Borges and The Name of the Rose
By Erik Ketzan
Of the great contemporary novelists, Pynchon, Rushdie, García Márquez, and so on, each considers the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) a great influence. No exception is Umberto Eco, whose laudatory blurb on the recently published Collected Fictions of Borges reads, "Though so different in style, two writers have offered us an image for the next millennium: Joyce and Borges. The first designed with words what the second designed with ideas: the original, the one and only World Wide Web. The Real Thing. The rest will remain simply virtual." These are traditions Eco hopes to follow, as he stated in a 1989 interview, "I would like to do with ideas what Finnegans Wake does with words." The present study examines Borges' considerable influence on Eco's The Name of the Rose, specifically through "The Library of Babel," "The Secret Miracle," and "The Garden of Forking Paths."
There is, first and foremost, "The Library of Babel," written by Borges in 1941, whose very first line sets off alarms to a reader of Eco: "The universe (which other call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite, number of hexagonal galleries, with enormous ventilation shafts in the middle, encircled by very low railings." (79) Firstly, and most obviously, the library is certainly the world of Eco and Borges, two titans of learning whose lives are devoted to books. At the time "The Library of Babel" was written, Borges had spent years as First Assistant in the Miguel Cané branch of the Municipal Library, a menial job. Later in life, however, he assumed the post of director of the National Library of Argentina (resigning in 1973 when Perón returned to the Presidential office). Not only is the library the world of Eco and Borges, but also their characters. William of Baskerville, Adso, and the other monks often express themselves by unconsciously quoting books, not only because the entirety of human knowledge was kept in the monastic libraries, but because the monks were men who denied bodily desires and isolated themselves within walled microcosms (although, granted, more for Adso's Benedictines than William's Franciscans). Many human experiences were only to be gained from reading, secluded as the monks were. Borges' main characters are also overwhelmingly men of books and erudition, as will be shown.
The Aedificium library is obviously of similar construction to Borges' Library, with hexagonal rooms and ventilation shafts. The rooms of Borges have a set numbers of shelves and books, each gallery "identical to the first and all the others," (79) recalling why William and Adso became lost during their first exploration of the library. Spiral staircases are mentioned, but this is probably not significant, given the conventions of monastic building. In each "entrance way hangs a mirror," recalling the device that inspired fear in Adso, also another common symbol in the work of Borges. The Library is peopled by librarians who are born, work, and die among the stacks.
"The Library is a sphere whose consummate center is any hexagon, and whose circumference is inaccessible." (80) The fixed point symbol is central to Foucault's Pendulum, which questions the possibility of ever having just one. The Island of the Day Before similarly investigates the notion through the measure of longitude, demonstrating that any Prime Meridian is a purely arbitrary construct. Coupled with the infinite is the notion of infinite order, which in "The Library of Babel" leads to the divine: "Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the work of chance or of malevolent demiurges; the universe, with its elegant endowment of shelves, of enigmatic volumes, of indefatigable ladders for the voyager, and of privies for the seated librarian, can only be the work of a god." (81) The narrator, a librarian, then examines the apparent chaos of the books themselves, in which "as is well known: for one reasonable line or one straightforward note there are leagues of insensate cacophony, of verbal farragoes and incoherencies." (81) He then relates that many of the Library believe that the books mean nothing, and that to seek order in them is folly. The Library, it is eventually concluded, is composed of every possible book that can exist through the permutation all letters within a set number of pages.
Given this revelation, the Library people, whose history of centuries is narrated, faced the problem of finding order in their universe. The vocabulary of religion is used repeatedly. as groups of librarians tried to arrive at a system of order or conclusive disorder. The "Purifiers" went about destroying books that seemed meaningless. Another
blasphemous sect suggested that all searches be given up and that men everywhere shuffle letters and symbols until they succeeded in composing, by means of an improbable stroke of luck, the canonical books. The authorities found themselves obliged to issue severe orders. The sect disappeared, but in my childhood I still saw old men who would hide out in the privies for long periods of time. (84)
This passage first suggests the Jewish mysticism of Kabbala, which Borges and Eco write of considerably. More importantly, it raises the question of heresy posed in The Name of the Rose: are individuals allowed to interpret for themselves, or must they accept the bulls of authority? This sect and the Purifiers recall the librarians in Rose, who select which knowledge may be learned. Another group in the Library were believers in "the Man of the Book," who reasoned that "there must exist a book which is the cipher and perfect compendium of all the rest: some librarian has perused it, and it is analogous to a god." (85) The narrator, an old, disillusioned librarian, by story's end announces his own hope for universal order: that the Library is infinite but periodic -- that the limited number of books are repeatedly scattered throughout the endless galleries, in a sort of sine wave.
