A couple of months ago I had a lunch conversation with a co-worker that turned to books. After I mentioned how much I love Shūsaku Endō’s Silence and Mary Doria Russel’s The Sparrow he asked if I’d ever read The Name of the Rose. After reading about it, I’m a little ashamed to admit I’d never even heard of it. (My education is engineering and business so cut me some slack 😄.)

It sounded like something I would like, so I put it on my list, and I just finished it. I felt echos of one of my favorite novels, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian reverberating. Take this passage, spoken by William of Baskerville in The Name of the Rose:

The order that our mind imagines is like a net, or like a ladder, built to attain something. But afterward you must throw the ladder away, because you discover that, even if it was useful, it was meaningless. The only truths that are useful are instruments to be thrown away.

And this line from The Judge in Blood Meridian:

…the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.

They are both dealing with the unknowable, and our need to know anyway. To William we construct useful but ultimately meaningless truths. To The Judge, we lay down our own truth at random. These seem to me to be the same thing, although the first is perhaps a little less cynical. Both deal with the process of discovery and its ultimate futility.

The title The Name of the Rose is interesting. It is referenced only in the last line of the novel:

Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.

Which I’m told translates to:

The ancient rose remains by its name, naked names are all that we have.

This is a concept that has fascinated me for many years. It is touched on earlier in the novel when William says:

I have never doubted the truth of signs…they are the only things man has with which to orient himself in the world. What I did not understand was the relation among signs.

The idea here is that in some sense all we have are “signs” (which, I would argue, could also be thought of as names.) To us, names stand for things richly, and the association is so great the name takes on meaning as though it were the thing itself. And of course the thing (The Rose) doesn’t really exist. All we have is the name. In a sense, what we communicate is the “relation” among these names. And so I can’t help but conclude that the only way I can say anything at all is by mixing metaphors the origins of which are lost to me, and to my hearer. And yet we cary on reasonably well, even beautifully. Eco makes this process feel dangerous and fragile at the same time.