Keeping Company with Names
Ladies and gentlemen,
A few weeks ago you here in Frankfurt enjoyed a fortunate opportunity to get acquainted with Alban Berg’s opera Lulu, and it is safe to say that many of you, even including some who were unable to see and hear the work, are now finding it impossible to rid your minds of the name Lulu, the name of this creation of Wedekind the writer and Berg the composer—that this name is permanently anchored in your consciousness, this auratic name, this name with an aura, an aura that it admittedly owes to music and language but that it still has; it would seem that as soon as a name has acquired such radiant power it renders itself free and independent; a name alone suffices to confer being in the world. There is nothing more mysterious than the light of names and our attachment to such names, and not even total ignorance of the works in which they occur has ever presented an obstacle to the triumphant availability of Lulu and Undine, of Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, of Don Quixote, Rastignac, Green Heinrich, and Hans Castorp. Indeed, keeping company with them in conversation or in our thoughts comes so naturally to us that we never once ask ourselves why their names are in the world, as if somebody had been more thoroughly christened with these names than we with our own; it is as if there had actually been such a christening, one at which, to be sure, no holy water had had to be sprinkled and of which no signature in a register now speaks—as if in this case there had been a proper baptismal ceremony, one more irrevocable than ours and preferable to it, one at which no living person was present. These names are branded on fictitious beings and also deputize for them; they are durable and so firmly attached to these beings that when we borrow them and use them as names for children, throughout their lives these children carry the allusion to the name around with them or wear it like a kind of costume: the name always clings more tightly to the make-believe person than to the real, living one.
Because literature has sometimes been lucky enough to alight on good names and effect actual christenings with them, the problem of names and the question of names is quite a momentous thing for a writer, and not only in relation to characters but also to places, to streets, that must be referenced in that extraordinary map, in that atlas, that only literature makes visible. This map matches the geographers’ maps in only a few places. To be sure, it includes place names that every schoolchild knows, but it also includes others unknown to any schoolchild, and in the aggregate they add up to a network that stretches from Delphi and Aulis to Dublin and Combray, from the Rue Morgue to Alexanderplatz and from the Bois de Boulogne to the Prater: T.E. Lawrence’s desert and the skies flown through by Saint-Exupéry appear on it, but many deserts and many a fruitful field do not—here they are nowhere to be found. And there are certain places that appear on it quite a number of times; Venice probably appears on it a hundred times, but each time it is a different Venice, the Venice of Goldoni and of Nietzsche, Hofmannsthal’s Venice and Thomas Mann’s, and there are entire countries that are hard to find on any purchasable map—Orplid and Atlantis, and then there are others, like Illyria, that certainly do exist, but Shakespeare’s Illyria does not match this map’s Illyria; and naturally there are also France and England and Italy and the names of all these countries! But if we should ever go looking for the France we’re thinking of now, if we should ever travel in search of it—we will never reach it; we have either always already been there or we shall never be there. It has a more genuine place, a much more genuine place, in the magic atlas, and in this Paris the Neva borders on the Seine, and the Seine is crossed by Balzac’s Pont du Carrousel and Apollinaire’s Pont Mirabeau, and its stones and water are made of words. We shall never set foot on it, on this Pont Mirabeau, and we shall never see the snowy Russia through which Alexander Blok’s Twelve marched. But on the other hand, during all our journeys, where have we actually been? In the brothel in Dublin and on the Blocksberg, on the Finnish estate of Mr. Puntila and in the salons of Kakania—perhaps we were actually there.
Our names are extremely fortuitous, and we are often seized by a sense of namelessness vis-à-vis ourselves and the world. This is why we stand in need of names—names of characters, place names, names in general. But it is still quite an odd sort of need to have, and who among us is not sometimes inclined to exclaim with Hamlet: “And all for nothing / For Hecuba! / What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba / That he should weep for her?” Indeed, what are Lulu and Julien Sorel to us, and Manon and the boy called Eli[s]? Are they merely deputies or allusions, as when one of them alludes to Hecuba and Hecuba in turn alludes to a third entity? Are they placeholders, or something more than that?
