“I have been the hand of God.”
Jorge of Burgos in The Name of the Rose
As we saw in the last post, ‘bad faith’ amounts to an excuse for a person’s actions. It is also a pathway actively chosen by the person themselves; they are ultimately responsible for the adoption of their pathway. The freedom that each of us has means that we are free to choose how to act or not act, thus we bear the full responsibility of our actions or inactions. To pretend that we aren’t free or to hide from our freedom is also an act of bad faith. Even if we claim to have been directed in our course by someone else, for example, an authority we have yielded under, then we are still in bad faith. This is because we have chosen to attach ourselves to that authority’s yoke. Indeed, anyone who hides behind authorities or deterministic excuses Sartre calls ‘cowards’ and those who believe that their existence is necessary he calls ‘scum’. It seems the Sartrean principles of “existence precedes essence” and “freedom” are not to be easily challenged and name-calling might well ensue.
In 1980, Umberto Eco published his debut novel, The Name of the Rose. An extra-ordinary achievement of scholarship, narration and plot that pushed the literary bar several notches skywards. The tale of William of Baskerville’s seven days at a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy with his novice, Adso of Melk, transcends and refuses easy classification. ‘Historical Novel’, clips the wings rather of Eco’s work. However, we must place appreciation to one side. Ours is a different approach. The variety of medieval religious sects, the theological disputes, the visual time-capsule Eco reveals, alongside the gruesome deaths and the detective work of William of Baskerville must all go unacknowledged, as well as the sub-plots of Adso’s sexual awakening, the complexity of the Library as Labyrinth and even the science and philosophy of Roger Bacon.
Instead, our focus must be on Sartrean bad faith, because it is present in spades within The Name of the Rose. The book is set in a monastery and therefore, according to Sartrean logic every monk – which the novel mainly features as opposed to lay people such as peasants and militia – would automatically fulfil Sartre’s criteria for bad faith of the ‘coward’ type. There could be great scope for disagreement here due to certain monks in the story not conforming to type at all. Remigio of Varagine and Salvatore of Montferrat don’t really appear as religiously orthodox in their thinking and let’s be honest neither does William of Baskerville. In the main though, even if some of them are only giving cursory lip service, the cast is replete with monks who all worship their Benedictine or Franciscan model of Christianity with all the usual trappings, and more. So, Sartrean bad faith is par for the course amongst the characters of Eco’s monastery. Individual freedom has long been forsaken and the authority of the word, or Holy Father, or the Abbott of the monastery has replaced the slot in their minds where a sense of Sartrean freedom should be resplendent. As a specific example of bad faith, throughout the text the several references are made to “the people of God” being divided “into shepherds (namely, the clerics), dogs (that is, warriors), and sheep (the populace)” and this understanding acts almost like a framework for the monks to bolster their own sense of importance in society. Although, one rarely sees any shepherding of the people take place in Eco’s text, which one assumes is historically accurate and the case!
In the knowledge that the accusation of anachronistic thinking could be levied at my door, I concur and do not want to charge the general run of the monks any further with Sartrean name-calling. I do want to hurl a little verbiage in one direction, however, because it is rather interesting and also coincidentally it is the one upon which the axis of the plot develops, which can act as a frisson of spice to our exploration.
Arriving in November, with “three fingers” of snow on the ground, Adso and his master, William of Baskerville, are greeted at a mountainous Italian abbey, home to sixty monks. The year is 1327 and the abbott and William exchange religious flattery and pleasantries: “It is a great joy for me to set foot in Your Magnificence’s monastery, whose fame has travelled beyond these mountains.” Very quickly, though, pleasantries are somewhat abandoned and the rift between respective theologies is exposed; such when the abbot asks of William, really stating that he disagrees: “Why do you insist on speaking of criminal acts without referring to their diabolical cause?” William is cast by Eco as an outsider who submits only to his own way of thinking rather than blindly following doctrine in the manner the Benedictine abbot has been taught and preaches. However, mutual respect overcomes differences and the abbot shares with William the story of the very recent mysterious death of Adelmo of Otranto at the abbey and even asks for William’s help in investigating what he suspects is a crime.
