Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts was the first time I’d heard about Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory of language and ostensive definition: or as summarized by Nelson, the idea that ‘the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed’.
Roughly, this quote is a summary of Wittgenstein’s lifelong pondering’s into language, and how much power words have to effectively represent every nuance of what reality they are attempting to describe.
A name, assigned to define something through language, and the physical entity itself, have two separate existences. Thus leading a name/word to acquire its meaning through the context its used.
Wittgenstein referred to our everyday intermingling of reality and words as ‘the language game’, and its a theory which has me thinking about how much the names that people know us by reflect the individual they’re there to represent.
Personally, I think my own name (selected in 1993 when Mum was watching a lot of Family Ties reruns) does suit my personality and the look I’ve got going. But sometimes I do wonder to what extent – if any – my life or personality might have alternated had I been carting around another title for the last 26 years. Classic literature after all, is peppered with instances where a character’s name, sculpts their fate or defines their reality. Here are a few I could think of,
The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov, 1967)
The first time I attempted to read this Russian classic was five years ago. I quit about twenty pages in, and now after revisiting it I can’t believe how quick I was to dismiss it.
It’s such an incredible book and I could’ve so easily never bothered picking it up again. I’m such a fool! I missed finding one of my favourite books early – why didn’t I stick with it for a few more pages? A book about Satan working in Moscow as a magician and being cheeky and messing with everyone – that’s well up my alley (and I love that Satan is a smoker – of course Satan doesn’t give a shit about lung health of course!!!).
I’m mad at past me but at the same time it’s so exciting to be able to read it for the first time now.
Anyway the reason it’s relevant to a discussion on whether or not names determine your fate is that in The Master and Margarita, the Prince of Darkness holds a ball whenever he’s visiting a city, and his ongoing tradition is finding a girl from that city whose name is Margarita to be his date. In exchange, for attending what promises to a wicked part-tay for the damned, el Diablo will grant Margarita her deepest wish.
The Importance of Being Earnest (Oscar Wilde, 1895)
So it’s a play about two rich Victorian socialites who have a weirdly specific type, and are only interested in dating fellows called ‘Earnest’. So naturally two incorrigible gents pretend their names are Earnest to win these fair maidens affections. It’s a comedy, but people were easier to make laugh in Victorian times.
Basically I couldn’t get into it because I just kept thinking, was there ever a point in history where the name Earnest was the ultimate bachelor name? It just makes me think of those of those stupid 1990s flicks where doofus Ernest gets into various jams, like needing to save Christmas or assemble hard furniture.
The delightful twist (and sorry for spoilers) is that the two gents find out their names were Earnest all along so they were technically never liars – isn’t life funny like that?
Tess of the D’urbervilles (Thomas Hardy, 1891)
Tess Durbeyfield is the eldest of John and Joan Durbeyfield – a dirt poor couple, whose hopes go up when they learn that they may be descendants of a noble family the d’Urbervilles.
Tess’ family name is the reason she is sent by her parents to ‘claim kin’ and ultimately work at the d’Urberville estate for Alec d’Urberville. Yet the reason I’m bringing this book up in this post, is for the name she gives her son – the product of Alec’s crime against Tess – baby Sorrow.
One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Márquez, 1970)
The saga of six generations of the Buendía family, all living within the isolated village their family founded called Macondo, one reason this book gets progressively more difficult to follow is that names are passed down through the generations. The most extreme example being the second son of José Arcadio Buendía (the first generation’s patriarch), Colonel Aureliano Buendía, who names his seventeen sons (to seventeen different women – the Colonel was a dog!) all Aureliano.
Here, the consistent repetition of names within the family is part of the novel’s ongoing point that history is a cycle repeating itself.