Rotterdam, 7 January 2003. (Cold street.)


Research question: I'm looking to compile a list of fiction and film that addresses the issue of personal identity especially when considered from the perspective of one's proper name. I'm particularly interested in cultures and/or circumstances that encourage the (continuous?) switching/changing of names. Examples would be Antonioni's The Passenger or work based on Lévi-Strauss' discussion of the Penan of Borneo. If you have suggestions or ideas please mail me.

Thank you.


Amsterdam, 9 January 2003.

Lévi-Strauss, from The Savage Mind:

"The Tiwi System of Naming, which I've referred to several times, is intermediate between these two forms. In the first place, proper names are meticulously confined to a single bearer:

It is impossible for any two people to have the same name... Although the Tiwi number nearly eleven hundred people at the the present time, and each of these has on average three names, a careful study of these three thousand three hundred names failed to reveal any two as being identical (Hart, 'Personal Names Among the Tiwi').

This proliferation of names is further increased by the number and variety of prohibitions relationg to them. These prohibitions extend in two directions. As I mentioned in an example, they attach in the first instance to all the words in current use which sound like the names of the deceased; and they apply not only to the latter, but also to all the names which the deceased gave to others, whether they were his own or someone elses's children. A young child with only one name, given by his father, would become nameless if his father died and would remain so until another name came to him from elsewhere. Every time a woman remarries, her husband gives new names not just to his predecessor's children but to all the children his wife has borne throughout her life whoever was there father. As the Tiwi practice a form of polygyny chiefly favoring old men, a man has little hope of marriage before the age of thirty-five and women pass from husband to husband. This is due to the difference in age between husband and wife which makes it very likely that a husband will die before his wife. No one therefore can boast a definitive name until his mother's death."


Amsterdam, 9 January 2003.

Concerning the French practice of attributing "names of human beings to birds in accordance with their respective species" Lévi-Strauss notes:

... It is very significant that even so limited and simple a series includes terms from different logical spheres. 'Pierrot' can be a class indicator since once can say 'There are three pierrots (sparrows) on the balcony'. But 'Godard' is a term of address. As the author of the article on this word in the Dictionary de Trevoux (1732 ed.) so excellently puts it: 'Godard is the name given to swans. When one calls them, when one wants them to come, one says to them: "Godard, Godard, come Godard, come. Here Godard"...


In regard to my research question...

Norman writes:

How about The Importance of Being Earnest for your list?

Valerie and I just flopped about tonight watching this 2001 fluffy British film of O. W. flimflam. So I'd thought I'd mention it although I haven't really been following your thread.

Caterina writes:

Thinking quickly I thought:

- First I thought of... The Bible. Because everyone gets a new name when they get recognized by the Right Folks. Viz. Abraham/Abram. Common trope in spiritual literature, to leave your name behind.

- Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. The blacks in the story are constantly naming themselves, renaming their streets and towns. The whole book is filled with passages about names and naming. Names acquired by chance or accident. Names bequeathed. Names rejected. Slave names turned into invented names. I suddenly understood why there are so many Toshanas and Shawandas and Zeons in the phone book.

Other vague musings

- I thought of this very sad thing: In ancient China, often daughters weren't given names at all. They were called First Daughter, Second Daughter, etc.

- It seemed to me that it would be more likely to cause men discomfort to change their names than women. Women have been changing their names since forever.

- The line from Sir Thomas Browne, Urn Burial popped into my head: "He knew what songs the sirens sang, and what name Achilles took when he hid among women..."

Funny, each of these ideas seem to circle around one idea...


Rotterdam, 12 January 2003.


In regard to that research question, I've received almost the same reply from two separate Tom M.'s! (one yesterday and one today)...

Tom McCarthy writes:

Re: Levi-Strauss and names...

"Here lie the refrains of. Some vote him Vike, some mote him Mike, some dub him Llyn and Phin while others hail him Lug Bug Dan Lop, Lex, Lax, Gunne or Guinn. Some apt him Arth, some bapt him Barth, Coll, Noll Soll, Will, Weel, Wall but I parse him Persse O'Reilly else he's called no name at all."

(Finnegans Wake p 44)

Tom Matrullo writes:

Not sure if this is along the lines you are looking, but in Joyce's Finnegans Wake , there is a sort of witty conflation of beings who all exist, at various moments in time, under the same proper name, or actually, set of names, HCE, Shem, Anna Livia Plurabelle, etc.

I am not an expert on the book, but last year saw the film by Mary Ellen Bute for the second time, and one of the elements it captures is the sense of a kind of kaleidoscope of narratives and characters which converge by virtue of sharing the same name for their key personages and events.

The The 1965 film is a treat if you can find it.


Further in regard to that research question...

Melissa writes:

Could I recommend Georges Perec's work W, or the Memory of a Childhood, written in 1975 I think, now published by Havill (2000), for a culture where names are awarded on the basis of the most recent results of vicious sporting contest? It's also a very interesting book along Arabian Nights/nested stories lines, in that there are alternating chapters of two stories, and you have to look from side-on at both strands to appreciate the horror of what he's writing about.


Reverse Time Experiments in Literature and Film

(A list of narratives where cause follows effect)

Gaspar Noe's 2002 film: Irreversible.

Christopher Nolan's 2000 film: Memento (another film which uses both black and white and color).

Martin Amis' 1991 novel: Time's Arrow: Or the Nature of the Offence.

Harold Pinter's 1978 play Betrayal, filmed in 1983 by David Jones.

Philip K. Dick's 1967 novel: Counter-Clock World.


Rotterdam, 19 January 2003. (Tree face.)


It's the oddest thing. The more I've been working on a proposal that I'm doing the further I've moved from the 'spirit' of it. Really. How can this be? I feel the concept still needs work but everything I'm doing is not making it any better. Aaaaiiii.

Totally unrelated link: Tinderbox -- Mark Bernstein's cool software.


It's true, the word 'work' is misleading, conjuring images of something you can in fact do. In reality work seems much more like a conversation. A conversation conducted solely with yourself. A conversation which at its worst tends to be tiresome and at its best a rather nasty interrogation.


A Note Concerning Causality

Causality is an expression of cause and effect. We use causality in order to explain and understand our behavior. We inevitably look to the past for the reasons we feel and act the way we do.

Common sense dictates that causes are causes because they cause various effects (for example in Peter Fischli and David Weiss' 'The Way Things Go') and that effects always follow causes.

But is this true in all cases? Must the cause always come first and the effect after (following the direction of what we think of as 'forward flowing' time)?

Might not the cause of a current effect lie not in our past but in our future? For example in such a way that at the moment of the effect we can discover no apparent reason for what we are doing, thinking, feeling?


Trilogy of Life. Following Pasolini's Arabian Nights (commented upon last September 1st and 3rd ) I've recently finished watching the other two films of his trilogy, The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales. While many critics find the Arabian Nights vastly superior to the other two films I confess I find all three equally remarkable. There's something about experiencing many, many, stories packed into a couple hours of entertainment which leaves the memory reeling.

Oh and concerning Ciappelletto's death scene in the Decameron: never have I seen the device of a 'freeze frame' used more appropriately. The freeze frame represents the perfect cinematic death.


Moving Attention

Successive passes over the same event. I'm smack in the middle of La Maison de Rendez-vous (1965) by Alain Robbe-Grillet and feel more than a little awed. While I like his pan and zoom cinematic approach, I love his labyrinthine, shifts of voice and perspective. Most disconcerting is the fact that these shifts are gradually executed -- not jump cuts. The mind following Robbe-Grillet's descriptions does so step by step, gently tracing multi-dimensional möbius strips in space and time.

Perhaps I should consider an escapology project where the protagonist keeps escaping right back into his cell. Sure this has been done before. But what about the escapology project where the protagonist escapes from the first person to the second as the protagonist's girlfriend or mother? Or exists one day as a prisoner and the next day as a guard? Or staring at the television screen propped in the corner of his cell watches Houdini crawl back into his strait-jacket?

Film to look out for: Miklós Jancsó's The Red and the White (1968).


Los Gatos

Rotterdam, 23 January 2003.

Matt Johnson writes:

This may be incidental to your escapology project, but you should look at Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading. The protagonist, Cincinnatus C., has been accused of the crime of 'gnostic turpitude.' He's thrown into a monstrous prison for which he's the only inmate. At one point, the warden comes to his cell to speak with him and actually switches places with Cincinnatus, leaving him to wander the halls of the prison, freed.

I don't remember the book that well, but it might be worth looking into. It was one of Nabokov's early novels and owes quite a lot to his fascination with Kafka, I think.


Regarding casuality -- Bhikku writes:


I remember reading that one way of unifying quantum mechanics and relativity into a GUT uses reverse causality, and that some physicists reckon that reverse causality is a common event at the level of quanta.

Whether this translates to macroscopic levels is another matter; so much doesn't.

On a dafter note, when you were a lad did you read Isaac Asimov's short story 'The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline'? -- which purported to be a research paper on a chemical compound which dissolved just before you poured water on it...


No but it sounds great.

Regarding names -- Daan Nolen writes:

The first (obvious) film that comes to mind is off course Face/Off where the switching of identity is taken very literally.

Another more vague and occult thought was that of the templar icon of Baphomet:

[...] the Knights Templar were accused of worshiping a head, sometimes called the Baphomet or Bafomet. According to Indries Shah the Baphomet was none other than the symbol of the completed man. He notes that the shield of Hugues de Payen, the founder of the Templars, had three black human heads -- the heads of knowledge. And he further notes the use of this "wondrous head" theme recurs throughout medieval history...

Then there is the example of Dark City where all people from an entire city are erased from their identity and switch identities (and names) every night.

The last thing I can think of is that of JRR Tolkiens world of Middle Earth, where everyone has several names and those are switched over time. As Tolkien states: "the elves named everything they encountered and even bettered those names if they found a better one".

Also a thought from Middle Earth is the language that the Ents speak. Someone or something in Entisch is defined by naming the entire history of the object or person (Entish is a very slow language...).


A film which may seem dangerously fluffy but isn't: Jacques' Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1962). I have to admit the first 15 minutes were rather tough going but the more I watched the more I enjoyed. Come to think of it Umbrellas must have influenced films like Querelle (think C-O-L-O-R!) and Blue Velvet (think sweet tunes turned sinister).

Jonathon Rosenbaum's review of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg


After images. I've been watching a lot of films lately. Films by Bergman, Herzog, Pasolini, Von Trier, Lynch. By Godard, Fassbinder, Fellini, Welles. By others. Seeing so many films it's interesting to note which images remain in memory, which are the most contagious.

Without a doubt the film that has most colonised my brain is Faces by John Cassavetes.

Three scenes I can't get out of my head: (1) the scene where John Marley and Fred Draper dance with Gena Rowlands singing "I dream of Jeannie with the light brown hair", (2) the scene where Seymour Cassel finds Lynn Carlin's pills and performs a little dance of joy and (3) the scene where the girls are out in the nightclub.


December 2002

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