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a chapter excerpt from


David Colosi


the comic in eco





A rose may be a rose, may be a rose, may be a rose, by any other name, it may still be a rose, but the Comic may be Humor, Satire, Wit, Grotesque, Jokes, Irony, Parody, etc. and manifested in either Laughter, a Smile, Tears, Carnival, or other physical, mental, or social responses.  In Pirandello Ridens, Umberto Eco says, “The problem of the Comic had the advantage of always having caused embarrassment to those philosophers who had tried to define it.”[Rule, 163-4]  Still, several times, Eco has tried to define it. 

Or has he?  If one reads closely, Eco is not as interested in defining the ‘Comic’ as he is in defining the ‘Problem of the Comic’.  One might call this a way to avoid inevitable embarrassment, but isn’t trying to clarify the problem a step in the direction of clarifying the definition?  Regardless, the subject of the Comic, and its Problem, does not come by chance in Eco’s work.  Instead it impacts many of the other issues his works address.

Just as Peter Bondanella calls the role of Aristotle’s book in The Name of the Rose, citing Alfred Hitchcock, the “…‘McGuffin’ of the story – the necessary mechanism around which the entire plot had revolved,”[Bondanella, 103] I suggest that the ‘Problem of the Comic’ is not only the McGuffin of the four works I will examine in this essay, but it also plays a central role in Eco’s interpretive and semiotic theories of roles for readers, texts, and authors.  In The Name of the Rose we find Aristotle’s book on the Comic in the center of the labyrinth.  Although this inferential walk toward the Comic is not the only one a reader could take (possibly there are many McGuffins), I will suggest that the problem of the Comic waits in the center of the labyrinth, too.

In at least three essays,1 The Frames of Comic ‘Freedom’ (1984), The Comic and the Rule (1980/86), Pirandello Ridens (1968/90), and one novel The Name of the Rose (1980/83), Umberto Eco directly addresses the problem of the Comic.2  He demonstrates an acute understanding of the problem and gives lucid explanations for the embarrassment that philosophers have suffered.  At the same time, he is not afraid to take a stab at resolving some of the problems.  But by way of this acute understanding of the pitfalls, Eco must know that he too is bound to fail.  That he wittingly (and wittily) proceeds under such doubtful circumstances suggests that he plays the role of a comic figure (the figure would be tragic if he thought he could solve a riddle that had embarrassed so many great minds before him).

This is just the kind of problem he likes.  Eco says of Pirandello:  “Pirandello was used to posing only those problems for which there can be no answer.”[Rule, 163]  I suggest that Eco is used to posing answers to only those problems for which there can be no answer.  His answers come as scientific hypotheses and as fictional premises.  He plays in the space between dualisms:  at the interstices between the Comic and Humor, aesthetic and scientific, and Pop culture and High culture.  He does so self-consciously and reflexively.

One of the problems Eco addresses is that “Not one of those who have written on the Comic could be called a Comic writer.”[Rule, 164]  Although I will not, yet, call Eco a Comic writer, I will make a case for calling him a metacomic writer.3  I will look at The Name of the Rose as the first book in which he tries to use the techniques of the Comic and Humor – as he defines them – to write about the Comic.  In the end, I will leave it to the reader to determine whether or not Eco fails or succeeds at being a Comic writer or at writing a Comic work.  I will also leave open whether or not Eco suffers from the same embarrassment as the great minds from Aristotle to Freud before him have.  And, indubitably, I and my essay will be open to the same inquiries.

I will begin by considering the various causes for embarrassment.  After each, I will illuminate how they impact Eco’s other works and his strategies as a writer. The first cause for embarrassment Eco names in Pirandello Ridens – and which I alluded to in my opening sentence – is that the Comic is an imprecise experience.  It goes by many names and one is never sure if they are different experiences or variations of a fundamental experience.  At first we think laughter is the common physiological manifestation of them all, but even this is not the case.[Rule, 164]  In Frames of Comic ‘Freedom’ Eco mentions the same problem. 

“From antiquity to Freud or Bergson, every attempt to define comic seems to be jeopardized by the fact that this is an umbrella term (referring, in a Wittgensteinian jargon, to a network of family resemblances) that gathers together a disturbing ensemble of diverse and not completely homogeneous phenomena, such as humor, comedy, grotesque, parody, satire, wit, and so on.”[FF, 1] 

The philosopher who plants his foot firmly on one of these banana-peel categories slips, never quite succeeding in defining the Comic.



Even though the “Wittgensteinian jargon” appears in parenthesis, it bears some consideration now, as it will later.  Saying that the Comic refers to a network of family resemblances hints at a possible semiotic definition:  the linguistic signifier /comic/ signifies only a family of other linguistic signifiers, namely, // /humor/, /irony/, /wit/, etc. // which has the content value: <<the unique relationships which connect the words, /humor/, /irony/, /wit/, etc., as a family, to each other>>.4  The word /comic/ then can be seen to have no extralinguistic ‘significant other’ while the words in the family do.

G.B. Milner, in his essay Homo Ridens: Towards a Semiotic Theory of Humour and Laughter begins his movement from the following point: 

“…if humour is not restricted to verbal situations alone, and if one of the central problems of semiotics is the proper correlation of linguistic systems of signs with extralinguistic systems, a better knowledge of the structure of humour is likely to make an important contribution to our studies.”[Milner, 2] 

He is right then to begin from Humour since the Comic has no extralinguistic corollary.  But even as he discusses ‘humour’ he often slips on ‘ridiculous’, ‘ludicrous’, and moves into an analysis of ‘pun’ and ‘spoonerism’, which are more commonly linked with linguistic systems anyway.  Essentially he uses Humour as the umbrella term and overrides /comic/.

If we agree with Eco that Humor is "a subspecies or variant"[Rule, 163] of the umbrella term /comic/, and agree with Milner that Humour has a correlation to an extralinguistic system, then possibly we can agree on the definition of the Comic – if we must have one – which calls it only a linguistic signifier which signifies a particular family of other linguistic signifiers which in turn signify extralinguistic signifieds.  The word /comic/ is a mathematical symbol which never exits language.

By proposing this definition I don’t mean to suggest that it accomplishes much more than to push the exploration away from the universal and into the more diverse examination of the individual family members and their resemblances.  This definition also has the benefit of suggesting that, like the author who “must die so as not to trouble the path of the text,” [Postscript, 7] so too must the Comic.

Of course the problem with this linguistic and semiotic definition, I’m not embarrassed to admit, is in the very nature of semiosis, demonstrated by the unlimited etc..  The network may include Humor, Irony, Wit, and Carnival, but it may also include /banana peel/ by way of a particular relationship to a common gag.  But a banana peel, in most uses, has no other connection to /comic/, and it remains outside the family.  /Joke/, on the other hand, has only a connection to /comic/.  But Eco foresees this failure when he gives more reasons why philosophers have suffered embarrassment in trying to define the Comic:  1). their definitions include things that common sense tells us don’t belong – when they actually do belong in some instances – like pity and tears; and 2). their definitions either do not include all of the possible manifestations, or they include too many things, some of which common sense tells us – in this case apparently so – do not belong.[Rule, 164-5]

The error in this semiotic model points out that the problem of defining the Comic is on par with the problem of limiting semiosis or limiting interpretation.  In this respect, the Problem of the Comic does not appear by chance in Eco’s texts but is instead a subspecies or variant of other ‘problems’ he tries to tackle, especially in the works after The Name of the Rose.



Aristotle plays a major role in another cause for embarrassment in defining the Comic.  Since in order to define the Problem of the Comic we need a working definition of the Comic, Eco turns to Aristotle from whom all western philosophical definitions were born.  As Gerard Genette would call it, Aristotle and this book are the ‘hypotext’[Genette, 5] from which others (philosophers and books) come.  Unfortunately – but not unlike many hypotexts – this one is absent.  To make the best of the predicament, Eco uses the “Peircian art of ‘fair guesses’ or abductions”[FF, 1] in two ways to try to reconcile this “irreparable loss” and, in the end – one hopes – to make it useful.  One way is to propose a premise which would reconstruct the loss of the book, and the second is to reconstruct Aristotle’s theory from the traces left behind in other works.  The first form of abduction is more common to “aesthetic” writing (or fiction), while the second is more characteristic of “scientific” writing (or theory).

Eco makes two Aristotle jokes or, at least, humorous hypotheses.  The first is from the Pirandello essay:  “As a thinker, Aristotle was lucid enough to decide to lose a text in which he had not succeeded in being as lucid as he usually was”.[Rule, 164] The second is The Name of the Rose:  an ingenious blind librarian in the 14th C. turned homicidal and suicidal maniac burned it from a theological devotion to censorship. Both are instances in which Eco ‘poses answers to problems for which there can be no answer’.  In the face of an impossible riddle, Eco makes light of the futility of the search but elaborates the “jokes” such that they go deeper than their punch lines – he turns jokes into humorous hypotheses.  We can read from the “lucid” joke – which is more characteristically a joke due to its brevity, word and idea play, and exaggeration – that Aristotle himself suffered from the same embarrassment as all philosophers in defining the Comic.  The sentiment expressed is, “If Aristotle couldn’t do it, how could we?”  This suggests a cause for embarrassment. So, instead of trying to solve and produce what even Aristotle couldn’t, he takes smaller bites by trying to lucidly define the problem, make distinctions between Comic and Humor, and interpret from texts previous to his like Aristotle’s and Pirandello’s.  Even though the Aristotle hypotext does not exist, Eco tries a few times to reconstruct the lost theory from the first book of Poetics and Rhetoric.  Beginning from a theory that does not exist in order to found a new theory already contains an element of humor.

Eco’s reconstruction, which distinguishes the Tragic from the Comic, goes like this (bearing in mind that all failures in summarization are mine):  The tragic effect is realized when a noble person violates a rule; we put ourselves on a level plane with that person; we sympathize with his/her pain because it could be ours (we could make the same mistakes because we understand the rule, as a rule, and know the punishment); and we suffer his/her punishment with him/her because it is our punishment as well.  In the end, the law or rule is reinforced in its reiteration and in the punishment. By contrast, the comic effect is realized when an ignoble person who we view from a superior position violates a rule; we don’t sympathize for him/her but instead live vicariously through, and in spite of, him/her; superior and distanced, we are estranged from the character; we are doubly pleased because we break the rule through him/her and we see the character punished for the violation, but we are not punished.  In the end, too, the law or rule is reinforced.[Rule, 270-1; FF, 1-2]



Eco recognizes in Aristotle that both the Tragic and the Comic involve a transgression of a rule.  But he makes a key distinction in our awareness of the violation of the rule.[Rule, 271]  The Tragic requires a long examination of the nature of the rule and its violation.  The function of the chorus is to explain, every step of the way, what the law is:  Madame Bovary explains how adultery is to be condemned (or at least how it would have been by nineteenth century bourgeois society); Death in Venice explains why a middle-aged male professor should not fall in love with an adolescent boy; just as a hypothetical story of a cannibal who refuses to eat meat, must, in order for the case to be Tragic and not Comic, explain, every step of the way, why the dissident must face his fatal and necessary brutal punishment.[Rule, 272; FF, 4]

In the Comic, on the other hand, the rule is presupposed.  The ‘audience’ must be so familiar with the rule that it need not be spelled out.  In fact, if it is spelled out the Comic effect will be ruined.  Only by way of a presupposition can we be surprised by the reversal of what we expect.  As in Carnival where rules and rituals must be parodied, in order to parody the rules one must understand them implicitly.  For the audience to experience the comic effect they must know the laws and rules without having them spelled out so that they can live vicariously through (be revenged by) the protagonist.  This is why Eco calls comedy and carnival “paramount examples of law reinforcement.”  They are not real transgressions of the law but instead reminders of the law.  For this reason authorized Carnival was “safe” for the “powers that were” in the Middle Ages.[FF, 6]  The laws are broken vicariously but not in reality.

He notes the difference that the Tragic is considered universal and the Comic bound by time, society and cultural anthropology.  “We understand the drama of the protagonist of Rashomon, but we don’t understand when and why the Japanese laugh.”[Rule, 269; FF, 3]; “Even without knowing the accusation against him, we suffer as Socrates dies slowly…whereas without a degree in classics we don’t know why the Socrates of Aristophanes should make us laugh.”[Rule, 270; FF, 3].  His answer to the question, “Why do we feel compassion (pity and fear) for characters tied to social and religious rules that are no longer our own?”[FF, 4] is that the rule is reiterated and restated throughout the work.  Even if the rule is an unfamiliar one, because the text presents it to us – includes it in the construction of its small world – we learn both the rule and the violation through the text.  This repetition and reinforcement of the rule is what makes the Tragic universal.

The Comic is then not universal because the rules must always be presupposed and never spelled out.  The rule must be silent and the violation indirect.  This falls in line with the common understanding of irony.[FF, 5]  In Socratic irony, the listener must know that when we say something in a serious way we mean it in a humorous way, or vice versa.  If we explain our attitude before or after ‘ironically speaking’, the comic effect will be destroyed.  Kierkegaard’s constitutive irony and constitutive humor also both succeed only through indirect means.  (Kierkegaard, speaking directly and philosophically though, is therefore not writing comically).

The important point, for both Irony and Humor too, is that in the Comic the rule must be silent.  It should appear at a surprise moment and be perceived in an instant.  If it is spelled out, explained either pre- or post-execution, the comic effect is ruined.  It lives only in the instant it is performed.  A joke is a volitional suicide for artistic effect.  If it is announced prematurely, it is decapitated before it can act.  If it is explained immediately afterwards, the suicide (now a corpse) is thrown into prison for breaking the law.

A criminal, on his approach to the gallows, complained to his executioner, “I’m not getting on that thing, it looks dangerous.” 



The role of silence is another point where Eco’s theory of interpretation and the problem of the Comic converge.  But before I segue to a comparison of Eco’s interpretation theory and the Problem of the Comic it will be important to understand the distinctions he and Pirandello make between Comic and Humor.

