The Book of True Names
I never learned who gave me the book. It appeared in my study the day after one of my parties. In those days I was in the habit of giving large parties with a wild mix of people, only half of whom I knew. I knew quite a few strange people and I invited them all. I didn’t find the book immediately. My first concern was to feed breakfast and coffee to those of my guests who had never quite made it home and had collapsed on the floor instead. Once I had cleared out the remnants of my guest list and fortified myself with several pots of coffee I concentrated on clearing out the litter and debris left by the celebrants.
It wasn’t until much later that day, well into the evening, that I noticed the book. You should understand that I wouldn’t have noticed the odd extra book or two in my study. It was always cluttered with books, many of which I had acquired for reasons I no longer remembered. One more book amidst the mess would have scarcely been noticed. This book, however, was extraordinary.
It was old. That was obvious. The cover was a leather binding in a style fashionable some centuries ago. There was no message with it, only the book itself. There was no title on the cover; instead of a title there were only elaborate arabesques in worn gilt. I opened it. Inside there was a preface handwritten in Latin in beautiful calligraphy. My Latin had faded sometime ago so I leafed through the pages. As far as I could see each page had a picture accompanied by some text in an incomprehensible script. I idly turned the pages and then, quite to my amazement, I found my own likeness accompanied by a strange word in modern orthography.
I was, to say the least, stunned. I examined the page carefully. It was evident that the page was an integral part of the book. Moreover there was every indication that the tome was of great antiquity. The obvious explanation was that the book was some kind of elaborate hoax, but the more I thought about it, the more that seemed to me to be unlikely. It would have been expensive and pointless. Finally it occurred to me that it was not my face but rather that of some medieval person who had my likeness, and that someone, having noticed the resemblance, left it in my study as a conundrum for me to puzzle over. This explanation did not account for the orthography gracing my portrait, but I glossed over that.
Puzzled, I turned to the preface. Caesar’s Commentaries happened long ago, both in the years of the world and in my own. The text was mostly incomprehensible to me. Fortunately I had a Latin dictionary and a grammar in my study. I dusted them off and sat down to translating the preface. As far as I could tell it read something like this:
Herein I have transcribed those true names that my scholarship has revealed. No man can grasp the true name of ought other than himself until he has first known his own true name. This volume is spelled so that the reader’s likeness and his own true name will be revealed to him.I began to understand. One of the oldest beliefs of humanity is that every being, be it animal, vegetable, or mineral, has an essence and a true name that contains and reflects its essence. One of the great principles of magic is that knowing the true name of something gives one power over that something. Modern philosophers and linguists have convincingly established that this ancient belief is mere superstition. I believed them to be right, and yet this tome, this book of true names, confidently proclaimed the truth of the ancient superstition. No doubt, I thought, the tome was humbuggery and the author deluded. Still, how delightful it would be if this were in fact a real book of true names.
I turned back to my portrait and studied the text that accompanied it. It ran to a number of lines. Evidently it was not enough to silently read the name. It was necessary to speak the name. This I was sure of – by all accounts one acquired the power of the true name by speaking it.
If the volume were a hoax or a bit of medieval mumbo-jumbo (as I suspected) there was nothing to be gained or lost by speaking that word of many lines. Suppose, however, that it were true. The philosophers sing of the virtue of self-knowledge, but it is noticeable that philosophers are generally mad. There are those who say, quite correctly I suspect, that our very sanity depends upon a certain amount of convenient self-deception. Would it be safe, I wondered, to access one’s true essence?
At length I realized I had to take the chance. If I did not read that cryptic word aloud I would always wonder about what would have happened if I had. Then, too, I am of the modern age in which science says that all questions may be asked and all answers may be sought. Not only may they be, it is a moral duty to ask and seek answers.
I studied the text carefully and rehearsed each of the many syllables. I gathered my breath and in the most eloquent tones that I could muster I began to speak. As the syllables rolled out the words began to glow, first just noticeably and then brighter and brighter. Suddenly, without warning, the page went blank. My portrait and my true name were gone, and no puzzling or effort on my part could restore them.
I have no certainty but this is what I think happened: Like many people my reading vocabulary is greater than my oral vocabulary. There are many words that I recognize in text that I have never heard in speech. Being part of my vocabulary I use these words and, having never heard them pronounced correctly, I sometimes mispronounce them. That is what I think happened – I had mispronounced my own true name.
If ever the book had utility it had none now. None of my friends would admit to having provided it. In the end I gave it to a former lover. We had parted on unpleasant terms but she was intelligent. Perhaps she could make something of it. I do not know if she did – she never spoke to me again. That was as it should be; every book should have a happy ending.
This page was last updated January 1, 2002.