On the Board a Single Line

On the board was a single word, stark white against the black: N A M E S.

“Today’s class will be on the naming of things.” Professor Sigurdsen said, his voice creaky with years of chalk dust. “To name a thing was to create it, in the old, Adamite language; hence the veneration our common ancestor receives for his talent in that function. To say ‘duck’ or ‘toad’ or ‘Leviathan’ was to describe those creatures completely; in the Edenic language, the map was the territory.” On the black void of the board he drew a triangle with an eye in it and a pair a tentacles at each vertex. This portmanteau he labeled L E V I A T H A N.

“Now, of course, we do not speak that original ur-language; its power and structure are entirely lost to us. Still, names have power. To name a thing is to know it, however fleetingly, even to be it, to some extent. To know a thing and to be it is to have control over it, for weal or for woe, as they say. Hence the secrecy with which many mediocre Artists cloak their names, burning or destroying their birth certificates, for example. This is superstitious; what we are called is not our Name, no more than ‘chair’ is the Name of one, singular chair.”

He drew a cat and three lines next to it. “Thomas Stearns Eliot hinted at this state of things in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” Laughter in the classroom at this assertion. Professor Sigurdsen glowered through his heavy glasses at the students. “Hush, sweetnesses. Just because a book is silly makes it none the less true. Who here has read this book?”

A few hands went up, tentatively.

“And who laughed?” Different hands went up; those who laughed far outnumbered those who had read the book. “Tell us what Mr. Eliot says, Mr. Blum. Briefly.”

“He says, um.” Blum was a stutterer. “He says, he says, he says, um, that each cat has three names. Um. An everyday name…”

Professor Sigurdsen wrote E V E R Y D A Y on the first line —

“…a special, formal name…”

F O R M A L, on the second —

“and, and, and, um, and a secret, ineffable name.”

— and N A M E, very neatly, on the last line.

“Good, thank you very much, Mr. Blum. What Mr. Eliot stresses, and what Mr. Blum has left out of his marvelously concise synopsis — no, don’t make that face, Mr. Blum, I told you to be brief! — is that the first two names are given to the cat, but that the Name is known only to the wretched beast, who knows how to keep his secrets. This is the way of things. The hidden Name of an object may be applied, more or less equally, to all items of that class — so, for example, the Name of this piece of chalk will have similar power over other pieces of chalk — but the Name of something alive is singular and esoteric. Lesser Artists, which I trust you will all be upon being graduated, know the Names of any number of lower objects, and from this derive what little power they have.” He smiled, the wedge of his face creasing with puckish good humor, and waited for the furor to die down. It was Nitta, unsurprisingly, who stood up to ask a question; the rest fell silent.

“Lesser, Sigurdsen?” Nitta did not believe in titles. “Just lesser? What are we breaking the bank for, then?”

“Great Artists, Mr. Nitta,” said Professor Sigurdsen, “know their own Name; that, however, cannot be taught — only discovered. The way to discovery cannot even be hinted at; such a search may represent the entire career of an Artist, and is fraught along the way with privation, hostility, isolation, and great danger. Do you wonder, then, that so many turn away? When lesser Artistry is comfortable and lucrative enough? No, Mr. Nitta, for every ten thousand Artists, perhaps one knows his Name.”

“And you know your name, do you, Sigurdsen? Eh? One in ten thousand? A Great Artist, I suppose?”

“Oh, no, Mr. Nitta.” For just a moment Professor Sigurdsen’s face was lupine and hungry; there was blood in his eyes. “Not yet. Perhaps never.”

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