Names & Naming [1]

Lately, whenever I look at photo albums, those broad-paged books filled with sequestered photographs, photographs obscenely preserved like organic scrapings, tissue extended under cellophane skin; whenever I flip through these miserable, weighty, artifacts, and particularly when I see myself featuring in them as a child – –I’m filled with a momentary, inchoate premonition, a barely registered acknowledgment that while I take these pictures in, that while my eyes and fingers fall dumbly on their form, something else is on display, that something other than ‘to look at photographs’ is the point of these monstrous books: some mood or manner of looking, some peculiar apprehension is breathing up at me – –but this feeling is new and I don’t fully understand it.

Before, photographs of myself as a child in such albums simply made me sad. They caused me to grieve the happy boy who had to grow up to be me; who had to wait to learn and do all the things that make one forget, forget in the way that I forgot what it was like to stand on his end of the camera lens, innocently, expectantly, unthinkingly.

But like anything else in life’s slow accumulation, the more you return to look through these albums, the less of an impression they seem to make; and as it is with all, it is with these: one acquires a ‘thick skin’ and gradually becomes unmoved – –but not entirely unmoved, since now I look at these albums with a new, different, understanding.

I think that the metaphor of “thick skin” is just that, a metaphor; so it is liable to conceal more than it reveals: we use it to talk about cases in which things that might have harmed us in the past no longer do; thus one no longer falls in love as they once did, no longer apprehends words and promises with the urgency they once had, no longer waits with the hope that more often than not seemed to flicker against all odds – –in total, a thick skin indicates that you do not need any of those things, it means life’s arrows cannot pierce you as they once did.

So you blunder on with only one or two secrets pinned to your heart, but a thick skin works both ways and your cavernous memory echoes on itself.

By contrast, to be thin-skinned is to be penetrated, scarred, a thing to be gradually calloused, thickened; a thin skin facilitates the interaction of experience and memory: every thing becomes significant, becomes life-stopping, and nothing passes without remark or mention.

So as I think of how I grieved that thin-skinned boy in the photographs, it now occurs to me that what thickened him is what keeps me from being him: I grieved as I retained no clue of what he cried about, of what loves, jealousies, and pains were in store for him; I grieved because I had forgotten every single item that led him to me, because they had all scattered like the nameless floating faces on old school pictures.

So what is it that succeeded the grieving?

Perhaps it is the sad realization that if you actually had a name for every thing or event, person or group, joy or ache, that you came across over the course of your life, you would hardly be able to gather all those names together under the heading of “experience” – –the realization that most of what you live through requires to be obliterated or repressed, that a thick skin is not a defense mechanism, but merely life’s sedimentation – –and that this and nothing else is the proper sense of human finitude: our gradual isolation and preservation, like photographs under cellophane wailing mutely.

This is because experience is in time, and time is led from and out of itself: experience is the generalized, non-specific flow of thoughts and sensations, each deriving more from what they have in common than from what differentiates them.

– – But names? Names pin down the generalizing machine, hold it down like industrial staples; names are the wanton’s enforced wager, but not entirely as random as the faces turned up on dice – –more like the sharp distinctions and trembling decisions that we rarely have the strength to recognize, let alone cast: it’s when you say “I name this and no matter what, I can’t name it anything else.”

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