Culture Decoder

The Name of the Rose

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The DECODER series — to which SEMIOVOX has invited our semiotician colleagues from around the world to contribute — explores fictional semiotician-esque action as depicted in books, movies, TV shows, etc.

Those of us who have seen Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1986 movie adaptation of The Name of the Rose, but have not yet read the 1980 historical murder mystery of that title by the great semiotician Umberto Eco, likely assume that William of Baskerville, the Franciscan friar (played by Sean Connery) whose intellectual abilities allow him to deduce what’s going on behind the scenes of the Italian Benedictine monastery where the story takes place, is quite simply a medieval version of Sherlock Holmes.

Eco would not mind this, I’m sure. After all, he was a fan of Sherlock Holmes — as we know from The Sign of Three: Dupin, Holmes, Peirce, the 1984 essay collection that he co-edited with Thomas A. Sebeok. Also, as one of the first semioticians to devote serious attention to the messages of mass communication and popular culture, during the last decades of the twenty century, Eco surely appreciated the way in which Annaud leveraged cues from (pre-1986) Sherlock Holmes movies. However, Eco’s The Name of the Rose is a bravura performance of postmodern intertextuality — something that doesn’t come through at all in Annaud’s movie.

The William of Baskerville character references Holmes, of course… but also William of Ockham, the English Franciscan friar and philosopher after whom the principle of “Ockham’s Razor” is named. Though set in Italy in 1327, The Name of the Rose evokes various spaces and times, real and fictional — without losing coherence or plausibility. The monastery’s library, for example, refers us to Borges’ 1941 story “La biblioteca de Babel,” which Eco as a semiotician has elsewhere described as an allegory: a place that hides knowledge, a labyrinth of stairs, scaffolding, and dark corridors, all of which are powerfully depicted in both the book and movie. Allusions to William of Ockham, Roger Bacon, and Aristotle reference the still-ongoing struggle of reason and truth in the face of fanaticism, secrets that ought to be brought to light, and the authorities’ abuse of their power.

And of course William of Baskerville is a kind of self-portrait on Eco’s part. Though he never confessed as much, as far as I know, whenever we read interviews he gave about the book, it’s clear that this character was very close to his own person. William of Baskerville, who discourses on symbolism and explains abductive ratiocinatation to Adso of Melk, the novice traveling under his protection, is a semiologist. In Baskerville, we can find a reflection of our own obsession with the meaning of things, their naming, our inevitable world of signs. But if he were looking back at us, would he find reflected his own courageous quest for scientific truth?

DECODER: Adelina Vaca (Mexico) on ARRIVAL | William Liu (China) on A.I. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE | Tim Spencer (England) on VURT | Ramona Lyons (USA) on BABEL-17 | Rachel Lawes (England) on NICE WORK | Alfredo Troncoso (Mexico) on THE ODYSSEY | Gabriela Pedranti (Spain) on MUSIC BOX | Charles Leech (Canada) on PATTERN RECOGNITION | Lucia Laurent-Neva (England) on LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY | Whitney Dunlap-Fowler (USA) on THE GIVER | Colette Sensier (England / Portugal) on PRIESTDADDY | Jamin Pelkey (Canada) on THE WONDER | Maciej Biedziński (Poland) on KOSMOS | Josh Glenn (USA) on LE GARAGE HERMÉTIQUE | Antje Weißenborn (Germany) on BABYLON BERLIN | Ximena Tobi (Argentina) on SIX FEET UNDER | Mariane Cara (Brazil) on ROPE | Maria Papanthymou (Greece) on MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS | Chirag Mediratta (India) on BLEACH | Dimitar Trendafilov (Bulgaria) on THE MATRIX | Martha Arango (Sweden) on ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE | Becks Collins (England) on THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY | Ivan Islas (Mexico) on THE NAME OF THE ROSE | Paulina Goch-Kenawy (Poland) on THE SENSE OF AN ENDING | Eugene Gorny (Thailand) on SHUTTER ISLAND & FRACTURED.

Also see these international semio series: COVID CODES | SEMIO OBJECTS | MAKING SENSE WITH… | COLOR CODEX | DECODER

Tags: Books, Decoder, Umberto Eco