The Untragic Death of Henry Gladfelter

Jesse, Bob, Sylvie, Dave, God, The Edge, Dooley Womack, Uncle Sherman, Pecksniff, Ishmael, James B “Rot-Gut” Ferret, Jim, Steve, Pete, Buster Bradshaw, Bill Gray (a.k.a. Willard Skansey), Dan
by Robert Cohen
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

The Untragic Death of Henry Gladfelter

Robert Cohen
21 Snaps

When I was eighteen I tried to change my name for the second time. I had started out in life as a Robert and then, at thirteen, as part of the declaration of independence that went along with my bar mitzvah, I began to refer to myself as Rob. I’d flirted with Bobby but in the end Bobby seemed chirpy and diminutive; it lacked gravitas. The same with Bob, a name I did not like at all. I did not like Rob much either, but I preferred it to dull, palindromish Bob, and to the stilted formality and ­bland-Jewish-boyishness of Robert. Rob at least had a little velocity, a cool, suggestive note of thievery and transgression. This Rob fellow, whoever he was, may have been a nice Jewish boy, but he wasn’t only a nice Jewish boy. He was also a dangerous character, someone who stole trivial items from hardworking shop­keepers for no reason, as I did, and performed unspeakable acts upon himself in the privacy of his room, as I did, and brazenly walked out of other ­people’s bar mitzvahs when things got boring—which is to say, all the time—and strolled out to smoke in the parking lot with those other dangerous characters, the Daves (né Davids), the Matts (né Matthews), the Steves (né Stephens) I smoked with.

My parents of course continued to call me Robert. So did my brothers. So did my teachers. So did almost everyone else. This in some form or other went on for a long while.

At eighteen I went away to Cali­­fornia and began what seemed to me a new and more interesting life. As part of this new life I decided to dispatch with the whole tedious Rob/Robert issue for good. I asked people to start calling me Butch. I mean Jesse. Honestly, I wasn’t wild about Jesse either, but it was my middle name, and I’d run out of alternatives. I may have been a dangerous character, but I wasn’t so brazen as to go out and steal—rob, rather—a new, utterly fraudulent name for myself: I had my own integrity to consider, even if this integrity of mine was not quite visible to me, or, for that matter, existent, at the time. So Jesse it was.

Or rather, wasn’t. Because here was the thing about my experiment in renaming myself (and renaming ourselves is a way of becoming—pace Ralph Ellison—our own fathers, which seemed a pretty good idea at the time): the problem ­wasn’t so much that ­people couldn’t re­member to call me Jesse (though in fact very few people could remember to call me Jesse), the problem was that I couldn’t remember to call me Jesse. On those rare occasions when someone did remember to call me Jesse, they eventually wound up resorting to Rob or Robert at some point anyway, because I consistently failed to answer to the name Jesse. It was too much work to remember that I was now Jesse and to keep living my (let’s face it) rather Rob-ish life at the same time; I could do one or the other, apparently, but not both. Another way to say this is that I could not become my own father and still be my father’s son, and if I thought myself ready for the former I was in no way ready for the latter. But why am I going on about this, you’re wondering?

For the past three and a half years I’ve been working on a novel with two protagonists: one’s a small-town school principal trying to bail out of his settled life, the other’s a luftmensch from New York who’s desperate to bail into it. The name of the New Yorker is Oren Pierce.
I have known this about him from the first, from well before I knew where he was from or even what his problem was. The source of this knowledge is fundamental but mysterious. I understand it more in its absence, I mean, than in its presence. And as it happens its absence stares me in the face every day. Because the other character, the principal, I have never known what to call. As a placeholder I’ve been calling him Henry Gladfelter, but
I have never liked this name either and even he seems reluctant to an­swer to it. Meanwhile I have a list on my computer of other, substitute names for this character. There are about sixty-five of them at the moment, and counting. Invariably at some point during my workday
I will consult this list, or add to it, and yet none of the possible names for him (and readers of Kierke­gaard, that great, gloomy possibilitarian, will recognize this dilemma) ever quite proves preferable to the accumulated potentialities of all the other names combined. That is, to call him Buster Bradshaw, say, might be attractive in itself, but when compared to the collective promise of all the other names that calling him Buster Bradshaw rules out, and their attendant colorations of self, it seems a very poor choice indeed. So I don’t call him Buster Bradshaw, or anything other than Henry Gladfelter, a name I don’t like.

