Monday, October 30, 2006

Proprietary Names: The Name / Proprietary Names: The Place

(For a PDF version of this essay, go to The Worldview Annex.) 

“What is a metaphysical experience? If we disdain projecting it upon allegedly primal religious experiences, we are most likely to visualize it as Proust did, in the happiness, for instance, promised by village names like Applebachsville, Wind Gap, or Lord’s Valley […] To the child it is self-evident that what delights him in his favorite village is found only there, there alone and nowhere else. He is mistaken; but his mistake creates the model of experience, of a concept that will end up as the concept of the thing itself, not as a poor projection from things.”

Theodor W. Adorno[1]

For a long time I used to maintain a pre-eminently Proustian disposition toward the constituent phenomena of my own memory both as things-in-themselves and as occasions for writing. Even now that I have largely been disabused of every hope of following in Proust’s gargantuan footsteps at my own modestly man-sized pace, the sheer Heraclean effort required for the reconstruction of a time when Proust was for me simply the name of a writer alluded to in a Monty Python sketch, let alone a time when Swann was the name of the villain in the Brian dePalma so-called cult flick Phantom of the Paradise (as well as of a certain street where the office of Dr. McPherson, the pediatrician who administered to me the oral polio vaccine, was sited), testifies to the perdurability and irreversibility of the revolution in aesthetic and artistic habitus effected by my encounter with In Search of Lost Time—or, as it was still known in those days, Remembrance of Things Past. By those days, I mean the days of a specific year, 1991, the year in which I was essentially forced to read all three fat silver-covered volumes of the Vintage edition of the Moncrieff-Kilmartin-Mayor translation[2] over the course of four months, in an undergraduate seminar bearing the ominously succinct title of Proust. I cannot say that at the outset I was particularly enthusiastic about this undertaking. At that point, my image of Proust, formed out of a few scraps of literary-critical hearsay, was essentially consubstantial with that of a French James Joyce, a writer whose abandonment of the traditional linear organization of narrative (as the editor of a certain literary anthology summarized Proust’s achievement) in my eyes could have been predicated only on the adoption of a narrative technique as gimmicky and off-putting as Joycean stream-of-consciousness. In my view then (and, to be frank, even now), English prose style had reached its acme in the genteel periodic syntax of the middle decades of the eighteenth century, and I was preemptively ill-disposed toward any prose idiom that savored even superficially of breathlessness or incoherence. To my relief, the opening pages of the Overture savored of nothing of the kind: in pacing, and in the disposition of ideas, Proust’s idiom was deliberative rather than effusive; hence, unlike many Proustian novitiates, I was not in the least put off by the apparent triviality of the event described in those opening pages. Why should Proust not have required thirty pages to describe how a chap tosses and turns in bed before falling asleep (as Proust’s prospective publisher Alfred Humblot put it in perhaps the most often-cited rejection letter in the history of literature), given that every new sentence I encountered on every single one of those pages appeared to bear an irreducibly necessary relation both to its immediate predecessor and to the opening sentence, given that each of these sentences witnessed the illumination some new facet of the narrator’s world and contained within it in little the promise of some eventual illumination of the whole of that world. From that moment on, I was not only hooked as a reader but converted as a would-be writer to the Proustian modus fabulandi. From that moment on, it seemed to me that the most obvious, the most natural way to go about writing a novel was not, according to what I took to be the standard method, to proceed as a storyteller who selected from the phenomena of his own experience only those elements that met the exigencies of a prefabricated curtain-to-curtain treatment of his entire narrative; but rather to proceed in Proustian fashion as a mixture of poet and philosopher whose basic materials were constituted by these phenomena themselves, in the course of the elucidation of which he could trust a sense of narrative and thematic cogency to emerge gradually and (for want of a less cheesy adverb) organically. And it was not long afterwards—perhaps, indeed, before I had even belatedly finished reading the final volume of the novel midway through the following summer—that I was visited by the insight that in the remembrances of that period of my life roughly coextensive with that comprising the core of the Proustian mnemoscape, namely the period bookended by early childhood and early adolescence, were to be discovered a trove of aesthetic materials worthy of a novel or two in its own right. I realize that the hard-bitten reader will be inclined to interpret this purported discovery of my adolescent self as a mere symptom of the artistic megalomania typical of young writers; I suspect, indeed, that this reader has already annotated the margin abutting on the last sentence with the comment “For ‘insight’ read: ‘delusion’.” But in all fairness to this adolescent self of mine, and in the interest of providing a full disclosure of the nature and scope of his ambitions, I must make it clear that at the time I had not the foggiest idea of how I might go about synthesizing my impressions into anything so coherent as a finished work of art. Samuel Beckett, in his precocious early monograph on Proust—written in his twenty-fourth year and less than a decade after Proust’s death—derives from Proust’s own temporizing over his artistic calling an implicit vocational distinction between the artist and the artisan: “The artist,” Beckett writes, “has acquired his text: the artisan translates it”[3]; in other words, the artist apprehends the phenomena of his world in a manner worthy of an artistic calling, while the artisan translates these phenomena in such a fashion that they may be apprehended by others. It was the gap between the calling of an artist and the métier of an artisan that my adolescent self could see no means of traversing. Settled then as I was in the conviction that I had discovered an artistic calling, I harbored next to no hopes of arriving at, or managing to cultivate, an artisanal métier of the degree of scope and resilience requisite for the translation of my artistic impressions into a sustained prose composition. And so the best part of a decade elapsed before I finally hit upon a sufficiently aesthetically compelling means of partitioning off a certain subsection of my memories from the unwieldy whole, such that I felt that a reasonably diligent and capable translation of this subsection would constitute a book capable of sustaining a reader’s interest from beginning to end. Throughout the summer of 2000, I found myself perpetually haunted or hectored, courtesy of Proust’s celebrated faculty of involuntary memory, by a series of memories centering around a certain acquaintance of my adolescent years, a figure whom I was in the habit of privately calling my “eleventh-to-fifteenth-best friend from high school,” a figure so marginal that not only had I completely lost touch with him since high school graduation but, barring one occasion, I had not spent so much as a minute in his company outside the grounds of our school itself. The more I reflected on this series of memories from a prospective translator’s point of view, the more artistically feasible and aesthetically worthwhile the notion of confining my translation for the time being to this set of memories, the notion of treating them as a quasi-autonomous aesthetic object, came to seem. This was an undertaking modest enough in scale to require at most a few years for its completion but ambitious enough to eventuate in the production of a novel of perfectly respectable length—between two hundred and four hundred pages. And in the end and in the main, according to my own lights, this shotgun wedding of my aesthetic judgment and my artisanal pragmatism proved a happy and fruitful union: after I had sketched the first draft of my memoiristic novel or novelistic memoir, I was pleased to see that each individual episode complemented and reinforced the episodes that preceded and followed it, and that all of the episodes in the aggregate amounted to a reasonably satisfying whole.

Not that I was without regrets or misgivings; my regrets unsurprisingly were occasioned by the fact that in ruthlessly excluding all reference to entities that were not affiliated in some fashion with this marginal acquaintance of mine I had been obliged to leave out so much that I would very much have liked to include, while my misgivings, more complex and harder to pin down, were occasioned by certain stylistic infelicities, certain words and phrases that like foreign bodies seemed to have insinuated themselves into the living tissue of my prose at the rate of one or two occurrences per page. At first, the only generalization I managed to articulate regarding these foreign bodies was that they contravened the spirit of the work as a whole; I was not even able to specify the nature of the contravention, let alone how it might be remedied. Only gradually, by dint of asking myself during successive re-readings of the manuscript, apropos of each of these false-ringing words and phrases, “Where have I come across something like this before? What kind of writer would write such a thing and why would I disapprove of it?” did I come to realize that the incongruity their presence manifested was one of tone; that the attitude any perceptive reader was bound to ascribe to me each time he or she encountered one of these words or phrases was an attitude stridently at odds with the one I was consistently trying to convey. The prevailing tone of my authorial voice was one of gentle Horatian irony—shading occasionally, to be sure, into the more acerbic Juvenalian mode when the person or institution under scrutiny merited such a shift–but with the appearance of every one of these words or phrases I saw my essentially benevolent Horatian smile of bemused amusement tighten momentarily into a smirk or grimace of ill-humored flippancy that bespoke an underlying attitude to my subject matter that was altogether less charitable and less civil than the one I supposed myself to have adopted toward it with rigorous consistency. And it was a kind of flippancy that rang a specific bell, the bell of an already dated Generation-X-centric variety of hipsterism that I had never wanted to have anything to do with. I can thus say with more precision and scarcely any exaggeration that with every one of my readerly encounters with one of these incongruous episodes I saw my own familiar and genial—if not especially prepossessing—authorial visage morph into that of Ethan Hawke as he appeared in that notorious 1994 vehicle for Generation-X navel-gazing entitled Reality Bites—even more specifically at that point in the film at which, in response to a perfectly innocuous query into the state of his health, he replies, quoting some advertising slogan from the 1970s or 80s, “I’m bursting with fruit flavor.” The particularly vexing thing about these moments in my text was that they seemed to be impervious to revision: every sentence in which one of them occurred was a letter-perfect rendition of the memory trace that it purported to transcribe, and try as I might in each case, I could never manage either excise or replace the offending word or phrase without corrupting the fidelity of the transcription in toto. Ineluctably, I was compelled to conclude that the fault with these passages inhered not in my treatment of the phenomena that comprised my world but in the phenomena themselves. For what seemed like the thousandth time, I returned to a sentence in my manuscript that bothered me more than any of the others, a sentence that read—and, indeed, still reads—as follows:

We had by now arrived at Sid’s car, an early 80s-model Mercedes sedan (doubtlessly on loan from the showroom of his father’s used car dealership) whose gorgeous factory-fresh paint job so closely approached in hue and brightness the color of butterscotch Jell-O pudding that at the sight of this vehicle, set off like a gem from all the vehicles of much drabber coat (if more recent vintage) with whom it was obliged to cohabitate in the prosaic environs of the Bowden parking lot, I felt the faintest—yet at the same time the most visceral—of cravings for that Cosby-endorsed dessert treat.

Once again, my readerly hackles rose at two points in the sentence: at Mercedes and butterscotch Jell-O pudding. But for the first time I was struck by a certain purely typographical correspondence between these two moments and certain others that did not arouse a parallel revulsion; I noticed that, like Mercedes and Jell-O, Sid, Bowden, and Cosby were capitalized; and that hence, according to the water-tight rules governing capitalization in English, all five of these strings of characters had to be regarded as proper names. Following immediately on the heels of this revelation came the revelation that it was by virtue of their shared proprietary character that Mercedes and Jell-O could be distinguished between the other three proper names in the paragraph: each of them was essentially the property of a corporate entity, of the Mercedes automobile company and the Jell-O (or Nabisco?) food manufacturing company, respectively.

And in connection with these successive re-readings of my manuscript, through a rather more Lockean than Proustian set of associations, I was eventually reminded of those two chapters of In Search of Lost Time entitled, respectively, “Place Names: The Name” and “Place Names: The Place.” I recalled that in the first of these two chapters—the last chapters, respectively, of the first two volumes of the novel—Proust had essayed a kind of theory, and more specifically, a metaphysics, of naming, and that the second of them was meant to serve as a kind of case study in illustration of this theory. I recalled, moreover, that the titles of these chapters were somewhat misleading; inasmuch as the theory propounded and illustrated in the first chapter addressed itself not merely to place names specifically, but to all classes of names; and as in subsequent chapters Proust adverted to and refined this theory in connection with names that had nothing to do with places. But because none of my forays back into the novel over the previous dozen years had ever been guided by the question of the name in Proust, without losing sight of the importance of the name as a component of the Proustian worldview, I had effectively lost my grasp of the essential postulates of the Proustian theory of names. Might not, I reflected, a thorough re-grounding in this theory, courtesy of a close rereading of the two “Name” chapters, help me to clear up my confusion with regard to the place of the proprietary name in my own writing? As I was hardly getting anywhere on my own, I thought it was worth a try.

Not that my recollection of either of these chapters was so poor that I expected to gain much in the way of positive insight into the nature of the proprietary name from revisiting them. And speaking from the perspective of the present, I can scarcely overstate the degree to which the eye ever peeled for the most trifling allusion to a characteristically proprietarily-named phenomenon is struck by the absence of such allusions from the text of A la recherche. Only once in the nearly 400 pages comprised by the two “Name” chapters is a proprietary name explicitly mentioned, in a throwaway reference by the narrator’s friend Robert de St. Loup to some “snaps I took myself with my Kodak” (ISYGF 365).[4] To be sure, tucked unobtrusively into the description of a minor character, the owner or general manager “not just of this palace [i.e., the Grand Hotel at Balbec] but also of seven or eight others established in widely separated parts of the country” (270) we discover a tantalizing intimation of the development of the modern hotel chain; and in the painter Elstir’s pedantic disquisition on the relative merits of specific Parisian dressmakers we glimpse the beginnings of the designer fashion industry. But in neither of these institutional embryos (both of which, it must be said, are already to be found at a comparable stage of development in the novels of Balzac, penned three quarters of a century earlier) is the proprietary name as we know it fully instantiated. We hear nothing, for example, of any plans on the hotelier’s part to name each of his far-flung hotels after himself, or on the Parisian dressmakers’ part to open retail shops bearing their names in provincial cities.

So then, the insight into the metaphysical heft of the proprietary name that I hoped to acquire from re-schooling myself in the Proustian theory of names was to be largely negative in character. I hoped that in observing the behavior of the proprietarily-named constituents of my own world in the Proustian Petri-dish, in noting whether they thrived or expired in culture with Proustian metaphysics, to determine whether by dint of a more studied application of this metaphysics I might arrive at a means of more seamlessly assimilating proprietary names into the fabric of the description of my life-world; or whether, to the contrary, the pursuit of my proprietary-nominal-poetic ambitions would require some modification or even outright abandonment of this metaphysics. What follows is a procedural account—presented in the present tense for ease of reading—of this experiment together with a synthesis of the altogether sobering results it yielded.


The core of Proust’s theory of names is to be found in two brief (by Proustian standards) sentences that turn up, appropriately enough, near the very beginning of “Place Names: The Name”:

Words present us with little pictures of things, clear and familiar, like those that are hung on the walls of schools to give children an example of what a workbench is, a bird, an anthill, things conceived of as similar to all others of the same sort. But names present a confused image of people—and of towns, which they accustom us to believe are individual, unique like people—an image which derives from them, from the brightness or darkness of their tone, the color with which it is painted uniformly, like one of those posters, entirely blue or entirely red, in which, because of the limitations of the process used or by a whim of the designer, not only the sky and the sea are blue or red, but the boats, the church, the people in the streets (SW 403-404).[5]

The first item in the constellation of images presented here that I wish to draw the reader’s attention to is the image of the seashore as it ought to appear to us, denuded of the false colors superimposed on it by the poster-board medium of the name; for its presence here—albeit only in negative—allows us to establish the fundamentally positivistic character of Proustian epistemology, its foundation in the conviction that there is a real world out there that we are capable of knowing with varying forms and degrees of certitude. To be sure, in the main, and perhaps even exclusively, Proust is concerned with describing the ways in which we are misled as to the essential nature of the world rather than with establishing more reliable means of getting at this essential nature; and thus, at the risk of coining an oxymoron, we may term him a negative positivist, but his negative positivism ought not to be mistaken for a form of solipsism, an epistemological disposition to regard the world outside the self as unknowable and ultimately irrelevant. Here, he is describing the way in which a particular linguistic form, the name, misleads us as to the essential nature of the world: it misleads us, he claims, by over-individuating certain chunks of the world, by causing us to ascribe to them qualities that belong to them and them alone. Words are not thus capable of misleading us because the picture they present to us (presumably in the form of a definition) is complete and self-sustaining—there is nothing lurking behind the picture presented by a given word that will ever shake our faith in the metaphysical integrity of that word. If every anthill in the world were summarily bulldozed, I would still accept the word “anthill” as shorthand for the phrase “a moundlike nest built by ants or termites.”[6] The picture presented to us by a name, on the other hand, is not self-sustaining; it is conditioned by, parasitic upon the “true picture” of the entity to which it refers without, however, ever quite (or sometimes even approximately) corresponding to that picture. And we must not suppose that because Proust writes here, on the one hand, of anonymous, merely “worded” birds, workbenches, and anthills; and, on the other hand, of named people and towns that for him the determination of whether a given chunk of the world is named or merely “worded” depends on its intrinsic qualities, that he believes that people and towns are inherently more “nameworthy” than birds, workbenches, and anthills. In principle, for Proust, any chunk of the world is amenable to being named, and, by virtue of bearing a name, capable of deceiving us as to its essential nature. If, in driving along the sort of rural stretch of interstate highway mythically associated with such attractions, I encounter billboard after billboard advertising the “The Anterhorn: The Biggest Anthill in the World,” I cannot be blamed for associating with the name Anterhorn a picture of an anthill the size and shape of an Alpine peak; nor, supposing I am enticed by these advertisements to pull over at the designated exit to see the thing in the flesh (or, rather, the sand), can I be blamed for subsequently feeling a certain sense of disappointment in the name Anterhorn as its original master-image of an Alpine peak is displaced by that of the actual Anterhorn, a formless heap of earth scarcely twice the size of the average anthill in my back yard.

But with this example of my own invention I have perhaps let myself get a little ahead of Proust, and stood in the way of allowing him to expound his theory of names of his after his own characteristic fashion, that of alternating the presentation of relatively timeless, impersonal illustrations of his principles with more concrete examples drawn from his own (or, if you prefer, his narrator’s) experience. The impersonal theoretical passage cited above turns up in the middle of Proust’s narrator’s account of his enchantment with one of “Place Names: The Name”’s eponymous place names, Balbec. Given that Balbec is the name of a seaside resort town, we must suppose that Proust’s choice of a poster of a seaside scene as one of the principal metaphoric vehicles of his theory of names was guided by no mere whim or caprice. And courtesy of the Balbec story we manage to draw a tentative conclusion as to the identity of the mysterious “designer” of name-posters who leads us astray by painting the seaside in false colors, namely contingency, which turns out to be but a pseudonym for Proust’s ally and nemesis, time—time manifested not in its more familiar Proustian guise as the residue of subjective experience but as the centuries-deep sedimentary accretion of history. For the narrator’s composite imago of the town of Balbec, derived second-hand from two friends of his family, Legrandin and Swann, does have something to do with the town’s recorded history. Balbec, Legrandin tells him, constitutes “the last encampment of fishermen, precisely like all the fishermen who have ever lived since the beginning of the world, facing the eternal realm of the mists of the sea and the shadows of the night” (SW 400); but when the narrator subsequently drops the name of the town in Swann’s presence by way of finding out “if [Balbec] was the choicest spot for seeing the most powerful storms,” Swann, apparently seeing nothing in this occurrence but an occasion for mounting his prize hobby horse of architectural history, replies with the non-sequitur, “Yes indeed I certainly know Balbec! The church at Balbec, built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, still half Romanesque, is perhaps the most curious example of our Norman Gothic, and so singular! It’s almost Persian in style.” (400-401). In their respective descriptions of Balbec, both men, evincing all of the callous oblivion of infantile credulousness characteristic of adults, simply filter out every attribute of the town that fails to distinguish it from all other towns in their eyes and exaggerate those attributes that set it apart. Thus, in the narrator’s imagination, the name Balbec comes to conjure up the cheek-by-jowl juxtaposition of exotic antique beauty and maritime sublimity—“the desire for storms and Norman Gothic [architecture]” (403) and the image of “waves rising around a Persian-style church” (405). Small wonder then, that when, in a trip an account of which comprises the whole of “Place Names: The Place,” he is finally afforded the opportunity of visiting Balbec, he is disappointed to discover that the fabled church stands “in a town square at the junction of two trolley lines, opposite a café with the word Billiards above it in gilt lettering, against a background of houses with no masts swaying above their roofs,” (ISYGF 238)[7]; that maritime Balbec—Balbec-Plage as distinguished from Balbec-en-Terre—is sited a full fifteen miles away; that Balbec-Plage itself, far from being the haunt of archetypal fishermen organically bound to the sea, is a veritable den of the most prosaic strata of French society; namely, the Parisian petit-bourgeoisie and the provincial gentry. Thus, the name Balbec, which the narrator has heretofore gingerly kept at arm’s length as one would a time capsule, a unique repository of the otherwise unattainable historically real, retrospectively reveals its essence to be that of a time bomb—or, to be truer to Proust’s own metaphoric vehicle, a time anti-bomb[8], its hair-trigger detonation mechanism poised to set off an implosion drawing into its purview a heterogeneous heap of present-day ephemera the instant it is brought into contact with its referent.

Bookended, respectively, by the narrator’s account of his relative a priori enchantment and absolute a posteriori disenchantment with the name Balbec is the account of his solely a posteriori disenchantment with the second eponym of the two “Name” Chapters, the Bois de Boulogne, which is in fact presented in toto within the confines of “Place Names: The Name.” Now residing in Paris, and still dreaming of a visit to Balbec, the narrator finds himself busily and innocently preoccupied with the realization of a new passion, that of winning the heart of his Combray friend Gilberte, who is likewise residing in Paris with her parents, M. and Mme. Swann. The periodic scene of these ultimately fruitless attempts at pre-adolescent seduction is the Bois de Boulogne, where Gilberte customarily turns up to play with an assortment of companions all of whom, to the narrator’s chagrin, seem to outrank him in her affections. As Gilberte’s visits to the Bois occur in tandem with visits by her mother and other fashionable women to the same place, the narrator’s frustrated infatuation with Gilberte herself metastasizes into an infatuation with Mme. Swann, and ultimately with the entire coterie of fashionable female habitués of the Blois; the Bois de Boulogne becomes for him “the Garden of Woman.” The final pages of the chapter flash forward,[9] so to speak, to a visit paid by the narrator to the Bois “this year” (i.e. in the year of the presumptive composition of the novel; consequently in the maturity of his adulthood). Passing through the park en route to see the fall foliage at Trianon in Versailles on a November morning, he is seized by a longing to behold in the flesh all of the beloved metonyms of the Bois of his childhood. He wants to see Mme. Swann’s “enormous” coachman bridling his horses with “their eyes bloodshot like the cruel steeds of Diomedes,” (SW 441) where he now sees “only automobiles driven by mustached mechanics.” He wants to see such “masterpieces of feminine elegance” as Mme. Swann herself wearing “little hats so low they seemed to be simple crowns” where he now sees only women sporting “immense” hats “covered with fruits and flowers and varieties of birds” and who “hobble themselves” in “dresses that aren’t even made of cloth” (442). And in the final paragraph of the chapter (and of the volume) he concludes:

That Mme. Swann did not arrive exactly the same at the same moment was enough to make the avenue different. The places we have known do not belong solely to the world of space in which we situate them for our greater convenience. They were only a thin slice among contiguous impressions which formed our life at that time; the memory of a certain image is but regret for a certain moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fleeting, alas, as the years (444).

We must not see in these sentences merely a verbose, recondite recasting of the banal adage that “things change.” Considering them in the light of Proust’s general theory of naming, we must, rather, see them as a formulation of the original insight that it is only courtesy of our enchantment with names that we even notice, let alone care, that things have changed. For we have no reason to believe that the particular moment marks the narrator’s first encounter with an automobile or with women wearing enormous fruit-basket-like hats. We have reason merely to believe, rather, that it marks the first occasion on which he is touched by the absence of horse-drawn carriages and women wearing small hats, and that he could not have been so touched anywhere but here, in this specific park named the Bois de Boulogne. Walled in like an abandoned mnemonic reservoir from the surrounding urban landscape by virtue of its possession of a name, the Bois, in contrast to the anonymous quarters of the city that lie outside of it, quite simply owes the narrator the provision of horses and women wearing small hats and consequently disappoints him when it shows itself powerless to meet this provision.

The aggregative significance of these two narratives of name-disenchantment, that of Balbec and that of the Bois, vis-à-vis the novel in its entirety, is twofold. Firstly, as regards the plotting of the novel, by means of them he provides us with a kind of typology (in the strict theological sense of the word) of all of the disenchantments that the narrator will undergo in subsequent volumes. For Proust explicitly frames the narrator’s entanglement with each of his great loves—Albertine, the Duchesse de Guermantes, and the beau monde of the Faubourg St. Germain (epitomized by entire constellation of the Guermantes family)—as a direct function of his enchantment with its name; and falling out of love with these names he finds himself helplessly, and with mathematical exactitude, retracing a cursus he has already followed either at Balbec or at the Bois. The name Albertine, like that of the Bois, acquires its metaphysical resonance only in hindsight; as the narrator is compelled to recognize that the seasoned and indefatigably inventive fabricator of lies and half-truths whom he has sequestered in his apartment is in fact the same person as the apparently guileless “little cyclist” he first caught sight of years before on the boardwalk at Balbec. The name Guermantes, on the other hand, successively participates in each of the two modes of disenchantment. Just as the name Balbec jettisons its mythic metonymic cargo of maritime sublimity on being brought into contiguity with the locale of present-day Balbec, so initially the name Guermantes (more gradually, to be sure) sheds its equally mythic metonymic cargo of medieval chivalric romance on being brought into contiguity with the present bearers of that name, namely his neighbors in Combray, the Duke and Duchesse de Guermantes. The narrator’s discovery that the Duchess has “the highest position in the Faubourg Saint-Germain” leads to a short-lived infatuation with that name, so new to him, subtended by an infatuation with the Duchess herself. But the Faubourg Saint-Germain is no substitute for the medieval Combray of yore; and hence, all that is left of the original metaphysical heft of the name Guermantes once it has been more or less bled dry of every drop of heraldic ichor—in other words, once the Duchess is revealed to be nothing other than the reigning queen of the of the beau monde of the present—is a kind of brittle carapace of beauty and good manners through whose innumerable perforations may be glimpsed an appalling organic core of philistinism and callousness. From this point onward, though, as the narrator now feels himself as much at home in the drawing room of the Duchess as he felt in the Bois du Boulogne of his childhood, the name Guermantes commences a gradual Blois-like metaphysical degeneration heralded by the increasingly insistent incursions into its ranks of the unabashedly barbaric nouveau riche Verdurin set, and culminating, in the last volume of the novel, in the assumption of the title of Princess de Guermantes by Mme Verdurin herself.