Now this is a monumentous literary precedent for Rose, which also examines how men invent or discover (as the case may be) ordered systems to explain their surroundings. Eco acknowledges the influence of "The Library of Babel" in many ways. The Aedificium library (hereafter "library," uncapitalized) is a universe in its plan, its parts corresponding in orientation and literary content to the known world map, its rooms identical to the ingenuous. It is interesting that the library's secret is solved in Eco, but not conclusively in Borges. The method William used to divine the library map is a great instance in the novel of the system being proved conclusively genuine (as is also the example of Brunellus). This is in marked contrast to the pattern of murders, which for the bulk of the week William assumes is based on the Apocalypse. However, the ambiguity of Borges' conclusion is repeated in Rose, as the library burns down and men are killed in an act recalling the end of the world. Books of serious depth, the final question of Rose and "The Library of Babel" is the final question of life: "Is there a God?" Is the universe ordered of its own, or have we simply imagined a system on top of chaos?
"The Secret Miracle," which Borges published in 1943, also contains many elements present in Eco. The story relates as such: Jaromir Hladik is a Jewish writer in Prague. When the Third Reich occupies the city in 1939, he is sentenced to death by the Nazi bureaucracy for "inciting others" through his writings, which amount to a translation of the Sepher Yezirah [the chief work in the Kabbalistic philosophy, already alluded to], "the unfinished tragedy The Enemies, a Vindication of Eternity, and an inquiry into the indirect Jewish sources of Jakob Boehme." (143) Sentenced on March 19th, his execution by firing squad is set for March 29th, a mere ten days' time. The night before his execution, he beseeches God to give him one year more of life to finish his mostly unwritten masterpiece.
Toward dawn, he dreamt he had hidden himself in one of the naves of the Clementine Library. [...] A librarian wearing dark glasses asked him: What are you looking for? Hladik answered: God. The Librarian told him: God is in one of the letters on one of the pages of one of the 400,000 volumes of the Clementine. My fathers and the fathers of my fathers have sought after that letter." (148)
Immediately in this dream one finds similarities to Eco. The Clementine is a beautiful Baroque library in Prague that was once a church. This librarian is similar to the other in "The Library of Babel;" they search for God among vast numbers of books. Kabbala is again recalled with the single letter of God, of which the librarian says, "I've gone blind looking for it. He removed his glasses, and Hladik saw that his eyes were dead." (147). The blind librarian is a very important figure for Borges, who at the time this story was written, 1943, was just such a man. Borges' father, also a writer, succumbed to blindness in middle age. A congenital disease, Borges himself began to go blind in the 1940s.
Now we come to Jorge of Burgos, Eco's blind librarian (with the perennial epithet of "venerable," as Homer's dawn is always "rosy-fingered"). The character's name (hereafter Jorge) obviously indicates Borges, with the further connection that he is Spanish. Jorge is a master of the labyrinth and library which hold so many Borgesian connections. This much is obvious. What, however, can be gleaned from the fact that Eco chose to represent Borges, rather than a Borges character, with his character Jorge of Burgos? Although one could argue that Jorge represents the character from "The Secret Miracle," it seems fairly clear that he's rather the man Borges himself. As Eco writes in the Postscript, "library plus blind man can only equal Borges." (515) This has become a fairly standard device among the "School of Borges," as one could classify the writers mentioned in the present study's introduction. Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow contains a character, Stephen Dodson-Truck, who seems to represent James Joyce. García Márquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude, which predates Rose by nearly two decades, also represents Borges in the character of Melquiades. Never explicitly, these characters invariably incorporate not only these writers' literature and theories, but the men themselves, the historical figures. Eco's use of Borges the man and not merely his books seems to indicate that serious study of literature can include the author's biography as fair game, contrary to critics who think that texts should be interpreted free from any such knowledge (this latter view seems to be held by Pynchon, who lets nothing of his personal life be known to the public. No photo of him from the past fifty years exists. He never gives interviews. This statement, however, did not stop him from incorporating Joyce as a character, ironically).
