«The Errant Auto-biographer Reflections of the Author in Eco’s The Island of the Day Before Andrew Martino Southern New Hampshire University This is ...»
The Errant Auto-biographer
Reflections of the Author in Eco’s The Island of the Day Before
Southern New Hampshire University
This is an author’s version of the article which appeared in Revista Atenea, ISSN 0885-6079, Vol 23
The Errant Auto-biographer
Reflections of the Author in Eco’s The Island of the Day Before
A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of
provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.
Jorge Luis Borges The Maker To err is probably this: to go outside the space of encounter.
Maurice Blanchot The Infinite Conversation Umberto Eco’s third novel, The Island of the Day Before (originally published in Italy in 1994), examines the notion of narrating or romanticizing a life. In this highly complex and layered novel, Eco explores the role among author-text-reader. Needless to say, the relationship between writer and world takes on the form of a projection. This projection constitutes a degree of fiction imposed upon the “real” world of the novel; the Daphne, a ship Roberto finds himself stranded upon. This essay will explore the projection of a fictional world where the romance allows the possible to intrude upon the daily life of the main character, Roberto della Griva. I also wish to suggest that the projection of a world is not just carried out by Roberto in the novel, but by the chronicler, and Eco as well. That is, Eco writes himself into the narrative just as Roberto places himself in the role of hero. In each case we have the multiple mirroring of author and hero.
The plot of The Island of the Day Before takes as its point of departure the notion of the castaway. However, true to Eco’s style and thinking, this castaway finds himself in the most extraordinary predicament: he is stranded upon a deserted ship which lies at anchor in a bay that is within sight of an island. I would ask that you attempt to visualize this particular scene: We have a castaway stranded upon a 16th century vessel that lies marooned within sight of a beautiful island somewhere in the south pacific. The two images I would like you to focus on are that of the ship, the Daphne, and the island.
Roberto’s predicament is further complicated by the fact that he is unable to swim.
Therefore, he finds himself stranded uponthe ship with little hope of reaching an island that is within sight. While this basic plot is interesting in itself, Eco goes one step further and places the island on the other side of the international date line, which, quite literally, places the island in the day before. Therefore, Roberto is both spatially and temporally stranded in a symbolic purgatory. Eco begins The Island of the Day Before with an excerpt of a letter written by Roberto to his “lady”: “I take pride withal in my humiliation, and as I am to this privilege condemned, almost I find joy in an abhorrent salvation, I am, I believe, alone of all our race, the only man in human memory to have been shipwrecked and cast upon a deserted ship” (p.1). It seems to me that if we are to approach Eco’s novel with a critical eye, we must first acknowledge Roberto’s purgatorial existence upon the Daphne. The very essence of purgatory implies a slowing down of time almost to the point of suspension. This waiting room of existence condemns Roberto to a life where time is slowed to such a degree that Roberto seems to exist in a state of “suspended animation”. That is, by finding himself “condemned” to the Daphne, Roberto is outside the space of encounter. By “space of encounter” I mean to suggest that “space” which allows people to interact with others. The space of encounter represents the public area of encounter where one finds oneself “in the midst” of others. Moreover, that interaction with others (which defines the space of encounter) constitutes a fundamental aspect of the creation of our self identity, the “social I”, to use Lacan’s phrase. The “social I” is a projection of the self onto society which is ultimately “inauthentic”. I am using the term inauthenticity in the Heideggerian sense which is defined by the rule of how you are perceived by others. With that in mind the question must be asked, in regards to this novel, what happens when there is no “other” to perceive you? Hence, Roberto’s predicament. His condemnation to the Daphne can be read as a “salvation” through his use and misuse of memory. Therefore, finding himself outside the space of encounter, Roberto has no choice but to encounter others through the agency of narrative; of storytelling. What results, what is projected is a cosmology based upon the chivalric romance.
It is the narrativization of his life that leads Roberto into the realm of the fantastic, or the “romance” as the “chronicler” (Eco’s narrator) states. To romanticize his life, to turn it into a story which has a clear beginning (the siege at Casale), middle (his education first by Saint-Savin, then in the salons of Paris, where he meets and falls in love with Lilia, his lady, as well as his education with father Caspar, the German Jesuit he discovers
aboard the Daphne (which I would like to suggest is part of a hallucinatory state Roberto undergoes aboard that ship), and finally an end with his descent into the sea. But before I discuss the importance of symbolism in this novel, I would like to pause over the function of narrative as such.
Narrative is the attempt to spatialize time; to turn it into a picture so that it may be beheld, grasped, conquered. The function of narrative in Eco’s novel is fundamentally related to the attempt by the author to gain mastery over time. One of the subplots to this novel (and there are many) revolves around the 17th century quest to discover the secrets of longitude. Cardinal Mazarin, who is about to take the place of the dying Richelieu, sends Roberto on a secret mission as a spy for France to discover what an English doctor by the name of Byrd is up to in regards to the secret of longitude. It is not so much the plot which interests me here as the motivation and correspondence between narrative and time. Roberto’s purgatorial existence following the wreck of the ship Amaryllis, leaves him nothing but time. In order to fill up his days he writes fictionalized letters to his “lady” (after all, in a good romance the hero must always have a lady) recounting his life and the events which lead up to, and going beyond his shipwrecked state aboard the Daphne. Since time has all but ceased aboard the Daphne, Roberto’s purgatorial existence cannot come to a completion as such. Theoretically, story-telling must have a completion; something must be resolved. As readers we are promised an arrival to the end in the story through that unspoken contract which writers and readers engage in.
