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Monday, March 14, 2011

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana II -- chapter 1: OF THE MEMORY and SOUL

I am not a skeptical reader.  Where so many people are mistrusting by nature, I'm, well, even gullible.  This applies as much to reading as it does to locking doors and triple-checking the curling iron or stove top.  When I read Steinbeck or Carroll, or even Joyce, I feel justified in my level of trust, as their writing so closely reflects the issues, weaknesses, and prejudices of their lives--not so much when I read Eco.  There's never a sense of autobiography when you read his books, except, perhaps for Mysterious Flame (more on that in a minute).  There's rarely that sense that his Freudian psyche rests just between the lines.  His craft is opaque, and it makes sense, in a literalist's kind of way: his writing is incredibly, even--and so it would seem if he didn't provide proof against it--impossibly, dense.  The problem with such authorial opacity for a trusting, gullible kinda guy like me, is that I believe there's indeed nothing on the other side of the glass.  Well, this isn't the case.  While Eco mostly leaves himself out of the book, as far as we can see or intuit or study out via the generally available biographical information, there is a lot here.  Surprisingly (at least to me), and at perhaps the level most literarily profound and snobby, there's a deeply Joycean philosophy at work here, which I will try, despite my amateurism, to point out (as it relates essentially to the most fundamental pieces of Modernism); at a less intimidating level (you know--without all the literary labels that otherwise identify and describe), there is a underlining, beautiful metaphor--even allegory--at work in this book which may even pose as a window, no matter how small or filmy, into Eco himself.  If there is a book of Eco's with anything autobiographical, this is it.  We just have to press through all the incredibly abundant intellectual bread crumbs to get there--not that I mind.
  1. Where later we get visual mementos (flip or scroll through your copy of the book), when Yambo (this is a nickname: his real name is Giambattista Bodoni) first awakes, they come via literary quotations.  What is the thematic line running through these literary--poetic very visual, at least for words--references, and how are they so appropriate to the situation (you can get this without knowing the sources for all these quotations)?
  2. Note the juxtaposition of technology looking quantitatively into Yambo's brain (barely mentioned) and the series of recollections--literary, historical, etcetera--which accord us a qualitative purview.  
  3. I'm positing an idea that may work out to be nothing, but the context here offers possibility:  If the experience of Yambo's amnesia (the world that begins when he wakes up and ends, presumably, when he regains his memory) is a microcosm for mortal existence, what do you make of his standing up from his hospital bed?  While we're at it, what other parallels do you see between newborns and this 60-year-old (nearly) man?
  4. Interesting the notion of the mirror's reflection (and this apart from Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass): with the exception of those few individuals with perfectly symmetrical faces, the face one sees in the mirror is not the same face that another sees.  The effect is less significant with both faces simultaneously before you, like Eco's double-portrait (above), but if you take it as truth (the difference between reflection and the "real"), how does it apply here?
  5. "...from now on I think I will brush my teeth every day, it feels nice" (emphasis added).
  6. There's an irony here: "...if we had to record and store all the stimuli we encounter, our memory would be a bedlam."
  7. Also, a line shortly after that of 6 gives indication of the type of our allegory: "Where the brain stores memories, however, is still a matter of debate, and more than one area is certainly involved."  Have you already spotted it, especially while flipping/scrolling through the pages?
  8. the Collegno amnesiac
  9. Big question: Are we our memories?  In tandem with this, memories are nearly as "plastic," as says Yambo's doctor, as the mind.  How we perceive our own memories is practically never how they exactly happened.  Thoughts?
  10. What if his wife were ugly?  I can't help but wonder--and it's impossible to prove one way or the other, but this is the romantic side of me--if there's some essence of his love reaching through the fog and affecting his impression of her.  Is she really so objectively pretty, or is the subjectivity of long love acting as, well, goggles for Yambo?
  11. (By the way, Eco is a decided atheist.  This may affect some of your thoughts regarding the metaphors of the book and memory.  For instance, while reading I couldn't help thinking about what I believe, personally, about our "pre-existence," and how, as we don't remember living with God before birth, this might tie in somehow to Yambo's memory selectively excluding memories tied to emotion.)
  12. I'd love to say that the fog of Northern Italy is legendary, but I don't know the legends.  What I do know is that my own experience with fog in Northern Italy would easily qualify as the stuff of legend!  Pea soup, even, is a modest modifier--more like damp, wool curtain, only ghostly....  Sorry.  I'll stop.
  13. Metaphorically or not (just forget the diagnosis for a minute), why the lack of emotion, especially when seeing his kids and grandkids?  Does he feel remorse for not feelings nostalgic?  Is such really a source of connection to the soul?
  14. "Remembering is a labor, not a luxury," and "Some one said that it acts like a convergent lens in a camera obscura: it focuses everything, and the image that results from it is much more beautiful than the original" (see number 9).


