The story of Abbé Vallet (Umberto Eco)

(From the foreword of the 1985 edition of Umberto Eco, How to write a thesis) 

… Here I would like to recount the most curious thing that happened to me. It regards a section of this book, specifically section 4.2.4 on the topic of “Academic Humility.” In this section I attempted to show that the best ideas do not always come from major authors, and that no intellectual contribution should be shunned because of the author’s status. As an example, I recounted the writing of my own laurea thesis, during which I found a decisive idea that resolved a thorny theoretical problem, in a small book of little originality written in 1887 by a certain abbot Vallet, a book that I found by chance in a market stall.

After the book you are reading appeared, Beniamino Placido wrote a charming review in La Repubblica (September 22, 1977). In it he likened this story of my research adventure with the abbot Vallet to the fairy tale in which a character becomes lost in the woods. As happens in fairy tales, and as has been theorized by the Soviet formalist V. Y. Propp, the lost character meets a “donor” who gives him a “magic key.” Placido’s interpretation of my story was not that bizarre, considering that research is after all an adventure, but Placido implied that, to tell my fairy tale, I had invented the abbot Vallet. When I met Placido, I told him:

You are wrong; the abbot Vallet exists, or rather he existed, and I still have his book at home. It has been more than twenty years since I have opened it, but since I have a good visual memory, to this day I remember the page on which I found that idea, and the red exclamation point that I wrote in the margin. Come to my home and I will show you the infamous book of the abbot Vallet.

No sooner said than done: we go to my home, we pour ourselves two glasses of whiskey, I climb a small ladder to reach the high shelf where, as I remembered, the fated book had rested for twenty years. I find it, dust it, open it once again with a certain trepidation, look for the equally fated page, which I find with its beautiful exclamation point in the margin.

This is how the book in question looks…

I show the page to Placido, and then I read him the excerpt that had helped me so much. I read it, I read it again, and I am astonished. The abbot Vallet had never formulated the idea that I attributed to him; that is to say he had never made the connection that seemed so brilliant to me, a connection between the theory of judgment and the theory of beauty.
Vallet wrote of something else. Stimulated in some mysterious way by what he was saying, I made that connection myself and, and as I identified the idea with the text I was underlining, I attributed it to Vallet. And for more than twenty years I had been grateful to the old abbot for something he had never given me. I had produced the magic key on my own.
But is this really how it is? Is the merit of that idea truly mine? Had I never read Vallet, I would never have had that idea. He may not have been the father of that idea, but he certainly was, so to speak, its obstetrician. He did not gift me with anything, but he kept my mind in shape, and he somehow stimulated my thinking. Is this not also what we ask from a teacher, to provoke us to invent ideas?
As I recalled this episode, I became aware that many times over the course of my readings, I had attributed to others ideas that they had simply inspired me to look for; and many other times I remained convinced that an idea was mine until, after revisiting some books read many years before, I discovered that the idea, or its core, had come to me from a certain author. One (unnecessary) credit I had given to Vallet made me realize how many debts I had forgotten to pay. I believe the meaning of this story, not dissonant with the other ideas in this book, is that research is a mysterious adventure that inspires passion and holds many surprises. Not just an individual but also an entire culture participates, as ideas sometimes travel freely, migrate, disappear, and reappear. In this sense, ideas are similar to jokes that become better as each person tells them.
Therefore, I decided that I must preserve my gratitude to the abbot Vallet, precisely because he had been a magical donor. This is why, as maybe some have already noticed, I introduced him as a main character in my novel The Name of the Rose. He first appears in the second line of the introduction, this time as a literal (yet still mysterious and magical) donor of a lost manuscript, and a symbol of a library in which books speak among themselves.

Eco, The Name of the Rose, page 1

I am not sure what the moral of this story is, but I know there is at least one, and it is very beautiful. I wish my readers to find many abbots Vallet over the course of their lives, and I aspire to become someone else’s abbot Vallet.