God, Truth, and Meaning, in the Post-modernism of Umberto Eco

By Niki Lambros

Introduction: the Role of the Reader

Philosopher Paul Ricoeur has called Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, "masters of suspicion1;" yet he also notes that though they sought to undermine traditional ideas, they were able to "clear the horizon for a more authentic word, for a new reign of Truth, not only by means of a 'destructive' critique, but by the invention of an art of interpreting2". In a similar way, Umberto Eco can be seen as both a post-modernist sceptic and a champion of truth and meaning. From a Christian point of view, one must be very suspicious of a post-modernist philosophy that will not allow the possibility that God, truth and meaning can exist: in a conversation sponsored by the Cambridge University Faculty of Divinity last year, Rowan Williams and George Steiner noted that the "suspicion" or scepticisms of Derrida and Foucault are not suspicious enough for this reason: they do not allow themselves to suspect that truth may indeed exist. We must read Eco in the light of just such a suspicion; while Eco is sceptical of simply accepting traditional religion or modernist conclusions, he yet shows himself to be even more suspicious of philosophy which does not seek truth and meaning, but is content with nihilism and the void. The "art of interpreting" or, "deduction" in Eco, still leads a careful reader, if not to an absolute knowledge, at least to hope; and Eco sees a profound meaning in hope.

Quote, in which a clue is detected

"What a lovely thing a rose is!….There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion…It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers3".
-- Sherlock Holmes

The deliberate parallel in the physical appearance and psychological character of William of Baskerville, protagonist of Umberto Eco's now classic post-modern novel, The Name of the Rose, with those of fiction's greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes, is one few readers could fail to perceive4. In this essay, I too would like to conjecture a comparison, here between Eco and Holmes; in the above passage -- of which Eco could not have been unaware -- we may recognize the familiar echo of the cool, deductive reasoner at work; but we also get an eloquently revealed glimpse of a hidden side to Eco as to Holmes, a typically understated affirmation of faith. Eco is a post-modernist whose background in medieval theology, his study of semiotics and the philosophy of language, and general devotion to scholarship, do not permit him to reduce humanity and the cosmos to the meaninglessness espoused by much of dogmatic post-modernism. The Christian background to Eco's ethical beliefs -- which, as in the case of Holmes5, is not negated by his considering himself a secular humanist -- makes his version of post-modernism not merely a series of deconstructions which end in a void, but a constructive vision both creative and liberating, and of great value to sciences ranging from semiotics and linguistics, to social anthropology and even modern theology. He states, "I am of the firm belief that even those who do not have faith in a personal and providential divinity can still experience forms of religious feeling and hence a sense of the sacred, of limits, questioning and expectation; of a communion with something that surpasses us6."
A close reading of both Eco's fictional and scientific works reveals this fundamental incompatibility with philosophers such as Richard Rorty, Jaques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and other post-modernists who have declared war on meaning. This essay will briefly compare radical post-modernist philosophy with the moderated post-modernist trends in Eco's writings, and continue with a summary of Eco's post-modernist ideas in the area of semiotics and language, with an emphasis on their relationship to his humanist, ethical philosophy. I propose that there is, in Eco, a deep-set notion of meaning in the Christian sense, a belief in ethics, realized in a quest for truth; and that it is this aspect of his work which is most filled with life-creating potentialities in the diverse fields he engages. But often we will see that as in the case of several authors who chose the subject of Eco's, "detectives",
7 the above-mentioned "rose" passage -- despite the obvious allusion -- is never cited; it cannot be, for it doesn't fit the picture many "post-modernists" like to draw of and for themselves.