  1. On the first paragraph, I'm never sure whether to trust Joyce or not. I think that the problem is that he's so deeply complicated that it's hard to figure out what the predominant force behind his view of the universe is.

    1. Fog and confusion, I think, although I read this part yesterday afternoon, so it's not as fresh as the last 10 pages.
    2. True. Eco seems to love it all. A lot of books seem to make you choose art or science. I don't think that Eco has done that so far (maybe it will change later). He seems to celebrate just about everything. Although there is the hint at the end when he mentions that literature can teach more than science in a few instances.
    3. Hmm... I know that this isn't where you're going, but I believe that he has muscle memory still, right? As for parallels, I think that there are many, but the difference is that a newborn baby isn't EXPECTED to know anything. For a married adult with children not to know them, nor even his name is a serious problem. Also, there's a contradiction. A newborn baby is entirely reliant on parents for everything. Bodoni clearly SHOULDN'T be. He's the smartest person in the room--yet, for basic emotional needs, he will end up being just as reliant.
    4. I think that you're right that there is a difference, and what's scary is that all Bodoni can rely on for information about himself is the reflection of his appearance in the mirror, or the reflection of how other people see him. He has no understanding of who he is outside of these secondary images.
    7. Sorry. A bit unsure what you're asking here.
    9. No. But I think that our memories can help tell us who we are. Really the more I think about this idea of loss of autobiographical memory, the more scary it sounds. I'd rather have a bunch of bad memories than none at all. At least I wouldn't stare at the prospect of a blank slate.
    10. On the latent love, I hadn't thought of this possibility. I will keep it in mind. But if she were ugly, how much would it change? He certainly doesn't love her now. He can't. He doesn't know who she is. He's RELIANT on her, but that's not the same thing.
    12. I've always loved the pea soup cliche. How many of us have actually eaten/drunk? pea soup in the first place?
    13. I don't think that he feels remorse because as of yet, he doesn't have emotions. To have remorse, there must be empathy. To have empathy, one must have an understanding of basic feelings. He can never remember feeling sad. He's certainly a little bit unsure/scared right now, but even the beasts have those emotions.

    I love this book so far. I checked out the copy from the library, but I have my own coming in a few days. It's like if Joyce were to come up with an interesting plot!

  2. First paragraph – I was sort of writing off the cuff, regarding some ideas I had while driving. I don’t think it came off very well, and certainly incomplete (I couldn’t remember the full scope of my thoughts!). I see where you’re coming from regarding Joyce and his motives, but to me he has such a simple pessimism. While his stories and their levels/layers are generally pretty freaking hard to untangle, I feel relatively secure knowing what lens I can look through, at least initially, to gain that first perspective on his work: pessimism.

    1 – Definitely. I was surprised at how briefly Eco played out this trope, as it could have stretched the entire chapter and longer (if I remember right, it comes back (I last read this book about 5 years ago)).
    2 – He seems to have a Pynchon-esque appreciation for the blend of science and literature, but I agree that he seems to lean toward the latter.
    3 – The muscle memory comes out later in the chapter, and I didn’t think of that when I wrote the question. For me (and I didn’t think of this until just now, rebounding from your thoughts) there is a potential application of Eco atheism here. How might he look at Original Sin and the general Christian consensus that we are guilty of someone else’s sin—guilty even from birth? Might he regard that as an expectation to know and understand that is impossible to fulfill? I don’t know. What do you think?
    4 – There’s a word for this that is eluding me: the sense we have of ourselves that includes how we “see” (though not by mirror) or “hear” ourselves—our impression of how we expect others see us. He doesn’t have that internal, abiding impression of self; like you say, he has to rely on mirrors and others.
    7 – This is the connection to the greater allegory. As his head is replete with impersonal artifacts, so is the exploration he’s set to take. He searches for himself among the detritus of the impersonal. Can he find himself that way? (Poorly worded question – sorry.) Connecting that to the quotation in question 6, his memory IS a bedlam. He seems to retain EVERYTHING and without any particular organization.
    9 – It’s probably too early for this, but what do you think is Eco’s answer to this question? And it scares me too, partially because the more I think about it, the more it seems that we really are our memories, because what are we without them? Clearly, Yambo is not himself. Does his wife and family sees remnants of his old personality, in which case he is indeed yet himself, he just doesn’t recognize himself? This, I believe, is one of the big questions of the entire book.
    10 – Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve thought about the concept a lot over the years, especially regarding my kids. I see them (and in effort of objectivity) as exceedingly attractive children. But would I even know it if they were physically ugly? I’d like to say yes, but I’m incapable of making that judgment. Can such subjectivity work without love? I kind of doubt it, but he HAS loved her, he’s just forgotten.
    12 – I make a mean pea soup every year from the shank after we’ve cleaned off the Christmas ham. Delicious. And THICK. It is easily the ugliest food on the planet – well, in the United States.
    13 – Good separation. His tears at the end were swaying me toward remorse, but that contradicts what Eco says of Yambo earlier.