In Pirandello Ridens Eco lists most of the causes for embarrassment I have just discussed.  Here he adds:  “Not one of those who have written on the Comic could be called a Comic writer.”[Rule, 164]  Eco concludes that Pirandello unconsciously ends up writing, if not a Comic work, a humorous work on Humor.  He comes to this conclusion by interpreting Pirandello’s essay ironically, in that, although it presents itself as a serious work written in a “scientific” style, it reads as a humorous Pirandellian drama.  The essay fails to discuss Pirandellian Humor and, in doing so, becomes an example of Pirandellian Humor.[Rule, 168]

Pirandello’s theory follows the tradition which precedes him from Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Baudelaire.  “Comic is the perception of the opposite.”[Rule, 166-7]  His theory combines the incongruity theory and the superiority theory.  But, unlike – Eco’s reconstruction of – Aristotle’s definition of the Comic, we do not live vicariously through (we are not revenged by) the character.  Pirandello reserves this aspect of the Comic for Humor.

“Humor,” on the other hand, “is the sentiment of the opposite.”[Rule, 167]  “Humor,” Eco says for Pirandello, “would be the reflection that is exercised either before or after the Comic, maintaining the possibility of the opposite, but eliminating our detachment and our superiority.”  We empathize with the character such that laughter mixes with pity and turns into a smile.  But when we are not detached from it and find ourselves within the Comic situation – as the butt – we respond with tears instead of laughter.  “…Humor should always deal with our past or our future.”[Rule, 168]  This is the point at which Eco sees a contradiction between Pirandello’s theory and his aesthetic.  He comes up with a third definition of Humor that Pirandello overlooks, which, for my purpose (and Eco’s), is the most significant.

“I find myself in a tragic situation.” (The joke is on me).  “I try to see myself as if I were somebody else.  I ‘estrange myself.’  I see myself as an actor who plays my role…. I am involved in this situation and therefore, although seeing it as comical, I consider it with humor.  On the other hand, I am not involved in it, and in a certain sense I become alien to it and superior.  On this account, I can describe it as if it were comical.”  (parenthetical phrase added)[Rule, 169]

Important to Pirandello’s distinction is that the Comic is on a parallel plane with laughter, in that it is impulsive and naive; and Humor is on a parallel plane with the smile which is reflective and critical.  The importance of Eco’s added distinction is in estranging oneself.  Eco agrees with Pirandello’s distinction but adds the possibility for humor to also occur in the present.  Now, just as Eco accused Pirandello’s essay on Humor of slipping into an essay on art in general, or a work on Pirandello’s poetics, so too will my essay slip toward one on a writer’s poetics.

In the above citation, we can see the hallucination – whether it is a premonition or a ghost – of Eco’s distinctions between the model and empirical author and reader.  This is the point at which a theory of the Comic and a theory of narrative interpretation converge in Eco.  The text, (and the author) like the Comic, (in its opposition to the Tragic) must proceed in silence.

A novel holds onto certain secrets that it will only reveal at the right moment.  Pacing and timing both influence the comic effect in a novel.  As with a joke, in a novel if the moment of revelation is forewarned or explained, the effect can be ruined.  Although this is usually the case in the joke, it is only sometimes the case in a novel.  In a pulp detective novel or romance novel if the reader reads the last few pages before beginning the book, the effect of the book may be ruined.  This is not true of other kinds of novels where the process of getting to the end is more interesting than the end itself.[Six Walks, 27] This first kind of book, according to the categories given above, would be considered Comic, and the second, humorous.  Eco projects two kinds of model readers, a first level reader who finds out ‘what’ happens and a second level reader who, possibly by rereading, finds out ‘how’ it happens.  The first reader is naive and the second critical.[Limits, 55]

A significant difference between narrative fiction and the joke can be seen in Eco's reading of Sylvie continuously over a forty-year period. The experience of reading the book again and again becomes richer.[Six Walks, 12]   Narrative fiction and the Comic novel do not rely on a punch line.  The humor of a novel is stretched over narrative and reader time.  The length, pace, and organization of a novel makes it such that one can study the labyrinth from above, but, because of its size, one can never see all of it at once.  With the joke, on the other hand, one can view it all from above because it is fleeting:  A:  “Can you tell me the time?”  B: “Yes I can.”  In the case of the second level reader, regardless of how much the novel is explained, the Humor, imbedded in the process, is enriched.

Yet we find that in both kinds of novel the author “must die so as not to trouble the path of the text.”  The author must estrange him/herself from the present and construct a character as a likeness of him/herself.  S/he must split into both character and actor or, in Eco’s terminology, into model author and empirical author.  The split author kills him/herself in the enactment of the performance.  The model author is involved in the experience considering it with Humor, and the empirical author is detached and superior to it considering it Comic.  This empirical author then can also become a reader, either the model one or not.  The reader enacts a comparable split. [I&O, 73]

In regards to narrative, by splitting oneself one can always speak vicariously through the other by indirect means.  So in a text ascribed to ‘Umberto Eco’ we are faced with the model author who has everything to do with the text and the empirical author who no longer has anything to do with the text.  Now we can understand Eco when in Postscript to the Name of the Rose, and the essays An Author and his Interpreters,[Capozzi, 59-72] and Between Author and Text,[I&O, 67-88] and in Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, he interprets his own works.  He approaches them not as the empirical author but as a reader who constructs a model author and becomes a model reader.  He also becomes a model reader by interpreting another reader’s interpretation as not following the model author’s lead. This is how he answers Richard Rorty’s interpretation at the Tanner lectures.[I&O, 141-143]  But he does this not from the voice of the empirical author (even though in the case of a symposium the voice comes from his empirical body) but as a reader evaluating an interpretation based on the text.

