A Rose by Any Other Name: Umberto Eco (1932-2016)

Although he was many things to many people over the course of his career, Eco was, first and foremost, an historian railing against modernism in all its forms.

Alexander Lee | Published in 24 Feb 2016

Umberto Eco

William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy of names. In the famous balcony scene (Act 2, scene 2), Juliet appears at her window and proclaims her love for Romeo, unaware that he is hiding in the orchard below. If their families were not sworn enemies, she sighs, they could surely wed. But so long as he is a Montague and she is a Capulet, they are doomed to be apart. The only way around the heart-wrenching dilemma – it seems – would be for him to cast off his name, or allow her to renounce her own. It wouldn’t change anything about either of them. After all, she asks,

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.

It is one of the most memorable scenes in the Shakespearean canon, and has become so firmly engrained in the popular imagination that ‘a rose by any other name’ is now a kind of romantic shorthand for a lover’s guileless adoration of his beloved’s true self. But it could equally well be taken as a metaphor for modernist approaches to history.

Driven by an unshakable belief in humanity’s capacity for reason, modernism rested on the assumption that objective truths about past realities existed independent of the observer, in the same way that Juliet’s rose would have smelt as sweet by any other name. Provided that they were approached with sufficient caution and self-awareness, these truths could be uncovered by rational enquiry. By stripping away foolish preconceptions, a disinterested scholar could determine the underlying ‘laws’ of human society much as a scientist could discover the laws governing the physical world. Once such ‘laws’ had been uncovered and made known, the oppression foisted upon mankind by an exploitative class structure and organised religion would be done away with, and immense socio-economic improvements would follow.  

As the discredited idealism of Benedetto Croce gradually faded away, modernism dominated Italian scholarship for most of the immediate post-war period. Buoyed by the remarkable success of the Italian Communist Party, Marxist approaches to history were in the ascendant, and as long as Palmiro Togliatti was banging at the doors of the Palazzo Chigi, universities in the so-called ‘red belt’ and the major industrial centres of the North were overshadowed by its worldview. 

It was in this milieu that Umberto Eco – who died on February 19th 2016 – embarked upon his career as one of Italy’s leading public intellectuals. Yet it was in opposition to this outlook that he defined himself. Although he was many things to many people over the course of his career – semiologist, anthropologist, literary critic, publisher, best-selling novelist – he was, first and foremost, an historian railing against modernism in all its forms. 

Eco began to question the empiricists’ faith in objective knowledge while he was studying medieval literature and philosophy at the University of Turin. It was his work on the problem of aesthetics in St. Thomas of Aquinas that planted the first seeds of doubt in his mind. As he discovered, Aquinas’ notion of beauty centred not on passive viewing, or on some subjective idea of the ‘beautiful’, but on the activity of contemplation and cognition. In other words, we find a rose beautiful not because it is objectively so, or because it conforms to some pattern that we have previously imagined, but because we abstract from its physical form a mental image that we can contemplate and value for its consonance with the qualities of the divine. Abstract though this may have been, its implications for the study of history were striking. Rather than there being such a thing as a ‘dead reality’, Eco came to believe that we can only see the remains of the past through the lens of the associations they evoke. Whatever character they possess is nothing more than a construct we have assembled from the mass of ideas and thoughts they call to mind. 

That we encounter the past primarily through texts only made this more troubling. Texts are, after all, made up of language; and as Eco came to realise as he turned to look at media culture, language is anything but objective. It is a patchwork quilt of symbols, metaphors, euphemisms, omissions and distortions, all of which reflect the relationships of power in the author’s society, and which are understood by readers – or historians – in light of their own experiences of social dynamics. In an essay written while working as an editor at Bompiani, he examined the success of the wildly popular television game-show host Mike Bongiorno as an example of just how this works (‘Fenomenologia di Mike Bongiorno’, 1961). Speaking only the most simplistic form of Italian, without subjunctive forms or subordinate clauses, Bongiorno emanated a supreme mediocrity that testified not only to his ignorance, but also to his determination not to learn. His appeal was hence not so much a consequence of what he said, as what his ‘gaffes’ symbolised to his audience. For in him, Eco argued, ‘the spectator sees his own limitations glorified and supported by national authority’. 

But with time, Eco began to believe that even this was too simplistic a way of looking at language. By the mid-1960s and early 1970s, he had come to see texts as incomplete webs of meaning woven from signs that were open to interpretation, and that relied on the reader’s co-operation to fill in the gaps. As Eco recognised, however, this meant that – in theory – a text was never stable, and could theoretically sustain any number of interpretations. Some would naturally be more felicitous than others. A pragmatic reader might deduce a correspondence between something present in the text and something known from elsewhere, and would be able to make some imperfect sense of what is said, even if the connection forged proved to be wrong. Some fans of Eco’s novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, for example, have ‘identified’ a Parisian café mentioned in the tale, even though it is entirely fictional, but yet are still able to understand the plot, after a fashion. A ‘model’ reader, by contrast, might have exactly the sort of encyclopaedic knowledge to fill in the gaps in a text precisely as the author intended, picking up on all the literary allusions, getting all the ironic asides, and even recognising any invented Parisian cafés as fictional, should they appear. He is able to realise all the potential inherent in the text, and co-operate in producing an interpretation that aligns his perspective with the author’s designs. This is the sort of reader that many texts envisage. But even a model reader might diverge from an author’s intentions, while still co-operating in the production of a viable interpretation (or, as Eco termed it, ‘a happy ending’). In Lector in fabula (1979), Eco posited that in identifying the characteristics of a text, he might elicit something that the author simply could not have meant, but which the text nevertheless seems to reveal with perfect clarity. Were a ruthless capitalist to read Marx’s Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie, for example, he might well read it through the lens of his own relentless pursuit of profit, and yet still adduce some meaning that Marx could not have intended, but which may still be supported by the text itself. The narrative that a reader produces in collaboration with a text – happy or not – will hence depend on the stance a reader adopts, and on the connections that they forge between the words on the page, their cultural knowledge, and their social experience. To return to the Shakespearean analogy, Juliet only experiences the rose as she does because she views it through the lens of all the other literary and social contexts in which she has encountered roses. Despite her assertions to the contrary, it might not smell as sweet by any other name.  

