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Winter 2004

Secret Names

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David Mamet

We Americans love nicknames and acronyms.

I think this is rather charming.

My other people, the Jews, do too. Maimonides, the medieval scholar, was, in Hebrew, Rabbi Moishe Ben Maimon, or the RamBam. Israel Bal Shem Tov is known as the BESHT.

We Jews treasure the secret names of things, those things we hug to ourselves. As we Americans do. We award those we love with the secret name. The Yankee Clipper, the Sultan of Swat, Ray BoomBoom Mancini, Elvis The King.

We also know the habit of awe.

All new parents automatically and universally refer to "The Young One," "The Little One," "You-Know-Who." This is an attempt to distract or subvert the evil eye, a force so powerful it need not be named.

Similarly, we, for the last decades, have referred to our Presidents by their trilateral initials. This is at once an expression of awe and an attempt to co-opt the terrible through familiarity. We were told (it seems it was a fabricated story, but it was a good one) that the Republicans, on taking the White House, found that all the computers had had their "w's" removed. Mythologically, this is priceless: the losers attempt to weaken the victor through removal of his most distinctive trait.

Awards ceremonies now each have to possess a self-awarded diminutive. The Oscars, the Emmys, et cetera. This phenomenon, we are told, began historically when Bette Davis looked at the statue of the Motion Picture Academy and thought its derriere looked like that of a friend of hers named Oscar.

The ceremony swelled in importance, and other awards groups, craving that power, came up with their own diminutives, their own "w's," as it were. These were not naturally occurring, but an attempt to arrogate to themselves a prerogative.

The grand hailing sign of urban decay is the blandishment of street nicknames on street signs.

State Street "That Great Street," Fifty-Second Street as "Swing Street"-these are all well and good. They are spontaneous expressions of affection. Their display, however, is an attempt to sustain a power which is waning, or has disappeared.

Just so with pet names and baby talk.

We all know the phenomenon of the true marital fight, which begins with the resurrection of long-dead endearments and pet names: to wit, "I called you this once, and look what you have become." Mary McCarthy writes of "the baby name, the surest sign of a partner incapable of that final marital swoon." Lenny Bruce spoke of the power of the intimate pet name. A widower, after a time of mourning, avails himself of female companionship. His wife has been gone some years; he is in bed with a woman, and calls her by his wife's old pet name. His wife, though dead, pops up from behind the headboard. "What," she says, "you called her blahblah?" "Hey, honey," the man says, "I knew you were there...I was joking...what do you think? I WAS JOKING..."

The Bible tells us the most secret name of God, the Shem Ha Meforesh, could be uttered only by the high priest in the afternoon of Yom Kippur. He would alone enter the Holy of Holies, and there would say the name. He would have a rope tied around his ankle, so that, should he die while in the Holy of Holies, he could be gotten out. No one else, of course, being permitted to enter there.

Why could they not enter? The Spirit of God dwelt therein, and anyone else entering would be slain by that power. Why were they afraid the high priest would die? He might die if he were insufficently cleansed, if he uttered the name with insufficient sanctity. He would be consumed.

My rabbi told this story in the synagogue, and added: you may find this story simplistic, or picayune. But, say I had a booth up here, and you in the congregation knew the Sacred Name. How many of you would want to put to the test both your sanctity and the operation of the ban, with its penalty? That's right. No takers.

Just like Lenny Bruce and his dead wife.

Just as with the dread name cancer. Which we will not utter. We understand the phenomenon of the secret name. We treat this name in a spirit best expressed by the Talmudist who said, "We do not believe in superstition. On the other hand, it is good to be careful."

We understand how the secret name works, and that it must and will be treated with respect. Who would not be careful in the face of the Ineffable? Who would invert Pascal's wager, and walk into the Holy of Holies, and utter The Name? Someone, perhaps, but not you or I.

Note: we see this strongly in the movie business.

A business notably subject to the whims of fate. No one who has made a film would think to say, on the set, "Well, it looks like a nice day," or "Gosh, things are going well..." That person is looked upon, not as a fool, but absolutely as a blasphemer, and outcast as such.

