Saturday, December 22, 2007

What's in a Name.

Being a Bob Dylan fanatic, awhile back I drove 90 minutes to see the unconventional biopic I'm Not There, a film which has six actors, including a woman and a black boy, portray seven characters based on Dylan, though none of them are actually called "Bob Dylan." However, this may not be as indicative of true fanaticism as my concurrent quest to read literally a couple hundred reviews of the film. I've grown quite good at glossing over plot synopses and focusing on whatever subjective elements are offered by the reviewers.

What I've learned is that there is an absurd amount of groupthink in reviews. I guess I'd already known this thanks to my similarly obsessive interest in reading reviews of comic book movies, but it is disappointing to see that art house features get the same kind of treatment. In any event, I should have been pleased when I encountered a review that offered something new, but I wouldn't say I was exactly pleased when I read the novel observation in The London Telegraph that the actors names in the opening credits appear with punctuation, namely a period. I hadn't noticed this when I saw it in theaters. The reviewer somewhat gratuitously points out, "that's highly unusual: even in real life very few of us ever dot our cheque or job-application signatures." The Telegraph went on to inform me that Franz Kafka used to dot his signature, and that a literary critic saw this as evidence of Kafka's desire for "cosmic finality," i.e. suicidal tendencies.

The reason I was less than pleased with this sequence of thoughts is that I used to be one of the few who actually would sign my name with a period.

However, upon further analysis, I feel that I have no need to retroactively seek professional help. Nor am I inclined to agree that Kafka was asserting a need for "cosmic finality" with his unusual signature. So what was it all about? I think for an answer, we need to turn no further than I'm Not There.

The film's director, Todd Haynes, has stated the premise behind the film isn't so much to portray the life of Dylan, as to show that Dylan embodies an American philosophy and mythology, the idea that "authenticity" is a false vision, that it is not attained but created--in other words, the idea that identity is not imposed but constructed, and this is to be celebrated.

At the center of identity is an individual's name, which is usually imposed (and not just in the sense that people rarely name themselves, but also in the limited pool of names in circulation). The philosopher Althussar saw this as a key step in what he called "interpellation," the way in which society imposes subjectivity.

I first started "playing" with my name in 8th grade, for a brief time choosing to sign all three of my names, as I wasn't able to reconcile the arbitrary way in which most of us dismiss our middle names (or perhaps I was influenced by Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Jerry Don Gleaton). I kept this up until my sophomore year of high school, when I reverted to the default two-name pattern, only to come up with the "period" innovation my senior year. I was even insistent with my high school yearbook editors that my name appear with a period. I have no clear recollection of any reason, Kafkaesque or otherwise, which triggered this move. In hindsight though, I realize I was deconstructing the form.

This lasted a couple of years, and my practice of adding a period to my name received scant notice. My next move, though, did result in attention. I created entirely alternative names, and messed around with a few, before settling on "Azor." A few years ago I finally took the legal step of changing my middle name. Over the years, I've bristled when anyone has asked the significance of my name. "It's just a name," I've repeated a few times, not even offering a hint that I adopted it. It should be noted that I made the move prior to developing a strong interest in Dylan, but to anyone wondering about the name change, I would have to proffer Dylan's answer, given in a 2004 interview with Ed Bradley: "Some people are just born with the wrong name. (Pause). It happens."

It turns out that this was only an edited answer, with the full length answer just recently leaking out:
Ed: Tell me how you decided on “Bob Dylan.”

Dylan: Well I think it’s pretty much — I don’t know, I was talking to the guy in KISS one time, y’know Gene Simmons, he’s a guy that used to have another name. I don’t know what it was. And he just said it popped into his head one day. And who else — I was talking to somebody else too. Well, all the rappers, y’know? A lot of rappers give themselves different names, because that’s who they feel they are, y’know? They’re not that person that everybody knows when they go to school. They’re more into other things and they need another name.

Ed: You were into other things?

Dylan: Yeah, I mean, you call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.

The reference to the national anthem is well in line with Haynes's attempt to portray Dylan as the fulfillment of an American vision. What is also notably absent from the discussion is the assumed appropriation of Dylan Thomas's name. Here is what Bob Dylan himself once said about this:

"Get that straight, I didn't change my name in honor of Dylan Thomas. That's just a story. I've done more for Dylan Thomas than he's ever done for me. Look how many kids are probably reading his poetry now because they heard that story."

I think I understand how Dylan feels here. Yes, the name "Dylan Thomas" might have served as an antecedent, but what is difficult for people to understand is that this does not imply significance. People are desperate to discover some significance to the name change, but the significance lies in the fact that there is no significance, that significance is present only in its absence. You can only find it in realizing that it is not there.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Get over it, Dylan is dead.

11:56 AM  

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