I so appreciate when the timing of the reading of a particular book seems to tie in most serendipitously with goings-on in my life and the world around me, especially when it happens to be a book not recently published, thus enhancing the “happy accident” quality.
The human brain likes to look for patterns and validations, and thus coincidences (which can seem unnerving when undesired) can also be most pleasurable when they seem to affirm a choice or action or circumstance. Knowing, however, that there is no real pattern, that it’s only sympathetic thoughts vibrating together and perceived with a sensitivity to a given subconscious resonance … it’s not a mystery then, it’s merely an organizing principle, but so long as we recognize it as such, there’s no harm in enjoying the pleasant sensations that follow.
Such has been my experience the past few days while reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a book published more than 30 years ago and that I’ve been meaning to read for quite some time.
I started reading it last week, my bedtime book of choice, and I finished it just this morning while trying to warm my feet on the electric heater loaned to us by the hotel because the thermostat flashes a perpetual error message and only vaguely cool air sighs from the air vent overhead. It’s all right, the ice seems to have melted on the neighbor’s roof, and there’s the electric kettle to keep me company as well.
The book takes place in a Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy, visited by our heroes William of Baskerville, Franciscan friar and Sherlock Holmes-like logic-master, and Adso of Melk, novice and narrator of the story. A number of curious murders ensue within the abbey, mere plot-punctuation between which several themes unfold:
- forbidden knowledge
- subterfuge and scandal
- the philosophic and subversive nature of laughter and comedy
- the controversy on the question of Apostolic Poverty
- the sins of gluttony/lust in terms of knowledge
- heresy and its sometimes-seeds of miscommunication or misunderstanding amongst the commonfolk
- the intense disconnect between the practicalities between the sacred and the secular
- the danger of assigning patterns
- the philosophic nature of knowledge – how indeed can one know something?
(I could probably go on, but I’ll instead continue with my attempt to write an article here.)
To begin with, I was drawn in part to this book because the power of logic and deduction are routinely employed in the course of the novel both in unraveling the abbey’s mysteries as well as in attempting to dispel, or at least provide counterargument to, theological statements of circular logic, superstitious misinformation and resistance against the truth about matters, thus the perfect counter to the obstinate and persistent cloaking of truth and motives signature of the age.
Granted, by the end of it our heroes must admit that though they solved the mystery, it was in spite of many mistakes and indeed by a series of accidents, thus leaving them dissatisfied. This reminds me of one of the first lessons of my sweet little online introductory philosophy class in which we attempt to define “knowledge” as a justified true belief but that is not the result of chance.
Signals from the noise.
In the book, our heroes entered the labyrinth of the Library as T and I were flying over the Atlantic. I’ll confess I have, in both literature and movies, an intense affection for dark and foreboding structures, the more unknown and maze-like the better, and the tentative exploration that ensues. Similar instances, to name just a few: the Mines of Moria from The Fellowship of the Ring, the Overlook Hotel in The Shining (not exactly a labyrinth, but still sprawling and oppressive), the house from House of Leaves, the Ways from The Eye of the World.
Anyway, T and I arrived in Amsterdam Saturday morning to the Grand Hotel Kransapolsky, having consumed quite a bit of wine on the plane, and the booze effect beginning to wear off, neither of us having slept since Thursday. We acquired our room in the afternoon, situated in the newly renovated wing of the building. I was beginning to feel a bit delirious, but T suggested we first make a run to the Albert Heijn for bottled water and snacks before taking off our boots. Good plan.
Being that we were at the very end of the hallway, we wondered if there might be an easier way to access the street from our wing without having to rejoin the main body of the hotel. There was, naturally, a door in the wall opposite our room with the helpful Exitman in green, and so we decided to give it a try.