The professional comic must also practice self-estrangement every time s/he goes on stage.  Without doing so, the comic could not tell jokes with a straight face.  When the straight face, the deadpan, is broken and s/he laughs at his/her own jokes, the split becomes visible.  This too can produce a comic effect.  Bergson says:  “Any incident is comic that calls our attention to the physical in a person, when it is the moral side that is concerned.”[Bergson, 93]  This is the case when a comic, or an actor, breaks character.  The break calls our attention to the physical and to the split between the selves.  Bergson’s point explains why movie or TV bloopers can be so entertaining.  An author on stage, like Eco, operates within the same spotlight and could reach a comic effect by merging the two characters.  This kind of merger could backfire, too.  If the empirical authorial self merges with the interpretive self and claims that his/her interpretation, as author, is the only valid one, this introduction of the physical body would prove tragic.  Eco, as an interpreter of his own works, avoids this kind of tragic comedy.

Another way Eco “splits” is through fiction, by way of his characters.  Of The Name of the Rose he makes this statement:

“Adso was very important for me.  From the outset I wanted to tell the whole story…through the voice of someone who experiences the events, records them all with the photographic fidelity of an adolescent, but does not understand them…to make everything understood through the words of one who understood nothing.”[Postscript, 33-4].

Eco wears the mask of Adso just as a comedian plays the straight face.  The comedian must not show that he knows what he is saying is ridiculous.  If Adso knew as much as Eco or William knew, and said so directly, the effect of his narration would have been destroyed.  Although Adso may not be a comic character, in this respect, he is the character of the comic.

The Name of the Rose, as a novel, is a way for Eco to talk through the futility of defining the Comic.  This is how he avoids embarrassment.  The novel provides the forum for a veiled indirect communication (the veil gives the impression of directness and contradictorily adds another layer of indirectness).  Reflexivity allows him to avoid the pitfalls.

Eco’s reconstruction of Aristotle’s theory does one additional thing:  it creates a model text or theory in the absence of an empirical one.  Aristotle’s text too had ‘died so as not to trouble the path of the text’.  Interestingly, although Eco often talks of model and empirical readers and authors, he never explicitly mentions model and empirical texts.



Eco also estranges himself by wearing masks of the other characters in the novel.  This is the process by which I can examine Eco’s second joke and his second reconstruction of Aristotle’s theory and book:  The Name of the Rose.  The reconstruction of Aristotle’s theory this time deals less with the dualism Tragic/Comic but instead works as a hypothetical paratext for what the book would explore. 

Living vicariously through William, Eco suggests the content of Aristotle’s book:  i). laughter (and rationality) are the qualities that distinguish man from other animals; ii).  the Comic speaks of ignoble or ordinary people (making them animal-like which allows us to take a superior position); iii).  Comedy is inherently connected to Carnival; iv).  used as a genre it always ends in happiness; and, v).  the Comic is instructive, and it is so through indirect means, pointing out the defects and vices in ordinary people.  The book then would go into a discussion of the different ways by which language and action would teach these things, including:  irony, wit, reversals, surprise through deceit, violation of laws, debasing, pantomime, exaggeration and diminution of the impossible, irrelevant, inconsequent, disharmony; making the least worthy choice, puns of homonyms and synonyms, garrulity, repetition, diminutives, pronunciation errors, barbarisms, and, again, etc..[Name, 468, 472]

As William performs these reconstructions, Adso looks on commenting:  “As he translated he smiled, as if he recognized things he was expecting to find.”[Name, 468]  And William proudly tells Jorge: “I could tell you almost all of it, without reading those pages that were meant to poison me.”  And, at completion, Jorge responds to William’s question, “Is that it?” by saying, “Fairly close.  You reconstructed it by reading other books?”[Name, 471-2]

From these reconstructions – both those in the essays and these from the novel – Eco, and William too, have learned how to use Aristotle’s theory without having the book on hand.  At best, they can make only “fair guesses” and use them as a point of departure.  Yet at the same time, both mourn the absence of the original while they proceed with confidence, always holding the lingering doubt: “Is that it?”  ‘It’ carries both the connotation, “Is that the correct answer?” and “Is that all (Is there more)?”  In these fictional dialogues, readers, at a safe distance, living vicariously through the characters in The Name of the Rose, observe and ask the same questions.  We may be persuaded, but we also wonder, “Is that it?”