Interestingly, when I sent my editor (who will remain nameless, like God) a chunk of the novel, he said he did not care for the name Henry Gladfelter at all: it struck him as too allegorical, too heavy-handed and overdetermined. It showed, he said, “the touch of a gorilla.” I found this interesting, as so far as I knew there was no hand in the choice at all. No hand, no touch, and no intention either. I’d chosen the name more or less at random, had taken it off a building I’d logged some time in when I was getting started, a fairly undistinguished building at that. What struck me in other words as an entirely under­determined name struck him as the opposite. Indeed, he grew vehement on this point, and suggested I find a name that had no allegorical resonance and was just interesting and colorful in and of itself—a name that was “distinctive rather than emblematic,” as he put it—the way Nabokov and Bellow do for instance. So I changed his name to Dolores Herzog, and now we’re both happy.

Distinctive rather than emble­matic… it’s as good a way as any of thinking about names. And boy, do I need to think about it. Because clearly, until I get this character’s name right, I won’t have the novel. Which is why I keep fiddling with my list, why I am always raiding box scores and obituaries and police blotters for likely sounding names, though no sooner do I find a truly wonderful name than I de­cide it’s too good for my purposes, and that moreover no one will believe I didn’t make it up. Perhaps if my therapist was around he’d say, as long as I keep fiddling with my list, I don’t have to go ahead and finish my novel. My therapist is named Mark Snyder, not a good name for him at all.

We are reliant upon naming things as tourists are reliant upon landmarks, as religious people are reliant upon prayers: to crystalize desire, to lend form to the formless, to project onto the bewildering, sensational existence of things a sound and shape we can apprehend. At the same time we resent the very arbitrariness of our own projections, the flimsiness of our own constructions. Only God Himself (not much of a name, just a bit of generic shorthand) do we exempt from this process: He gets to go by that uptight, bewildering moniker “I am that I am,” which is just another way of remaining nameless and closed off, a glib, tautological circle. (I am talking about the Hebrew god, of course, not the Muslim god, for whom there are ninety-nine names, all of them flattering.) The rest of us must submit to being named like all the other animals. And yet unlike the animals we are also conscious of alternative names for ourselves, and made restless by them. Being and consciousness are like adolescent children, always at war with attempts to define them: they hate their own bodies, their own hair, their own house, their own clothes. Our names sit upon our personalities like ­ill-fitting crowns, as our heads, for that matter, sit upon our necks.

Expectant parents understand this doubleness of naming—the necessity for it, and the almost mad­dening arbitrariness of it, that paralyzing freedom which under pressure breaks down into randomness—very well. In fact it’s interesting to browse through those baby-naming books, checking out the hot names, the Malcolms and Emmas and Rosies and so on, and compare them to the hot names of previous generations. (Adam Gopnik has a funny line about how these days on the Upper West Side it’s the fashion to name your male child after the crabby old ball-scratchers your grandfather sat with at the shvitz.) My own male friends, for example, tend to have extremely dull names—Dave and Pete and Jim and Steve and so on—names I would never inflict upon a fictional character. And yet when I actually picture these ­people in my head they are far from dull. Which raises the subject of counterpoint. Is some inner tension lost, some air hissing out from the tire, in our contemporary penchant for extravagant names? Names that—in our rage to lend color and energy and a kind of permanent persona-umbrella to those drooling eight-pound blobs of potential we give birth to, to provide for them emblems and distinctiveness both—exhaust their own subtext. (Madonna, anyone? How about Bono, The Edge, Apple, Suri Cruise?) Yes, Robert Zimmerman changed his name, changed it all the way to Bob. Would Dylan have ever become Dylan without that droll, enigmatic, screened-off Bob to play off of? Or would he have been more of a Donovan? No, call him Bob…