Labyrinths With No Center: Rorty, Derrida, Foucault

Stanley Grenz states that, "[Post-modernism] affirms that whatever we accept as truth and even the way we envision truth are dependent on the community in which we participate8…There is no absolute truth: rather truth is relative to the community in which we participate." Richard Rorty accords with this, arguing that since truth is merely an intersubjective agreement between members of a community, one should choose beliefs which affirm one's own community's "solidarity."9 Rorty's "liberal ironist" is socialized into belief in a "just" society, and advocates the preferment of human rights to a regime of cruelty, not because of any moral philosophy or religious belief, but out of solidarity to the community to which s/he belongs -- and he then proceeds to speak of "the community of the liberal intellectuals of the secular modern West."10 He proclaims intellectual liberation in "the process of de-divinization"11 which "would ideally culminate in our no longer being able to see any use for the notion that finite, mortal, contingently existing human beings might derive meaning from anything except other [such] beings".12 He states that the ideal culture of liberalism "would be…secular, through and through. It would be one in which no trace of divinity remained…It would drop…not only the idea of holiness, but of 'devotion to truth'."13 Rorty praises Derrida for his break from a notion of the sacred:

"To disentangle oneself…from what Derrida calls "the metaphysics of presence" -- the intellectual tradition that…tells us that beyond humanity, and immune to historical and cultural change, there is something -- this something is sometimes called God, sometimes the intrinsic nature of physical reality, sometimes the moral law, and sometimes the underlying structure of all possible human thought -- to which humanity owes respect…would be to move into an intellectual world which would be humanistic in a far fuller sense than were the worlds of Renaissance Platonists or the Enlightenment secularists."14

Going beyond the denial of a divinity being a real source of truth or meaning, Michel Foucault sneers at even an anthropic conception:

"To all those who still wish to think about man, about his reign or his liberation …who still ask themselves questions about what is man in his essence…who wish to take him as their starting point in their attempts to reach the truth…to all these warped and twisted forms of reflection, we can only answer with a philosophical laugh -- which means to a certain extent, a silent one."15

Truth, for Foucault, is linked to power, a "thing of the world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power".16 In fact, any mention of "authority" proves intolerable; even a yoke so intrinsic to the foundation of logical reasoning as the existence of a real concept of "truth", is too proscriptive. Therefore, reason is no longer to be necessarily preferred over unreason, nor any moral code binding. A denial of logic facilitates Jean-François Lyotard's insistence on "incredulity toward metanarratives", which refuses to allow a valuation of historical events, rendering history uninterpretable and valueless.17 In the area of language, Nietzsche fears we "will never be rid of God so long as we still believe in grammar", and Derrida agrees: "there is nothing but the text."18 This is an entirely conscious attack on "logos" -- in every sense -- which intends the "de-divinization" of the human person, the end of theological thinking, and allowing the world to devolve into of chaos.

As Barbara Cartland would say…

Compare the above ideas to Eco's, on the subjects of irony, the innate need of humankind to discover truth, and the unwillingness to "de-divinize" the cosmos:

"The postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognizing that the past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction leads to silence, must be revisited: but with irony, not innocently…Irony, metalinguistic play, enunciation squared…with the postmodern, it is possible not to understand the game and yet to take it seriously. Which is, after all, the quality (the risk) of irony. There is always someone who takes ironic discourse seriously …Finnegans Wake is already postmodern, or at least it initiates the postmodern discourse: it demands, in order to be understood, not the negation of the already said, but its ironic rethinking."19

