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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Future classic – free while you can get it

Looks like Love’s Ragged Claws (Faulkner-Wisdom finalist) has a FREE cycle this week. Download free at this link: http:amzn.to/3cwDBaj.

Just be nice if you take a freebie and post an honest  Amazon review of at least one sentence. These really help authors.

In this short novella, Gabriel enters confession for the first time in 50 years and tells the priest he has only three sins to confess, all sins of the flesh, and the confession opens up the byways of human identity and human relationships as it weaves the tale of the three sins.

“A stop at the confessional becomes a life story . . . three sins of the flesh, all of them unique, touching, funny, and remarkably real” (John Allen Stevenson, Professor of English and author of History of the British Novel: Defoe to Austen)

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Thanks!
Gary

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Release your inner hippie

HIPPIES FREE this week. Download now.

4.2 stars on 47 Amazon reviews. Selected for Oregon community radio interview.

Follow Jazmine and Ziggy as they stumble through the sights, sounds, and ideals of the 1960s toward a dramatic personal climax.

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New novella – Love’s Ragged Claws

Love’s Ragged Claws (55 pages) now out. Faulkner-Wisdom Prize finalist. Get it. Share it. Write reviews. ($7.12 Pap., $3.91 Kindle)

Link: http:amzn.to/3cwDBaj

Gabriel enters confession for the first time in 50 years and tells the priest he has only three sins to confess, all sins of the flesh, and the confession opens up the byways of human identity and human relationships as it weaves the tale of the three sins. This short novella moves back and forth between Gabriel’s hippie life with the three women in the 1970s and their continued contact in old age, as they reflect back and pull out the little epiphanies that would become reference points of meaning for the rest of their lives.

“A stop at the confessional becomes a life story . . . three sins of the flesh, all of them unique, touching, funny, and remarkably real” (John Allen Stevenson, Professor of English and author of History of the British Novel: Defoe to Austen

“The flow and style carry you along, beginning to end” (Michael T. Tusa, Author of Chasing Charles Bukowski and A Second Chance at Dancing)

“A brilliantly woven narrative spanning five decades and three enduring yet elusive relationships” (Robert Okaji, Author of From Every Moment a Second and I Have a Bird to Whistle)

Love’s Ragged Claws is brand new, it’s cheap, and it’s a short read, so let’s get some honest reviews up on Amazon! Email me, too, and let me know what you think!

Gary (drggautier@gmail.com)

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Strange Bedfellows: Love and Existentialism in Benedetti’s “The Truce”

The Truce (“La tregua”) by Mario Benedetti

Reviewed by Gary Gautier

WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS

It takes a while to realize who the “truce” is between in this fine 1960 Uruguayan novel. I read it in Spanish so I may have missed something (and my native Spanish readers can comment), but the spoilers are definitely real, so best not to read this if you’re considering reading the book for the first time.

You don’t often see true love and existentialism as bedfellows in the arts. Even Shakespeare reserves his proto-existentialist threads for King Lear and Macbeth. Such threads are not for the romantic comedies, nor even for the love tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. But although it isn’t clear until the end of the novel, Benedetti has masterfully woven those two themes together in The Truce. Martín Santomé, whose diary forms the novel, is an accountant on the verge of retiring. The diary of an accountant seems a subject for the mock-heroic form if ever there was one, but there is nothing mock-epic about The Truce. The quotidian nature of Martín’s daily life is indeed humorous at times, but it is a credit to Benedetti that we feel so bonded to the protagonist so quickly that the otherwise boring tableaus of his daily life engage us fully, even if it is a close-in engagement rather than the panoramic one we might get in a true epic. I, at least, loved my glimpses of his office routines, the casual friends that pop in and out, etc.

Martín is an aging widower who has very responsibly raised his kids, even though he does not know them very deeply. When he falls in love with Avellaneda, 25 years his junior, he suddenly realizes that he had been “dead” in inside for many years and now feels a spark of life that he did not even realize was missing. His diary account of falling in love is both funny and moving. Although classical versus romantic approaches to love and life is a perennial theme, I think it best to consider three options here: classic, romantic, and sentimental. The classical form is rational, balanced, stable (think of the pairings that work best in Jane Austen novels). The romantic is full of overflowing passion. For example, in Francis Ford Coppola’s film, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” Coppola’s Dracula is as much a romantic hero as he is a gothic villain, passionate beyond measure but morally dangerous – so dangerous in fact that he is perfectly willing to destroy and violate any number of innocent bystanders in the reckless pursuit of his passion. The sentimental form is not rational like the classic and is not full of wild passion like the romantic but is something else – it is a matter of feeling, not of reason nor of wild romantic passions but of the simple affections that bind people in domestic bliss.