For it seems to me that loyalty to these names—names of characters and place names—is almost the only kind of loyalty that human beings are capable of. Our memory is constituted in such a way that we forget the names of the living, that 15 years later we can hardly even remember what our schoolmates were called; addresses that we once knew by heart vanish from our possession; or we lose a piece of a name, its proper spelling; one fine day a wrong letter or combination of letters makes its first appearance. And that crepuscule way back when: was it in Parma or in Piacenza?—no, it was in Pavia if it was anywhere! There are few exceptions to this general death of names within us—these are the names of people who have been closest to us, or names that have anchored certain incidents, certain accidents. But the names that we were already hoping we would be able to forget as early as our earliest schooldays, because it irritated us to have Odysseus and William Tell forced upon us, and although we swore to forget them along with the chemical formulas that we actually have forgotten—these names we have not forgotten, and our conception of them, whether distinct or rudimentary, is more durable and defendable than our conception of living human beings. Our companionship with them is indissoluble. We really do keep company with them; for us they, too, figure in the world’s population.
Recently a painting by Monet, Water Lilies, was destroyed by fire in a New York museum. I once saw the painting, and when the news appeared in the papers, I couldn’t stop thinking, Where have the water lilies actually gone to now? This disappearance, this obliteration, is impossible; our memory retains them, insists on retaining them, and we feel an impulse to talk about them to make them linger on here, for this destruction is quite different from the death of all the water lilies in every body of water in the world, and yet the incineration of the painting was only a trifling destruction compared with all the destructions we know have been caused by war. And what about the incineration of the library of Alexandria, which we are still incessantly talking about 2,000 years later, as if our houses and cities had not burned to the ground many times in the interval? We keep thinking about these things, loyal to them amid so much disloyalty. We do not know if this loyalty—along with tears shed for Hecuba—is acceptable. We are transmissible and must transmit what is best. This seems to be a settled state of affairs.
In modern literature there has been a considerable thought-provoking development in the treatment of names—a deliberate attenuation of names and an incapacity to assign names, even though names continue to appear and these names are often still quite robust. And we must discuss both topics—the maintenance of names and the atrophying of names, their imperilment and its causes.
With the rise to fame of Kafka’s novels and stories came the rise to fame of K. and Josef K., two characters who are scarcely recognizable as novel-characters in the traditional sense, having been reduced from the outset in their very names, in being furnished with something more like a cipher than a full-fledged name. There is specifically a striking connection between this denial of names on the author’s part and the denial to K. of everything that might entitle him to bear a name. The character has been deprived of parentage, a social milieu, idiosyncrasies, every binding quality, every inferable quality. You are familiar with the sorts of consequences Kafka’s ingenious manipulation had. The Kafka mode has given us heaps of short stories and novels in which the heroes are named A. and X. and N., do not know where they come from and where they are going, live in towns and villages, in countries, in which nobody—not even the author in most cases—can find his way around; in these places there are only generic labels—the Town, the River, the Department; processes, encirclements, that are intended to be read as parables, but to what end? They are applicable to anything and everything.
Nevertheless, one ought not to dismiss the epigones out of hand, for a few of them may have either consciously or unconsciously grasped something substantial—namely, the fact that today it is not very easy to name something, to bestow names, that our trust in the naïve assignment of names has been shaken, that there is a real difficulty here, that even other authors, who continue naively to assign names, only rarely succeed at bequeathing to us a name, a character with a name that is more than an identification tag—a name that we find so convincing that we accept it unquestioningly, a name that we commit to memory, repeat to ourselves, and begin to keep company with.
But in contrast to his imitators, Kafka himself proceeds with his names in a highly logical manner, as I would like to show you via a discussion of his novel The Castle. With what supreme precision are we led by him into insecurity and imprecision!
A land surveyor, K., arrives in the village, supposedly as an employee of the castle. A bit later his assistants also turn up, and the following scene ensues:
“It’s hard with you two,” K. said, and compared their faces as he had already done from time to time; “how ever am I supposed to tell you apart from each other? The only thing that sets you apart from each other is your names; otherwise you’re as alike as—” he faltered, then reflexively continued—“otherwise you’re as alike as two snakes.” They smiled. “Everybody else can tell us apart just fine,” they said defensively. “I believe it,” said K.; “indeed, I have clearly witnessed it myself, but I see only with my own eyes, and with them I can’t tell you apart. Accordingly, I shall treat you as one man and call you both Artur, which is after all one of your names. Is it yours?” K. asked one of them. “No,” the latter replied; “my name is Jeremias.” “It makes no difference,” said K.; “I shall call you both Artur. If I send Artur somewhere, you’ll both go there; if I give Artur a task, both of you will carry it out…”
But we shall see that K.’s ignorance will come back to haunt him, for he is not entitled to deny names.
