Naming as Narrative Architecture

For the longest time I believe I was a bit of a snob about consistent naming styles (and I probably remain so). One of the things that I do while writing, not necessarily as to begin with but certainly before finishing, is to settle on a consistent naming style. Naming conventions are an element of the larger intertextual dialogue that texts take part in. Particular naming styles can be used, alluded to, or subverted in relation to the assumptions of your audience. At least on an initial survey, the tendency to ‘melting pot’ names is a modern one, perhaps art imitating life imitating art. I am drawn to consider the popular 90s TV show ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’ The titular character was conceived to place on its head the Hollywood cliché of the blonde damsel; the subversion of naming is right at the heart of the shot. This logic applies to other characters in the show. Consider Alexander, whose name comes from the near-legendary Greek general, asserts an identity as ‘Xander, an intentionally hip alternative to Alex, but that he fails to live up to the expectations of either of these identities. Angel is initially introduced to us as something to be suspicious of, an appropriate direction for a feminist identifying narrative when faced with a linguistic artefact of Christianity; we are reassured that Angel is ‘on the level’ only to have our original suspicion validated when Angel ‘goes evil’ and becomes ‘Angellus.’ The characters of Buffy are fluid in their naming, both in asserting alternative identities, and how those names describe them. We should be as dubious of what their names tell us of them as what the characters identify as. Spike, for example, creates an identity with which to obscure his earlier shame and humiliations, to try and make of himself a monster so that no-one can probe at the man. Interestingly, it is overwhelmingly the male characters who try and assert a variable name for themselves, whereas, along with Buffy, Faith and Willow struggle to live inside the names they are given. However, to have these assumptions to be subverted, they have to exist in a context that is comprehensible, even though Buffy, Faith & Alexander (for example) are all drawn from different conventions even though they share a context in modern, suburban America; we cannot separate them from their pre-modern or modern environments.

There’s something almost Campbellian in the way we deal with names and mythologies; the particular allusions in names become inscribed and reinscribed upon the cultural consensus so that a name becomes almost an act of cultural exchange from prior cultures. In Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, many of the major characters are drawn from the traditional cultures of pre-modern societies. Wednesday is a prime example of this, the deployment of archaic notions in a modern idiom. Wednesday is an ‘Americanised’ Odin, the Norse god of wisdom, the sky and self-harm. Yet we are also tipped off by the peculiarities of his name that this fellow is not quite Odin; this alludes to the long con that he is playing. This is not restricted to just Wednesday. Consider Shadow, who begins as a man on the outside, fresh out of prison, with no ties. A former criminal, he exists in the shadows of one world before translating to another set of shadows. Yet as the books, we come to see that his vary existence is a ploy of Wednesday’s, shadow puppetry to distract from Wednesday and Lye Smith’s actual game. American Gods uses a magpie aesthetic, drawing together mythic figures and urban legendry into a compelling narrative, each player hinted at but never fully revealed as some figure from myth or legend – ‘Mr Nancy’ ‘Easter’ and other figures named and collated from around the world. In addition to being a textual representation of the American ‘melting-pot’, this is very much in the spirit of ‘free-play’ that Derrida describes as a postmodern characteristic.

While names used can come from & reconstitute a mythology, the characters nor subject have to be mythical. I am currently (still?) reading Moby Dick, a name that itself has entered common usage as a sort of ponderous beast of Victoriana. The book is identified as a foundational text of the American Modernist style, a seminal Great American novel, meditating on the mundane and the extraordinary side by side. The narrator Ishmael and Captain Ahab, along with Elijah & the two captains both evoke a Biblical tone, recalling us implicitly as the text explicitly refers to the Biblical story of Jonah and the Whale; the story is itself almost the revelation of a whaling man, taking us out to a world of strange, earthly wonder. Yet away from the shore, from the familiarities of an order that is bound up in familiar frameworks, the other characters – Tashtego & Queequeg alongside Pip & Stubb – imbue the vessel with an otherworldly character, a foreigner even to its home, inhabited by the occupiers of liminal spaces. As with America in American Gods, the Pequod is a melting pot that, at times, is near boiling. Contrast the sensual, loving affection between Ishmael and Queequeg and the reminder of Pip’s status in Stubb’s eyes. The characters are bound in hierarchies that are informed and reinforced by their names; Pip is part of the ship but valueless, Fedallah is hated for his ‘fire-worshipping’ but untouchable for all his otherness. Even though we can assume that readers might not be able to identify the origin of the ‘foreign’ names in Moby Dick, it is the use early on of those sometimes Judeo-Christian names that allows the sometimes fictional (in Queequeg’s case) characters to signify the strangeness of the world aboard the Pequod. The existence of the characters as people acts as a negation of the ‘normalcy’ offered by Ishmael.

Turn to the titular character of Dracula, whose name evokes Victorian fears of the foreigner, the lascivious easterner of ravenous and dubious sexual appetite across from the Jonathans, Lucys and Minas. Then consider the position of Abraham Van Helsing, the redoubtable (Protestant) Dutchman come to restore sanity and rationality in the face of exotic eastern mysticism. It might be easy to consider that this name-play is a post/modern affectation, something novel in execution and kind, and indeed post-modernism does lay came (I think incorrectly) to the juxtaposition of sources and knowing transgression of the text/reader boundary. This sort of hybridity in texts goes back to the earliest texts; consider the henotheistic syncretism of the Roman Empire whereby local Gods would be associated with the greater Roman pantheon; a habit they picked up from the Greek’s & earlier traditions. Greek literature frequently appropriated characters by other writers & from mythological sources to lend it greater weight with the audience. In Medea, the story of the titular character as well as Jason from the Argonika is examined. It has been argued that Euripides intention was to present a sympathetic telling of Medea and her fate, and by extension the position of women in Athens; using the names of characters the audience would be familiar with allows the assertion and subversion of the classical Heroic figure of Jason. As the audience could be assumed to already know Jason, his name allows for certain expectations that can be played upon; in this case that of an irresponsible man in contrast to Medea’s foreign godliness. Interestingly, Creon of Corinth shares a name (though not an identity) with Creon of Thebes, from Sophocles work. Whether historical or not, Creon the name comes to be associated with kingship that later writers like Chaucer in The Knight’s Tale would play on it to tell stories in their own idiom.

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