Our Borders: What’s in a Name?

Yesterday, the protagonist of my series Our Borders asked me to change his name on this website, for privacy reasons. It seemed like an easy thing to do, just Replace All in each of the ten blog posts I have written so far (including the comments), and I’d be done. An hour’s worth of work on my website—tops. (It took a bit longer than that.)

But something strange happened. First there was a feeling of uneasiness creeping in, as if I had lost something very important. I couldn’t quite figure out what bothered me, but during the evening I started to put into words how I felt. And the words “What’s in a name?” kept going through my head.

***

Juliet:

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

Romeo:

[Aside] Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?

Juliet:

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

Romeo:

I take thee at thy word:
Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized;
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.

– William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

***

Wikipedia

Rosehip (from Wikipedia)

I beg to differ, Juliet. For me, a name is a pact of staying true. For my writing, a name can be a choice of genre. Nonfiction versus fiction.

I tried writing my friend’s story before, as fiction, during my MFA program at Goddard College. I worked on that novel from 2007 to 2010, but something else strange happened back then too. The crazy adventures my friend had had in real life didn’t translate well into fiction. For a real person, yes, it was incredible what he had been through. For a novel character, the stakes were never high enough. And the worst of it all was that there was no antagonist in his story. Nobody working against my main character, sabotaging his attempts to cross the Romanian borders. There were tons of threshold guardians in his story, but no villains.

Back then, I tried the best I could to tighten up the structure of the story, to focus my main character’s struggles along lines determined by his relationships with his family and friends. I could always create a villain and set her against him, but that felt artificial. I could also make the protagonist be his own worst enemy—the villain within—but that meant betraying the real person behind the story. So there I toiled, with no structure to my story, no character arc, no transformative journey, no catharsis. And I failed.

When I began this blog series, I didn’t know if I could make it work, but the new medium and the new format allowed me to create structure on an episodic level. Every time I work on a piece, I  sift through thousands of words of interviews, I read anything I can find online about those times in Romania, I look at maps and pictures, and, like a detective, I try to find connections. Where my friend describes the mechanics of trying to cross a militarized border, I ask him questions about his friends, wife, mother, trying to create a personal connection between a reader who doesn’t necessarily know or care about the historical context of 1980s’ Romania and a protagonist who’s on a universal quest for freedom. In my blog posts, history is the background of story. And the story is that of a man with an extraordinary life and an incredible level of determination.

But now that I’m obscuring my friend’s name, history must take first place, the things that are still fact and not fiction—and I’m afraid that I will lose the personal connection between the reader and the protagonist.

***

Last night, I remembered reading a fascinating article a few months back on Simcha Jacobovici’s website called Palestine: History of a Name.

The ancient Romans knew that a name was powerful when they began to call Judea Palestine in 135 CE. Simcha Jacobovici explains that Palestine means “the land of the Philistines,” who “are the people of Delilah and Goliath. (…) they were an Aegean people from the area of modern day Greece.” In the Old Testament, the Philistines were the villains, the arch-enemies of the Jews, and the Romans chose to rename Judea Palestine for clear political benefits.

“After the Philistines disappeared from the historical stage, the name “Palestina” lingered on. Meaning, the people were gone, the name lingered. It appears in references here and there in classic Greek writings e.g., Herodotus. By the time Jesus was born, there hadn’t been any Philistines in the area for some 600 years. The name does not appear anywhere in the Gospels. And the people living in Judea at the time of Jesus—including Jesus and all his disciples—would never have referred to their country as “Palestine”. Even the Romans didn’t call the area Palestine. Remember, when they crucified him, the Romans put a plaque over Jesus’ head with the inscription—in three languages—“King of the Jews”, not the “Philistines” (Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19).” – Simcha Jacobovici

The Romans began using this name after a long series of revolts that followed the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE.

“When the Bar Kochba revolt was finally put down in 135 CE, the Romans exiled the majority of the Jewish people and renamed Judea “Palestina”. To be clear, “Syria Palestine” officially became a Roman province about a century after Jesus’ crucifixion. The idea was to erase the Jewish presence from Judea and to designate their homeland with reference to their Biblical enemies. It was a last humiliation. To also be clear, there were no Philistines at the time and even if some had miraculously survived, they were not Arabs but Greeks.” – Simcha Jacobovici

A name is powerful, the Romans knew that. In my neck of the woods, after the emperor Trajan conquered the Dacian kingdom of Decebalus in 106 CE, he razed the capital, Sarmizegethusa Regia and built another one, a mere 24 miles away, called Sarmizegethusa Ulpia. To this day people are confused about the two sites because they have the same name, and that was the whole point of Trajan’s decision.

