The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco

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The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

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The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

Translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock

Copyright © 2004 RCS Libri S.p.A.
English translation copyright © 2005 by Geoffrey Brock

Part One
1. The Cruellest Month “We have different types of memory. One is called implicit, and it allows us to do with ease various things we’ve learned, like brushing our teeth, turning on the radio, or tying a tie. After the toothbrushing experiment, I’m willing to bet that you know how to write, perhaps even how to drive a car. When our implicit memory is assisting us, we’re not even conscious of remembering, we act automatically. And then there’s something called explicit memory, by which we remember things and know we’re remembering them. But this explicit memory is twofold. One part tends nowadays to be called semantic memory, or public memory—the one that tells us a swallow is a kind of bird, and that birds fly and have feathers, but also that Napoleon died in...whenever you said. And this type seems to be working fine in your case. [...] But this is the first type to form even in children. The child quickly learns to recognize a car or a dog, and to form general categories, so that if he once saw a German shepherd and was told it was a dog, then he’ll also say ‘dog’ when he sees a Labrador. It takes the child longer, however, to develop the second type of explicit memory, which we call episodic, or autobiographical. He isn’t immediately capable of remembering, when he sees a dog, say, that a month earlier he saw a dog in his grandmother’s yard, and that he’s the person who has had both experiences. It’s episodic memory that establishes a link between who we are today and who we have been, and without it, when we say I, we’re referring only to what we’re feeling now, not to what we felt before, which gets lost, as you say, in the fog.”
“You can’t think of memory as a warehouse where you deposit past events and retrieve them later just as they were when you put them there,” Gratarolo said. “I don’t want to get too technical, but when you remember something, you’re constructing a new profile of neuronal excitation. Let’s suppose that in a certain place you had some unpleasant experience. When afterward you remember that place, you reactivate that initial pattern of neuronal excitation with a profile of excitation that’s similar to but not the same as that which was originally stimulated. Remembering will therefore produce a feeling of unease. In short, to remember is to reconstruct, in part on the basis of what we have learned or said since.”
2. The Murmur of Mulberry Leaves

“I have so many books. Sorry, we do.”

“Five thousand here. And there’s always some imbecile who comes over and says, my how many books you have, have you read them all?”

“And what do I say?”

“Usually you say: Not one, why else would I be keeping them here? Do you by chance keep the tins of meat after you’ve emptied them? As for the five thousand I’ve already read, I gave them away to prisons and hospitals. And the imbecile reels.”



“I wonder what it is I’m supposed to finish, and why. While I was singing without thinking I was actually myself for the duration of my memory, which in that case was what you might call throat memory, with the befores and afters linked together, and I was the complete song, and every time I began it my vocal cords were already preparing to vibrate the sounds to come. I think a pianist works that way, too: even as he plays one note he’s readying his fingers to strike the keys that come next. Without the first notes, we won’t make it to the last ones, we’ll come untuned, and we’ll succeed in getting from start to finish only if we somehow contain the entire song within us. I don’t know the whole song anymore.”
4. Alone through City Streets I Go “It’s that I felt something inside. Like a tremor. No, not like a tremor. As if... You know Flatland, you read it too. Well, those triangles and those squares live in two dimensions, they don’t know what thickness is. Now imagine that one of us, who lives in three dimensions, were to touch them from above. They would feel something they’d never felt before, and they wouldn’t be able to say what it was. As if someone were to come here from the fourth dimension and touch us from the inside—say on the pylorus—gently. What does it feel like when someone tickles your pylorus? I would say...a mysterious flame.”

Compare to:

C. S. Lewis

Part Two
6. Il Nuovissimo Melzi As for the tortures, they no doubt existed, though I do not believe that the history books have much to say about them, which is too bad—we really should know what stuff we are made of, we children of Cain.



7. Eight Days in an Attic I looked for another container, this one not a tin but a small carton, definitely from a later period, one which I had opened on countless occasions before we sat down to our meals. Its illustration would have been slightly different: still the same gentlemen, who still were drinking the amazing water from champagne glasses, except that clearly visible on the table before them was a carton identical to the actual carton, and on that second one were depicted the same gentlemen, drinking in front of a table on which appeared yet another carton of powder, that one also with gentlemen who...and so on forever. You knew that all you needed was a magnifying glass or a high-powered microscope to see other cartons within cartons, en abîme, like Chinese boxes or Matrioshka dolls. Infinity, as seen through the eyes of a boy who has yet to study Zeno’s paradox. The race toward an unreachable goal; neither the tortoise nor Achilles would ever have reached the last carton, the last gentlemen, the last waitress. We learn as children the metaphysics of the infinite and infinitesimal calculus, though we are unaware of what we are learning, and it might be the image of an Endless Regress or its opposite, the dreadful promise of the Eternal Return and of the turning of the ages that bite their own tails, because upon reaching the final carton, were there such a thing, we might have discovered, at the bottom of that vortex, ourselves, holding the first carton in our hands. Why had I decided to become an antiquarian book dealer if not in order to have a fixed point, the day that Gutenberg printed the first Bible in Mainz, to go back to? At least you know that nothing existed before that, or rather, other things had existed, but you know that you can stop there; otherwise you would not be a book dealer but a decipherer of manuscripts. One chooses a profession that involves only five and a half centuries because as a child one daydreamed about the infinitude of vichy water tins.



