The Name of the Rose

The slopes of Monte Rebello

It was with the torn landscape and tortured soul of post-World War I Europe as his inspiration that, in 1925, T.S. Eliot set his pen to paper and wrote of the lost living, and of the unquiet dead, and of times past and passing and to come:

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper

It was with the blood of innocents on their hands and the smoking ruins of rich towns in their wake that, in 1307, the adherents of the Dulcinian reform movement followed their leader, Fra Dolcino, to the slopes of Monte Rebello and erected the fortifications they hoped would protect them from the armies that pursued them. They hoped in vain. Rebello fell on March 23, 1307: its positions overrun, its defenders slaughtered, Dolcino captured and later publicly executed by the Church he’d warred against in the name of change – by the society that took notice of his and his followers’ despair only when they took up their swords.

Those of you who are regular readers of the blog will recall that we’ve been discussing, for some time now, the communications insights to be gleaned from Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose. This post marks the culmination – at least for now – of our discussion, and though we don’t want to muddy the literary waters too much by adding another author to our mix, we think Eliot’s excerpted words (and indeed, the entire poem from which they come) offer a fine harmonic to Eco’s general theme: it is as inevitable as the rising of the sun or the changing of the seasons that the outcast will channel his anguish and his rage into loyalty to a leader who has only his own interests at heart, and the society the outcast rages against will misinterpret his motives, and the outcast’s justifiable concerns will lead to unjustifiable outcomes, and the reassertion of society’s prerogatives will leave the outcast where he’s always been: outside the flock, outside the family, outside the community of the whole.

And his attempt to upend the world that he believes doesn’t want him will have ended in squalor and silence – until another leader comes along, and it all begins again.

We asked, this past New Year’s Eve, if the circle can be broken. Call us optimists, but we think it can. Call us optimists, but we think it must. It starts with a willingness to listen. It starts with a willingness to understand. It starts with a willingness to abandon the communications paradigm of Us vs. Them and believe, truly believe, that there is no Them – there is only Us.

This is the way the new world begins.

Elsewise, we remain what a poet described, amid a torn landscape, burdened by tortured souls.

We are the hollow men

We are the stuffed men

Leaning together

Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!

Our dried voices, when

We whisper together

Are quiet and meaningless

As wind in dry grass

Or rats’ feet over broken glass

In our dry cellar

The footprints of Fra Dolcino

"I say that many of these heresies, independently of the doctrines they assert, encounter success among the simple because they suggest to such people the possibility of a different life."

These are the words of Brother William of Baskerville, the protagonist of Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose; we've met him in these pages before. William, in pursuit of a murderer through the physical labyrinth of a medieval monastery, is slowly drawn deeper into more metaphorical labyrinths: those that exist within the hearts of each of the monastery's inhabitants. It is as he walks these shadowed corridors that William finds the footprints of a ghost, one who haunts the memories of men with the words of rebellion that he preached and the acts of rage that he inspired: the ghost of Fra Dolcino.

"The life of the simple is haunted by illness and poverty. Joining a heretical group, for many of them, is often only another way of shouting their own despair."

Although William, and the monks who dwell in the monastery, are fictional, Dolcino was a real man. He lived in northern Italy in the late 13th century, and was the leader of the Dulcinian movement aimed at reforming the practices of the Catholic Church. The movement in general, and Dolcino in particular, were inspired by the teachings of Saint Francis -- particularly Francis' call for the Church to embrace an ethic of poverty, one that he believed would convey a clear message to the impoverished peasantry of Europe: we are you and you are us, your fears are our fears and your hopes are our hopes, and only together can we do God's work on Earth. But Francis, who worked through peaceful channels, was largely ignored by the audience he hoped to reach -- while Dolcino, who chose the path of violence, was not. 

"You may burn a cardinal's house because you want to perfect the life of the clergy, but also because you believe that the hell he preaches does not exist. It is always done because on earth there does exist a hell, where lives the flock whose shepherds we no longer are."

Eco uses Dolcino as a sort of anti-Francis in his novel: as a character who, like Francis, could speak to the outcast in language he understood and could make the outcast believe that his concerns were valid and his despair was surmountable. Dolcino, like Francis, saw that part of the community -- part of the flock, in William's terms -- was lost, and saw that the shepherds either no longer noticed...or no longer cared. Dolcino, like Francis, realized that the outcasts were ready to revolt, ready to upend the system that treated them with disdain at best and open hostility at worst, but unlike Francis, Dolcino had no intention of reaching out to the lost flock to bring them back and reintegrate them into the community of the whole. He intended, with the outcasts behind him, to confront that community -- and raze it to the ground.  

One final quote from The Name of the Rose -- not from Brother William, but from the book's Preface, and by Umberto Eco himself:

"I write my text with no concern for timeliness. I am comforted and consoled in finding my story immeasurably remote in time (now that the waking of reason has dispelled all the monsters that its sleep had generated), gloriously lacking in any relevance for our day, atemporally alien to our hopes and our certainties."

We think the author doth protest too much. We think he would agree -- and we think he would also agree that, to borrow language from a book that William would have known well, there is nothing new under the sun.

There is more to the story of Fra Dolcino -- and we've warned you that it's a story that doesn't have a happy ending.

But we invite you to come with us, and together we will follow his footprints where they lead: to the slopes of Monte Rebello, beneath a blood red sky.

That's next.

Feeling great?

It's only been a few days -- and since we imagine the task of making America great again is more of a marathon than a sprint, it feels a little early to pass judgement on how the project is going.

So let's not speak of the nation in general. Let's talk about you, specifically.

You, the person reading these words.

How are you feeling about what you've seen since Election Day? How are you feeling about what you've heard?

How did you feel about the President's inaugural address? Did you feel that, when the President said "today...we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people," he was talking to you? Did you feel that, when the President said "the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now," he was talking about you?

The President said "Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families and good jobs for themselves. These are just and reasonable demands...but for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists. Mothers and children trapped in poverty...rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape...and the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and right now."

When he said those words, did you nod in understanding or shake your head in disbelief? What did your neighbors do? Your friends? And, probably quite literally, everyone you know? What did they do? What did they all do?

And can you understand why someone would have done the opposite?

Can you really?

We've had occasion, over the past few months, to refer repeatedly to Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose -- particularly as it pertains to the idea of a lost American flock, cast out beyond walls and left to seethe. We've had occasion to refer to Saint Francis, the Catholic saint who gives his name to the Franciscan order of monks, who went to live among the members of this lost flock, to try to bring them back into the community of the whole.

What we've not yet mentioned is the result of Francis' outreach to the outcasts: he failed.

And who we've not yet introduced you to is the man who reached out -- and succeeded. The man who came with a message that the outcasts, after years of being targets of indifference at best and open derision at worst, were more than ready to hear.

It's not a story with a happy ending.

But we'll tell it. That's coming up in March. Stay tuned.

Will the circle be unbroken?

Will it? Or can it be shattered? And if it can, who’s going to do it?

A portion of the flock is lost. It has been marginalized and mocked and made the target of derision and it has fought back through the political process by returning an election result that was as shocking as it was inevitable.

We’ve spoken, at length, about the risks inherent in running a closed-circle communications strategy – and we had hoped, this holiday season, that the Democratic party would, at last, come to its senses and begin chiseling cracks in this self-defeating circle of its own design.

It is no news at all, though, to say that you don’t always get what you ask for during the holidays.

We’ll let two lions of the Democratic establishment speak for themselves:

“I believe that we were not letting an awful lot of people – high school-educated, mostly Caucasian, but also people of color – know that we understood their problems…they’re all the people I grew up with. They’re their kids. And they’re not racist. They’re not sexist. But we didn’t talk to them.” – Joe Biden

“[Donald Trump] doesn’t know much…but one thing he does know is how to get angry, white men to vote for him.” – Bill Clinton

What progress can be made toward the leveling of the circle when each stroke of the chisel is met with a fresh coat of mortar? What progress can be made toward the acceptance of Us when there remains a need to call out the otherness of Them?

Will the circle be unbroken? Or can it be shattered? And if it can, who’s going to do it?

Thoughts on that, coming up. See you in 2017.