Umberto Eco: the joker and the thief

SPOILERS AHEAD

One thing Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” have in common: the haunt of apocalypse. Eco’s tale unravels against a backdrop of the Book of Revelation and its seven trumpets. Dylan’s lyric, like the Good Book, builds to a conclusion as ominous as Revelation itself. Let’s do a quick assessment of the Dylan song first.

“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief,
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth.
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”

“No reason to get excited”, the thief, he kindly spoke.
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl.
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

The apocalyptic suggestion in the 3rd and final quatrain is clear, but who are these two archetypal figures who act as the harbingers? The joker and the thief? That they are not proper names but archetypes is obvious, but the meaning as a whole seems cryptic.

In terms of symbolic meaning, Dylan’s lyric is a veritable labyrinth, and The Name of the Rose is Eco’s way out. The joker and the thief, whose tale is half-told in Dylan, are like Pirandello’s characters in search of an author, wandering through a wormhole onto the stage of Eco’s novel. Thus, The Name of the Rose begins begins with two riders approaching the abbey – one a joker, the other a thief – who wittingly or no act as harbingers of the abbey’s apocalypse.

What is the central plot of the Rose, in a nutshell? A secretive monk, or series of secretive monks, holds (or withholds) the abbey’s symbolic center of meaning – the famed but never-found second book in Aristotle’s Poetics. The first book, as my erudite readers will recall, offers a literary theory of tragedy and epic forms. The lost second book presumably spoke with equal authority on comedy. Given the Philosopher’s stature, the revelation of the lost book, according to the monks in question, would elevate laughter (which itself may symbolize the humanist side of cultural forces espoused by William, “the new and humane theology which is natural philosophy,” if you want to wade into that historical stratum of the text, which I do not) and subvert the entire Christian tradition, based as it is upon the gravitas of the Word and the Christ.

So the pair of riders approaches the abbey walls. The master of the pair, William – what is his symbolic role? Whatever traps and dead ends he follows along in the surface plot, his symbolic role is simple: William is the defender of laughter, the joker archetype. Of course, the universal archetype is not always transparent in the individual instance that carries it, and William, as envoy of the emperor, has his gravitas too. Indeed, if his key symbolic value is as the joker, his key personality trait as an individual is that of a jokester under cloak of high seriousness. “I never understood when he was jesting,” says Adso. “William laughed only when he said serious things, and remained very serious when he was presumably joking.”

But personality aside, in the all-important symbolic substrate, William is the joker archetype, the proponent of laughter, and Jorge the anti-joker archetype. In what Adso calls “the famous conversation about laughter,” William’s thesis is that “laughter is good medicine,” while Jorge’s is that “laughter foments doubt.” This encapsulates the entire hidden strand of the novel, which consists of Jorge jumping through hoops (and a few murders) to hide the locus of laughter (the second Poetics) from the world, and William jumping through hoops to find and release it once and for all. It is in this archetypal role, the joker, the defender of laughter, that William argues with Jorge, that he struggles at length to find and release the second Poetics, and that he triggers the apocalyptic climax that begins in the finis Africae of the abbey’s own labyrinth.

So what about the other rider, William’s companion, approaching the abbey walls at the outset – Adso, the novice who would become the monk who would narrate the tale for us? Like William, he passes through many twists and turns in the surface structure labyrinth of the novel, but his symbolic/archetypal value reveals itself when the quest for the hidden manuscript begins in earnest.

“You provide the lamp,” William tells Adso. “Linger in the kitchen at the dinner hour, take one….”
“A theft?” cries Adso. “A loan,” replies William, “to the greater glory of the Lord.”

This little call-and-response dialogue shows the understated humor that Eco sprinkles throughout the novel, but also marks Adso as an archetype in the symbolic scheme. He is the thief. In particular, the thief who steals the lamp. The lamp that enables William’s quest to proceed. The joker is the hero, but he needs his thief, just as any field of meaning needs a light to illuminate it, just as the invisible world of archetypes at the roots of consciousness needs a narrator if it is to cross that Rubicon from collective unconscious into conscious actuality. Thus our humble Adso is the Promethean thief who steals the lamp that lights William’s quest and then illuminates its mysteries for the reader. (That the site of the theft is also the site of Adso’s sexual enlightenment – or fall – is a coincidence for another day.)