Eco is not alone in his quest for finding the lost Aristotle.  Teresa De Lauretis describes this tendency, in a male-driven academia, as an infatuation: 

“If writing is an act of love, it is because it works to disavow…death and to allay its threat in the imaginary narrative of male self-creation.  The stake of writing, then, is the endless reconstruction of the fetish, and the novel an ancient labor of love:  the reconstruction of something lost (stolen) in the primal night, on another scene, and forever pursued across countries, years, and books – and the agony and the ecstasy of that pursuit.”[De Lauretis, 251-2]

I do not think it is necessary to stop at the novel.  Writing, either for an aesthetic or a scientific work, is a labor of love, and the pursuit of Aristotle’s work on the Comic testifies to this.  The philosophical pursuit of the Comic is just as much a fetish.  All philosophers in pursuit of an answer to the riddle, or a universal, mourn the loss of Aristotle.  But some (integrated intellectuals) work from a “fair guess” and move on while others, like Jorge (apocalyptic intellectuals), focus on defending “truth never seized by doubt,” and continue on like “a clumsy raven, who repeats words learned long ago.”[Name, 477; AP, 18-35]

Although Jorge is delusional, and tragic, his words serve well to characterize this infatuation and loss.  When William asks, “When there are so many other books that speak about comedy, why did this one fill you with such fear?”, Jorge responds: 

“Because it was by the Philosopher.  Every book by that man has destroyed a part of the learning that Christianity had accumulated over the centuries.  The fathers had said everything that needed to be known about the power of the Word…. Every word of the Philosopher, by whom now even saints and prophets swear, has overturned the image of the world.  But he had not succeeded in overturning the image of God.  If this book were to become…had become an object of open interpretation, we would have crossed the last boundary.”[Name, 473]

In calling Aristotle “the Philosopher” we witness Jorge’s veneration, fear, and fetishization of Aristotle’s, and the book’s, power.  Jorge is Eco’s model of an apocalyptic intellectual:  “Some fetish concepts come from the virtuous apocalyptic.  And the fetish concept has a particular ability to obstruct argument, straitjacketing discussion in emotional reaction.”[AP, 20]

Jorge continues: 

“But if one day somebody, brandishing the words of the Philosopher and therefore speaking as a philosopher, were to raise the weapon of laughter to the condition of subtle weapon, if the rhetoric of conviction were replaced by the rhetoric of mockery, if the topics of the patient construction of the images of redemption were to be replaced by the topics of the impatient dismantling and upsetting of every holy and venerable image – oh, that day even you, William, and all your knowledge, would be swept away!” (italics added)[Name, 476]

Jorge not only fears Aristotle’s book, but he fears the “somebody” – a philosopher, possibly Eco5 – who brandishes Aristotle’s words and disseminates his theory of the Comic.  Regardless of who the philosopher is, Jorge knows that without being able to wield Aristotle’s words with the book as evidence his/her theory will be less powerful.  By destroying the last copy of the book Jorge knows (like his model Jorge Luis Borges, and from his knowledge of Derrida, Ricoeur, and Genette, among others) that he will force the question to all future philosophers:  “Is that it?”  No matter how lucid the reconstructions, doubt lingers.  Jorge understands the gamble and takes it (and subsequently paves the way for Postmodern Theory).

Although philosophers today may not be – or may be – as concerned with “overturning the image of God” as they were in the Middle Ages, certainly, if the book had survived (or been written), it too, like the first book on Poetics and Rhetoric, would be a seminal text.  From the foundation of Aristotle and his books (and, likewise, Homer and Shakespeare in literature) – not from the Bible, Koran, or Torah – today’s apocalyptic intellectuals in the western philosophical academic tradition (a religion of its own) proclaim that all that can be said has been said.

In an earlier passage, foreshadowing his statement above, Jorge says, “I am He who is, said the God of the Jews.  I am the way, the truth, and the life, said the Lord.  There you have it:  knowledge is nothing but the awed comment on these two truths…beyond that there is nothing further to say.”[Name, 399]  The facsimile thought in Postmodern theory represented by issues like the simulacrum, repetition, and representation, with technical emphasis on pastiche, collage, montage, and sampling, is only a distant echo from this medieval cry.

