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Interpretations of Space: a glimpse into the philosophy of Umberto Eco's Island of the Day Before

Maria Alva Roff

University of Iceland 

Reykjavik 2002

Note: this essay is reproduced here without footnotes due to platform limitations. For the original document, with footnotes intact, please contact the author.

The subjects of space and place and the urge to define them have been constant themes in the development of philosophy. In his rich and complex historical novel, The Island of the Day Before, Umberto Eco not only explores these concepts, but takes the reader on a literal voyage to the ends of the Earth, there discovering how space and place make up the the very heart of what constitutes reality, and how time is inseparable from the two. Over two millennia ago Aristotle wrote, “A student of nature must have knowledge about place too, just as he must about the infinite: whether it is or not, and in what way it is, and what it is,” and it is this very sense of identified location that Eco asks his readers to discover on his hero's temporal and physical journey. An early dialogue on the nature and definition of space occurs between Plato and Aristotle, the latter claiming in a six point logic that Plato had identified space as matter, something with which the body interacts and which is determined by the innate intelligibility of the matter. Plato is generally interpreted as giving space the nature of a receptacle, 'an independent entity of which the parts cannot change their relative positions.’ In The Island of the Day Before, protagonist Roberto della Griva must come to terms with his relationship to self via the spaces he inhabits throughout his life, and how, at a place where time stops, his sense of identity does as well.

Historic Interpretations of Space

In the philosophic dialogue between the Greek masters space became something which exists between two objects. From this secular compartmentalization Europe passed into what can be called an Augustinian world view based on the writings of the fifth century Aurelius Augustine, or Saint Augustine. His great work De Civitate Dei encouraged man to accept the wondrous marvels of an Omnipotent God: “For God is certainly called Almighty for one reason only, that he has the power to do whatever he wills, and he has the power to create so many things which would be reckoned obviously impossible, if they were not displayed to our senses.” He accepted the Neo-Platonist understanding of the physical world as imperfect copy of a Divine Idea, yet refuted the classical Greek process of explaining the world and was instead satisfied in glorifying it through allegory and numerical archetypes. Flora, fauna, and phenomena were to his mind not divisible entities but commonalities in the Creator’s master plan. Etherealities such as space simply existed, to be experienced, not identified. His views, so eloquently expressed, took root in Europe and held sway up until the thirteenth century.

By the fourteenth century the European Renaissance had begun. “In contrast to the scholastics of the Middle Ages who based their reasoning on Holy Scriptures, the Humanists of the Renaissance came to revere the fertile minds and imaginations of the Greeks and Romans.” (Hopper, Vincent, editor, World Literature). The wonder that was God’s Earth became once again a thing to explore in detail and space. Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous Last Supper, the mural which he was commissioned to paint on the refectory wall of the church of Santa Maria del Grazie in Milan, is a mastery of perspective and spatial realism. “Visitors continue to be astonished when they walk into the refectory and experience the illusion that the room extends into the painting and continues on the wall behind Christ and the disciples.” (Janaro, Richard Paul, The Art of Being Human). The Renaissance period was a time of exploration. The space between things, the relationships of bodies to one another was once again of great importance, be those bodies the stars in the sky, figures in a painting, or cogs in the wondrous machines built during this period. The belief that man has the power to map and define his existence took hold: ships sailed on years-long missions to strange lands, telescopes and astrolabes were devised, clocks were perfected to establish common time and philosophers once again pondered the nature of physical reality (Descartes wrote, “I thence concluded that I was a substance whose whole essence of nature consists only in thinking, and which, that it may exist, has no need of place, nor is dependent on any material thing.”) The Island of the Day Before is set in this Renaissance world and it is the drive to discover precision longitude which sends Roberto della Griva to the 180th parallel and to his timeless destiny.

The Location of Place

Aristotle writes:

‘Hesiod, too, might seem to be speaking correctly in making Chaos first; he says:

Foremost of all things Chaos came to be

And then broad-breasted Earth

Suggesting that it was necessary that there should first be a space available to the things that are, because he thinks as most people do that everything is somewhere and in place.’

Existence can be described in three dimensions, according to Aristotle, of length, breadth, and depth. By mapping the convergence of these axes, a point in space can be located. The idea of place, though, seems not to have altered much in the past two thousand years. It is not as abstract a concept. We can locate a place by its defined loci and that which encompasses that point is a place. It cannot, however, be a body, for a body has its own place in space: ‘if everything that is, is in a place, clearly there will be a place of place too, and so on ad infinitum.’ The irony of place seems not to have escaped Aristotle. Even today the logic of defining place eludes us, though like the Greek we consistently admit to the basic three dimensions as the most valuable tools we have as to where place is. Unlike space, though, place has not specifically undergone the morph from substance to miracle to context. The frustrations of place seem to stem from vantage point. Is place here or over there, and if over there, then just how far before it becomes an abstract? We can map a place but does it have relevance beyond location if we haven’t yet experienced it?