This makes the practice of history all the more complex. When the historian reads a document, he is seeing not a window onto the past, or even an artefact of pre-existing social structures, but a mechanism with which he must co-operate to produce a viable ‘ending’, a workable image of what the author intended to describe or expound. It can sustain a multitude of different readings, some ‘happier’ than others. But even if our interpretation seems perfectly felicitous, we cannot necessarily be sure of having captured the author’s intentions, or even of assessing his qualities as a narrator with any certainty. And as a result, we cannot be sure of drawing any firm conclusions about the past – much less uncover the kind of iron laws that the modernists claimed to detect. Indeed, all we can do is construct plausible narratives, on the basis of our wider knowledge. 

This effectively destroyed the boundary between history and fiction. Just as fictional detectives struggle to construct a plausible account of how imaginary crimes might have been committed on the basis of ambiguous clues, so the historian co-operates with incomplete texts to produce viable – but potentially flawed and futile – narratives about a shadowy and elusive past. Their methods were, in essence, exactly the same. In fact, Eco enjoyed thinking of historical enquiry as a Sherlock Holmes adventure. In his essay ‘How I write’ (1996), he recalled that when his thesis on Aquinas’ aesthetics was examined, he was criticised for rehearsing the various phases of his research as if it were an inquiry, noting the false leads and the hypotheses that he later rejected, where a more mature scholar might have presented only his conclusions. ‘I recognised that this was true of my thesis’, he wrote, ‘but I did not feel it to be a limitation. On the contrary, it was precisely then that I was convinced that all research must be ‘narrated’ in this way’ (trans. M. McLaughlin). 

Since Eco was so willing to see historical enquiry as a form of fiction-writing, it is no surprise that he should also have turned to fiction writing as a form of expounding his historical views. To one extent or another, his novels all revolve around the co-operation between reader and text, and all have something of Sherlock Holmes about them. In Baudolino (2000), for example, it is the reader who is invited to play the sleuth. While the eponymous hero – a 13th-century knight caught up in the Fourth Crusade – relates his quest to discover who ‘killed’ the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, we have to pick our way through his outlandish narrative, filled with pygmies and unicorns, to determine how much of what he is saying is true. In Foucault’s Pendulum (1988), a fanciful narrative becomes too plausible for comfort. Three editors at a vanity press – at least one of whom can only experience the countryside by linking it with works of literature – while away their free time by using a manuscript submitted by an author who has vanished, and a computer programme capable of rearranging elements of the text in a random order to come up with a conspiracy theory in which the Knights Templar are threatening to take over the world. But as the protagonists become progressively more enchanted with their game, they make the mistake of telling an occultist with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the arcane whom they have employed as a reader of the conspiracy, only to find that he – and the group of which he is the head – believes every word, and reacts with devastating savagery.

But it was in Eco’s first novel, The Name of the Rose (1980; English translation 1983), that his vision of history was expounded most clearly. Set in the early 14th century, the book – which purports to be a transcription of a late medieval manuscript – focusses on Fr. William of Baskerville, who has come to a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy to discuss the ongoing Franciscan Poverty Controversy with other members of his Order. Shortly after his arrival, however, monks start dying in grisly circumstances. Convinced that they have not committed suicide, but were murdered according to a distinct pattern, William and his novice, Adso, go in search of the killer while the remaining Franciscans puzzle over Scripture to determine whether Christ ever owned a purse. After going down many blind alleys, William’s investigation leads him to the monastery’s vast library, where he concludes that the blind librarian, Jorge of Burgos (whose name is a nod to Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges), must be committing the murders out of a misplaced apocalyptic fervour. With the Inquisition now conducting its own enquiry, he must act quickly. But as William gives chase to the librarian, Jorge sets fire to the library, which destroys the collection – including the only copy of the second book of Aristotle’s Poetics – and kills him in the process. Confronting the ruins, William is forced to acknowledge that there was, in fact, no pattern to the deaths, and that he had settled upon Jorge by mere accident. Whatever remained of the events themselves was ambiguous, uncertain, and subject to connections that only he had forged. And though he had worked with the available evidence to construct a plausible narrative, his interpretation was woefully wide of the mark. 

Caveat historicus, seems to have been Eco’s message. Though a rose only smells so sweet when it is alive because we encounter it through a web of literary and cultural associations, it smells not at all when it is dead and gone. Nothing but a description – crafted from those connections – survives. As Eco put it at the end of The Name of the Rose, stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus (‘the rose of old remains only in name; we possess bare names’). What it once smelt like, or looked like, can be construed only from its name. And even then, the connections we forge as readers could lead us to create an image wholly unlike the reality. But for Eco, as for Sherlock Holmes, the thrill was in the attempt, and getting it wrong was half the fun.  

It was perhaps a thorny vision of history to have held; but in helping to liberate the discipline from modernism with such elegance and originality, while giving such joy to his readers, Eco truly was ‘a rose by any other name’.  

Alexander Lee is a fellow in the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick. His book, The Ugly Renaissance is published by Arrow.