Tuesday, March 4, 2008


"What's in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet..."

We just finished with Colson Whitehead's Apex Hides the Hurt in English class, and now I keep thinking about names and image and reality. Apex claims that "A rose by any other name would wilt fast, smell like bitter almonds, God help you if the thorns broke the skin" (5ish): in short, that an entity's name determines its nature. At the same time, it also presents the idea of "true names" that "hide" behind the appealing or useful or traditional but false names that we use. The product names he created were the "right names," the protagonist (a nomenclature consultant) decides, but they were not the true names. Reality, painful and ugly, lurks beneath the surface...

These ideas about the power of names, however, are contradictory. If changing something's name changes its identity, then how can there be a constant, unwavering true name that exists in spite of the surface-y names that get slapped onto it?

Alluring as the idea of a secret true name is (an appeal witnessed to by its prevalence in sci-fi and fantasy novels like Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea sequence), I think it is a myth. For a name to embody the essence of a person or product or town or whatever, it would have to be pages and pages long. People are too complex to distill their personalities into a single word. A character barely fits into a novel or an essay, much less a name. I love language, and I know it's powerful, but words don't have that kind of magical power.

The point of the book, though, has more to do with the nature of honesty/reality/society. We try so hard to present a polished image, to hide our flaws and failings, to live up to expectations (whose? There are so many.) Once you've established an identity--good or bad, in your own mind or in others' eyes--, it's hard to deviate from it. It's a social bargain. People are too unpredictable and complex to deal with effectively, so we don't deal with real people most of the time. We shut off the most volatile and inconsistent and tangled parts of ourselves, and show the aspects that make sense. Whether the motive is our shame or fear or distrust, the result is to greatly ease social interactions. We agree to become some 'type'--the good student, the patient friend, the badass--so that others can wrap their minds around us, and reciprocally so that we can fit representations of them into our minds. Instead of dealing with a person in his unfathomable complexity, we deal with some symbol of him.

That's why true names don't belong out in the open. We don't "walk the streets with [our] true names blazing over [our] hearts" (135ish?). "Right" names, appropriate names, serve an important purpose; if we tried to discard them for the authenticity/reality of true names, interacting with each other would rapidly become overwhelming.

This is, perhaps, part of why I don't mind (and in fact, rather enjoy) the fact that various people call me different names. J--, J-----, J--------: each of them is my name. Not some mystical and deeply significant true name, but the name that people choose to call me. If the name says anything, it's about the person calling me that name, more than about me. The name someone calls me represents, really, the vision that that person has of me. I myself remain the same, no matter what the name.

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