Naming: A Way of Seeing

In her latest post Lauren wrote about literature’s ability to shape our perceptions of the world. The written word provides access points to God, to Truth; it conditions our vision. The literature we produce and read is part of our “making something of the world,”* our culture. Lauren wrote,

Art, and literary art, teaches us how to see the object.

One of the principle ways literature and, more broadly, language, helps us see is that it enables us to name. With language we can clothe shapeless and silent abstractions with the shapes and sounds of letters. When we name, we gain access to and, in a limited but surprisingly powerful way, authority over some of life’s great mysteries.

Like suffering.

I choose suffering as an example because I love the blues. The blues, more than any other musical form, took a whole people-group’s story of suffering and named it. The blues called African-American suffering “ugly,” “terrible,” and “unjust,” and, in so doing, made it sufferable. Blues musicians and blues poets labeled the absurdity of their pains; then they laughed at them.

In Jazz, Ken Burn’s ten-part documentary, Branford Marsalis describes the blues as follows:

The blues are about freedom. The blues are about freedom. There’s liberation in reality. When they talk about these songs, when they talk about being sad, the fact that you recognize that which pains you is a very freeing and liberating experience. It must be strange for other cultures where you spend most of your time trying to pretend like you don’t have any of these problems, any of these situations. When I hear the blues, the blues makes me smile.

Playing the blues, therefore, is a way of getting rid of the blues. When you give your enemy a name, you can combat it by choosing gratitude or hope or faith or courage. You dismantle fear of the unknown.

Such power is why Dumbledore always gave a name to He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named; it is why, when Watson admits his fear during Conan Doyle’s first murder mystery, Holmes replies, “I can understand. There is a mystery about this which stimulates the imagination: where there is no imagination there is no horror;”** and, finally, it is why Jesus

took upon his lips a word of God in order to lament his Godforsakenness…Anybody who expresses his anguish and his dread in such a way that he makes the Word of God itself his witness is no longer groping and wandering about in some cosmic darkness, a deserted no man’s land. No, that person is praying within the church of God. …No, he is turning to and addressing someone; he is speaking to God himself about his forsakenness. …No, he cries, “My God, my God.” and so he still has God; the forsakenness is overcome in the very crying of it and he leaves it behind him.***

I’ll end with a poem by a great American blues poet, Langston Hughes. In “Trumpet Player” Hughes gives us the image of one who, though afflicted by a history of oppression, has come alive because of his ability to name his sufferings with the language of his horn.

Trumpet Player

The Negro
With the trumpet at his lips
Has dark moons of weariness
Beneath his eyes
Where the smoldering memory
Of slave ships
Blazed to the crack of whips
About thighs.

The Negro
With the trumpet at his lips
Has a head of vibrant hair
Tamed down,
Patent-leathered now
Until it gleams
Like jet-
Were jet a crown.

The music
From the trumpet at his lips
Is honey
Mixed with liquid fire.
The rhythm
From the trumpet at his lips
Is ecstasy
Distilled from old desire-

That is longing for the moon
Where the moonlight’s but a spotlight
In his eyes,
That is longing for the sea
Where the sea’s a bar-glass
Sucker size.

The Negro
With the trumpet at his lips
Whose jacket
Has a fine one-button roll,
Does not know
Upon what riff the music slips

Its hypodermic needle
To his soul-

But softly
As the tune comes from his throat
Mellows to a golden note.

* See Culture Making by Andy Crouch.

** Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet, The Complete Sherlock Holmes, vol. 1 (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2012), 32.

*** Helmut Thielicke, Christ and the Meaning of Life, translated by John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1962), 45.

Michael Conner

About Michael Conner

I am pursuing my vocation as a pastor-poet by studying biblical literature at Indiana Wesleyan University and reading lots of Eugene Peterson, Mary Oliver, and Walter Brueggemann.

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