Topical Guide 96
Name, What’s in a
If you use Google to search the Web for “funny names of real people,” you are likely to get “about 1,320,000,000 results,” as I did just a moment ago. I guess that means that there are about 1,320,000,000 pages on the Web that list funny names of real people, not that there are 1,320,000,000 funny names of real people.
The preface to “The Fox and the Clam” includes a funny name for a fictional person, the clamdigger Serge de Nimes. The French phrase serge de Nîmes named a serge fabric that was made in Nîmes, the prefecture of the Gard department in the Occitanie region of Southern France. In English, de Nîmes became compressed into denim as the name for a coarser, sturdier cloth. I don’t know why a clamdigger in Babbington, on the South Shore of Long Island, would be named Serge de Nimes. There’s a certain dash to it, though, at least in the way it sounds, if you’re not aware that it’s the name of a cloth for dungarees. Serge would probably wear dungarees, so it’s appropriate, in a way. Maybe Serge de Nimes was a nickname given to this clammy, or imposed on him, by the other clammies because he habitually wore denim overalls.
Notes to self: Was there someone in my high school class named Serge? Check yearbook. Was there a Huguenot presence in Babbington? That might explain a certain Frenchness that I detect among the clammies.
The group of handymen with a funny name appear prominently in Leaving Small’s Hotel.
The Three Jolly Tinkers were bustling around the platform, checking the lines that held the cottage in place, clucking and looking gravely concerned.
Little Follies, “The Fox and the Clam”
For nearly all of the fifteen years that we have been running Small’s Hotel, we have turned to the Three Jolly Tinkers when we’ve needed major repairs. Sometimes the Jolly Tinkers have fixed things; sometimes they have not; and sometimes the repairs undertaken by the Jolly Tinkers have become continuing projects, and some of those projects have been in continuous operation for nearly the entire fifteen-year span of our relationship without showing any signs of coming to a successful conclusion—repairing the boiler, to name a single example.
The Hedgehog and the Fox is an essay by philosopher Isaiah Berlin—one of his most popular essays with the general public—which was published as a book in 1953. However, Berlin said, “I meant it as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game, but it was taken seriously. Every classification throws light on something.” Indeed, it has been compared to “an intellectual’s cocktail-party game.”
The title is a reference to a fragment attributed to the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus: πόλλ' οἶδ' ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ' ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα (“a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing”). In Erasmus’s Adagia from 1500, the expression is recorded as Multa novit vulpes, verum echinus unum magnum. (The fable of The Fox and the Cat embodies the same idea.)
Berlin expands upon this idea to divide writers and thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea (examples given include Plato, Lucretius, Dante Alighieri, Blaise Pascal, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Henrik Ibsen, Marcel Proust and Fernand Braudel), and foxes, who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea (examples given include Herodotus, Aristotle, Desiderius Erasmus, William Shakespeare, Michel de Montaigne, Molière, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Aleksandr Pushkin, Honoré de Balzac, James Joyce and Philip Warren Anderson).
Fame, Desire for Enduring
Porky went on. “And I guess they all must have the feeling that someday, after they’re gone, other clammies, their sons and the sons of their friends, and their sons’ sons and their friends’ sons’ sons, will tell stories about them, that they won’t be forgotten, that they might become legends themselves, you know?”
He stopped bailing for a minute and rubbed his hands together.
“I can just see my kid telling stories about me when I’m gone,” he said.
Little Follies, “The Fox and the Clam”
I am too fond of myself to be able to see myself objectively. I wish I knew for certain what I am and how much I am worth … and all the time I am additionally harassed by the perfect consciousness that it is all petty and pusillanimous to desire to be known and appreciated, that my ambition is a morbid diathesis of the mind. I am not such a fool either as not to see that there is but little satisfaction in posthumous fame, and I am not such a fool as not to realise that all fame is fleeting, and that the whole world itself is passing.
Wilhelm Nero Pilate Barbellion (Bruce Frederick Cummings), The Journal of a Disappointed Man
[more to come on Friday, September 24, 2021]
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