But K. himself gets into a serious predicament himself when he is finally summoned by the castle and required to phone in. K. hesitates to state his name. K.’s hesitation makes the man on the other end impatient. “‘Who’s there?’ he repeated and added: ‘I would be much happier if I didn’t get so many telephone calls from over there; somebody just called a second ago.’” K. makes no reply to this remark; instead, acting on a sudden impulse, he falsely identifies himself as the land surveyor’s assistant. On being pressingly asked which assistant he actually is, K. finally divulges his first name and says, “Josef.” He is slightly disconcerted by the murmuring of the peasants behind his back; obviously they are none too pleased that he has not truthfully identified himself.
The voice down the line contradicts him; they know there that the assistants are called Artur and Jeremias. K. continues to lie, maintaining that he is the surveyor’s old assistant, who followed him to the village. “‘No!’ the voice now cried. ‘Well, who am I then?’ asked K., who remained calm.” And after a pause the voice concedes to him what he wants to hear—that he is the old assistant. Now the fatal die has been cast; there is nothing he can do but take cover behind the identity of another person and ask when his boss, meaning himself, may come to the castle. And the answer is “Never.”
No sooner has K. brought himself to call Jeremias “Jeremias,” than the latter becomes a hazard to him; Artur has run away and is working against him at the castle, but this is also too late, because, as he is obliged to discover, Jeremias has robbed him of Frieda, whom he for his part was trying to marry because she was the mistress of the supposedly powerful Klamm from the castle. Moreover, in a conversation about Klamm in which K. sounds out the landlady, also a former mistress of Klamm’s, K. receives a significant reply:
The landlady did not speak and merely looked K. up and down searchingly. Then she said, “I promise to listen calmly to everything you have to say. Speak as bluntly as you have to, and don’t worry about offending me. I have only one request: don’t use Klamm’s name. Call him ‘he’ or anything else except his name.”
But if in Klamm’s case the use of a name is still straightforward—even if it is only his name that wanders through the book like a ghost (K. gets to see him only once, indistinctly through a peephole, and even the landlady only manages to hold on to a photograph of the messenger who once summoned her to Klamm)—the confusion of names becomes complete whenever a fairly high-ranking person from the castle has appeared in the flesh and cast his shadow, as if the camouflaging desired by Kafka is once again meant to be achieved by a certain way of dealing with names. At the very beginning of his residence in the village, K. encounters the name of an official—Sordini. Somebody explains:
“…I don’t understand how even a stranger can believe that when he rings up, for example, Sordini, it’s actually Sordini who answers him. It’s much more likely some petty clerk in an entirely different division. On the other hand, it’s undoubtedly possible at certain times of day to ring up that same petty clerk and be answered by Sordini himself. To be sure, in such cases it’s better to run away from the phone before it makes the first audible sound.”
K. thinks he is hearing about Sordini again when Olga tells him the story of her sister Amalia, who has rebuffed the official’s shamelessly overt advances and whose entire family has since been struggling to reestablish its position in the village:
“…There’s an important official at the castle; he’s called Sortini.” “I’ve already heard about him,” said K.; “he was aware of my appointment as surveyor.” “I don’t think so,” said Olga; “Sortini hardly ever appears in public. Aren’t you confusing him with Sordini with a ‘d’?” “You’re right,” said K.; “it was Sordini.” “Yes,” said Olga; “Sordini is very well known, one of the hardest-working officials; there’s a lot of talk about him. Sortini, on the other hand, is very retiring and a stranger to most people…”
His story follows, and later we again read:
“…Everybody knows that Klamm is very rude; he supposedly goes for hours without speaking and then he suddenly says one of those incredibly rude things that make you cringe. Nobody knows anything of the kind about Sortini, because of course he isn’t very well-known in general. Actually the only thing anybody knows about him is that his name is almost the same as Sordini’s; if it weren’t for this similarity of names, they probably wouldn’t know him at all. Even as a master-firefighter he probably gets mistaken for Sordini, who is the actual master firefighter and exploits the similarity of their names, mainly in order to foist the duties of representation onto him…”
The unknownness of the characters or their relative unknownness is thus complemented by the fluctuations in or secretiveness of names. The one conditions the other. And this is why one is no longer surprised when one reads K.’s grotesque conversation with the teacher regarding the count whose seat is the castle: “But K. refused to give up and asked yet again, ‘What? You don’t know the count?’ ‘How am I supposed to know him?’ the teacher softly said and loudly added in French, ‘Remember that there are innocent children present.’” This “Remember that there are innocent children present,” as if there were something obscene or criminal about such a harmless question about a person, is unprecedented. The fact that Kafka’s work incorporates simple, homely names—for example the girls’ names Frieda and Olga, as well as family names like Gerstäcker and Laseman–in all their obviousness and inconsiderableness serves only to distract the reader’s gaze from the by now-ineluctable question of names.
