TO BEAR A NAME
What is to live? It is to bear a name. – Laura Riding
It was Sue Tourkin-Komet’s piece, "Masquing with Names" that gave me the idea of including a section on Names in the fall-winter 2009-2010 issue of The Deronda Review (Vol. III no. 1). Sue’s piece is a frank and freewheeling evocation of the adventures many if not most people have with their names – the connections our names cause us to make, the ideas about ourselves that they invite us to entertain. In the issue I confessed that one motive for proposing this theme was the hope of creating a context in which I could relate my own adventure with names. But that story is long, labyrinthine, and perhaps a bit wilder than most. So, the best solution seemed to be to put the story out on the Web, with an invitation and a warning. "Who will, may hear Sordello’s story told."
First, a few general observations. The connection between the person and the name varies from context to context, but is in the end quite mysterious. Sometimes the name is that of a deceased relative (in the Orthodox Jewish context) or a living one (in the non-Jewish world). Many are named for Biblical figures, which must surely have a strengthening effect, especially in a milieu where such names are common. Some are named for literary characters (I have a feeling that this must almost always be bad luck) or movie stars (doubtless worse). Sometimes there seems no reason why a person should have one name rather than another. Yet consider the following sentence from an article on identical twins separated at birth: "Each had been married twice, first to a Linda and then to a Betty. One twin had named his son James Alan, and the other, James Allen." Linda, Betty, James, and Alan/Allen are hardly distinctive names. They’re about as bland as you get. Yet precisely these names seem to have been rooted in the very flesh.
So, with that introduction... Oh yes, the warning. One of the first stories I heard, in the sequence of events that are somewhat circuitously narrated below, was the story of the "four who entered Pardes." ("Four men entered/visited the Orchard/Pardes: ben Azzai, ben Zoma,Acher, and Akiva. One peeked and died; one peeked and was smitten; one peeked and cut down the shoots; one ascended safely and descended safely. Ben Azzai looked and died; Ben Zoma looked and went mad; Acher destroyed the plants; Akiva entered in peace and departed in peace.") The semantic field which the following remarks explore has often seemed like a Pardes laid out for only one visitor. Whether that visitor entered and left in peace – well, the results are not all in.
Like Hadassah, I have two names. One is Esther, a good Biblical name, although, come to think of it, in the Megillah it is the protagonist’s non-Jewish name. As to the other, I am a second generation literary character. My mother was a fifth daughter, and her parents had run out of family names, so they named her for the heroine of a play – Adrienne Lecouvreur – which my grandmother had recently seen. Adrienne Lecouvreur is not a happy story, though the heroine is very sympathetic; it is based on the life of a popular actress who was probably poisoned by a rival. My mother, as though forewarned, did not go in for theatrics; but she named me for another literary character, following the suggestion of my paternal grandmother who thought it would be nice to have a descendant named for "the heroine of the Divine Comedy," as she rather quaintly put it.
In one French naming dictionary the name Beatrice is followed by the comment: "A promise of beauty and happiness difficult to keep." Quite a few women have borne that name, though fewer in recent generations, and I fancy it must have weighed on all of them. I’ve been well acquainted with only one other Beatrice, a rather acerbic young woman whose favorite saying was "Dream on, teenage queen." From the age of 5 on I hated the name, and my schoolmates, with whom I was not popular, found in it a source of infinite wit. In vain did my father explain to me that it means "making happy." And yet I was possessive about it too; when a young woman named Beatrice came to help my mother with our Brownie troop one day, I was horrid to her.
My parents hadn’t actually read much Dante, though my father would quote "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here" every now and then. But in the early stages of my literary education I gathered that the character in question was someone who died and then inspired the writing of a great poem. I filed this, along with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and Poe’s saying that the best subject for a poem is the death of a beautiful woman, in a large file labeled Things Not Fair.
It wasn’t until my freshman year in college, when I was away from home, that I ventured, with a curious sense of doing something forbidden, to purchase and read a copy of the Inferno. The Inferno is, in case you haven’t read it, a terribly unpleasant book, especially in translation, without the play of language and form to distract you from the dreadful spectacle. And "my" character did not seem especially sympathetic either. I was bothered by her saying to Virgil, "Your misery does not touch me nor a flame of the fires here assail me." This seemed so remote and inhuman. It did not scare me less because there was a part of me that identified with this remoteness.