***

The Name of the RoseToday, as I was writing this blog post, I looked up The Name of the Rose (1980) by Umberto Eco, one of my favorite novels of all times, which ends with the following paragraph:

“It is cold in the scriptorium, my thumb aches. I leave this manuscript, I do not know for whom; I no longer know what it is about: stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.”

Eco, Umberto (1994-09-28). The Name of the Rose (Kindle Locations 7420-7421). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

The last words of Eco’s novel translate approximately to “Of the pristine rose only the name remains, we hold empty names.”

People wondered much about this ending, so Umberto Eco explained in 1984:

“the verse is from De contemptu mundi by Bernard of Morlay, a twelfth-century Benedictine, whose poem is a variation on the “ubi sunt” theme (most familiar in Villon’s later “Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan”). But to the usual topics (the great snows of yesteryear, the once-famous cities, the lovely princesses: everything disappears into the void), Bernard adds that all these departed things leave (only, or at least) pure names behind them. I remember that Abelard used the example of the sentence “Nulla rosa est” to demonstrate how language can speak of both the nonexistent and the destroyed.” – Umberto Eco, Postscript to The Name of the Rose.

I was going to use these quotes today to illustrate the importance of a name—a geeky thing I like to do sometimes, illustrating—but then I discovered that in a 1996 lecture at The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, Umberto Eco admitted that he might’ve got the verse wrong:

“Moreover someone has discovered that some early manuscripts of De Contemptu Mundi of Bernard de Morlay, from which I borrowed the hexameter “stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus”, read “stat Roma pristina nomine”—which after all is more coherent with the rest of the poem, which speaks of the lost Babylon. Thus the title of my novel, had I come across another version of Morlay’s poem, could have been The Name of Rome (thus acquiring fascist overtones). “– Umberto Eco, The Author and his Interpreters.

Which changes everything about this book, doesn’t it?

***

Changing a name turns out not to be as simple as a Replace All.

Changing a name is a rite of passage that needs to be acknowledged as such.

Changing a name is breaking a pact and making another: that I will stay true to the story, even though I will lie about this one detail. Will you trust me after this?

If you do, my series continues with its old new protagonist, Radu Codrescu.

Next: The Two Ends of the Telescope (1989 CE)

Previous: A Job Well Done (1986 CE)

Note: I met Radu Codrescu (name changed for privacy reasons) in 2001 in Redmond, Washington. In 2002, we sat down for a series of interviews about his past, and we continued our conversations in 2006 and in 2013. The series Our Borders is based on those interviews and on my own experience of growing up in Romania during the ’80s and the ’90s.

16 thoughts on “Our Borders: What’s in a Name?

  1. Where this topic becomes challenging for me–in my life and writing–is where another’s story and experiences become part of my own. To protect another’s privacy sometimes seems like a vow of silence or to require a lie about my experiences, or myself.

    • That’s a really hard problem. Especially because, over time, even my own point of view changes, and something that seemed clear-cut five years ago, acquires shades of gray today. I might even end up seeing the events from the opposite POV. Putting things in writing pins my opinion down in a more permanent way, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t write. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be searching for meaning in what happens to us.
      I remember a teacher in my MFA program saying, “God help the family of a writer.”

  2. Roxana,
    I’m sad for your friend’s change of heart and the trouble it has caused you. However, this thought provoking piece about the importance of a name is a wonderful result of that struggle.
    Arleen

    • Thanks, Arleen. I’m not upset by the change because it gave me the chance to think about this topic, to put into words some of the thoughts I’ve been having recently about names – I recently changed the name of my protagonist in my novel, and that takes some adjusting too. I’m amazed sometimes how much I learn from my blogging, about storytelling, about the roles of reader and writer, about truth and point of view. So, for me, this is all good. I hope you will still follow the story, even though this change saddened you. It’s still a great story.

  3. One example of this phenomenon you and I are both familiar with is the naming of the Xbox family of devices. Xbox 360 had almost nothing in common with the original Xbox (software or hardware), but to the consumer it’s the “next version” just because it kept the name.