And so began our descent: a flight of stairs and then a landing with no door; a flight of stairs and then another landing with no door; more stairs and another doorless landing (but a stamped-out cigarette); stairs and another doorless landing but with a crumpled wrapper of some sort; stairs and other landing with no door … I lost track in our downward progression, moving quickly and laughing as logic seemed to say we’d gone much further than the mere three floors where our hallway had been, and yet more stairs and more landings with no doors. And as confusion (and illogical panic) began to blossom in my sleep-deprived nervous system, questioning if perhaps I’d fallen asleep somewhere and this was instead some strange dream … we arrived at the bottom of the stairs.
A dim little passage led off to the side, and at the end of that passage was a door, sounds of voices and street bustle heard from the other side. But for all I know it could have opened into Hell itself—thank you Mr. Eco for filling my mind with Bosch-like ridiculousness. The green Exitman promised a way out, but a suspicious sign to the left mentioned breaking the glass: a fire exit, most likely.
Our fortitude dried up there and we returned to the stairs. It was a lot more work going back up. 10 flights, I counted this time.
This is my third time visiting Amsterdam. I trekked about a good bit last time around and visited a few sights then, though I find that spending much time around fellow tourists doing touristy things in touristy locales becomes more than a little tedious and even exhausting, so I usually end up doing a fair amount of walking. That way I end up seeing a lot of things without spending a lot of money, which bodes especially well for this go-around. I mean, shops and restaurants have their place, as do museums, but I find my preference, as far as sights go, is architecture, nature, and neighborhood-daily-life stuff without necessarily interacting with people. Maybe that’s just my shy, voyeuristic, misanthropic side showing, but there you go.
So I was scoping out my city map, trying to decide what sort of “destination” to give myself without having to commit to going “into” a place. Vondel Park had been one such destination in one of 2012’s treks. This particular afternoon I was still feeling fairly jetlagged, so wanted something not too far, so I picked out the little windmill icon “De Otter” between the Singelgracht canal and the Kostverlorenvaart. A not-too-arduous 1.9km stroll took me within viewing of a small and rather disappointing windmill.
Researching it a bit now back in the hotel room, De Otter is a Rijksmonument and was evidently built sometime around 1631. Though it’s in the process of being restored, its current location isn’t opportune, being that the area around it is built up enough to discourage wind, so I’ll forgive its sad state. I’d be sad too.
Well, my map had another windmill marked on it, all the way to the eastern boundary of the page, a little distance past the Artis Zoo, which I’d visited last year, and Oosterpark, which I wanted to see this time, so I set off for quite a longer walk (3.5km to the windmill, but 10.5km by the time I’d finished Oosterparking and made the long crescent west along the Singelgracht through Weteringschans and Grachtengordel-West almost to Jordaan, and then back to Dam Square), and briefly visited the second windmill De Gooyer, which was more of a proper archetype for a windmill, built in 1725 and was located somewhere else until 1814 when it was moved to where I found it.
I told T about my windmill encounters, to which Don Quixote jokes are almost requisite. On researching the windmills now, I see that evidently there are more windmills in Amsterdam than just the two, but they’re not marked on my map (a touristy map given to me by our cab driver from the airport), and not being an actual windmill enthusiast, De Otter and De Gooyer are quite enough to satiate me.
So after this long, long detour, how do these windmills tie in with the serendipitous feeling inspired by the book I was reading? Well, they don’t really, but they do tie in with the Black Hat keynote this morning. Rick Falkvinge of the Swedish Pirate Party spoke on information/knowledge control in response to technological innovation in the 1500’s, the 1900’s and in the present day, quoting a Chinese proverb: “When the wind of change blows, some build shelters and others build windmills.”
But more on that later.
On Popes, Saint Francis, and the Disenfranchised
This week saw the Papal conclave and the selection of the new Pope Francis, named for, you guessed it, St. Francis. Neither T nor I are particularly knowledgeable on the topic of Catholicism, although Mr. Eco does spend a good bit of his book on the warring factions within the Church, various heretical movements, inquisitions, and characters based on both fact and fiction. But sure enough, there was an actual historical controversy on the question of Poverty, and this posed a difficulty in squaring the grandeur and the opulence of the swollen Church with the simplicity of the life preached by its originators. I won’t point fingers, and I won’t take sides, as it’s not my place, and I know that having read a work of fiction and some Wikipedia articles does not an expert on the subject make, but let me say that when the new pope was declared and named Francis I, the subject was still fresh on my mind, having read references to the 1322 Franciscan chapter in Perugia only the night before.