On the first day William and Adso do the rounds and meet with the various key players in Eco’s tightly bound plot that matures its detective narrative slowly. The key figure of Jorge of Burgos is encountered and described as the second eldest of the monks in the abbey, blind and also the receiver of many confessions from the other monks. Jorge also makes an impact on William due to his passionate aversion to laughter, which he savagely defends when he and William converse:
“’But when Saint Lawrence was placed on the gridiron,’ William whispered with a saintly air, ‘at a certain point he invited his executioners to turn him over, saying that that side was already cooked…’
‘Which proves that laughter is something very close to death and to the corruption of the body,’ Jorge replied with a snarl.”
With the advent of the second day, there is a second death. Venantius of Salvemec is found upturned in a great jar containing pigs blood.
Unlike Adelmo’s fall from a great height, Venantius’ death very clearly indicates foul play by a third party. The abbot wastes no time and pleads with William:
“Brother William, as you see, something is afoot in this abbey, something that demands all your wisdom. But I beseech you: act quickly!”
So, in true Sherlock Holmes fashion the game has been declared “afoot” and William can begin his investigations in earnest. Benno of Uppsala, a student of rhetoric, is ‘interviewed’ and acts for Eco to present vital clues:
“Venantius, who knows … who knew Greek very well, said that Aristotle had dedicated the second book of Poetics specifically to laughter, and that if a philosopher of such greatness had devoted a whole book to laughter, then laughter must be important… Jorge asked him contemptuously whether by any chance he had read this book of Aristotle; and Venantius said that no one could have read it, because it has never been found and is perhaps lost forever…. Then Jorge said that if it had not been found, this was because it had never been written.”
William and Jorge continue their discussion/argument about laughter and its place within a religious world view, with a stalemate outcome that provides context for Jorge’s thoughts: “’Jesting about laughter, you draw me into idle debate. But you know that Christ did not laugh’.” We also learn that Adelmo confessed his sins to Jorge. He apparently submitted to Berengar’s carnal desire for him, which led to feelings of shame, his confession and then ultimately his death as he hurled himself from the highest point in the abbey. William begins to suspect Jorge’s hand behind the deaths of the two monks, but questions how a blind old man “can kill another man in the fullness of his strength”.
Eco systematically pours complication and context into William’s path as we learn about various breeds of heretics and start to understand the labyrinth that is the abbey’s library and Adso has his first, and possibly last (if we believe him as narrator), sexual encounter. The coming of the Anti-Christ/Apocalypse is also causing great concern among the ranks as the eldest, Alinardo recounts “the book of the apostle”. Later we discover this is John and the book of Revelations, where seven trumpets will sound across seven days to act as the heralds of doom:
“With the first trumpet came hail, with the second a third part of the sea became blood; and you found one body in hail [Adelmo died in a storm], the other in blood… The third trumpet warns that a burning star will fall in the third part of rivers and fountains of waters.”
We also learn that Berengar has gone missing. And, sufficiently taken with this trumpet ‘guidance’, William has his own revelation and reasons that a “diabolical or sick mind could have been inspired by Adelmo’s death to arrange the other two in a symbolic way.” From this supposition, he realises that the only place in the abbey where a monk could drown is in the baths. And so he dully finds the body of the no longer missing Berengar, drowned at bottom of one of the bathtubs.
With Severinus, the herbalist, William examined the bodies of the dead and noted that Venantius and Berengar both had black fingers tips on their right hands and a blackened tongue. Poison is swiftly considered as the cause of death and that, William states, “would suggest a malignant mind brooding for a long time in darkness over a murderous plan.”
As well as being intellectually entranced by possibility of “a diabolical or sick mind” following Alinardo’s seven trumpets prophecy, William is also certain that one of the books in the Library is playing a part in the whole sinister affair. First seen on Venantius’ desk, a book written in Greek has vanished along with William’s glasses when he was examining the Greek translators desk for clues but got disturbed by the spying presence of another in the dead of night. Getting drawn away from the desk to unsuccessfully chase and discover whom the other person was, William returned only to find the book and glasses gone. Doubly dashed, he concludes that the book has a significant role to play in the recent deaths.
On the fifth day, Severinus tells William that he has found “a strange book” in his infirmary, which he believes was left or placed there by Berengar on the night he died. Just as Adso and William receive this information they “realized that, silent as was custom, Jorge had appeared as if by magic” at their side. Unfortunately, before they can get to the infirmary to look at the “strange book”, Severinus was murdered, smashed on the head by a large metal “armillary sphere”, used in astronomical science. Suspicions as to Jorge’s role flair in William and Adso’s minds, “but Jorge couldn’t have killed a strong man like Severinus, and with such violence.” Jorge’s age and blindness rule him out of the deed itself. However, William realises that the fourth trumpet of John the apostle refers to stars and he and Adso start to speculate regarding the fifth trumpet. The location of the book, though, which William starts to realise is forbidden, also needs to be unearthed.
