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Speculum Amoris

From the book: The Name of the Rose; Chapter: Terce.

Umberto Eco, Written 1980

"And therefore what I suffered that morning was evil for me, but for others perhaps was good, the sweetest of good things."

. . . Adso writhes in the torments of love . . . 

            . . . In vain. I thought of the girl. My flesh had forgotten the intense pleasure, sinful and fleeting (a base thing), that union with her had given me; but my soul had not forgotten her face, and could not manage to feel that this memory was perverse: rather, it throbbed as if in that face shone all the bliss of creation.

            I sensed, in a confused way, and almost denying to myself the truth of what I felt, that the poor, filthy, impudent creature who sold herself (who knows with what stubborn .constancy) to other sinners, that daughter of Eve, weak like all her sisters, who had so often bartered her own flesh, was yet something splendid and wondrous. My intellect knew her as an occasion of sin, my sensitive appetite perceived her as the vessel of every grace. It is difficult to say what I felt. I could try to write that, still caught in the snares of sin, I desired, culpably, for her to appear at every moment, and I spied on the labor of the workers to see whether, around the corner of a hut or from the darkness of a barn, that form that had seduced me might emerge. But I would not be writing the truth, or, rather, I would be attempting to draw a veil over the truth to attenuate its force and clarity. Because the truth is that I “saw” the girl, I saw her in the branches of the bare tree that stirred lightly when a benumbed sparrow flew to seek refuge there; I saw her in the eyes of the heifers that came out of the barn, and I heard her in the bleating of the sheep that crossed my erratic path. It was as if all creation spoke to me of her, and I desired to see her again, true, but I was also prepared to accept the idea of never seeing her again, and of never lying again with her, provided that I could savor the joy that filled me that morning, and have her always near even if she were to be, and for eternity, distant.

            It was, now I am trying to understand, as if - just as the whole universe is surely like a book written by the finger of God, in which everything speaks to us of the immense goodness of its Creator, in which every creature is description and mirror of life and death, in which the humblest rose becomes a gloss of our terrestrial progress - everything, in other words, spoke to me only of the face I had hardly glimpsed in the aromatic shadows of the kitchen. I dwelled on these fantasies because I said to myself (or, rather, did not say: at that moment I did not formulate thoughts translatable into words) that if the whole world is destined to speak to me of the power, goodness, and wisdom of the Creator, and if that morning the whole world spoke to me of the girl, who (sinner though she may have been) was nevertheless a chapter in the great book of creation, a verse of the great psalm chanted by the cosmos - I said to myself (I say now) that if this occurred, it could only be a part of the great theophanic design that sustains the universe, arranged like a lyre, miracle of consonance and harmony. As if intoxicated, I then enjoyed her presence in the things I saw, and, desiring her in them, with the sight of them I was sated.

            And yet I felt a kind of sorrow, because at the same time I suffered from an absence, though I was happy with the many ghosts of a presence. It is difficult for me to explain this mystery of contradiction, sign that the human spirit is fragile and never proceeds directly along the paths of divine reason, which has built the world as a perfect syllogism, but instead grasps only isolated and often disjointed propositions of this syllogism, whence derives the ease with which we fall victims to the deceptions of the Evil One. Was it a deception of the Evil One, that morning, that so moved me? I think today that it was, because I was a novice, but I think that the human feeling that stirred me was not bad in itself, but only with regard to my state. Because in itself it was the feeling that moves man toward woman so that the one couples with the other, as the apostle of the Gentiles wants, and that both be flesh of one flesh, and that together they procreate new human beings and succor each other from youth to old age. Only the apostle spoke thus for those who seek a remedy for lust and who do not wish to burn, recalling, however, that the condition of chastity is far preferable, the condition to which as a monk I had consecrated myself. And therefore what I suffered that morning was evil for me, but for others perhaps was good, the sweetest of good things; thus I understand now that my distress was not due to the depravity of my thoughts, in themselves worthy and sweet, but to the depravity of the gap between my thoughts and the vows I had pronounced. And therefore I was doing evil in enjoying something that was good in one situation, bad in another; and my fault lay in trying to reconcile natural appetite and the dictates of the rational soul. Now I know that I was suffering from the conflict between the elicit appetite of the intellect, in which the will’s rule should have been displayed, and the elicit appetite of the senses, subject to human passions. In fact, as Aquinas says, the acts of the sensitive appetite are called passions precisely because they involve a bodily change. And my appetitive act was, as it happened, accompanied by a trembling of the whole body, by a physical impulse to cry out and to writhe. The angelic doctor says that the passions in themselves are not evil, but they must be governed by the will led by the rational soul. But my rational soul that morning was dazed by weariness, which kept in check the irascible appetite, addressed to good and evil as terms of conquest, but not the concupiscent appetite, addressed to good and evil as known entities. To justify my irresponsible recklessness of that time, I will say now that I was unquestionably seized by love, which is passion and is cosmic law, because the weight of bodies is actually natural love. And by this passion I was naturally seduced, and I understood why the angelic doctor said that amor est magis cognitivus quam cognitio, that we know things better through love than through knowledge. In fact, I now saw the girl better than I had seen her the previous night, and I understood her intus et in cute because in her I understood myself and in myself her. I now wonder whether what I felt was the love of friendship, in which like loves like and wants only the other’s good, or love of concupiscence, in which one wants one’s own good and the lacking wants only what completes it. And I believe that the nighttime love had been concupiscent, for I wanted from the girl something I had never had; whereas that morning I wanted nothing from the girl, and I wanted only her good, and I wished her to be saved from the cruel necessity that drove her to barter herself for a bit of food, and I wished her to be happy; nor did I want to ask anything further of her, but only to think of her and see her in sheep, oxen, trees, in the serene light that bathed in happiness the grounds of the abbey.

            Now I know that good is cause of love and that which is good is defined by knowledge, and you can only love what you have learned is good, whereas I had, indeed, learned that the girl was the good of the irascible appetite, but the evil of the will. But I was in the grip of so many and such conflicting emotions, because what I felt was like the holiest love just as the doctors describe it: it produced in me that ecstasy in which lover and beloved want the same thing (and by mysterious enlightenment I, in that moment, knew that the girl, wherever she was, wanted the same things I myself wanted), and for her I felt jealousy, but not the evil kind, condemned by Paul in 1 Corinthians, but that which Dionysius speaks of in The Divine Names whereby God also is called jealous because of the great love He feels for all creation (and I loved the girl precisely because she existed, and I was happy, not envious, that she existed). I was jealous in the way in which, for the angelic doctor, jealousy is motus in amatum, the jealousy of friendship, which inspires us to move against all that harms the beloved (and I dreamed, at that moment, only of freeing the girl from the power of him who was buying her flesh and befouling it with his own infamous passions).

            Now I know, as the doctor says, that love can harm the lover when it is excessive. And mine was excessive. I have tried to explain what I felt then, not in the least to justify what I felt.


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