the
disposition of a party or a group. But his true intellectual function is exercised
not when he speaks for his party or group but when he speaks against it. It's
easy to criticize enemies. The problem is to criticize friends. "The role
I would like to play is of one who through his analyses signals something
that is not functioning, in areas where too little has been said.
"Yet, I try to remember that while society needs
its poets and wants to hear their opinions, it's however a false position.
Poets speak through their works and are worth little at conferences where
they usually say stupid things. My success as a novelist gives me a halo of
authority but when I do agree to speak I try to speak as an essayist not a
novelist." Finally one must speak with Umberto Eco about power relationships,
which he claims were the background for The Name of The Rose. The role
of European intellectuals was a powerful one in the post-WWII era. Europe
was coming out of war and Fascism and was politically divided down the middle
between progressives (Socialists and Communists) and Conservatives (Fascists
and Christian Democrats). Progressive intellectuals were at the heart of the
protest movements of 1968 in Italy, France and Germany. The question of power
Eco says that Michel Foucault elaborated the
most convincing notion of powerpouvoir or poterein
circulation: power is not only repression and interdiction but is also incitement
to speak and the production of knowledge. Secondly, power is not one single
power. It is not massive. It is not a unidirectional process between one entity
that commands and its subjects. Power is multiple and ubiquitous. It is a
network of consensuses that depart from below. Power is a plurality. Power
is the multiplicity of relationships of strength. For the semiologist, language
is always closely linked to power.
Eco's theory is that the criticism of power
has degenerated because that criticism has become massive. Mass criticism
of power spawned ingenuous notions that powerthe systemhad one
center, symbolized by the evil man with a black mustache manipulating the
working class. As an example of the misunderstanding Eco recalls the theorists
of European terrorism who wanted to strike at the heart of the state.
The danger, Eco says, is confusing power and
force. Force is causality. And causality is reversible. That reversal is called
revisionism. On the other hand, to change power is to make a revolution. For
example, man decides that woman will wash the dishea symbolic relationship
of force based on the consensus of the subject. That relationship is changed
if the woman refuses to wash the dishesthat is revisionism. Compromises
are revisionistic. Revolution, however, is the sum total of a long series
of revisions, the violent overturn of progressive revisions. Society becomes
a universe devoid of a center. Everything is periphery. There is no longer
the heart of anything. Only romantic terrorists of the Red Brigades thought
that the state had a heart and that the heart was vulnerable.
"On the other hand, multinational empires exist
today. They are not an invention of protesters or terrorists. I don't want
to moralize and say that multinationals are bad. They are the form that modern
industrial organization has taken in capitalistic society. It's also true
that multinationals are always disturbed by local events and local political
decisions. Look at what happened in Chile. And now in many places. This is
one of the problems of our times. Don't ask me for a solution. I just note
Stewart. a native of Asheville, North
Carolina, has lived most of his life in Europe. He served as Italian correspondent
for the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad and wrote for publications
in various countries. Recently, he lived over a year in Mexico to research
and work on a novel that takes place in Italy and Mexico. He recently returned
home to Rome.