The unquestionably greatest development in the search for place has been the undeniable admittance of time into the original three-dimensional equation. Heisenberg's theory as well as the works of Erwin Schröedinger and Albert Einstein conclude beyond a doubt that the time elapsed affects the probability of matter potential and that mass and energy affect time. If at a quantum level it is not yet possible to determine place and speed without time how can we assume to be able to do so on a human scale? For that matter, we accept the astrophysicist’s description of immense bodies whose movements are measurable only in time (the light year) and whose fluctuations in the night sky tell tales of the past. Given that time is an unavoidable dimension for both the inconceivably small and the indescribably large, how can we assume that time itself does not affect how humans experience and interpret place, as well as space, in their existence?

Time as a Factor

In Time and Free Will, nineteenth century French philosopher Henri Bergson writes, “We shall not lay too much stress on the question of the absolute reality of space: perhaps we might as well ask whether space is or is not in space, “ suggesting that the philosophic sense of humour has little changed in two thousand years (see Aristotle above.) Bergson writes:

Our senses perceive the qualities of bodies and space along with them: the great difficulty seems to have been to discover whether extensity [a quantity external, measurable] is an aspect of these physical qualities – a quality of quality – or whether these qualities are essentially unextended, space coming in as a later addition but being self-sufficient and existing without them. On the first hypothesis, space would be reduced to an abstraction, or, speaking more correctly, an extract…In the second case, space would be a reality as solid as the sensations themselves, although of a different order.

Bergson goes on to credit the latter theory with Emmanuel Kant’s Transcendental Aesthetic which gives space a Platonic independent existence. He goes further, defining space as “what enables us to distinguish a number of identical and simultaneous sensations from one another.” He continues, “the more you insist on the difference between the impressions made on our retina by two points of a homogenous surface, the more do you thereby make room for the activity of the mind.” In The Island of the Day Before, Roberto della Griva actively seeks to define his world by polarities, by the differences which make things similar. His homogenous surface is the tabula rasa of his youthful identity and onto that he permits the varied opinions of worldwise men to be placed, seeking all the time to define with his inward eye the space between their philosophies. In this way he hopes to find the comfort in innocence he knew as a child, when the complexities of life consisted of “daydreaming of distant lands as he wandered, bored, through the vineyards…of their little castle.” But Roberto’s search for self-definition, for his place in the labyrinthine world of politics, love and philosophy, is not only an internal one. He finds himself faced with the real threat of space as a physical substance separating the perceiver from that which is perceived. Space for him is a solid reality as powerful as the sensations he feels. It is the wall which separates him from his love, from the island, and from the past. Viewed through the lenses of Bergson’s philosophies on time, space and freedom as well as through the internal poetic immensities of Bergson’s fellow Frenchman Gaston Bachelard, Roberto’s journey can be mapped as a discovery of his own very personal place in this world.

The Narrative

The story of Roberto della Griva is passed to the reader through an active narrator who, in the first person, describes the life of a seventeenth century Italian man of noble birth. The narrator, presumably Eco, admits to having receive a series of papers written by Roberto while the latter was stranded on a ship in the Antipodes, that is, on the 180th parallel, or half way around the world from where he was born. From these papers the author has “devised a story, or a series of intersecting or skewed stories,” and from the first page allows that his interpretation of the events which befell his hero are suppositions: “He was unable to keep track of time, but I believe the sea grew calm immediately after the tempest swept him from the deck of the Amaryllis on that makeshift raft a sailor had fashioned for him.”

On these calm seas he is swept until his raft strikes the hull of a ship which, to Roberto’s dismay, has been abandoned. He is lost in space as well as time, though the ship provides him with enough comforts to survive including stores of water, dried fish and, most importantly, the means to write. With quill, ink and paper Roberto details his days upon the ship, the product of his hand becoming the manuscripts which find their way to our narrator three and a half centuries later. Initially he writes love letters to a Lady, describing in flourishes the setting before him, the place in which he finds himself. After some time on the ship he writes a sort of autobiography, tracing his past up until the time of the shipwreck. Eventually he turns to fiction, creating out of loneliness a Land of Romances whose reality threatens to overwhelm his own. From these dramatic missives the author interprets and, on the eighth page of narration, politely loosens his grip on the literal, allowing a more fictional novel to emerge and encouraging the reader to suspend disbelief: “So I have come to a decision here: I will try to decipher [Roberto’s] intentions, then use the terms most familiar to us. If I am mistaken, too bad: the story remains the same.” Though he is an active voice throughout the novel, it is at this point that Roberto is given the room to grow as a character and lead the reader into his world.

Roberto’s world is the ship onto which he has been cast by fate, the Daphne. The ship itself is a Dutch fluyt, of the type common in the mid 1600s . As a merchant ship, the fluyt was a great engineering success and helped to bring Holland to the forefront of marine commerce. Five to six times as long as it was wide, the fluyt had a tiered and tapering stern and a hull which bulged dramatically, offering little top deck space but creating very roomy cargo holds. Though designed as merchant vessels for trade between northern Europe and the Mediterranean, they were seaworthy craft, capable of travelling the great distance to the South Seas as the Amaryllis and Daphne did.

