“A medieval cathedral was a sort of permanent and unchangeable TV program”

notredame1[Image: Notre Dame, Paris, courtesy of the Library of Congress].

I’ve always loved Umberto Eco’s observation, from a text he delivered for the opening of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina back in 2003, that “a medieval cathedral was a sort of permanent and unchangeable TV program that was supposed to tell people everything indispensable for their everyday life, as well as for their eternal salvation.”

The carved statuary, the stone ornament, the careful placement of scenes: it was all part of an edited visual narrative that you could return to again and again, like a 3-dimensional comic book or a collection of film stills in the center of your city, a body of symbolic storylines and characters given architectural form.

At the time of these cathedrals’ construction, Eco explained, “manuscripts were reserved to a restricted elite of literate persons, and the only thing to teach the masses about the stories of the Bible, the life of Christ and of the Saints, the moral principles, even the deeds of national history or the most elementary notions of geography and natural sciences (the nature of unknown peoples and the virtues of herbs or stones), was provided by the images of a cathedral.” Then, the sentence I quote above: “A medieval cathedral was a sort of permanent and unchangeable TV program that was supposed to tell people everything indispensable for their everyday life, as well as for their eternal salvation.”

notredame2[Image: Notre Dame, Paris, courtesy of the Library of Congress].

I’ve long been a fan of Eco’s writing, even as a kid growing up in a variety of houses where we seemed to always have a copy of The Name of the Rose stored somewhere in the family-room bookshelves. Well before I could even conceivably read such a thing in full, yet captivated by its original cover art, I’d flip through the book to find descriptions of imposing monastery walls or hidden courtyards, of mirrored libraries concealed inside stone towers. I even memorized, for no particular reason, the monastic hours that Eco enumerates at the book’s beginning.

It’s also a novel, I’d eventually see, full of superb lines: “As I lay on my pallet,” Eco’s monastic narrator at one point writes, “I concluded that my father should not have sent me out in the world, which was more complicated than I had thought. I was learning too many things.” Or: “How beautiful the world would be if there were a procedure for moving through labyrinths.”

notredame3[Image: Notre Dame, Paris, courtesy of the Library of Congress].

But Foucault’s Pendulum—way too quickly dismissed today as a kind of hipster Da Vinci Code—is a novel I’ve read so many times I am embarrassed to admit the number. It’s a book I’ve obsessively traveled with, having read it now in Greece, Berlin, Warsaw, County Donegal, even Beijing. A mere ten days ago, I picked it up again here in New York City, for a variety of reasons, to give it one more spin.

So the news that Umberto Eco died yesterday was both sad and, for me, oddly timed; it’s also news I feel compelled to mention here, for both personal and architectural reasons.

In fact, I was thinking explicitly of Eco when I wrote a piece recently for Cabinet Magazine about rare-book thefts at a French monastery near the border with Germany.

Let’s start with the obvious: the fractal library in The Name of the Rose, a fictional architectural construct that belongs up there with other mythical buildings, from Kafka’s Castle to Daedalus’s Labyrinth or the Tower of Babel. The library, Eco explains, is a fortified architectural complex doubly protected by a weird system of mirrors and winds:

“The library must, of course, have a ventilation system,” William [the book’s non-narrating protagonist] said. “Otherwise the atmosphere would be stifling, especially in the summer. Moreover, those slits provide the right amount of humidity, so the parchments will not dry out. But the cleverness of the founders did not stop there. Placing the slits at certain angles, they made sure that on windy nights the gusts penetrating from those openings would encounter other gusts, and swirl inside the sequence of rooms, producing the sounds we have heard. Which, along with the mirrors and the herbs, increase the fear of the foolhardy who come in here, as we have, without knowing the place well. And we ourselves for a moment thought ghosts were breathing on our faces.”

What we would now call the building’s HVAC system was deliberately engineered to induce the aeolian illusion of other humans. It was a kind of super-sensory burglar alarm for spooking uninvited guests—spatial hauntings in surroundsound.

libraryrose[Image: The fractal stairs of the breeze-haunted library in The Name of the Rose; courtesy Twentieth-Century Fox/Columbia Pictures].

Or take the building that isn’t really a building in Foucault’s Pendulum.

One of that book’s minor characters mentions a house in Paris that is simultaneously more and less than it appears. Parisians “walk by” this house every day, Eco writes, but “they don’t know the truth. That the house is a fake. It’s a facade, an enclosure with no room, no interior. It is really a chimney, a ventilation flue that serves to release the vapors of the regional Métro. And once you know this you feel you are standing at the mouth of the underworld…”

Or consider Eco’s honeycomb of artificial caves beneath the French town of Provins, also in Foucault’s Pendulum and something I have also written about before.

