The name of the rose and the infinite echoes of meaning

Friday March 4 2016

A florist arranges Rose flower stems at City Market on February 11, 2016 ahead of Valentines Day. A flower company in Naivasha is contesting a demand for payment of Sh1.3 billion tax by the revenue authority, saying the formula used threatens the industry. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

A florist arranges Rose flower stems at City Market on February 11, 2016 ahead of Valentines Day. A flower company in Naivasha is contesting a demand for payment of Sh1.3 billion tax by the revenue authority, saying the formula used threatens the industry. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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What do words mean? How do they mean? Do they actually mean anything at all? These are questions that puzzle anyone who uses language.

That is just about everyone, is it not? Most of the time, we do not agonise over such questions. But they become crucial when we discover that we have drastically misunderstood something said to us. We are even more disturbed when we are misunderstood by people who matter to us.

What, for example, do we say, or should say, to our lovers? Someone has suggested that, in Italy, lovers expect to be told, “Ti amo” (I love you) at least 37 times a day. How they calculated that, I do not know.

Speaking of Italy, what set me thinking seriously, again, of words and their meaning is news of the recent death of the great Italian semiotician, a scholar of meaning, Umberto Eco.

This little and rather comical-looking man, was one of the 20th Century’s towering figures in the humanities, and all his work is centred on exploring the processes of making sense out of language and all the phenomena around us.

Eco was also a novelist, and, indeed, he is much better-known for his first novel, Il Nome della Rosa (The Name of the Rose), than for all his voluminous scholarly work.  The Name of the Rose was made into a Hollywood film, and it should be accessible on

YouTube and other internet channels.

Inevitably, for us English speakers, mention of roses and meanings brings to mind Juliet’s agonised “reasoning” in Romeo and Juliet: “What is in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.” But maybe a rose called “odour”

could smell like sweat!

Anyway, Eco’s novel is not about roses. Rather, it deals with a medieval church establishment badly weakened by the ignorance and arrogance of its ministers and shaken by the growing challenge of dissidents to its smug assumptions of infallible authority.

Set in a monastery under investigation over the murders of several of its monks, it is a “dark” detective narrative.

Just as the medieval institutions were forced to question and re-examine their beliefs and assumptions, so was the whole of Western civilisation in the 20th Century forced to question and re-examine itself. This followed the cataclysmic experiences of its

early decades, especially the mind-boggling carnages and destructions of the two world wars.

If tens of thousands of people could be wiped off the face of the earth within seconds, as happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, what then was the meaning of life, God, culture, humanity?

Some scholars and creative artists responded by suggesting that all life and reality was meaningless, absurd. This was the “philosophy” of the Absurd, to which prominent European thinkers, like Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul

Sartre contributed to varying degrees.

You may, for example, remember plays like Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Ionesco’s Rhinoceros or Sartre’s Caligula. In Godot, two characters start and end up waiting for a character who never appears, while in Rhinoceros a whole community of humans

turns into rhinos by growing hornlike protrusions on their foreheads!

The novels of Albert Camus, like The Plague and The Outsider, are good illustrations of the absurd mode in prose fiction. Algerian-born Camus said somewhere that the absurd was “the hollow silence with which the yearnings and questionings of the soul are met”.

This view of life and reality, and, therefore, language, as absurd and meaningless, was quite popular in the 1950s and 1960s, and it affected many African thinkers and writers of my generation, among them our own Francis Imbuga, John Ruganda and the

mercurial Swahili man-of-letters, Said Ahmed Mohamed. Imbuga’s little-known but deeply intriguing play Game of Silence and Ruganda’s Echoes of Silence (note the recurrence of “silence”), as well as Robert Serumaga’s A Play and Majangwa, show clear

influences of “the absurd”.


I believe that it was in their struggle to interpret Mohamed’s Swahili play Amezidi that critics came up with the fascinating proto-Bantu term ubwege to characterise the concept of the absurd. We should note, though, that the Africans closely relate their

portrayal of the absurd to their historical and political contexts.

Thus, knowledgeable readers will realise that Imbuga’s Game of Silence hints at the spy-infested environment in which academics and other thinkers had to work at some time in our post-independence history. Ruganda’s Echoes touches so closely on the

failed 1982 coup that he was actually hounded out of the country before he could stage it.

Anyway, insistence on meaninglessness and the absurd was not left to dominate the whole of 20th Century thought. By the 1950s, more positive approaches to life and reality were emerging, mainly through what is called communication theory. The

approach here is based on the common sense assumption that we do make sense.

We send out messages and they are received, and we receive messages and make some sense out of them. Making sense of messages, or trying to make sense out of them, is what we call interpretation. There are lots of 20th and 21st approaches to

interpretation, but those which have dominated the scene over the last sixty-or-so years are structuralism, deconstruction, pragmatics and semiotics.

We cannot elaborate on all of these here, but basically, the structure approach suggests that things and words make meaning through their relationships to one another.

Deconstruction on the other hand says that things only strike us by the ways in which they differ from one another. Pragmatics is grounded in intention. The approach looks at meaning as what is “intended” by, say, the words of a speaker.

Semiotics, the approach to which the lately departed Eco subscribed, claims that all language and reality is a collection of codes. It comprises icons that we can perceive, realities that we know and suggestions and implications that our imaginations can work

out. There is a mouthful for you.

Can you crack the code?