So we do, it seems, remember the commandment. There are certain names of The Lord which we might take in vain, but the secret, the operative names, the true secret names, we will not.

Seneca cautions us to treat Fortune as if she were actually going to do to us everything it is in her power to do. I am working on a film with the most practical of men. He is a technical advisor on a political thriller. He was, for many years, an operator of Delta Force, in rather continuous combat for thirty years. He spoke of a fellow on his first mission who said, "We're going to kick their ass and take names" as he got onto the helicopter. The other soldiers looked at him with incomprehension and dread, and, at the end of the day, the man had indeed been shot up, and his military career ended.

And which of us has not had the experience of the old friend to whom we say, or who says to us: This is one friendship which will never end. And we feel that cold wind, whose premonition is, of course, fulfilled. Not only are there no atheists in foxholes, there are, I believe, no atheists anywhere. We just call our gods by different names. Indeed, psychotherapy may be nothing more than the attempt to find those names, and so challenge their power.

I recommend to you the story of Rumplestiltskin. In which myth we see the very force, or opponent, explaining the method of his own defeat to his victim. The poor girl is forced to spin flax into gold; her savior, Rumplestiltskin, becomes her oppressor, and demands, as payment for rescuing her from the Evil King, her first-born child. She will be exempted if she can tell him his real name.

Rumplestilstkin is an example of the compulsion to repeat. The poor girl marries a king who is evil. Boo hoo. Her new friend also proves to be false, exacting an even worse tax. If she finds out his secret name, she will be freed (the promise, again, of psychiatry).

He proclaims his secret name as soon as she decides to "follow him around." This "following" is, in effect, watching his operations. That is, she has either become sufficiently brazen or "hit bottom" (perhaps the two are the same) and now will/must confront the actual operations of her world.

The instant she does, she is freed. The neurosis proclaims itself, it says its secret name, and it is now powerless. Now, his name is nonsense. Who, then, is he? Who has no name? He is the King, the Evil King she married in the first place. And lo, she has married him again. The compulsion to repeat, now revealed, is conquered.

The old Russian proverb has it, "Laughing bride, weeping wife. Weeping bride, laughing wife." Those of us of a certain age saw two or so decades of marriages go awry, and may have thought back to the self-confected vows to "try" to "respect each other's space," to "grow and to allow to grow," and we may have sighed and understood, too late, in those cases or perhaps our own, the power of ritual, and the price of its absence.

Another perversion of the power of names is, of course, advertising. The highest achievement of advertising, public relations, is to get the manufactured, manipulative idea "off the page," as it were, and accepted as part of speech. E.g., "Let's have a Coke" or "I'll FedEx it." And I remember a television commercial of fifty years ago—many of you do too—of the tobacco auctioneer bawling out his lightning- quick, incomprehensible, wonderful litany, concluding with "Sold." Or that velvet voice at the conclusion of the Chesterfield cigarette ad, reminding us "And they are mild..." Tag-phrases of the day. Minted to sell a product, they transcended conscious resistance to manipulation and became part of the language. As advertising is, or has become, the attempt to subvert, weaken, or bypass conscious resistance to an idea—to implant in the victim an idea while obscuring its origin, and so influence behavior.

All parents in the audience understand this process all too well. And we appreciate its difficulties, and revel in its unfortunately all-too-occasional triumphs. My friend, the comedian John Katz, had a joke about the inept hijacker. This is years ago; the joke is no longer performable, but I will share it with you in this protected setting. "Take this plane to Tucson." The pilot says, "But it's going to Tucson." Guy says, "Act like it's my idea, nobody gets hurt..."

Back to the theme:

The assignment of nicknames, the application of jargon is an understood tool for the manipulation of behavior. We know the quote "charismatic" boss who is making up "cute" and idiosyncratic names for his or her employees. "I alone know and I alone will assign you your name." This is a powerful (and impolite) tool. It is an arrogation of power and a useful diagnostic. For those who grin and tilt their heads to have their ears rubbed at the new name have surrendered their personality to the oppressor; they have given up their soul.

