Tuesday, May 02, 2006

New Theme for May: Anthropology

April’s theme, economics, was mostly a bust. That’s okay. It’s May now, and time once again for new theme. This month, our theme will be anthropology.

I go by a nickname. I almost never use my real name, which my grandparents back in Bangladesh chose for me – they sent a telegraph to my parents in Hartford telling them the name they had selected. The name is unwieldy and I’m not even sure I pronounce it properly. My middle brother also has a proper name and a nickname. These dual names caused all sorts of paperwork problems in school and other places, so when my youngest brother was born, we all decided he would have just one name. We would spare him all the hassles of having to explain that you have a “real” name.

Looking back now, I wonder if we didn’t deprive my youngest brother of that layer of protection you get from having a “real” or somewhat “secret” name:
Unable to discriminate clearly between words and things, the savage commonly fancies that the link between a name and the person or thing denominated by it is not a mere arbitrary and ideal association, but a real and substantial bond which unites the two in such a way that magic may be wrought on a man just as easily through his name as through his hair, his nails, or any other material part of his person. In fact, primitive man regards his name as a vital portion of himself and takes care of it accordingly. . . .

The same fear seems to have led to a custom of the same sort amongst the ancient Egyptians . . . . Every Egyptian received two names, which were known respectively as the true name and the good name, or the great name and the little name; and while the good or little name was made public, the true or great name appears to have been carefully concealed. A Brahman child receives two names, one for common use, the other a secret name which none but his father and mother should know. The latter is only used at ceremonies such as marriage. The custom is intended to protect the person against magic, since a charm becomes effectual in combination with the real name.
From Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough (1922).

It’s a fascinating idea – one’s real name as a password of sorts, knowledge of someone’s true name as a power over that person. When reading these passages in Frazer’s book, sadly, I immediately thought of the legal complaint: Often, a plaintiff will file a complaint against certain named defendants (those individuals he believes responsible for causing him damage, and whose names he knows) and will list, in addition, “Does 1-10” or something to that effect – this is a way for the plaintiff to state that he knows there are other defendants out there also responsible for having caused him harm, but he does not know their names yet. So long as the plaintiff is unable to name the defendants, he has no power over them. Once he does learn their names, however, he is entitled to amend his complaint and force the newly named defendants to respond to the complaint and participate in the judicial process.

I think of invitations in a somewhat similar way. Knowing someone’s name and address allows you to grab a hold of them in a sense – you find them with your invitation and are thus able to request their presence, etc. There’s not the same enforceability as with a legal complaint served on a named defendant, but the underlying principles are the same. You find someone and force them to respond (under the rules of politeness) to your demand, in one form or another.

Of course, it is weird to have these two names. The name I go by, an American name, feels a bit off and foreign -- it's never really felt like my name. But I can't even properly pronounce my real name -- that doesn't much feel like my name either. Both names feel totally disconnected from me, and I end up feeling nameless and formless. But perhaps that's good: there's no way anyone will ever have true power over the unnamed portion of me.


mhelbing said...

Maybe you need speech therapy. The name Octopus is not that unwieldy...

Octopus Grigori said...