For Roberto the Daphne is a succession of things, becoming at varying times all the places which he has lost. And Roberto in turn responds to the ship’s mutability with an evolution of his own. Initially the ship is a refuge and he is a castaway, but those immediate feelings of relief give way to deep dismay as he realizes that the ship is abandoned, that he is alone on a vast, unknown sea and cannot swim to the fertile island he sees clearly to port. The ship’s longboat is missing. He writes:

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 race, the only man in human memory to have been shipwrecked and cast up upon a deserted ship.

It is Roberto’s pride in privilege that gives him stability.  He begins to explore his new world with “some knowledge of how the space was divided,” for the Daphne is the same type of ship as the sunken Amaryllis was, as if he has arrived in some parallel universe.  On his second night aboard he finds food, and thus the ship becomes a source of nutrients.  As he shyly searches the aft quarters he finds the captain’s wardroom and a second cubby which “seemed  a scholar’s study,” giving the Daphne an intellectual aspect.  In the captain’s room he finds clothing, a commander’s uniform, which he dons. Eco writes, “Only at this point can a decent man, suitably clad – and not an emaciated castaway – officially take possession of an abandoned ship.”  With utmost confidence he finds the ship’s log and reads with understanding one of the final entries: “pestis quae dicitur bubonica.” The plague had invaded the ship, he deduces, and is the reason for it’s abandonment.  Within the space of an evening Roberto is sheltered, nourished, clothed and educated by the Daphne and in this sense attains the “primary virtues, those which reveal an attachment that is native in some way to the primary function of inhabiting,”  a la Bachelard’s essay on the phenomenology of houses.  Bachelard goes on to mention that in every dwelling it is the original shell which must be discovered, and out of curiosity or some internal drive to map the terrain of his new world, Roberto does just that.

Emerging only at night, for his eyes cannot tolerate sunlight due to either a head injury at Casale or longings for a more Romantic disposition, Roberto inches his way over the next week into the secret places of the Daphne.   “From prow to poop,” he explores the hull. After descending a small ladder he finds the pantry stocked with provisions, which reinforce the idea of ship as nourisher.  Later that night, after an attack of fear described in more detail below, he retreats to the cabin he has claimed as his own.  The ship becomes caught in a storm and Roberto, afraid, feels himself “rocked now by a nurse of giants.”  The Daphne is his cradle.  At daybreak a faint light penetrates the window of the castle, to be taken literally as forecastle of the ship or figuratively as his second castle home, after that of his childhood.  He descends later to the quarterdeck but instead of searching that floor he descends further through a trap door, “as if to gain familiarity with those deeper areas before facing his unknown enemy,” for Roberto has heard strange noises emanating from the ship’s holds.  He goes one deck further down, finding only crews’ sleeping pallets, then climbs back up to explore the mystery of the sounds emerging from the lower deck.  “This lower deck had been transformed into a kind of nave,” with sunlight pouring through numerous gratings built into the upper deck.  The illumination is like “cascades of light that spread through the darkness of a cathedral,” and so the Daphne gains religious symbolism.  Within the hold he discovers a garden: “it was like being in an Eden sprouting from the very planks of the Daphne.”  The scents of the exotic flora envelope Roberto, he swirls into a delirium of beautiful sights and odours.  Further on he finds the cache of fanciful birds which have been caught and stocked on the ship, so the ship is now aviary as well.  Eco writes, “An embarrassed Adam, he could give no names to these creatures,” and thus Roberto, as First Man, becomes the heir to this small universe.  

At this point it is important to note that Eco is handing over very obvious analogies by mentioning Eden and Adam.  In Interpretation and Overinterpretation, Eco writes, “the overestimation of the importance of clues is often born of a propensity to consider the most immediately apparent elements as significant, whereas the very fact that they are apparent should allow us to recognize that they are explicable in much more economical terms.”  He acknowledges that there may, and probably does, exist subtext to most text, and in the case of the above Edenic references he seems to be stating the most obvious so that the astute reader does not waste his time on the “immediately apparent, “ i.e. that Roberto is alone in a brand new beautiful world; alone and lonely.  Taken however as a parallel for Roberto’s pre-shipwreck life, it can be seen that the Daphne first represents Roberto’s childhood of safety and nourishment.  When forced to explore further his new world, out of curiosity or need, he finds fear and confusion, just as the teenage Roberto found fear and confusion when forced out of the safety of his homeland and into the siege at Casale.  After fear he is comforted, on the Daphne by a rocking like that of a cradle, and at Casale by the company of a Monsieur Saint Savin, whose world-wisdom soothed the confused Master della Griva.  And finally, upon finding some solace and strength Roberto renews his exploration of his place and finds a beautiful, Godly thing: In Casale it is love, on the Daphne it is a garden of paradise.  This concept of parallelism is confirmed a few chapters later (after Roberto's discoveries in the hold) by this line:  “I believe that in reconstructing the history of his misfortunes he was seeking consolation for his present state, as if the shipwreck had restored him to that earthly paradise he had known at La Griva and had left behind on entering the walls of the besieged city.”  To complete the comparison, Roberto does go home for a few years after Casale and enjoys the comfort and nourishment his mother has to offer.  He knows, however, that he has seen too much to stay on as lord when she dies, and moves on to Paris.  Likewise, his wondrous findings in the hold bring him comfort and nourishment in the form of fresh eggs and exotic fruits, but he knows that he cannot stay on the ship forever, that he must try to reach the island somehow.    

