Utopian Dreams of the Eden that Never Was

9. Umberto Eco: The Island of the Day Before (1995). (01/02/2001)

Finding a recent articulation of central issues involved in the myth of Eden, one only five years old at this point in time, has not been a simple task. Contemporary thinkers, if not always philosophers, have fallen into the habit of ignoring those aspects of Eurocentric ideology that are tainted by racism and strangled by the roots of mythology that make them appear old-fashioned and illegitimate. Letting by-gones be by-gones is not necessarily a bad idea in itself as long as the damage caused by the old myths, now abandoned, have been truly rooted out of the soil of the new ideas and ideologies that have replaced them, as long as that damage too has been healed. "We don't think that way any more; we are more sophisticated now with our technological innovations and have come to realize that myths like the one derived from Edenic thinking are both dangerous and absurd." Statements like that, though here wholly invented, are certainly reassuring but the fact remains that ridding oneself of religious ideology can occur, and can appear to have occurred, on many different levels of conscious and unconscious thought, when in fact little or no change has taken hold at all.

Umberto Eco, an Italian professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, and therefore a person dedicated to the study of signs, linguistics, and even uses of the Logos in human societies, has written several novels that deal with issues circulating around the emergence of scientific methodology at the beginning of the seventeenth century. In one, The Island of the Day Before, Eco examines the subject of the search for determining longitude in 1643, a pursuit that occupied individuals at the time for several centuries because solving that problem would have made it much easier for emerging European empires to better exploit newly uncovered areas of the world, ones inhabited, of course, by already settled tribal communities, of the fabulous riches thought to be concealed everywhere in Terra Incognita. Eco has a Cardinal of the church, Mazarin, explain to his hero, Roberto de la Griva, why the quest for longitude is so important: "I refer to the ocean called the Pacific, as the Portuguese have named it, in which surely lies the Austral Terra Incognita, of which only a few islands are known, a few hazy coasts, but still enough for us to assume that it conceals fabulous riches" (187). The problem with not knowing how to determine longitude is that, once the fabulous riches are discovered by an explorer, there is no way he, or anyone else, can return to the island that conceals them, after he has returned to Europe to report his discovery of their existence. This is true simply because the absence of exact longitude makes it impossible for anyone else to reach the location of the newly uncovered island.

Eco's novel is historical fiction, of course, so one cannot argue that he necessarily adheres to the dominant ideology of his characters. In fact, making that claim would be wholly unwarranted. What he has done instead is portray the driving force behind empire-building as it existed at the beginning of the seventeenth century in the words and deeds of those characters who are clearly meant to represent the dominant Eurocentric ideology of the day. Hence, when Cardinal Mazarin articulates his view of Terra Incognita, he is expressing the view of the seventeenth century Church toward voyages of discovery to the newly discovered continent of the Western hemisphere and voicing as well precisely why the Church perceives those journeys as having significance to Christians at the time. The view Eco attributes to Mazarin does not differ substantially from the ones articulated by the early Church fathers (Tertullian, for instance) when they expressed opinions about colonization and conquest of lands occupied by people who were non-Christian. It is the "fabulous riches" concealed by Terra Incognita that draws the attention and whole-heated support of the Church to the potential success or failure of voyages of discovery.

Several other observations are warranted here. For instance, when Cabeza de Vaca in 1542 refers to the "unknown interior" of America in the title of his "adventures" among the natives along the Gulf coast, he uses the term Terra Incognita to express precisely what he means. Also worth noting as well is the fact that Cardinal Mazarin, following the lead of Francis Bacon (1626) in The New Atlantis, specifies the fact that what everyone is seeking lies somewhere in the Pacific ocean beyond the land mass of the Western hemisphere, where Bacon articulates that reality in the first four words of his novel, "WE SAILED FROM PERU," to specify precisely where the displaced community of Christians in New Atlantis was expected to be found. Eco is simply following those traditional patterns of thought as he creates his twentieth century version of Europe's history of conquest and empire-building in Terra Incognita.