“Call me Ishmael” is not, as it happens, the first phrase of Moby-Dick—though it’s the one we re­member best, and sets the tone of irresolvable epistemological confusion that prevails throughout. For one thing it’s never clear if Ishmael is actually named Ishmael, or ­simply—though it’s not simple at all—wants us to call him that, to think of him as such. Anyway, Etymology is the first word of the novel. As if to warn us that, like the Usher who bids us enter its labyrinth, we too have a great deal of pale, dusty research to perform if we are to understand how names attach to things. And we may never get there. The rage generated by so much pointless scholarship, as any graduate student knows, is considerable. An ontological quest that can never be fulfilled, a bottomless thirst that ends in drowning. For naming too is a kind of harpooning—we speak of “pinning things down” when we define them. But the whiteness of the whale can’t be pinned down: it’s an emblem of nature’s impers­onality and resistance, its cosmic Teflon in­scrutability off of which harpoons, and names, and motives, and human will, bounce harmlessly, like toy slings and arrows. Ishmael survives because he learns that things are separate and other from what we call them. He does not strap himself to the whale’s back, as Ahab both literally and figuratively does: he finds some distance, some space between. But the space is a lonely one.

In Donald Barthelme’s marvelous essay “Not Knowing,” there’s a passage that seeks to chart this space between in an intriguing way. It contends with the burden of naming, of using language to represent an essence that is nonlingual. As a fierce but also rather congenial postmodernist, B shows all the contemporary skepticism toward language we might expect; at the same time he shows the writer’s stubbornly atavistic, even Ahab-istic, affection for it, reliance upon it, faith in it, as he attempts to strike a compromise between the absolutist and relativistic modes of such naming—or, if you will, the premodern and postmodern modes.

“We do not mistake the words ‘the taste of chocolate’ for the taste of chocolate itself, but neither do we miss the tease in ‘taste,’ the shock in ‘chocolate.’ Words have halos, patinas, overhands, echoes… The combinatorial agility of words, the exponential generation of meaning once they’re allowed to go to bed together, allows the writer to surprise himself, makes art possible, reveals how much of Being we haven’t yet encountered.”

An example of this patina effect, this distinct lingering residue of personality, of essence-trumping-em­blem, would be the sound of the hu­man voice: the way it plays on our nerve receptors, our emotional muscle memory, the way when someone calls on the phone after many years we so often recognize their voice right away. It’s like that old joke. A woman, we’ll call her Debbie, answers the phone, “Hello?” “Debbie,” a man says, “I know you, and
I know everything that you want, and I’m going to come over there and throw you on the floor and do all those dirty things to you.” Debbie says, “Wait, you know all this from hello?”

Names, like voices, are charged with what Laurence Sterne, in Tristram Shandy, calls “magick bias.” For some of us the names of old baseball players, perhaps because we encountered them on the radio first and primarily, function, and will always function, like cookies in Proust. Joe Pepitone. Horace Clarke. Lindy McDaniel. Dooley Womack. Just calling the roll of this class of bumblers, otherwise known as the l967 Yankees (final record: 72–90), plunges me into a wistful haze, nostalgic and perfumed as cigar smoke, as the heady foam that crests a Schlitz. The connoisseurship of the particular. It doesn’t pay to ask what use these names are to me, or why they’re still loitering in my head four decades later, taking up perfectly good space. No use at all. Mere ornaments of being, ­stickers on memory’s suitcase, useless but colorful, interchangeable but paradoxically irreplaceable.

I too aspire to be colorful and irreplaceable and of no use at all. But context is everything. When I left Manhattan and moved to Houston in l989, I was broke and lonely and bored, so I went to a pawn shop to buy a little black-and-white TV. It cost me forty-five bucks. I paid by check, and when the clerk behind the counter looked it over, he said, “Cohen, eh? Haven’t seen that name much before.” Meanwhile my alumni magazine had just run an article by a guy named Robert Cohen about all the Robert Cohens out there he kept hearing about as he went about his business. At one point he even refers to a guy he calls “the novelist Robert Cohen” but I can’t say with any certainty he meant me. On the other hand I wasn’t reading too closely. There’s in­evitably a strange feeling of disassociation when one sees one’s own name in print, as when one sees one’s face in a photograph—the sense that this can’t be me, that a name, any name, even the most extravagantly onomatopoetic, isn’t enough: it’s only a series of skinny black marks on a white page, a kind of stick figure, not a self.

