Saturday, June 06, 2015

Umberto Eco, The Island of the Day Before


Opening Passage:

I take pride withal in my humiliation, and as I am to this privilege condemned, almost I find joy in an abhorrent salvation; I am, I believe, alone of all our race, the only man in human memory to have been shipwrecked and cast up upon a deserted ship.

Thus, with unabashed conceits, wrote Roberto della Griva presumably in July or August of 1643.

Summary: Roberto della Griva, a spy for Cardinal Mazarin trying to discover the details of a secret experiment for determining longitude, survives a shipwreck and finds himself cast up on a deserted ship anchored a way from an Island that is visible in the distance; but he cannot reach the Island because he is unable to swim. He will eventually meet up with Father Caspar Wanderdrossel, a German Jesuit, who is also castaway. They reason that they have actually reached the antipodal meridian, and that between the ship and the Island runs what we would call the International Date Line. Thus the title, of course: the Island is separated not just by space but by the fact that it exists in the day before. This gets us quite a few amusing bits, as when Father Caspar explains how God got all the water for the Flood, namely, by getting all the water across the line, thus adding to the oceans all of yesterday's ocean-water. A bizarrely mechanical and overly ingenious explanation, perhaps, but ingenious device and machination -- whether literal or metaphorical -- are major themes of the work.

For Roberto della Griva is the seventeenth century, and the novel is actually an exploration of the seventeenth century, the age that gets us to where we ourselves are. All of the seventeenth century comes before us, albeit in a jumbled form and not always named, in Roberto's increasing delirium aboard his deserted ship. We see the rise of modern astronomy and engineering and even the literary form of the novel. Kenelm Digby, Emanuele Tesauro, the great Jesuit scientists, Galileo Galilei, Rene Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Benedict Spinoza, all make some kind of appearance, just to give a small selection. And the seventeenth century can indeed be summed up in the Idea of the Machine: machines like clocks, the world as machine, the human being as machine, politics as machine, science as understanding of machines, and, most comprehensive of all, the attempt to reduce ingenuity, whether human or divine, to machine. The problem with this Baroque mentality, of course, is threefold: there always seems some residue of ingenuity that cannot be captured, the human ingenuity that is captured can never anticipate the full surprise of the world, and something always seems irretrievably lost in the attempt to capture ingenuity as a machine in the first place. All of the burgeoning technology and scientific discovery of the early modern period, and the Island is always just out of reach. Even the idea of the Island is in a sense out of reach; with its endless promise of providing the Fixed Point of the World, and the theological resonances of the mysterious Flame Dove, it is a medieval idea. The machines of the seventeenth century can never reach the promise of the day before. TRUTH, all capitals and glory, is a medieval notion. And the attempts to reach that Island get crazier and crazier until the Island has to be located on the other side of death itself.

One of the difficulties of the novel is that, despite its novelistic conventions and pretensions, it repeatedly verges very near allegory. This, I think, is a way in which the work is weaker as a novel than The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum. All three novels involve an implicit critique. The Name of the Rose put into question the idea that there was the sort of objective order to the world that the great medieval minds assumed there was. But it showed the divine, living beauty of that assumption, shining through despite all of human corruption and failing. The Island of the Day Before puts into question the idea that the rise of the modern age could reach the order of the world -- and we get so tangled up in the endless machinations of the age that Roberto and his contemporaries just look crazy. Foucault's Pendulum dealt with the same sort of incoherence in the modern age, but it showed us the human fascination of that 'psychosis of resemblances'. The Island of the Day Before gives us the incoherence of the age without all that much of its fascination. The characters never seem to stand out as more than allegorical representations, figures in a tableau, or (at best) goofy caricatures. Ironically, given the importance of the idea of the novel or romance to the story, tying everything together (as Descartes, in presenting his scientific ideas to the world, presented them explicitly as a kind of romance so as not to commit himself to the claim that they were True, and as the notion of progress can be seen as imposing the conventions of a novel on history), the book is the least successful of the three as a novel. Like the Baroque period it represents, it gets so caught up in ingenious representation and device that it is difficult to see it as anything other than highly artificial.

Nonetheless, this is Umberto Eco, and the ingenuity is a real ingenuity; the gimmicks are genuinely clever and the sheer torrent of images he pours into the book gives it a richness most novels lack. There are many charming episodes, many lovely passages, and genuine stretches of fun. It's just that the incoherence of the rise of what we call the modern age defeats even Eco's extraordinarily ingenious attempts to turn it into a coherent story that works as a story. Everything breaks down into a barely comprehensible delirium. The reader could very well be forgiven for concluding from the tale that in the post-medieval period the lunatics took over the asylum.

Favorite Passage:
But it was on that occasion, Father Caspar assured Roberto, that Noah and his family rediscovered the language Adam had spoken in Eden, which his sons had forgotten after the Fall, and which the descendants of Noah would almost all lose on the day of the great confusion of Babel, except the heirs of Gomer, who carried it into the forests of the north, where the German people faithfully preserved it. Only the German language--the obsessed Father Caspar now shouted in his native tongue--"redet mit der Zunge, donnert mit dem himmel, blitzet mit den schnellen Wolken," or, as he inventively continued, mixing the harsh sounds of different idioms, only German speaks the tongue of Nature, "blitzes with the Clouds, brumms with the Stag, gruntzes with the Schweine, zlides with the Eel, miaus with the Katz, schnatters with the Gandern, quackers with the Dux, klukken with the hen, clappers with the Schwan, kraka with the Ravfen, schwirrs with the Hirundin!" And in the end he was hoarse from his babelizing, and Roberto was convinced that the true language of Adam, rediscovered with the Flood, flourished only in the lands of the Holy Roman Emperor. (269-270)

Recommendation: Recommended, unquestionably, although, as everyone says, The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum are both better. I have to give kudos to William Weaver's translation, though; it is quite as good as we got with the other works.


Quotations from Umberto Eco, The Island of the Day Before, William Weaver, tr., Harcourt Brace & Company (New York: 1995).

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