  But Bachelard mentions also the function of the imagination in inhabitation.  “The sheltered being gives perceptible limits to his shelter.  He experiences the house in its reality and in its virtuality, by means of thoughts and dreams…An entire past comes to dwell in a new house.”  In this sense the Daphne is initially endowed with the basic virtues of Roberto’s childhood home, i.e. the shelter of the worn little castle he grew up in, tools of the intellect as were offered him by his Carmelite tutor and above all nourishment, for “at La Griva…the talk was only of the goodness of melons, the reaping of the wheat, and the expectations for the vintage.”  From this refuge he had been cast into the world of death and espionage at the siege of Casale.  Just as the realities of fear invaded his conscious during that drawn-out military campaign, so do Roberto’s fears invade the Daphne as he expands his habitation.  He discovers in the above-mentioned pantry of the ship newly replenished stores of fruits, of smoked fish, barrels of tubers and fresh water “and yet these discoveries, which should have made him realize he would not die of starvation on board, made him all the more uneasy.”  He recalls fairy tales from his childhood in which such unexpected luxuries led to “the sulphurous revelation of the malignant mind that had set the trap” to bait the lovely princess or stop an adventurous young prince.  He brings into the Daphne his own history, allows the ship to develop from safe haven into a “vessel of Acheron,” a snare, a hell.   This image is reinforced by the beauty of the island which lay just beyond his reach and the cacophony of dawn noises, birds and insects of unknown species, rising from the island and flooding toward him.  He reaches into his past and draws a revelatory parallel:

He sniffed and listened to that invisible throng, as if looking from the battlements of a castle or the slit-windows of a fort at an army vociferously fanning out along the slope of the hill and the plain below, and along the river that protected the walls. He had the impression of having already experienced what he was imagining; and in the face of the immensity that besieged him, he felt besieged, and he almost aimed his musket. He was at Casale again, and before him was spread out the Spanish army…As if his life had been spent between two sieges, one the image of the other.

In that moment of identification Roberto’s past and his present merge,  for further along in the novel, yet prior to the events on the Daphne, Roberto experiences a kind of foreshadowing: “Now [at Casale]he felt as if on the bridge of a ship from which he could not go ashore, watching a vast stretch of sea and the mountains of an Island denied him.”  It is perhaps relevant to detail the events of Casale at this point because, as already noted, Roberto’s experiences there changed his world view permanently.  

Casale at Monferrato is an historical structure, a star-shaped walled fort around which a city has grown.  The region of Monferrato lay in northern Italy, at the western end of the Po river basin.  Situated as it is so near the Spanish and French borders, and crucial to the protection of both Mantua and Milano, Casale became a tactical hotspot in the Thirty Years war.  “The capture of this almost impregnable stronghold  would represent a brilliant coup” for the Spanish against the French Duke de Nevers, the strongest claimant to succession in the region.  In our novel Eco writes, 

The Pozzo di San Patrizio family belonged to the minor nobility, lords of the vast estate of La Griva along the border of the province of Alessandria (in those days a part of the duchy of Milan, and hence Spanish territory); but whether for geographical reasons or because of temperament, they considered themselves vassals of the marquis of Monferrato.  Roberto’s father spoke French with his wife, the local dialect with his peasants, and Italian with foreigners; to his son he expressed himself in various ways.

Roberto then was used to a certain fluidity in his early life and importantly bore no specific allegiances.  His universe, his world, consisted simply of the lands over which his father lorded and the parents to whom he was an only son.  When the conflict of succession begins to boil over at Casale, Roberto’s father gathers together his son and his vassals and demands that they accompany him to protect the fortress from the Spaniards.  When the ragged troops finally arrive they view Casale from the top of a hill:

They saw the city below their feet and before their eyes, guarded to the north at their left by the broad stripe of the Po, which just in front of the fortress was divided by two great islands in the midst of the river, which curved sharply towards the south as the great star-shaped bulk of the citadel.

Safely inside they meet Monsieur de Saint-Savin, an irreverent wit who shapes young Roberto's mind, creating out of the smoothness of naivety a sharp and many-faceted intellect, and who takes the teenager under his wing when Lord della Griva dies by a musket ball to the brain.   Under Saint-Savin’s tutelage, Roberto learns “that the world is composed of alien architectures.”  He hears men speak with circuitous loquacity of politics, of religion, of the inner machinations of kingly courts and papal sees.  His inner confusion is mimicked by his outward disorientation; one night he loses himself among the corridors and courtyards of Casale, taking wrong turns and eventually finds himself in a hall, at the end of which is a dirty mirror.  He sees his reflection, but he is dressed differently.  The mirror is a window, he realizes, and the man he sees is not himself but a twin image, none other, he accepts, than his secret lost brother Ferrante.

