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Reply To: What’s In a Name?” with Stephen Gerringer”


In another thread, James mentioned his delight that Joseph Campbell had named his car “The Gander” – which brings us back to the question that forms the title of the MythBlast essay this conversation references:

What’s in a name?

Just yesterday a Nasa spacecraft used a crane to lower the rover Perseverance to the surface of Mars. Eight years ago my wife and I were rapt in suspense as we monitored the perilous descent of the Mars rover Curiosity – so naturally yesterday I viewed this landing at my desk on my laptop screen, as did my wife from her office at work. No surprise we shared the jubilation of the scientists and engineers in Mission Control as Perseverance touched down and broadcast its first image. I texted to my wife how impressed and vested I was in the event – and she texted back

I know. I think it is giving them a name that makes them feel real”

That struck a chord.

Some years ago Daniel Bianchetta (a brilliant photographer with a passion for petroglyphs), long associated with the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, shared that the indigenous Esselen who lived for centuries in close proximity to the hot springs there had given a name to every tree on the property (not to mention large rocks)! I can’t imagine even counting all the trees there, much less naming them – but this makes so much sense. Trees did not come and go as quickly as people: the lifetime of most trees spanned multiple generations of humans – they were old souls, and old friends, part of each person’s life from first breath to last.

Knowing someone’s name creates a sense of, well, intimacy, changing the one named from an “It” to a “Thou,” to borrow Martin Buber’s terms, conferring a sense of interiority. This may strike our contemporaries as odd when it comes to what we are conditioned today to think of as objects – which, from the Cartesian perspective of empirical science, may seem little more than magical thinking.

And maybe it is; on one level, no doubt the relationship the Esselen had to the trees was simply a projection of the collective imagination – but that sense of personhood a name conveys meant trees are not simply objects to be uprooted and replaced during a landscaping project: one just doesn’t cut down and kill a tree person to improve one’s view.

Rather than treating nature as an object to be altered according to human whim and need, the accent was on living in harmony with nature.

What’s more, science has led the way in recent decades to understanding “the secret life of plants” (e.g. the work of biologist Rupert Sheldrake, or anthropologist Jeremy Narby’s Intelligence in Nature, which presents evidence that independent intelligence is not unique to humanity, with bacteria, plants, animals, and other forms of nonhuman life displaying an uncanny penchant for self-deterministic decisions, patterns, and actions).

But what about inanimate objects that don’t meet the biological definition of life? Isn’t that just silly magical thinking left over from childhood?

Again, maybe. After all, dolls and toys (or cars, for that matter) aren’t alive; any sense of an interior life is simply a projection we make. And yet, the need to name seems a universal human trait.

When I was a child I had my favorite toys, the ones I wanted to play with all the time – but, fairly regularly, I’d dig through the toy box and pull out toys to play with I really didn’t care for that much, because I didn’t want them to feel sad and abandoned (a childhood emotion Pixar taps into with their Toy Story film series). Can’t say I ever really got past that; even today, I have three favorite coffee mugs – one I drink from during the week, the other two on alternate weekends – but at least once very couple weeks I root around the back of the cupboard and pull out one of many cups I’m not fond of at all, just because I don’t want to hurt their feelings (which says more about me than the cup, as I project a sense of interiority onto these objects).

And I name everything, or so it seems. My Nissan Murano is named Sophie; my wife’s little Ford Escort is Katie; we call our Deik robo-vacuum Hazel (after the maid played by Shirley Booth in the black-and-white television sit-com we both watched as children);  our printer is called Hermes, and even our Navigator pool sweep is named Henry (after Prince Henry the Navigator, son and brother to kings of Portugal, who was a driving force behind the Age of Exploration). The practical effect of such fancies is that these items are, from my perspective, imbued with soul; inanimate objects they may technically be, but a “Thou” rather than an “It” to me – and so I find myself going the extra mile to extend their lives. Over the years I have been advised to discard our pool sweep and upgrade, advice I would follow if I thought of it as nothing but a tool – but I just can’t arbitrarily do that to Henry, so we repair him and forge on.

This may be why I was so enamored of novelist Tom Robbins, whose characters include not just humans, but cigarette packages, spoons, and other “inanimate” objects with an animated interior life. No surprise that Jitterbug Perfume, my favorite Robbins novel, was written after he returned from a trip to Chichén-Itza in the Yucatan and elsewhere in Mexico with one Joseph Campbell.

So I am not surprised Joe named his little red VW bug “The Gander.”