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The Publisher's Desk

The Publisher's Desk

On names.


In the beginning—the first chapter of the book of Genesis, to be precise—God invents names. He not only creates day and night, but calls them such; He names the sky, the land, and the sea, each as He makes them. In the next chapter, as Adam settles in to do the earthly work he is given by God in Paradise, he imitates his Creator; the creatures of God’s creation are named by Adam, and “whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.”

Names define, they describe, they identify, and in an important sense, they invoke us. Christ tells His disciples that where two or more are gathered in His name, He is in their midst. For us, too, our names carry us with them—your good name can be sullied by others, or a woman’s name bandied by cads, and real damage is done to the person named. He whose name is praised in his absence gains by it. His reputation is added to, and he benefits. (For a meditation on the consequences of envy, see Robert Wyllie on envy, page 33.)

So it is always interesting when people shirk their names. Anonymity online, for example, can be sharply contested; those who write and share under their own legal names see anonymous writers as uncommitted, cowardly, or lacking “skin in the game”. (See Sam Kriss’s article on our world of screens, page 23.) Names matter: why should I trust the opinions of someone who will not even associate himself with his own thoughts? But there are two sides to the argument. If I write publicly under my own name I may risk injury, but I also reap whatever rewards may come. The anonymous man does not. His contributions stand only for what they are, and no one can be blamed or praised for them. He benefits nothing from what he says; he cannot be bought.

Truly anonymous writers, of course, have no name at all and cannot be identified. Eric Blair (“George Orwell”), Samuel Clemens (“Mark Twain”), and Mary Ann Evans (“George Eliot”) took the via media of pseudonymity. The humble pen name allows one to write as a discrete, identifiable person who is not quite myself. These noms de plume became more real than their legal names; George Orwell became a master of twentieth-century letters without Eric Blair ever having to risk his neck. Other writers adopt false names for the opposite reason: J.K. Rowling has lately taken to writing murder mysteries under the name “Robert Galbraith,” no doubt to avoid adding to her already established literary reputation. For the same reason, Walt Whitman published pseudonymous criticisms of his own poetry, Stephen King began writing as “Richard Bachman” in order to put out more books per year than his publisher would accept from a single author, and Anthony Burgess produced articles and junk fiction under so many pseudonyms that he was eventually sent one of his own books to review review in a major newspaper. (For another eminent sometime user of pen names, see Matthew Walther on Nabokov, page 45.)

Names are not simply a literary question. Popes, for instance, have taken regnal names since the sixth century. (See Pater Edmund Walstein’s moving reflection on Benedict XVI, page 39.) And some of the documents most important to America’s founding, collected as the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, were originally written under false names, obviously for political reasons. (For more recent constitutional reflections, see Josh Craddock’s essay on the Fourteenth Amendment, page 20) When we cast our votes in an election, we generally do so by secret ballot. We have culturally developed systems to keep the democratic process anonymous. In fact there exists a whole sub-discipline devoted to it: “Data anonymization” is the procedure by which we take large amounts of information about people and remove, or “sanitize,” any details that could make any individual person’s identity known. In this way we can know things with certainty about a group of people while knowing nothing in particular about any individual. (For a warning about a different kind of sanitized existence, see Giorgio Agamben on the new medical religion, page 18.)

But so far we have only approached the subject from one angle. There is more to be said in favor of anonymity. Consider the anonymous Tweeter’s real virtue: he, like Prince Klemens von Metternich, can read Napoleon’s lament with satisfaction: “Your sovereigns, who were born to their thrones, cannot comprehend the feelings that move me. To them it is nothing to return to their capitals defeated. But I am a soldier. I need honor and glory. I cannot reappear among my people devoid of prestige. I must remain great, admired, covered with glory.” Both the nobleman and no-man can act with impunity, without fear of public retribution, because public opinion doesn’t affect them; they have no need to win approval, to seek glory, or to fear shame, and can speak or act as they see fit. Their actions and authority are not brought for judgement before the fickle court of public opinion. (For Jaspreet Singh Boparai’s appraisal of another great nobleman, Joseph-Marie, comte de Maistre, page 41)

And some names are lost to time, not through any intention of the bearer. Folk music, and folk culture generally, is handed down not as any one person’s possession, but as the heritage of a people, belonging to all. The authors and emenders and arrangers of a folk tune have been outlived by their creations. (For an appreciation of a Renaissance musician whose name is virtually all we know of him, see Brett Kostrzewski on Josquin des Prez, page 52.) City streets in the old towns of Europe and America bear the names of the people who lived there, tended their gardens, raised their children, grew old, and died long before the first ancestor one’s family can trace was born. These, too, are anonymous in a way; the people they are named for exist only as they are recalled in their namesakes. (For the heritage of a German Texas town, see Jake Neu, page 9.)

Orson Welles liked to point out, as he did in his documentary F for Fake, that the greatest cathedrals in Europe (e.g., Chartres) were not signed by their authors. In an age in which every artist’s style is meant to be unique, and every painting is sold with a carefully authenticated autograph, we struggle to imagine a time when great art was produced by people whose names we scarcely know.

Yet it is hard to think such an age was worse for it. When we pray we are counseled to do so in secret, and to give alms while not letting the left hand know what the right is doing. The men who built the cathedral at Chartres are little remembered individually, for all the incredible work they did, but they were not laboring for their own glory. Their names are known by God. There are no anonymous souls before Him to Whom the very hairs of our heads are numbered.

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