However, Roberto breaks this contract in the sense that he places himself in the role of hero in the story. Thus, his double task is one of author and hero. Yet the rules of the romance dictate that we can never be the authors of our own stories; that is a role assigned to destiny or fate. Thus, one aspect of Roberto’s errancy is his attempt to write himself into the role of hero for a narrative which tells the story of his life. By placing himself in the story Roberto is also placing himself back into the linear momentum of time. Writing his life story is the only way he can re-enter the space of encounter and escape the crushing solitude which he finds himself at the mercy of aboard the Daphne.
This crushing solitude forces Roberto to carry on a conversation with himself through the agency of the romance. According to Bruno Bettelheim in his marvelous book, The Uses of Enchantment, tales (he is speaking of fairy tales, but I believe that Roberto’s story works as well) can have a therapeutic affect on helping the child overcome what he calls “separation anxiety”. Separation anxiety, according to Bettelheim is, “…the fear of being deserted—and starvation fear, including oral greediness, are not restricted to a particular period of development. Such fears occur at all ages in the unconscious, and thus this tale also has meaning for, and provides encouragement to, much older children” (p.15). It seems to me that Bettelheim’s articulation of “separation anxiety” and its relationship to the tale (Roberto’s turning his life into narrative) compliment a part of Eco’s novel in a way that has not been thought before. Roberto’s errancy allows him to regress into a childlike role of playacting which is fundamental to the growth of his psyche. But Roberto is errant in what particular sense? According to the American Heritage Dictionary (Third Edition) errant is defined as “Roving, especially in search of adventure”. Likewise, that dictionary defines to err as “to sin”. The English word “err” derives from the Latin errare, meaning “wanderer”. Roberto is a wander who, in an attempt to gain mastery over time through the agency of narrative, wanders into a fictionalized story of his life. What is ironic about this is his physical condition of being shipwrecked aboard a deserted ship. Once he finds himself aboard the Daphne Roberto can only wander through the re-creation of his life as he presents it in a series of letters to his lady in order to combat his separation anxiety. Could we not say the same, albeit in a slightly altered form, of the novelist and his or her work? In a way, is not Roberto also a literary mirror of Eco in the form of hero?
What may begin as a need by Roberto to reach out to his lady is in fact an attempt to stay within the space of encounter. Roberto begins writing to put off the feeling of intense isolation that he finds himself in. Eco: “To judge by the date of his first letter, Roberto begins writing immediately after his arrival, as soon as he finds pen and paper in the captain’s quarters, before exploring the rest of the ship” (p.5). It is only by accident that Roberto stumbles into the captain’s quarters early in his shipwreck. Indeed, it seems that it is only “by accident” that Roberto finds himself in many situations and predicaments throughout the novel. In the Land of Romances, which Roberto begins projecting onto the page almost as soon as he arrives upon the Daphne, the author must supply a hero. Roberto breaks the contract by placing himself into that role. But we must ask the question, what harm could that do since Roberto was writing aboard a presumably deserted ship? Eco: “So Roberto was writing for himself; this was not literature, he was there truly, writing like an adolescent pursuing an impossible mirage, streaking the page with his tears, not because of the absence of the lady, pure image even when she was present, but out of fondness of himself, enamored of love” (p.6). Thus, I ask the question once again, what is the harm, given Roberto’s situation, of placing himself as hero into a story that he is authoring? The harm lies in the possibility for madness. We need only remind ourselves of that other great man who saw himself as the hero of some vast and fantastic romance, Don Quixote. Quixote, as we know, read far too many chivalric romances, and transferred his love for that genre onto the “real” world. Dressed as a Knight-errant (the potency of an errancy once again comes into play) he rode out across the fields of Spain to defend the honor of his lady Dulcinea (who was really just a peasant woman) by helping those “less fortunate”. It has been commented elsewhere that Quixote is indeed one of Roberto’s precursors. Likewise, Dante’s composition of the Commodia is dedicated to his lady Beatrice. What is ironic about both of these precursors is that Quixote and Dante hardly exchanged a word with their respective “ladies”. We are told that Roberto exchanges only a few words with his lady Lilia. The real Dulcina thought Quixote an old mad fool. History tells us that Dante spoke hardly a word to the “real” Beatrice, and in that word she all but snubbed him. In The Island of the Day Before we get the impression that Lilia is, at best, slightly amused by Roberto, but certainly not intrigued enough to fall hopelessly in love with him. In each of these cases the love which inspires the creative act is unrequited. But perhaps an unrequited love is the most powerful form of love one can experience because there is always the hope that that love will be returned.
The inspiration derived from unrequited love, however, is not the only narrative bridge which joins The Island to those other two masterpieces. While Roberto may not have been familiar with Don Quixote and Dante’s Commodia, we know that Eco is.