In a moment of genuine insight the book’s hero K. tells himself that in order to find his peace in the village he would need to make himself blend in unobtrusively with the Gerstäckers and the other villagers. Max Brod reports that K. was supposed to learn on his deathbed that he would be allowed to live and work in the village, although he would be granted no legal right to do so. The coincidence of his death with the arrival of this news is necessary, for it is impossible to imagine how the name K. could ever turn conformist or make itself at home among the other, simple names. K. is only imaginable as being en route to his goal; it is impossible to imagine his having attained it—this precisely on account of his name.
But far be it from me to engage in the exegesis of Kafka.
We are still accustomed to recognizing characters by their names, and to keeping abreast of the events of the plot with the help of names, such that we believe that once we have the name we have the character. Even in Kafka we can still catch hold of the names; to be sure they sometimes shove us away, make us feel uneasy, but we catch hold of them once again. We are highly accustomed to it and also spoiled by it—spoiled not only by older literature but also by certain contemporaries of those writers who whisked names out of our hands for the first time. I am thinking especially of Thomas Mann. But the refinement with which he serves most of his names up to us is perhaps also nothing but a warning sign. Names are accorded great importance in Thomas Mann’s work; he is the last great inventor of names, an enchanter of names. But he enrobes his characters in names ironically; comically and tragically; with a very judicious amount of nuance. He wants to get everything out of his names. Serenus Zeitblom, Helene Oelhafen, Madame Houpflé, the Marquise de Venosta, née Plettenberg—bourgeois gravitas, ordinariness, humdrumness, pallor or exoticism, pseudoexoticism—everything is precisely measured out beforehand, injected into the name, and even a serious name like Adrian Leverkühn is precisely laden with the significance that is accorded to the character. Or the emphatically north-German, the south-German, the southern names, which are strongly intended to highlight a book’s theme. Or as in Tonio Kröger, which proclaims its affiliation with two worlds. From the outset, the name hints at the conflict the hero is going to be drawn into.
I am unsure if Thomas Mann is very useful to this examination of names in modern literature, but his ironic—in the broadest sense—assignment of names may just compel us to conjecture that here as well the trustful assignment of names has provisionally run its course—albeit not without bequeathing to us a handful of exquisite, majestic names: Peeperkorn, Settembrini, Krull. It would be a long round dance.
At first blush names are also stable in the work of James Joyce—almost as stable as in the nineteenth-century novel. They give every sign of being solid; they lull us into a false sense of security: there are the advertising agent Leopold Bloom, Marion or Molly, his wife, and, quite pointedly, Stephen Dedalus, the significance of whose name weighs heavily on him wherever he goes. “The mockery of it!” somebody says to him: “Your absurd name, an ancient Greek!” There would be nothing more to remark if the names were not also affected by the linguistic shakeup, the aggressive dissolution of language. Bloom’s name is initially served up to the reader as is; then it is shaken, tasted anew; it is called out from all directions and in every possible variation: Leo, Poldy, Siopold! Childe Leopold, Sir Leopold, Master Leopold, Stephen D. Leop. Bloom. In the theater of the night, the brothel chapter, he is initially hailed by the gong: “Bang Bang Bla Bak Blud Bugg Bloo.” Then by a voice: “Poldy!” The watch enter, place their hands on his shoulders, say, “Bloom. Of Bloom. For Bloom. Bloom.”