But before getting too embroiled as a second level reader (according to the book-jacket cover of the original Il Nome della Rosa – significantly different from the second level, or critical, reader referred to more often in Eco’s texts) as Peter Bondanella unfortunately does by focusing too heavily on establishing connections to the present “(which the author refuses to authorize)”[Bondanella, 95] – I will postscript my comments by citing from Postscript to the Name of the Rose.  Eco says:

“…I disguised quotations from later authors (such as Wittgenstein),6 passing them off as quotations from the period.  In those instances I knew very well that it was not my medieval men who were being modern; if anything, it was the moderns who were thinking medievally.”[Postscript, 76]

Today’s philosophers are denied the ability to wield Aristotle’s theory with the book.  For the sake of rhetoric, it is a great loss.  For the sake of interpretation theory, the loss of Aristotle’s book makes a great metaphor.  And this is how Eco uses it.  The absence of Aristotle’s book represents the permanent hole in the author/ized interpretation, it is the unanswered question which prevents the universal.  It is a more tragic loss than the death of the author because it is the death of the Book which said all that could be said.  A book without an author is the only kind of book there is, while an author without a book produces only “fair guesses” – at least of course if, like Eco, one’s foundation is the “rights or intentions of texts”.[Limits, 6]



Since The Name of the Rose is also a Postmodern fiction, it is important to show how it functions as a parody.  Earlier, in discussing The Comic and the Rule, I made the connection that silence is one point where Eco’s theory of interpretation and the problem of the Comic converge.  But there is one instance where explaining the joke does not destroy the comic effect, namely, when an ‘outsider’ does not get a joke (when an Italian does not laugh at the humor in Rashomon).  In this case the rule is not reinforced nor is it presupposed.  Without the framework for presupposition, there is no comic effect. And without the reinforcement and repetition of the rule, there is also no tragic effect.  In the absence of the context of presupposability, explaining the joke, then, in this particular case, for Eco and Pirandello, would build Humor.  By doing so one would override the Comic.  While the ‘outsider’ may not be able to achieve a laugh, the one who explains may be able to induce a smile.

One must experience the rule at least once in order to forget it and presuppose it the second time.  For a comic effect to occur in a novel or drama which bases itself in a past (historical fiction, like Eco’s) or a future time (science fiction), the text must first establish the rules of the context in order for the reader to forget the rules such that they are presupposed.  Only after accomplishing this can a comic effect be achieved.  The structure of the novel, in particular, allows for this because it can occur over a long period of narrative and reader time.

If presupposition of the rule is the only case in which the Comic could take effect, then a multitude of tragedies – or 364 days of rule enforcement – must occur before one can make a parody, an ironic statement, a comedy, or even a joke.  This is what Eco means when he says in Frames of Comic ‘Freedom’ that the Comic is only law reinforcement.  If tragedy requires that a rule must be restated or reinforced, then comedy can only come after, and out of, tragedy.  The hypotext must exist, or have existed, in order for the hypertext to exist.

The Name of the Rose is a parody of the Middle Ages and not of the Postmodern age.  It is not a biting one but an homage or tribute to the “original” – like the parody Eco practices in his Diario Minimo pieces and that described by Linda Hutcheon in A Theory of Parody.  If this is the case, then in order for the reader to understand how Eco is parodying the Middle Ages, s/he must first understand the context of the Middle Ages.  Eco, as a writer, must first describe all of the rules, customs, and norms, of the period so that his readers can begin to presuppose them and only then understand the violation of the rules to make parody possible.  This may take at least 364 pages of rule reiteration or reminding in order to produce a few pages of comic effect.

The parody accomplished in The Name of the Rose is of Aristotle’s book on the Comic.  Eco posits a humorous hypothesis in answer to how it “went” missing.  He combines two stories: 1). the theological debates at the time over poverty and laughter; and 2) Aristotle’s book that disappeared; and he comes up with an answer for one in the other.  According to our encyclopedic knowledge, it did not happen that a homicidal and suicidal blind librarian, modeled on Jorge Luis Borges, from the Middle Ages burned Aristotle’s book.  But, according to the criteria,

“If a character of mine, comparing two medieval ideas, produces a third, more modern, idea, he is doing exactly what culture did; and if nobody has ever written what he says, someone, however confusedly, should surely have begun to think it…”[Postscript, 76]

it is not unlikely, considering the debates of the time, that it happened “this” way.  The fictional and historical explanation helps us to understand the motives of someone who, had there been such a person, intentionally lost Aristotle’s book. Instead of making truth laugh, Eco laughs at truth – and lucidity – by defending a fictional premise with historical facts.  Therein lies the joke.

In the same way then that Eco reconstructs Aristotle’s lost theory in the essays and in The Name of the Rose; and that he “solves” the riddle of the loss of Aristotle’s book; and that he “corrects” Pirandello’s mistake of not being the theorist of his own process; he also solves his own riddle which said, “Not one of those who have written on the Comic could be called a Comic writer.”  By way of this pattern we understand that Eco is used to posing answers to only those problems for which there can be no answers.



“Very seldom does…entertainment display real humor…. When a real piece of humor appears, entertainment becomes avant-garde: a supreme philosophical game.  We smile because we feel sad for having discovered…the truth.  But at this moment we have become too wise to believe it.  We feel quiet and peaceful, a little angry, with a shade of bitterness in our minds.  Humor is a cold carnival.” [FF, 8] 

It is in this space between entertainment and the avant-garde (or art); between Pop Culture and High culture; between the Comic and Humor; between the laugh and the smile; and between the naïve and the critical, that The Name of the Rose operates.