The treatment of Borges, it should be pointed out, is in marked contrast to William's evocation of Sherlock Holmes (not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). However, the intellectual detective story is also a favorite of Borges', as evinced in "The Garden of Forking Paths." The Argentine writes in his introduction that this "is a detective story; its readers will assist at the execution, and all the preliminaries, of a crime, a crime whose purpose will not be unknown to them, but which they will not understand -- it seems to me -- until the last paragraph." (15) Eco's words in the Postscript are very similar in meaning: "What model reader did I want as I was writing? An accomplice, to be sure, one who would play my game." (524) "The Garden of Forking Paths" is narrated by Dr. Yu Tsun, a spy for the Germans in England during the First World War. His mission is to somehow send a message to Germany stating the name of a British artillery park along the Ancre River in France. However, the British agent Captain Richard Fadden is hot on his trail. Tsun catches a train out of town, one step ahead of Madden, to a small remote village where the brilliant Dr. Stephen Albert lives. Some children on the train, guessing his intent, advise Tsun on getting to Dr. Albert's house: "The house is a good distance away but you won't get lost if you take the road to the left and bear to the left at every crossroad." (93) Tsun narrates:
For a moment I thought that Richard Madden might in some way have divined my desperate intent. At once I realized that this would be impossible. The advice about turning always to the left reminded me that such was the common formula for finding the central courtyard of certain labyrinths. I know something about labyrinths. Not for nothing am I the great-grandson of Ts'ui Pên. (93)
"The Garden of Forking Paths" is filled with labyrinths, which appear in most of Borges' stories. "The Library of Babel" mentions a book as "a mere labyrinth of letters" (81). In "The Secret Miracle," "Hladik had visualized a labyrinth of passageways, stairs, and connecting blocks" behind his door. (148) But the labyrinth action of "The Garden of Forking Paths" only begins here. Tsun relates how his ancestor, Ts'ui Pên, had spent the last years of his life on two projects: writing a vast novel and creating a labyrinth. When he was assassinated, "his novel had no sense to it and nobody ever found his labyrinth." (93) The undiscovered labyrinth is meditated upon as Tsun walks the forking path. Dr. Stephen Albert greets him, mistaking him for a Chinese consul. It turns out that Albert is a scholar of Ts'ui Pên. This Englishman, Tsun narrates: "is as great as Goethe. I did not speak with him for more than an hour, but during that time, he was Goethe." (91) They discuss Ts'ui Pên's book, which was "a shapeless mass of contradictory rough drafts. I examined it once upon a time: the hero dies in the third chapter, while in the fourth he is alive." (96) Stephen Albert posits the hypothesis that "At one time, Ts'ui Pên must have said; 'I am going into seclusion to write a book,' and at another, 'I am retiring to construct a maze.' Everyone assumed these were separate activities. No one realized that the book and the labyrinth were one and the same." (96)
The book as labyrinth obviously reflects back on Borges, but also significantly on Eco, whose works are full of dizzying complexity, false clues, and blind alleys. The reader is fooled in Rose by the following systems of order: (1) That the murderer uses the Apocalypse as his model, and (2) That Name of the Rose is itself a detective story. While not proved totally false, both descend into ambiguity by story's end. As it turns out, many of the "murders" were not murders at all, and the Apocalyptic pattern was suggested, ironically, to Jorge by William. The novel ends in radically different fashion than the detective trappings would suggest. As Eco writes in the Postscript,
It is not accident that the book starts out as a mystery (and continues to deceive the ingenuous reader until the end, so the ingenuous reader may not even realize that this is a mystery in which very little is discovered and the detective is defeated). (525)
Continuing with "The Garden of Forking Paths," Gilbert concludes that Ts'ui Pên's books portrays not only what occurs, but what might also have occurred in a different time. In the end Tsun, with heavy heart, murders Albert before being caught by Captain Madden. Tsun's mission was completed. The Germans learned the name of the British location in France, Albert, by reading it in the newspapers, which reported a mysterious murder. The first postmodern detective story ends.
Continuing with detection, William does divine certain things correctly, which Adso enumerates at the book's end:
But it was true that the tracks in the snow led to Brunellus, and it was true that Adelmo committed suicide, it was true that Venantius did not drown in the jar, it was true that the labyrinth was laid out the way you imagined it, it was true that the one entered the finis Africae by touching the word 'quatuor,' it was true that the mysterious book was by Aristotle. (492)
These do not comfort William, but his processes find precedent in Borges' story, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," in which clues eventually also lead the reader to a correct conclusion. This will be dealt with shortly.
