Writing the Essay: Fabled Histories

Writing the Essay: Fabled Histories
Photo by Phil Hauser / Unsplash

This essay was written in the Fall 2010 semester as part of the Writing The Essay: Art in the World course at New York University, which is now numbered EXPOS-UA 5.

“The way in which [Columbus] wanted to know these things was not in the way of satisfying curiosity, or in the way of correcting an ignorance; he wanted to know them, to possess them… the person who really can name the thing gives it a life, a reality, that it did not have before.” (Kincaid 116) (emphasis mine)

In this passage from her essay “In History,” Jamaica Kincaid tells us that Columbus wanted to know not for the sake of knowing, but for the sake of owning; he understood that he who named something forever imposed his history on it for all who come after him and call it by his name. As a result, an object named after someone or spoken of in a specific context is given a history that is not inherent in its substance. A name is not merely a name, but an entire narrative.

The idea that “the person who can really name a thing gives it a life, a reality, that it did not have before” (116), the idea that we create reality as we experience it, as we name it, is particularly astonishing. That the context and the circumstances under which we encounter something should shape our understanding of its substance, its truth,to such an extent is on the one hand thrilling, and on the other terrifying. It gives the individual a power that is so easily wielded – speak and it is named – and produces effects of such massive consequence that they are almost imperceptible to us, since we have so little conception of what the substance of an object is without its name. Conversely, once we know the name of an object, we can begin to guess at the origin of the name and the journey that object has taken: we can begin to understand its history.

Through this window, Kincaid explores the relevance the name of something has to its substance, how we name differently because we see differently – and vice versa, as well as the importance of context in our experiences. She also implies that what is true for each of us is true onlyfor each of us, that our personal histories shape our understanding of things, subtly putting the idea that there is any absolute, objective truth under the microscope. After all, if everything we know or thought we knew is not founded on the essence of things, but on our experience of them, how can anything we know be always true for anyone but ourselves?

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay “History,” also argues that there is no objective history:

No anchor, no cable, no fences avail to keep a fact a fact. Babylon and Troy and Tyre and even early Rome are passing already into fiction. The Garden of Eden, the Sun standing still in Gibeon, is poetry thenceforward to all nations. Who cares what the fact was, when we have thus made a constellation of it to hang in heaven an immortal sign? London and Paris and New York must go the same way. “What is History,” said Napoleon, “but a fable agreed upon?” (8)

Emerson makes a strong distinction between the facts and the perception of the facts, and argues that history is not objective the way facts are, but rather is subjective the way stories are. History is an experience that is relived by each person with each retelling, and for that reason the same history is not experienced by each person the same way each time. What was Babylon the fact yesterday is Babylon the myth today, because the strength of the story of Babylon has superseded the strength of the evidence of what Babylon was like.

Middle English did not distinguish between the words “history” and “story” – they both come from the same Greek root word historia (Partridge 289). Modern Spanish still uses the same word, historia, to mean both a narrative and the study of events that have occurred. If we were to be so bold, we could simply take the step of regarding history as story, and story as history.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, superficially, is about a man who reinvents himself to win the love of Daisy, the woman of his dreams – but if one chooses not to take it at face value, the novel becomes the story of America itself. One particular line from The Great Gatsby has always fascinated me: “His count of enchanted objects had been diminished by one” (Fitzgerald 93). Nick Carraway, the narrator, refers here to Gatsby’s green light. It is a green light, like any other green light. There is nothing special about a green light. Yet to those of us (you can’t say “to we”] who have read the book who have any sympathy for Jay Gatsby, to say that the green light is just a green light is anathema. It is the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, the “orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us” (Fitzgerald 180). Just as Kincaid calls Antigua “green, green, green, and green again” (Kincaid 117) when regarded at a level removed from Columbus’s experience of it, Antigua was, to Columbus, not merely a thing but the capstone of an experience; it was the New World. It was reward, it was possibility, it was opportunity, it was uncharted territory. No wonder Columbus could not stop calling it marvelous. It was hope realized, distilled into dust and dirt and green.

It is of course not a coincidence that Gatsby’s light is green, just as Kincaid’s Antigua is green. The color green evokes images and sensations and hints at connections that other colors do not supply. The word “green” itself comes from Old English growan, to grow. Green is lush, green is fresh, green is youthful, and above all green is new. (It does not take much to see the jump from “green” to “marvelous” in Columbus’s eyes.) “Gatsby’s red light” would not only mean a completely different thing, but would give us a completely different story.

This prompts the question: what would Kincaid call Antigua if she had the privilege of naming it? “Green”? The reality is that every name carries its own story, meaning, and connotations. There is no name anyone could give Antigua that would be completely drained of meaning and significance, no name that would be objective. In another passage in her essay, Kincaid takes a more aggressive stance on the issue of names, making a distinction between names given by people with an investment in the object being named, and names given seemingly arbitrarily:

I was having an argument with myself over the names I should use when referring to the things that lay before me at my feet. These [plants]… had two names: they had a common name – that is, the name assigned to them by people for whom these plants have value – and then they have a proper name, or a Latin name… For a long time I resisted using the proper names of the things that lay before me. I believed that it was an affectation to say “eupatorium” when you could say “joe-pye weed.” I then would only say “joe-pye weed. (Kincaid 118)

“Joe-pye weed” – if she calls it by that name only to avoid calling it by the Latin name, surely she is imposing as much of an artificial name on the plant as the Latin system imposes. If one were feeling harsh, one could also argue that insisting on referring to the plants as “the things that lay before me at my feet,” for the sake of avoiding calling them either “eupatorium” or “joe-pye weed,” is just as much of an affectation as referring to plants by their concocted, assigned Latin names. To call the plants “the things that lay before me at my feet” does not simply mean exactly that – in this context, under these circumstances, this name also means neither joe-pye weed nor eupatorium. “The things that lay before me at my feet” – that name, too, has a story.

When the Malayan tiger, formerly classified along with Indochinese tigers as panthera tigris corbetti, was reclassified as a subspecies of the P. Tigris family in its own right, researchers named it panthera tigris jacksoni in honor of the tiger conservationist Peter Jackson. In Malaysia, where the Malayan tiger is regarded as a national icon, this news was not received without controversy: although it was considered great news that the Malayan tiger was receiving recognition, shouldn’t Malaysia itself have a say in what its national icon is called? The proposed compromise, curiously, was to “[give] two names to the Malayan tiger – one common name of the Malayan tiger and the other Latin name ‘panthera tigris jacksoni’” (New Straits Times 4 Nov 2004). In Malaysia, the Malayan tiger is also often referred to as panthera tigris malayensis.

My question is not whether the Malaysians should have the right to call their national icon anything they want – clearly, they do. My question is this: do the researchers, the “agreed-upon group of [zoologists],” not also have the right to honor their colleague? And beyond the abstract question of who has the right to name something, the facts remain thus: Peter Jackson is an important figure in tiger conservationism, and given that the Malayan tiger remains highly endangered, it is perhaps fair to ask if the Malayan tiger would still be extant, let alone recognized, if not for efforts inspired by Jackson. Even the Latin name, the name “arrived at by an objective standard,” is not as objective as Kincaid supposes; it carries its own story (121).

This is the dilemma that Kincaid faces, if not with the names of the things that lay at her feet, then with the name of Antigua. It goes without saying that the historical narrative of Antigua would be very different if not for Columbus; if Antigua had a different history, it would have had a different name. It is one thing to forget history; it is another thing to erase it.

“He wanted nothing less of Daisy than that she should go to Tom and say: ‘I never loved you.’ After she had obliterated four years with that sentence they could decide upon the more practical measures to be taken.” (Fitzgerald 109)

The Great Gatsby is, at its core, a story about malleable histories. It is about the history that could be erased and rewritten, and about the history that could not be. Gatsby unilaterally altered his own history when he – as he – changed his name from James Gatz. What he could not erase and rewrite was the history of his relationships, because not one of us exists alone; we are all linked, each to many others, in a vast web of interconnectedness. We can choose to use names and remember histories that emphasize some relationships and de-emphasize others, but we cannot erase history.

If Antigua were to be renamed something else tomorrow, it would not be a clinical, objective, detached alternative of a name, but one that carries with it its own baggage and its own story, and one that would be inextricably tied to the decision to abandon “Antigua” as a name. The moment we name something, we impose a history on it, and to oppose a name on account of opposing the history it implies does not mean we can obliterate the memory of that history altogether.

“Oh, you want too much!” she cried to Gatsby. “I love you now – isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past.” She began to sob helplessly. “I did love him once – but I loved you too.”
… “You loved me too?” he repeated. (Fitzgerald 132)

Therein lies the rub. Certainly, as both Kincaid and Emerson suggest, there is not a single objective account of history, for we each experience history uniquely. However, all stories are built upon a semblance to reality, and none of us lives in a reality isolated from everyone else. Where different narratives of the same event overlap, history exists, a history that cannot be unilaterally altered by a single party.

Recall Emerson:

“What is History,” said Napoleon, “but a fable agreed upon?” (8)

Since the moment Columbus’s fleet sighted the Americas in 1492, the story of his discovery of the Americas has passed from news to recent history to distant history into fable, yet some elements remain consistent: the year 1492, the naming of places after things and places and ideas Columbus knew well, Columbus’s hopes for the New World, and above all, the significance of his arrival as the dividing line between two periods of the history of the Americas. We can argue over whether it is fair to mark the history of the Americas as beginning in 1492, or whether the name of Antigua represents an objective history of the place, or what history should mean to people who look like Jamaica Kincaid – but there is no doubt that where the stories of everyone who has a relationship with the Americas overlap, there the history, the fable, of Columbus in 1492 lies.


Works Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “History.” Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson: first and second series complete in one volume. New York: A. L. Burt Company, 19xx ??. 3-32. Print.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 1995. Print.

Kincaid, Jamaica. “In History.” Writing The Essay: Art in the World, The World Through Art. ed. Darlene A. Forrest, Randy Martin, Pat C. Hoy II, and Benjamin W. Stewart. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010. 115-121. Print.

“Malayan Tiger May Get New Name.” New Straits Times 4 Nov 2004. Print.

Partridge, Eric. Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. New York: MacMillan, 1966. Print.