The English translation of Umberto Eco’s novel, The Name of the Rose, was originally published 30 years ago. It’s the only novel of Eco that sold millions of copies. I started re-reading it during this brief winter break in order to re-live the thrills I had gone through reading it about a quarter of a century back.
While I’m about half way through the brilliant novel set in a Benedictine monastery in medieval Italy, I would like to share a thought from it on why certain new teachings, especially religious ones, gain popularity among the masses.
In the medieval Europe, any new religious teaching [what other teaching was there in those days?] would be viewed as heresy, a challenge to the authority of the Pope. Eco’s protagonist argues that the majority of those who flock after the new teachers are the “simple” people (who lack “subtlety of doctrine”) who are also marginalised by the dominant classes.
The marginalised people are powerless in any society. What they really want is power, power to earn their livelihood, power to live with dignity, and power to control their own lives. When a new teacher, a reformer, “passes through their village or stops in their square” they cling to the man hoping that his teaching is going to subvert the existing power structure which is inimical to their interests. The people [aam aadmi] hope that the new teacher, the reformer, will help them move from the margins toward the centre of the power structure.
As more and more people join the new teacher, his teaching acquires greater force and thus becomes a threat to the existing power structure. Hence the new teacher is labelled a heretic and burnt at the stake.
“Actually, first comes the condition of being simple, then the heresy,” says Eco’s protagonist. The simple people create the heretic. In other words, if the simple people were not so simple, they would not follow a teacher so easily. “The simple cannot choose their personal heresy,” in Eco’s words. They lack the intellectual sophistication required for that. Hence they follow the reformer.
This is how Maoism, for instance, becomes a lucrative ideology today for the marginalised people. Maoism promises them some power with which they can move from the margins of the outcast existence nearer to the centre of the power structure.
This is how anti-corruption movements gain momentum on the spur of a moment.
This is also the reason why new and newer religious teachers find more and more followers.
Some such teachers may indeed help people move from the margins nearer to the centre. Eco’s protagonist cites the example Saint Francis who wanted to bring dignity to the impoverished people by giving them the dignity of the “children of God.” We may recall how Mahatma Gandhi did something quite similar with the people whom he called “Harijan.”
Eco goes on to show that Francis did not succeed in his attempt, however, because “he had to act within the church, to act within the church he had to obtain the recognition of his rule, from which an order would emerge, and this order, as it emerged, would recompose the image of a circle, at whose margin the outcasts remain.” In other words, the church would ensure that Francis’s people would continue to be outcasts or marginalised!
Otherwise, Francis would have to act outside the influence of the church’s hierarchy. He would have to create a new power structure, as the Maoists are trying to do today in certain parts of India.
The Reformer must have a profound vision. Otherwise he/she would be counter-productive. Eco argues (as part of his fiction, of course) that the marginalised people “tend to drag everything down in their ruin. And they become all the more evil, the more you cast them out.”
A reformer without a profound vision will only end up making the marginalised people even more marginalised. By making them worse enemies of the various forces in the hierarchy. Their greater depravity will create worse evils in society.
One of Eco’s characters (his narrator, in fact) gives the example of lepers. Lepers were the most wretched outcasts in those days. When the young and beautiful Isolda was condemned by the King to be burnt at the stake, the lepers made a plea. The stake was a mild punishment, they argued, for someone who “at your (the King’s) side enjoyed rich stuffs lined with squirrel fur and jewels.” “... when she sees the courtyard of the lepers, when she has to enter our hovels and lie with us, then she will truly recognize her sin and regret this fine pyre of brambles.”
What the lepers really wanted was not to give Isolda a just retribution or to teach her penitence for her sins; what they really wanted was to bring her exotic and unattainable beauty beneath their power.
Every act of rebellion is a banner for power raised by an outcast – actual or self-perceived. I hope Eco wouldn’t frown at that conclusion of mine.
The power need not be political, however. It may be simply the power to live one’s life with a feeling of security and dignity. The kind of protests that Delhi’s public grounds witnessed in the recent past were banners raised for such power. If there was one real leader in India, the maidans of Delhi would have throbbed with alleluias chanted for him/her. What a pity – our alleluias are destined to remain unsung! We are a nation of mere sloganeers.