This is a crucial turning point in the novel and it is here that Henri Bergson’s writings as well as those of Gaston Bachelard can begin to be applied to the tale.  Up until this point Umberto Eco has described a very obviously symbolic world.  In fact, a great many more cross references between the Daphne and Casale are included in the book  (“Living in Casale, in the citadel, was like living on the Daphne; imagine a distant island with intruders in the house,” and “Not even on that ship could a siege be conceived in its pure state. The enemy was inside the gate.”)  Suffice to say that Roberto is reliving the experiences of his life over again, in concentrated form.  The reader is even given the key to the meaning of this repetition, that he must retrace his steps in order to find his own way out of the labyrinth which has been described about him.  At this stage the physical attributes of space are secure: ship as island, as labyrinth, as fort, as lover, as Eden; fort as island, as labyrinth, as ship; island as Eden, as lover and Roberto as rubber ball bouncing between metaphors and places.  A few more analogies:

-- “The Daphne was transformed into a Theatre of Memory,”

-- “Every corner of that seagoing house would remind him, moment by moment of everything he wanted to forget,”

-- “This was his forest…here was his invented nature, plants planed by the shipwrights of Antwerp,”

-- “…as slamming doors enlivened the considerable bulk of that wooden womb."

-- “He made the wounded city into the Land of personal unsated Tenderness, an island (presage even then) of his solitude.”

Furthermore, Roberto ultimately discovers that he is not alone on the ship, that a certain Father Caspar has hidden himself in a dark, recessed hold where he is eventually found. This learned Father replaces not only Roberto's own father from the La Griva homeland but also the surrogate father he found in Saint-Savin of Casale. Each of these men die bravely, honour intact, leaving the young man alone to ponder the wisdoms they left behind.

The analogies between place are elemental to this novel and are employed by the author to assist the reader in gaining a glimpse into the fractured mind of the protagonist. Beyond the multi-parallelism, however, lies the more complex issue of Roberto's creation of a parallel mental world in which he is no longer alone. For him space is the ultimate distance between what he has and what he wants, who he was and who he will turn out to be.

Inner Space

(And with the stroke of the pen I name myself

Master of the World

Unlimited man.) - Pierre Albert-Biereau, Les amusements naturels

Gaston Bachelard uses the above lines to describe what he terms immensity, which is “within ourselves. It is attached to a sort of expansion of being that life curbs and caution arrests, but which starts again as soon as we are alone.” In his view the grand scale of our inner self can only be reached through stillness, through daydreams when time passes unnoticed and space stretches un-checked. At this place in the indefinable inner landscape a person reunites with a core exultation, the wellspring of poetics. More than forty years earlier Henri Bergson found a similar realm, but for him it was the place where consciousness no longer dissected reality into manageable parts. He wrote, “In other words, our perceptions, sensations, emotions and ideas occur under two aspects: the one clear and precise, but impersonal; the other confused, ever changing, and inexpressible, because language cannot get hold of it without arresting its mobility.” 

Both philosophers identify a mental place without bounds in which the mind loosens its grip on the conscious, routine details of social life. The difference in their philosophies, however, is that Bergson identifies language as the obstruction to the free-flow of this state. The very attempt to define, even internally as precursor to the written or oral presentation of language, forces our consciousness into analytic mode. He does not, however, advocate a repression of the speech habit, but merely identifies that this essential quality of being human has caused man to develop socially at the cost of his true self. “As the self thus refracted, and thereby broken into pieces, is much better adapted to the requirements of social life in general and language in particular, consciousness prefers it, and gradually loses sight of the fundamental self.” It is perhaps then the adaptation to an easier mode, a permanent regression from the silent expanse of man’s inner space that Bergson prevails against.

Assuming that it is a developed part of our fundamental nature which causes the need to communicate, a meeting ground can be found between the two philosophers. If one were to stay within the realm of the fundamental self whilst attempting to communicate, perhaps one could be called a poet. Bachelard writes, “Poets will help us to discover within ourselves such joy in looking that sometimes, in the presence of a perfectly familiar object, we experience an extension of our intimate space.” Roberto della Griva, socialized, alone, feels a desperate need to record his existence, to create an extension, a parallel universe in words in which a lover and a brother experience all that he cannot. From his confinement on the ship he draws them to him, so that they retrace his journey to the antipodes, so that they can rescue him or be destroyed by him. But in this process of identifying through text the space between himself and those he needs, he discovers the secrets of time and its relevance to his ultimate freedom:

He thought, namely, that he would construct a story, of which he was surely not the protagonist, inasmuch as it would not take place in this world but in a Land of Romances, and this story’s events would unfold parallel to those of the world in which he was, the two sets of adventures never meeting and overlapping.

Roberto would write (or conceive) the story of Ferrante and of his loves with Lilia, and only by constructing that fictional world would Roberto forget the gnawing of his jealousy in the real world.

The Others

Who are Ferrante and Lilia to Roberto?  They are extensions of himself, facets of his person made real by his need to own a few simple sureties in his world.  Ferrante is the brother he never had and Lilia the Lover he never attains, but they become more, grow as fed by his imagination and need to connect with his surroundings.  Ferrante begins his life as figment of Roberto's imagination, a second son born bastard to either his mother or father and kept secret out of shame.  This brother, he assumed, must be evil to have been so firmly rejected by his parents and must in turn despise Roberto for being the favourite.  Despite that Roberto wanted to know the other, “in order to love him and be loved.”  This brother of sin grew into a scapegoat for Roberto; he found it easy to blame Ferrante for his own boyhood crimes yet in a noble and ironic twist, shouldered the blame to save his rejected brother more humiliation.  This Roberto saw as the noblest of methods, and thus Ferrante became permanently entwined in Roberto's identity. 

