The Act of Naming

A couple of things in this week’s reading made me think of the book of Genesis. For starters, Adam was tasked with naming the animals, and we read much this week about naming things. In 3.6, as Slothrop/Scuffing is given the latest in his own progression of names, we see this:

“Raketemensch!” screams Säure, grabbing the helmet and unscrewing the horns off of it. Names by themselves may be empty, but the act of naming. . . .

A bit later in 3.9, Tchitcherine is musing on some things Slothrop said while under the influence of sodium amytal again with a particular fascination for blackness in Slothrop’s thoughts, and specifically some compound words he made up. To Tchitcherine, who is himself consumed with a hatred for his black half-brother Enzian, this line of drug-induced thinking is very interesting, and even though Slothrop hadn’t “mentioned Enzian by name,” Tchitcherine can’t help thinking a convergence was at hand. He goes on to wonder whether Slothrop hasn’t “caught the German mania for name-giving, dividing the Creation finer and finer, analyzing, setting namer more hopelessly apart from named.”

These black/schwarz- compound words reach back to 3.6 as well, in a passage in which a gastrointestinally-distressed Slothrop is fantasizing a meeting with Enzian (who is speaking here):

“Schwarzgerät, Schwarzkommando. Scuffing: suppose somewhere there were an alphabetical list, someone’s list, an input to some intelligence arm, say. Some country, doesn’t matter. But suppose that on this list, the two names, Blackinstrument, Blackcommand, just happened to be there, juxtaposed. That’s all, an alphabetical coincidence. We wouldn’t have to be real, and neither would it, correct?”

Enzian here is speaking of the Schwarzkommando, whom, recall, von Göll had shot some disinformation films about earlier in the book and who seem somehow to have become a real thing. The megalomaniacal filmmaker takes credit, naturally:

He is convinced that his film has somehow brought them into being.

Maybe it’s convenient to suggest that committing an image to film is not altogether unlike the act of naming; it does seem, in any case, to breathe a similar sort of life into a subject in a way that echoes the reverence with which Säure speaks of naming things. But if this is too convenient, let’s at least consider that von Göll is also the subject of slippery naming:

“Max Schlepzig,” repeats Slothrop, goggling, “quit fooling. Max Schlepzig?”

“It wasn’t his real name. Erdmann wasn’t mine. But anything with Earth in it was politically safe — Earth, Soil, Folk . . . a code. Which they, staring, knew how to decipher. . . . Max had a very Jewish name, Something-sky, and Gerhardt thought it more prudent to give him a new one.”

“Greta, somebody also thought it prudent to name me Max Schlepzig.”

Recall also that von Göll has also gone by Der Springer (a name that comes within the book to be synonymous with the knight on a chess board).

And when Erdmann and Slothrop are having by-now-typically-instantly-satisfying sex as 3.10 closes, she calls him by Max’s name, then calls the name of her daughter, while Slothrop thinks of his own chameleonish Katje.

Slothrop is also basically given the name of Tanhäuser and Erdmann of Lisaura.

I have no grand thesis about what all this naming means, though it’s clearly something Pynchon’s playing with and so is something of interest.

The other thing in this week’s reading that made me think of Genesis was Erdmann’s mention of Cain and Abel, of von Göll’s use of shadow doubling to create a symbol of that first pair of brothers. The notion of a marked brother and a pure, righteous one certainly plays into a lot of the opposites Pynchon writes about. And in particular it resonates with the relationship between half-brothers Enzian and Tchitcherine. Back in early 3.5, Tchitcherine’s companion Džaqyp Qulan gives him sometimes a look that seems to say the following:

“Nothing you do, nothing he does, will help you in your mortality”? And, “You are brothers. Together, apart, why let it matter this much? Live. Die someday, honorably, meanly — but not by the other’s hand.”

Pynchon has set up these warring brothers, both pioneers or civilization-builders of a sort, as Tchitcherine brings an alphabet to the savages and Enzian leads the Schwarzkommando, and for me it was a little hard not to think of them as a sort of Cain and Abel.

4 thoughts on “The Act of Naming

  1. Dennis April 4, 2012 / 12:41 am

    In line with your look at naming, I was thinking of the ways in which formalized language acts as a narrowing force. Tchitcherline’s analepsis provides a an interesting example. His mission is to give the people of Kirchiz an alphabet. Only slightly below this mission is the idea of subjugating them and bringing them into the Soviet fold (where previously, in tsarist Russia, attempts proved little more that genocidal. In fact the description of the 1916 uprising (340/5-25) feels a bit like the analepsis with Frans Van De Groov (108-111). Insert Dodo for Kirghiz and vice versa. Then add the Herero extermination (322-323 and we have a pattern). The description of the pre-soviet Kirghiz seems almost pre-linguistic:

    “He had come to give the tirbesmen out here,this far out, an alphabet: it was purely speech, gesture, touch among them…” (338/31-2)

    Teaching them writing was a colonial act and Dzaqyp (already a biblical rather than turkic name) in his wariness of Tchitcherine recognizes that to some extent. He sees how his father was changed from the status of Van De Groov’s dodo to a national martyr (340/26-9). A linguistic act creates the saint, but, underneath, the acts of land greed peretrated by the Russian settlers in their slaughter are converted into sins of tsarist rule and Dzaqyp’s father is glorified in Stalin’s Union [of Soviet Soc… usw.].

    The Tchitcherine episode, 3.5, begins with a short section about how the Germans squandered their horses through misuse (337/8-20). the Russian seemed to care more for horses, but for the Kirghiz horses were vital. There is a continuum from those for whom language is not set in stone (or paper), who still think organically, through the Russians to the Germans with their linguistic “mania for subdividing.” (448/11-2) (I think that this is a second reference to that tendancy earlier, but I can’t find the first one).

    Linguistic sophistication becomes, in the end, stiffling. The German-Baroque tendencies of technical jargon leads away from a more natural, anachistic world vision. It doesn’t seem accidental that the images of Kirghiz are linked to those of the American west and to the Argentine Pampas. The latter two are indicative of freedom. Technical language and mathematics are approximations of the world and the more we focus on their precision, the further from reality we move and, in the words of Wordsworth coming out of Blake, they “murder to dissect”.

    Enzian, who seems to me the prophet of things “as they are”, undermines some of the concrete and inevitability of conspiracy when he say, “Schwarzgeraet, Schwarzdommando… suppose somewhere there were an alphabetical list, someone’s list, an input to some intelligence arm, say…. suppose that on this list, two names, Blackinstrument, Blackcommand, just happen to be there, juxtaposed. That’s all, an alphabetical coincidence. We wouldn’t have to be real, and neither would it…” I.e., the act of naming and designation has power in that it creates a reality, not in a naive Whorf/Sapir sort of way, but as a reference point for discussion and analysis. Language has power insomuch as we allow.

    • Daryl L. L. Houston April 4, 2012 / 8:11 am

      A fantastic analysis as always. I can’t add to it or take away from it but did want to thank you for speaking up.

      • Dennis April 5, 2012 / 1:58 am

        Wow, thanks. If I say anything that makes sense, it’s only to try to rise to the level of all of you guys.

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