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The Song of Songs and a Sexual Mystery in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose

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The English translation of Umberto Eco's debut novel The Name of the Rose (Italian 1980) first appeared thirty years ago, and it continues to delight and surprise, even after multiple readings. On the occasion of this anniversary, I offer a few reflections on one of the many mysteries Eco presents us, mysteries that make returning to the abbey so much fun for those who enjoy literary puzzles.

The setting of the story is a Benedictine abbey in the theologically and politically turbulent fourteenth century. For all its erudition and love of learning, its spirituality and saints, despite its famous library and seemingly infinite collections of ancient books, this renowned abbey is also home to ignorance, superstition, and terrible secrets. Upon his arrival to this architectural wonder somewhere in northern Italy, the Franciscan William of Baskerville, sent by the head of his order to prepare an important theological disputation between a delegation representing Pope John XXII and the Franciscan Michael of Cesena, receives news of the mysterious death of an illuminator named Adelmo. Many in the abbey see Adelmo's death and others that soon follow as portents of apocalyptic cataclysm. Some fear Antichrist haunts the venerable abbey. The Name of the Rose is, among many other things, a classic whodunit. Owing to the sensitivity of the matter and the impending arrival of the delegations, and because of the fear gripping the community, the abbot asks William, renowned for his wise discernment, to investigate.

In the interest of space, I forgo a detailed summary of the story here. Suffice it to say the English William of Baskerville, with the help of his trusty though sometimes dull-witted sidekick Adso of Melk, a Benedictine novice and narrator of the story, is on the case. They investigate what turns out to be Adelmo's suicide and the murders that follow, debate the endlessly nuanced theological minutiae dividing the Church, and unlock the great library's labyrinth secrets. In the process William displays all the acumen of his Sir Arthur Conan Doyle derived namesake. Our interest here, however, is the Dr. Watson-esque Adso of Melk.

In the first paragraphs of The Name of the Rose, Eco destabilizes his readers who begin doubting the reliability of this supposed first-person narration of actual historical events. Eco uses that most familiar of literary devices, a discovered manuscript. Here, the nameless compiler comes across a French book in 1968 that, supplemented "by historical information that was actually quite scant, ... claimed to reproduce faithfully a fourteenth-century manuscript that, in its turn, had been found in the monastery of Melk" in the eighteenth century. But the thread tying the transmission of this story from the monastic world of the fourteenth century to contemporary readers is flimsy at best. After the 1968 discovery, the compiler quickly translates this French book but then loses the original. While investigating Adso's story, he suspects forgeries in the sources and complains about French scholars who are "notoriously careless about furnishing reliable bibliographical information" and who include "obvious interpolations." Layers of translation also muddy the picture; this makes it unlikely we have a clear sense of what happened. As he puts it, "I find few reasons for publishing 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." Our historian is not even sure about the location of the monastery or the exact year Adso composed his story. "As for the period in which the events described take place," he writes, "we are at the end of November 1327; the date of the author's writing, on the other hand, is uncertain." So before reading a word of Adso of Melk's first-person narration, we have our doubts about what actually happened. The one presenting the story admits he is "full of doubts" even though he presents the story "as if it were authentic," and we are inclined to agree.

It gets no better once we start reading Adso's story. He relates what he admits are confusing events that occurred in his youth and he has doubts about his memory. The principal character in the story he tells is his teacher William of Baskerville who, like Sherlock Holmes himself, is on drugs. Adso tries to protect the revered memory of his beloved teacher but recalls occasions when

I would have suspected he was in the power of some vegetal substance capable of
producing visions if the obvious temperance of his life had not led me to reject the
thought. I will not deny, however, that in the course of the journey, he sometimes
stopped at the edge of a meadow, at the entrance to a forest, to gather some herb.

These herbs, Adso explains, William took "in moments of greatest tension" and when the novice asked the venerable monk about them, was told, "herbs that are good for an old Franciscan are not good for a young Benedictine." Adso himself comes under the sway of a hallucinogenic on one occasion. Were participants in the story sober in mind and judgment?

I raise these questions about the reliability of the narrative because my proposal involves catching Adso of Melk in a lie. It is a strange lie because it involves confessing to a sin he never committed. I refer to two scenes. The first occurs in the abbey's chapel and involves an extended conversation with an elderly, respected monk named Ubertino. They speak, among other things, about orthodoxy and heterodoxy, truth and error, piety and villainy. The second scene occurs in the kitchen when Adso meets a nameless peasant girl who seduces him. The two episodes appear unrelated but I suggest they refer to the same incident and involve Adso's attempt to obfuscate and befog the reader. He had sex that night, but not with a peasant girl.

Consider the following sequence of events. Adso lies to his master William, telling him he is going to sleep in his cell. This is unexpected because he is obedient to William elsewhere. Adso lies because he wants to speak with Ubertino so he leaves his cell, "stealthily," in order to meet him in the chapel where the elderly Franciscan regularly prays at the statue of the Virgin.

When they meet, Adso asks Ubertino for counsel, and the old man immediately and oddly responds with questions: "'What is distressing you? Yearnings?' he asked, almost with yearning himself. 'The yearnings of the flesh?'" It is conspicuous that Ubertino turns the conversation toward sex from the outset, even though they are both praying in church at the moment. Or at least Adso pretends to be praying, which he confesses at the beginning of the scene. Adso tells Ubertino this is not the issue, though he blushes when he does so. Does this blush signal anything? (Signal is a word the semiotician Eco might appreciate). Is the issue in fact sexual desire, despite Adso's denial?

