Tuesday, April 09, 2013

It's All in a Name

It should surprise no one that I love words. I took Latin senior year of college; it was one of my funnest classes, since it combined puzzles and words. (I like crosswords, but I liked Latin better. I even bought Harry Potter: The Sorcerer's Stone in Latin.) But one of the most complicated parts of studying literature is that literary theory is nearly impossible to read. I had to read most articles twice, once to get the idea of the article and once to truly understand. Because here's the thing. How do you question the act of reading and what words mean through reading? You're questioning the meaning of the method you are using to question meaning. It's impossible to do that in any straight-forward method. To quote this week's book, The Name of the Wind, "using words to talk of words is like using a pencil to draw a picture of itself, on itself."

And one of the most fundamental questions is what do words mean. What do names mean? How can you capture an experience, a moment, a person? Given this, it's not surprising that there is a trope in fantasy of the power of the name. By knowing the true name of someone or something, a word that somehow encapsulates their being, you gain power over them. You have a way to see all the things they try to hide, all the parts of themselves they don't want someone else to know.

The Name of the Wind dances around this. By knowing the true name of the wind, a person can command the wind to attack someone, or to stop that person from falling. But the book goes beyond the trope. Rothfuss does a fabulous job of creating a new world, with its own legends and rules and culture. He includes the power of names, but talks more of humanity's ability to define itself. The main character, Kvothe, has had many names, played many roles, is defined by many people. By playing those roles and going by those names, he is redefined and redefines himself. The same issue with names is true of his love interest, Denna. Her name, her identity is constantly in flux. In to Kvothe, she seems to garner power from playing outside of the system. People tell stories about her and what her role is, but she seems to ignore that. She plays her own games and sets her own rules. She hides herself, both physically and emotionally, and because of that, no one else can define her.

Yet she is lonelier than Kvothe. He, at least, has good friends. He is allowed inside the system, despite his rebellious nature. She seemingly is only friends with Kvothe, a man with an inner knowledge of names. Is Rothfuss, then, suggesting that allowing others to name you is necessary to be close to them? Is it an intrinsic part of humanity? Without that closeness, she seems to be an idol to many. Something distant that they can love, lust after, but never truly know. And idols don't have friends. They don't have lovers. They have worshipers.

In the end, the book speaks of masks; wearing a mask can change who you are by changing who you believe yourself to be. Words have power, more so because of their fluidity than because of their ability to describe. Which then begs the question. Can only simple things be named, walls, movements of air? Where is the limit? If humans define themselves, what about other animals? What about trees? Is it knowing the power of definition that frees us? What does this mean for those who refuse to play in that system, like Denna? Is she, by refusing to allow others to define her, casting off her humanity?


HomeImprovementNinja said...

I haven't read that book, but the take on the mask idea is interesting. they are used in all cultures. i have a friend who paints a lot of mask figures in his work and someone asked him what it meant, and his take is that what you look like is pure random chance, but when you pick a mask you are deciding how you want others to see you, so in a way, wearing a mask represents a better representation of your true self than your real face. Home Improvement NInja

Rebecca said...

I can't remember if you like fantasy, but if you do, you totally should.

And that's a cool inverse on masks, but I wonder if the mask you choose is more who you want to be. Or who you are scared you are. I'm always wary of "the true self"; I'm not sure I can define myself at all, so any mask I choose, is going to be a reflection of how I feel about myself at that point in time.

I do think you can make the same comparison with people's online personas. I feel like I sometimes act more like my inner self online, because I'm not inhibited by any social awkwardness, or worry about what I should or should not be doing.