What's in a name?
While we were living in Mexico, my partner attended a language school so that one of us could connect with the locals beyond the smallest of phrasebook small-talk. She began to notice the defiant and sometimes irritated way that the Mexican teachers, hearing US students self-identify as American, would insist that they too were American. We wondered about this, because only a few months earlier, a man had won the US presidency in spite of (or because of) anti-Mexican rhetoric. The last thing we’d expected to find here was an insistent identification that linked the Mexican people in any way to those who voted for the man insisting their southern neighbours offered the world nothing more than drugs, crime, and rapists.
Perhaps, we considered, this was a form of resistance to a blatant and cynical “othering”, an attempt to demonstrate that these linguistic walls were as absurd and fruitless as the actual wall proposed for the Mexico-US border. Perhaps it was a grassroots form of postmodern deconstruction as a kind of protest: to reveal the inherent subjectivity within constructs such as American and Mexican, or us and them, or good guys and (quoting Trump again) not our friend. I met one Argentinean who, in a combination of shattered English and alacritous Spanish, explained the imperialistic nature of the US commandeering the term “American” from the many and varied peoples who had occupied the continent long before the United States was an idea in the forefathers’ minds.
Eventually, we learned that a six-continent system of geographical classification was commonly taught in schools throughout Latin-America; teachers described the Americas as just that – the Americas – without (as is the custom where I grew up) delineating between north and south. And so this feature of language with political and social implications impossible to fully imagine in their complete range was apparently, amongst our friends in Guanajuato, the result of a pedagogical quirk. Yet whether our earlier guesses and the Argentinean’s argument were actual motivations in practice, they all hold true in potentia.
This question of the different reasons to employ one label over another returned to me as I read Eli Goldstone’s debut novel, Strange Heart Beating. It is the story of Seb’s life after his wife’s death, caused by an angered swan while she was boating, a farcical tragedy made more absurd by the fact that her name was Leda, as in she of Yeats’ poem ‘Leda and the Swan’. Goldstone depicts the way Seb obsesses over the esoteric details of their relationship, hoping to keep her alive by claiming ownership over her story.
This folly is undermined on every page by revelations that he knew only what had mattered to him: that her name came from the story about Zeus and the swan, or the way she moved her hands while speaking of her childhood in Latvia. Seb discovers her real name – Leila – and that he knows nothing of the past she spoke of while he fixated on the shape of her hands. The inspired idea Goldstone adds to her examination of the truism that other people are unknowable is the role that names and labels play in knowing (and failing to know) ourselves and others.
“Once you label me you negate me.”
~ Søren Kierkegaard
Labels are, of necessity, incomplete and do not reveal what is objectively important about the described thing, but what we take to be important within the confines of a context. When an Evangelical calls himself a Christian, he is not ceasing to also be a husband, a Tory, a fan of brogues, or fetishist of feet. He is simply focusing on what he feels is important to communicate in that moment. The Guaraní shaman speaking to a Jesuit missionary demonstrated this through a reversal when he quipped, “What makes me a pagan in your eyes is what prevents you from being a Christian in mine.” (There are few better examples of Wittgenstein’s notion of language games than this.) The point is that labels are less a description of the labelled thing and more a statement of the labeller’s values.
Leda’s name is central to Strange Heart Beating, undergoing transformations that explore the expression of values through labels. This begins early in the book and early in her life, when she writes in her diary that she has begun addressing her mother by her first name. “Petra,” she says in a manner designed to display maturity, “hand me that glass please.” Young Leda is asserting pubescent autonomy as part of her identity by negating the hierarchical family link between herself and her mother. She refers now to “Petra” in the same way another adult would. Her mother, with cutting and simple ingenuity, unstitches all this weaving of Leda’s character by responding, “Thirsty work, Daughter?” performing the same linguistic trick in reverse. Her intent is not to negate her daughter’s autonomy but cling to what connects them, what she values, through language.
The weight of value burdens the labels we choose: In one passage of the novel, Seb notes that “there’s no neutral vocabulary”, which is examined with deft and subtle sardonicism in the chilling light of changing social attitudes towards the concept of rape. Art historians have classically interpreted the event from which Yeats draws his poem as an act of Eros rather than Bia, of passion more than possession, rapture and not its etiological twin of rape. Look at the manner in which Goldstone delivers this dichotomy:
“We say that Zeus seduces Leda, we say he was her lover. To rape: to steal. From the Latin, raptus: seized, carried off by force.”
Sensual phrases placed within an elegantly balanced sentence are juxtaposed with the disjointed dictionary presentation of cold terminology. We disguise the ugly essence in the agreeable dress of cultural norms, while a hard look at the truth beneath necessitates words that capture rather than conceal the strange heart beating below.
Seb then turns the Zeus swan into the swan that killed his wife, imagining the act not as sexual but mortal, and the phallic “transformed into a sword and plunged by some force off-canvas into the body of my wife”. In transmogrifying the classical story into the tale of his own tragedy, he sees the reality of Leda’s death as existing on a canvas. The death of his wife becomes a story, and he calls his wife’s life a “narrative”, one interrupted in medias res. Yet another transformation in a nested narrative of various alchemies.
