Last weekend I finished reading Umberto Eco’s debut novel The Name of the Rose – a murder-mystery set in a fourteenth century Italian monastery – and I have to say I loved it.
Well, to put it slightly more accurately, I loved the ending, and in particular Eco’s superb ability to draw together a constellation of images (communicated in 3 languages, no less!) to simultaneously evoke a complex awareness of both chaos and peace.
Despite its undeniably powerful conclusion, however, I had trouble finishing the work: while the first half was interesting and suspenseful (a series of murders which follow the sequence of trumpets in John’s Apocalypse), the middle of the book, in which the central protagonists encounter elements of the Inquisition, was rather bleak. To be clear, the latter was not because of any fault with Eco’s rhetorical or literary skills but, rather, was actually a result of his talent as an author; that is, just as he was able to conjure the most pacific sensations in his final chapter, so his characterization of the political and social dynamics of the Late Middle Ages was so effective at capturing the sexism, violence, and injustices of that era (and, indeed, of our own) that I could not help but feel a strong sense of disgust – and an equally strong desire to abandon the novel simply to avoid having to spend any more time in the historical period it described.
Whether or not Eco’s account is consonant with the particularities of fourteenth century Europe could certainly be debated, though that is not my intention here. Instead, I merely wish to pass a few comments on the potency of language to empower its users in their interactions with both abstract and concrete entities – observations drawn from a particularly tragic moment in Eco’s novel, in which the book’s narrator and main actor bemoans the brutal fate awaiting his unnamed lover:
“I burst shamefully into sobs and fled into my cell, where all through the night I chewed my pallet and moaned helplessly, for I was not even allowed – as they did in the romances of chivalry I had read with my companions at Melk – to lament and call out the beloved’s name.
This was the only earthly love of my life, and I could not, then or ever after, call that love by name.” (p. 435)
Names, and their capacity to establish distinctions within the world, condition the way we speak and, by extension, the way we define and interpret our experiences. Though fictitious, this short passage appositely captures the subtle distancing between a speaker and a referent effected by those circumstances in which the former is unable to ascribe a name (proper or otherwise) to the latter: Insofar as naming an entity gives the speaker a measure of symbolic control over the conceptual construction of that referent (e.g. enabling thereby the use of further linguistic forms to describe and account for the object), the inability to do so effectively places that referent beyond the ordered scope of a speaker’s discourse – within the realm of the Other and, implicitly, within the domain of chaos.
One of the important functions of the canon is to supply Christians with such a vocabulary for articulating their experience of the world in a manner that is at once precise and corporately comprehensible. However, this vocabulary is itself in a dialectical relationship with the theological grammar of the church, with statements of Christian doctrine, which should be both descriptive of and regulated by the Bible’s own paradigms, serving to guide the body catholic’s particular perception of the world. Illustrative in this latter regard is the language employed in the Catechism of the Episcopalian Church, which presents itself as a heuristic device intended to encourage believers to return reflectively to the creedal and scriptural statements that inform the church’s life.
By reading within a community, one is thus entering into a corporate discourse, the parameters of which inform how the individual defines and communicates reality. As I have argued in previous posts on this blog, an awareness in this regard is especially necessary when attempting to interpret the biblical texts as documents of the Christian church; however, as this brief discussion suggests, a conscious appreciation of one’s corporate identity is more generally necessary in order to shape the Christian life as a whole.