The texts of Borges and Eco teem with information, usually more abstruse than the average reader can understand, let alone digest. While this is part of layering a text that to please a spectrum of readers, it is also an intentional way of distancing the reader, added to the already mentioned frustration of designs (the Apocalypse and detective story). Eco, in an article on the translation of his novels, recalled the first pages of War and Peace, which portray the Russian upper class speaking French. As Eco writes, however, "Today if you re-read those pages, you will realize that it is not important to understand what those characters are saying, because they speak of trivial things. What is important is to understand that they are saying those things in French." Similar is Eco's use of Latin, which most readers will not understand but serves its function by merely being Latin. Eco writes further that "Even an American reader who has not studied Latin still knows it was the language of the medieval ecclesiastical world and so catches a whiff of the Middle Ages." That Eco's intent is similar to Tolstoy's emerges in the following situation: When collaborating with a Slavic language translator, the problem arose that Latin offered no clues to Slavic readers. The problem was solved by substituting Latin with ancient ecclesiastical Slavonic, so "In that way the reader would feel the same sense of distance, the same religious atmosphere, though understanding only vaguely what was being said."
There is much of such intentional distance in the works of Borges, which not only refer to more books and obscure studies than one reader could possibly recognize, but refer to imaginary books, for example to Silas Haslam's General History of Labyrinths in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius." These references are meant to create a certain atmosphere without giving undue importance to the references themselves.
That said, it would conversely be extremely naive to dismiss anything by Borges or Eco outright, as both are masters of the layered text. It could very well prove true that the smallest reference holds the clue that decodes the larger text. In any case, the intentional distancing exists, although not in the "epic theater" tradition of Brecht, who sought to make the audiences of his plays constantly aware they were watching a play (as in Galileo and Mother Courage). Rather, Eco and Borges use the device of allusion to draw one into a world of mystery. If there is intentional distancing, there is also a notion in Eco of creating a text that welcomes the initiate after some hardship, like a secret society. "I wanted the reader to go through a penitential experience as he entered the book, just as a medieval monk went through strenuous tests when he entered the monastery," Eco said in a 1986 interview, elaborating on the observation that The Name of the Rose's first hundred pages were the book's most difficult. Although none of Borges' works are of a length that allows such initiation, it is clear that their complexity alone resists the reader while offering ultimate rewards.
A common theme in Eco is the notion of information saturation, which emerges in "The Library of Babel." The issue has become a media darling since the early Nineties, when the Internet finally achieved widespread use among laymen. Although Borges' vision well predates the technology, his conclusion, that too much knowledge is counterproductive, is no less profound. This theme appears somewhat in Rose's library, but more in Foucault's Pendulum which virtually overflows with texts, allusions, and information.
Having gone through specific notion and images, another way Borges seems to have influenced Eco is through the use of literary constructs, or framing devices. "The Garden of Forking Paths" is prefaced by the following:
In his A History of the World War (page 212), Captain Liddell Hart reports that a planned offensive by thirteen British divisions, supported by fourteen hundred artillery pieces, against the German line at Serre-Montauban, scheduled for July 24, 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th. He comments that torrential rain caused this delay -- which lacked any special significance. The following deposition, dictated by, read over, and then signed by Dr. Yu Tsun, former teacher of English at the Tsingtao Hochschule, casts unsuspected light upon this event. The first two pages are missing. (89)
Yu Tsun's text is also annotated by the authorities; when Tsun recalls a murder carried out by Madden, a footnote states, "A malicious and outlandish statement," recounting how Madden acted in self-defense. Many of Borges' stories have such literary constructs, even when not explicitly stated. Examples of these abound in literature, so perhaps too much weight should not be placed upon Borges as its trailblazer. There is Nabokov's Lolita, a book "written" by Humbert Humbert, introduced by the authorities that have arrested him; Gulliver's Travels is prefaced by a letter from Gulliver to his cousin, in which he remarks upon the editorial process involved in printing his travel journal; Lord of the Rings is supposedly a chronicle set down in the Red Book by Frodo. The method of Borges' literary constructs are similar, but often of greater subtlety. "The Library of Babel" ends with a footnote written by the narrator or another Librarian, which refers to yet another Librarian, Letizia Alvarez de Toledo, whose theories on the Library are expounded.
If the basis for such structures does not come from Borges, his influence is to be seen in the fictional introduction of The Name of the Rose ("Naturally, a manuscript"). This presents the text's very origin and validity as objects of mystery. The text as presented to us is the translation (let us say, out of convenience, that this introduction is narrated by ECO) of an nineteenth-century book, Abbé Vallet's "Le Manuscrit de Dom Adsom de Melk, traduit en français d'apres l'édition de Dom J. Mabillon (Aux Presses de l'Abbaye de la Source, Paris, 1842)," which in turn translated an eighteenth-century edition by Dom Mabillon, which claimed to reproduce the original fourteenth-century text. Thus we read what Eco "is saying what Vallet said that Mabillon said that Adso said," (512) or, as ECO writes, "my Italian version of an obscure, neo-gothic French version of a seventeenth-century Latin edition of a work written in Latin by a German monk toward the end of the fourteenth-century." (4) Fairly confusing stuff.