Weeks ago, I asked Paola whether all those movies on television, full of violence and the living dead, were bad for children, and she told me that one psychologist had revealed to her that in his entire clinical career he had never seen children seriously traumatized by a movie except in one case, and that child was irrevocably wounded to the core: devastated by Walt Disney’s Snow White.

Note (Hal’s):
If this seems odd to you, then your memories of that film are probably similar to the rosy ones I once had. It’s worth taking another look, believe me!

— end note



9. But Pippo Doesn’t Know Nothing is more likely to incite a holocaust than the rancor of a defeat. That was how we, fathers and sons, were taught to live, through stories of how beautiful it was to die.



13. The Pallid Little Maiden People say our brains have two hemispheres: the left, which presides over rational relationships and verbal language, and the right, which deals with emotions and the visual universe. Perhaps my right hemisphere was paralyzed. And yet it was not, because there I was dying of consumption in my quest for something or other, and a quest is a passion, not a dish served cold like revenge.
I do not remember where I read that there are two kinds of poets: the good poets, who at a certain point destroy their bad poems and go off to run guns in Africa, and the bad poets, who publish theirs and keep writing more until they die.


Bad poetry

Part Three
15. You’re Back at Last, Friend Mist!

When they were bombing the city, we could see the distant flashes from our windows in Solara, could herar the rumbling of something like thunder. We would watch the spectacle, always knowing that Papà might be trapped in a collapsing building, never being able to find out for sure until Saturday, when he was supposed to return. Sometimes they would bomb on Tuesday. We would wait for four days. The war had made us fatalists, a bombing was like a storm. We kids kept playing calmly through Tuesday evening, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. But were we really calm? Were we not beginning to be marked by anxiety, by the stunned and relieved melancholy that grips whoever passes alive through a field strewn with corpses?

If a good grade depends on knowing the parallel postulate, one studies the geometry text. If it depends on being able to talk like a Balilla Boy, one memorizes what a Balilla Boy is supposed to think. Regardless of whether it is right or not. My parents did not know this, but even Euclid’s fifth postulate holds only for flat surfaces, so ideally flat that they do not exist in reality. The Fascist regime was the flat surface to which everyone by this time had adapted—ignoring the curvilinear vortices in which the parallels clash or hopelessly diverge.



I ask:

“Mamma, what’s a revolution?”

“It’s when the workers go to the government and chop the heads off all the office workers, like your father.”

The centurion said, “In the name of God and Italy, I swear to carry out the orders of Il Duce and to serve with all my strength and, if need be, with my blood, the cause of the Fascist Revolution. Do you all swear it?” While the rest of us shouted “I swear!”, Bruno, who was close enough for me to hear him perfectly, shouted, “Pierre!” He was rebelling. It was the first act of revolt I had ever witnessed.

Was he rebelling of his own accord, or because his father, like the father of Italy’s boy-in-the-world, had been a drunkard and a socialist? Regardless, I now understand that Bruno was the first to teach me how to react to the rhetoric that was suffocating us.



16. The Wind is Whistling

My memory is proglottidean, like the tapeworm, but unlike the tapeworm it has no head, it wanders in a maze, and any point may be the beginning or the end of its journey. I must wait for the memories to come of their own accord, following their own logic. That is how it is in the fog. In the sunlight, you see things from a distance and you can change directions purposefully in order to meet up with something particular. In the fog, something or someone approaches you, but you do not know who until it is near.

Maybe this is normal, you cannot have everything in a single moment, memories come in a sequence, as on a skewer. What was it Paola said about the magic number seven that psychologists talk about? It is easy to remember up to seven elements from a list, but any more is too many. Not even seven. Who are the seven dwarfs? Happy, Dopey, Sleepy, Grumpy, Bashful, Doc...And then? You can never remember the seventh. And the seven kings of Rome? Romulus, Numa Pompilius, Tullus Hostilius, Servius Tullius, Tarquin the Elder, Tarquin the Proud...and the seventh? Ah, Sneezy.