Surely this accounts for that very postmodern disorientation ef­fect when we encounter a writer’s own name—Mailer in Armies of the Night, Richard Powers in Galatea 2.2, Martin Amis in Money—in one of that writer’s novels: to find the august author reduced to a character, a mere name among names, is, to adapt William Gass’s analogy, like discovering one’s wife is made of rubber. The associative principle takes hold: Does this mean we’re all subject to these laws? Might any of us be reduced to side characters in someone else’s—or for that matter our own—novel?

The whole issue of using “real” names in a written work is a vexing one, in that once a name is “real,” it carries with it a sort of pre­determined truth. When we are writing about something that actually happened and change the names so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings, there’s often a diminishment, at least in our own minds, in the intensity and seriousness of the account, a loss of heat energy in the maze of artifice and reconstruction. If I change my Uncle Max’s name, for instance, in the process of writing about him, to Sherman, no one else may notice that I have done this—and Sherman is probably better, come to think of it, a less familiar, less clichéd name than Max—Max!—and my Uncle Max won’t be as offended by whatever it is I’m going to say about him, though of course he’ll recognize himself at once in my Uncle Sherman, and might in fact get more rather than less mad at me for changing his name to something as stupid as Sherman—but for me, this tiny lie of the new name seems to indict the truth around it, to poison it with the gas of artifice. What a relief it is, in the end, to use the real names of people, people like my Uncle Max, who worked for the post office and lived in Co-op City and who’s still, by the way, at age eighty-nine, a world-class kvetch and hypochondriac. Max’s twin brother, Jack, changed his name, also by the way, from Cohen to Callen, I suppose because Cohen didn’t sound Jewish enough. On the other hand the name Cohen itself was not original to our family, but imposed like so many other names at Ellis Island to take the place of the real “real” family name, Kelemeyitz. Which of course nobody knew how to spell, coming as it did from a shtetl in Ukraine that has itself been named and renamed too many times to count, subject to whichever fascist dictator was in vogue at the time.

All of which is to say, even a “real” name is inevitably an in­vented one, a corrupted one, a fictitious one. The genealogy craze reminds us of this: it’s constantly turning up ancestors we didn’t know we had, odd turns of fate’s wheel that have left us with this weird endowment of a name and no clue where it came from. Slave names, for example. Hence the namelessness of Ellison’s Invisible Man is emblematic of his invisibility and of his retreat from social constructs, even from himself—his essence, which he is not sure he has, and which he will only find at the end of a long process of stripping away his false names and imposed selves, remains blank. He is in the process of discovering his own name. This is the journey of the novel, burning up the papers he’s been handed to light his way to the original word, the original self, and one feels that he has only just arrived at the hidden vault by the end.

Though I’m tempted at this point to launch into a whirlwind of taxonomy regarding names—there are some masterful namers out there—I wonder if that isn’t really something we can all do without. The truth is that any good name in fiction, as in life, strikes us as inevitable, inextricable: we don’t even question it. A good name, like a good sentence, negates its own alternatives. Another, perhaps slightly more annoying way of putting it is that any name that fails to be a good name immediately becomes a bad one, in that it opens us to choice and reminds us of the precariousness and arbitrariness of its own construction. In this and I suppose in every other sense too what we are talking about here is not names but language itself, the mot juste and all that.

Of course the mot un-juste, the mot merdre, can be put to fictional use too, if it’s bad enough, which is to say so ridiculously bad it’s in­spired. Think of Humbert Humbert, a name chosen by the protagonist himself, or so the novelist would have us think; of Ignatius Reilly, of Hazel Motes, of Balso Snell, Milo Minderbinder, Waugh’s Tony Last and John Beaver, Pynchon’s Oedipa Maas and Stanley Koteks and Ty­rone Slothrop, DeLillo’s Bucky Wunderlick, Martin Amis’s John Self… jokey, comic-book names that by proudly an­nouncing their own extravagantly pointed ludicrousness, waving it like red flags, alert us to the satiric fires within. These names are like Philip Guston’s (né: Goldstein) hooded, cigar-smoking Klansmen: cartoony and disconcerting, speaking in colorful shorthand of a world gone to extremes, and yet for all the apparent waywardness and menace there’s something schlumpy and endearing and T-shirt-wearing in them too, something that hints at a humanity that just may survive the flames, albeit hooded, albeit re­duced.