ECO decides to research the text, but finds no trace of the manuscript at Melk. Continuing his search, with the bibliographic information of the Mabillon edition in hand, the copy he finds at the Bibliotheque Sainte Genevieve contains no mention of Adso of Melk, with the date of publication and publisher's name also differing. ECO continues his search at Abbaye de la Source, but "no Abbé Vallet had published books on the abbey's presses (for that matter, nonexistent)." (3) ECO is stumped, and decides the work is a forgery.
ECO finds another clue, after some years, in a Buenos Aires bookshop, where he discovers an Italian translation of a work by Milo Temesvar, On the Use of Mirrors in the Game of Chess, originally in Georgian, which quotes extensively from Adso's manuscript, attributing the source as Jesuit Father Athanasius Kircher. However, ECO has a Kircher scholar confirm that no such commentary exists. ECO concludes that Adso's "memoirs appropriately share the nature of the events he narrates: shrouded in many, shadowy mysteries." (3)
An analysis of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" will show its influence upon Eco's introduction. This story begins when the narrator's friend, Bioy Casares, casually quotes a heresiarch of Uqbar. Bioy recalled that this information came from the Anglo-American Cyclopedia, "a literal if inadequate reprint of the 1902 Encyclopedia Britannica." (17) When the two check an edition that happens to be around, however, they find no mention of Uqbar. Back at home, Bioy checks his edition, which does indeed have a listing on Uqbar, as he remembered. The editions are identical save the final pages, which described Uqbar, a country of unknown location, somewhere in Asia Minor. Two years later, the narrator acquires volume XI of the Encyclopedia of Tlön, "a substantial fragment of the complete history of an unknown planet [including Uqbar], with its architecture and its playing cards, its mythological terrors and the sound of its dialects" (21) and so on. The narrator discovers that a massive secret network of artists, engineers, mathematicians, and such had collaborated in creating a wholly imaginary world.
These descriptions speak for themselves; the unique copies of books, the references to chess and mirrors (both of which figure strongly in Borges' stories), and the clue in Buenos Aires, where Borges spent most of his life, all affirm the Argentine's influence in this regard.
Labyrinths are another trademark symbol of Borges. To summarize, "The Library of Babel" is most closely tied to Eco's big questions of order in the universe. Eco has said in interview, "I am no Renaissance man. Every single thing I've done comes down to the same thing: the study of the mechanism by which we give meaning to the world around us." Such study is clearly a common theme in Borges. Eco has borrowed many trappings of "The Secret Miracle," including the blind librarian and Kabbala. "The Garden of Forking Paths" is Eco's precedent for a postmodern detective story with a conspicuous literary frame. There is also its great symbol of the book as labyrinth, which seems to have influenced Eco. "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" sets the tone for Eco's introduction, which questions the validity of Adso's text itself. There is the intentional distancing of the reader, the commentary on information saturation. There is, finally, a rugged complexity of prose that simply did not exist before Borges. This is not to say his prose is more difficult, or even containing less allusions, than Shakespeare's. Rather, it is a constant interplay of ideas, a collection of story synopses that work better than novels ever could. Ideas are thrown away in Borges as quickly as they arrive. A difficult notion to explain, but it is clear that Eco's prose mimics this.
Of final note, Eco's commentary in the Postscript should be briefly mentioned:
Everyone asks me why my Jorge, with his name, suggests Borges, and why Borges is so wicked. But I cannot say. I wanted a blind man who guarded a library (it seemed a good narrative idea to me), and library plus blind man can only equal Borges, also because debts must be paid. And, further, it was through Spanish commentaries and illuminations that the Apocalypse influenced the entire Middle Ages. But when I put Jorge in the library I did not yet know he was the murderer. (515)
Clearly, Jorge is a character of great complexity, embodying many ideas and references, Borges being only one, if the most predominant. Eco speaks of debts to be paid, which the present study has attempted to catalogue.
Borges, Jorge Luis. Collected Fictions (New York: Viking, 1999).
"Lighthearted Heavyweight," Newsweek, November 13, 1989.
"A Rose by Any Other Name," Guardian Weekly, January 16, 1994.
"Superstar Professor," Newsweek, September 29, 1986.
Parenthetical references are to:
Borges, Jorge Luis. Ficciones (New York: Grove Press, 1962).
Eco, Umberto. Name of the Rose (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994).