Living through literature: the value of Romances

A rambling review of Umberto Eco’s rambling novel, The Island of the Day Before.

Over lockdown last year I read Umberto Eco’s second novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, which sees three sceptics stumble their way into the heart of a centuries old conspiracy theory associated with the esotericism of the Jewish Kabbalah and the Knights Templar. The whole premise of the story ties into Eco’s interest in ‘hyperreality’, the ‘Faith in Fakes’ that so often defines human behaviour, and lends itself to the title of one of his early essay collections. Not concerned with (or, at least, less concerned with) conspiracy theories, The Island of the Day Before turns to literature, to fiction, as one of the central ‘fakes’ humans are drawn to believe in.

Island of Ischia, Ivan Aivazovsky (1892).

Roberto della Griva, marooned on an abandoned ship, the Daphne, just off the coast of an island situated on the date meridian, begins writing his own Romance in order to bring together his fate with that of his (imaginary?) evil twin and his beloved. Roberto’s Romance culminates with Ferrante, the evil twin, wasting away for eternity on Isla de Muerta, and Lilia, his beloved, stranded on the other side of his own island; if only he could swim the distance between the ship and the land, he reasons, he could yet save her and salvage their love. Thus, abandoning all sense, “Roberto decided to perform that feat, entering the story himself.” His papers, and so the book itself, end as he plunges off the side of the boat, heading, with the most illogical of beliefs, the greatest faith-in-fakes, for the island, and for Lilia. Eco, here, gives us the choice to use our imagination and complete the Romance, to have Roberto’s faith-in-fakes rewarded, or for the painful reality of his situation to be realised: that he cannot reach the island, and that, even if he could, Lilia would not be waiting for him.

What, then, is the purpose of Roberto’s Romance? Is it simply what we make of it? Is it like Bottom’s Dream, merely something we can indulge in if we so choose, not real in any important sense of the word? Is it just a fantasy conjured up either for entertainment or for the teaching of morals (depending on which camp you’re in)? Is it true, as Puck suggests, that we have but slumbered here, while these visions did appear…? Created or not, the Dream and the Romance both exist, they are, and so can they be that far removed from our own existence, our ‘being’? But are these stories ‘real’ or ‘true’? Or are they ‘fakes’, fantasies, to be entertained and then dismissed? Do we tell stories just for fun? Or are they simply a means of transferring information or teaching morals or engaging empathy?

The Romance perhaps tells of things that did not really happen, but they could very well have happened. To explain my misadventures in the form of a Novel means assuring myself that in all the muddle there exists at least one way of untangling the knot, and therefore I am not the victim of a nightmare.

This is the way Roberto justifies his faith-in-fakes, his belief in the power of fiction, novels, Romance, to allow him to make sense of the world (or not even that, merely to remain sane, to remain being). For Roberto, fictionalising his ‘misadventures’ provides a way of envisioning a resolution, a way out, becoming an agent of Hope. Whenever we think about the future, fantasise about what is yet to come, we are engaging in the art of storytelling. Through the stories we tell ourselves, we can drown in anxiety or rise with hope, with optimism, and eventually, this is what Roberto chooses to do.

Eco was a renowned semiologist, fascinated by words and the process of signification (ie. the relationship between the signifier – the word – and the signified – what it ‘tells’ us). In the above excerpt, he makes a number of deliberate linguistic choices that I would like to pick out: the description of Roberto’s life (and by this I mean his past) as a ‘muddle’, the metaphor providing him with a way out, that of ‘untangling the knot’, and the link between this muddle, this entanglement, and the experience of being ‘the victim of a nightmare’.

By characterising his history and his situation as a ‘muddle’, Roberto refutes the idea that the past is concrete and linear, instead positing that events, thoughts, actions overlap and interweave, and that a clear path cannot be drawn from one moment to the next. But, in the next image, this abstractly confusing ‘muddle’ is translated into a concrete problem, a ‘knot’, which can be untangled through reflection, scrutiny, and an imaginative construction of the future; in short, he translates the events of his past, present, and future into a Romance in order to connect moments together and form some conception of progress, hope, and forward movement. This optimism, this idea of hope, is contrasted to a ‘nightmare’ in which one is a ‘victim’ to despair, to an infinite struggle with no clear resolution in sight.

From this, it follows that fiction is tied to a feeling of hope, that difficult situations can be navigated and creative problem solving, flights of fancy, are the prime way of transcending the problems of the present. But what about fiction that doesn’t provide a path for hope? Here, I am thinking of Kafka and his despairing protagonists, forever trapped in unsolvable situations: Gregor waking up inexplicably transformed into a bug, by the end of the story merely content to die and unburden his family; Josef K in The Trial, who is arrested seemingly for no reason and at the end of a tortuous bureaucratic process is executed, without any answers being given.

