Umberto Eco and the search for meaning

February 26, 2016

Learning of the recent death of Umberto Eco, the Italian novelist and philosopher, I was reminded of the final words of The Name of the Rose. Eco’s best-known work ends with a Latin hexameter, a quotation from De Contemptu Mundi written by Bernard of Morlay, a twelfth-century Benedictine monk: “Stat rosa pristina nomine; nomina nuda tenemus.”

This translates as: “Yesterday’s rose endures in its name; we hold empty names” and it can be loosely summed up to mean that in this imperfect world, the only imperishable things are ideas. The rose of the title is a symbol so rich in meaning that it now means everything and nothing. It is an empty space that readers can fill in with their own interpretation. Indeed, Eco wants the reader to think – and think hard.

Throughout his life, Eco was drawn to create works full of meaning, richly contextualised and layered with erudite references. He was unafraid to be unapologetically clever, once telling an interviewer: “I think a book should be judged 10 years later, after reading and re-reading it. I was always defined as too erudite and philosophical, too difficult. Then I wrote a novel that is not erudite at all, that is written in plain language, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, and among my novels it is the one that has sold the least. So probably I am writing for masochists. It’s only publishers and some journalists who believe that people want simple things. People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged.”

I think he is right. Often we are too quick to dumb down, to throw away the notion of culture as being important for its own sake. In France, a government agency has approved changes to the spellings of thousands French words in an attempt to simplify the language. In the US, schools in San Francisco have been accused of weakening learning through a curriculum made easy. In the UK, the 81-year-old poet, theorist and screenwriter Edward Bond has warned: “English theatre, English society, is not dumbing down, it is actually becoming infantile.”

It is not so difficult however to encourage higher thinking, a deeper search for meaning. The key lies in opening ourselves to whatever art form moves us most. We perhaps ought to allow ourselves a spiritual connection, and then take time to examine that link and explore why we feel as we do. When we exercise our minds, we use our intelligence as a muscle.

Eco also said, in The Name of the Rose:Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means.”

To books, I would add, art, music, poetry, dance. Looking beyond does not mean we cannot enjoy all forms of culture on a purely human level. But when we inquire more intently into the artist’s motives, we may find the true value of the work itself.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation