Major Themes in Derek Walcott’s Omeros: IV. The Importance of Names of Things

[NOTE: All page number references are from the First Paperback edition of Omeros, published by Farrer, Straus and Giroux, 1992]

In my previous posts on this topic I discussed three major themes I discovered while reading Omeros:

I. Interconnectedness maintained by plant life
II. The Swift Connects the New World to Africa
III. What the past leaves behind to us

Here I will make a few comments about one final major theme I discovered: The Importance of Names of Things

One of my closest friends during my retirement years, and an original member of the Tacoma Retired Men’s Book Club, was the late Roger Kuhrt. Roger was a retired Unitarian minister and the two of us had many thoughtful discussions about religious and theological issues. A mere few days before his imminent death I visited him in intensive care in the hospital. His cognitive capacities were mostly gone and I was not sure if he even knew who I was that day. But as I prepared to leave, he turned to me and said (his last words to me), “Ron, they have names for things here.” I was not sure where the ‘here’ that he was referring to was, or how to interpret his last words, but they have resonated in my mind ever since.

This theme of the importance of names of things has a long history in the Judeo-Islamic-Christian religious traditions, going back to the book of Genesis in the Old Testiment,

And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
[Genesis 2:19, King James Translation]

It is also one of the major themes that I discovered while reading Omeros. This theme is picked up most strongly in Chapter XXV when Achille visits (whether physically or in some kind of a dream state is uncertain) Africa and meets his father Afolobe and the following conversation takes place:

Then the fisherman {Achille] sat near a large tree under whose dome
stones sat in a circle. His father said:
					'Afo-la-be'
touching his own heart.
			  'In the place you have come from
What do they call you?
			  Time translates
					   Tapping his chest,
the son answers:
		   'Achille.' The tribe rustles, 'Achille.'
Then, like cedars at sunrise, the mutterings settle.

			    AFOLABE
Achille. What does the name mean? I have forgotten the one
that I gave you. But it was, it seems, many years ago.
What does it mean?

			   ACHILLE
			Well, I too have forgotten.

Everything was forgotten. You also. I do not know.
The deaf sea has changed around evey name that you gave
us; trees, men, we yearn for a sound that is missing. 

			   AFOLAB
A name means something. The qualities desired in a son,
and even a girl-child; so even the shadows who called 
you expected one virtue, since every name is a blessing,

since I am remembering the hope I had for you as a child.
Unless the sound means nothing. Then you would be nothing.
Did they think you were nothing in that other kingdom?

[p. 137]

In the pages following this quote the poem provides us with a harrowing description of a group of African slaves being transported in a ship on a voyage to The New World.

	… They had left their remembered
shadows to the firelight. Scratching a board

they made the signs for their fading names on the wood,
and their former shapes returned absently; each carried
the nameless freight of himself to the other world.

Then, after wreaths of seaweed, after the bitter nouns
of strange berries, coral sores, after the familiar irons
singing round their ankles, after the circling suns,

dry sand and their soles knew. Sand they could recognize.
Men they knew by their heart. They came up from the darkness
past the disinterested captains shielding their eyes.

[pp. 150 – 151]

Once the voyage was over and the slaves arrived in The New World, we are told they wept for many things

		...and what began dissolving 
was the fading sound of the tribal name for the rain,
the bright sound for the sun, a hissing sound for the river,
and always the word 'never,' and never the word 'again.'

[p. 152]

Meanwhile, back home in St Lucia Philoctete visits Seven Seas who asks him, ‘No news about your friend [Achille] yet?’ Philoctete answers, ‘His name is what he is looking for, his name and his soul.’ [p154]

Near the end of the poem, Ma Killman is searching for a cure for what ails Philoctete (directly) and the narrator (indirectly). “… the deities swarmed in the thicket of the grove, waiting to be known by name, but she [Ma Killman] had never learned them” [p. 242] and she “thrashed herself for the sin, of doubting their names before the cure could begin.” [p. 243] Finally Ma Killman finds a cure after she hears “ants talking the language of her great-grandmother.” [p. 244] Once the cure was found, Philoctete “felt the pain draining” [p. 244] and “the yoke of wrong name lifted from his shoulders.” [p. 247]

This theme regarding the importance of names provides a nice segue to our book discussion next month when we will compare and contrast two books in which a murder victim who is given no name in the first is purposefully named in the second:

The Stranger by Albert Camus
AND
The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

So, for two full months now I appreciate having an opportunity to contemplate in some depth the meaning of Roger Kuhrt’s last words to me.

Ron Boothe
psyrgb@emory.edu

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About Ron Boothe

I am a retired professor of psychology living in Tacoma Washington USA.
This entry was posted in 2015 Selections, Omeros and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Major Themes in Derek Walcott’s Omeros: IV. The Importance of Names of Things

  1. Ron Boothe says:

    Here are a few quotes taken from The Meursault Investigation that relate to the issue of names:

    p. 1 –“[Meursault] was such a good storyteller, he managed to make people forget his crime, whereas the [Arab] was a poor illiterate God created apparently for the sole purpose of taking a bullet and returning to dust — an anonymous person who didn’t even have the time to be given a name.”

    p. 3 — “[Meursault] could have called [Musa] “Two P.M.,” like that other writer who called his black man “Friday.”

    p. 13 — “For centuries, the settler increases his fortune, giving names to whatever he appropriates and taking them away from whatever makes him feel uncomfortable. If he calls my brother “the Arab,” it’s so he can kill him the way one kills time,”

    p. 14 — “Musa, Musa, Musa … I like to repeat that name from time to time so it doesn’t disappear. I insist on that, and I want you to write it in big letters. Half a century after his birth and death, a man has just been given a name…. By the way, what’s your name?”

    p. 22 — “My countrymen have a habit of calling anybody they don’t know ‘Mohammed,’ but the name I give everyone is ‘Musa.’ That’s also our barman’s name, … It’s as important to give a dead man a name as it is to name a newborn infant.”

    p. 37 — “Books and your hero’s language gradually enabled me to name things differently and to organize the world with my own words.”

    p. 52 — “Books and your hero’s language gradually enabled me to name things differently and to organize the world with my own words.”

    p. 100 — “For a brief while, I knew your hero’s genius: the ability to tear open the common, everyday language and emerge on the other side, where a more devastating language is waiting to narrate the world in another way.”

    p. 100 — “Imagine a dying man and the words he says. That’s your hero’s genius: He describes the world as if he’s going to die at any moment, as if he has to choose his words with an economy”

    p. 130 — “it was like reading a book written by God himself. A veritable shock, that’s what it was. Everything was there except the essential thing: Musa’s name!”

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