Umberto Eco and the Meaning of the Middle Ages

Umberto Eco and the Meaning of the Middle Ages

By Stephen Brockmann

Working Paper, University of Wisconsin, 1988

Umberto Eco - photo by Aubrey / Wikimedia Commons
Umberto Eco – photo by Aubrey / Wikimedia Commons

Introduction: The narrative frame around Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, which intricately removes the story itself from its ultimate reader by insinuating long journeys, lost manuscripts, and various narrative intermediaries between text and recipient, also establishes a chain of connection between the late medieval murder mystery itself and its modern retelling, thus bringing the Middle Ages into present-day reality and vice-versa. “Umberto Eco”, the author’s narrative Doppelganger, who dates his introduction January 5, 1980, alleges that the novel itself is no more than a painstaking reconstruction of a manuscript that fell into his hands in Prague in August of 1968, shortly before “Soviet troops invaded that unhappy city,” precipitating his flight from Czechoslovakia, the loss of the manuscript, and a decade-long philological odyssey through old bookstores, libraries and manuscripts in order to recover or reconstruct what had been lost. The fictional “Eco” finally succeeds in his reconstruction of the disappeared copy of an “Italian version of an obscure, neo-Gothic French version of a seventeenth-century Latin edition of a work written in Latin by a German monk toward the end of the fourteenth century;” but in the meantime many years have gone by. 1968 in Czechoslovakia is a long way from 1980 in Italy. The fictitious “Eco” then states:

I can transcribe my text with no concern for timeliness. In the years when I discovered the Abbe Vallet volume, there was a widespread conviction that one should write only out of commitment to the present, in order to charge the world. Now, after ten years or more, the man of letters (restored to his loftiest dignity) can happily write out of pure love of writing. And so now I feel free to tell, for sheer narrative pleasure, the story of Adso of Melk, and I am comforted and consoled in finding it immeasurably remote in time (now that the waking of reason has dispelled all the monsters that its sleep had generated), gloriously lacking in any relevance for our day, atemporally alien to our hopes and our certainties.

This is far too heavy-handed to be even remotely believable; the reader is positively beaten over the head with the suggestion that “Eco” protests too much. As a skilled rhetorician, “Eco” surely knows that his insistence on the immeasurable remoteness and irrelevance of his story for our times in fact leads to the almost immediate conviction that the story will be anything but irrelevant and remote: that it will be “a distant mirror,” perhaps even a roman-a-clef in which, under the guise of a medieval murder mystery, the real Eco writes allegorically of our own times and its horrors and joys. But this second reading it almost as suspiciously simple as the fists, naive reading suggested by “Eco”s insistence on irrelevance, and it too tends to consume itself, as even “Eco” surely knows it will. On the one hand l’art pour l’art and the intellectual pristinely isolated from any actual worldliness, on the other hand an allegory. Connotation and denotation here wholely negate each other, and the reader is left in a state of tense suspicion and expectation, wondering what the truly true truth truly is.

Click here to read this article from Carnegie Mellon University

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