The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco (1994/en-1995) (read in 2017)

Published by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This is the story of Roberto de la Griva, an Italian stranded on an island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. We hear of how he was at the wars between the Spanish, French and Italians over northern Italy. We hear of how he lost his father. We learn of his education in the salons of Paris. We hear how he is railroaded into a journey to the other side of the world by French intriguers high up in government bent on learning the secrets of the Meridians before the Dutch.

We learn of various mechanisms by which one might determine the Meridian. Many are absolutely hare-brained and doubtless thoroughly researched by the author.

When Roberto ends up stranded on the island, he has arrived there after his first ship—The Amaryllis—has shipwrecked. On that boat, he’d befriended an Englishman (Byrd) who’d seemingly discovered a way of determining the meridian by using “empathy at a distance”, a ludicrous scientific theory whereby the blade that caused a wound can be used to influence the wound afterwards. Apply salve to the blade and the wounded is instantaneously soothed; apply fire and the wounded writhes in further pain. Since the action is instantaneous and occurs at a distance with no known physical mechanism, the clever Englishman wounds a dog in England, takes it with him on his journey, and then keeps the wound open for the entire journey to the Antipodes. The blade is subjected to actions at agreed-upon times, so that Byrd knows the time accurately enough in England to calculate his longitudinal position.

This is obvious balderdash and good riddance to the lot of them. Roberto sees that Byrd is most likely seeing what he wants to see and likely has no more real idea where he is than countless sailors before him.

When the ship wrecks, Roberto escapes with his life, bumping up against the Daphne, a pristine and (nearly) abandoned ship moored about a mile off of the eponymous island. Roberto investigates the boat, only to find unexpected scientific treasures that indicate that the Daphne was perhaps on the same mission as the Amaryllis. He suspects an “Intruder” on his boat and eventually meets Father Caspar (or does he?): a Jesuit, with whom he discusses various scientific topics like the position and motion of astral bodies, the composition of matter and so on. Many of these concepts are discarded theories from past centuries, lovingly brought back to life by Eco, the master of such arcana. In a way, the theories of today sound just as hare-brained, leading one to wonder with what laughter they will be greeted by subsequent generations.

The good father can make not only a water-pumped musical organ but can also teach Roberto to swim and has also invented an underwater diving apparatus. It is a veritable tour-de-force of 16th-century science. He drowns in it, trying to get to the Island of the Day Before?

Why is it called that? Because the good father believes he has navigated to the antemeridian, the Antipodes, so that the island lies constantly in yesterday relative to the Daphne’s today.

Was he correct? It is hard to know. He was trying to reach the island to get to the Speculum Melitensis, a device he’d constructed on the island that somehow encompasses every amazing bit of scientific knowledge and insight wrapped in one giant, delicate object. It was set up by Caspar and the sailors but has now likely dropped into disrepair. Subsequent chapters throw doubt on the reality of Father Caspar entirely.

Roberto also spends an interminable time wondering about the fire dove that Caspar described seeing on the island, but he fails to descry it even once. This does not stop Eco—in the form of the modern-day editor of Roberto’s tale—from going on at tedious length about everything he knows about doves and their significance in legend.

The book picks up significantly in the final third, as Roberto spins onion-shells of stories around his lady love, Lydia, whom he forces into a tryst with his nonexistent brother Ferrante (resurrected from his psyche) so that Roberto’s own love can be best expressed in a white-hot jealousy that he himself controls. Ferrante’s track through Europe and purported/fictitious crossing with Roberto—and all of the people Roberto met in Paris, like Richelieu and Mazarin—is a rollicking tale, well-told.

He ends up a pirate, heading for the exact island off of which the Daphne is anchored, on a ship crewed by micreants, with Lydia hidden on-board as an androgyne sailor and his nemesis lashed to a cross in the hold, serving in the role of the wounded dog in Ferrante’s ship’s longitudinal instrument. They visit island after island, one more bizarre than the next (similar to Gulliver in Swift’s tale, with Roberto serving in the role of the narrator from Cloud Atlas). None of this actually happens, other than in Roberto’s fevered mind, desperately trying to build a life with his love from hallucinatory fragments.