Bergson notes in Time and Free Will that, “we are generally content with the…shadow of the self projected into homogenous space.  Consciousness, goaded by an insatiable desire to separate, substitutes the symbol for the reality, or perceives the reality only through the symbol.”  Roberto seems to perceive this need from a very early age, perhaps due to some innate pressure at being the only son and heir to his parents, of needing to live up to the integrity they possess.  The deeper motive for the creation of an alter ego is not offered by the novel, but it is clear that after Ferrrante’s appearance he becomes the psychic embodiment of Roberto's sins.  He succumbs to the need to separate and proceeds to perceive reality, for example a punishable act he has performed, through the symbol for evil which is Ferrante.  In Bergson’s view this shadow self is the medium through which we perceive the world, though it is doubtful that he meant to imply a literal split into self and shadow, as Roberto employs.  Most of us project our reality into homogenous space, a common social format which exists in a kind of sequentiality.  In homogenous space we set one thought next to another, forcing a spatial mapping of reality, creating a past out of the thought which directly preceded the current one.  He writes, “We set our states of consciousness side by side to perceive them simultaneously, not in but alongside one another.  We project time into space.”   

Roberto not only separates his consciousness as most of us do, allowing for our reality to gain a sense of history, or existence in time, but divides himself further into saint and sinner.  And with the decision to create the tale of the Land of Romances, he multiplies again his segregation of consciousness.  Not only is he then, as Roberto, mapping his own reality, but that of Ferrante as well.  He creates for his mystery brother an entire existence, replete with thoughts, passions and actions.  He endows this shadow figure with his own lusts for the Lady Lilia and his desperate longings to be found, for Ferrante is set by Roberto on a voyage to find his very own self.  The ensuing passage is the narrator describing Roberto's tale of Ferrante’s passage as political prisoner aboard the Tweede Daphne (Daphne the Second)

Wanting to take revenge on Roberto for a wrong he had not inflicted, Ferrante racked his brain for a way to encourage a revolt, seize the ship, and set out on Roberto's trail. He knew where to begin: in Amsterdam he would find spies who could tell him something of the destination of the Amaryllis. He would overtake it, would discover Roberto's secret, rid himself of that tedious double in the sea and then would be able to sell something to the Cardinal at a high price.

The convolutions of the above paragraph exemplify the state of Roberto's mind.  He is writing the history of an imaginary brother who is setting out to find him.  And kill him.  Time takes on a urgency for the castaway as he writes his murderous brother closer and closer to his world.

The issue of the Lady Lilia is very similar to that of Ferrante.  Once again Roberto segregates a state of consciousness from the totality of his being; in this case it is adoration which is excised and called secret love.  “On that same evening of their first encounter, her veil dropped for an instant from her brow and he was able to glimpse under that sickle moon the luminous abyss of her eyes – Roberto flattered himself, sure that she had looked at him, and, in looking had seen him.”  What he refuses to realize is that she is a courtesan, a précieuse, that his love letters to her are of no importance and that though he may win her approval with salon wit and charm, he will never win her hand.  He falls in love with an unattainable society creature, creating a silent affair between them just as fictitious as his Ferrante.  

As Roberto suffers his first days upon the Daphne he locates himself in his vague surroundings by writing to Lilia.  In his florid prose he pines for her, recalling his past in her presence and longing for a future by her side.  In building his concept of free will, Bergson addresses the issue of deep-seated feeling in the light of intensity and extensity.  He takes issue with the ease in which levels of intensity are applied to states of consciousness.  For example stating that one is more or less cold, which of course has basis in physical reality, can be considered subjective.  But how can a state such as sorrow be said to grow and diminish, be of greater or lesser magnitude now than before?  It seems to be realistic to make such claims, but how do we gradate consciousness?  Extensive quantity is after all measurable, while intensive quantity is not, but can still be said to be more or less intense.  We tend to use measurable imagery to grade the immeasurable and furthermore find measurable causes which may have created the state.  By saying “I’ve walked a mile and therefore I am very tired,” I have found a measurable, extensive cause for my intensive condition.  I find a way to interpret my now by viewing it through my most recent past.  In the case of deeper-seated feelings such as joy or sorrow, a similar process is applied.  

