Jack’s Naughty Bits: Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose

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Jack's Naughty Bits

I got to meet Umberto Eco a few weeks ago. I had waited a long time for the opportunity, but it proved to be a rather anticlimactic affair. Television cameras were descending upon him, and, before he was mobbed, I only managed to get out one sentence: “Fredric Jameson says hello.” His response: “Oh, really.” I had wanted to say so much more, to blurt out, “Caro Umberto, we’ve lived parallel lives. I’m a semiotician and a medievalist too! And now we’re both writers!” But there are two types of writers in the world: those that television cameramen mob and those that television cameramen shove out of the way.


Though I started reading Eco in college, it wasn’t until graduate school that meeting him became a possibility. One day when I was in Jameson’s office (he was my thesis advisor) discussing — what else — medieval literature and semiotics, he asked me “Do you know Eco?” I said, “Sure, I’ve read almost all his books.” But Jameson meant did I know him personally, had we met. No, we hadn’t. “Oh, but you must. We used to vacation together. When you go back to Italy you should pay him a visit.”


I did go back to Italy, but was always too afraid to look Eco up. The conventional thought is that we all want to befriend or date or reproduce versions of ourselves, and are drawn to them like Narcissus to his own image. I’m not so sure this is the case. Perhaps the truly similar allow us to see ourselves in a way that Narcissus was never able to — he didn’t realize he was looking at his own image. Whereas with the Doppelgänger, you are aware of what it is: a mirroring of yourself, open to your view. I was afraid to meet Eco perhaps because I feared how I would see myself in his eyes. He would truly be a jury of my peers, and it wasn’t clear that I’d live up. Was my Italian good enough, my Latin? Had I read enough books? In my everyday life, these things don’t come up; with Eco, I knew I would be in the audience of someone who had done the same things as I had in life, and probably done them better. The Doppelgänger scared off Narcissus.


I can take some comfort that, at last report, Eco wasn’t editing a smart sex magazine. Perhaps I’ve got him there. But he does write a damn good sex scene, as will be seen below in this excerpt from The Name of the Rose. I just hope he doesn’t apply for my job.

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From The Name of the Rose

Translated by William Weaver

Saint Michael Archangel protect me, because for the edification of future readers and the flaying of my guilt I want now to tell how a young man can succumb to the snares of the Devil, that they may be known and evident, so anyone encountering them in the future may defeat them.


So, it was a woman. Or, rather, a girl. Having had until then (and since then, God be thanked) little intimacy with creatures of that sex, I cannot say what her age may have been. I know she was young, almost adolescent, perhaps she had past sixteen or eighteen springs, or perhaps twenty . . .


I knew her vernacular very slightly; it was different from the bit I had learned in Pisa, but I realized from her tone that she was saying sweet words to me, and she seemed to be saying something like “You are young, you are handsome . . . ” It is rare for a novice who has spent his whole life in a monastery to hear declarations of his beauty; indeed we are regularly admonished that physical beauty is fleeting and must be considered base . . . The girl, in saying this, had extended her hand until the tips of her fingers grazed my cheek, then quite beardless. I felt a kind of delirium, but at that moment I was unable to sense any hint of sin in my heart.


Suddenly the girl appeared to me as the black but comely virgin of whom the Song of Songs speaks. She wore a threadbare little dress of rough cloth that opened in a fairly immodest fashion over her bosom, and around her neck was a necklace made of little colored stones, very commonplace, I believe.


Then the creature came still closer to me . . . and she raised her hand to stroke my face, and repeated the words I had already heard. And while I did not know whether to flee from her or move even closer, while my head was throbbing as if the trumpets of Joshua were about to bring down the walls of Jericho, as I yearned and at once feared to touch her, she smiled with great joy, emitted the stifled moan of a pleased she-goat, and undid the strings that closed her dress over her bosom, slipped the dress from her body like a tunic, and stood before me as Eve must have appeared to Adam in the garden of Eden . . . whether what I felt was a snare of the Enemy or a gift of heaven, I was now powerless against the impulse that moved me . . . I was in her arms, and we fell together onto the bare floor of the kitchen, and whether on my own initiative or through her wiles, I found myself free of my novice’s habit and we felt no shame at our bodies and cuncta erant bona. . .


Who was she, who was she who rose like the dawn, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, terrible as an army with banners?

© William Weaver