Cue news coverage at the Vatican. T and I were watching on FRANCE 24 – English only because signal on BBC News, the only other news channel in English, kept cutting out. Alas but the reporters on this channel seemed a little immature in their commentary, likening the scene to “the world’s biggest rock concert”. It’s quite the event, announcing the new Pope, even if you’re not Catholic, and sometimes it’s just nice to see a mass of diverse people united in genuine good feels.
I’ll admit I didn’t follow the coverage of Pope Benedict XVI, so this was a first for me. I can only liken it to the presidential election, in which there’s the pregnant waiting and then the announcement, to be followed by a speech of some sort. I don’t have any other papal speeches to compare this one to, but it seemed to me that the new pope was very humble in addressing the amazing crowd before him, and the simplicity of his speech was appealing.
I think one of the things we need in this world right now is a way to breach the disparity between those who have, and those who have not. And I mean this, naturally, outside of the scope of Catholicism as well. It’s a theme you see everywhere at the moment, what people are asking of their governments, their political leaders, their employers, their healthcare providers.
I’ll turn again to the book I was reading, in which one of the monks speaks ill of the common people, of the poor, that they are base, ignorant, dirty and sinful, and yet they are still part of humanity. They are not innately “bad”, only that something in the system is broken. There is a disconnect, between wealthy and poor, between those attempting to lead and those they would have follow. Access to education, access to resources. Now we start thinking …
On the Right to Knowledge
And that brings us again to this morning’s keynote in which Mr. Falkvinge discussed the historical panic to control access to information after the invention of the printing press, not dissimilar to today’s situation with the internet and freedom of information. Governments and corporations scramble to control the flow of information and file-sharing in an arena still poorly defined. His talk was rousing, inspiring, as it should be. I realize he is a bit of an evangelist for his party’s cause, so his talk was primarily broad strokes intended to incite emotion (and hopefully action), but the prime concepts are sound.
Knowledge/information should be free. In The Name of the Rose the abbey houses “the largest library in Christendom”, but the Library is barred to all but the librarian, who can then decide whether or not to grant access to the requested book. Knowledge/information shouldn’t need gatekeepers. Least of all, knowledge shouldn’t need a fee (effective exclusion of those inconvenient poor).
Ah, but I’ll acknowledge a problem in defining said “knowledge” or information. And the difference between open or public domain information vs creative property, etc. What of copyright and patent law? Reform is needed to combat abuses and information choke-point, a new balance between “property” and “poverty”, perhaps?
On Boxes: In Conclusion
I enjoy traveling, in part because it breaks me completely from my routine. No cell phone. Scant internet access. T is working for most of the trip, so it’s a lot of time on my own, and as I’ve mentioned before I’m not a sociable tourist, which means a lot of wandering and spending time in my head. But it’s not the same sort of head-time I’d normally be spending at home. Surroundings are different, food is different, people are different, languages are different. Granted it’s not that different because it’s still Western Europe, so it’s not that far removed from what I’m used to. It’s a subtle spin on perspective, and I dig it.
Stepping out of a certain box: the work box, the home box, the SF box, the US box. And then I look around and see all the different boxes around me, boxes I’m in, boxes other people are in, boxes we’re in together. Boxes are a necessity, I realize, an organizing principle, like the pattern I imagine connecting these random little coincidences over the past few days. It helps me find further meaning in my experiences, relationships between them, but the pattern, the organizing principle, the box isn’t knowledge or experience or anything on its own. It’s a subjective illusion and, conveniently, a nice premise for a blog entry.