Secondly, as regards the philosophical argument of the novel, in connection with both the Balbec and Bois narratives proper and all of their typological echoes (and thanks to the ever-recursive presence of the Proustian “we,” which constantly reminds us that his narrator’s private experiences are to be read as exemplary), Proust gradually expands the scope of his metaphysics of names such that it eventually encompasses and subsumes all of his other philosophical preoccupations save that of the nature of Time itself, which even in its turn eventually comes to stand in an inalienable complementary relation to the question of the significance of names. Closer or protracted acquaintance with the referent of a name, according to Proust, inevitably eventuates in what we might term the name’s metaphysical decay, its descent from an ethereal realm of name-worthy uniqueness into a banal terrestrial realm of merely word-worthy commonplace-hood. If, like the narrator vis-à-vis the name Balbec, we first encounter a given name at a spatial distance from its referent, then we will witness the metaphysical decay of that name as a consequence of the traversal of the geographical space separating name and referent, as a consequence of a comparison of the referent with the name-picture supplied to us by contingently-acquired hearsay. If, on the other hand, our earliest acquaintance with a given name coincides with our earliest acquaintance with its referent, as does the narrator’s acquaintance with the name of the Bois de Boulogne, we will witness the metaphysical decay of that name as a consequence of the elapsing of time, as a consequence of a comparison of the referent in its present state with the name-picture supplied to us by our earlier memories. Either way, Proust avows, the metaphysical decay of names can neither be avoided nor short-circuited by some kind of pragmatic determination to deal with the world as it really is. For our capacity to be deluded by names is, in his eyes, essentially inseparable from our very will to live. Steeped as we are by default in a world of merely worded things—every one of which testifies to us that what is happening here, now, has already happened (and will happen again)—in exactly the same fashion innumerable times elsewhere (and hence is not worth troubling ourselves about), we see in a given name the promise either of discovering something uniquely new or of returning to the comfort something uniquely familiar. The metaphysics of names constitutes for Proust nothing less than a kind of secular cosmology, in which each treasured name figures as a deity in a veritable pantheon of name gods. Transposing one of Wittgenstein’s most celebrated aphorisms into a metaphysical register, Proust says: “The limits of my belief in the uniqueness of names are the limits of my love for the world.” Hence for Proust the metaphysical decay of each name marks an incremental step forward toward a state of utter disenchantment with the world itself. This last point, that a renunciation of one’s faith in names amounts to a de facto renunciation of the world, is made explicit only in the last third of the final volume of the novel, in which, after remarking his terminal disenchantment with Guermantes, the mightiest of all of the name gods, (a disenchantment engendered by its aforementioned Verdurinzation), the narrator declares his official apostasy from the cult of the name in toto, and avows his newfound discovery of the power of words, which discovery—inasmuch as vocation is one of those words—fixes him in his determination to become a writer, to live only for the sake of realizing the work of art that is germinating within him. “I began to understand…too what death meant and love and the joys of the spiritual life, the usefulness of suffering, a vocation, etc. For if names had lost most of their individuality for me, words on the other hand now began to reveal their full significance” (TR 974)[10]. And if the book that he has set out to write in the final pages of Time Regained is to bear any resemblance to the book that Proust has bequeathed to us (critical consensus, for reasons that are unfathomable to me, seems to hold that it is not the same book, or, to be more precise, a book that would look exactly the same), we must assume that the realization of its avowed aim of “emphasizing as strongly as possible the notion of Time embodied, of years past but not separated from us” (1105 [syntax amended]), of “recapturing lost time,” will in large measure consist in a kind of philological reconstruction of the narrator’s personal gospel of names; in the presentation of an allegorical account of the place of each salient name in his own history, and an anagogical account of his own place in the history of each of these names.


Having detailed what is, I hope, a sufficiently comprehensive account of Proust’s metaphysics of names—as well as its intrinsic prescriptive implications for the writer—I must now determine to what degree and in what fashion the proprietary name might be assimilated to this metaphysics. Preparatory to this determination, though, I must make a pair of supplementary observations about the Proustian name-scape. I have already mentioned in passing—and subsequently sought to establish in lingering—that, the titles of his two “Name” chapters notwithstanding, Proust makes no distinction among categories of names, that for him the metaphysical charge of a place name, for example, does not differ in kind from that of a personal name; and that, consequently, a narrative of disenchantment with, for example, a place name may correspond in all essentials to a narrative of disenchantment with a personal name or a family name. But without retracting this generalization by so much as a millimeter, I must now observe that certain categorizations of names do supervene in the plotting of Proustian name narratives. In the case of place names and personal names, because their referents are fixed to a specific pair (or, rather, triad) of coordinates in space and time, their metaphysical decay is experienced under the auspices of a single entity: one goes or returns to a particular place, meets or retains (or renews) an acquaintance with particular person. In the case of a family name, on the other hand, because its referent comprehends a multitude of entities, one cannot fall out of love with it either at one go, or in connection with a specific entity. The name Guermantes subsumes not only the country seat of the Guermantes in Combray, and the city residence of the Guermantes in Paris, but also a host of individual people: the Duke and Duchess, the Baron de Charlus, the Marquis de St. Loup, inter alia. Each one of these people is a member of the Guermantes family and a bearer of the Guermantes name. Consequently, the narrator’s disenchantment with the name Guermantes is by far the most complicated and slow-moving of any name-disenchantment in the entire novel: it is predicated not only on the discoveries concerning the Duchess de Guermantes that I alluded to a few pages ago; but also, for example, on the discovery of St. Loup’s scorn for the literature of his father’s generation and of the Baron de Charlus’s sadomasochistic erotic tendencies. Retarding the metaphysical decay of the Guermantes name still further is the individual Guermantes’ well-bred disinclination to go about like prep school students in blue blazers bearing the Guermantes coat of arms (together with their occasional predilection for presenting themselves under the auspices of a name with less brand-name recognition than that appertaining to Guermantes), owing to which disinclination the narrator often enough finds himself in the presence of a Guermantes without knowing he is in the presence of one. It is only courtesy of Mme. de Villeparisis’s slip of introducing to him the Baron de Charlus as the non-existent Baron de Guermantes, for example, that the narrator learns of the Baron’s familial affiliation so soon after catching sight of him for the first time.

Now, notionally, among all of the categories of names we find in Proust, it is to the family name which the proprietary name bears the most obvious comparison. A corporation, like a family, is unconfined to a specific locale and is composed of a multitude of heterogeneous entities—offices, production plants, retail outlets, manufactured products, and so on—each of which bears the name of the corporation without on its own constituting the referent of that name. On the basis of this resemblance alone, we may infer that any narrative of metaphysical disenchantment with a proprietary name will perforce be neither as speedy as the Balbec narrative, nor as spatially localized as the Bois narrative. We can suffer no great disenchantment with the name Coca Cola by visiting our local Coca Cola bottling plant or even Coca Cola headquarters in Atlanta, because the name Coca Cola individuates neither of these places as places; nor can we fall out of love with the name Coca Cola by observing the gradual decarbonation of a single bottle of Coca Cola in our refrigerator because the name Coca Cola does not individuate that particular bottle; rather, it classes that bottle with other bottles with which we regard it as being interchangeable. The only thing preventing us from drawing the positive and complete inference that narratives of proprietary disenchantment must be subtended by a gradual, piecemeal narrative of discovery such as that subtending Proust’s narrator’s disenchantment with the name Guermantes is the consideration that, unlike members of aristocratic families, proprietarily-named entities evince remarkably little reticence on the score of their affiliation with their master names; that, on the contrary, they fairly boast of this affiliation with plebian imperiousness. Virtually every one of them, from the most unprepossessing pair of boxer briefs to the mightiest of skyscrapers, proudly proclaims, in letters visible to all and sundry: Fruit of the Loom or McDonald’s or Coca Cola me fecit! In this respect, the proprietary name bears closest comparison with those names that maintain a profile of such a degree of notoriety in Proust’s world that it does not even seem to have occurred to him to present them to us under the auspices of names of his own devising: these are such names as Paris, New York, Marshall McMahon, Kaiser Wilhelm, and, indeed, the Bois de Boulogne. Thus, it would seem that any narrative of proprietary disenchantment would have to consist in a kind of hybrid of the Bois and Guermantes narratives; that is to say, it would have to detail the metamorphosis of an already-privately-and-publicly-familiar name over time in connection with a plurality of places (or things or people).
But as the problem of how to go about charting a narrative of proprietary disenchantment in a Proustian novel is on the face of it a completely different problem from the one I initially set out to solve—namely, how to go about the bare referencing of such names in such a novel—I will postpone any attempt at solving it until such time (if any) as its solution promises to illuminate the initial problem. For the moment I would like to see whether any part of what we have established so far about proprietary names might usefully be applied to the solution of that problem. So, then: proprietary names, like family names, possess both a countable (a McDonald’s [restaurant], a [bottle of] Coca Cola) and an uncountable aspect (the McDonald’s, or the Coca Cola corporation). And like the names of celebrities and great cities, they are possessed of an uncommonly high degree of notoriety. The synthesis of these two premises eventuates in the striking conclusion that at least in their countable aspect proprietary names may function as de facto Proustian words: by virtue of their ubiquity in our own world, they present to us “clear and familiar pictures of things,” and by virtue of their corresponding familiarity to other people, we may make use of them on the assumption that they will present to these other people pictures that are equally clear and familiar to them.[11] But clear and familiar though these pictures may be, they are not by a long shot static pictures. Proust’s apercu that “names change for us in years more than words do in centuries” applies to proprietary names, as a class, with perhaps a greater degree of rigor than he envisaged. Today’s Oldsmobile, as the General Motors corporation were at great pains to remind us back in the days when they still manufactured cars bearing the Oldsmobile brand name, is not your father’s Oldsmobile. Bereft of any qualification, the mention of a countable proprietary name in a text will conjure up the image that the reader most closely associates with that name, an image that, depending on that reader’s temporal distance from the date at which the text was composed, may bear little if any resemblance to the image that the writer had in mind when he set the name down on paper (or electrified silicon). The writer who drops a countable proprietary name as casually as he would a word thus surrenders the reception of the sentence into which he drops it to the inscrutable semantic norms of posterity; however fastidiously he has otherwise seen to fixing the scene of his narrative at a determinate point in the past, his labors rack up a productivity quotient of nil when they are employed as assembly-line-mates of the proprietary name, with its indefatigable powers of self-renewal.