And slightly later, one of the watch barks at him, “Come. Name and address.”
Bloom replies, “Dr Bloom, Leopold, dental surgeon. You have heard of von Blum Pasha. Umpteen millions. Donnerwetter! Owns half Austria. Egypt. Cousin.”
The watchman asks, “Proof?”
Bloom hands him a business card. But from this card the watchman reads the name, “Henry Flower. No fixed abode.”
(For Leopold has his mistress Martha call him Henry Flower, and as we are aware, in the course of the previous day he picked up a poste-restante letter addressed to this name.)
Shortly after the scene with the watch, Martha exclaims, “Henry! Leopold! Lionel, thou lost one! Clear my name.”
Another woman claims to have received a letter from him signed with the name James Lovebirch.
Enter some kisses, which twitter and warble, “Leo!...Leopopold! Leeolee! O, Leo!”
In the further course of the scene Bloom slips into various roles; as an emperor-president and kingchairman he is called Leopold the First.
The archbishop who anoints gives him more names: “Leopold, Patrick, Andreas, David, Georg, be thou anointed!”
Bloom (in his speech to his subjects) says, “My beloved subjects, a new era is about to
dawn. I, Bloom, tell you verily it is even now at hand. Yea, on the word of a Bloom, ye shall ere long enter into the golden city which is to be, the new Bloomusalem…”
Then a man rises from beneath the floor. He says, “Don’t you believe a word he says. That man is Leopold M’Intosh, the notorious fireraiser. His real name is Higgins.”
As Professor Bloom he becomes a finished example of the new womanly man, who is about to have a baby. A voice asks him, “Bloom, are you the Messiah ben Joseph or
His daughter Milly: “My! It’s Papli!”
Bloom survives the vanishing of the phantasmagoria of the theater of the night, but he retains a version of the name Bloom that with this vanishing suddenly triggers the associative chain “Bloom, Blue, Bloom,” and Henry Flower has likewise survived as a deputy for the name Bloom, which can turn up in various backdoor translations.
A cottage that has been or is going to be built for him receives the following possible names: Bloom Cottage, Saint Leopold’s, and Flowerville.
Names are subject to mental and aural dislocation in Joyce; they can be dislocated, dispensed, or deputized for, but only in such a way that the original name is always alluded to, as in the acrostic constructed by Bloom as a young man.
Poets oft have sung in rhyme
Of music sweet their praise divine.
Let them hymn it nine times nine.
Dearer far than song or wine.
You are mine…
(The first letters spell out his name, Poldy.) Another passage (consisting of anagrams Bloom came up with in his youth) shows us how the name Bloom can be spun around like a carousel, until we become dizzy along with the name:
And at one point it is asked with whom he has traveled. With?
Sinbad the Sailor and Tinbad the Tailor and Jinbad the Jailer and Whinbad the Whaler and Ninbad the Nailer and Finbad the Failer and Binbad the Bailer and Pinbad the Pailer and Minbad the Mailer and Hinbad the Hailer and Rinbad the Railer and Dinbad the Kailer and Vinbad the Quailer and Linbad the Yailer and Xinbad the Phthailer.
And finally—as if we could forget this!—the book is entitled Ulysses, and Leopold Bloom’s progress through Dublin on a particular day is undertaken in the shadow of the that great name that is thereby invoked: Odysseus. This name serves and must serve to remind us constantly of that patiently enduring man’s journey and to disclose to us the scenes from that journey that are allegorized at every turn.