    Most consumers think all electronics devices having the same name and “model number” are the same (e.g., iPhone 5), when in fact the hardware components inside change every few months to drive down costs and improve manufacturing yield, and the software is usually updated behind the scenes too.

    • That’s right. Though in the case of Xbox 360, you have to admire the brilliance of the name. The second generation of Xboxes came out in competition with PS3, so, had they kept the usual nomenclature it would’ve been Xbox2 versus PS3. The consumer would’ve assumed 3 better than 2, and the name war would’ve tilted in PlayStation’s favor. Instead, the marketing team came up with 3-60, and the game was reset. That, in my opinion, was genius!

  4. Well written! And an interesting anecdote about Eco. Names are very powerful indeed. Often I’ve seen inside tech companies how the name of a team or project alters how everyone perceives it. The name becomes “truth”, framing our perception of the thing perceived. At times, there can be quite a gap between the name and reality, and yet almost no one notices the discrepancy. I’ve always found this remarkable.

    It’s interesting that the name here means so much to you the author, because for this reader neither the old nor the new name for the protagonist carries any particular meaning or symbology or authenticity. It doesn’t alter my perception of or connection to the story, and even knowing the meta-issue that you have changed his name doesn’t have any impact. I find myself unable to judge which parts of your story are historical and which are fiction. It simply *is*, alive and compelling.

    (That’s not to say that his name couldn’t alter my perception — had you chosen “Billy Bob” or “Maria,” the name would have altered my perception of the character, and I’m sure the sound of the name affects my perception in some subconscious way.)

    • What an interesting insight, Michael. Yes, I know what you mean, about the names that define perception of the product created in a company. The people who choose the names usually are experts in how metaphors work, how they can get to the emotional side of an audience through well-chosen imagery. Have you seen this article in NY Times: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/14/this-is-your-brain-on-metaphors/. This is Your Brain on Metaphors. It talks about the confusion in our brain between the literal and the metaphorical, and how, if you know what you’re doing, you can press just the right buttons and create physical discomfort using abstract words, and also the opposite.
      About my series, I hope that I can convey that there isn’t much fiction in it, except for the fictitious names and also the little details that memory fails to remember after a few years. I’m trying to stay true to my protagonist’s words and to what I can research myself. If I’m not sure if something is accurate, I just don’t use it in the story.

  5. Roxana, you nimble minded little minx – always in search of truth and the meaning of it. Loved this piece, though I know you labored over it. The new name works nicely, no author trust lost.

    • Thanks, Mindy, you made me laugh! I’m glad you’ll stay with the story. As I said, I will write it as before, even though my attitude toward the ratio of story and history in this series has shifted some.

  6. You get to the heart of the matter here, Roxana. Naming, the first step in getting control of our tiny world. Your piece is very provocative. Your mind is a machine that churns reality. Keep going.

    • What an illusion of control a name really is, Jack. But it is our feeble attempt to define reality, to delineate and delimitate and pin down. I’m using English as a second language and every day I see my brain fail at using the names of things in this new set because they don’t match exactly the names I grew up with. Small distinctions, yes, but they always say the same thing: you don’t belong, not all the way.

  7. You don’t want to get me started on the topic of “what’s in a name” or you’ll never hear the end of it. I’m sure there’s a connection between my perpetual identity crisis and the fact that almost no one here in my adoptive country can pronounce my name correctly and each person pronounces it differently. I can see how it is very hard for you to change the name of your protagonist and redefine your relationship with him so late in the story. I for one will always think of …. you-know-who when I read these posts :)

    • Nobody in the US pronounces my name the way my mother does. It was strange at first, then I got used to it. Now I see the same thing happening with my daughter’s name, and she is rejecting it now because nobody can pronounce it right. I didn’t expect that to happen because while (in my case) it’s hard for me to correct another adult’s pronunciation, I assumed that people would listen to the way I pronounce my daughter’s name and try to get the sounds right. Not so. People just pronounce her name the way it reads in English, and by doing that, they erase the small Romanian connection I want to create for my daughter.

    • If he asks me to remove the pictures, I will. This is his story and I can only share as much or as little as he wants me to. I’m glad to have the chance to dive into such an amazing string of adventures, but we all have our right to our privacy – even in this day and age.

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