The Wondrous and Terrible Struggle
THE WAR BETWEEN REALISM AND NOMINALISM IN MID 14TH CENTURY EUROPE IN UMBERTO ECO’S, THE NAME OF THE ROSE
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is a masterpiece of intrigue, mystery and most importantly, symbol. This is a novel concerning an apocalyptic war over the use and interpretation of images, icons and various symbols. Eco will set two opposing forces against each other in this battle, the Realists and the Nominalists.
The story opens with the central theme of name giving. The Hero for the rationalistic, Nominalist party is one William of Baskerville, a devotee of Aristotle, Bacon and Ockham. In the opening chapter William perceives several seemingly insignificant symbols and gives a name to something he can not even see. By viewing several small and somewhat disconnected symbols, William deduces that the monks are chasing a horse that belongs to the abbot and without even seeing the horse he gives the size, height and color, but most importantly he gives it a name, Brunellus. William knows monks well. He knows the books they read and the way they think through them. Brunellus is the “Universal Horse”, and William gives the steed the only, particular name it can possibly have. William can make a thing “real” even if it is invisible or does not exist, if he can name it he can claim it. What else would a powerful Abbot name his most prized equine? To William, the naming of names and the deciphering of symbols is a great love. William is a master of symbols and names. He is accompanied by his servant, and reluctant apprentice Nominalist, Adso. Adso is the teller of this tale of “the wondrous and terrible events that happened in my youth.” Adso will be caught in the struggle between these two awesome forces. The Armies of Realism and radical Nominalism will struggle and vie for his soul.
William’s system of reading symbols, ably displayed throughout the book finally fails him. At the end of the novel we see him in great despair actually questioning the existence or reality of God and “Reason”. In fact, when the monastery burns, William is in utter despair over the order of the universe, the omnipotence and freedom of God and the point that his extreme Nominalism has brought him. William can not give a name to everything in creation therefore it is chaos. William’s extreme penchant for Nominalism and Rationalism fails in the end. He discovers the finis Africae by accident, his symbols and his system has misled and failed him.
The great struggle between Realism and Nominalism is pictured in Adso’s encounter with the symbol of ultimate reality “the maiden, beautiful and terrible as an army arrayed for battle.” Adso is quickly and efficiently learning all he can about symbols and logic when he is confronted by the maiden. Adso describes the encounter in this way, “and I was struck by the impression of human reality that emanated from that form.” Adso’s encounter and “affair” with Realism as embodied in the young woman leaves him sick with the malady of love, and, most importantly unable to assign this love, a name. His greatest and only true love, the most important thing he, as an aspiring Nominalist could possibly give her, would be a name. The movie version makes much of this fact, but for the wrong reasons. I make much of the fact to show that Adso had learned much from his master and had even received his special glasses from William. The young student is now seeing the world through William’s nominalist eyes. These glasses were a product of the new learning, something with which to see symbols better, yet as the heir of the Nominalistic treasure house, he still could not give a name to something that was very important to him.
One of the greatest casualties of this war of diametrically opposed forces is the Church itself. The world is changing, the Church and its old powerhouses, the monasteries, are not keeping pace. Universities are on the rise as well as the cities that surround them. William is Oxford trained, not of the old monastic school. The Abbot Abo is a picture of monasticism of this time in that his only claim to fame is that he carried the dead body (a pun on the corpus of works) of Thomas Aquinas down a difficult flight of stairs. So at this time as the world and the Church change, the old corpus of Thomistic thinking is being carried down by the monasteries who are not adapting to a changing world. The new cities and the universities, of whom William is a symbol are rummaging through the secret places of the old libraries of the monasteries and surpassing them in knowledge. William is an excellent type of this new learning, while Abo and his library, which is laid out like the known world, goes up in flames. Years later Adso, like a modern day Jeremiah visits the ruins of this “Jerusalem”.
Lam 1:1-2¶ How does the city sit desolate, that was full of people! how is she become as a widow! she that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become a slave! She weeps bitterly in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks: among all her lovers she has none to comfort her: all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they are become her enemies.
Lamentations is an appropriate passage for what is left of the monastery after this apocalyptic battle. The monastery, which symbolizes the Church and its library, plainly laid out in the pattern of the world, are all a casualty of this battle.
The Name of the Rose may be viewed as the wondrous and terrible battle between Nominalism and Realism. Adso finally seems to be a reluctant and faulty convert of the Nominalists. After all is said and done he is compelled, for reasons he can not express, to place his experience into words/symbols, perhaps to make it real. William’s system fails him and he dies in obscurity, in the dearth of a plague, Umbertino is most likely murdered in some lonely hermitage, and Adso winds up alone and in a cold dark scriptorium with a sore thumb. It is sore from writing too many words, names and symbols. The book ends in despair because extremes have taken the characters there. Adso too is at the end of his life, because Nominalism has ultimately failed him as it failed his master. Balance seems to be a rare commodity in this story. Adso seems to be the nearest thing to a balanced person, yet even he seems tired in the dark and cold scriptorium with only the memories of Realism (the girl) to keep him company.