Cardinal Mazarin coerces Roberto with threats of everlasting imprisonment for crimes he did not commit to join an expedition sailing from Holland which supposedly was searching for the solution to the problem of longitude. This quest is being led by an Englishman, Dr. Byrd, aboard the Dutch ship Amaryllis. Roberto is supposed to spy on the Englishman's methodology and steal any secret he may uncover. The ship, however, is eventually overwhelmed in a storm and Roberto turns out to be the only survivor of the ensuing shipwreck. After floating around on ocean currents for a while, tied to a plank, he comes to rest against the hull of a second ship, the Daphne, which has been mysteriously abandoned by its crew. The ship is anchored between two masses of land, islands apparently, which Roberto cannot reach because the currents flow away from the islands, he cannot swim, and does not have a boat or a plank to carry him out from the Daphne anyway. After spending some time on the ship, which is well-provisioned, he discovers a "stowaway" on board, a member of the original crew, who has been hiding from him below decks. Father Casper Wanderdrossel, a Jesuit priest, explains his reluctance to make his presence on the ship known to Roberto because of what happened to the other members of the ship's crew. All except Father Casper, who was ill with fever, had debarked to the island where they were attacked and overwhelmed by a tribe of natives: "The black men attacked the sailors, who, unable to defend themselves, were massacred" (250). The narrator continues Father Casper's account of subsequent events:

"A horrible banquet ensued, and continued three days. Father Casper, in his illness, followed all of it through his spyglass, impotent. The crew became so much butcher's meat: Casper saw the men first stripped (with shrieks of joy, the savages divided clothes and objects), then dismembered, then cooked, and finally chewed with great calm, between gulps of a steaming beverage and some songs that to anyone would have seemed innocent, if they had not accompanied that ghastly kermess" (250).

Father Casper, when he heard Roberto board the ship, feared he was one of the cannibals who had eaten his companions and so kept himself concealed until Roberto found him. This account, of course, is the kind I have referred to elsewhere as undocumented, since no other evidence exists to support the notion that any native islanders of the Pacific were cannibalistic. Fiction, even when historically based, can deviate from fact for the sake of effect and that tradition in Eco's novel simply re-invents what every European has always believed about the natives who dwell, even now, in Terra Incognita. That characterizations of native people as cannibalistic are totally false makes no difference to what Europeans believe about them.

Another interesting aspect of Father Casper's ideology, one that Eco effectively rebuts through ridicule, is the idea that mankind was able before the Fall to speak the language of God, the same language presumably that God used when He created the world. The narrator explains what Father Casper said to Roberto about how Noah and his sons rediscovered the language God taught Adam before the Fall:

"But it was on that occasion [during the flood], Father Casper assured Roberto, that Noah and his family rediscovered the language Adam had spoken in Eden, which his sons had forgotten after the Fall, and which the descendants of Noah would almost all lose on the day of the great confusion of Babel, except the heirs of Gomer, who carried it into the forests of the north, where the German people faithfully preserved it" (269).

Eco's intent in bringing this subject forward in his novel very likely points to a discussion of the "language of Adam" that appeared in a book written by Jacques Derrida (Of Gramatology) in 1976. In that work, Derrida rehearses an argument of Rousseau's that speaks to the same issue that Father Casper is pursuing here; namely, that the origin of human language can be traced to a first, or initial, point in the past where it existed in a pure and innocent state of absolute perfection derived directly from the Logos that God employed when He created the universe. Since God only spoke the words "let there be light" and light became an actual fact, the act of creation itself was accomplished through nothing more than a use of language, albeit a language that was perfectly conceived because it was uttered by a perfect God. That Adam also knew this same language before the Fall, clearly suggests that he too was able to create whatever he needed by simply saying the perfect word. One of the things mankind lost because of the Fall was the ability to create anything he needed or desired by using the Logos taught to him by God. Eco, of course, is making fun of Rousseau and Derrida by suggesting that only the Germans were able to preserve the Logos after the "confusion of Babel."