by Umberto Eco
528 pages,
ISBN: 0151006903

Post Your Opinion
Seeking Prester John: Umberto Eco and His Messenger
by David Solway

"The problem," said Eco in a lecture delivered at Brown University a few years back, "is not to keep everyone a prisoner of his own ghetto¨it is to allow everyone to also understand other experiences." Eco was expounding on his celebrated Encyclomedia program, a vast, semiotically-inspired cross-referencing of different cultures, periods, ideologies and religions, and in general the many different ways of constructing or scripting reality in a parallel series of lateral worlds. Like the Encyclomedia, Eco's fiction may be understood as an exfoliation of his semiotic preoccupations and as an integral part of these anterior designs, that is, as a narrative illustration of how meanings are arrived at, modified, transformed, latticed and correlated.

Eco develops this notion in his theory of the "Model Q" code (after semanticist M. Ross Quillian), a theory of how types and tokens, classes and items, words and symbols¨all of which are "signs"¨combine and interconnect by ultimately unspecifiable profusions of associative links. It is probably best considered as the semiotic antagonist of the regulatory "s-code" (or code as system) defined in Eco's A Theory of Semiotics as a "reductive network superimposed on the infinite array of events...in order to isolate a few pertinent events." The s-code arranges the inventory of items which constitute the standard semantic universe in linguistically determined classes or as "structured wholes" in which "each unit is different from others," as if every word could be trunklined to its object. Whereas Model Q says that signs may be deflected from their pragmatic destinations owing, so to speak, to the gravitational attraction of other signs, a process which leads to the production of conceptual and metaphorical hybrids that assume in our minds a kind of wily and oblique verisimilitude and, more importantly, tend to enter the world like illegal immigrants who proceed to claim citizenship rights.

Poetry, tragedy, art, myth and chronicle, for example, are on this view functions of the Model Q code, and provide for what Eco calls "linguistic creativity" and "multiple shiftings." (It is no accident that one of Eco's collections of shorter pieces is called Misreadings and another Six Walks in the Fictional Woods¨the seventh walk is a day of rest.) These forms of expression¨which differ from ordinary lying in that they are not wielded specifically and intentionally to defraud but to bring us closer to what we are as world-creating beings¨may point to nothing in the empirical sphere, to entities that do not exist, to imaginary toads in imaginary gardens, or to inchoate events and objects, yet as products of the Q Model they allow for continual unforeseen invention. Thus they enables us to escape a tight, univocal system of expression, designation and allusion, of established rules and signals, in order to expand our possible worlds of significant experience.

Put simply, the distinction Eco is working in his fiction with is that between sclerosis and tolerance, equivalence and ambiguity. Words are not only exclusionary denotative markers; words also evoke and contain, and indeed every word may be said to subsume an indefinite queue of other words secreted connotatively within it. In the same way, fictive worlds are noded together within the more lackluster narrative of everyday life and these internalized fictions themselves enclose a proliferating sequence of fractal narratives¨imaginative life as a Pickwickian polymer. The theory, whether on the level of the word or the text, tries to account for what Eco calls "unlimited semiosis", the fact that signs can take on a multiplicity of meanings since they need not have particular referents but can operate as pure products of the semiotic code itself. What happens inside language will then often come to pass outside language. The membrane that divides word from world, language from history, is permeable. (One thinks of Star Trek's whimsical and mischievous Q who can manifest as anything he likes anywhere within the world whose forces he appears to control from some privileged Archimedean point beyond it, playing havoc with our conventional notions of meaning, reference, unity, time, space, coherence and probability.) Such protean reconfigurations are, for Eco, "gifts from heaven" meant to vary and complexify our otherwise "limited and semantically codified fields of experience." In fact, this revitalizing form of cultural and linguistic adventure is embedded in Eco's own name, an acronym for Ex coelis oblatus derived from a foundling grandfather who was received by his foster parents as a "gift from heaven" and touched on facetiously in Baudolino where the holy grail is called lapis ex coelis, "stone from heaven."