He is not "incredulous toward metanarratives", but on the contrary, claims that to attempt to destroy or negate the past leads inevitably to emptiness and silence. Eco's constructive notions lead him to attribute to a post-modernist art great possibilities for moving the human being to engage more and more deeply, until s/he has been effected by the experience: "The ideal postmodern novel will somehow rise above the quarrel between realism and irrealism, formalism and 'content-ism', pure and committed literature, coterie fiction and junk fiction…My own analogy would be with good jazz or classical music: one finds much on successive listenings…but the first time through should be so ravishing -- and not just to specialists -- that one delights in the replay." As Paul Ricoeur also affirms: "Not that the past is unreal, but past reality is, in the strict sense of the word, unverifiable. Insofar as it no longer exists, the discourse of history can seek to grasp it only indirectly. It is here that the relationship with fiction shows itself so crucial."20
Philosophy -- based increasingly since the last century on theories of language -- has begun, in people like Eco, to shift its position in order to encounter a post-modernist scepticism and irony which has not always proved fatal to theism. Eco's notion of irony is profoundly creative and liberating: in The Name of the Rose, it is God who has the last laugh. For who are they which survive the apocalypse? Against all odds, Baskerville and Adso emerge from the intended death-trap: the first, to become Holmes' great-great ancestor, the other to chronicle the human condition faced with the mysteries of the cosmos: we can not know, yet we continue to hope, and to believe.
It is important to note that William of Baskerville is no sneering ironist himself, but a faithful Christian monk and priest, devoted to the "poverty of Jesus" in the Franciscan order to which he belongs. While he questions, doubts, expresses dismay over the lostness of the Church in some of her ways, at no time does he mock. An interviewer writes, "I ask Eco -- a lapsed 'militant Catholic' -- about the notion of an absent deity that haunts his writing. Laughing, he offers only the mischievous retort, 'God hides because He doesn't want to appear in Vogue!'"
21 In Foucault's Pendulum, the Eco-character, Caussabon, pronounces tellingly on those who would love secrets more than faith in a possible truth:

"Hadn't Agliè spoken of the yearning for mystery that stirred the age of the Antonines? Yet someone had just arrived and declared himself the Son of God, the Son of God made flesh, to redeem the sins of the world. Was that a run-of-the-mill mystery? And he promised salvation to all: you only had to love your neighbor. Was that a trivial secret? And he bequeathed the idea that whoever uttered the right words…could turn a chunk of bread and a half-glass of wine into the body and blood of the Son of God and be nourished by it. Was that a paltry riddle? And then he led the Church fathers to ponder and proclaim that God was One and Triune and that the Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son, but that the Son did not proceed from the Father and the Spirit. Was that some easy formula for hylics? And yet they, who now had salvation within their grasp…turned deaf ears. Is that all there is to it? How trite…The mystery of the Trinity? Too simple."22

To laugh is not to mock; Eco so loves humour, and attributes great health of mind to seeing the humour in any given situation, that even his most technical textbooks on semiotics manage to produce a smile now and then; yet the dignity of certain subjects is never sacrificed to humour. And this is because it is precisely the "sense of the sacred, of limits, questioning and expectation", which provides the basis for his profound humanism. He writes:

"Accept for a moment the hypothesis that there is no God: that man's appearance on earth is the result of an unfortunate mistake, that not only is he consigned to his mortal condition, he is also condemned to be aware of this, and is thus the most imperfect of creatures… -- he achieves, in the fullness of time, the religious, moral, and poetic power to conceive of the model of Christ, of universal love, of the forgiveness of enemies, of a life offered in human sacrifice for the salvation of others. If I were a traveller from a far-off galaxy and I found myself facing a species that had been able to offer such a model, I would fall down in admiration of such God-creating energy; yet discovering it to be responsible for so many atrocities, I would deem it pathetic and despicable and would see its redemption only in the fact that it had succeeded in wanting and believing its story to be the Truth… but let us admit that if Christ was only the subject of a great story, the fact that this story was imagined and desired by immature fledglings who knew only that they knew nothing, would make it every bit as miraculous (miraculously mysterious) as the fact that the son of a true God was truly incarnate."23

When we read the words of another sceptic on the sure road to salvation, in Dostoevsky's Christian classic, Brothers Karamazov, we recognize an echo in Ivan Karamazov: "You know, dear boy, there was an old sinner in the 18th century who declared: S'il n'existait pas Dieu, il faudrait l'inventer…And what's strange, what is so marvelous, is not that God should really exist; the marvel is that such an idea, the idea of the necessity of God, could enter the head of such a savage, vicious beast as man. So holy it is, so touching, so wise and so great a credit it does to man."24 And Eco continues the above quote: "This natural and earthly mystery would continue to move and soften the hearts of non-believers. Because of this I maintain that, in its fundamental aspects, a natural ethic -- respected for the profound religious spirit that inspires it -- can find points of contact with an ethic founded on faith in a transcendent being; the latter, in turn, cannot but recognize that the natural principles are engraved on our hearts as part of some great scheme for salvation."25

