Umberto Eco: the joker and the thief


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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Poem for Mexico

What says Quetzalcoatl,
scales of monstrous feather,
turquoise, green, and gaudy gold,
whip of a body, tongue of purple flame?

He saw Huitzilopochtli when the winters came,
the closing night, the sun-dimmed altar,
tearing the heart of Copil,
all to no avail.

He sees the rabbit with the jaguar’s wound,
the serpent tooth that carries the salve,
a strange pyramid of human waste,
and yet a pyramid.

“Scatter the ashes,” says
Quetzalcoatl, scales of monstrous
feather, turquoise, green, and gaudy
gold, whip of a body, tongue of purple flame.

“The fire burns fierce in the heart of man.
And woman too. Lick the flame
and wish for the best,”
says the dios.

“Expect nothing,” says Quetzalcoatl,
scales of monstrous feather
to the wind.

(Gary Gautier)

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The Plumed Serpent: Race, Gender, and Primal Consciousness

Review and analysis of The Plumed Serpent, D. H. Lawrence (1926)
by Gary Gautier

First, the gorilla in the room. As The Plumed Serpent tells of a white woman (Kate) who finds herself in early 20th-century Mexico, a strange, frightening, and exhilarating place for her, many reviewers bog down in race/ethnicity/colonialism. Kate in fact gets mixed up with two Mexican men, Ramon (of mixed blood) and Cipriano (pure Indian), who seek renewal for Mexico through its ancient pagan cultures. The shallowest of reviewers see D. H. Lawrence promoting the “white man’s burden” of civilizing the savages, while the better ones remain ambivalent, sensing something different going on in the novel but fearing being tainted as enablers of the racist Western master narrative.

In fact, anyone not cowed by the politics of academic criticism can see, on the contrary, that The Plumed Serpent is Lawrence’s specific refutation of “the white man’s burden” narrative. Especially at this late point in his life (he died a few years later at age 44), Lawrence despised the place to which white man’s Western culture had brought us, with its deadening Christianity and its machines and its dehumanizing political ideologies. The cultural spread of The Plumed Serpent can be roughly divided into the white Western world, the modern Mexican world, and the pre-Hispanic world of ancient Mesoamerica, and Lawrence fleshes out a rich, writerly ambivalence toward all three, but his ultimate allegiance is clearly with the pre-Hispanic pagan world view. The whites have a world of “mechanical dominance” (2145*) and “mechanical connections” (2406), but even Kate is “weary to death of American automatism” (2145) and its deadening effects on the human soul. Lawrence doesn’t mince words about his view: “White men brought no salvation to Mexico. On the contrary, they find themselves at last shut in the tomb along with their dead god and the conquered race” (3110). The modern Mexican fares not much better, “divided against himself” (1461), torn between envy and resentment in both directions – toward the encroaching white culture and toward their repressed pagan roots. For all practical purposes, they – the modern Mexicans – “are swamped under the stagnant water of the white man’s Dead Sea consciousness” (1486). The only hope – and Lawrence had become increasingly misanthropic after the Great War, though his journeys in Mexico and southwest US after 1922 had lifted him somewhat – lies in “that timeless, primeval passion of the prehistoric races” (2686), of Quetzalcoatl and Huitzilopochtli, back when humans lived breast-to-breast with the cosmos, before Christianity tore the soul from the body, back when one’s allegiance to the greater community was visceral and human, not ideological and abstract. “We must go back and pick up the old threads. We must take up the old broken impulse that will connect us with the mystery of the cosmos again” (3154).

Thus, those moderns who chafe at the “white supremacist” aspect of Lawrence’s work are sort of like those who see racial slurs in probably the most impactful anti-racist novel in history, Huck Finn, and absurdly conclude that the novel promotes racism. Such reading requires a degree of resistance to critical thinking that can only be found at the graduate level of US universities today. These are exactly the people Lawrence is fighting against. Wearing their ideological blinders, they miss the whole point of both books. Are some of the racial expressions unacceptable by today’s standards? Of course, but if we are to appreciate cultural history at all, we must resist rejecting past works that fail to meet present standards, and, as Bill Maher says, “just grandfather in all the shit that you would have done yourself if you were alive then.” We don’t need to approve of a past era but we do need to read with a little context if we are to get at the nuance. In terms of the racial spread of characters, do I wish Lawrence had given more rounded Mexican characters in the novel? Sure, but then again, we have no range of white people either – only the struggling (Irish) Kate and the two unlikeable American men in the opening chapters. The novel is less about individual characters than about primeval forces working through the characters. Lawrence connects with the pagan roots and hidden blood of Mexico at a depth that “woke” critics can never know, since their analytic approach sees Mexicans and Mexico as flattened out caricatures of oppressor and oppressed in their political metric, which precludes their engaging at such a depth.