    Glad you’re enjoying. Funny, I read the entire thing on the airplane going to a siblings wedding. I remember I loved it, but even right after reading it, I wasn’t able to really say why. It’s a fascinating subject (cliché, really, but never so well done as here), and more is the story that slowly emerges as we proceed.

  3. Yeah, I suppose you're right on Joyce.

    3. Hmm... interesting thought. I'm thinking of this in light of his wife's disappointment in his cheating. He's practically a different person now, but he can't escape that part of his past, not in her eyes anyway, even if he doesn't remember it himself. It almost is as if someone else committed the sin.
    7. No, I don't think that there's an objective way to understand oneself. Eventually he will "discover" himself, but he will be a different person. His self-understanding will be from this moment forward (sort of like the brushing of the teeth). Unless of course he eventually does recall his previous life, in which case all bets are off.
    9. I think that he might answer that we are our memories, but I would disagree slightly.
    10. Could you know, but not admit it? That may be the worst feeling.
    12. That sounds awesome. I finally know someone who's made it.

    I think that part of my love for it is my admiration for Eco. He's really good at most things that interest me. There's something about being well-rounded/cultured that appeals to me; maybe because society today is so hyper-specialized. Sorry that I'm sounding like Sam Hamilton again....

  4. 3 -- yes.
    7 -- I agree.
    9 -- I agree. I want, out of optimism and faith believe that we are not our memories, but clearly (at least within the context of this novel) Eco feels otherwise.
    10 -- That would be terrible. I expect such knowledge would be generally suppressed, at least by anyone who would otherwise care. But I don't care if they're pretty or not (so I believe -- again, hard to self-judge). Does that mean my kids really are good-looking?

    There are far worse things than sounding like Sam Hamilton. Eco's well-roundedness approaches the scary, though. I'd bet he would do very well on Jeopardy!

  5. Haha, yeah, he probably would.

    Btw, quick question on pronunciation.

    Is it:

    B)Eeco, or

    I would think it would be the last one, but that's not generally how I hear it pronounced.

  6. The long and soft e (long = "Ay"; soft = "Eh") is fairly flexible depending accent/region in Italy. Most typically, it the "correct" pronunciation falls roughly in between the two. If you are trying to sound authentic, it would be better to pronounce his name with soft rather than the long, as those who overdue the long just sound like English speakers trying too hard.

  7. Ok, thanks. I think that the same thing happens in Spanish sometimes. The textbook way is to elongate it, but people shorten it all the time.

  8. I was surprised (ignorantly so) when I realized that Italians are just like Americans and drop letters and disregard grammar like crazy.

  9. Yeah, everyone always thinks that the abuse of their language is the worst. I suppose that's a good thing for purposes of stability, but it's clearly not reality. Even within English, for all the criticism that Americans take, how about the British? They don't pronounce about 25% of the syllables in the words? What the heck?

  10. Of all criticisms though, is the back-handed compliment Americans are always giving each other, especially those who don't know jack about their own language: "Oh, I feel so sorry for anyone who has to learn English! It's just the hardest language there is!" Almost as bad are the comments about any "hardest" language. People don't realize that the difficulty of a language depends on the mother language of the learner....

    Okay. Stepping off the soapbox....

  11. It's funny because we say that, but then look at how little tolerance people have for Hispanic immigrants, either when they speak Spanish (SPEAK ENGLISH DANGIT!) or when they speak with heavy accents/grammatical errors. So yes, the reason that we say that really is for our own gratification, not tolerance. I just wish all these people that expect people to learn English right away or take it as a sign of intelligence would try learning another language well enough to live in a country that speaks it. A lot harder than it looks!

  12. And a lot more fun! Not to mention the fact that such an experience became a major shaper of my life.

  13. It is a ton of fun, and the funny thing is that in middle school, I HATED Spanish. Then, I took it in high school basically as a resume builder, until I got to interpret for a Honduran couple that came to our church. And ever since then I've become obsessed with languages. There are so many that I want to take that I'll probably never get a chance to (in no particular order): Italian, Latin, French, Irish, Portuguese. And, if I get approved by the candidacy committee, I will take Biblical Greek and Hebrew next year.

  14. I took conversational Hebrew for two semesters, and they were, unquestionably, the hardest two classes I ever took in college. And so much fun. I would love to learn Latin, but if I were to go for a next language (that is if I had time for it), it would be Greek. If I were a practical person (and this side will likely win out, and dependent in large part on area and location of my future law practice) it would be, and likely will be, Spanish.


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