josh blog

Ordinary language is all right.

One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.

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29 Jun '12 11:03:18 PM

Think how remarkable it is that we can ride the bus, walk down the street, make our own way through a public place, without a tinge of curiosity about what others' names are.

29 Jun '12 11:01:31 PM

The police want to see your identification.

'See', because they have to put a name to a face, so your I.D. has to have a photo on it. Looking at you is not enough, because you can see as much as you want of a person and not know their name, not even know what they're called or what they go by. As a rule they can't take your word for it, can't trust you when you tell them your name (or say that something is your name). For some purposes, they will (provisionally) trust other people who know who you are, or who at least know your name, or have heard that you're called so-and-so, but once things start getting written down, they need to know your name, need to know whose record they are adding to. (You can make it all the way to arrest, to court, to trial, to prison without them knowing your name, I think: they'll just give you a dummy name. But it's not best; they prefer to know who they're doing these things to, up to a point.)

The police will also ask you to identify people. They don't even need you to know their names; they'll just ask if you've seen them before, which one you've seen before, where you saw them. If you haven't just seen them but know them then you're asked how you know them. Around. Just to say hi. From chatting in the hallway. We took the same bus. Worked in the same building. This is about the level at which 'oh, I don't, really' is a counterpart answer. Or 'not much' or 'not really'. Much more affirmative knowledge is claimed when you answer with, say, the name of a relation. 'She's my cousin'. 'Our kids went to school together.' 'I used to be married to him.' It is interesting that a prelude to affirmable relationships can fall on the other side of the line: 'oh, not well—I don't really. We went out for drinks a couple of times.' Or even 'we went out on a couple of dates' (but not as much, 'we dated', even 'briefly') or 'we slept together'.

We opt for place to refer to people we don't know, that is, to people whose names we don't know. We're most concerned about not knowing who someone is when they appear in a place they're not supposed to be ('strangers'). But there are some places where people are familiar to us without our knowing their names. Some such people will easily be able to say of us, 'they don't even see me, it's like I'm not even there'.

We place great importance on knowing what a person's name is, but we can also often be surrounded by people whose names we never know. Are usually surrounded.

29 Jun '12 09:51:53 PM

'Use my name' is a way of conferring some of one's authority on others; lending it to them. ('He lent his name to the effort…'.)

The police, government agents, use false names backed by the government's authority. The government grants them the authority to speak under, to represent themselves by, assumed names, names they take on. But not names that they make up: the government makes the names, writes them down, keeps authoritative records of who is who (and who is not).

In this scheme, the counterparts to the police and agents of the government are criminals, when they use false names without the authority of the state behind them. Their false names are not backed by paper; and characteristically, when they write them, they have committed crimes. Their false names are readily regarded not just as assumed names, but assumed identities. Authorities and con artists (and the more refined sorts of criminals or para-legal operatives whose plans necessitate sustained concealment) fabricate identities. If you are anyone else, and you make an identity for yourself, particularly by giving yourself a name, or giving out your name as other than the one you were given, then you have done something wrong. My sense is that this kind of transgression codes as having stolen something, as if real names, authentic identities, were the possession of everyone else, what it is in only 'everyone's' rightful authority to confer on people.

Reverend Cherrycoke, in Mason & Dixon, on crimes of his youth which led to his exile from Britain:

'"Along with some lesser Counts," the Rev'd is replying, "'twas one of the least tolerable of Offenses in that era, the worst of Dick Turpin seeming but the Carelessness of Youth Beside it,— the Crime they styl'd 'Anonymity.' That is, I left messages posted publicly, but did not sign them. I knew some night-running lads in the district who let me use their Printing-Press,— somehow, what I got into printing up, were Accounts of certain Crimes I had observ'd, committed by the Stronger against the Weaker,— enclosures, evictions, Assize verdicts, Activities of the Military,— giving the Names of as many of the Perpetrators as I was sure of, yet keeping back what I foolishly imagin'd my own, till the Night I was tipp'd and brought in to London, in Chains, and clapp'd in the Tower."'

