Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child . . .

”W. B. Yeats, “Easter 1916”

Every year, at the University of Chicago, a ritual of reading out names is performed”the names of University members who have died during the year. A list intoned, a catalogue recited, the mere naming of names”what is the good of that? Around the names cluster stories and myths; each bears a string of epithets; each is a text whose eloquence and whose obscurities merit endless commentary. For some in this audience, a particular name evokes those stories, connotes the words that characterize the man or woman, calls up praise and wonder at works completed or left incomplete. But, for most of us, many of the names will be only names. And what meaning can unknown names have?

A great deal, I should like to say. The ritual of naming names survives on the strength of resonances hard to capture but harder to elude. We know each unknown name points to a space now empty of the person named, but full of memories and interpretations that persist and even grow in the minds of those who knew that person. There is a chastening and a satisfaction in being reminded how many scenes crowded with life in the living and in the recollection are veiled from one’s vision; there is a point in reckoning undiscovered continents and counting the peopled stars.

And yet, it seems to cheat proper names of their richness to think of them only as signifiers. We know that each X is anything but an X, that each human being is a stage for unwitnessed tragedies and comedies. Proper names in logic label things that may or may not be describable in public language, language that gets its meaning from its shared applicability to groups of things and persons. But proper names also belong to language as a whole; they fill the mouth as well as other words, have specific sounds and shapes. Words, proper or improper, cannot escape from being words, cannot take refuge in the clean confines of logic. They mean not only by labeling X’s, but also by sounding and looking as they do, by spilling over their sensuous qualities, as do the sounds of music and the painter’s shapes. What meaning beyond the reach of logic is I am not confident I can say. Proper names of people seem to have magic beyond their power of pointing out human beings. It is as if the persons whom logically the names only label took on a presence, as if in knowing nothing but their names”so long as that knowing is not too casual and unreflective”we knew something deeper of them than the causal fact they bore those names.

There are in literature important characters whose existence in the work is a name or little more. They occur in epic and chronicle, names dropped or listed, signifying people with no particular role in the story, or none worth singling out, but without the stirring names of supernumerary heroes the texture of those texts would lose weight and complexity. Catalogues must not be skipped or edited away. The Scottish ballad “Mary Hamilton””the story of a lady-in-waiting, all-too-successfully courted, who drowns her baby and is condemned to hang”concludes with the lines:

Last nicht there was four Maries,
The nicht there’ll be but three;
There was Mary Seton, and Marie Beton,
And Marie Carmichael, and me.

Does the naming of the other three Maries not somehow make the poem? Context can encourage us to imagine the outlines of stories about those we know only by name: Four court girls, all bearers of aristocratic Scots names, four lives one would expect to run in similar channels. What did the three survivors have that Mary Hamilton lacked, or lack that she had? Less beauty, more resistance? Some deficit of passion or greater endowment of prudence? Some talent for ordinary living that would have disabled them, even if they had found themselves in Mary Hamilton’s trouble, from being as sassy on the gallows as she, for her final speech”matter-of-fact, bitter, spirited, joking”is anything but the repentance good form might demand or the self-pity that might be natural. In naming her luckier or chaster survivors (her rivals perhaps), she triumphs over them.

One character who is mostly a name, in a very different vein of literature, has long haunted me”Ramon Fernandez in Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Idea of Order at Key West.” He appears about four-fifths of the way through the poem, before which one would suspect no presence save for the poet’s and that of a visionary-seeming woman singing by the sea. Then suddenly Ramon Fernandez is addressed in the stanza:

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Just following, at the very end of the poem, he is addressed again in an exclamation:

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

At his second appearance, we do discover one fact about him”he is pale. And once Ramon is present, speculation about his role is invited. With the “we” in the poem, the poet must be talking about himself and Ramon, two particular people listening to the same commingled song of the woman and the sea, complicit in their understandings and doubts. Is Ramon appealed to because he is likely to know what the poet cannot figure out, or does the poet know Ramon will be unable to tell what he is asked to tell if he knows? Must the poet cry out to him what their common experience means, or does this pale Spaniard have some intuitive grasp of those “ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds” that Stevens must struggle to articulate? In any event, what we know about Ramon”scant and speculative”has nothing like the force in the poem of his mere name”his beautiful Hispanic name. The poem could say about what it says without Ramon Fernandez, but a nearly unanalyzable element in the poem’s mysteriousness and in the profound humanism it affirms would be lacking without the presence of a human being primarily present as a name, and I think just that name.