This doesn’t mean I am all-in with Lawrence. As he re-envisions what it would be like for the old pagan world view to break through the crust of deadened modernity, he never quite sorts out, e.g., what to do with the brutality of blood sacrifice and the violence in general that cannot be easily separated from the old world view. But at least he does not sweep it under the rug. Much like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Lawrence’s Plumed Serpent finds a cultural pathway, exotic and primeval to the European mind, that brings him to a depth in the collective unconscious that is a place of both fascination and horror. Lawrence seems certain that the old pagan ways offer the only hope for renewal, but seems not quite certain of how to account for the blood violence in those ways. Kate feels the full weight of the ambivalence, as she “felt she had met the mystery of the natives, the strange and mysterious gentleness between a Scylla and Charybdis of violence” (2162). Indeed, the Homeric reference is no random allusion. Cipriano’s treatment of the prisoners near the end echoes The Odyssey’s slaughter in the great hall, where the generally admirable Odysseus dispatches the traitors with a brutality that gives the modern reader pause. Through Kate, Lawrence deals with the pagan world view of the ancients as honestly as he can, not with the philosopher’s eye on closing the syllogism, but with the poet’s eye on opening the vista with all of its beauties, its horrors, and its ambiguities.

Critics of Lawrence on gender are partly subject to the same rebuke as those in the postcolonial category above, but not quite as completely. Throughout his corpus, and The Plumed Serpent is no exception, the archetypal struggle of male and female forces, cosmic in scope, play out through individual characters. Such a binary may not be de rigueur today, and indeed may not be an accurate representation of gender in any universal sense. But the transcendental struggle of opposites, often cast as male and female, played out through the subjectivities of individuals, holds a large place in the history of ideas and has given rich food for thought, populating the landscapes of some of our most creative minds, from the visionary poems of William Blake, to Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, to Camille Paglia and Virginia Woolf. If someone wants to complain that this archetypal struggle is too binary, I have no rebuttal. If someone wants to complain that the female principle in Lawrence’s particular iteration comes up short, I have mixed feelings. He frequently says and dramatizes that male and female are cosmic forces equal in potency, “the mystery of the Two Ways” (8284), Kate’s “woman’s greater self, and the greater self of man” (3011), a “slow wheel of dance” between “two great streams” (3019). Each needs the other to complete itself but each must remain in some way opaque, its strangeness forever intact. At times, the female ideal as pondered by Kate indeed seems a bit too aligned with passivity or submission. But she always makes her own final decisions, she is never eclipsed by the male potency (“though her woman’s nature was reciprocal to his male, surely it was more than that,” 9427), and it is she who saves Ramon, the hero, with the physical force of her own will. So there are legitimate bits to pick with gender, but it would be a mistake to let those bits negate the fantastic archetypal dynamics worked out in the novel.

Besides the risk of some infelicities in gender representations (a risk taken by any creative work of this magnitude), there are perhaps larger risks to Lawrence’s social vision. I do not mean the “white man’s burden” risk formulaically raised by woke critics, as this risk only applies if one skims the barest surface of the novel. But in his eagerness to strip away the ideological clutter of modernity and get back to human-to-human based structures of power, Lawrence leaves the dangers of hero-worship and fascism intact even at the depths of the novel. Ramon, with all of his good intentions regarding the spiritual renewal of a world become deadened, emerges as the cult leader par excellence. If Lawrence’s social vision differs from Ramon’s, this is difficult to decipher from the actual text on the page.

An interesting cinematic equivalent to this phenomenon might be Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (with Kris Kristofferson, James Coburn, and Bob Dylan). In that fine film, Pat and Billy wander villages separately, but each is clearly a man of power. The people in this frontier setting intuitively recognize what Lawrence calls “the voice of a master and authority” (6196). Whether they are breaking the law, helping a stranger, or killing someone who stands in the way, it matters not. There is an automatic allegiance to Billy when he is in town, and an automatic (though perhaps more grudging) allegiance to Pat when he is in town. To people in this outlier region, the laws of the state or ideological alignments are impossibly abstract. They recognize a man of power when they see one, and their allegiance naturally alights upon that man. One recognizes the phenomenon in the film, and it seems quite natural in context, but, as both Pat and Billy show by their moral ambiguity and unpredictability, there is a dark side to this natural expression of human bonding into power relations in a pre-state, pre-ideological manner. What if the man of power is Charles Manson or one of the fascist leaders who darkened the 20th century?