Does this not, it would be fair to wonder, diminish her existence somewhat, by relegating the actual to the imaginary and the rightful property of one (her life) into the appropriated possession of another (his story)? Perhaps. Why would he do it then? It is a protective measure of distancing himself from the full weight of his loss. She is a character killed by a malevolent deity, yet he remains in the face of this – in the foxhole of his own emotional battlefield – an atheist and insists, “I continue not to believe.” Her death is a story that he can, in this way, reject – denial by another name.
“For the first time my name said out loud names nothing.”
~ Marguerite Duras, The Ravishing of Lol V Stein
In The Good Soldier, Ford Maddox Ford defines love as the desire to identify with the object of that love. The lover, he writes, “desires to see with the same eyes, to touch with the same sense of touch, to hear with the same ears, to lose his identity, to be enveloped”. Seb engaged in this when he met Leda, cataloguing every detail of trivia connected to her in a way he “had only ever experienced previously with academic subjects”. But this is a futile endeavour for creatures confined to the epistemological cage of our own consciousness. In the face of our limitations, we take up the task on two fronts, the attempt to know and an attempt to be known. We desire to mend the existential tear in the fabric of our existence, the divide between “me” and “you”, by projecting ourselves into and onto the minds of others.
This is what naming the world does: it describes the contents of reality in terms we hope most accurately convey our experience of those things. We do not really, in most of our colloquial lives, desire to communicate how something actually is, but how it is for me. We yearn for this because, as Ford writes in the same novel, “we are all so afraid, we are all so alone, we all so need from the outside the assurance of our own worthiness to exist”. And in these words perhaps we glimpse the strange heart beating deep within religion, love, and art – including the very reason at bottom that Ford wrote those words. Leda affirms this in Strange Heart Beating when she explains that the reason she writes her diary is “not that I want to keep secrets but that I want to be understood”.
However, it is clear that Leda wished to be understood not as she actually was but as she desired to be. Changing her name not only assigned her the tabula rasa of a forged identity but rid her of the moniker she hated so much that she was grateful when she could “go for days at a time without hearing [her] name, that jarring sound, spoken aloud”. This awful name is attached to awful memories: It becomes quickly and quietly clear that young Leila was abused by her psychopathic and predatory cousin, Olaf. There are translucent passages from her diary that look only sideways at those things that she does not name and cannot fully comprehend. For instance, after learning that she hates to hear her name spoken, Olaf “pins [her] down and says ‘Leila, Leila, Leila’. It is worse than the other things that he does somehow”. And when Leila notices a girl in her class is missing a tooth, she wonders if “maybe something horrible happened to her, too”. So much is revealed in the simple adverb, “too”.
The girl named Leila is the victim of unnamed traumas; the woman calling herself Leda is a new person unmoored from any terrible past. She engages in this performance of a new persona to erase her history, and Seb encourages her “to embrace her identity as an adopted Englishwoman” because he is “confused and alienated by her foreignness”. The sole time she spoke Latvian in front of him, he became afraid of not understanding her and the adventitious parts of her character. Each of them in their own ways are communicating particular versions of a self for Leda, with the aim of losing her past and asserting a particular present.
“Names are not always what they seem.”
~ Mark Twain, Following the Equator
Strange Heart Beating is about the taxonomy of loved ones. I wrote at the top of this essay that the novel is about knowing ourselves and knowing others. This is incomplete because Goldstone is interested in how we attempt to know ourselves through others and know others through ourselves. It is also a book about how we present ourselves to the world. I can be me or we can be us, liberal or Liberal, Mexican, American, human, any number of names from an inexhaustible list in limitless combinations to suit the variety of scenes through which our lives play. The name matters not – its importance lies in the values it expresses.
What values can be discerned within the labels we adopt and those we cast on others in our particular moment in history and place in the world? Much column space and air time has been spent examining anxieties over the technical difficulties wrought by Brexit, about what it means for our economy, for migrants, and for emigration, but not much time has been given to what a decision to leave says about us as a people. Being part of the European Union is more than a name and more than a set of practical considerations, it is an expression of a value: that we believe in the European project, in what Stefan Zweig thought of as “an international conscience”, that borders are not fixed boundaries but a malleable concept. Brexit as a name represents more than its literal meaning of Britain exiting the EU, it expresses a commitment to individualism at the expense of co-operative community.
As for my friends in Mexico, I will call them whatever noun they like, as a mark of respect for their right to express what they value – be it their national identity, political affiliation, or anything else that communicates who they are – which is in turn expressing a value of my own. This is why, when asked in Guanajuato, “¿De dónde eres?”, rather than responding that I am English or British (or Canadian, to explain my bigener accent), I told them I am European. This word, to that question, is the sound of my strange heart beating.
• Eli Goldstone, Strange Heart Beating (2017)
• Søren Kierkegaard, source unknown
• Alberto Manguel, ‘Reading White For Black’ from Into the Looking Glass Wood (1999)
• Marguerite Duras, The Ravishing of Lol V Stein (1964)
• Ford Maddox Ford, The Good Soldier (1915)
• Mark Twain, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World (1897)
• Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday (1942)