And for them to, should they wish it, gain it back, they will have to go through the upheaval and shamed self-examination of Rumplestilskin's victim.

For the complicity, though impolite, though exacted by one who does not wish us well—by, in effect, an enemy— the complicity is shaming. And it is this feeling of shame which ensures continued compliance. For we are structured such that we would rather suffer, in most cases, the delusion than take arms against that sea of troubles. Like the rape victim who might wonder, "Was my skirt too short?" rather than accept the reality that she is again being oppressed, this time by the legal system. And so, as Freud informed us, the resistance is the neurosis. And the very mechanism of awe of the secret name is employed in the service of oppression.

This may occur, as we see, in neurosis, through advertising, or, in a mixture, in political discourse. If we say that "the government" has "lowered the threat level," we must mean that the government is in charge of the threat. Semantically, what else is the meaning of this "color code"? One cannot act differently on a day coded red than on one coded orange, and indeed no one even suggests that one can. We are urged to "be more vigilant," but the phrase cannot be acted upon. He who defends everything defends nothing, as Napoleon said.

So semantically—that is, as judged by the way in which words influence thought and so action—the proclamation of the threat level is an admission that there is no threat. Or that if a threat exists, the government is powerless to deal with it. And that those who accept the reiteration of the threat level have submitted, like the employee who accepts docilely her new pet name, and are thenceforward complicit in their own manipulation, daily trading submission first for an abatement of anxiety and, as time goes by, for painful and shameful self-examination.

A public relations genius insisted that the Warner Brothers cable network be referred to as The WB. For as we do it, we are theirs.

The construction itself has no special meaning, it is simply an obeisance, and as such is in fact more powerful for the absence of content. As this obeisance passes, like "Sold American," from the conscious into the automatic, we no longer recognize its provenance; it becomes a habit.

I instance the phrase "weapons of mass destruction." This formulation is overlong, clunky, and obviously confected. This is not to say that this or that dictator, or indeed well-meaning soul, may or does not possess such tools. But the formulation itself is unwieldy and, to the American ear, unfortunate. It is the cadence of "I'm not going to tell you again." Rhyth-mically, it is a scold. And its constant enforced repetition by the newscasters (you will note that the people in the street do not use it often, and then with little ease), its very awkwardness, ensures that the phrase, and thus its reference, pass beyond the borders of consideration. Like The WB.

For our mind tends toward the creation of habit. And the choice, faced with the unacceptable phrase, is this: constant, vigilant, unpopular opposition, or habitual acceptance. We submit in order to avoid the burden of hypocrisy.

I will recommend to the interested Bruno Bettleheim's writings on the Nazi salute.

Similarly, homeland security is a concept close to all of our hearts. We live in a wonderful country, which has for years enjoyed a blessed freedom from attack. The phrase "Homeland Security," however, is confected and rings false, for America has many nicknames. The Vietnam servicemen referred to it as The World; we might call it, lovingly, the U. S. of A. Many of us have thrilled to the immigration officer who stamps our passports and says, "Welcome home," a true act of graciousness. But none of us has ever referred to our country as The Homeland. It is a European construction, as Die Heimat, or The Motherland, or Das Vaterland. There is nothing wrong with the phrase; I merely state that it is confected, it is not a naturally occurring American phrase, and it rings false. And as it rings false, we, correctly or not, will question the motives of those who created it for our benefit. As we do the "coalition of the willing."

Names are powerful.

No one involved in a "relationship" ever had a good time. One may be courting, seducing, experimenting sexually, dating, married, keeping company, and so on. But anything called "a relationship" must eventually result in sorrow, as the participants are unwilling to examine and name its nature.

The nexus of the conscious and the unconscious is of short duration. The unconscious mind can slough off the useless, or, indeed, the unlovely. When its reiteration is coupled with compulsion, we may be due for grief.



David Mamet is a playwright, director, and screenwriter whose highly acclaimed scripts include Glengarry Glen Ross and Wag the Dog.
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