The Unsustainable Name

There was an amusing piece on NPR a few days ago:  When Hyphen Boy Meets Hyphen Girl, Names Pile Up.  It introduces a young couple, Brendan Greene-Walsh and Leila Rather-Knowles, who have absolutely no idea what they will end up calling themselves if they ever get married.  Do they keep all of their last names?  Or some of them, or some parts of them?  Or none?

"We can go the route of Prince and just drop our last names just, be like, 'I'm Brendan.' " — The Brendan formerly known as Brendan Greene-Walsh.

Things will only get more complicated if they have children.  The NPR story goes on:

 Hyphenating has waned since its peak in the '80s and '90s, in part, experts say, because it's become less of a feminist statement and more of a bureaucratic nightmare.

 But also — as most "hyphens" will now tell you — it wasn't really sustainable anyway.  Hyphenating was destined to hit a wall after one generation.

What will happen next?  A return to the practice of simply taking your husband's name, and passing it to your children?  Or something new?

Even if we do lose a generations-old practice of keeping the family name, we're not losing much.  My maiden name, for instance, is French, though our family is not.  The story is that my Russian/Polish/Lithuanian/Whatever-Side-of-the-Shifting-Eastern-European-Borders-Their-Shtetl-Happened-to-Be-On ancestors made their way to the New World on a French boat, and some overworked official made the switch, either translating the name, or just not listening very hard, Vito Corleone-style.

So when I got married, the maiden name I gave up was only about ninety years old, and my own great-grandparents wouldn't have recognized me as a relative.

Ah, you say, but at least I took on my husband's name, with a rich history of its own!  Not so fast.  Apparently the auspicious name of "Fisher" was invented out of whole cloth for the purpose of making a fairly recent ancestor hard to find, after he did something that made a lot of angry people want to find him.

So if I had wanted to go all equal opportunity when naming our children, they would have been preserving nothing but made-up information.  And this phenomenon is, of course, extremely common in the United States:  slaves took their masters' names, or became known as "Freeman."  I knew a guy whose ancestor went from "Esterhazy" to "Skinner" in one generation, after a precipitous fall from grace.  And in some countries, there are so few last names that they hardly serve as identifiers.  ("Oh, you're going to Vietnam?  If you happen to run across my old buddy, name of 'Nguyen,' tell him I said 'hi!'")  Trace your ancestry back far enough, and you're guaranteed to hit a dead end or a question mark, or a lie.

It's not an ethical question, of course.  People chose their last names for a wide variety of practical, emotional, and sociological reasons.  The urge to hyphenate out of a sense of equality is odd, though, because it looks, from the outside, like we are giving a nod to history -- acknowledging our ancestors, maybe equipping our children to go forth into the world with an arsenal of Lares to anchor them in history.

But in truth, giving them more names than they can sustain is probably more an unconscious act of isolation:  you have a name that nobody else has ever had, and which nobody else ever will have.  Anyone who has kids knows that if you bundle them up too much, they'll overcorrect, and end up running around in the snow in an undershirt and flip flops, just to rid themselves of your burdensome care.

So hyphenating doesn't preserve anything; but neither, necessarily, does choosing one name and sticking with it.  It makes me wonder what, exactly, we're trying to achieve when we preserve a family name.

In the Bible, God shows no particular reverence for ancestral names:  Abram becomes Abraham, Jacob becomes Israel, Simon becomes Peter, to signify that the man himself has changed interiorly.  The name changes aren't certificates of achievement, either.  They are forward looking:  they are charters or commissions.  The new name describes what the person must do and must be:  be the Father of a Nation (or possibly something even more densely significant ); be the rock on which Christ will build His Church.

When we name, we limit.  By definition, we isolate.  But when God makes up a new name, it has the opposite effect.  Yes, it sets him apart from other men, but it binds him to the community in a life-changing way.

My sister Devra Torres very engagingly begins to discuss this relationship between the individual and his community in her recent post for The Personalist Project.  She quotes Dr. John Crosby: 

 [P]ersons are never mere parts in any social whole; we never exist in a social whole in the way in which organs and cells exist in a body.  A human society is not a whole composed of parts, but rather, in the felicitous expression of Maritain, a whole composed of wholes.
 The interiority of a person does not isolate a person from others, but rather opens him or her to others.  Personalists refuse to think about social life only in terms of rights and of protection against intruders; they also think in terms of solidarity and co-responsibility.

I was thinking over these things as I drove around this morning -- wondering about names, wondering about fitting in to the family of man, wondering about what we should try to sustain, and what we should abandon.  As I zipped along, the lush, overwhelming green of midsummer maples suddenly gave way to a wide open sky beside the highway, and I had my first clear view of the mountain that is central to the little towns I traveled through.  

And then I realized that the clear cut space was a cemetery.  At first it seemed odd:  the most spectacular view for miles around, and not a single live person to enjoy it!

But then it made perfect sense.  There are the dead, our ancestors, staking out a claim for the family of man.  Keeping the ground clear, reserving a spot while the rest of us go about our work.

I was driving too fast to read any of the names on the stones.  I suppose they might as well have been my own last name.