In the meantime, the abbot entrusts a sermon to Jorge regarding the four deaths at the abbey. Jorge, however, takes to the pulpit with his own stance and delivers a verbal thrashing of his junior monks whilst setting out his views on the deaths and upon the purpose of the abbey:
“Madmen and presumptuous fools that you are! He who has killed will bear before God the burden of his guilt, but only because he agreed to become the vehicle of the decrees of God. Just as it was necessary for someone to betray Jesus in order for the mystery of redemption to be accomplished… Thus someone has sinned in these days, bringing death and ruination, but I say to you that this ruination was, if he not desired, at least permitted by God for the humbling of our pride.”
The murderer in Jorge’s mind serves a divine purpose and because of this we can easily start to see Jorge’s bad faith bubbling up to the surface. Jorge, however, doesn’t let his bad faith stop there:
“The work of our order and in particular the work of this monastery, a part – indeed, the substance – is study, and the preservation of knowledge. Preservation of, I say, not search for, because the property of knowledge, as a divine thing, is that it is complete and has been defined since the beginning, in the perfection of the Word which expresses itself to itself. Preservation, I say, and not search… There is no progress, no revolution of ages, in the history of knowledge, but at most a continuous and sublime recapitulation.”
As well as being the thesis of the Dark Ages, with William’s character symbolising a proto-Renaissance antithesis, Jorge’s statements set down his core beliefs for the purpose of the monastery and his religious brethren as far as he sees it. And, let’s not forgot that Eco has layered symbolism in making Jorge blind. Nothing new shall be seen by Jorge and nothing new is desired by him or is within the scope of his earthly purpose as given from on high by the Word of God and set down by the apostles.
The monks in the abbey have their place and their purpose. Almost nothing could be better as an example of bad faith.
The sixth day brings the fifth death. Malachi collapses, gasps his last and dies at Matins in front of the whole monastery. On examination, William notices, “the pads of the first three fingers of the right hand were darkened.” The seventh day brings the inevitable showdown between William and Jorge. In the middle of the library’s labyrinth, the Finis Africae is the final secret room, whose entrance Adso and William must crack. Inside they discover Jorge: “Happy night, venerable Jorge. Were you waiting for us?” William asks. In their ensuing dialogue, William and Jorge, realising that they are both at the end of the chase, share the final explanations of what occurred at the abbey in true detective story fashion. Jorge has the book that William has been seeking and even agrees to let the Franciscan look at it: “‘Read it, leaf through it, William,’ Jorge said. ‘You have won.’” The text is the second book of the Poetics of Aristotle, “the book everyone has believed lost or never written.” Wisely William wears gloves as he reads it because he correctly surmises that years ago, before he was blind, Jorge poisoned the pages of the book so when anyone licks their fingers to turn the page they ingest the poison and die.
As the tense discussion ensues William coaxes Jorge onwards to state his motivation by asking, “Why did you want to shield this book more than so many others?” Jorge’s answers:
“Because it was by the Philosopher [Aristotle]. Every book by that man has destroyed a part of learning that Christianity had accumulated over the centuries… Every word of the Philosopher, by whom now even saints and prophets swear, has overturned the image of the world. But he had not succeeded in overturning the image of God. If this book were to become an object for open interpretation, we would have crossed the last boundary… here [Jorge points to the book] the function of laughter is reversed, it is elevated to art, the doors of the world of the learned are opened to it, it becomes the object of philosophy and of perfidious theology.”
Jorge further explained the extent of the power he believed resided in the words of the second book of the Poetics: “This book could strike the Luciferine spark that would set a new fire to the whole world, and laughter would be defined as the new art, unknown even to Prometheus, for cancelling fear.” Essentially, the text would act as an antidote to the power that the church held over the masses and this was something that Jorge felt he could never allow to be released into the world at any cost. To further clear his own conscious, though, as to those who died, Jorge stated: “I have killed no one. Each died according to his destiny because of his sins.” However, more than that and in absolute bad faith he stated “I was only an instrument” and later “I have been the hand of God.” And with such statements, Jorge shows that he moves further than his fellow monks who display bad faith of the nature that hides behind the will of authorities, because his type of bad faith is the version Sartre allocated specifically to those who believe their existence necessary and we all know what he called them!