Now back to Bob and the discussion of the two riders approaching the gates:

“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief,
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth.
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”

Thus, the joker, William. Monks and lay people alike drink from the cup of comedy (or of “folly” Erasmus, a fellow humanist spirit of William, would say a century after our story unfolds). But none know the full worth of laughter, a worth presumably elaborated in the second Poetics. The way out, or solution, would be to reveal Aristotle’s tome, which William attempts, or to exit the scene without doing so, which he does (his fate).

“No reason to get excited”, the thief, he kindly spoke,
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”

Thus, the thief, Adso. But the thief is clever. He speaks “kindly” (Middle English kinde, from Old English (ge)cynde “natural, native, innate,” originally “with the feeling of relatives for each other”). He speaks in the manner of William here, insofar as the first two lines are sarcasm – “no need to worry, Joker, everyone here thinks life is a big joke anyway.” This is witty, but little comfort, as this kind of joke, a mindless negation of life, is not the real concern of our two riders approaching the gates. Then the thief turns serious. “But you and I know that it’s not THAT kind of joke that breathes life into life. They don’t realize the real worth of the joke, the laughter, at the core of life. You and I know the serious side of laughter, the redemptive side. And the apocalyptic moment is upon us. The time for pretense is over.”

This leads us to the cryptic line, “let us not talk falsely.” Where does “false talk” figure most prominently in the novel? In the meeting between the two legations, the representatives of Louis the Emperor and John the Pope. In a novel that follows Aristotle’s classical unities of time, place, and action, the diplomatic summit seems to break the unity of action. It is, on the surface, unnecessary to the main plot, the quest to solve the murders and discover “the forbidden book.” But Eco can send his regards through the wormhole to Bob Dylan on this one, as the summit is essential when played against the song. Indeed, in the symbolic structure provided by the song, the summit is the precedent for the apocalyptic moment. When the false chatter peaks, this is when the joker and the thief will absent themselves from the discourse and turn to the final task, completing the prophecy of Dylan’s thief. Thus, the apocalyptic moment comes in the gap between the 2nd and 3rd quatrain.

Then there is nothing left but the infinite return. We find ourselves stumbling into the final quatrain and standing once again at the beginning, with the two riders approaching the abbey walls.

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

So, in the grand collective unconscious of all things textual, The Name of the Rose functions as Eco’s elaborate project for escaping the labyrinth of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” But as my readers who have as much of Sherlock Holmes in them as William does will have deduced, the project is necessarily a failure. The wormhole between texts, texts, textuality is at best a loop, at worst a string with no anchor at the beginning or end. The second Poetics is lost, the abbey has its apocalypse, and all Adso can do is go off and write a narrative about it.

In his postscript to the novel, Eco cites the 12th-century Bernard of Morlay: “…Everything disappears into the void. Bernard adds that all these departed things leave (only, or at least) pure names behind them.”

Thus with the events of Adso’s tale. As things disappear, leaving only names behind, until the things themselves become mere legends, mere apocrypha, their existence no more than dubious allegations that the names themselves purport, so Adso’s text disappears and reappears over the centuries until it falls into (and out of) the hands of our very own unnamed 20th-century narrator in the prologue.

It’s like when we get to the end of Bob Dylan’s song, with harmonica howling like the wind, and through to the end of the Jimi Hendrix version, the guitar howling like the wind. If Bob Dylan plays the joker, whose labyrinth has no end but makes a formidable intertextual wormhole, Jimi makes a very fine thief. When he steals the song, he makes of it something entirely his own. If Eco’s reader is a thief so good, then his book will live up to his postscript definition of a novel as “a machine for generating interpretations.”

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8 thoughts on “Umberto Eco: the joker and the thief

  1. Oh, I agree – Eco leaves the interpretation wide open, inviting us, the readers, in. As for Dylan’s song, I do prefer Jimi’s version – though still pay my respects to the author of the original 😉

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