If the testimony of this reader counts for anything, In Search of Lost Time itself has not shown itself to be immune to such posterior semantic contamination. The image conjured up for me by St. Loup’s allusion to the name Kodak in the aforementioned sentence from “Place Names: The Place” that reads “They’re just snaps I took myself with my Kodak, and they’d give you a misleading impression of her,” is that of a slim, black, plastic, candy-bar-sized 1970s Instamatic—the most recently manufactured model of Kodak camera that I have been at all closely acquainted with; the camera of the birthday parties and Christmases of my childhood. Now, I assume, based on my admittedly sketchy knowledge of the history of photography, that the camera Proust had in mind when he composed this sentence was some sort of boxy contraption with a collapsible leather accordion casing; but I don’t really know. At any rate, the point is that the image of that camera fails to come through for me in the sentence as it stands; it is only after I have taken in the sentence and reflected that the presumptive date of the allusion to the name Kodak is circa 1900 and not circa 1975 that it occurs to me to substitute for the image of the Instamatic a more historically plausible image.

It seems to me that the same sort of phenomenon of temporal defamiliarization must be at work, on a more modest scale, in the singularly off-putting allusions to proprietary names that crop up in the text of my memoir, inasmuch as these allusions, like the Kodak allusion in “Place Names: The Place,” occur bereft of any qualifying descriptions that would site them in a specific historical locus. The Mercedes sedan I had in mind when I composed the parking lot scene excerpted earlier in this essay was an early 80s model with silver trimming; a model that shared with the sedans of the other main European car manufacturers of the period a design that was both much boxier than anything to come out of the factories since about 1995 and slightly more rounded about the edges than most of its exact American and Japanese contemporaries. When I encounter the name Mercedes in this passage as a reader, though, I picture to myself a fully-rounded late 90s model that in common with most cars of the present and near-present looks, in the words of an acquaintance of mine, “more like a bar of soap” than like the average car of 20 years ago; and as other readers, unlike myself, do not have the original image of the car to fall back on, I must assume a fortiori that in their minds this image of more recent vintage will likewise carry the day. It would seem, then, that if I am to harbor any hope of overriding the displacement of image of the “box-car” Mercedes by the image of a “soap bar” model, the very least I must do is spell out the distinction between the two models as explicitly as I have in fact just done. (Let us for the moment allow it to remain an open question whether this spelling out on its own suffices to override such a displacement.)

Now in the case of proprietarily-named entities such as Sid’s Mercedes, entities that make only a one-off cameo appearance in a text, the restoration of the entity to its proper historical place in the genealogy of its name is the work of at most a few sentences. In the case of proprietarily-named entities that play a full-fledged supporting role in a Proustian text, this restorative work must perforce be both more involved and more time (and space) consuming; it must be the work of many sentences and pages. As pretty much all of the proprietarily-named entities that turn up in my memoir in its present state are, like the Mercedes, mere bit players in the narrative, it seems that I might look to restoring to each of these entities its historically appropriate image without increasing the length of my manuscript by more than a few pages. And without going so far as to second-guess my artisanal subconscious, I believe I am entitled to observe that in confining the geographic purview of the survey of my adolescent mnemoscape to the grounds of my high school, I managed to spare myself a considerable amount of proprietary-nominal-restorative labor; for even the most cursory consideration of the lie of the land within a mile radius of the school itself brings to light at least three pieces of first class Proustian real estate organically bound to a piece of proprietary real estate—three places whose names, while imbued with as much poetry in the eyes of my adolescent self as were the names Combray, Balbec, and the Bois de Boulogne in the eyes of Proust’s narrator, were also inseparably linked, arm-in-arm, with a specific proprietary name. Here, at the eastern corner of Fletcher Avenue and Dale Mabry Highway is the Cascades shopping center, the haunt of the relatively well-heeled middle bourgeoisie of New Carrollwood, whose mildewed stuccoed-walled houses found their perfect complement in the shopping center’s artificially pitted sidewalks, themselves mildewed by a decade’s accumulation of overflow from the basins of its eponymous cascading fountains. The Cascades, site of the long-since-closed Romeo and Juliet Bistro, where I dined the night of my high school prom, of the Carrollwood Book Swap, where I once came across a book bearing the positively chilling title of Suicide: Un Mode d’Emploi—and of a Publix supermarket where my family did all of its grocery shopping until the marginally more proximate Westwood Kash’n’Karry opened in the early 1980s. Facing the Cascades across the other side of Dale Mabry is Mission Bell Plaza, so named for its California Mission-style façade of faux adobe, its ineradicable metonymical link to a region of North America even now unknown to me firsthand strengthened by the remembrance that it was there, whether by happenstance or owing to a well-planned stroke of commercial synergy, that I tasted my first taquito at Casa Gallardo, northwest Hillsborough County’s first Mexican restaurant—anchored by a pre-Super-K-era K-Mart. Finally, a block or two up the road, directly across the southern entrance of my high school, stands the mightiest—if architecturally least prepossessing—shopping center of them all, Northdale Court, which, more than any other place in the vicinity of my high school, merits the venerable appellation of my stomping grounds; inasmuch as it was there, at the local branch of the county library system tucked unobtrusively into its back parking lot, that I became acquainted with innumerable works of literature, philosophy, and music that I treasure to this day; there that at a hobby shop where a girl bearing the charmingly alliterative name of Valerie Valis, whom I courted every bit as clumsily and ineffectually as Proust’s narrator courted Gilberte, worked; there that, day after day in the fall of my senior year, I would stop by the drive-thru of a newly-opened McDonald’s in company with my friend the Spanish exchange student and aspiring pianist Jaime Garcia, en route to his host-family’s residence in nearby Citrus Park, where for hours, in the sweltering heat of his practice room in the back yard, I would listen with rapt admiration to his impassioned renditions of Beethoven piano sonatas (and with scarcely less rapt bemusement to his no-less-impassioned renditions of such sub-standard pop tunes as Peter Cetera’s “I’ll Be Right Here Waiting for You”). At the literal core of each of these genuine places is a proprietarily-named pseudoplace, a patch of ground that, by virtue of bearing the name of a corporation, serves as a de facto portal into corporate never-neverland and the world of the present. How am I, as an aspiring Proustian, to treat of this vexing compounding of place names and proprietary names? Well, in the first and most obvious place, I must make it clear that, for example, in the Northdale Plaza McDonalds of my high school years we are dealing with a brown-mansard-roofed model McDonalds of the late 1980s and not a red-mansard-roofed model of the first decade of the twenty-first century. In the second place, though, and in connection with the same example, by way of doing fairly by Northdale Plaza qua place name, I must overcome the temptation to treat its McDonald’s as a kind of walled corporate fortress; I must treat the McDonald’s name with a degree of ruthlessness worthy of a county government making use of its constitutional powers of annexation to abolish the municipal charter of an independent city sited within its borders; I must extend my infrarealistic survey of Northdale Plaza up to and beyond the walls of the restaurant by articulating precisely how it (the restaurant) participated in the genius loci of Northdale Plaza—how, for example, its bright, almost garish late-Miami-Vice-era atmosphere, replete with immaculately smooth white surfaces bathed in the pastel neon of exterior lighting fixtures answered the stark, pink stuccoed façade of the infrastructure of the shopping center. And I am obliged to treat every other McDonalds restaurant that likewise figures largely in my mnemoscape in the same fashion—to remark, for example, how the slightly seamy inner-city locale of the 1970s West Tampa McDonalds near my grandparents’ house participated in the somber, anachronistic, quasi-Victorian atmosphere of that restaurant; how the almost-sinister character of the earth-tones of its of its walls and ceiling was simultaneously reinforced and contradicted underfoot by the querulously coarse, bumpy texture of its cold cement flooring patterned in seeming emulation of a Mediterranean-style terra-cotta-tiled roof, and so on.

