Wednesday, May 17, 2006

As it was in the beginning

The last words uttered by Adso of Melk in the Name of the Rose come from Bernard of Cluny: "Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus." (Yesterday’s rose endures in its name, we hold empty names). The reader's final glimpse of the teenage assistant to William of Baskerville in the novel is that of an old man who no longer knows what it all means. Even the dramatic events in the Library that he recounts are put down to chance. They too had no meaning. Not for nothing did Eco choose Bernard of Cluny's poem, "On Contempt for the World",  for both his title and closing.

The De Contemptu Mundi ("On Contempt for the World") contains about 3,000 verses, and is for the most part a very bitter satire against the moral disorders of the monastic poet's time. He spares no one; priests, nuns, bishops, monks, and even Rome itself are mercilessly scourged for their shortcomings. For this reason it was first printed by Matthias Flacius as one of his testes veritatis, or witnesses of the deep-seated corruption of the medieval Church (Varia poemata de corrupto ecclesiae statu, Basle, 1557), and was often reprinted by Protestants in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This Christian Juvenal does not proceed in an orderly manner against the vices and follies of his age. It has been well said that he seems to eddy about two main points: the transitory character of all material pleasures and the permanency of spiritual joys.

Bernard differed from the fictional Adso of Melk in that Adso did not in the end believe even in spiritual joy. He had concluded that the universe was loveless and silent. What mysteries it kept and what it purposed were never to be revealed -- at least to Adso. The old Adso is ironically the reverse of the youth who had the answer to everything as he accompanied the older William of Baskerville; with a verse and citation for every eventuality. Even Adso's touching teenage concept of celibacy was cruelly transformed by Eco into a geriatric pederasty. All, Eco seems to suggest, is ultimately corrupted by knowledge. The more we know, the less we like.

What knowledge then did the wiser William of Baskerville seek? What was so important about solving murders in the Abbey or discovering a book about laughter if, as Adso later held, everything were conjuries of chance? A small, still voice argued that we 21st century bloggers too no longer know what it is all about; and least of all those who formerly had an answer to everything. The really perilous thing about September 11 was that it opened the door into the wide world; raised our eyes from the orderly spectacle of New Year's Day TV football to the sights of Somalia, Iraq and Pakistan. September 11 not only took away lives, it took away innocence: no longer was it possible to repose confidence in the rationality and goodness of man. Not after seeing Zarqawi; not after watching people kill each other for no apparent reason; not after witnessing the madness that passes, in certain circles, for piety. Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.

Like the fictional William, we must know better than to seek answers on Adso's terms. We can have knowledge only if we renounce the demand to understand it all. And that is why, I think, blog authors who want solve murders, help children, tell a joke, fight the enemy -- are far better off than those who hanker after certainty. The imaginary William of Baskerville, Eco tells us, died in the Great Plague. But while he lived, he lived. And may live still in some meaningful sense, at least to those interested in solving murders. Those passing familiar with Jesus' teachings know He taught that the path to the Father led through the ordinary. Those who prefer other metaphors may wish to think of a heterogenous universe, where meaning and love imperishable exist side by side with cruelty, horror and absurdity. And we must choose whether to try and understand it all or create and defend a bubble in which love and meaning truly do exist.

For these somewhat fanciful reasons I hope that the blogosphere will become less a cockpit of argument and ideas -- though it will always be that -- and more a forum for action: a place to facilitate meetings between real people, develop actual applications and accomplish physical tasks. There never was a flower, a glass of beer or a child's laugh that was ever truly futile. Et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.

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