For example, an obscure desire gradually becomes a deep passion. Now, you will see that the feeble intensity of this desire consisted at first in its appearing to be isolated and, as it were, foreign to the remainder of your inner life. But little by little it permeates a larger number of psychic elements, tingeing them, so to speak, with its own colour…How do you become aware of a deep passion, once it has taken hold of you, if not by perceiving that the same objects no longer impress you in the same manner? - Henri Bergson

We tend to need to pin down this permeating intensity through words, thus giving accessible outlines to feelings and passions the way objects in space are outlined. When the conscious has created images of the internal states it is ready to apply magnitudes to the pictures formed. Roberto certainly feels a need to place his passions on paper, misrepresented passions, for Roberto's hot love smacks of sheer fear of loneliness. Even while in her midst, in Paris, he is unable to make a decisive move to have her. He longs and hopes instead. Bergson interprets hope as allowing ourselves to create potential futures, the realization of any one coming at the cost of destruction to all the others, “ and this is why we find more charm in hope than in possession, in dreams than in reality.” One of the possible futures facing Roberto is that he will be rejected by Lilia and thus it is sweeter to imagine their love affair than to see it sunk in the reality of dismissal.

Sorrow, too, is an aspect of Roberto's existence, and Bergson addresses that condition as well. “Sorrow,” he explains, “begins by being nothing more than facing towards the past, an impoverishment of our sensations and ideas.” When the object (person, passion) through which we have most recently interpreted our existence is removed from our presence, we are left with a history as seen through the lens of their being. Just as joy colours every aspect of how we see the space in which we live, so will the loss of that joy be the loss of a certain type of vision. Our extensity becomes hard to define without the presence of the filter we have become adjusted to. Roberto is left with only the memory of who he had been before the shipwreck. His creation of the Land of Romances is his attempt to keep the rose lenses in place, to keep himself from experiencing true sorrow and thus the impoverishment of his sensations and ideas.

Ferrante and Lilia become lovers on board the Tweede Daphne, Lilia thinking all the while that it is Roberto she is making love to. Roberto, however, continues to lose his sense of the division between his reality on the ship and that which he is creating in his story. He has Ferrante kiss Lilia then, “at that outraged excess, forgetting that she was giving to Ferrante, believing him Roberto, the proof that Roberto had so desired, he hated Lilia, and running about the ship, he howled.” He holds a kind of private discourse with himself as to the nature of substance, of the Void, of time:

Roberto thought now of that dialogue. The Void and space were like time, or time was like the Void and space. Sidereal spaces exist where our earth appears like an ant, and so do spaces such as the world of corals, the ants of our Universe – and all these spaces are one inside the other.

Did there not exist – and close at hand- a place where the time was yesterday?

Perhaps he had already entered one of those worlds where, once an atom of water had begun corroding the shell of a dead coral, now crumbled and scattered by the many years that had passed, as many as those form the birth of Adam to the Redemption. And was he not living his own love in this time, where Lilia…had become something for whose conquest he now had at his disposal the tedium of centuries? Was he not preparing to live in an infinite future?

He begins to understand that there are many different worlds existing at once, like a layered cake in which the jelly of one level does not know of the cream of another.  He accepts that Ferrante is himself, though not a figment of his imagination.  No, Ferrante is Roberto in another, parallel world into which he has gained access.  Roberto writes, “But I am I, and Ferrante is Ferrante, and now I will prove it, having him experience adventures of which I could not be the protagonist – and which, if they take place in any universe, it is that of Imagination, parallel to none other.”  It is at this point that Roberto begins to exercise a semblance of free will.  He accepts that Ferrante must eventually arrive at his ship and that he will have to face the consequences of battling his Other to the death, for “time is not a line which one can pass again.”  He has written his brother into his universe and that path is not one he can go back down.  For Roberto needs to not only face his dark aspect, but accept the true nature of love as well.  In other words, he needs both Ferrante and Lilia to come to him, and as Ferrante has Lilia in his evil clutches, Roberto must bring them both to his ship.  

His decision represents “ a dynamic progress in which the self and its motives, like real living beings, are in a constant state of becoming.” Henri Bergson sees this nowness, this timeless development of self as the essence of free will. We do not predetermine the path we will take nor assume that there is only one possible path to take, but rather exist within immediate experiences. Roberto has accepted that he exists in the most timeless of places, that just over there, at that invisible line, flows eternity. He meditates on time, on motion, on sense of space. He becomes a rock, “which has no sensory organs. He tried to erase every personal memory, every demand of his own human body.” He considers that a stone must know time, that it is a clock of itself, that time results from motion, motion of the earth in its diurnal course. And that motion insinuates space and space restricted implies limited freedom and that the difference between Roberto man and Roberto rock is that man can choose to wish to be free. Can will to be free. Then Roberto tries to imagine a stone dying, becoming one again with magma, becoming a composite as he himself will one day. And he has a revelation, an understanding that he will decay just as his Lady will, and that they will be joined. “Lilia and I, one body and one though.” He must destroy Ferrante to be able to die and join his Love. At this point our narrator states, “he did not know that, especially when their authors are now determined to die, stories often write themselves, and go where they want to go.”

Bergson, in pursuing the essence of free will, describes a scenario relevant to Roberto's state. He gives us Peter and philosopher Paul, living at the same time. Can Paul know what choices Peter will make and the circumstances surrounding them? Bergson ponders,

There are several ways of picturing the mental condition of a person at a given moment. We try to do it when e.g. we read a novel; whatever care the author may have taken in depicting the feelings of his hero, and even in tracing back his history, the end, foreseen or unforeseen, will add something to the idea we had formed of the character: the character, therefore, was only imperfectly known to us.