As usual with Eco, it’s nearly impossible to tell which way is up, which tale is true, whether Roberto is even on the boat or trapped on the island in the form of Ferrante, imagining himself elsewhere, or vice versa. The master at work.


“It is difficult to reconstruct the actions and feelings of a character surely afire with true love, for you never know whether he is expressing what he feels or what the rules of amorous discourse prescribe in his case—but then, for that matter, what do we know of the difference between passion felt and passion expressed, and who can say which has precedence?”
Page 5

Classic Eco.

“"Sir,“ Pozzo said, “be so kind as to make way for us, for we must go and take up our proper position in order to fire on you.” The officer doffed his hat, bowed with a salute that would have swept dust two meters before him, and said: “Señor, no es menor gloria veneer al enemigo con la cortesía en la paz que con las armas en la guerra.” Then, in good Italian, he added: “Proceed, sir. If a fourth of our men prove to have one half of your courage, we will win. May Heaven grant me the pleasure of meeting you on the field of battle, and the honor of killing you.””
Page 31
“In short, there will be glory for all. Now let us go to supper. The siege has only begun and provisions are still plentiful. It will be a while before we start eating the rats.“”
Page 35
“Now Jesuits lascivious as rams fulminate against the readers of Rabelais and the Latin poets, and would have us all be virtuous and kill the Huguenots. Lord God, war is a beautiful thing, but I want to fight for my own pleasure and not because my adversary eats meat on Friday. The pagans were wiser than we. They had their three gods, but at least their mother Cybele did not claim to give birth and yet remain a virgin.””
Page 60
“the first quality of an honest man is contempt for religion, which would have us afraid of the most natural thing in the world, which is death; and would have us hate the one beautiful thing destiny has given us, which is life. We should rather aspire to a heaven where only the planets live in eternal bliss, receiving neither rewards nor condemnations, but enjoying merely their own eternal motion in the arms of the void. Be strong like the sages of ancient Greece and look at death with steady eye and no fear. Jesus sweated too much, awaiting it. Why should he have been afraid, for that matter, since he was going to rise again?”
Page 60
“The wise man must attack falsehood not only with his sword but also with his tongue. My friends, how can you call merciful a divinity that desires our eternal unhappiness only to appease his rage of an instant? We must forgive our neighbor, and he need not? And we should love such a cruel being?”
Page 61
“That infinity of worlds of which Saint-Savin spoke to him was to be sought beyond the constellations, in the very center of this bubble of space of which he, pure eye, was now the source of infinite parallaxes.”
Page 66
“Stop, Monsieur de la Grive, draw your sword once again, like that, parry, there! You set your heels along the same line: a mistake, for you jeopardize the steadiness of your legs. The head must not be held erect, because the space between the shoulder and the neck exposes an excessive surface to the blows of the adversary….“”
Page 80
“But you see how man is also machine, and it suffices to turn one wheel on the surface and other wheels then turn inside: the brother and the enmity are merely the reflection of the fear that each man has of himself, of the recesses of his own soul, where unconfessed desires lurk, or, as they are saying in Paris, unconscious concepts.”
Page 82
“”You cannot believe what you are saying.“ “Well, no. Hardly ever. But the philosopher is like the poet. The latter composes ideal letters for an ideal nymph, only to plumb with his words the depths of passion. The philosopher tests the coldness of his gaze, to see how far he can undermine the fortress of bigotry.”
Page 83
“If Genius, & therefore Learning, consists in connecting remote Notions & finding Similitude in things dissimilar, then Metaphor, the most acute and farfetched among Tropes, is the only one capable of producing Wonder, which gives birth to Pleasure, as do changes of scene in the theater. And if the Pleasure produced by Figures derives from learning new things without effort & many things in small volume, then Metaphor, setting our mind to flying betwixt one Genus & another, allows us to discern in a single Word more than one Object.””
Page 90
“Hear me out. For half an hour you have been interrupting me to say what you think and, under the guise of questioning me, you would show me I am mistaken. Never do this again, especially with the powerful. Occasions will arise when confidence in your own perspicacity and the impulse to tell the truth will enable you to give sound advice to someone of higher station. Never do it. Every victory produces hatred in the vanquished, and if the victory is over one’s own master, then it is foolish or harmful. Princes wish to be assisted, not outstripped. But you must be prudent also with your equals. Do not humiliate them by your merits.”
Page 111
“Dissimulating means drawing a veil composed of honest shadows, which does not constitute falsehood but allows truth some respite.”
Page 112
“He envisaged situations in which La Novarese, pursued by Landsknechts, fell overcome into his arms as he routed the assailants and led her, exhausted, into a garden where he enjoyed her wild gratitude.”
Page 127
“As His Eminence the Cardinal is accustomed to saying, the innate frivolity of the French brings them to desire change”
Page 183
“"You have succumbed to the vices of this city and this country. As His Eminence the Cardinal is accustomed to saying, the innate frivolity of the French brings them to desire change because of the tedium caused by the present. Some of these light-minded gentlemen, whom the King has taken care to make still lighter by relieving them of their head, seduced you with their subversive propositions. Your case is not the sort that need disturb any tribunal. The States, whose preservation is of necessity extremely dear to us, would quickly be ruined if in matters of crime that tend to their subversion we demanded proofs of the sort required in common”
Page 183
“"We would be lacking in Christian charity if we absolutely denied the possibility of your innocence or of our being victim of a misunderstanding. But the misunderstanding so coincides with our plans that we see no reason to examine it. For that matter, you would not wish to insinuate that we are proposing to you a dishonest exchange, as if to say either you are innocent and to the block with you, or self-confessed guilty and, by perjury, in our service….“”
Page 185
“The plague is transmitted, as everyone knows, through venenific unguents, and he had read of people who died by wetting a finger with saliva as they leafed through works whose pages had in fact been smeared with a poison.”
Page 248