(His name had never been his own.)

29 Jun '12 09:24:52 PM

Win Everett knows that 'the name Mackey was a pseudonym assigned by the Records Branch. Theodore J. MACKEY'. False names are backed by records, by paper. 'Win had also used a false name through the years, standard practice for officers engaged in covert work.' There is a grammar to investigate: the grammar of 'using a false name'. To start with: two sorts of people who, by contrast, 'use their real name', those who do also have or use false names; and those who do not, but who have authority, power, prestige, renown, reputations, who will also tell and let others to use their names ('they'll give you what you need'). There is a way in which real names can become false under such conditions, when they circulate so widely. 'Mackey's name became enveloped in a certain favorable light, a legendary light, when exile leaders found he had gone ashore with the scouts at Blue Beach.' Falsity is no impediment to a name's acquiring that power, and once it does, it approximates the power with which true names can become charged when their bearers become widely known. (Different ways of becoming widely known relate to different sorts of degrees of weight a name carries: compare celebrities to legends to anyone at the top. Compare to anyone whose power or authority or effectiveness or proficiency is known 'to those who know', to those in the know; to insiders, to fellow experts, to fellow professionals as opposed to amateurs. Compare to the notorious.)

As to Mackey: 'Win didn't know his real name'.

29 Jun '12 09:07:04 PM

April 26 is the most expansive chapter so far, and longest, after those following Lee in the Bronx, introducing Branch and the conspirators on April 17, and again following Lee in New Orleans. The account of the 26th goes: Win Everett at home, 'at work devising a general shape, a life'; Parmenter and George de Mohrenschildt (who lives in Dallas now) meeting for lunch in D.C.; Nicholas Branch, who 'is writing a history, not a study of the ways in which people succumb to paranoia'; T.J. Mackey visiting Guy Banister's detective agency in New Orleans; Mackey sitting in a room, waiting for a woman procured on his behalf, or just sent to him, remembering how the Bay of Pigs went wrong, 'a clear and simple reading', 'one scrubbed mission', not 'a general misery of ideas and means' like Everett believes; Everett at home in pajamas, receiving word by phone from Parmeneter about their prospective (patsy) shooter, Oswald, and having sex with his wife, 'adept' after years of marriage at 'discharging an air of shy curiosity', at encouraging him 'tacitly, creating receptive fields around him, stillnesses', which tonight elicits some gossipy talk about photographs, spy planes, and an opinion about the significance of increasing surveillance—'It means the end of loyalty. The more complex the systems, the less conviction in people. Conviction will be drained out of us. Devices will drain us, make us vague and pliant.'—and, after Mary Frances falls asleep, private thoughts about Win's plan:

'He would put someone together, build an identity, a skein of persuasion and habit, ever so subtle. He wanted a man with believable quirks. He would create a shadowed room, the gunman's room, which investigators would eventually find, exposing each fact to relentless scrutiny, following each friend, relative, casual acquaintance into his own roomful of shadows. We lead more interesting lives than we think. We are characters in plots, without the compression and numinous sheen. Our lives, examined carefully in all their affinities and links, abound with suggestive meaning, with themes and involute turnings we have not allowed ourselves to see completely. He would show the secret symmetries in a non-descript life.

An address book with ambiguous leads. Photographs expertly altered (or crudely altered). Letters, travel documents, counterfeit signatures, a history of false names. It would all require a massive decipherment, a conversion to plain text. He envisioned teams of linguists, photo analysts, fingerprint experts, handwriting experts, experts in hair and fibers, smudges and blurs. Investigators building up chronologies. He would give them the makings of deep chronos, lead them to basement rooms in windy industrial slums, to lost towns in the Tropics.'

The figure of Everett's plan is 'pocket litter'. He will 'script a gunman out of ordinary dog-eared paper, the contents of a wallet'.

'Mackey would find a model for the character Everett was in the process of creating. They wanted a name, a face, a bodily frame they might use to extend their fiction into the world.' When Mackey tells Everett about Oswald, who Everett calls 'a nice find', Mackey says:

'Don't make it sound like a three-room apartment. We could put him together. A far-left type. Work him in. Tie him to Cuban intelligence. Possibly even place him at the scene. If he thinks he's operating on the left, pro-Castro, pro-Soviet, whatever his special interest, we'll help him select a fantasy. There's never a dearth of reasons to shoot at the President.'

'If he thinks he's operating on the left': i.e., he doesn't know what he thinks, we'll tell him what he thinks, help him see, imagine what he's thinking; help him realize a fantasy. Or: he thinks he knows what he's doing, he doesn't even know. We'll tell him what he's doing (but not what he's really doing).

Immediately afterward, and after making love with his wife, conversing post-coitally, Mary Frances wonders what people say, then: 'Maybe there are things we haven't thought of'. 'Do you think we've been saying the wrong things all these years?' Win's question does not do much to reveal what he thinks of the possibilities. Does he think he knows what people say to each other? Is he gripped by any wonder about whether they might say things he hasn't thought of, or in other words, about whether they might tell him what people say to each other, might tell him what he could think, what he could be doing, but does not realize?

28 Jun '12 11:08:49 AM

In both parts, the chapters alternate. Lee's life is tracked in chapters named things like 'In the Bronx', 'In Minsk', 'In Dallas' (often there). Other chapters named with dates advancing toward November 22 track the conspirators and other players; them, and a retired senior analyst of the CIA 'hired on contract to write the secret history of the assassination of President Kennedy', Nicholas Branch. Branch is introduced before any of the conspirators are. Little sign is given of the reason that his story is folded into the dated chapters, where it sits unmarked alongside the stories of Everett and Parmenter and the others. One clue comes during his first appearance: 'He enters a date on the home computer the Agency has provided for the sake of convenient tracking. April 17, 1963'. The same date which heads the chapter including this account of Branch and of the activities of some of the conspirators on that date. The existence of the computer would be suggestive enough, but later (presumably while writing about April 26) Branch's story is dated at least after 1979, when 'a House select committee determined there was nothing statistically abnormal about the death rate among those who were connected in some way to the events of November 22', all of those linked to Lee H. Oswald or Jack Ruby who are now 'conveniently and suggestively dead'.

So it may be that Nicholas Branch is the one telling Lee's story, where Lee too is being tracked through time, through his life, but in a story parceled out by place, by where it was possible, on the basis of the evidence, to locate him. Lee's story is intimate, personal: the narrator knows his secrets, knows that 'never again in his short life, never in the world, would he feel this inner power, rising to a shriek, this secret force of the soul in the tunnels under New York' that he experienced while riding the subway, where 'he liked to stand at the front of the first car, hands flat against the glass'. Later, Lee keeps a journal, 'the Historic Diary', so perhaps Branch raids it, interpolates an inner life, induces a narrative, perhaps not. Lee's story starts, though, with a sentence that shows the hand of an outsider, coming after, placing Lee in time as well as in the Bronx: 'This was the year he rode the subway to the ends of the city'. The sound of a writer, a historian, indexing, fixing the point from which to remember, or fabulate.

But when Nicholas Branch's story is being told, it doesn't sound like he's the one telling it.

28 Jun '12 09:48:04 AM

'He saw himself go inside, a fellow on a quiet street doing ordinary things, unafraid of being watched.'

28 Jun '12 09:22:40 AM

Interpretation becomes unseemly all too frequently.

28 Jun '12 12:13:54 AM

Look, if any of your footnotes end with forward references to other footnotes, you have a problem. And if any of your footnotes are nothing but forward references to other footnotes, there is some shit you should have gotten straight before publication.