WHEN ASKED RECENTLY AT THE PHILADELPHIA Free Library why he sets his novels (like the recently published Baudolino) in the Middle Ages, the University of Bologna's Umberto Eco asked the questioner, who was seated near her husband, "Why did you marry that man, and not another?"
Fair enough. But still I wonder if the Italian semiotics professor was being cryptic, or sincerely agnostic, in not divulging why an age of whetstones, ladder carts, and condottieri should strike a chord with readers connected to life by palm pilots. I have an inkling.
Have you read Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, also of medieval vintage? The last character on stage at the end is not the Duke Orsino, or Sebastian, or Viola, or any of the other protagonists, but Olivia's clown, Feste. His is a minor part, or so we thought, until the ending turns the play on its head. Then, all the commotion and turmoil, the laughter as well as the tears, all that man does as he struts the stage for his hour, are now seen from a detached and slightly elevated vantage point-and reduced to absurdity.
This is no time to be alive. "There is too much confusion here," says Franciscan brother William of Baskerville in the final scene of Mr. Eco's 1984 The Name of the Rose, as the dormitory roof collapses around him in the denouement of the bizarre events of 1327. (It may as well be the collapse of Western Christendom.)
Monks have been killed left and right to conceal the identity of a book. The question is, what is the book? To cut to the chase, it is the last copy of Aristotle's Poetics, and it is about, of all things, ... comedy! Herein is the meaning of life then: The wise man is the fool. He is the one who laughs at the absurdity of everything around him, and who through total cosmic laughter transcends it, gains freedom, finds truth. Like Feste in Twelfth Night, he is the one alone who sees the play for the meaningless thing it is.
A 2001 PBS Frontline special shows footage of a Halloween in downtown Detroit where youths are tuning in and dropping out to the cacophonous rage rock of their hometown favorites Insane Clown Posse, spewing shock lyrics and misogyny. This is no time to be alive. There is too much confusion here. Absurdist laughter and cosmic debunking are the order of the day.
But how did we arrive here again, at this replay of the late Middle Ages? How did we lose the gospel twice-first the centuries-long slipping away after Christ, and then once more after Luther and Calvin? Can it be that church history has only one thesis after all-that, somehow, there is a tendency for men, over time, to prefer to look behind the revelation of Christ to the mysterious deity lurking in the shadows? That somehow there is a tendency for the grandsons of Reformers to become Rationalists?
But the dream of Rationalism is a nightmare in the last act. When the Book is lost (the Bible, that is, not Aristotle's Poetics), whether in Josiah's time (2 Kings 22), or during the Dark Ages, or in our own, how bitter is the fruit: no assurance, no certainty, no moorings. "Who knows, maybe Judas will be saved!" was the saying in the death throes of Medieval Europe. But of course the flip side is, "Maybe the Virgin will be damned." Who knows anything?
And after "who knows?" comes "who cares?" My teenage son, whom I sometimes imagine occupying the opposite shore of a cultural divide, has a stock answer for my best thought-out philosophical appeals: "Whatever." And it finds its mark in me like a javelin across the chasm, and I gasp inwardly at the word that is both the leveling and dismissal of all that goes on under the sun. Because nothing trumps "whatever."
But praise be to God! For against the dismissive jesters of Medievalism and your youngsters' postmodern grunts, we have a Word from God that pierces the darkness like a shaft of pure light, "in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life." Words 2,000 years old still transform hearts, and for those who will believe them and not foolishly look behind them to some wishful dream of a hidden revelation, they are still the only way out of the dark ages.