I agree with Theresa Coletti’s conclusion that The Name of the Rose finally achieves “an appreciation of humor rather than an endorsement of the comic” because Humor works in the “interstices between narrative and discursive structures,” while the Comic “takes place only at the level of…narrative structures.”[Coletti, 141; FF, 8].  Maybe this is why we don’t laugh as much when we read The Name of the Rose, and why, in the absence of laughter, we can’t justify calling the work a Comic novel.  But I will modify Coletti’s conclusion a step further.

The Name of the Rose instead works at the interstices between the Comic and Humor – acting, for naïve readers as entertainment and, for critical readers as art – or at least as a philosophical game.  Eco is the intervening “author, who belongs to the discursive activity and represents a metasemiotic series of statements about the cultural background of the fabula.” [FF, 8]  When Eco makes such a conscious distinction between the difference in presentation of the Rule in the Tragic versus that in the Comic, and between the Comic and Humor, we have to see, in a metasemiotic way, that Eco is not favoring one side or the other.  Instead, he is staging a drama where the Comic and Humor are protagonists.  We might agree with Coletti then, when we see Humor (the comic figure) win out in the end defeating the Comic (the tragic figure). 

We may initially laugh at this personification, but in the end we are more prone to smile when we understand (move from naïve to critical; from first level to second level readers) the performance Eco has staged.  The performance ends happily (like every good comedy) – too happily according to many apocalyptic critics because it sets out (sells out?) to please all – with Comic and Humor taking a bow together.

Following Eco’s lead with Pirandello, and Coletti’s with Eco, I have tried to evaluate Eco’s aesthetic work and his theoretical work by his own criteria.  It turns out, unlike Pirandello, that Eco is the theoretician of this Ecoian process.  For this reason, if we still understand Humor as being a subspecies or variant of the Comic, although we may not be comfortable calling The Name of the Rose a Comic novel, we can call it, at least, a metacomic novel.

Does this solve the Problem of the Comic: “Not one of the philosophers who has written on the Comic could be called a Comic writer”?  Did Eco succeed where his predecessors failed?  Calling The Name of the Rose a meta-comic novel instead of a Comic novel is like saying that Fermat’s Last Theorem (xn + yn ≠ zn when n>2) is true at least up to the case of n=7 or up to the case of n=4 million.  Is close good enough?  To equate the solution of the Problem of the Comic with a mathematical proof has somewhat of a comical twang to it, but still the familiar question lingers, “Is that it?”  If he hasn’t done it already, Eco has certainly proven he has the knowledge, skills, and curiosity to solve the Problem of the Comic.  He ambidextrously has written histories and theories on Aesthetics, Semiotics, and Interpretation theory, and he has written five novels that incorporate those theories in their narratives.  If the philosophical text on the Comic written in a Comic style entails the merging of theory and practice, Eco is up to the task.  Wittgenstein is also attributed to having said something along the lines of, “a philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes”, but apparently he, like Fermat, didn’t have enough margin space to accomplish this.  We had to wait for Andrew Wiles – who had to wait for contemporary mathematical advances – to prove the theorem that Fermat "could have" proven if he had had the margin space.  Might we not also have to wait longer for Eco – or someone after him – to prove Wittgenstein’s Theorem and solve the Problem of the Comic?  (Or is this hope, too, cause for embarrassment)?



1This essay only considers texts translated into English.  If texts from the original Italian come into the discussion they do by way of secondary English sources.

2I will use the title abbreviations [FF], [Rule], [PR], [AP], [Name] to refer to notes from these texts.  For other texts by Eco I will use comparably identifiable abbreviations.  For texts by other authors, I will use their names followed by page numbers.

3The reader may accuse me also of taking the circuitous route to the point I’m really after, but I will leave that criticism for now.  Although it will not be the strategy of this essay, I would find it a fruitful project and admire the reader who tries to name Eco a Comic writer by way of a compilation and examination of his humor and jokes as they appear throughout his works.

4Single slashes indicate a sign vehicle or expression: /automobile/; double slashes indicate an object which corresponds to the sign vehicle or expression:  //automobile//; and guillemots indicate something intended as content (of both):  <<automobile>>.  See “Note on Graphic Conventions” in  A Theory of Semiotics for Eco’s use of these markers.

5The repetition of “This book” in this passage from 474-6 suggests that Jorge might also be referring to Eco’s book (The Name of the Rose), as a book which comes after Aristotle’s, one which reconstructs it and performs what he fears.

6Bondanella points out that William’s reference, “one must pull away the ladder in order to begin to ascend it,” is to Wittgenstein.[Bondenalla, 116-7; Name, 491-2].

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