Misreadings

"It is particularly bizarre of Eco to think that Kripke and the tradition following him failed to notice that the indexical 'this' may refer to different things on different occasions. It would be as if having said, pointing to one flower, 'This is a rose,' you could not go on to say, pointing to another flower, 'But this is a daffodil.' The blunder leads Eco to suppose that rigid designation is 'independent of all knowledge or intention or belief on the speaker's part.' It leads him to some strained speculations about the reference of terms being fixed by the Divine Mind or the Infinite Mind, as if it were God who forges the link between names and things."26

Here, philosopher Simon Blackburn, reviewing Eco's recently released, Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition, is undoubtedly too scrupulous in his reading of Eco's chapter on rigid designation; but what is interesting about this excerpt is that it shows Eco's persistence in introducing the idea of language as having its source in God, as well as Blackburn's insistence on an utterly atheistic source of language: he would have only the Holmes we expect to see, the one who will admit no sentimentality where deduction demands cool reason. But Eco sees "much to hope from the flowers". Too much is said about that on which it is easy to comment; to remember the articles with examples taken from pop-culture, to view the books in a light which effaces the subtle details and brush strokes of difficult passages, that make reading Eco a challenging and life-expanding experience. Eco's concerns are not merely theoretical, academic, or intended to capture the attention of movement-followers; they are vitally concerned with life, the sanctity of the cosmos, and especially the improvement of humanity:

"I do not want to draw a hard and fast line between those who believe in a transcendent God and those who do not believe in any supra-individual principle. Remember, Spinoza's great book was called Ethics and opened with a definition of God as cause of Itself. This Spinozian divinity, as we well know, is neither transcendent nor personal; and yet even from the idea of a great and unique cosmic Substance into which we shall one day be reabsorbed, there can emerge a vision of tolerance and benevolence precisely because we all have an interest in the equilibrium and harmony of this unique Substance. We share this interest because we think this Substance must, in some way, be enriched or deformed by what we have done over the millennia. What I would hazard (not as a metaphysical hypothesis, but as a timid concession to the hope that never abandons us) is that even from this point of view you can postulate once more the problem of some kind of life after death…Who knows if death, rather than an implosion, might not be an explosion, a re-formation somewhere in the vortices of the universe, of the software (which others call the soul) which we fashion in the course of our lives, and which is made up of memories and personal remorse (and therefore incurable suffering), or of a sense of peace at duty fulfilled -- and love."27