The lengthy conversation between them involves complicated matters of theology and ecclesiology and the boundaries separating orthodoxy and heresy. This is important because if this tryst between monks is in fact a coded homosexual encounter, as I suggest, the subject matter of the conversation--the surface level dialogue the reader has access to--parallels the actual activities occurring between them. Said differently, heterosexual behavior (something he will confess to a few pages later) aligns with, or is an equivalent to orthodoxy. It is an 'acceptable' form of sin, to put it awkwardly. Homosexuality, on the other hand, aligns with heresy in the context of a medieval monastery. (There is a homosexual predator in the abbey so introducing this idea to the novel is not completely without warrant). The pious Adso, writing his story as an old man, would rather confess to a heterosexual (but orthodox) indiscretion than a homosexual (and heretical) one. Ubertino says in this context that "the female is a vessel of the Devil" and "it is through woman that the Devil penetrates men's hearts!" This is misdirection. Adso is willing to admit falling prey to such a feminine devil, but will not admit to what another monk elsewhere calls "less proper passions," namely homosexuality.

Why do I suspect a conversation about theological minutiae is actually a cloaked sexual encounter? Here are a few clues suggesting Adso misremembers--whether deliberately or otherwise--what actually occurred during this clandestine meeting with Ubertino. For one thing, there is explicit physical contact that seems oddly exaggerated and out of place during a time of supposed prayer and theological instruction. When they first meet, Adso reports that Ubertino "looked at me and, taking me by the hand, rose and led me to a bench, where we both sat. He embraced me tightly, and I could feel his breath on my face." As the 'conversation' progresses, Ubertino "shifted his position on the bench, relaxing his grasp of my shoulders but still keeping one hand on my neck, as if to communicate to me his knowledge or (I could not tell) his intensity."

The mildly erotic quality of their contemplation of the Virgin statue also deserves notice. Ubertino contemplates its beauty: "He pointed to the Virgin's slender bust ... [then says] 'What do you feel before this sweetest of visions?' I blushed violently, feeling myself stirred as if by an inner fire. Ubertino must have realized it, or perhaps he glimpsed my flushed cheeks ..." Again the sign of the blush perhaps betrays another example of masking an inappropriate kind of arousal (homosexual, in a sexually charged moment with Ubertino) with an 'acceptable' one (heterosexual, represented here by the beauty of the feminine form depicted by the statue).
Perhaps most significant of all, this strange scene occurs in the same chapter as Adso's sexual encounter with a peasant girl. As Adso puts it, she "appeared to me as the black but comely virgin of whom the Song of Songs speaks." There is nothing remotely believable about Adso's description of either the girl or their relationship. It involves a string of quotations from the biblical Song of Songs and other sacred texts, including excerpts from Saint Bernard, Jean de Fécamp, and Saint Hildegard of Bingen. Why does Adso do this? Because as a pious, celibate, youthful Benedictine novice he has never actually seen a naked woman, much less had sex with one, which is why he turns to the only language he has access to, namely sacred writings. If the incident he confesses to actually happened, he could have used his own words to describe it.

Between the visit to Ubertino and the story of an encounter with a peasant girl, Adso examines a book. Here he reads about heretical sects that represent two kinds of religious devotion, one good (orthodoxy, truth), one bad (heresy, error). This theological contemplation, located between the meetings with Ubertino and the girl, suggests he masks one sinful action (his 'heretical' homosexual relationship with Ubertino) by confessing to a lesser one (with the 'orthodox' peasant girl). Again, in the world of the monastery, there are degrees of moral failing. The cellarer Remigio uses the phrase "even less proper passions" to distinguish homosexuality from heterosexuality. This may be helpful if we want to indicate degrees of immorality (i.e., Adso confessing a bad crime to cover up a worse one, as his contemporaries would see it).

Adso is a self-conscious narrator. On one occasion when reflecting back on the encounter with the girl, he acknowledges his capability as a storyteller to "draw a veil over the truth to attenuate its force and clarity." He denies doing this, and elsewhere emphasizes his faithfulness in narrating the story. However, his acknowledgment of an unreliable memory on another occasion and perhaps his motivation to deceive readers by hiding one particular form of sexual indiscretion raises questions about the veracity of his report.

Adso has a habit of hinting at ideas then refuting them, as noted earlier with respect to William's use of narcotic herbs. He mentions the possibility that William "was in the power of some vegetal substance capable of producing visions" only to reject the notion due to his temperance. On another occasion, when describing William's physical appearance, he adds the caveat that there is no "shadow of lust to pollute this form ... of corporal love." Why bother saying this only to dismiss it? One last example occurs in our chapter, when Adso says of the girl, "it was not a vision." Readers have no reason to think otherwise so he appears to be overcompensating. Or is he simply confused? Adso is overwhelmed by his own narration ("what a confusing story") and in grappling with truth and error, orthodoxy and heresy, finds himself "in the grip of contradictory thoughts." In an explanatory note in one of the chapter notes, he reports an "embarrassing impression that everyone is wrong." What really happened that night in the abbey? Did the novice Adso of Melk actually have a sexual encounter with a peasant girl?