It’s the other bad names, the not-satiric ones, the ones that try too hard to be emblematic and distinctive and wind up far too much so, the ones that show the touch of a gorilla—these are the names writers worry over late at night, making lists in their heads. And some of the ones who don’t worry probably should. Henry James, for instance, after a promising start (Daisy Miller, Isabel Archer), became, particularly in his dictatorial years, notoriously awful at naming his characters. Lambert Strether? Hyacinth Ro­binson? Fleda Vetch? Morgan Mallow? Booby Manger? Such names ap­pear to have been purchased at heavy discount from some weird fly-by-night retail establishment a few blocks down from the grand and stately department store where Dickens bought his. Dickens’s Book of Memoranda contains almost two hundred name entries, many of which he’d spotted on death notices. He too required the names before he wrote the novel, and those names have a sort of gleeful hyperfunctionality to them, a mean­ing that strikes us as almost too un­coded and accessible at first—Gradgrind, Scrooge, Pecksniff, Murdstone, Bounderby; though as we go deeper into the web of plot he strikes up around those names, we begin to see them for the effective landmarks of intentionality they are. That is, like all good names they help stake out the tonal plane, the narrative fenceposts, that surround them: they can’t be yanked out without the whole structure coming undone. But is this true of James, who eschews landmarks? Either these awful names of his are the result of spectacular incompetence, or they are the result of one of The Master’s wily aesthetic decisions. What fit of loginess or perversity can we pin to the tail of Fanny Assingham? What winged dove of cunning might nest on Merton Densher? Why would the fastidious James put his characters at such a remove from his own subtleties, stamp them with the very vulgarity and crudeness he will make it his business to supersede? Is it stratospheric artistry and chutzpah or is it a kind of baroque, eggheaded nuttiness? Or, and we get used to this with James, all of the above?

Not that he’s the only offender out there. Hardy’s Father Time: I mean, oy vey. Or take Graham Greene’s heavy-handed use, in A Burnt-Out Case, of such names as Querry and Deo Gratias, which tilts our perceptions of the novel (in most ways a very good one) toward a reminder of the writer’s worst faults, his neatness, his symbolic overdeterminism, the airless sche­maticism he substitutes at times for that other airless schema, orthodox faith.

Faulkner on the other hand once said the only thing of genius he knew he’d ever done was to name those people Snopes. And Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, né Gatz, is just outsize enough to suggest its own chosenness and artificiality (the same is true of Capote’s Holly Golightly, née Lulu Mae, or for that matter Capote’s own mother, Nina, née Lillie Mae). As is Daisy Bu­chanan, with her bright, trilling, but also rather shallow femininity locked away behind the massive power and reach, the run-on complacency of her marriage (that extra “an”). Like Joyce, Fitzgerald loves the music of names: on the merest pretext he has Nick write down a two-page litany of the names that visit Gatsby’s house one summer, including such gems as “S. B. Whitebait, James B. ‘Rot-Gut’ Ferret, George Duckweed, S. W. Belcher, Miss Claudia Hip.” The name list and its comical, musical possibilities is something writers like Nabokov or, say, Gilbert Sorrentino will later carry further, as with the litany Humbert makes of the roll call of Lolita’s classmates, “a poem” which he claims to know “by heart”:

Angel, Grace

Austin, Floyd

Beale, Jack

Beale, Mary

Buck, Daniel

Byron, Marguerite

Campbell, Alice

Carmine, Rose

Chatfield, Phyllis

Clarke, Gordon

Cowan, John

Cowan, Marion

Duncan, Walter

Falter, Ted

Fantasia, Stella

Flashman, Irving

Fox, George

Glave, Mabel

Goodale, Donald

Green, Lucinda

Hamilton, Mary Rose

Haze, Dolores

Honeck, Rosaline

Knight, Kenneth

McCoo, Virginia

McCrystal, Vivian

McFate, Aubrey

Miranda, Anthony

Miranda, Viola

Rosato, Emil

Schlenker, Lena

Scott, Donald

Sheridan, Agnes

Sherva, Oleg

Smith, Hazel

Talbot, Edgar

Talbot, Edwin

Wain, Lull

Williams, Ralph

Windmuller, Louise

And let’s not forget that aria of ardor that opens the novel, a lesson in how the tongue conspires with the teeth and the mouth and, let’s face it, several other organs too, to savor the taste of that timeless, nearly mythic name.