What is true of the word as a single item is also true of the novel as a composite whole. The notion of embedding is crucial for Eco, who conscripts this idea materially into his fiction by implanting texts within the text¨inserts which recapitulate the ostensive plot line but also open corridors to unexpected regions of intellectual and imaginative experience. The process, one is tempted to say, is a fundamentally ecological one, affecting both bedrock and atmospherics. In Foucault's Pendulum, for example, with its emphasis on underground passageways and telluric currents, one of the hidden "files," as Eco explains in an online conversation with Erica Goode, is "a novel written by Benito Mussolini, not literally quoted but interwoven with the whole damn thing." The Island of the Day Before has as one of its many nested texts Eco's own The Name of the Rose and sports with its central carnival concept of pretence and dissimulation, which, he informs us, does not "constitute falsehood but allows truth some respite." The theme of Island is that it is the stories we tell inside the stories we tell¨as in the "miscellany of other defaced and faded manuscripts" extracted in turn from a packet of letters that falls into the hands of the protagonist¨which in the last analysis enable us to survive and prosper in an otherwise linearly reduced or depleted world. Experience is replenished by the dimly intuited immensities of the possible improbable just as it is nourished by its spectral components and cellular insets.

Similarly, The Name of the Rose incorporates an obscure and anonymous tenth century manuscript fragment known as Tractatus Coislinianus, found by philologist J.A. Cramer in 1839 in Parisian Codex 120 of the Coislin collection housed in the BibliothFque Nationale. Essentially a Table of Contents for the irrecoverable second Poetics of Aristotle and an abbreviated menu of discursive cues, the Tractate is the only extant document that authenticates the philosopher's lost book on Comedy, intended to complete the theoretical arc of the first Poetics, which deals with the subjects of Epic and Tragedy. When one recalls that the plot of Rose revolves around the search for a missing manuscript which turns out to be the last surviving copy of Aristotle's Poetics II, treating of the nature of laughter and deception and their connection in the surprising laminations of meaning produced by synonyms, paronyms, homonyms, alterations, transferences and misapplications of words¨Model Q stuff¨we become aware that we have unwittingly entered the game that Eco is playing. The reader, like William and Adso, is also searching for an elusive and enigmatic manuscript, a mysterious Aristotelian parchment recursively embedded in the narrative, which brings him or her into the fictional world that Eco is constructing and opens new lines of investigation and discovery.

An interesting sidebar is presented by Cypriot writer Costas Socratous' 1964 novel O Aforismenos (The Excommunicated), as yet untranslated, with its burning monasteries, manuscripts, murders and numberless other affinities, which reads like a blueprint for Eco's masterpiece. Does it constitute an embedded text, like the Mussolini novel in Pendulum? This seems unlikely as I have heard that Socratous is suing Eco for plagiarism. Assuming that O Aforisimenos is a rogue event, Eco's defence would be that certain ideas, concerns and cultural projects are often "in the air," and besides, he does not know Greek. Model Q may operate independently of an author's purposes. (Whether, to cite a more recent controversy, one can say the same of Yann Martel's Booker Prize novel Life of Pi, which recapitulates the central plot treatment of Moacyr Scliar's Max and the Cats, remains an open question.)

And now comes Baudolino set in the medieval period that has governed Eco's sensibility at least from the time of his early treatise Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages. And it is certainly vintage Eco, a glorious book thronging with weird intersecting narratives, unlikely adventures, phrases and passages excerpted from other texts (e.g., Gulliver's Travels), large doses of fantasy and legend, bibliographic minutiae, provocative ideas, the by-now obligatory internal allusions to The Name of The Rose (the aching thumb motif, the pervasive macaronic), and of course the overriding semiotic theme of the relation between a strict "grammatical" parsing of reality and the complex network of subcodes which, to quote again from A Theory of Semiotics, gathers together "various systems, some strong and stableÓothers weak and transient (such as a lot of semantic fields and axes)." Since, for Eco, every item in a code "maintains a double set of relations, a systematic one with all the items on its own planeÓand a signifying one with one or more items from the correlated one," it is to this latter we must look as "a site of combinatorial interplay"¨that which exposes the text and the reader to new possibilities of imaginative experience, amplifying and changing the stable, confining structures of a fixed and predictable semantic universe. One can couple with goat-girl Hypatias and hope for compound many-tongued offspring. Even Blemmyae and Panotians can make suitable partners for poets sufficiently deprived and appropriately depraved, since the word-intoxicated breed specializes in implausible conjugations.

"There are no stories without meaning," logothete and historian Niketas Choniates explains to Baudolino, but "you have to consider the events, arrange them in order, find the connections, even the least visible ones" (italics mine). And perhaps more to the point: "If you want to become a man of letters and perhaps write some Histories one day, you must also lie and invent tales, otherwise your histories would become monotonous." But Eco is also suggesting that we are all writing "histories," both inventing and incorporating stories from without (or within), producing different versions of the Gesta Baudolini, some commonplace, others preferentially exotic.

