Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lacking in Latin

What's really on my mind is the book I finished last night, The Name of the Rose. This is the second time I've read it, but the first time was years ago -- it must have been '83 or '84, since I had already read the book when the film came out in 1986.

The introduction says that many people initially advised author Umberto Eco to drastically reduce the first 100 pages, which contain an elaborate back story purporting to explain the "discovery" of the manuscript of Adso of Melk. Adso is the story's narrator; a novice when the main action occurs, he is the assistant to William of Baskerville, a monk who has been sent to an Italian abbey on a diplomatic mission. Eco kept these pages in, saying that navigating them is an initiation that lets the reader understand the rest of the book.

The story takes place in the 14th century amid the swirl of intrigue surrounding the Catholic Church, the Pope, and the Holy Roman Emperor and features long theological debates, descriptions of monastic life, passages in Latin and, in short, all varieties of the erudite minutiae Eco is famous for. It's also a compelling murder mystery and a very human drama. And there's a labyrinth! At the heart of the story is the abbey's library, which has been cunningly designed to conceal a great mystery.

I was not a librarian the first time I read this book, but I am now, so I'm coming at the library angle with personal experience. We haven't found many bodies in the library I work in (maybe we're not looking hard enough), but the abbey library generates corpses on a regular basis. It all centers on a missing book. In my library, we frequently have missing books, and desperate people, but the books are usually in someone's office underneath a pile of papers, and that's the end of the story.

The abbey presents an interesting model of knowledge management in that the whole idea is to keep the library's contents safe from potential users. The librarian decides when and if a requested book will be retrieved, based on his evaluation of its contents. This library gives closed stacks a whole new meaning, since the catalog is a riddle, the layout is a labyrinth, and the rooms contain many surprises (not all of them pleasant) in addition to an "amazing" collection of books.

William of Baskerville has a different idea of what a library should be. He wants books to be read and discussed and does not think anyone -- librarian, abbot, or pope -- should hamper the pursuit of knowledge. He has a humanistic faith in learning and philosophy, but his faith is crushed by the events of the novel. Young Adso, who is very traditional in his thinking and sometimes scandalized by William's irreverence, is the one who really learns something worth knowing. To me, he -- and not the learned theologians -- actually has the last word.

I remembered from my first reading the incident that causes Adso so much agitation, but I didn't remember how beautifully it's described. Adso's encounter with the peasant girl in the kitchen only lasts a few pages, but in a way it's the high point of the novel. Adso is immediately sorry about breaking his monastic vow and confesses at the first opportunity. William advises him to avoid feeling too bad about it.

Even more significant than the event itself is the lasting impact it has on Adso. He speaks the next day of looking at the world with different, more knowing eyes. "The truth is that I 'saw' the girl, I saw her in the branches of the bare tree that stirred lightly . . . I saw her in the eyes of the heifers that came out of the barn, and I heard her in the bleating of the sheep that crossed my erratic path. It was as if all creation spoke to me of her . . ."

Adso's awareness of the beauty of life has come to him through the auspices of a young girl in a union totally unsanctioned by the laws of the Church. It's an unexpected act of grace that makes all the difference for Adso. In spite of the ugliness of later events and the ruin that even William's philosophy can do nothing to prevent, this experience gives Adso a different kind of wisdom. His openness to this gift seems to me to be the real answer to the brutality and insanity of the times.

I know that the meaning of the book's title is an open question and that the author meant it to be that way. There is apparently an allusion to a possible meaning in the novel's final words, which are in Latin. My Latin is very basic, so it may be that that drove me to look for a clearer answer somewhere else. I thought I found it on page 314, where Adso, thinking of the girl, observes that "the humblest rose becomes a gloss of our terrestrial progress." For me, the name of the rose is the particular way the universe has of reaching out and grabbing each person by the neck. However, this may be the fault of my rudimentary Latin.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Looking for the Beat

One of my biggest adjustments in the last six months has been to having free time again. Three years of full-time work and full-time school left little room for anything extra until I finished my classes in August. After that, I had time again to read frivolous novels, catch up with friends, go to arts events, or even do nothing. I didn't have to feel that every minute spent on something besides classwork was stolen time.

This time last year, I was spending hours just gathering images for presentations in my Egyptian Mythology class, not counting time spent doing research for those same presentations. And that was just one class; I had two others that were nearly as demanding. If I wasn't trying to wrap my head around Sufi mysticism I was reading Paul's letters to the Corinthians on my lunch hour or looking at pictures of Byzantine art. I was thinking recently that last winter didn't seem as gray as this one -- but even if it was, I may not have had time to notice it.