From The Name of the Rose. Cheeky.

“It is as if from a held breath, from a coal reddening through an inner respiration, from that göldene Quelle des Universums was born a scale of luminous excellences gradually descending towards the most irreparable of imperfections; as if the creative afflatus came from the infinite and concentrated luminous power of the Divinity, so searing that it seems to us dark night, down through the relative perfection of the Cherubim and the Seraphim, through the Thrones and the Dominions, to the lowest waste where the worm crawls and the insensible stone survives at the very border of the Void. “And this was the Offenbarung gottlicher Mayestat!””
Page 256
“Was it not beautiful to imagine the Father of the Universe blowing on that still-green ball, urging it to celebrate its victory twelve hours after the birth of Time, right here on the Antipodal Meridian where they stood at this moment?”
Page 258
“Roberto reasoned that if God removed the water of yesterday and placed it in today, the earth of yesterday might undergo a succussation thanks to that damned center of gravity, but to human beings this should not matter: in their yesterday the succussation had not taken place; it had happened instead in a yesterday of God, who clearly knew how to handle different times and different stories, as a Narrator who writes several novels, all with the same characters, but making different things befall them from story to story.”
Page 267
“"Bravo, Signor Roberto! You would not allow that the heavens are of crystal, because you were afraid the comets would break them, but you like them to be liquid, so the birds inside them drown! Further, this idea of vortices explains that the earth turns around the sun, but does not turn on itself as a child’s top spins!” “Yes, but that philosopher said also that in this case it is the surface of the seas and the superficial crust of our globe that revolve, while the deep core remains still. I think.””
Page 314

The discussion of scientific ideas and theories reminds me of the Baroque Cycle. the search for truth. the discovery of the meridians…

