Truth is Eternal
The Name of Rose by Umberto Eco
Some essays in this genre are commentaries, reviews, reflections. Some essays are literature in of themselves. This post is one of those.has a forthcoming Youtube Channel called The Second Story, where she explores her obsession with storytelling. As you’ll see below, she’s really good at it.
I read Umberto Eco’s masterpiece, The Name of the Rose, one year before my father joined a cult.
There is, perhaps, a gentler way to put that. But from the time I was fifteen until I left to travel Europe after high school, I lived isolated from the world in a self-sufficient community that bore all the hallmarks of a cult. A community that, while nominally Catholic, nevertheless thrived on its distinction from common Catholicism and its sense of secretive exclusivity. This had appealed to my father, who had moved us there when I was fifteen, not fully understanding what the place was under the glossy veneer of what it claimed to be: paradise.
When I first read The Name of the Rose, it had delighted me merely because its heroes had been easier for me to identify with than others I had come across in fiction. After all, before I had lived in a cult, I had lived in a medieval monastery.
Within the protective walls of my childhood home, my father had managed a transmutation of time and space. The twentieth century was suspended at our property line and replaced with a small pocket of the middle ages.
The murmuring forest across the street isolated the house from modernity. Pale walls in tile hallways had been covered from floor to ceiling in a curated collection of medieval artwork: Giotto, Van Eyck, Fra Angelico, to name a few.
These narrow, claustrophobic galleries opened into the main room, a vaulted expanse designed to draw the eye up, he said, to God. During the evening, an assortment of candles shrunk this large space into a series of glowing amber chambers. Within which we would chant the Hours of late evening. After Compline my father would impose the customary Grand Silence and we would retire to our rooms without a word.
A fixture at the yard sales of newly-remodeled Catholic churches, my father had a way of accumulating more than just the antique books and cast-offs of those places, but the very air. The cold, echoing severity; the marble solidity; the sense of undisturbed divinity that effectively slowed time. Each new acquisition brought with it into our house a glimmer of something that seemed to bend light.
Unwilling to completely eschew the twentieth century (for work, he said), he installed a system of house-wide speakers with which he would broadcast Gregorian chant. A speaker fed this music and its atmosphere into my closed room where I would spend the hours outside my classes reading. Gregorian chant became the soundtrack to The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, and lent an air of the surreal to The Secret of the Old Clock and The Lord of the Rings. Hamlet whispered his famous monologue in an awed hush brought on by the numinous atmosphere.
Every morning my father rose at four and recited Matins. Then he repaired to his office where he would spend hours in uninterrupted reading. My father, like the abbot in The Name of the Rose, had a bookcase in the place of his head. The entirety of truth and knowledge, he believed, was contained in the books he read. These included Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, as well as Augustine, Hilary of Poitiers, Basil the Great, Bede, Gregory Nazianzen, Tertullian, and John Chrysostom. Origen gave him pause, given his un-orthodox views on the finality of Hell, thus he was placed on a shelf too high for me to reach, even in my teens when I had access to step stools and thorough understanding of their function.
Origen notwithstanding, the authority of these voices was above suspicion. He and I, he said, had no business doubting them or seeking better knowledge elsewhere. Thus he read and read. And their words became his mind. If I asked a question about any matter he would invariably retrieve a book from a shelf and read an answer to me.
Every morning I woke to the sound and smell of his second cup of coffee. I joined him for a recitation of Prime and then, while I watered the flowers and vegetables in our “monastery” garden, he would make me a small cup of sugared coffee. Before he returned to his library, he’d motion to the incense burner on the fireplace mantle.
Incense was as much a fixture of my father’s house as the cinderblock books that were piled on his desk. The smell of incense is, in my mind, synonymous with my childhood. Wisps of frankincense and cassia threaded like ghosts through the dawn-thick air. It was my job to place the pebbles of resin atop a sparking charcoal tablet inside the antique brass incense burner. The white smoke filtered through cut-outs in the shape of crosses. Throughout my youth I was aware that my clothes and hair smelled always of incense.
In time, I began to imitate my father’s studious nature, but in the pursuit of stories, rather than knowledge, little realizing then that the former often carried with them the latter.
When I was fourteen, a work conference summoned my father to New Orleans. I didn’t know it then but this trip would, in the subtlest way imaginable, change my life.
On the fateful day in question we went out in search of museums and bookstores. Though barely past midday, the undulous sky was the indigo of the Virgin Mary’s gown in Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, a dome of velvet covered with wisps of gray clouds like delicate embroidery.
A lush, swollen green smell floated atop the frowsty sweetness of river water. There was enough moisture in the air that I thought it couldn’t possibly matter whether or not it rained. Of course, I was wrong. When the rain did come, it was in walls of hot water that soaked us to the bone in the four minutes it took us to find the first available awning.
We had stumbled by chance upon the creamy facade of Faulkner House Books, a bookstore built into a house where William Faulkner had once lived. The rain prolonged our stay and allowed me the time to conduct a comprehensive study of every book there, while the shopkeepers chatted with my father.
The Name of the Rose was facing out on a shelf near the high ceiling. I had to interrupt the shopkeeper’s conversation with my father to ask her to retrieve it for me. She asked if I was sure; it was a difficult book. But the cover was calling to me and I wouldn’t be swayed. While I read the book jacket she made a few awed remarks to my father about my apparent precocity. I vaguely heard him respond, “she reads books like that all the time.” Which wasn’t precisely true. “There’s quite a bit of untranslated Latin in it, though.” “That’s alright, she studies Latin.” It occurred to me that he was bragging about me. When he agreed to buy the book, knowing only that it was set in a monastery in the middle ages, it was largely because of that. I knew that he would otherwise have never let me purchase a novel published after 1959.
I began reading it immediately. And I finished it in my bedroom with Gregorian chant filtering through the speakers and threads of incense curling in the air. I felt that my father’s world had been created for this book specifically.
Besides the murder mystery plot with its apocalyptic connotations and its labyrinth library setting, the book also illuminated the intellectual chaos of those times, at least among the theologians of the Church. There were countless colorful and fascinating arguments about the political landscape of dogmatic teaching in those days. The main character, William of Baskerville, was a kind of medieval Sherlock Holmes. Though Adso, his loyal assistant and traveling companion, was a bit more naive and clueless than Watson ever was. But I loved Adso, and felt myself mirrored in him in more ways than I would have cared to admit. He frequently found himself witness to these scandalous debates about Church authority, which also shocked my poor, innocent little mind. And, distressed, he rushed to William for guidance.
William patiently explained to our bewildered little monk the distinction between authority and truth. And the distinction between faith and blind obedience. William didn’t think too highly of the various bickering Church and state authorities in his world, but he never faltered in his loyalty to his religion, nor in his faith.
When the other monks attempted to answer questions put to them by Adso or Brother William, it was generally with a quote from one of the acceptable theological or philosophical minds of the times. Even then I could clearly see my father in this. When Adso went to Brother William, however, his master would answer with the thoughts of his own mind, as guided and informed by years of learning. The contrast intrigued me. As did the fact that Brother William was calm and stable-minded, while the monastery was a nest of chaos.
As my father’s health failed, we were forced to abandon his pocket of medieval life and relocate to that paradise, he believed, of like-minded individuals.
For all his studying, my father was nevertheless unprepared for the hostility we were to find. It was not a haven filled with people who longed to learn, but with strange, pressure-cooked conformists who rejected all knowledge — even if it was consistent with their own — if it had not come from their authority.
What had promised to be a place of safety for his one child in the large, frightening world had proven to be outside his ability to either control or change. Like all the other occupants of this disturbing little “paradise,” he conformed. And, like so many of them, he was diminished because of it.
After my father’s death when I was eighteen, I could feel an attempt, by the place, to crush me into its ideal mold. Even the books I read and my own writing fell under constant scrutiny. Alone and unsupported, I should have given in to that immense pressure. Curiously, I didn’t. After all, I was no different from my father in knowledge and learning. But it was as if I was armored by some unconscious wisdom. When I was able to, I removed myself from that cult-like world and set off down my own path.
Years later, when I reread The Name of the Rose, it occurred to me that Brother William had guided not just Adso in those pages, but also me.
How easy it is to forget that truth cannot be controlled by authority. Nor can it be weaponized. Truth is benign and unalterable. Authorities come and go. Cults and their leaders come and go. But truth is eternal.
I often wonder how differently things would have turned out had I not found that book, of all books, in that bookshop, of all bookshops, at that precise moment in my life.
Despite all the confusion and pressure, somehow I had not lost my faith nor my love for knowledge or the written word. I truly believe that I have Brother William — and Mr. Eco — to thank for that.
The Books That Made Us is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts from a different guest writer every week, consider becoming a subscriber today.