The Plumed Serpent runs the same risk as the Peckinpah film. There is something tantalizing about breaking through the crust of deadened modernity with a renewed spiritual energy based on the forgotten pagan ways, based not on ideological abstraction but on breast-to-breast contact with fellow humans and with the physicality of the cosmos. But there is a risk there that I’m not sure Lawrence addresses adequately. Ramon and Cipriano lead the renewal in this novel, but who will the leaders of power be tomorrow? To cast this back into psychoanalytic terms, note that Lawrence is contemporary with Freud as well as Jung. Besides the book’s rich exploration of the collective unconscious and its call to find redemptive energy in the primitive roots of consciousness, one can cast it in Freudian terms as well. Lawrence is a creature of the id, always trying to tease the dark power of the id into breaking through the soft tissue of the ego and the hard crust of the superego. Therein lies redemption for Lawrence, but I think it is safe to say that there is also a danger in giving the reins to the unregulated drives of the id.

One final note worth mentioning, just on the formal elements of fiction. As with the other novels of D. H. Lawrence (and those of his modernist peers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce), The Plumed Serpent advances not along a linear plot with a strong throughline but rather by circling deeper and deeper into the subjective and intersubjective spaces within and between the characters. Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is perhaps the most successful example of this kind of narrative structure, but D. H. Lawrence does it and does it well. And Lawrence is perhaps better than Woolf at filling in the physical landscape, creating a scene, in this case rich with the specific flora and fauna of Mexico, night sky and night rivers, villages and villagers, a sense of wonder and a sense of foreboding. It is wonderful indeed in that regard, but readers beware if you are looking for a suspense-driven novel with a strong plot. Also, be ready for a bit of long-windedness as Lawrence has Ramon create his own cycle of hymns and myths for the return of Quetzalcoatl. Lawrence was a formidable poet in his own right (see, e.g., Birds, Beasts, and Flowers), but it was a bit much in this context.

By the way, if you doubt my assessment of the novel’s themes, you might look to Lawrence’s non-fiction Apocalypse, written just a few years later (on his death bed) and published posthumously. Stripped of the powerful ambivalence and intersubjective force fields that make for great fiction, Lawrence goes straight to the point in that extended essay and makes his case. In his own voice, he speaks of the dead end of modernity and of the need to rejuvenate the old pagan world view, which we indeed still carry within us just as we still carry the primeval archetypes of Jung’s collective unconscious.

Thus, rightly or wrongly, smugly or humbly, I claim the man himself as my number one backup 😊

*Citations are to Kindle version locations. Most paperback editions are around 450 pages.

Selected references / click for links



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(Click below for reviewer’s links)

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What I Saw at 81 Positos

The art show at Foro Cultural 81 (81 Positos, Guanajuato) featured two artists. Cati Gris’s main body of work centered on shades and variations of texture and line and shape – the geometrical building blocks of visual reality. These abstract geometrical compositions, however, are typically enmeshed in organic, textile materials.

    Castillo Moderno                     Elegancia del desierto      Paisajes para invocar a la lluvia
                                                                                                     Teclado de piel

             Vela amarilla              Vela rosa                    Series rotoplast versión #6

But something more. Also a sense of palimpsest layered in earth colors, more cool than warm, subdued, a sense of hidden details, hidden bytes and bits of information, patterns lying almost unconsciously beneath the visual surface and requiring a close-in look (“Catedral el llama desde internet”).

  Catedral en llamas desde internet

A few of Gris’s works leaned in along the gradient from the abstract toward the representational, without giving too much on the representations side. The jittery electronic universe that almost comes into focus in “Dispositivo para presenter colores básicos” struck me as such, as did the archetypal figures emerging in silhouette from the geometry of “Chalchiuhtlicue”.

                       Dispositivo para presentar colores básicos                    Chalchiuhtlicue

Phe Ruiz had two rooms in the exhibit with clearly demarcated themes – one room striking for its texture, one striking for its color.

The second room was full of bold colors with a childlike quality, albeit one haunted, in both style and affect, by the empty spaces of faces. The human-like figures were sometimes cast into elemental environments, either in nature (“El pino”) or in a stylized domestic set, e.g. in “El Mesero,” where we get a solitary figure learning to balance in a rudimentary social space.

                             El pino                                                           El mesero

Sometimes, the same figures found themselves wandering aimlessly in a more abstract setting, the child-appeal of the bold colors offset by the existentialist undertones of face and posture.

.                                                                    Una caminata    

Ruiz’s other room (the first in order of the gallery), full of rich, creamy textures and darker, warmer colors, was heavier in affect.
                                     Las llamas                                                  Pink and black

Finally, the venue itself at 81 Positos was elegant and well-lit, and did its part to highlight the power and peculiarities of the works included. And if you were lucky enough to be there on opening night, Alonso’s sangria wasn’t bad either.

x x x

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