09 March 2014

The names of the rose(s)

My friend Rusiru Kalpagee Chitrasena invited me to join a Facebook group called ‘Poth Kiyavana Aya’ or ‘Those who read books’, a group launched by someone who goes by the name 'Mage Maranaya' (!). Yesterday he had posted a comment about Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose,’ one of my favourite novels.  I had read it many years ago and had duly misplaced 2 copies in the process of moving around (and down?) in the world. The first lines of the Prologue or at least the idea contained therein had made for many contemplative hours. I asked him to type it out for me. He not only did that, but emailed me a e-version of the book. 
"In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This was beginning with God and the duty of every faithful monk would be to repeat every day with chanting humility the one never-changing event whose incontrovertible truth can be asserted. But we see now through a glass darkly, and the truth, before it is revealed to all, face to face, we see in fragments (alas, how illegible) in the error of the world, so we must spell out its faithful signals even when they seem obscure to us and as if amalgamated with a will wholly bent on evil."

‘The Name of the Rose’ is a story set in those terrible times when fixation about the true word or the true interpretation of the word not only caused schisms in the Christian fraternity of Europe but generated much violence, as ‘fixation’ generally begets.  I resist the temptation to elaborate on context for I am sure it would take something off the joy of reading and discovery if indeed anyone reading this looks for the book which by the way is far more compelling than the film by the same name. 

One of the fundamental sources of human error, I believe, is the easily forgotten truth that the sum total of human knowledge is but a grain of sand compared with the universe that is our ignorance.  The knowledge of an individual is again but a grain of sand compared with the universe that is the sum total of human knowledge.  We are not only frail, both as a collective and as individuals, but are terribly prone to error. 

We know things, yes.  We know which side to expect the sun to rise from tomorrow morning.  We know our heads would hurt if we banged them against walls.  We know we can swiftly end all dreams and realities of the ant that is tracing irritation upon our arms.  Things like that.  The mystery of life or the truth of the universe or whatever way you want to capture those intangible things which we feel must be out there somewhere but cannot put a finger on, will, fortunately or unfortunately, remain elusive, if not for all then for most. 

I do not believe in God, but I like to think there is a ‘Word’. i.e. a dharma that governs all things.  Whatever we like to call it, there is no denying that we are hardly equipped with the instruments capable of seeing it, and more importantly, of reading what we see to any degree of accuracy.  Our human limitations inhibit the proverbial 360 degree vision sweep necessary (as some might say) to obtain ‘Full Picture’.  It can be argued that it is not such ‘sweep’ that yields the Word/World but an acute understanding of self.  Either way (or in some ‘way’ that falls somewhere between or even include these seeming extremes) we are hampered by ‘fragment’. 

We have always had to ‘see through a glass darkly’ and ‘in fragment’. Our frailties include both ignorance and arrogance and even our humility and courage, when they provoke us to feel, think and act, do not provide insulation from these detracting elements of being.  We observe signal, read as best we can or even perniciously given our inabilities and flaws, we see clarity in the obscure because we have eyes that can gloss over much and minds that will us to do so, and we amalgamate these in ways that either indicate the limits of our reasoning powers or the parameters of our prejudices. 

Now, a few hours after I read the lines Rusiru had typed out and several pages of the e-version, I find myself transported from Europe to South Asia, from a story of a Benedictine monk to a discourse on the matter of free inquiry delivered to the Jatilas by a world-renouncing and world-affirming prince who understood the dilemma that Eco explores in ‘The Name of the Rose’ and offered a pathway to clarity.  The Kalama Sutra.

I knew about the Kalama Sutra, or the Buddha’s ‘Charter on Free Inquiry’, and had read it years before I read Eco, but cannot really say that I internalized its logic and worth until after I read ‘The Name of the Rose’. 

I am going to read Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose’ again. With a fresh and ancient lens.  I just want to note that a book becomes new each time it is read, and therefore we are never starved of reading material if we have just one.  That’s my comment to Rusiru and this Facebook group too, by the way.  



sajic said...

Both book and movie were amazing.
'through a mirror darkly'.
The whole para would be 'now we see as through a mirror darkly, but then face to face. Then shall we know even as also we have been known'.
Makes one introspective!