Monday, February 22, 2016

Eco on constructing a reader who can pass his test

Few scenes in literature spark such horror as the library fire in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, but you don't arrive at the fire without first passing a test. Since Eco's death, everyone is quoting his charming statement about the origin of the book: "I began writing in March of 1978, prodded by a seminal idea: I wanted to poison a monk." However, reading further in his Postscript to The Name of the Rose provides a more satisfying explanation of his philosophy of composition. 

After he'd completed the manuscript, Eco explains, editors suggested that he shorten the first hundred pages, but he refused because

if somebody wanted to enter the abbey and live there for seven days, he had to accept the abbey's own pace. If he could not, he would never manage to read the whole book. Therefore those first hundred pages are like a penance or an initiation, and if someone does not like them, so much the worse for him. He can stay at the foot of the hill.
What kind of reader passes such a test? The reader the author constructs:

What does it mean, to imagine a reader able to overcome the penitential obstacle of the first hundred pages? It means, precisely, writing one hundred pages for the purpose of constructing a reader suitable for what comes afterward.

I wanted to create a type of reader who, once the initiation was past, would become my prey--or, rather, the prey of my text--and would think he wanted nothing but what the text was offering him....You believe you want sex and a criminal plot where the guilty party is discovered at the end, and all with plenty of action.... All right, then, I will give you Latin, practically no women, lots of theology, gallons of blood in Grand Guignol style, to make you say, 'But all this is false; I refuse to accept it!' And at this point you will have to be mine, and feel the thrill of God's infinite omnipotence, which makes the world's order vain. And then, if you are good you will realize how I lured you into this trap, because I was really telling you about it at every step, I was carefully warning you that I was dragging you to your damnation; but the fine things about pacts with the devil is that when you sign them you are well aware of their conditions. Otherwise, why would you be recompensed with hell?
In Eco's case we are recompensed with a fully realized world that makes us fear evil and seek justice and mourn when it all burns and want more, but when the author is dead, the only way to get more is to go back and re-read the book and know we have passed his test.

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