And then there’s Bellow. If Bellow’s use of names takes off from Dickens in its color and vigor, its swiftness and physicality, at times too, as happens when reading Bellow, it is also fair to say that one can grow weary of these inventions, of their sheer muscularity, their refusal to concede to entropy of any kind (this may in fact be a form of entropy), or to modulate. Bellow’s prose, which rarely allows for a humdrum moment, can often paradoxically yield an effect of dullness: the dullness of a noisy, colorful crowd. Valentine Gersbach. Victor Wulpy. Max Zetland. Von Humboldt Fleisher. To be fair to him, this is Bellow’s point. When Tommy Wilhelm (not his real name) in Seize the Day looks at a subway crowd, he sees “in every face the refinement of one particular motive or essence—I labor, I spend, I strive, I design, I love, I cling, I uphold, I give way, I envy, I long, I scorn, I die, I hide, I want.” To give each soul an essence, and each body a name and a face that capture that essence, and to set those things in clamorous collision with each other, under the pressure of money and Eros and power and a great weight of half-articulated ideas… this is Bellow’s project. He’s no psychological realist. We can count on one hand the Jims and Bills and Bobs in his pages. He’s a brilliant caricaturist, and unusually for a caricaturist, a very generous one. He bestows his names as he bestows his faces and bodies: with a bounce and a flourish, a relish in the act of bestowing that’s something like love (“love is gratitude for being,” Bellow writes elsewhere). His names, for all their distinctiveness, are strictly emblems: well worn, inextricable, in­escapable. Wilhelm’s own bid for freedom and oedipal independence, by the way, takes the form of changing his name to Tommy, an effort he concedes is doomed to failure, for he will forever in his own mind, and in his stubbornly irreplaceable father’s, remain a “Wilky.”

The history of disastrous name-changes in literature revolves around the confusion over which comes first, the essence or the emblem. Joy Hopewell, in Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” renames herself Hulga as a way of spitting in her creators’ (God’s, that is, and her mother’s) faces, of denying herself out of sour grapes the joy that is her birthright. Her attempt to distance herself from innocence is revealed by the story’s end—in an ironic twist as outrageous and surprising and bleakly funny as any ever written—as an expression of that innocence. The same rough arc is traversed by Ber­nard Malamud’s hero Henry Freeman (né Levin) in “Lady of the Lake,” who in an effort to deny his Jewish-particularist past loses the love of a woman who turns out to be a Holocaust survivor. And by the former Bruce J. Fein in Leonard Michaels’s “Finn”:

“Millicent,” he whispered, shoving against her hand.

“Fein,” she whispered.

“Finn,” he said.

She pulled free. “I think
I need a cigarette. I mean I really need a cigarette, but I’d like to talk a little.”

Minutes later Finn was tapping the steering wheel with his fingernails. “I’m the only one who knows you’re Jewish?”

“Well, actually, my mother converted years and years ago.”

So goes the bitter comedy of assimilation. Pulling away from invisible bonds only to find yourself more deeply ensnared. There’s no getting free. You cast off your name and it floats right back. Like Sisyphus, like something out of Kafka.

Kafka’s own method of naming was, like all other aspects of his work, so bound up in his own personal sense of attenuation and deprivation as to approach the fantastic. His descriptions of this method are typically rational and cool and mechanical, even numbingly so. “Georg,” he writes in his diary of the hero of The Judgment, “has the same number of letters as Franz. In Bendemann, the ‘mann’ is there only to strengthen the syllable ‘Bende’… but Bende has the same number of letters as Kafka, and the vowel ‘e’ is repeated in the same position as the vowel ‘a’ in Kafka.” Well, OK: he did write in German, remember. The later we get in Kafka’s oeuvre, and the leaner and more provisional the names, or rather initials, become, the more dependent upon the period after the letter to prop them up.

In Beckett we find a ­near-terminal skepticism regarding the ap­plicability or utility of any name at all. In the trilogy we enter a world not of composition and ac­crual of meaning but of decomposition, of words yearning toward silence, and unable to find it, a world comprising, according to The Unnameable’s unnamed narrator, three conditions: the inability to speak, the inability to remain silent, and solitude.