So I enjoyed my free time this fall, but by Thanksgiving, I was starting to miss the sense of purpose and drive that carried me through my coursework. Now that I'm in the dissertation period, I'm happy to be starting my research and settling into the process, which has its own pace. I'm also anxious. It's solitary, for one thing. You have to find your own beat, because no one is there to enforce a schedule or tell you what to do. It actually reminds me of my first semester in college.

I'm still looking for the balance of work and play. Ideally, work is play, when things are going well. Coming off a period of relative leisure, I'm working to find the intensity again, and I'm sensing there may be an ebb and flow. Today, for instance, I was in no hurry to get up, even though I had things to do. I answered emails, read the newspaper online, and watched videos on YouTube before settling down to read up to page 204 in The Name of the Rose. After a couple of hours of reading, I still had to go to the grocery store and take the garbage out. Then the afternoon was sunny, and spring fever set in. I went for a walk, getting back in time to meet friends for dinner.

I got home tonight in time to watch ice dancing and get ready for another work week. I just saw skier Bode Miller climb the podium to receive a gold medal, his first. He looks happy and proud (and maybe a little stunned), just the way I imagine feeling the day I defend my dissertation.

But I have to get it written first, and the journey promises to be eventful. The rest of my life won't stop for the project and will probably find a way into it. That seems to be the nature of the thing.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

My Funny Valentine

Facing Valentine's Day with a cold and a headache, but all is not lost. I looked in my cabinet a while ago and found four varieties of drinking chocolate: Green & Black's Organic, Dagoba Xocolatl with chilies and cinnamon, Cadbury Original, and (my favorite) Ghirardelli Premium Double Chocolate. I also have my latest discovery in eating chocolate: Lindt Dark with a Touch of Sea Salt, subtle but deadly. The chocolate situation is under control.

And for a nice romantic finish, there's Olympic pairs skating on TV tonight. I just saw the Chinese couple, Shen and Zhao, and I liked their story and their lyrical style. I hope they get their gold medal.

I once did a Jungian analysis of a fairy tale for a class. In my story, "The Raven" (sometimes called "The Glass Mountain"), a princess is turned into a bird by an enchantment. A man is walking in the forest one day and hears her calling. She tells him she can be freed with his help, if he refrains from eating, drinking, or sleeping until she comes to him. He fails three times, despite swearing that he will do it.

Apparently seeing more in him than meets the eye, she leaves him some magical objects (an inexhaustible loaf of bread, meat, and jug of wine) and a letter, saying that even though he isn't quite there yet, she has faith in him. If he still wants to try, he is to seek her in a certain faraway castle. She also leaves her gold ring as a token.

The man sets off to find her, eventually encountering giants deep in the forest. These giants are dangerous, but the funny thing is, they have a lot in common with the man -- their appetites, for one thing. This is just one point in the story where external events mirror the man's own situation. The giants also have hidden resources: access to maps that reveal the location of the castle. The man uses his inexhaustible food and drink to wine and dine the giants and convince them not to eat him. Not only do they help him locate the castle, but one of them carries him many leagues and drops him off in the neighborhood.

The castle is on top of a big glass mountain, which even an Olympic skier would find impossible to climb. The man knows the princess is up there, but he is forced to bide his time, watching and waiting. He's been there a whole year when three robbers come by, arguing over three magical objects they've obtained: a stick that opens any door, a horse that can go anywhere, and a cloak that makes its wearer invisible. Seizing the moment and the objects, the man grabs the stick, mounts the horse, throws on the cloak, and rides swiftly to the top of the mountain.

He enters the locked castle with the stick, makes his way invisibly (presumably on the lookout for threshold guardians), and throws the girl's ring into her cup. Going outside to await events, he is soon joined by the princess, who has recognized him by her ring. She tells him that she is now free and that the next day will be their wedding day.

This story is about the harnessing of appetites and emotions, which, according to Jung's theory, fuels transformation on the journey of individuation. No one has to undergo this journey: It's a choice. Anyone can remain unconscious, and many people do. I like this story because of the man's persistence despite the hugeness of the task, his coolness in the face of giants, and his ability to use what comes his way. He can ride a horse, too, like a cowboy.