"In the beginning was the Word": so begins The Name of the Rose, as well as much else of Eco's writings on the subject of the origins of language and their implication for the formation and understanding of the human person. In books which examines the concepts of "perfect language",28 or of primigenial or Adamic language,29 which is to say, an "original" language humankind had once shared, ("before Babel", so to speak), he joins George Steiner in seeing intimations of our "human divinity" in our ability to conceive and use language.
Eco's post-modern notions in linguistics also relate to his concept of "intertextuality" -- especially where an awareness of texts can give an ironic sense to other texts. He is fascinated with "hyper-links", and has created a hypermedia history of philosophy on CD-ROM: Encyclomedia.30 This is another example of the creative force in Eco's post-modernism, illustrating his faith in making connections, in establishing the relationship between history, the present and the future, in humankind. "I believe it is my job as a scholar and citizen to show how we are surrounded by 'messages', products of political power, of economic power, of the entertainment industry and the revolution industry, and to say that we must know how to analyze and criticise them."31 He praises St. Thomas Aquinas saying "you could learn from him how to think cleanly, like a man of your own time."32
While Derrida maintains that through deconstruction he can read texts critically, displaying the self-undermining elements, Eco, like Holmes, chooses rather to "deduce" from texts -- "not innocently" -- truth which he believes in, especially where this is brought to bear on art, ethics, and the nature of language and signs. Drawing conclusions from his research about language and its power, Eco issues a warning: "If power is as Foucault defined it, and if the characteristics of power are found in the given language, to say [as Barthes] that the given language is therefore fascist, is more than a wisecrack; it is an invitation to confusion…If the human condition is placed under the sign of fascism, all are fascists and no one is a fascist any longer. Whence we see how dangerous demagogical arguments are, which we find used abundantly in everyday journalism…"33 He quotes his mentor, the semiotician Charles Peirce: "A sign is something by knowing which, we know something more"34 -- while Rorty advocates not meaning, but a mere "solidarity" among those who choose any given culture-based "meaning". Paul Feyerabend claims that "The only principle that does not inhibit progress is : 'anything goes', and that science may be advanced by proceeding counterinductively, through the pluralistic proliferation of theories and the use of irrational methods of support."35 But Eco states, "The real problem with every 'deconstructive' argumentation of the classic concept of truth is not to demonstrate that the paradigm by which we reason might be fallacious…The problem has more to do with the nature of the guarantees that authorize us to attempt a new paradigm that others must not recognize as delirium, pure imagination of the impossible."36 While Eco, agreeing with Aquinas, fully recognizes that "veritas dignior est et excellentior et fortior", because he does not believe there are no ethical limits or boundaries, he can creatively ask, "Is it not possible that a similar force is displayed also by misunderstanding, whereby we can legitimately speak of a force of the false?" and continues, "we would be wise to keep an open, fresh mind against the moment when the community of scientists decrees that the idea of the universe has been an illusion."37

Conclusion: How to travel with a Flame-Dove

Undeniably, this essay has taken an unconventional look at Eco's philosophy, choosing to interpret significations of Christian ethical viewpoints as the more salient; but to be content with the general critical trend which wishes to appropriate Eco's work while ignoring the maturity of thought and reflection on the profound breadth of knowledge he has acquired, would, like Blackburn, be producing that sort of criticism which always has to have an agenda of its own. Foucault, who wants to "answer with a philosophical laugh" those who would "still ask themselves questions about what is man in his essence…who wish to take him as their starting point in their attempts to reach the truth", Eco answers with a dramatic contradiction: "the profound faith in the continuity of Life, the absolute sense of commitment that inspired [it]…may also, sometimes, be the one thing that makes philosophers philosophise and writers write: they leave a message in a bottle, because in that way what they believe in or what they find beautiful can be communicated to those who come after and who may, in turn, believe and discover beauty in those same things."38
Therefore, the ending of Eco's latest novel, The Island of the Day Before, does not surprise us: the hero, Roberto, abandons the ship that had so long been his prison, and attempts to swim the long distance to the shore he has seen across the stretch of sea. He is following the call of his Lady-love, who may exist, alive, on that island, where time does not; he is following the "Flame Dove…the male of the species", and an icon for Christ, and we are left with a strong image of hope and of salvation:

"He was still naked, as he had been since he had been since he began dying by turning himself into stone. Stripped even of the rope, which would no longer limit his voyage, he descended into the sea.
He planted his feet against the wood, thrusting himself forward to move away from the Daphne, and after following the side to the stern, he left it forever, towards one of the two happinesses that were surely awaiting him.
Before destiny, and the waters, decide for him, I hope that -- pausing for breath every so often -- he allows his eyes to move from the Daphne, as he bids it farewell, to the Island.
There, above the line traced by the treetops, his eyes now very sharp, he should see rising in flight -- like an arrow to strike the sun -- the Orange Dove."
39