“There is no name for me, no pronoun for me, all the trouble comes from that.” Molloy’s mother calls him “Dan.” “I don’t know why, my name is not Dan. Dan was my father’s name perhaps, yes, perhaps she took me for my father.
I took her for my mother and she took me for my father.”

In revenge, perhaps, he calls her:

Mag, when I had to call her something. And I called her Mag because for me, without my knowing why, the letter g abolished the syllable Ma, and as it were spat on it, better than any other letter would have done. And at the same time I satisfied a deep and doubtless unacknowledged need, the need to have a Ma, that is a mother, and to proclaim it, audibly. For before you say mag you say ma, inevi­tably…. I had been living so far from words so long, you understand… even my sense of iden­tity was wrapped in a namelessness often hard to penetrate, as we have just seen I think… Yes, even then, when already all was fading, waves and particles, there could be no things but nameless things, no names but thingless names. I saw that now, but after all what do I know now about then, now when the icy words hailed down upon me, the icy meanings, and the world dies too, foully named…

In the work of Don DeLillo we find this same trajectory, from noisy jabber toward an ever-receding silence, an underground vocabulary of buried or secret names. “A secret name is a way of escaping the world,” says a character in—what else?—The Names. The alternative to the mass language of global corporate Esperanto (Mita, Suntory) is a sort of cargo cult of withholding and deferral and effacement. “The withheld work of art is the only eloquence that’s left.” So says that consummate cult writer Bill Gray of Mao II. Bill Gray. How much more eloquent a name for a silent artist than Bucky Wunderlick: the difference between a glib, exhibitionistic performer and a weathered and canny older one. “I’m a sentence maker,” he says, “like a donut-maker only slower.” Only it turns out Bill Gray is not his real name. His real name is Willard Skansey. The name, he concedes, of “a welterweight fighting outdoors in steaming holiday weather before a crowd of straw hats.”

Amid such radical contemporary strategies, these parings-down and torquings-up, the cool, serene clarity of a novel like Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping can come to seem the most radical departure of all. “My name is Ruth,” the narrator begins, quietly but firmly, and with an unforced, deliberate echo of her biblical namesake. Ruth’s sister, from whom she will become estranged existentially but not spiritually, is named Lucille, and we can hear in the music of those two names (one shorn, stark, uncompromising; the other pretty, bright, outward-moving), as we can hear, in the ethereal, uncontainable sound of their aunt’s first name (Sylvie) and the mix of benevolence and menace of her last ­(Fisher), everything there is to know about the tragedy that follows. Of these names we can say they fulfill all our hopes and expectations and then some. They’re at once subtly distinctive and subtly emblematic; they refuse to unpack their own secrets, but they manifest those secrets, in the form of stubborn, incontrovertible essences, on every page.

The incantation of names casts a spell, and this spell is never neutral, it is always a function of magic and bias. Whitman speaks of repeating his own name over and over, and never growing tired of it, while Kipling talks of a tendency among the “Asiatics” to throw themselves into “a mazement by repeating their own names over and over again to themselves, letting the mind go free upon speculation as to what is called personal identity… in a minute—in another half second—he felt he would arrive at the solution of the tre­mendous puzzle.” Whisper the right word, and the door of personality swings open. But what is the right word? Does it even matter? Is it possible that any name can be the right name if it’s whispered the right way?

There’s a concept in translation called the hapax legomenon—a word or phrase that, because it occurs only once in a text, is notoriously difficult to interpret. Like nonce words, the hapax lego­menon has either been coined for a single usage or has wound up that way, and thus fulfills our best hopes for all named things: a moniker that lives on forever, mysteriously, irreducibly; that be­comes, in the end, its own text and context, its own emblem and essence both. I would like to call this the highest form of naming, but of course I can call it what­ever I like, as I can call myself whatever I like, and what difference does it make? Still, the best names I’ve ever personally come up with em­body no principle at all, and leave no paths to trace back to their own conception. They Are That They Are, basically. The same might even be true of Robert Cohen, g-d help him. Because who in the end would ever make up a name like that?

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