The awareness of being named for this character interacted, in my case, with a poetic drive that manifested early. Before the age of twelve I wrote three poems that still represent me. Two of these have to do with extraterrestrial realities (one is addressed to the evening star, and the other speaks with the voice of a planet "at the edge of space") As a teenager I was assailed by diffidence as to my own talent and, as a substitute for becoming a poet, went in for literary criticism. My ambition took the form of a desire to grasp the quintessence of this strange phenomenon, poetry, and for several years I pursued a groping, semiconscious quest that finally brought me face to face with the poet who, I came to believe, had been writing my life. (He is named elsewhere on this site, but this essay, for some reason, feels nervous about invoking him.) A lot of people know this poet’s work and acknowledge that it is very powerful. Now just imagine, dear reader, that at a certain point you formed the idea that such a poet was speaking to you, yes YOU. This seems like a crazy idea, and might drive you crazy for some time; it did me.
And yet this crazy idea is neither irrational nor improbable. The poet in question was very conscious of names; he talked about them all the time. And he had unquestionably been through hell. "Infernal" is a word that comes to mind when one contemplates the landscape of his poems. And hovering over this landscape is a figure who represents a sort of redemptive presence. The biographer of course can connect her with various real people, but the poems for the most part carefully detach themselves from the biographical context. This figure isn’t named – well, yes, once, she is addressed as Esther, but it is clear that that is a name he is giving her – but it is hinted that she has a name. And in this context one name comes, one would think, inevitably to mind, especially if that name just happens to be the reader’s. Moreover, the poet could well have anticipated that the poems would come to the attention of at least one reader bearing this name, and not too prudent to answer to it. ("Did he think all this out consciously?" is a question that need not be answered. Every poet knows a feeling of groping sureness, about which one doesn’t ask oneself too many questions.)
Furthermore: the poet knew several languages including English and was not averse to interlingual puns. I think he knew that in English the name Beatrice has the nickname Bea, which is homophonous with the name of an insect that has often symbolized poetry (the producer of "sweetness and light") and community. This word itself is never mentioned in the poetry, but it is hinted at several times. That nickname is capable of one or two other significant puns; I had heard them all many, many times, always from individuals who thought they were being clever but of course didn’t mean anything by it.
What could the poet have meant, then, by invoking this name of which I was a carrier? I felt that he was trying to induce someone to assume this character that he was creating or invoking. He makes one highly significant allusion to the myth of Pygmalion, and another to the story of the golem created by the Maharal of Prague. Only recently I learned that my Hebrew birthday is the Maharal’s yahrtzeit – the 18th of Elul. But from the first there were a lot of "coincidences" associated with this onomastic complex. At a certain point I had to decide whether or not to heed the poet’s call, set out on the admittedly unconventional course toward which he had pointed me. The quasi-psychotic episode was soon over, but the crazy facts remained. I don’t know if I could have gone back to being just myself, whatever that was. But it seemed as though I had been entrusted with a unique possibility, and if I didn’t take it up, probably no one else would. So I have spent the years since 1972 learning how to play this role. I once read a saying that life is like playing a violin concerto in public and learning the instrument as one goes along....
One of the first things I did was to read the Divine Comedy in its entirety and try to figure out what my character was supposed to stand for. Obviously, to the influencee of a Holocaust survivor it could not mean the particular theology which the Dantean character is sometimes made to spout (as was inevitable in a 14th-century Europe ruled by the Inquisition). Around the time of my (breakdown? breakthrough? I never quite know what name to give it), I had a dream about a dress that belonged to me, but was in the possession of the Catholic Church. In generic terms, then, Beatrice seems to be the exponent of Divine wisdom; at times she also appears to stand for the community. Throughout the poem she acts as the poet’s personal guide; at the end she merges into the celestial Rose that stands for the community, and then the poem and the poet’s quest conclude with an unmediated vision of the divine Source.
Over the years, perhaps the thing that has resonated most with me is Virgil’s first address to my character: "O lady of virtue, through which alone the human race exceeds that which the smallest circle of the heavens encloses..." She personifies, then, the ability to escape from the limited human perspective and to contemplate life from the Divine perspective, and thus to ascend to the heavenly spheres that form the poem’s encompassing structure. ("Thrust out from all particular entanglings/ And viewing human life as it were whole," as I put it in a long poem called The Consciousness of Earth.) The astronomical model may be obsolete; and yet it is to Dante, rather than to NASA, that humanity owes its first glimpse of the earth from space – in Paradiso, canto XXII. I read this passage just a couple of years after the first Earth Day. You may remember those posters with photographs of the Earth from space, saying "Your mother needs you."