But for any would-be Proustian worth his salt, for any writer honest enough to grant to every name that is in some measure constitutive of his world a place in his nominal pantheon, every emplacement of a given proprietary name must be complemented by a corresponding displacement of that same name. The Northdale McDonald’s might not have been just any old McDonald’s; nevertheless it was, for me, a McDonald’s, a representative of a name of which I retained memories dating as far back as kindergarten. If I am obliged be true to the proprietarily-named pseudo-place vis-à-vis the non-proprietarily named genuine place, I am likewise obliged to be true to the non-proprietarily-named genuine place vis-à-vis the genuine proprietary name. No mnemogeographic survey of the Westwood Shopping Center on Gunn Highway, for example, would be complete absent an account of those hurried half-hour lunch breaks from my after-school job at the aforementioned Kash’n’Karry (Store #878, as the corporate top brass styled it), when I would tear off my bagboy’s apron and dash over to the Little Caesar’s five storefronts away and order and hurriedly consume a Baby Pan-Pan, an almost indecently cute two-slice-scale replica of their signature (and mandatory) two-for-one pie deal sheathed, like its elder siblings in the white paper wrapper blackened here and there by tiny puddles of oleaginous milk fat absorbed from the surface of the underlying cheese and bearing the iconic image of the company’s homuncular mascot. And much as I would like to ascribe the delight I took in these mealtime sallies solely to the intrinsic gustatory qualities of the pizza, I am duty bound to render unto Little Caesar’s what is Little Caesar’s by averring that these sallies probably would never have taken place, that it probably would have been my custom at lunchtime to order a sandwich from the supermarket’s on-site deli, had the spot of commercial real estate occupied by my Little Caesar’s been occupied instead by, say, Joe’s Pizzeria. For long before I started working at Westwood, the Little Caesar’s name had acquired a certain aura of prestige in my eyes; an aura dating back to the era of junior high school, and deriving specifically from the name’s association with the middle-bourgeois suburban comfort I enjoyed during my innumerable weekend stays at the Northdale residence of my friend Lang Adams, for whose family Little Caesar’s seemed to be the official sleepover caterer. Not that this era marked the inauguration of my acquaintance with the Little Caesar’s name—for the plastic signage of a Little Caesar’s sited at a particularly unprepossessing little strip mall on Armenia avenue had been a familiar landmark of the trip homeward from my paternal grandfather’s house since at least as far back as the era of late elementary school—but it did mark the moment of its sanctification as the carryout pizzeria of first resort. Up until I tasted my first slice of their pizza at Lang’s, I had regarded Little Caesar’s as a kind of poor man’s Pizza Hut; inasmuch as on those rare occasions when we did dine on carryout pizza my parents had always opted for a local chain called Hungry Howie’s; but with that first slice, Little Caesar’s was enthroned as King (or, rather, Emperor) and Hungry Howie’s acquired a certain déclassé, almost redneckish aspect in my eyes. In hindsight, the towheaded Hungry Howie’s mascot, with his upper-lip-licking tongue circumscribed by a corona of stylized projectile saliva droplets, seemed a kind of emblem of uninhibited gustatory sensuality and bad table manners, bespeaking most unfavorably the culinary habitus of the chain’s prospective customers. The Little Caesar’s mascot—eyes closed, smiling abstractedly as if in contemplation of higher matters—seemed a model of aristocratic forbearance by comparison.

Even at the resolution of a single paragraph, I am more than slightly embarrassed by this, my first essay in proprietary-nominal-historical-reconstruction on the Proustian model; and I am equally embarrassed to confess that I am still not quite clear on why I am embarrassed by it. To say that it would be only natural of me to feel a certain pudeur on reflecting that I have, in essence, just offered a 60-odd-seconds of free advertising to a corporate chain is to beg the question on all fours; for why should it, indeed, matter to me that my history of the Little Caesar’s name chez moi might be seen as reduplicating the efforts of the Little Caesar’s advertising department, given that these efforts have turned out not to have played the slightest material part in my enchantment with the Little Caesar’s name; given that this enchantment has turned out to have been actuated, rather, solely by that name’s metonymic affiliation with the most organic and least commercially-charged constituents of my lifeworld?

Without resorting to tendentious or overarching arguments deriving more from received opinion than from my own experience (as transmitted to me either qua reader of Proust or qua witness to the history of proprietary names), the only means by which I can account for the sense of frustration and embarrassment elicited by this attempt to grant the proprietary name its rightful place in the world I once inhabited, is as follows. First, I observe that the resolutely public character of the proprietary name, deriving in equal measure from its unfixed-ness in place and its hyper-visibility, seems to frustrate my efforts at picturing to myself a reader who might derive some enjoyment or edification from reading my personal proprietary histories. No matter how unfalsifiably idiosyncratic the history of my own encounter with a particular proprietary name may be, in recording this history I will never be able to shake myself free of the suspicion, bordering on certainty, that some reader out there will cry foul upon comparing this history with his the history of his own equally idiosyncratic encounter with the same name. Proust would have it that the point of writing is to touch off in the mind of the reader the euphoric Archimedean interjection, “It really is like that!” (TR 989). But what point is there in committing any of my proprietary histories to paper, given that each of them is guaranteed a virtually contrary response. “It isn’t like that at all!” I imagine a prospective reader shrieking in outrage as he scans the above passage on Little Caesar’s. “In Sheboygan, where I grew up, Dominos was ruler of the Pizzeriac roost, and Little Caesar’s was White Trash Central. Face it, Paco: you’re an unregenerate rube.”

Secondly, and, perhaps, more fatally, the proprietary name’s relative unboundedness in time seems to prevent me from imagining a version of myself that would derive any enjoyment or edification from the artisanal-transcriptive work of tracing any of my personal-proprietary histories to its natural telos. For Proust, both the pathos and the merit of his artistic métier originate in the discrepancy between the twin aperçus that the past in the form of personal memory is at certain moments even more immediately present to us than the present itself and that, nevertheless, we are confronted everywhere by signs that time has slipped away from us, that the past is, in a quite palpable sense, virtually dead. And preeminent among these signs of the moribundity of the past is, as we have already seen, the metaphysical decay of the name, its degeneration from a state of name-worthy purity and individuality to one of word-worthy squalor and commonness. But if certain of the names with which we are most intimately familiar—namely, certain proprietary names—evince an apparently ineluctable resistance to decay, if they retain in the present all of the youthful vitality and distinctiveness that we witnessed in them long ago, then our work of attesting to the immediacy for us of the past moments in which they participated is nothing short of gratuitous.

In hindsight, I find abundant proofs of this gratuitousness in all of my recent re-visitations of the most precious named places of my adolescence. In the course of a recent trip to my home metropole, for example, I had occasion to stop by Northdale Court in “Place Names: The Name”-esque fashion. And while, to be sure, I was struck on that occasion by certain discrepancies between the image of this place in its present state and the image of it that I retained in my memory—discrepancies that in their metaphysical resonance might have been likened to those that Proust’s narrator remarks in connection with his re-visitation of the Bois de Boulogne—I was even more forcibly struck by the correspondence between the image presented by the Northdale Court McDonald’s of the present and that of other McDonald’s restaurants that had sprung up in the past few years in the Baltimore-Washington, DC area, the metropole in which I had resided for the better part of a decade. The hobby shop was long gone; the building that had housed the library was now abandoned (owing, so I heard, to certain sanitary shortcomings of its ventilation system); and overall the shopping center presented a rather shabby, retardataire aspect suggestive of a once-positively-jumping milieu gone to seed; but against this drab matte background the McDonald’s, with its evidently brand-spanking new red roof and yellow neon golden-arches window sign stood out as vividly as the patch of yellow roof in Vermeer’s View of Delft. Had I not known better, I would have guessed that it had been erected only months earlier. Northdale Plaza now looked like just another puny 80s strip mall, dwarfed and outshone by its mightier and more northerly late-90s rivals; but McDonald’s was for me by no means just another fast food burger chain. At no other moment, indeed, would I have been less disposed to confuse it with Burger King than at that moment.