There, an over-excited former colonel explains that “something” has been in Provins “since prehistoric times: tunnels. A network of tunnels—real catacombs—extends beneath the hill.”

Some tunnels lead from building to building. You can enter a granary or a warehouse and come out in a church. Some tunnels are constructed with columns and vaulted ceilings. Even today, every house in the upper city still has a cellar with ogival vaults—there must be more than a hundred of them. And every cellar has an entrance to a tunnel.

In 1894, the colonel continues, two Chevaliers came to the village and asked to be taken down into the tunnels beneath a granary:

Accompanied by the caretaker, they went down into one of the subterranean rooms, on the second level belowground. When the caretaker, trying to show that there were other levels even farther down, stamped on the earth, they heard echoes and reverberations. [The Chevaliers] promptly fetched lanterns and ropes and went into the unknown tunnels like boys down a mine, pulling themselves forward on their elbows, crawling through mysterious passages. [They soon] came to a great hall with a fine fireplace and a dry well in the center. They tied a stone to a rope, lowered it, and found that the well was eleven meters deep. They went back a week later with stronger ropes, and two companions lowered [one of the Chevaliers] into the well, where he discovered a big room with stone walls, ten meters square and five meters high. The others then followed him down.

Eco excelled at these sorts of allegorical details: rooms that served to mask the presence of other rooms, a town built atop a subterranean twin of itself, a library that conceals a parallel, clandestine collection of books, another library somehow tucked inside its very walls, even an island lost on the precise border between today and yesterday.

[Image: Mont-Sainte-Odile; photo via Wikipedia, related to a marginal note, above].

Among many other reasons, Foucault’s Pendulum remains an amazing novel for revealing the seemingly endless extent of one’s own gullibility—that is, the often overwhelming need to believe in or to pursue something, to connect together things you think are signs or clues in fits of irrationality and inspiration, to give your life, your cause, your project, your movement its larger emotional meaning or narrative gravity; only to realize, in retrospect, that these were all just neutral facts of the world you temporarily and needlessly seized upon. They were there when you needed them—or it all made sense at the time.

In fact, the novel contains its own fantastic distillation of this argument in an early scene, set in a Milanese bar. The world, we read, consists of only four types of people: “cretins, fools, morons, and lunatics.” “And that covers everybody?” the book’s narrator asks. “Oh, yes, including us.” I’d risk copying the entire book if I continue on like this in any detail, but I particularly love Eco’s description of “lunatics.” It is an excellent cautionary tale.

A lunatic, he writes, is “a moron who doesn’t know the ropes. The moron proves his [own] thesis; he has a logic, however twisted it may be. The lunatic, on the other hand, doesn’t concern himself at all with logic; he works by short circuits. For him, everything proves everything else. The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration…”

In any case, as my own tendency to over-re-read Foucault’s Pendulum undoubtedly shows, Eco’s books are perfect for people who are too willing to believe that truth can be found in reading—even if the stories they return to again and again are published not with words at all, but on the façade of a cathedral, in a theological sci-fi of intertwined saints, symbols, and landscapes.

Even if found in the narrative ornament of “a sort of permanent and unchangeable TV program,” as Eco once wrote, these stories we tell ourselves promise a truth it is always wiser to question.

(If you are an American fan of Umberto Eco, there’s a good chance you read his work through the translations of William Weaver, who also passed away recently. Meanwhile, the quotation about cathedrals as TV programs was originally published on Al-Ahram, but is no longer on their site; Nettime has an archived version).

3 thoughts on ““A medieval cathedral was a sort of permanent and unchangeable TV program””

  1. One of my favorite passages from /Foucault’s Pendulum/:
    “Any fact becomes important when it’s connected to another. The connection changes the perspective; it leads you to think that every detail of the world, every voice, every word written or spoken has more than its literal meaning, that it tells us of a Secret.”

  2. I am desolated to hear Umberto Eco has died. I grieve with you and I am sure with many others of all nationalities on his death. I have been a great fan of his writing ever since The Name of the Rose reading enjoying and finding new thought questions some answers and basically a great enjoyment that came with the pleasure of rereading his luscious prose. Thankyou I m off to have another delightful read.

  3. I felt depressed at Eco’s passing. I can say that I grew up reading him, mostly in Spanish, which is the closest I could get to the original Italian. I cherish his books where he still lives and laughs in spite of so many of today’s “blind monks”.

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