If Paul is to have an adequate idea of Peter’s history, there are only two courses open; either, like a novelist who knows whither he is conducting his characters, Paul must already know Peter’s final act, and must thus be able to supplement his mental image of the successive states through which Peter is going to pass by some indication of their value in relation to the whole of Peter’s history; or he must make up his mind to pass through these different states, not in imagination, but in reality. [Paul] is not, as we had thought at first, a spectator whose eyes pierce the future, but an actor who plays Peter’s part in advance.

You must now make up your mind about it: Peter and Paul are the one and the same person, whom you call Peter when he acts and Paul when you recapitulate his history…you thus reached the very moment when, the action taking place, there was no longer anything to be foreseen, but only something to be done.

Roberto writes the final chapter of his romance, not knowing where it will take him. He is Paul, about to learn that he is merging with his Peter, and that Peter’s, i.e. Ferrante’s, death will certainly mean his own. In a poison fever the Other comes to Roberto and cries,

“ I have had only one father, one mother: your festered mind. You taught me only to hate. Do you think you have given me a great gift, giving me life so that in your Land of Romances I could embody Suspicion? As long as you are alive, thinking for me what I must think, I will never cease to despise myself. So whether you kill me or I kill you, the end is the same."

The brothers engage each other in sword fight until Roberto sticks Ferrante with his weapon, “thus restor[ing] space to time.” Later he writes Ferrante onto the deck of his the Amaryllis and has him slayed. He understands then that “he had allowed himself to be dazed by his wave-pounding exile, seeking always another self – dreadful in Ferrante, excellent in Lilia.” The dread is removed and now as author he must join himself completely to the second other. He has cast her out into the sea and she, lovely Lilia, is stranded on a mean rock on the opposite side of the island from Roberto on the Daphne. She is in permanent yesterday, suffering in the sun, dying in the pounding waves. He knows he cannot reach the island to save her. So he chooses another option, born of timeless free will and unconditional love for another:

If he were to let himself float [along the meridian current], his eyes staring at the sky, he would never again see the sun move: he would drift along that border that separates today from the day before, outside time, eternal noon…by now everything depended on his narrative decision. If he was suspended, the story of the Island would be suspended.

For, as Bergson puts it, “time does not require to be seen, but to be lived.”

Time and Free Will is summed up with the question, “Can time be adequately represented by space?” Freedom, it seems, can only be explained by the answer to this question. His answer: “Yes, if you are dealing with time flown; No if you speak of time flowing.” The free act, he explains, can only take place in time flowing, not in that which has already passed, and by definition is not containable in a special realm. Freedom is a fact, he states, inexpressible, untranslatable, of intensities which flow and merge into one another, beyond measurable duration. Time is the ghost of space.

It seems equally clear that Roberto della Griva was not free until the moment when his universes merged, when his physical world, and all of the space which kept him from attaining his objects and goals, dissolved into pure, immeasurable duration. Eco writes that Roberto left the Daphne forever, ”thrusting…towards one of the two happinesses that were surely awaiting him.” Facing parallelism even in his coda, we can perhaps believe these happinesses to be eternal death, securely in the space of the Pacific ocean, or eternal life with Lilia, beyond time.


More than two millennia after Aristotle the nature of space is still unresolved, thought the essential dialogue has seemingly advanced beyond the question of whether space has a specific substance, i.e. whether or not it is an atom broth, cosmic gel or intangible ether.  

Quantum science now pays heed to the interactions of known particles within an ever-changing continuum (space) based on theoretic equations which are impossible to perform. The philosophical sciences have perhaps been overshadowed by the social sciences which tend to question more the nature of being a fulfilled human than the morass in which we may wade. Just as the study of space has evolved, so has the way in which the word itself is applied. We have in modern times captured space, claimed it as something specifically relevant to personal existence. No longer Aristotelian matter or even Platonic womb, space is something the modern human can acquire (the ubiquitous artist’s loft space), visit (for a few million dollars), work in (the pre-fab cubicle as one’s very own office space), do (space-out) and claim (‘I just need some space’.)

Space is something that we have reclaimed. As Lucy Lippard confirms, cultures which the modern world term primitive and indigenous give a historical glimpse at the ways in which space was defined before the overlay of Reason on the map of human consciousness (Lippard writes, “According to Elaine Jahner, the Lakota teach that ‘the physical world is spirit seen from without and the spiritual world is the physical viewed from another dimension.’“) With the formalization of Greek logic methods in the fourth century BC came the intensive drive to compartmentalize the variables of existence. Thought became rationalized and the rational man lived Space, as surely a thing to be defined as Air, Body and Change. We Moderns can be said to have reclaimed space by personalizing it again. It is now something we carry with us or at the very least something each individual is given the freedom to define for themselves. Social philosophy and particle physics have helped this movement by confirming that no two interactions, be they between quarks or humans, are exactly the same. The space which separates is a series of probabilities influenced by time, weather, mood, point of view. It is no longer something which must be crossed but, as Roberto della Griva discovers, a definition of our very existence in our histories, and in our personal world. 

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