I confess a certain regret at the youthful preference in fashion now for traveling light in names. “I’m Carol,” “I’m Jeff,” is often as much identification as one can extract from a student, as if to reveal more were to produce cards of identity that tell the older generation more than it’s safe to let Them know. And yet, this is precisely my argument”names do tell more than they strictly ought. But I could do with a few more syllables in introductions and self-introductions. The baggage of A. A. Milne’s three-year-old is perhaps excessive”James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree. Only royalty and its imitators in the British upper classes can get away with strings as long as that. But it seems to me we should not be shy about sounding out the two or three names that suffice for most of us, pronouncing them boldly at times between our birth certificates and our tombstones.

When one is young, one mostly is one’s name. History has not had time to accumulate, character to be engraved, but the child most certainly knows who he is. Our names are our oldest and surest possessions. The child’s name to the child is no empty label on an empty space, but a thing of color and sonority, an object of unexampled interest and importance. It tells all about me, and even if I am plain John Jones, when I am only three I am the John Jones. Proper names hold onto meaning, perhaps, because they once had so much. They join the class of favored hieroglyphs, signs that express though they do not represent, speak to the spirit though they have outlived their everyday use.

The ritual of naming names is most of all a celebration of individuality. As it is performed here, it may seem to call attention primarily to our corporate life. The dead are named according to their “orders,” their particular roles in the complex and enduring career of the University, and those of us who did not know them learn from the proceedings, besides the names themselves, only their general location within a fabric that survives, where the dead are replaced in their roles and live on as examples of parts well-played. But the ritual’s insistence on proper names, the way the names resound beyond the scanty information we gain about their bearers, seems to call the mind away from the secondary office of affirming a community to contemplation of the mystery of individuality. A rite of civil religion turns to true religion after all; when the just and necessary claims of the Earthly City have been satisfied, the mind is carried on the wings of those unique and resonant names to the City of God.

The God of monotheism is the final symbol of individuality. We should not look for another name for Him, because if we do we misunderstand “God” as the word for a kind of thing; “God” is a proper name. God, like our individual selves, is unknowable in essence; we only know something about Him through His works”and universities are devoted to revealing again and again how little we know of those, how yesterday’s truth falls to meet the phenomena’s complexity.

For the reality back of the phenomena we have only a name. To have only a name, however, is not to be impoverished, is not the same as having, or being, only an X. Common language is made for the common uses of this world; proper names echo the depths we cannot talk about. It is as true of ordinary names”ours and those of the dead”as of the Name of God. We are images of God in that we share His individuality, cannot be plumbed or measured, cannot be reduced to roles and works, enjoy a liberty to be ourselves and to shape our world, to figure as beginnings, not merely as results of those processes of nature and history that form us.

Of his comical but apt symbol for the flesh-and- blood individual, the hippopotamus, T. S. Eliot wrote:

He shall be washed as white as snow,
By all the martyr’d virgins kist,
While the True Church remains below
Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.

Institutions have their advantages. As Eliot says earlier in the poem:

Flesh and blood is weak and frail,
Susceptible to nervous shock;
While the True Church can never fall
For it is based upon a rock.

But the hippopotamus has the last word, the last laugh. The University, like its ancestor the Church, does not subsume, does not explain, the individuals who have been part of it. Its debt to them is for more than the service they have rendered, each in his generation, each in her capacity; it is for having been themselves, each as he or she was, and for having touched the collective life with life from life’s exclusive source in individuals.

Wallace Stevens, unlike Eliot, was not a man to spend Sunday morning in church, preferring “late coffee and oranges in a sunny chair.” But in “The Idea of Order at Key West” (and elsewhere) Stevens celebrates the human voice, human freedom, the need and the power we have to transcend the givenness of nature. Of his singer he says, in the poem’s opening line: “She sang beyond the genius of the sea,” and adds:

It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

The poem is of course about art, but it is also full of the awareness that each of us”each proper-named person, each Ramon Fernandez-iIs a “single artificer of the world.” It is the poet and Ramon, “when the singing ended,” who with their shaping, human, individual eyes see that the random lights from the boats:

Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Charles M. Gray is Professor of History at the University of Chicago.

Articles by Charles M. Gray

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