Nulla rosa est

“A narrator should not supply interpretations of his work.”

In his recent post on postmodernism and history, Chris Sheil discussed Umberto Eco’s great novel The Name of the Rose. I’ve just dug out my copy of his Reflections on the Name of the Rose. What he writes in the first chapter, “The Title and the Meaning” is fascinatingly relevant to our Troppo controversies over postmodernism and literature.

Discussing the verse that inspired the novel’s title, Eco writes:

“…the verse is from De Contemptu mundi by Bernard of Molay, a twelfth-century Benedictine, whose poem is a variation on the ubi sunt theme (most familiar in Villon’s later Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan.) But to the usual topos (the great of yesteryear, the once-famous cities, the lovely princesses: everything disappears into the void), Bernard adds that these departed things leave (only, or at least) pure names behind them. I remember that Abelard used the example of the sentence Nulla rosa est to demonstrate how language can speak of both the nonexistent and the destroyed. And having said this, I leave the reader to draw his own conclusions.”

“A narrator should not supply interpretations of his work; otherwise he would not have written a novel, which is a machine for generating interpretations. But one of the chief obstacles to his maintaining this virtuous principle is the fact that a novel must have a title… The title rightly disorients the reader, who was unable to choose just one interpretation; and even if he were to catch the possible nominalist readings of the concluding verse, he would come to them only at the end, having previously made God knows only what other choices. A title must muddle the reader’s ideas, not regiment them.”

“Nothing is of greater consolation to the author of a novel than the discovery of readings he had not conceived but which are then prompted by his readers… I am not saying that the author may not find a discovered reading perverse; but he must remain silent, allow others to challenge it, text in hand. For that matter, the large majority of readings reveal effects of sense that one had not thought of.”

Eco concludes his chapter by arguing that “the text is there, and produces its own effects”:

“The author should die once he has finished writing his text. So as not to trouble the path of the text.”

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
This entry was posted in Literature, Philosophy, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.
Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
2021 years ago

A good point that could have been more tightly cut.

But whaddya expect from a bloke that wrote a 2000+ word essay on why wearing jeans made him feel more virile.

I do like Umberto but he does crap on a bit too much sometimes.

2021 years ago

A narrator should not supply interpretations of his work.

Ah yes, but the narrator’s not the author, is he/she?

Actually, Eco’s ‘Reflections’ (you don’t think maybe he’s being a tad disengenuous?) have been a useful starting point for me, considering the hideously reflexive nature of what’s required in a ‘creative exegesis’. I think it might actually be a highly refined form of torture. Maybe not so refined.

2021 years ago

When I was at school I read that Lord of the Rings was an allegory on WW2. I then read that Tolkein used to run around strenuously denying it was and saying “I wrote the book, I know what it is about”. Whether the latter is true I never bothered to find out. Sounds like Eco disagrees.

I used to use the Tolkein argument whenever teachers tried to make me learn an interpretation I didn’t agree with (‘sure, that one person’s interpretation but where is the evidence the author intended it’). Then again, I also used to use the “its just a story, Hamlet (or whoever) did (whatever) because the author wrote it that way. He isnt real” argument. No wonder I sucked at English.

Francis Xavier Holden
2021 years ago

nabs I can’t remember if he came out in favour of stretch jeans or not.

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2021 years ago

I think I posted here before an interview I saw with Stoppard who likened having his plays deconstructed to going through customs and getting his luggage opened up and having all sorts of things pulled out by the officer. “Gosh, I don’t remember packing that”