“But Roberto already knew what the Jesuit’s real objection would be. Like that of the abbé on that evening of the duel when Saint-Savin provoked him: If there are infinite worlds, the Redemption can no longer have any meaning, and we are obliged either to imagine infinite Calvaries or to look on our terrestrial flowerbed as a privileged spot of the Cosmos, on which God permitted His Son to descend and free us from sin, while the other worlds were not granted this grace—to the discredit of His infinite goodness. And, in fact, this was the response of Father Caspar, which allowed Roberto to attack.”
Page 316
“He lied often but never pointlessly. He knew that to be believed he had to make everyone see that sometimes he told the truth to his own disadvantage, and kept silent when the truth might win him praise. On the other hand, he tried to gain the reputation of a man sincere with his inferiors, so that their words would reach the ears of the powerful. He became convinced that to simulate with one’s equals is a fault, but not to simulate with one’s superiors is foolhardiness.”
Page 371
“[…] with his betters he took care to make his ignorance evident, while seeming to admire in them what he already knew.”
Page 372
“Here, wishing to invent a passage that no author of novels had yet conceived, to portray the feelings of that greedy youth preparing to conquer the city that was a compendium of Europe’s civility, Asia’s profusion, Africa’s extravagance, and America’s riches, where novelty had its realm, deceit its palace, luxury its center, courage its arena, beauty its hemicycle, fashion its cradle, and virtue its grave, Roberto put into Ferrante’s mouth an arrogant cry: “Paris, a nous deux!””
Page 376
“Ferrante considered woman the portrait of inconstancy, minister of fraud, fickle in speech, belated in action, and quick in caprice. Educated by would-be ascetics who never ceased reminding him that El hombre es el fuego, la mujer la estopa, viene el diablo y sopla, he was accustomed to considering every daughter of Eve an imperfect animal, an error of Nature, a torture for the eyes if ugly, a suffering of the heart if beautiful, tyrant of any who loved her, enemy of any who scorned her, disordered in her desires, implacable in her dislikes, capable of enchanting with the mouth and enchaining with the eyes.”
Page 381
“Why not consider these fish the inhabitants of a world that has its forests, its peaks, its trees, and its valleys, and knows nothing of the world above the surface? Similarly, we live with no knowledge that the curved sky conceals other worlds, where people do not walk or swim but fly and navigate through the air. If what we call planets are the keels of their vessels, of which we see only the shining bottom, then these children of Neptune must see above them the shadow of our galleons and consider them heavenly bodies moving through their aqueous firmament.”
Page 415
“"In person, my dear brother. I, who—as you were struggling like a dog or a frog—found my ship again on the far side of the Island, and sailed through my long Thursday towards Jerusalem, found the other Judas on the verge of betraying, hanged him from a fig tree, preventing him from handing over the Son of Man to the Sons of Darkness, entered the Garden of Olives with my men and abducted Our Lord, stealing Him from Calvary! And now you, I, all of us are living in a world that has never been redeemed!” “But Christ? Where is Christ now?” “Do you then not know that the ancient texts already said there are doves the color of flame because the Lord, before being crucified, wore a scarlet tunic? Have you not yet understood? For one thousand six hundred and ten years Christ has been prisoner on the Island, whence He tries to escape in the form of an Orange Dove, but is unable to abandon that place, where next to the Specula Melitensis I have left Judas’s scapular, and where it is therefore forever the same day.”
Page 458
“For that matter, how long was the time when I did not exist, and for how long in the future will I not be? I occupy a very small space in the abyss of the years. This little interval does not succeed in distinguishing me from the nothingness into which I shall go. I came into the world only to swell the ranks. My part was so small that even if I had remained in the wings, everyone would still have declared the play perfect.”
Page 466
“But an atom divisible to infinity, producing parts ever smaller and ever more divisible, would lead me to a moment where matter would be nothing but infinite divisibility, and all its hardness and its fullness would be sustained by this simple balancing among voids. Matter, rather than feeling a horror of the Void, would then worship it, and would be composed of it, would be void-in-itself, absolute vacuity. Absolute vacuity would be at the very heart of the unthinkable geometrical point, and this point would be only the island of Utopia we dream of, in an ocean made always and only of water.”