Moreover, and correlatively, the proprietarily-named pseudo-places that form part of the quotidian geography of the world I presently inhabit evince a dispiriting tendency to cast a shadow of gratuitousness, of irrelevance, on memories involving their antecedent and like-named pseudoplaces. Not two blocks from the very building in which I am composing this essay, for example, stands a Subway restaurant; and from time to time, at the elicitation of a visit to this particular Subway, I find myself conjuring up the memory of the very first time I dined at a restaurant bearing the name of that chain. It was on a crisp, unseasonably cool (by Floridian standards) Saturday in late December 1988, just a week or two shy of Christmas, at a location sited somewhere along that nebulous, interminable, completely built-up stretch of US 19 just north of St. Petersburg. I was in the company of my friend of four-years’ standing, Ben Stillwell, and his band-mates in The People’s Court, turf kings (for what it was worth) of hardcore punk in northern Hillsborough County, and at Ben’s invitation had ventured over to the Pinellas side of the bay for the first time in years to sit in on one of their practice sessions, en route to which we stopped for lunch at the aforementioned Subway. How vividly I can recall the blown-up sepia-toned newspaper photos of nineteenth-century New York that papered its walls, the yellow Formica table-top of the booth where we sat! My acquaintance with any genre of cuisine even vaguely suggestive of a sub having been heretofore restricted to the local culinary staple known as a Cuban sandwich—no version of which was offered by any of the fast food chains in the area—I thought it best to play it safe by ordering the most superficially hamburgomorphic item on the menu, to wit, the foot-long steak-and-cheese sub, which with corresponding conservatism I opted to garnish with only the most Spartan selection of toppings: pickles and onions. When I reached the register, I was abashed to find myself about a dollar shy of the total cost of the sandwich. Luckily, Ben made up the balance, saying I could pay him back later. But I never did; and to this day, the default occasionally pricks my conscience (albeit strictly in the capacity of a harbinger of future defaults).
Anyway, ever since my consumption of that that first foot-long steak-and-cheese, the Subway name has been a constant, unvarying appanage of my physical and metaphysical geography—from the Northdale Court Subway that opened the following summer to the aforementioned Subway near my apartment building, at least one Subway-named eatery has always been within 10 minutes’ reach of wherever I happen to be. Moreover, not a year among the past 16 has elapsed without my consuming at least one Subway sandwich; scarcely, indeed, has a single one among those 16 years elapsed without my consuming at least one foot-long Subway steak and cheese sub. Hence, it would be disingenuous of me, for example, to ascribe any totemic Madeleine-esque powers of temporal resuscitation to the Subway foot-long steak-and-cheese sub; and, in fact, the only plausible Proustian analogues to the present state of my affective affiliation with the Subway name that come to mind are counterfactual ones—say, an alternate-world version of Time Regained in which during his stroll through the Champs Elysees, the aging narrator is chagrined to find himself face-to-face not with the frail, aphasiac, white-maned Baron de Charlus of that episode as it actually stands, but rather with the same hale, athletic, libidinous quadragenarian he first sighted in his boyhood in front of the casino at Balbec. My neighborhood Subway may offer types of sandwiches as-yet undreamt of in 1988, it may be sited in the basement of a row house rather than in a strip mall; nonetheless, in it I may revisit at will every point of sensuous particularity I associate with the Subway of 1988—the tables, the newspaper-wallpaper, the very garnishings of that first foot-long steak-and-cheese. Whenever to the sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrance of that trip to Pinellas County, each tentative movement in the direction of luxuriating in the sheer sensuous immediacy of the quale comprising that set of memories is invariably checked by the reflection that although I have sensibly aged in the intervening years—that, in Proustian parlance, although my moustache, supposing I had decided to grow one, would already have had more than a few gray hairs in it—the Subway name has correspondingly aged not a whit, that it continues to serve up foot-long steak-and-cheese subs in restaurants wallpapered with sepia-toned newspaper photographs to—inter alia—youngsters who were not even twinkles in their progenitors’ eyes when I had my first Subway experience; and this reflection inevitably carries in its train the even more dispiriting speculation that the Subway name might very well outlive me, that in a world in which I will have long since been reduced by the depredations of time to a heap of bones, the Subway name might still be serving up foot-long steak-and-cheese subs in restaurants wallpapered with sepia-toned newspaper photographs to youngsters—and oldsters—who are, as yet, not even twinkles in their progenitors’ eyes. It would seem, then, that while in its countable aspect the proprietary name automatically conjures up a picture of its most recent manifestation in one’s own world, in its uncountable aspect the proprietary name tends to encompass and subsume all of the images associated with both its present, past, and prospective manifestations. And because the present and prospective manifestations of the Subway name cannot simply be quarantined from off from the evocation of its past manifestations, at bottom, far from wishing to linger over these past manifestations, I am, to the contrary, inclined to will them into counterfactual oblivion—to wish that that trip to Pinellas County in 1988 had never taken place rather than suffer its centerpiece to remain a visit to a Subway restaurant. To be sure, from the date of that first Subway experience (if not before) onward, I was acquainted in the abstract with the pervasiveness of the Subway name (“4000 stores by 1994” they had the chutzpah to promise on the wrappers of their sandwiches back then!), but it was only gradually, concretely, one Subway at a time, that I could come to know of this pervasiveness of the Subway franchise firsthand. It seems to me, moreover, that even if (horrible dictu!) the Subway Corporation should perish tomorrow at the hands of some vile usurper, a pretender to its Earldom in the Kingdom of Proprietaria (e.g., Quiznos), I would be scarcely more inclined then to commemorate its history than I already am now. Why? Simply because the demise of a single proprietary name would not perceptibly slacken the grip that the proprietary name as a class maintains on my world. As a class, the proprietary name shows no signs of giving up the ghost in my world any time soon; if anything, it can lay claim to a clean bill of health now as at no preceding point in its history. In answer, then, to the long-deferred question of what sort of a narrative of disenchantment the proprietary name would characteristically follow, I can only reply: Inasmuch as proprietary names do not decay, such a narrative is, as yet, inconceivable.

And in this connection—that of the notion of the decline (or lack thereof) of an entire class of names—the futility of my entire neo-Proustian aesthetic program becomes starkly evident. For it is not as though the original Proustian aesthetic program is undergirded by a kind of patchwork assortment of nominal monads in various stages of moribundity; as though the world Proust presents to us may be likened to an enormous chandelier bedizened with a hundred name-candles, and that he articulates his disenchantment with this world-chandelier by willy-nilly depicting the successive extinction of these candles (“Out goes Balbec, out goes the Duchesse de Guermantes, out goes Albertine,” etc.). Rather, the Proustian world may be likened to a Christmas tree lit by an astonishingly small number of serially-powered light-garlands, such that with his depiction of the extinction of a single light (or name) Proust simultaneously depicts the extinction of dozens of others. The definitive conquest of the Guermantes name by the Verdurin name, for instance, (and perhaps especially), in the concluding pages of Time Regained would scarce be worth reporting if it simply allegorized the atomized obliteration of a single aristocratic family, if it did not subtend for the narrator the conquest of all of the lesser nominal deities of the Faubourg St. Germain, Cambremer, d’Argencourt, and the like; or if the majority of the narrator’s lesser personal nominal deities—Gilberte, Odette, Bloch, and so on—did not themselves participate in the conquest as high-ranking members of the officer corps of the conquering army. The reader will recall that it is only with the evaporation of his enchantment with the name as a metaphysical category tout court, ceding to a more sober, but no less powerful capacity for understanding and judging the true meaning of words, that the narrator comes to understand the nature of his artistic calling.