At first, Martín seems rather classical in his love. The emotions are real but maintaining balance and a rational discretion is important. Ultimately, though, I think his love proves the truest form, the sentimental in the case of this novel. Romantic love, in the specific sense of excessive/unbounded/dangerous, does not get much play in the novel. For better or worse, the characters are too grounded for that. Avellaneda’s parents perhaps demonstrate the shallowness of classical love, which tends to erode into a purely practical function, into something less than love. “They love each other, I’m sure of that,” Avellaneda says of her parents, “but I don’t know if that’s the way of loving each other that I like.”

BIG SPOILER: The existentialist undercurrent of the novel comes to the surface after Avellaneda’s sudden death. Martín realizes that any offer of meaning in life is a mirage. He reflects back on his few months of love with Avellaneda as a flashing moment of truce between God and himself, in which the dark world of the existentialists was temporarily put on hold. And in another flash all goes dark again, and the full weight of a meaningless universe descends like an inevitable curtain.

From the point of view of the final sequence, one can retrospectively see the veins of existentialism running through the novel. The quirky side characters are not pointers to some grand symbolic scheme, some ground of meaning, as they would be in a Charles Dickens novel. They are random, all surface and no depth in terms of the economy of meaning. Martín ’s relationship to his kids, loving, living up to one’s daily responsibilities, but without depth, the same. Even the sudden revelation of Avellaneda’s death – a casual, dashed-off note that she had died – emphasizes the irrational, empty “thrownness” of the world, as existentialists in the Heidegger line might put it.

Also in the manner of Albert Camus and the existentialists, The Truce mentions suicide several times. So I expected a suicide. But Benedetti, in true existentialist manner, knew that after a “truce” such as Martín’s, suicide would be too easy, a mere evasion. The prospect of extending indefinitely into the future a life totally void of meaning or joy or value – this prospect is more frightening, more powerful, and more telling philosophically, than death.

But something is different in The Truce, some excess that existentialism cannot contain. Yes, the final world is dark and meaningless, and Martín feels the full weight of it, but for the reader the novel is also a response to the existentialists. The end is sad, but the reader remembers the love between Martín and Avellaneda, and that love, although temporary, gives a deep value to the world that does not simply vanish, that is timeless, no matter what happens next. The beauty of this moment fills the universe, and even God cannot deny it. Maybe Avellaneda’s mother was right (although Martín himself cannot see it) when she said there is something sweet about our sorrows, something the darkness fails to snuff out.

So perhaps the truce that Martín reflects upon, the truce between God and himself that temporarily holds the absolute darkness at bay, is on another level a truce between these two economies of meaning – the economy of existentialism, in which all meanings cancel out, and the economy of human love, where human connection reaches such a joyous depth that the eternal darkness of the indifferent universe itself becomes trivial in comparison. Whereas the truce between God and Martín ends with Avellaneda’s death, and the darkness rushes back in, the truce between these two economies of meaning is less settled at the end. Which takes precedence? The darkness at the end that promises to extend indefinitely, or the light of the short-lived love, which belies the efforts of that darkness? Whereas Benedetti settles the first level of the truce, perhaps it is the up to the reader to settle the second.

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From Shrooms to Hippies

I didn’t quite realize it but now Hippies is 99c. Follow Jaz and Ziggy through the risks and pleasures of the 1960s. Go ahead. Click it. Release your inner hippie.

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Free Maggie Now!

Goodbye, Maggie (shortlisted for the 2019 Faulkner Prize) is FREE this week on Amazon (Kindle).

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Click the cover below to link through. (Read some excerpts below.)

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Phil’s life becomes a fiasco of misdirection when his charismatic brother, Magnus, shows up with the news that he has murdered someone and asks for sanctuary. Magnus then disappears – with Phil’s girlfriend, Hermia – and Phil lands on an uneasy road trip through small town Louisiana with Gus, another rival for Hermia’s attention. Phil and Gus, white and black, find racism, madness, and unlikely friendships as they roll through the bayous and into New Orleans.

Excerpts:

First page

Closer to the end

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Bargain Booksy – Faulkner Prize Finalist

Shortlisted for the 2019 Faulker Prize and now $3.88 as promoted on today’s Bargain Booksy list.

Share, enjoy, write reviews!

Link to Maggie here.
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In a culture of health nuts, gurus, quacks and seekers, Phil’s stagnant life collapses when his charismatic brother, Magnus, shows up with the news that he has murdered someone and asks for sanctuary. Thus starts a dramatic comedy of rollicking misdirection, as Magnus disappears – with Phil’s girlfriend, Hermia – and Phil lands on an uneasy road trip through small town Louisiana with Gus, another rival for Hermia’s attention. Phil and Gus, white and black, find racism, madness, and unlikely friendships as they roll through the bayous and into New Orleans.

Amazon link here.
Author site here.
Facebook link here.

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Before you know it

I didn’t even realize it. Hippies is free again this week.

Follow Jazmine and Ziggy through their Age of Aguarius sorrows, joys, and wonders.
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