Refusal of the name, ironic treatment of the name, meaningful and meaningless wordplay with the name: these are the possibilities—but there is an even more radical one. As if it would be too crude to identify a character by means of a name, William Faulkner plunges his reader into despair in what is probably his most important work, The Sound and the Fury. I almost believe hardly anyone will ever succeed in properly finding his way around the web constituted by this book, although not so much because William Faulkner’s way of dealing with time makes this difficult—the book is constantly jumping to and fro among three different time periods; a handful of sentences referring to 1928 may be immediately followed by another few referring to 1910. The real difficulty does not lie here, because we have long since acclimatized ourselves to texts that no longer pattern themselves on the course of chronological time, but rather because this book has left us with nothing whatsoever to take hold of when we reach for a name. One can but enviously admire the author of the blurb of this book, who has managed to make the novel sound essentially like a family saga. Even once one has progressed deeply into the text, one feels as if one has been transformed into a bloodhound that is constantly losing the trail of his quarry because his nose is constantly catching a whiff of a fresh scent. The name Caddy appears twice, once with a y and once with ie; Jason appears twice, and so does Quentin, once as a masculine forename and once as a feminine one. But taking stock of this hardly does us any good at all, because we are emphatically not supposed to identify the characters on the basis of their names. The names seem like traps. Rather, we are supposed to identify them on the basis of something entirely different. On the basis of a kind of array of flowers surrounding each character, a tenderly plotted constellation in the midst of which they all stand. This constellation is expressed in brief quotations that we are supposed to watch out for, and with each reappearance of the character, be it the he-Quentin or the she-Quentin, and in whichever period of his life—as a child, as a student, as a young girl—this quotation is supplied by the author; it is less important to watch out for the name than for the setting in which the name is mentioned. The name can appear in the context of a flower, a honeysuckle, a field that has been sold, a wedding announcement. We suddenly discover that this is the only way in which we are gaining ground, that the characters have remained hidden from us all along. And they want to hide themselves, because we are dealing here with a foundational event, an enigma, that frightens names. Once upon a time something, an act of incest, happened, and the guilty parties do not want to be named—the child that is the product of this union must not be named. Fairly often the incident is invoked and immediately hushed up again, and the names are invoked and hushed up.
We hear about it the first time as follows: “…milkweed. I said I have committed incest, Father I said. Roses.”
The next time this letter appears in juxtaposition with a name that initially leaves us completely at loose ends, but that is subsequently invoked over and over again, until we grasp its importance. “I have committed incest I said Father it was I it was not Dalton Ames. And when he put Dalton Ames. Dalton Ames. Dalton Ames.” (Next there is a parenthesis relating to another time period; then this name is uttered again, three times.) “Dalton Ames. Dalton Ames. Dalton Ames.”
The roses keep reappearing as quotations. A flower is often juxtaposed with Benjamin the madman; but the fragrance of honeysuckle is always juxtaposed directly with the hushed-up incident.
He, Quentin, says, “…she held my head against her damp hard breast I could hear her heart going firm and slow now not hammering and the water gurgling among the willows in the dark and waves of honeysuckle coming up the air…”
A bit later: “damn that honeysuckle I wish it would stop”
A bit later: “the honeysuckle drizzled and drizzled…”
Things that were associated with a situation or a person last longer and encircle the respective characters better than the name. Things attest to the presence of the character, or to the recollection of things.
Faulkner’s method consists in nothing less than weaning us from names in order to thrust us, bereft of detours and explanations, into reality. It is not he, the author, who arrogates the government of names, who parades them before us and forestalls cases of mistaken identity. Rather, only the characters themselves know one another, call themselves and others by name; and as in reality, we must watch from the sidelines and see how far we can penetrate into the mystery and what sorts of correlations we can establish between people who have not been preformed, dissected, and labeled for the sake of greater intelligibility.
Now would be the right time to say that I first began thinking about names as a consequence of reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. There is no other book that better calls our attention to the way names operate, to their functioning, their density or porosity. Indeed, even the reason why names are charismatic or names are stillborn will be disclosed to any reader who tenaciously follows the trail of every single one of Proust’s names. For he has not merely left behind a cemetery full of famous names but rather made names and the experience of living with names into a theme of his novel. He has said whatever can be said about names, and he has worked on them from two directions: he has enthroned names, bathed them in the light of a magic lantern, then destroyed them and blotted them out; he has suffused them, laden them, with significance, and has at the same time demonstrated their emptiness, thrown them away like so many empty husks, stigmatized them as an arrogation of a singularity.
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2018 by Douglas RobertsonSource: Ingeborg Bachmann, Frankfurter Vorlesungen. Probleme zeitgenössischer Dichtung [Frankfurt Lectures. Problems in Contemporary Literature], Munich and Berlin: Piper, 2016. This is the fourth of a series of five lectures that Bachmann delivered at Goethe University Frankfurt during the 1959-1960 winter semester and recorded for Bavarian Radio in April 1960.