Wednesday, April 13, 2005

nomen omen

I can't read Spanish, though I'm trying to learn . . . slowly, the same way that I'm learning Korean. Despite my linguistic limitations, I enjoy looking at Gabriel Laguna's blog, Tradición Clásica. Its aim, in his own words:

"A Blog dedicated to the Classical Tradition (influence of Greek and Roman culture on the modern Western world): notes, examples, commentaries, discussions."

These interest me as well, but Laguna knows far more than I. If you read Spanish, go there. Even if you don't read Spanish, go there, and look at the beautiful images from, of, and about the classical tradition.

One of Laguna's recent entries, nomen omen (which is fun to say aloud), has been translated into English by Dennis Mangan. Thanks to his effort, I can finally engage more fully with Laguna's views. In nomen omen, Laguna begins with a comment on a writer whom I've also read a lot of: Paul Auster. I accidentally taught his novel City of Glass in a composition course when I was a doctoral student at Berkeley. I say accidentally, but perhaps fate was guiding me, since one of Auster's books that I recommended to Sun-Ae inspired her to accept a risky future with me. But I don't believe in fate, so it must have been by accident that I taught City of Glass. Why by accident? Because I knew nothing of Auster at the time and simply accepted the recommendation of a fellow teaching assistant.

Thus began my journey through Auster's metafictional novels. Sometime after meeting Sun-Ae, I had finished everything that Auster had written by then, including his essays, and I set him aside never to return. Well, never yet. I may read him again, based on Laguna's blog entry. I stopped keeping up with him because I grew tired of his manner of ending stories. They seemed to just stop. I don't mean to suggest that all stories should resolve everything -- I loved Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow despite and even partly because it resolved nothing and disintegrated at the end. With Auster, I sensed that he was a potentially great writer who was still struggling to find his way, and I didn't want to share the struggle.

But let me return to Laguna, who says this about the protagonist in Auster's recent Oracle Night:

"[W]hat interests me here is that the protagonist, the author's alter ego, reflects upon a curious belief which I have shared since my youth: the enunciation of a future deed may occasion its fulfillment in reality. That is to say, a verbal enunciation, a word, a name (nomen), can have a performative force, conjuring the destiny (omen) and therefore determining the future."

A man who believes this should choose his words carefully. If I shared this belief, I would state, upon oath: "In future, the nomen omen shall have no performative force over me." That should take care of the problem. But perhaps Laguna holds his "curious belief" ironically, for he says:

"The Romans shared this superstition. They blindly believed that a verbal enunciation could determine the future. The very word for 'fate' in Latin is fatum, which literally means 'that which is said' (linguistically fatum is the neuter form of the passive perfect participle of the defective verb *for, 'to speak, to say')."

Laguna then takes us to the Roman world of the 3rd century B.C., specifically to the year 229, when they conquer Epidamnos. The city's name poses a problem:

"But the name of the city of Epidamnos raises a bad omen for the Romans, since they fear that their occupation would prove 'to the harm' (epi-damnum) of Rome. The solution?: they change the name, introducing the already existing denomination Dyrrachium."

Renaming was the way of solving a problem such as this one. For other cases, there was the aversio, a formula uttered to ward off the evil invoked by stating a possible misfortune. From Laguna:

"quod di omen avertant ('may the gods avert such an omen')"

The world of antiquity was full of such linguistic tricks to avert evils and quell fears. A similar example comes from 2.6 of the Vitae Prophetarum's "Life of Jeremiah," a Greek text that describes Alexander the Great taking the bones of the prophet Jeremiah and burying them in a circle around the city Alexandria, which he was founding in the Egyptian delta:

"2.6 And (thus) the race of asps was kept out of the land (i.e., Egypt, or at least the area around Alexandria) -- and likewise the crocodiles (were kept) from the river -- and thus (similarly), he introduced the snakes that are called argolas, that is, snakefighters, which he brought from Argos of the Peloponnesus, whence also they are called argolai -- that is, '(the) right (=good) ones of Argos,' for people (lit. 'they') express everything fortunate (as if it were) sinister (lit. 'left')" (from: Recensio Anonyma, my translation).

The apotropaic term here is the obscure name argolai, which is what the snakes are said to be called. The author of "The Life of Jeremiah" remarks that the term means "the good ones of Argos" because people express good things in a sinister way. What the author means is that argolai comes from argos and laios, which mean "Argos" and "left," respectively. Since "left" was widely considered sinister (a word in English that itself comes from the Latin for "left"), then these beneficial snakefighting snakes called argolai will be perceived by the evil eye as "the sinister ones of Argos" and thus will be 'left' alone, enabling them to do their secretly intended, beneficial task of keeping the poisonous asps at bay.

Incidentally, the etymology given for argolai by the author of "The Life of Jeremiah" is pure fantasy. The real etymology will have to wait until publication of the commentary that Ronit Nikolsky and I are working on for Michael Stone.

Otherwise -- God forbid! -- I might reveal our trade secrets.


Post a Comment

<< Home