rough notes

Eco, The Name of the Rose, and the limits of language

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Presented today, as a brief lesson in elementary Saussurian structuralism, and post-structuralism, is an excerpt from Umberto Eco‘s 1980 novel, Il Nome Della Rosa (tr: The Name of The Rose, 1983). Any semiotician or Eco-fan will be familiar with the text, and with the excerpt, as it is one of any number of pages from the work of fiction that can be held up not only as a moment of exquisite prose, but also as an affirmation, defense or demonstration of contemporary literary theory:

As this story continues, I shall have to speak again, at length, of The Name of the Rose Book Coverthis creature and record his speech. I confess I find it very difficult to do so because I could not say now, as I could never understand then, what language he spoke. . . .Salvatore spoke all languages, and no language. Or, rather, he had invented for himself a language which used the sinews of the languages to which he had been exposed – and once i thought that was his, not the Adamic language that a happy mankind had spoken, all united by a single tongue from the origin of the world to the Tower of Babel, or one of the lanuages that arose after the dire event of their division, but precisely the Babelish language of the first day after the divine chastisement, the language of primeval confusion. Nor, for that matter, could I call Salvatore’s speech a language, because in every human language there are rules and every term signifies ad placitum a thing, according to a law which does not change, for man cannot call the dog once dog and once cat, or utter sounds to which a conseneus of people has not assigned a definite meaning, as would happen if someone said the word “blitiri.” And yet, one way or another, I did understand what Salvatore meant, and so did the others. Proof that he spoke not one, but all languages, none correctly, taking words sometimes from one and sometimes from another. I also noticed afterward that he might refer to something first in Latin and later in Provencal, and I realized that he was not so much inventing his own sentences as using the disecta membra of other sentences, heard some time in the past, according to the present situation and the the thing he wanted to say . . . His speech was somehow like his face, put together with pieces from other people’s faces, or like some precious reliquaries I have seen . . . fabricated from the shards of other holy objects. At that moment, when I met him for the first time, Salvatore seemed to me, because of both his face and his way of speaking, a creature not unlike the hairy and hoofed hybrids I had seen under the portal [and etched into the facing of the church].


Consider for a moment the voice of narrator, Adso, recollecting events that happened so many years ago in his youth. We see in the first half of the excerpt a very simple synopsis of how language and meaning appears to manifest itself. In describing Salvatore’s speech, Adso admits that he has a language of his own, but since it is incomprehensible to anyone else, it essentially is nothing but a speech of utterances and half-words – gibberish: “Salvatore spoke all languages, and no language”. Adso justifies his criticism of Salvatore initially in biblical and religious terms, perhaps indicative of his initial religious training. The old monk’s gibberish is “Adamic”, and “Babelish”, part of humanity’s eternal scar due to the “grand chastisement” at the Tower of Babel. He follows this criticism, however, by shifting toward an elementary discourse on what language should be, perhaps to highlight his recent tutelage under Brother William. William, an admirer of Aquinas and Bacon, would be sure to believe in a language system based on rules and structures, where “every term signifies . . . a thing, according to a law which does not change, for man cannot call the dog once dog and once cat” in the same breath. To every object there would be one word to represent it in this system – “cat” for a four-legged feline animal; “dog” for a four-legged canine animal.

The real fun begins, however, with Adso’s tiny admission of doubt in this structure in the very next line, “And yet, one way or another, I did understand what Salvatore meant, and so did the others”. Eco enforces elementary, and sensible Saussurian logic which, up to now, the reader would not expect to see in such a young (and old) character as Adso. Adso admits that he can sometimes understand Salvatore’s gibberish – the otherwise nonsensical statements of an old monk who is always “taking words sometimes from one and sometimes from another”. In spite of his lack of understanding, the young novice finds meaning in Salvatore’s words (his statement is important to the plot of the text but not to this entry – please read the book yourself to find his words) because language is in fact highly malleable and open to adjustment and re-adjustment. We understand that objects can be signified by any number of words (a book could be a “book” or a “text” or a “novel” or a “manuscript” or a “work” or a “piece” etc) in but one language, let alone Salvatore’s mishmash of all the language and dialects he has encountered in his day. A dog to Salvatore, and to Adso, could be a dog or a mutt or a puppy, or even “un chien” or “canis”; similarly, “un chat” or “cattus” for “cat”. When Adso admits to himself, and to the reader that he was able to listen to Salvatore’s nonsensical statements and find meaning, it is because meaning is not tied forever to the words themselves.

What we have in this excerpt is a brief, yet critical introduction on the mutability of language to a public, non-academic audience. Without speaking to Saussure’s sign-signifier-signified theory, as simple as it is, Eco expounded to a wide audience some of the first brief arguments (notwithstanding Nietzsche, of course) against self-evident and self-affirming Truths and Values. If the words that we use to define ourselves by, to codify our laws with, or to define our God with (cf. John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God) are more malleable that we think they are, then perhaps we must question their ability to represent an object to one person, and carry that representation to others.

Eco, Umberto. The Name of the Rose. Tr. William Webster. 1983: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 46-47.
You are commodified.

Written by mitchellirons

August 28, 2007 at 10:29 am

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