So once again, as we peer into this richly dendritic story, we find those "embedded sememes" at work, those inevitable but shrouded textual branches ramifying out into the bibliomorphic dimension we are also meant to explore, as Baudolino (an update of the vagabond polyglot Salvatore from Rose and a variant of the Knight in Island seeking the mystical island of Escondida) sets off in pursuit of the legendary Prester John, monarch of the unstanchable imagination. We cross the river Sambatyon into new textual territory not actually specified, into Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (Bks. xvii-xix) where the venerable Presbyter figures prominently, into Sir John Mandeville's reflections on the Christian sovereign of Teneduc, and more recently into John Buchan's 1956 novel Prester John, one of the great adventure tales for young readers that can colour one's imagination indelibly. (I, for one, have never forgotten it.) But does Prester John actually exist outside the boundaries of the text? A powerful belief in the reality of something can bring it into approximate or communal existence. "When you say something you imagine," Baudolino reflects, "and others then say that's exactly how it is, you end up believing it yourself." And believing is seeing¨or at any rate acting as if you saw. Just look in the right way and in the right direction and Prester John marches into the field of vision(s), putting the s-code to rout. He may become the next Prime Minister of India or, failing that, the Maharishi redivivus. And should events conspire against his long-awaited parousia, a worst-case scenario would still give us Prester John's diaconal "son" and heir in the vestibule kingdom of Pndapetzim.

Words attract other words. Texts seduce other texts. Lives consort shamelessly with interior biographies that radiate willy-nilly into the many-storied surround, like the forms that arise in the fogs of Frascheta or the penumbral inhabitants of Abcasia. Even if at the end of the day "reality" is an unforgiving drama written by an unseen hand, experience is unapologetically plural. In a moral framework, this leads to a live-and-let-live attitude to other people and peoples which grounds Eco's medley of modest ruminations, Five Moral Pieces. In semiotic terms, the linguistic imagination can transcend the simplifying graphs of the "compositional trees" that determine what is real for us, so that¨to take a historical episode¨Pope Alexander III was not merely deluded when, fired by the prospect of making contact with Prester John and uniting all of Christendom, he sent letters by a special messenger to the mythic king of Asia incognita, even if the messenger never returned. Messengers to shadowy realms never return¨at least not in the same condition in which they first began their improbable missions¨nor are they intended to. Imagination is an open-ended semiotic that enlarges and transforms the code of the relentlessly quotidian. The "Adamitic language [which] has the same form as the created world, so each noun in it expresses the essence of the very thing it denotes," is shown to be inadequate to our nature as meaning-makers. Thus Baudolino meditates on the phantom texts whose titles he himself fabricates and which would then have to be written in order to "put matters right." And there is also the marvelous green honey whose virtue "was to make tangible that which has never been seen," in this case, of course, the figure of Prester John which will determine Baudolino's future course of action. "In imagining other worlds," he concludes, "you end by changing this one," as story alters fact and finally becomes fact. This is the reward imagination confers for embarking on the journey. There is no afterlife but there is a metaworld.

For what we call "reality" is itself structured as an ongoing narrative studded with hidden, virtual, potential, trimmed or embroidered narratives that reticulate outward into a forest of interpenetrating meanings, into long walks in the fictional woods and Travels in Hyperreality, ultimately into the thousand and one nights of the concentric fabulations on which our very survival as spontaneous and creative beings depends. If, "in a great history little truths can be altered so that the greater truth emerges," that history must be written as the legacy and testament of an ancient world that stays new for being perpetually sought. As the wise Paphnutius consoles Niketas, who laments the story will never be told: "Sooner or later, someone¨a greater liar than Baudolino¨will tell it" Enter Eco, chased by an obsession.

The Real is potentially magical and infinitely rich¨all of Reality, Q¨miotically conceived, is a species of Magic Realism, a continuous and evolving transcript of Mission Impossible, if only we are prepared to lie veridically. Or to put it in figurative terms, to send out quixotic and visionary messengers like Baudolino into partibus infidelium where resides the king of the imagination and thus to prepare a throne for him in this world. After all, what is meta for? Even bad poets get the picture. As Alfred Noyes chants in Forty Singing Seamen:

The centuries go by, but Prester John endures for ever
With his music in the mountains and his magic on the sky.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us