What’s In a Name?

Posted: January 8, 2014 in Fiction, Literary Criticism, Reviews
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Deconstruction and Richard Marsh’s The Key Bearer Saga: Earn Fire
by Lynn Perretta

I will not even use pretense. I love Deconstructionism. There is something about it that is fun. It is like being given a block house, taking it apart piece by piece, and then figuring out how to put it together again to make the same shape. I imagine my brother felt the same way every time he took apart something electronic and tried to put it together again. He did not always succeed with his task, but he always learned something from the exercise.

With Deconstruction, you are not supposed to put the words back together the same way. You should always get something a little different. The shape will be roughly the same, however, and what you get from the exercise will be uncovering meaning.

There are a few ways to look at Deconstruction and I am going to take a little longer than usual talking about it, so please forgive. If you want to get to the meat, that is the story, you can always skim to the next section, but I do not recommend it. Deconstruction is a hefty topic. It can be its own type of analysis into a work or it can be a meta-analysis, working either as a tool for another branch of literary theory or breaking down the result of a literary analysis to see why certain meaning was ascertained or if there is meaning to the analysis itself. This flexibility in use is one of the reasons why Deconstruction can seem so complex.

There is also the problem of misinterpretation. When many think of Deconstructionism, they focus in on the binary opposition exercise, most commonly the one used for Gender Studies and Feminism were gender dualities are switched: he/she, man/woman, etc. In many stories, especially if you examine from the Victorians back, this is important. It can quickly reveal patriarchal structures that we might otherwise overlook because we are so accustomed to seeing them. In overlooking them, we miss the importance they hold to the story. By the same token, this normalizes matriarchal structures that might seem strange, domineering, or out of place in a story, thereby helping us to fit it into the overall structure and understand its significance.

Understanding of Deconstruction is more than playing with binary oppositions. It is understanding the greater Post-Structuralism movement for which it is a tool. As you can expect, Post-Structuralism was a response to Structuralism. Structuralism posited that meaning for a text could be found in the text itself, that the images and symbols were linguistic constructions. You did not need to know anything else to have interpretation. It did not matter what the author was thinking, what the reader was thinking, or if your father was wearing a slip while smoking a cigar.

Post-Structuralists disagreed with this absolutism in language. To the Post-Structuralist, language is a fluid and unreliable construction. Words have multiple meanings and constructions like homophones and innuendo can alter meaning altogether. Deconstruction is simply a means to explore how language breaks down.

A good example of this is the old saying: Time flies when you are having fun.

When we see it, we all think immediately of how quickly time passes when we are having a good time. The words “time” and “flies” can each be nouns or verbs. Switch their roles around. Time (verb) flies (noun) when you’re having fun. Now you are not looking at a proverb. Now you are possibly looking at a sentence from an entomology handbook.

Post-Structuralists figure it this way. If you can write the same sentence, but it has two different meanings in two different texts, then the symbolism of language is not absolute. You cannot depend on “mountain”, “river”, or “valley” to hold the same meanings from text to text. Deconstruction and Post-Structuralism do not say that there is no meaning to text (well, maybe the Nihilists do, but we are not going there, okay?). It just says that you have to play around with the structure of language in order to understand what the meaning is.

Basically, we are talking about an exercise that lets us play around with words to figure out exactly how they’re working in the text they are in.

Okay. If you are still with me, let us get on to the meat and bones: our story.

The Key to Deconstruction

Naming’s a path between namer and named
That speaks to the whatness that makes it be,
And wakes it or binds it or drives it away,
Or calls it to eat or be eaten by me.

That is from the book. Page 79. Mac, a friendly boatsman ferrying our hero Hugh from a dock to parts unknown (from certain danger if Mac is to be trusted, but Hugh isn’t too sure at this point), is teaching Hugh about the power of names, as illustrated in the sing-song above. The First Rule of Naming.

Now, let us play around with the construction here a little bit. A passage like this requires care. It already consists of some binary oppositions: namer/named and eat/eaten. If we play around with too many words at once, the passage will become a loosened jumble. So, let us take a couple of words at a time.

We will take line 2 first: That speaks to the whatness that makes it be

And let’s play around with a couple of binary oppositions that we can find. We will alter speaks to keeps silentwhatness to nothing, and make it be to undoes it.

That keeps silent to the nothing that undoes it.

This gets us to the heart of what Naming truly is. The sing-song talks about talking to the essence of something to wake it up, to bring it to you, or to drive it away. That masks, however, what Naming truly does and why the art is so dangerous and why its true workings are usually hidden (hidden even as its practitioners use it openly – another binary opposition). To not Name something, to not assign it that label and existence is to deny it existence at all.

You see, what if we change speak to something more archaic than keep silent. What if we make itunspeak.

That unspeaks to the nothing that undoes it.

If that gives you visions of Never-ending Story, it should. That is the power of the Nothing, of unbelief. The Nothing of that tale is the power of Unnaming, the power hidden within Naming itself.

But surely I am stretching the meaning here. After all, we are talking about a power clearly labeled the power of Naming.

Only those labels are not reliable. They are letters that make fragile constructions that can be easily arranged or misconstrued. What if I break apart conjunctions and rearrange the words? What meaning is there now?

Is Naming a path between namer and named
That speaks to the whatness that makes it be,
And wakes it or binds it or drives it away,
Or calls it to eat or be eaten by me.

If we are talking about the power of Naming, what power lies in the answer to the question? If Hugh answers Yes then he affirms the relationship between what is named and what names it. He acknowledges the power that a word, a label, a construction of letters, holds. What if he says No? If we are talking about the power of Naming, but he denies that power, what exists when there are no constructions to build our labels?

If I do not acknowledge my head, am I just eyes gazing upon the world? If I do not recognize my body, am I invisible?

I might seem to go off into an existential nightmare, but this existential question is at the heart of the power and within the story itself. You see, this story is, though it begins in a world that we all know, a Fantasy story. It relies on Magic in order to transport the tale. We feel this from the beginning, with the strange and turbulent Rosa, to Hugh’s sudden appearance on the dock, a cloak that hides him, a horse that rises from the ground, and a girl who cautiously trusts him. Magic carries the tale from page one and when magic exists in this world, where we have given up gremlins for computer viruses, we have an existential question: do we really know what is going on?

That is a question that follows Hugh. It follows Hugh on his boat ride to the Isle of Man with his strange hosts. It will continue to follow him through the story. You see, there is something else hidden in the little sing-song about naming: who is the one in control?

Naming’s a path between namer and named

Like the Gaze, the power to Name is absolute power. For the Gazer, theirs is the power to determine what the reader sees and in them lies judgment for what is beheld. If we want to form an opinion about a person or an event, we can see it only through their eyes, their opinions, their prejudice – and their discretion to reveal or withhold. In Naming, the power is to make and unmake, to shape and unshape, to set free or control.

But these are, for a long time now, dichotomies that are understood to strain power structures. Consider the BDSM counter-culture, where all the power seems to lie with the Dom, who controls their pet Sub’s every move, action, or desire – at least until the Sub utters the safe-word and the game is reset.

Who truly has control? Is the Namer’s control absolute because they can make and unmake, or is the Named in control because they have the potential to be labeled?

And with that question comes this: Is Hugh truly being pulled by strings unknown to him, as seems to be in the story, or do the strings exist because of the potential of his being?

Visit Richard Marsh’s blog
Purchase The Key Bearer Saga: Earn Fire on Amazon.


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