April 10, 2011

Greek names

James Axton is an American who lives in Greece and works as an investigator for an insurance company with interests in Mediterranean and Middle East countries. He doesn't speak Greek well (and tends to avoid the ancient cultural monuments). Often when he talks to Niko, the concierge of his apartment building, he is ashamed of his bad pronunciation; so after a while he answers questions about where he is going not by telling the names of the actual places he goes to, but instead by giving those names he can easily pronounce. He is a little uneasy about doing so, however.
I felt childish, of course. [...] But the lies began to worry me after a while in a way that had nothing to do with childishness. There was something metaphysically disturbing about them. A grave misplacement. They were not simple but complex. What was I tampering with, the human faith in naming, the lifelong system of images in Niko's brain? I was leaving behind in the person of the concierge an enormous discrepancy between my uttered journey and the actual movements I made in the external world, a four-thousand-mile fiction, a deep lie.
The lie was deeper in Greek than it would have been in English. I knew this without knowing why. Could reality be phonetic, a matter of gutturals and dentals? The smoky crowded places where we did business were not always as different to us as the names assigned to them. We needed the names to tell them apart [...]. (Don DeLillo, The Names; p. 103 in my paperback edition, NY: Vintage Books 1989.)
James is a character in Don DeLillo's novel The Names, and his reflections on his own escape technique throw an interesting light on what I've previously called sedimentation of unreality: when unreality in whichever form (fiction, hypotheses, lies — even those harmless ones of the kind James uses) is taken for real and acted upon, when others build their views on them, then it quickly becomes a layer of reality itself, and irreversibly so.

In DeLillo's book, reality and its relationship with signs, language, and texts is hard to get a grip on. The quoted passage somehow fits with the main plot line of a curious sect which seemingly randomly kills people whose names' initials match those of the location of the murder: there is a suspicion that there is nothing meaningful, no structure or direction behind their path, any more than behind the faceless nondistinct business surroundings referred to above in the quotation; only the arbitrary symbolism of the names brings some kind of distinction into it at all, but that hasn't any real meaning to it, either.

The novel presses this motif home when one cult member defects and starts explaining. At first his account seems to provide "an element of motivation, of attitudes and needs", whereas "[t]he cult's power, its psychic grip, was based on an absence of such things. No sense, no content, no historic bond, no ritual significance." (216) But then again, this is quickly revealed as the personal recoil of a dissident; quite opposite from giving an insight into the mindset of the cult, it once more only gives an impression of what is missing. "These meetings were a way of turning himself toward the air of worldly reason, of conventional sense and its manipulations. He was raising a call for pity and forgiveness." (Ibd.)

Things are systematically left obscure; only the constant flow of symbols remains — names —, and there's nothing behind those. The effect is a deep uneasiness in us as readers (a commentator has called the book 'haunting'), not quite unlike the one James Axton professes to feel in the quote above. There is a deep suspicion that drifting away too far from reality (and even being led away from reality systematically and intentionally), isn't good for us.

No comments: