In 1700 Lichtenberg made an entry in his collection of aphorisms entitled The Waste Books which reads: “Three smart remarks and a lie make a writer”. In the context of José Saramago’s book Todos Os Nomes (1997) [All the Names, 1999], which begins with an epigraph attributed to a work called The Book of Certainties, echoing titles by Derrida and Edmond Jabès, Saramago sets out to explore, through his protagonist Senhor José, the problem with names for which there is no definition: “you know the name you were given, you do not know the name that you have". Saramago’s concern is, on the one hand, with a name’s epistemology, how and when we know a name, and on the other hand, with a name’s pragmatic state, its ontology, how it exists and under which condition it is given. One of the main points in the novel is that names constitute identity, not according to what is proper in a name, but according to an invisible structure which accommodates what is improper in a name. The title itself indicates that much: All the Names does not include a single proper name apart from the author’s, José, suggesting that Saramago’s imposition of his own name on the protagonist is a means of placing the concept of “all the names” in a state of potentiality. For Saramago, every anonymous name has the potential to emerge from the background of obscurity to the foreground of what is memorable.
There is thus a problem with a name’s referentiality in the context of Saramago’s architectonic structure which relies on the invisible. Anonymity is held in play at the edge of the novel’s setting which constantly shifts positions from a background to a foreground. These shifts are mediated by the protagonist’s desire to encounter an unknown woman. However, the encounter is postponed and delayed by other encounters, and it only takes place potentially. At the level of discourse, in writing, this potential is actualized not in the narrative line but in the aphorism. Thus the names, which are employed subversively in Saramago in the sense that there aren't any explicitly given, function as signatures which authorize the writing that makes a writer, here in the form of the aphorism. The encounter, which the novel posits in absentia, has an indexical aphoristic value with two properties: first, the encounter refers to a catalogue of names which are put in motion by displacement (in the novel files get lost, misplaced, stolen), and second, the encounter is devoid of reference, ultimately being rendered as meaningless. I like Saramago's playing games with names as it makes us think that the names we get ourselves, while often materialized in official documents, are bound to remain constrained to chance, which is the chance that we might change them. The implication is that changing one's name is like playing with ice instead of fire. Instead of melting we have consolidation, and instead of potentiality (marked by chance) we have actualization (marked by choice). As he puts it "chance doesn’t choose, it proposes." (36). I understand Lichtenberg's aphorism in this context to mean that we are all writers the minute we are willing to change our names and lie about it. Pen that down, and live shortly ever after.
Monday, August 27, 2007
One of my favourite Danish expressions is billigt skidt, which in literal translation means cheap crap. It is an expression I myself use - almost all the time, I'm afraid to say - for instance whenever I watch TV programs that deal with re-decorating houses. I'm always amazed at peoples' extremely high tolerance for receiving things that they don't deserve to get in this or other life. When their otherwise perfectly good furniture gets to be replaced by so called vintage pieces that supposedly exude an old and romantic soul, my verdict almost articulates itself: billigt skidt. It's fortunate, however, that the poor sods on TV expressing profuse gratitude for the new pink couch and turquoise drawer can't hear what I have to say about their new misfortune. The irony with cheap crap is that, while it materializes itself unmistakably, opinions about it often remain unvoiced where people who get it are concerned. Euphemisms abound, and it is interesting to observe that the proverbial claim which has it that the Danes are very frank denies itself here by becoming an expression about the value of simplicity and freedom. The pink thus merely contributes to bringing more light into the room, and the horrendous rest is all about creativity. Alas, as Einstein said: "we should make things as simple as possible, but not any simpler". We cannot all elevate billigt skidt to blissful shit.