If this went into a personal ad, it might sound like this: Woman seeking man. Must be mature, willing to go the distance, street smart, unafraid of giants, good at negotiating slippery slopes. Must be willing to learn from experience. Must know his way around a forest. Must love travel. Must understand the importance of chocolate. (I made that last part up.)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Goddess Decides

Last Monday, on vacation, I visited Malibu's Getty Villa, where even the driveway was inspired by the streets of ancient Rome (it's like driving on cobblestones). I wandered early on into the Outer Peristyle, a beautiful garden with covered walkways and strategically placed statuary. In a niche at the end of the peristyle was a "touchable" Aphrodite/Venus. It's the only piece, as far as I know, that visitors are encouraged to touch, so that they can experience the varied textures of the stone. Rather shyly, I touched the most innocuous spots I could think of, an arm and a leg. For one thing, it felt strange to be touching anything in a museum, even a copy. For another -- well, after all, it's Aphrodite, a goddess. And not just any goddess, either. Boy, is that ever true.

Of course, the gods and goddesses are only personifications of forces, but the ancients revered them, and the forces themselves are real enough. That feeling of attraction toward a special someone? A love of flowers, chocolate, and gourmet dining? The urge toward adornment and the appreciation of beautiful things? All Aphrodite. I am probably more of an Athena in general; I am a little out of my depth with Aphrodite (except for the chocolate), and you can be sure she's quite aware of that.

After touching the statue, I almost felt I'd committed a sacrilege, or at least a social blunder, and everybody knows how testy the immortals could be over even the tiniest things. Did someone make Aphrodite mad? Well, they might be torn apart by rampaging horses, for starters. When someone dissed her (or she even thought they had), she took swift action. So what would Aphrodite think of a tourist putting fingerprints on her marble limbs? Would she think a mythologist, of all people, should know better? I was ever so slightly uneasy.

As it happens, I was visiting a city that celebrates all things Aphrodite pretty unashamedly. A lot of places are suspicious of Aphrodite, but I don't think L.A. is. What a lot of people criticize as shallow or vacuous in L.A. culture, at least as it's popularly conceived, are things I associate with Aphrodite -- the worship of physical beauty, for instance. This isn't bad in itself, but it can be if over indulged. It's all about balance. You can just as easily be running an Aphrodite deficit as an excess; the former is my usual condition -- and probably part of the reason L.A. appeals to me.

Aphrodite does has a generous side, and because of that, or maybe just because she's a little vain and likes attention, I did not turn into a flock of goats. Instead, I believe she decided to take me under her wing. I developed a propensity for taking scented baths in my jetted spa. I've never craved spas before, but -- presented with the opportunity -- I was suddenly enamored. That's the first thing I noticed. Next, I sought out a three-course meal in a restaurant that had previously intimidated me, ending with a fabulous chocolate dessert that was pure Aphrodite. It had her fingerprints all over it.

As the week went on, things got more interesting. I saw a car near the inn with a license plate that said O EROS. Even my labyrinth researches got the Aphrodite touch. I drove down to Palos Verdes one day to seek out a labyrinth-by-the-sea that I had heard about. It was a long way and not easy to find, but something made me go, and after getting very close to it once and doubling back on my tracks (that labyrinth thing again), I finally found it. It was behind a church on a little promenade overlooking the Pacific, the most Venusian labyrinth I have ever seen, a glowing pink and coral surface with the emblem of a shell at its center. Standing on the shell, with the sea breeze on my back and surfers down below, I closed my eyes and thought about Botticelli. For the first time, I had a visceral sense of that painting.

Of course, it was inevitable that the urge to shop would kick in. On Tuesday, I made a preliminary sortie into Anthropologie, but the jacket that caught my eye didn't fit. On Wednesday, I bought gifts of bath salts on Montana Avenue even as my laundry tumbled in the dryer. On Thursday, I set out to visit a boutique that promised personal attention from the staff, who would size you up and bring you clothes to try. Momentarily daunted when I found out movie stars went there, I recovered with Aphrodite's help and pressed on, letting the stylish, boa-wearing shop girl bring me armloads of items, some of them a bit out of my normal comfort range, until I left an hour later with two new outfits and a dent in my credit card. No, it was not self-indulgence, but a necessary wardrobe corrective (besides, it was good for the economy).

On Friday, I found myself in Silver Lake (in a pouring rain, no less) eyeing hand-crafted jewelry, cosmetics, lace and silk, flowers, and chocolate. I bought a few things, things I didn't strictly need according to Maslow's hierarchy of needs -- but of course, that's the whole point.

I think I fixed my Aphrodite deficit, at least temporarily. I'm pretty sure she thinks I did OK for a novice. So maybe my hesitant bumbling, which I took as an affront, she took as supplication. Maybe she has a soft spot for librarians. Or graduate students. She did such a good job on me that even on my last morning, at the airport, I was looking at the shoes of every girl that walked by, searching for the style of boots that would go with my new pants.

I think the moral of the story is . . . when in Rome, do as the Romans do; when at the Getty Villa, do as the tourists do; and when in L.A. -- live a little.