He was telling our story, the story of his listeners, and we trusted him because he described exactly what we were doing, all of us, the local pharmacist and even—Stevens said—the cop on the corner, who knew the score and was biding his time. That was what he said, and if he was not lying about that, we could trust him about the rest. We all knew, even us kids, that his report was propaganda, too, but we were drawn to an understated propaganda, without heroic phrases and calls to death. Colonel Stevens made the words we were fed each day seem excessive.



“But there’s bad envy, which is when your friend has a bicycle and you don’t, and you hope he breaks his neck going down a hill, and there’s good envy, which is when you want a bike like his and work your butt off to be able to buy one, even a used one, and it’s good envy that makes the world go round. And then there’s another envy, which is justice envy, which is when you can’t see any reason why a few people have everything and others are dying of hunger. And if you feel this fine sort of envy, which is socialist envy, you get busy trying to make a world in which riches are better distributed. But that’s exactly what the commandment prohibits you from doing: Don’t covet more than you have, respect the rule of property. In this world there are those who own two fields of grain just because they inherited them, and there are those who toil in those fields for a crust of bread, and the ones toiling must not covet the owner’s fields, otherwise the state will be ruined and we’ll have a revolution. The tenth commandment prohibits revolution.”



“You talk like theologians, who are all in bad faith. Like you, they say that Evil exists, but that God has given us the greatest gift in the world, which is our free will. We are free to do what God tells us to do or what the devil tempts us to do, and if we end up in hell it’s just because we haven’t been created as slaves but as free men, and it just so happens we’ve used our freedom badly, which is our own doing.”


“Exactly? But who told you that freedom is a gift? In other words, be careful not to confuse things. Our comrades in the mountains are fighting for freedom, but it’s freedom from other men who wanted to turn them into so many little machines. Freedom is a beautiful thing between one man and another; you don’t have the right to make me do and think what you want me to. [...] But the freedom that God granted me, what kind of freedom is that? The freedom to go to paradise or to hell, with no middle ground. You’re born and you’re forced to play a hand of briscola, and if you lose you suffer for all eternity. And what if I didn’t want to play this game?”


Free will

I lack the courage to go to Don Cognasso and confess...and besides, confess what? That which I did not do, nor even see, but only guessed at? Not having anything to ask forgiveness for, I cannot even be forgiven. It is enough to make a person feel damned forever.

18. Lovely Thou Art as the Sun

After he says that the one thing he will take, unsullied, up to heaven is his panache (and this is the last word of the play), Roxane leans over him and kisses him on the brow.

This kiss is barely mentioned in the stage directions, no character refers to it, an insensitive director might even overlook it, but to my sixteen-year-old mind it became the central scene, and not only did I see Roxane leaning over him, but I also, with Cyrano, savored for the first time (her face so close) the perfume of her breath. This kiss in articulo mortis repaid Cyrano for that other kiss, the stolen one, which so moves everyone in the audience. This final kiss was beautiful because Cyrano received it just as he was dying, and Roxane was thus escaping him once more, but that is precisely what I, now one with the protagonist, was so proud of. I was expiring happily, without having touched my beloved, leaving her in her heavenly state of uncontaminated dream.

Rostand’s Cyrano



What good is it to keep that secret in the depths of my heart if it means we cannot both be intoxicated by it? And besides, if you love someone, you want that person to know everything about you.



I know that in some dreams we have the impression of remembering, and we believe the memories to be authentic, then we wake and are forced to conclude, reluctantly, that those memories were not ours. We dream false memories. For example, I recall having dreamt on several occasions of returning at last to a house I had not visited for some time, but to which I had for some time intended to return, because it was a sort of secred pied-à-terre where I had once lived, and I had left many of my belongings there. In the dream I remembered every piece of furniture perfectly and every room in the house, and the only irritation was that I knew that there should have been, beyond the living room, in the hall that led to the bathroom, a door that opened into another room, yet the door was no longer there, as if someone had walled it up. Thus I would awake full of longing and nostalgia for my hidden refuge, but would soon realize that the memory belonged to the dream, that I could not remember that house because—at least in my life—it had never existed. Indeed I have often thought that in our dreams we take over other people’s memories.



I would like the most beautiful woman I have ever been able to conceive, but not that supreme beauty which has led others astray. I would be happy even were she frail and sick, as she must have been in her final days in Brazil, and still I would tell her, You are the most beautiful of creatures, I would never trade your broken eyes or your pallor for the beauty of all the angels in heaven!



text checked (see note) Jun 2007

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Graphics copyright © 2007 by Hal Keen