Kafka’s fiction is truly the stuff of dystopian nightmares, devoid of hope, nihilistic, depicting a vacuous world in which we must consign ourselves to powerlessness. So how does this fit in with Roberto’s optimism, his understanding of fiction as a means of propelling oneself into a more ideal future? Clearly, it doesn’t. But then we must ask, if we cannot envisage hope, if our imaginations cannot create a path for us to escape the struggles and despair of everyday life, what do we have left? For what reason do we carry on being if the chance to become is taken away from us?

In The Island of the Day Before, Eco represents this state of ‘mere being’ in two ways: first, in Roberto’s philosophical musings regarding the consciousness of a stone; second, through the fate of Ferrante as recounted in Roberto’s Romance. Lying on deck, motionless, naked, quiet, letting the sun hit his body, Roberto embraces his kinship with the stones, contemplating the extent to which both he and the stones are truly free. After contemplating this for a moment, he suddenly stops short, asking, “Why am I thinking and playing at being a stone, when afterwards [ie. after death] I will know nothing further of myself?” He loses interest in the exercise, and the passions that really matter to him (his love for Lilia) once more rise to the surface: “Since stones do not love, he sat up, again a loving man.” And with that, he resumes his story.

Perhaps conceiving Romances means living through our own characters, making them live in our world, and delivering ourselves and our creatures to the minds of those to come, even when we will no longer be able to say “I” . . .

We have established the value of fiction as an abstract thinking exercise, a way of generating hope and foresight and action, but here the wider implications of storytelling are made clear. Even for one who can only feel despair, ‘conceiving Romances’ at least affords an individual the chance of understanding himself (if not the world around him), of animating the various aspects of his character, and therefore making himself intelligible to the world and to posterity. Moments, feelings and events can ripple through time, stories that are centuries old continue to fascinate us to this day, and through this magical process, individuals can make themselves known, make themselves felt, for millennia; even for the despairing man, what can be more beautiful and full of joy than that?

But what does this have to do with the notion of becoming? I will get to that, but first let me tell you about Ferrante’s fate. Sailing through the Pacific Ocean, he comes across several islands in which the inhabitants each possess a different conception of ‘the self’: on the Island of the Invisible Men, the natives hide themselves away, for to be looked upon is to become the victim of another’s gaze, meaning that one loses one’s own nature; on another island, an old man warns against drinking from the Fountain of Youth, for in prolonging his own life, he has forgotten who he is. In these and other examples, it is the permanent state of being inherent in each of the inhabitants’ philosophies that stands out as the most horrifying aspect: silent and in the shadows, alone in immortality, these peoples possess no distinguishable sense of identity or individuality because they rely on permanent conceptions of selfhood which deny the individual the chance to change.

It follows, then, that when Roberto has Ferrante murdered and washed up on Isla de Muerta, or the Island of the Dead, the hellishness of the place is created by this sense of eternal ‘unchanging-ness’, this callous steadfastness: “here the air does not stir, the sea remains motionless, we feel neither heat nor cold, we know neither dawn nor sunset.” The inhabitants of the island yearn to once more “participate in the cycle of life” but instead, they are faced only with a gradual decay that “will never be total”, will never blossom into something new and vital, will never become anything else, anything better.

To become, to be in continual motion, to change and develop and take on new forms – this is what living means, and our imaginations, the Romances we create, beauty, love, passion, these are the things that encourage us to envision this change, to embrace it and strive for it; they give us direction. And yet, even the story of a dead man does not remain constant over time. Stories are constantly being repurposed, applied to new contexts, language constantly undergoes mutations, books are translated, quotations and ideas are adapted and re-formulated, interpreted and misinterpreted. The fictions in our minds, too, the imaginative flights into the possible (and impossible) we entertain from day to day continue to evolve, as our motivations and actions and directions veer off at unpredictable angles.

Monsieur de Saint-Savin, who appears predominantly in the first half of the novel, laments his inability to commit to a single Romance. He tells Roberto that “the purpose of a story is to teach and please at once, and what it teaches is how to recognize the snares of the world.” Here, Saint-Savin fails to recognise the true possibilities of fiction: the idea that they warn against “the snares of the world” is reactive, when fiction should be, above all, creative. It shows us how things were, how things are, and where we might go, and the interchangeability of these things opens up ever-expanding ways of navigating the world, of navigating life, living, becoming, transforming that which holds us back like a great wall, into an infinitude of doors through which we can enter.

All the stories I would like to write persecute me.

Saint-Savin feels persecuted by stories because his stories are restrictive, immobilising, rather than embracing the perpetual change and perpetual opportunities that define our lives. In order to become something better, to transcend the limitations of an imperfect life, we need Romances, stories, imagination to pave the way, for these things allow us to envisage, and therefore create, a better future for all of us, not only on an individual scale but on a social scale, too. In the final words of Roberto’s manuscript, he tells how he “planted his feet against the wood, thrusting himself forward to move away from the Daphne… towards one of the two happinesses that were surely awaiting him.” What Roberto’s Romance teaches us is that change is possible, change is happening.

Let us jump, too.

2 thoughts on “Living through literature: the value of Romances”

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