It would be hubristic of me in the extreme to suppose that I had arrived at this point in life at a moment of parallel insight—not on account of my relative youth vis-à-vis the age at which Proust embarked on the composition of his masterpiece (and, in any case, I am only a few years shy of the attainment of that age)—but on account of the fact that, dwelling as I do plumb in the presumptive center of the Golden Age of Proprietary Names, I cannot in good conscience claim that my enchantment with names has ceded to a true understanding of words. A certain class of names, that of proprietary names, is as powerful, as real, to me now as it ever has been; such that, indeed, the mightiest of words, words such as truth, beauty, and (I blush even in adding it to the catalogue) art make a feeble showing alongside the puniest of name belonging to that class. And I will not feel justified in making the claim that names have finally yielded to words in my eyes so long as my life continues to resemble a kind of spectacular dinner party attended by an active, healthy, even glamorous throng of proprietarily-named guests. While I may know, for instance, in the abstract that my enchantment with the names of people and places is somehow bound up with my enchantment with proprietary names; while I may even be able concretely—and at a temporally local resolution—to describe the imbrication of this or that set of personal names with this or that set of place names and proprietary names, a definitive sense of the genuine heft of the proprietary name in the total metaphysical schema of my world eludes me. Why, for all I know, tomorrow I may make the acquaintance of a certain woman—my prospective Albertine—whose predilection for a certain comestible product offered up exclusively by the Dairy Queen corporation revives a set of affective associations with the Dairy Queen name that have remained dormant for me since my earliest childhood (when I last visited a Dairy Queen restaurant, one sited in the vicinity of Dr. McPherson’s office on Swann Avenue) and thereby imparts to a specific proprietary name a degree of metaphysical resonance unprecedented in the history of my acquaintance with virtually every other name. Only in the unlikely event that I live to witness the twilight of the proprietary name as a class of names as Proust lived to witness the twilight of the entire class of aristocratic surnames, only in the event that I am vouchsafed the privilege of writing of the proprietary name from the point of view of its chronicler rather than its subject, may I even begin to dream of transcribing the phenomena of my own past with a degree of authority worthy of the transcription. Against the arrival of that moment, I must resign myself to a certain perhaps fatal degree of benightedness with regard to my own experience, to a certain perhaps incapacitating degree of bad faith in essaying a record of this experience.

In conclusion, I offer the following disjointed reflections. To the reader bemused by the singular absence from these pages of the usual jeremiads against the so-called consumer culture that have blackened the pages of virtually every discontented essay on the totems of corporate Americana composed since the cutting of the inaugural ribbon of the first indoor shopping mall, I can only say that it is not for want of sympathy with the classic fire-and-brimstone corporaphobic rhetoric that I have declined to avail myself of it here. I detest the consumer culture every bit as much as the next brandy-snifting, meerschaum-smoking elitist, and I detested it very nearly as much in my adolescence (when, incidentally, I watched next to no commercial television and on this account was spared the usual blandishments of broadcast advertising at whose feet most polemics directed against the consumer culture lay the blame for our collective moral corruption); nonetheless my psyche, no less than that of the most inveterate shopaholic or mall rat, bears the indelible imprint of the proprietary name. Being as thoroughly emplaced as it was in my world, the proprietary name, for me, was essentially inescapable. And at bottom, I believe that the metaphysical critique of proprietary names that I have proffered here might with equal validity be applied to certain quasi- or near-proprietary names of parallel ubiquity in non-capitalistic societies. I cannot but imagine that, for example, there were writers in Brezhnev-era Soviet Russia who in the governmentally-named landscape of their formative years—comprising such pseudo-places as the neighborhood GUM department store—encountered more or less the same poetic stumbling block that I now encounter in the proprietarily-named landscape of mine. I am more than well aware that in taking the general validity of Proust’s axioms on names for granted as I have done, in using these axioms as a starting point for the investigation of my own world, I have probably laid myself open to a charge of criminal naivety, but so be it. My naïve stance constitutes a necessary, dialectical counterpoise to the prevalent ad hominem sort of argument advanced against the realization or recasting of the Proustian project in our own epoch, an argument that can always be restated in words to the effect of “unlike such decent, industrious, salt-of-the-earth types like you and me, that pampered mama’s boy Proust never had to work,” an argument that takes all of the stumbling blocks that stand in the way of our maintaining a sufficiently contemplative view of our own world for necessary, rather than contingent, historical facts. Naturally, I would not have bothered committing this account of the stymieing of my efforts at following the Proustian precedent if I did not believe that it was in some fashion exemplary, that it would not answer to some general tendency in the arts, or that it would not resonate in the bosoms of other readers and writers regardless of their degree of acquaintance with the Proustian corpus (and in this respect I remain a Proustian). It is indeed my suspicion that the shortcomings of most if not all recent attempts to represent the world of the present or near-present in some aesthetically pliant narrative genre or other—whether filmic or textual—may in some measure be traced to their respective authors’ ignorance or disregard of Proust’s metaphysics of naming. I find it quite simply impossible to take seriously the triumphs and travails of people who, living in the early 21st century as I do, quaff cans of Duff’s-brand beer while knowing nothing of Budweiser, who wolf down Krusty-brand hamburgers while knowing nothing of McDonald’s. And I find it correspondingly difficult to believe in any kind of old-school bourgeois or new-school proletarian alternate universe from whose “inner” or “outer” landscapes the familiar proprietary iconography of my world appears simply to have been expunged wholesale. To acknowledge that the pervasiveness of the proprietary name in our world has rendered the Proustian challenge—the challenge to present a version of the world that is recognizably real because of, rather than in spite of, its avowed origination in the subjectivity of a single individual—essentially unanswerable is in no way to redeem the evasion of that challenge. But I am equally, if not even more, disheartened by the apparent oblivion of the metaphysical gravity of the proprietary name evinced in the kinds of sentimental personal anecdotes or mini-epics told in scads by so-called ordinary people in everyday life. I cannot for the life of me understand how a person can in one breath say “I grew up in a totally homogeneous suburban wasteland,” thereby administering a veritable scorched-earth policy to the landscape of his formative years, and in the next breath solicit his interlocutor for the loan of a handkerchief to sop up the tears elicited by the remembrance of days spent in the company of dear old granddad. Whence does this incongruous juxtaposition of hard-bitten cynicism and unabashed mawkishness arise? Whence issues this blithe resignation in the face of the purported interchangeability of places in tandem with an infantile abandonment to the notion of the purported irreplaceability of people? We have only to compare the suburban landscapes of our childhoods with the urban landscape of the Victorian era, the golden age of cheek-by-jowl cookie-cutter row-houses, to realize that our era hardly marks the nadir of geographical diversity. And thus I enjoin the reader to ask himself or herself: might not the all-too-widely-espoused mainstream-leftist polemic against so-called geographical homogeneity merely be serving as a fig leaf for a proprietarily-named geographical heterogeneity too terrible to contemplate?

[1] Negative Dialectics, translated by E. B. Ashton. (New York: Seabury Press, 1973). Applebachsville, Wind Gap, and Lord’s Valley are, incidentally, the names of three small towns in Pennsylvania; the village names in the original German text are Otterbach, Watterbach, Reuenthal, and Monbrunn. Presumably (and, I think, rightly), the translator has substituted American place names for German ones here in order to give the catalogue a ring of greater metaphysical authenticity for the Anglophone reader. (I cannot, however, fathom why he has seen fit to supply only three names in place of Adorno’s original four.)

[2] As so far (as of the date of this writing, May 2005) only the first five volumes of the new Viking translation of the novel have been published in the U.S., all quotations from the remaining three volumes that appear in this essay have been taken from this 1981 Vintage edition.

[3] Samuel Beckett, Proust (1931). New York: Grove Press, n. d., p. 64.

[4] Marcel Proust, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, translated by James Grieve (New York: Viking, 2002).

[5] Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, translated by Lydia Davis (New York: Viking, 2002).

[6] As defined in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English (Eighth Edition, 1990).

[7]Marcel Proust, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, translated by James Grieve (New York: Viking, 2002).

[8] Proust explicitly likens his disillusionment with the name Balbec to an implosion: “But with Balbec it felt as though, by going there, I had broken open a name which should have been kept hermetically sealed, and into which—through the breach I had been ill advised to make, replacing all the images I had allowed to escape from it—a horse trolley, a café, people crossing the square, a branch of the Savings Bank, under the irresistible forces of external pressure and air suction, had rushed into the vacuum left in the syllables, which had now closed upon them, turning them into a frame for the porch of my Persian church, and would now never again be rid of them” (ISYGF 239-40).

[9] I use this vulgar cinematic metaphor, in general more criminally inapplicable to Proust than to any other writer, advisedly: the pages in question are set off from the rest of the chapter by a row of asterisks.

[10] Marcel Proust, Time Regained, translated by Andreas Mayer (included in Volume III of Remembrance of Things Past [New York: Vintage Books, 1982]). The narrator’s explicit avowal that he is living only for the sake of his work comes a bit (by Proustian standards of length) later, on page 1095: “Yet it was precisely when the thought of death had become a matter of indifference to me that I was beginning once more to fear death, under another form, it is true, as a threat not to myself but to my book, since for my book’s incubation this life that so many dangers threatened was for a while at least indispensable.”

[11] I hope it goes without saying that this broader category of de facto Proustian words is not to be confused with that narrower class of countable proprietary names (e.g., Kleenex, Post-It, and Xerox) that have come function as de jure words, recognized as such by dictionaries. The image I associate with the verbalized name Xerox is that of a photocopy of no particular corporate provenance, whereas the image I associate with the non-verbalized name Big Mac is that of a particular kind of hamburger that can be found only at McDonalds.