Page 472
“[…] movements of the atoms that compose me, that is, the stable vibration of the positions that the parts of my parts of my parts maintain among themselves. I would feel the hum of my stoning. But I could not say I, because to say I there must be others, something else against which to oppose myself. In principle the stone cannot know if there is anything outside itself. It hums. Its stoning is a stoning of stoning. Of the rest it knows nothing. It is a world. A world that worlds along on its own.”
Page 475
“[…] the Austral Winds, with Boreas and Eurus, staunch enemies of the calm of the sea—even if till now they had left to the placid Zephyrs the responsibility of following the path along which the Tweede Daphne continued her voyage—were beginning to show signs of impatience in the confinement of their subterranean chambers. He made them burst forth all at once. The groan of the timbers covered the ground bass of the sailors’ lamentations, the sea vomited upon them and they vomited into the sea, and sometimes a wave so enfolded them that from the shore one might have mistaken that deck for a coffin of ice, around which the thunderbolts flared like wax tapers.”
Page 484
“At first the storm set clouds against clouds, waters against waters, winds against winds. But soon the sea abandoned its prescribed limits and grew, swelling, towards the sky, and rain came pouring down, the water mixed with the air, the birds learning to swim and the fish to fly. It was no longer a struggle of Nature against the seamen but a battle of the elements among themselves. Not one atom of air swirled but that it was not transformed into a pellet of hail, and Neptune rose to extinguish the fire in Jove’s hands, to rob him of the pleasure of burning those humans whom Neptune wanted instead to drown.”
Page 485
“All was enveloped in a light haze, as happens when the sun has just disappeared and the night has not yet taken possession of the sky.”
Page 487
“Thus each of us yearns for a decomposition that—as well we know—will never be total; we wish that for us Eternity has not yet begun, yet we fear that we have been in it ever since our remote arrival on this shore. Living, we believed Hell was the place of eternal despair, because so they told us. Alas, no, for it is the place of undying hope, which makes each day worse than the one before, as this thirst, which is kept alive in us, is never slaked.”
Page 490
“”And God—?” Ferrante asked. “Does God laugh?” “No, alas,” the excoriated man replied, “because even humiliation would exalt us. How beautiful it would be if we could see at least a laughing God come to taunt us! What distraction, the spectacle of the Lord who from His throne, among His saints, makes sport of us. We would have the sight of another’s joy, as cheering as the sight of another’s frown. No, here no one is outraged, no one laughs, no one shows himself. God is not here. Here there is only hope without goal.””
Page 491
“But Roberto, as we have seen, having begun with the idea that the Land of Romances was completely separate from his own world, had finally come to make the two universes flow effortlessly one into the other, and he had mingled their laws. He thought that he could arrive at the Island because he was imagining his arrival, and that he could imagine hers at the moment when he was already there, because this was what he wished. On the other hand, he was transferring to his own world that freedom to will events and to see them achieved which makes Romances unpredictable. Finally, he would reach the Island for the simple reason that if he did not reach it, he would no longer know what story to tell.”
Page 497
“[…] phantom vessel, its bulwarks encrusted with shells, green with seaweed, water stagnating in its riven hold, a refuge of mollusks and poisonous fish.”
Page 508
“Nor could I elude the childish curiosity of the reader, who would want to know if Roberto really wrote the pages on which I have dwelt far too long. In all honesty, I would have to reply that it is not impossible that someone else wrote them, someone who wanted only to pretend to tell the truth. And thus I would lose all the effect of the novel: where, yes, you pretend to tell true things, but you must not admit seriously that you are pretending.”
Page 512

Here he sounds so much like Žižek, who also dwells on the difference between knowing something and having proof of it.