Cratylus, El Golem & Feral BasuSaturday, March 19, 2011
Before the advent of the internet, writers, poets and novelists inhabited a remote world in which the only access one had to them might be a reading or a writer’s festival. Or perhaps you might read a good interview in a decent newspaper. With the proliferation of web sites and the mass publishing of so many novels, writers have become pragmatic on how they can promote their books. Publishing-house publicists are endangered as are the media they used to link to. So writers have personal web pages and blogs, and some of them as my new discovered writer Toby Ball are even on Twitter.
Just a few days ago I sent Mr. Ball an email to his web page telling him how I had enjoyed his book and asking him to contribute to my blog as a guest blogger. I asked him to explain how he had thought f the names. His response was quick and I posted his pleasant (and most unusual) explanation in yesterday’s blog. The second paragraph on how he came up with the name Feral Basu rang a big bell in my head. I went immediately to my copy of Jorge Luís Borges, Obra Poética – 1923/1977 and searched for a poem called El Golem.
This poem, which alas I have not found in English either on the web on in my Vancouver Public Library, is very much about what Ball writes in his explanation of naming one of his villains Feral Basu. I will translate that first, and most important paragraph:
If (as that Greek in Cratylus affirms)
The name of a thing is the archetype,
Then in the letters of the word rose you will find the rose
And the whole Nile, in the word Nile.
The Greek in question is Cratylus, a protagonist philosopher in Plato’s Dialogue of that name who is having a standing argument with another philosopher, Hermogenes. Socrates is asked to intervene. Cratylus affirms (a pre-Socratic belief) that words contain certain sounds that express the essence of the thing named. Cratylus says, “He who knows the names will also know the things.” There are letters that are identified with liquid things or with soft things. Socrates rejects that, and he also rejects Hermogenes’ affirmation that things are linked to names by practice and custom and that the names of things can be changed without changing their essence. Socrates rejects both theories as to how language might reveal truth.
In that beautiful first paragraph (in Spanish, as I am no poetic translator) of El Golem, Borges says pretty well the same thing that Ball writes in describing how he chose the name Feral Basu:
A few others had different origins. Feral Basu, for instance, started as Feral Singh. The idea was to have a character with a nickname that indicates the fear he invokes in his acquaintances but also conveys a mistaken sense of savagery. Feral is very dignified despite his capacity for violence. I changed his last name from Singh to Basu. Both are Indian last names, but Basu seemed like it would be harder to definitively place (the mayor can’t figure out his ethnic background).
Borges reads El Golem
Borges explains whence came his El Golem