True naming

In the beginning (Genesis 1), God creates the world by uttering it: creation is a speech act. In Genesis 2 Adam, being created in the image of God, gives all creatures their true names (see Eco 1998, ‘Languages in Paradise’). The original act of naming is the revelation which turns the use of the name into recognition. ‘The denomination of objects does not follow upon recognition: it is itself recognition’ (Merleau-Ponty 1945, 206). A 1934 essay by Edward Sapir explains this in terms of a ‘psychological characteristic of language’:

while it may be looked upon as a symbolic system which reports or refers to or otherwise substitutes for direct experience, it does not as a matter of actual behavior stand apart from or run parallel to direct experience but completely interpenetrates with it. This is indicated by the widespread feeling, particularly among primitive people, of that virtual identity or close correspondence of word and thing which leads to the magic of spells. On our own level it is generally difficult to make a complete divorce between objective reality and our linguistic symbols of reference to it; and things, qualities, and events are on the whole felt to be what they are called.

— Sapir (1949, 8-9)

The indexical function of a name, especially a proper name – and even more especially a divine name – resists being swallowed up its symbolic function, because that function compromises the direct apprehension or experiencing of the object so named. When apprehension is diluted by comprehension, the name loses its ‘magic’ for the community which shares that apprehension; so they are naturally apprehensive about sharing the word with outsiders! (See James N. Baker, ‘The Presence of the Name: Reading Scripture in an Indonesian Village,’ in Boyarin 1993.) This psychological tendency is probably at work in every esoteric tradition, as well as in the phenomenon of ‘taboo.’

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