I felt a special connection with the "fate of the earth" because my father, of blessed memory, was a geologist. I revered my father for his integrity and because of him always had a deep respect for the scientific method. Yet from an early age I sensed a conflict between the scientific and the poetic approaches to reality, and questioned the authority of science and the marginalization of poetry. I felt that poetry, although "subjective," could nevertheless be exact in its own way. And the aforementioned poet encouraged me in this thought. One of the things I have felt prompted by him to do, has been to develop a poetic method that would be true to this exactitude. Such a method might even resolve the debate between science and religion. Poetry often has to do with "hashgachah pratit," and while those who believe in a Creator may have to concede the scientific narrative about the history of the material world, they can also point to hashgachah pratit as a different causality that operates simultaneously with that of the natural world. Perhaps the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge stands for the lapse into reliance on material causality.
What do I mean by the exactitude of poetry? Several things, that seem to be bound up together. First of all, I am not only a poet but also a literary critic, and as such have made extensive use of the Freudian method – that is, of the method of "free association," which works even if you do not buy all of the theories he put into circulation on various matters. Somewhere Freud remarks that free association is not altogether free. There is an inevitability about it; the semantic "fields" are laid out. When you have a good connection, more connections to it keep turning up, elaborating and enriching the meaning. One example of this is the phrase "Point and Circumference," which came to me sometime in the 1990's as the title for a website. On the homepage of www.pointandcircumference.com there is a text that explains the associations this phrase has gathered through the years. Freud once compared his work in delving for the layers of meaning in the psyche to that of a geologist (the connection of adam and adamah is borne out in this way too), and geologic metaphors were also in favor with the poet who recruited me. Exactitude is a quality that the aforementioned poet shared with Dante. Dante’s science may be obsolete, but his focus is razor- sharp.
In the Divine Comedy Dante succeeded in creating a model of a cosmos in which every detail has its place and its significance. But unfortunately it remained an isolated literary masterpiece, by a single poet, which other poets over the centuries have tried to imitate with varying degrees of literary success, but without ever approaching the same degree of precision. The poet who summoned me differs from these emulators in that his work has a deliberately fragmentary quality, as though summoning other voices. This gave me the idea that it might be possible to construct something like a poetic Talmud, a poetic dialogue in the spirit of Pirkei Avot, where poets would speak from a shared vision. Poets wishing to join in this dialogue would need to read my work and connect with it as I connected with his. This, so far, has not occurred, but I am hoping that it still may. I truly believe that for poetry this could be a "Copernican revolution."
This idea of a social poetry was reinforced by the symbol of the bee, a social insect often associated with poetry. The bee makes a cell with a hexagonal cross-section, this prompted me to think about the figure of the hexagon. I noticed that the middle of the Star of David is a hexagon, and I realized that the week can be visualized as a Star of David with the Sabbath as the center. The hexagon is the form assumed by circles when they are pressed together, hence it can become a symbol of unification, a "squaring of the circle," a reconciliation of individuality and community. Many religions and cultures employ the circle as a symbol, but it’s no coincidence that the hexagon is most associated with Judaism. I have tried, in what I hope is the spirit of Judaism, to show that works which seem whole and self-contained can also be seen as parts of a larger whole. (see the "Macropoetics" and "The Web of What Is Written" sections of this website). I attempted to visualize that whole in "The Hexagon," the central poem on the Point and Circumference website.
The hexagon is spoken of in that poem where the aforementioned poet seems to be giving his addressee the name Esther. Early on I adopted this name as a pseudonym, and on conversion it became my Hebrew name. (I should note that another poet also influenced this choice, a non-Jewish woman who gave the name Esther to her autobiographical character and who wrote a cycle about bees. She had an identification with bees, much as I identified with the earth, because they were the subject of her father’s research.) After I had received this name at conversion, it was recalled that Esther was the name of my paternal grandmother's mother, the only one among my known ancestors who seems to have been strongly religious. As is well known, the name Esther is held to refer to the hester panim, the concealment of the Divine countenance. Curiously, both the name Lecouvreur (see above) and the name assumed by the poet who recruited me suggest the idea of concealment. The book of Esther is a story about hidden miracles; and poetry, I've come to believe, is also about hidden miracles. Moreover, the Megillah also has some connection with the Divine Comedy: the celestial Rose which represents the holy community at the end must have been derived, by some hidden pathway, from Shushan ("rose"), the community of Jews in Persia. A synagogue with which I was affiliated for some years owns a set of paintings based on the Megillah, with the rose appearing in each painting.
