Sunday, November 25, 2012

Tell Me, What Were Their Names?

Tonight I got to go to a very fun show called "Woody Sez," about one of my favorite songwriters of all time: Woody Guthrie. One song, called the Sinking of the Reuben James (listen below, as performed by the Weavers) got me thinking about names.



The song is about the sacrifice of the seamen aboard the Reuben James, the first American ship sunk during WWII. The chorus employs--to great rhetorical effect--the phrase "Tell me, what were their names, tell me what were their names / Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?" Woody Guthrie gives meaning to their deaths by asking you to search out the names of those that died; implicitly, the message is that by knowing them by name will make you care more about their sacrifice by personalizing the loss. And it works: I definitely get chills listening to the song and it sets my patriotic flag a-flying.



Contrast that song with "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)," another Guthrie classic (listen above, as performed by Cisco Houston). The song stemmed from the tragic crash of a plane that was taking Mexican immigrants from California back to Mexico, but the real impetus for it was the fact that media reports did not give the names of any of the immigrant workers--they were referred to only as "deportees." Woody chafed at the hidden racism that the media displayed, and set out to give them some names. The haunting chorus imagines a bit about who they might have been: "Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita / Adios mis amigos, Jesús y Maria / You won't have a name when you ride the big airplane / And all they will call you will be 'deportee.'"

In the first song Guthrie invites you to look up the names of people who are (rightly) regarded as heroes; in the second he has to remind you that those "deportees" whose deaths you glanced over when you were flipping through the newspaper had names too. The common thread is that names are meaningful. Why is that true, though?

Before trying to answer that question (using Computer Science, no less), Woody Guthrie is not the only authority important to me that has aruged that naming the dead is a fundamental way of honoring them. One of the most powerful experiences of my life has been visiting Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem Holocaust museum. The name of the museum comes from the Hebrew of Isaiah 56:5: "Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name [yad vashem] better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off." The museum is literally a place where the names and memories of holocaust victims and survivors can be kept forever. It is overwhelming to just comprehend a few dozen of the stories of people whose lives were forever broken by that terrible event, which is all you have time for when visiting; to think of the thousands upon thousands of other names and stories that the museum houses, as well as those of so many more whose names cannot be known and can only be supplied symbolically by our poets and our imaginations, is unfathomable.

Changing gears incongruously back to why names are so meaningful, I'm reminded of a Computer Science class I took at BYU. It was possibly the most mind-bending class I took there and thus one of my favorites. The class used the computer language Lisp; without getting into the arcane and irrelevant details, just know that it is nothing at all like the computer languages we had learned up to that point. (An analogy might be something like if the only human language you knew anything about at all was written Latin and then you had to learn American Sign Language--it's that different.) Anyway, in every language I'd learned before, to call a subroutine (a very very common practice in any program of more than utterly trivial size) you gave it a name and invoked that name. Then the subroutine did its thing. But in Lisp, it turns out that you can create subroutines that have no name at all. I know this won't be as mind-blowing to non-CS people as it was to me, but trust me, it was freaking weird. These unnamed subroutines were flexible one-offs. You literally could not invoke them again, because how would you? There was no name to refer to them by!

That's why I think names are so powerful. They make it possible to refer to the same person twice. They make it possible to talk about an enduring human being with a soul, rather than a collection of atoms that are always being swapped in and out. A name enables you to be in a relationship with someone else. In large part, until someone has a name they are not really human. (Cue literary references to Frankenstein's unnamed monster, and/or Adam Trask's children in East of Eden who go without names for the first year of their lives.)

Today, be thankful that you have a name. Think of the names of people in your life who have meant a lot to you, whether alive or passed on.

4 comments:

  1. Another thought that occurs to me along these lines: this adds another layer of beauty to Mormon ordinances for the dead. Doing the work for each person individually and prominently featuring their name at every stage honors them and helps save them and us.

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  2. One somewhat counter example that fits into this is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier that is guarded day and night. We do not know of his name but yet we honor him more than many who do have names. However, I think the concept is the same as above. We do not know his name specifically but he had a name to someone. And he represents the many someones whose lives were cut short fighting for us - and for the many mothers, fathers, wives, siblings and children who wept when they found that their beloved was dead. And so in honoring the anonymous one, we are honoring the known thousands.

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  3. Nice connection, E! And yeah, I think the concept is similar to what I've laid out above. Woody responded to a plane crash by imaginatively supplying the victims' names; the tomb of the unknown soldier lets anyone fill in the name of their lost loved one. Both recognize that it's a tragedy when we don't know the names of the dead.

    Thanks for tying that in, I like your take!

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  4. Ooh names, they ARE so significant.
    I loved Yad Vashem for this as well. Also it's probably the most practically and interestingly designed museum I've been to.

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