Notes

1. Ricoeur, Paul, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970, p. 32.
2. ibid., 33.
3. Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan, Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, "The Naval Treaty"; London: 1894.
4. "…[Eco's] model reader is to see the famous detective of Baker Street in one of his illustrious disguises: that of a monk." Anderson, Dr. Earl, Cleveland State University, Ohio, USA, 1999; a detailed outline of this concept is provided at his website posting:
http://www.csuohio.edu/english/earl/e510.html,
5. Explicit reference to Holmes' Christian ethic can be found in the following stories: The Veiled Lodger, The Empty House, The Blue Carbuncle, The Naval Treaty. For references to A. C. Doyle's views on Christianity and their role in shaping the character of Holmes, see Booth, Martin, The Doctor and the Detective: A Biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, USA: Minotaur Books, 2000.
6. In cosa crede chi non crede? An exchange of letters between Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini and Umberto Eco trans. Rosalind Delmar, Liberal, 1996.
7. Naming the Rose: Essays on Eco's The Name of the Rose, ed. Inge, M. Thomas, U Miss Press: 1988, pp. 65-118.
8. Grenz, S. J., A Primer on Postmodernism, Grand Rapids: Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 8.
9. Rorty, Richard, "Solidarity or Objectivity," Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 33.
10. ibid., p. 29.
11. Rorty, Richard, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Cambridge University Press, 1989, p. 45.
12. ibid., p. 45.
13. ibid., p. 45.
14. Rorty, Richard, An Appreciation of Jaques Derrida, Stanford Online Report, April 29, 1999.
15. Foucault, Michel, The Order of Things: The Archaeology of Human Sciences, Routledge, 1972,p. 342-343.
16. Foucault, Michel, Power/Knowledge, Harvester: 1980, p. 133.
17. Lyotard, Jean-Francois, The Postmodern Condition, Manchester United Press: 1984, p. xxiv.
16. Derrida, Jaques, On Grammatology, John Hopkins Press, 1976, p. 158.
19. Eco, Umberto Reflections on The Name of the Rose; trans. William Weaver, London: Minerva, 1994, pp. 67-68.
20. As quoted in Vanhoozer, Kevin, J., Biblical Narrative in the Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: A Study in Hermeneutics and Theology, Cambridge University Press, 1990, p. 95.
21. Eberstadt, Fernanda, "Eco Consciousness", Vogue, November 1995.
22. Eco, Umberto, Foucault's Pendulum, trans. William Weaver, Ballantine Books: USA, 1997, p. 620.
23. Eco, Umberto & Martini, Cardinal Carlo Maria, Belief or Non-Belief?, trans. Minna Proctor, Arcade: 1999.
24. Dostoyevsky, Fyodr, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett, New York: 1879, p. 189.
25. Eco, Umberto & Martini, Cardinal Carlo Maria, Belief or Non-Belief?, trans. Minna Proctor, Arcade: 1999.
26. Blackburn, Simon, "Professor Whatever", The New Republic Online, 1999, Issue date: 2/7, Post date: 1/31.
27. Eco, Umberto & Martini, Cardinal Carlo Maria, Belief or Non-Belief?, trans. Minna Proctor, Arcade: 1999.
28. Eco, Umberto, The Search for the Perfect Language, trans. James Fentress, Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.
29. Eco, Umberto, Serendipities: Language and Lunacy, trans. William Weaver, London: Phoenix, 1998.
30. Bolognia: Horizons Unlimited, Milano: Opera Multimedia, 1995.
31. Eco, Umberto, Faith in Fakes: Travels in Hyperreality, trans. William Weaver, London: Minerva, 1995, p. ix.
32. ibid., p. 268.
33. ibid., p. 244.
34. ibid., p. ix.
35. c.f., Feyerabend, Paul, Against Method, London: Verso, 1975.
36. Eco, Umberto, Kant and the Platypus, trans. Alastair McEwen, London: Secker & Warburg, 1999, p. 48.
37. Eco, Umberto, Serendipities: Language and Lunacy, trans. William Weaver, London: Phoenix, 1998, p. 27.
38. Eco, Umberto & Martini, Cardinal Carlo Maria, Belief or Non-Belief?, trans. Minna Proctor, Arcade: 1999.
39. Eco, Umberto, The Island of the Day Before, trans. William Weaver, New York: Penguin, 1996, p. 503.

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