A few months ago, I opened a book called Journey of the Soul – a Hasidic discourse by the Alter Rebbe – to the following language:
During galut (exile), the Jewish people are called "Esther," in the sense of concealment [of G-dliness], as we find in the verse, "and I will utterly hide ("haster astir") My face on that day."
[...] this concealment exists within the soul of every single Jew.
When the "spark of G-dliness" that is the soul is buried and garbed in [coarse], physical thought, speech and action, the divine radiance cannot reside and be manifest within one’s being. Consequently, one will not be filled with the burning desire to cleave to G-d with an open heart, lacking the kind of love that has a firm grasp and fix on one’s mind and heart. One’s love toward G-d will instead be "encompassing from above (makif)" [signifing a type of love that exissts solely on a subconscious level]. This [subliminal] kind of love is called "Esther," or hidden (ahavah mesuteret) [.]...
[In Kabbala,] this "hidden love of G-d is called nekuda be’heichala, "a point within an expanse," for hidden deep within the heart of every Jewish soul – without exception – is love for G-d.
I was struck by the fact that this hidden love of G-d is described both as "encompassing" and as a "point." "Point and circumference," again. And recently in a newsletter called Meged Yerachim (put out by Beit ha-Rav Kook), I found an article by Rabbi Bnayahu Broner with a meditation on the letter samech, the first letter of sovev "to surround." He writes: "There is a spiritual dimension that surrounds us [...] parallel to the revealed reality [of the natural world] there is a light which surrounds it, gives it life and sustains even in the time of falling."
The aforementioned nickname is also a verb – infinite and imperative. And it is this meaning which, in recent years, has given me most to think. In Hasidic thought the spiritual goal is "nullification of being," the dissipation of the illusion that anything exists apart from G-d. The literary method I have proposed does aim at dispelling at least the literary work’s illusion of separateness, as the self-contained world of the literary work dissolves into a web of associations that link the author and the reader back into a community inspired by and responsible to G-d. And at the same time poetry is an affirmation of creation. Perhaps poetry could still be one defense against nihilism, whether the latter manifests as an all-dissolving scientific analysis or a religious fanaticism for which human life no longer has meaning.
Such are the associations of the name that I have been led to meditate on. The aforementioned poet was, I believe, referring to this name when he spoke of a "breath-crystal"; I see it is a three-dimensional structure with several facets. "Who would, has heard Sordello’s story told."
One thing is clear to me at least – as a poet I owe a great deal to the associations of this name, to the suggestions it has given. What sort of poet would I have been without it?
The story I have just told describes a "special case," as they say in math, or the mysterious relation between person and name. Obviously not everyone ends up "possessed" by their name in the same way, just as not every ellipse is a circle. But as Zelda’s famous poem, "Each One Has a Name," reminds us, there are many things that "name" each of us, besides the names on our birth certificates. While in high school I read a novel called Spinster, by Sylvia Ashton-Warner, which is about a schoolteacher who teaches Maori children to read by focusing on the words that are most meaningful to each child. This novel was apparently based on the teaching experience of the author, who has also described these experiences in a nonfiction book, Teacher. Perhaps every person has with some deep-ingrained "namescape" of things that have spoken to him or her.
In 1975 one of my co-workers on a temporary job handed me a handwritten sheaf of poems, most of which I eventually printed in a magazine, "Chiaroscura," which had but one issue. This poet’s name was about as nondescript as you could think of; compared to it the pseudonym she chose, "Alice Clark," is wildly fanciful. But I quoted one of her brief, highly-charged poems as a conclusion to a long essay of which the present piece is a condensed version:
My mortal people, struck from the everlasting,
Earth of smoke blown from the fiery sea,
Brief speck of dust hung in infinity,
O let us be
This instant, this eternity.
Somewhere – reader, fellow-human, fellow-poet – your namescape connects with the one that I have tried to draw here. If you follow these connections, if you deepen them, perhaps we —
Esther Beatrice Cameron