Some years ago I was suffering from serious depression. To try and cure myself, I embarked on a study of perfume. Perfume, I thought, would help me “live in the moment” because it was the most transient and illusory of all art forms. And it did alleviate depression. I fondly remember the many hours I spent sniffing at Sephora and writing rapturous reviews on perfume blogs. My wife bought me a home perfumery kit called “The Perfumer’s Apprentice” which contained vials filled with two dozen of the raw ingredients commonly used in perfumes. I have to admit, I have a terrible nose, and would have been a rubbish perfumer. But studying these raw ingredients did help me recognise and name some of the aromatic “notes” I perceived, or thought I perceived, in the perfumes I sampled. Being able to detect and differentiate between these notes opened up a whole new world of sensual pleasure of which I had been completely unaware.
That is the power of naming. When something has a name, it pops out of the faceless crowd. When I learned the names for the various aromas, I could distinguish them within the beautiful bouquet of a perfume, all of which had been heretofore, completely invisible to me, a mere “pleasant smell.” The great poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had a similar epiphany when he read a book on the classification of clouds called, On the Modifications of Clouds, &c. After reading the book, Goethe felt profoundly altered by his new ability to recognise and name the various types of cloud formations. He began writing fan mail to the scientist who had written the book, Luke Howard. These letters were filled with evocative poems depicting different types of clouds: stratus, cirrus, cumulous:
Still soaring, as if some celestial call
Impell’d it to yon heaven’s sublimest hall;
High as the clouds, in pomp and power arrayed,
Enshrined in strength, in majesty displayed;
All the soul’s secret thoughts it seems to move,
Beneath it trembles, while it frowns above.
Radiolab has a fascinating episode on the colour “blue,” which ancient civilisations had no word for. Homer’s works are filled with references to various colours, but no mention of the colour blue. His is not a “beautiful blue sea,” but a “wine dark sea.” The word “blue” was only invented once mankind learned to artificially create the colour, a colour which was very difficult for ancient peoples to manufacture. One scientist decided to test this strange fact out on her young daughter. As she taught her daughter all the colours, she was careful to avoid naming the colour blue. Together they would take walks and she would test her daughter on all the colours they saw around them. After a few months of this, she finally pointed up at the sky and said, “what colour is that?” The daughter looked confused. She couldn’t understand the question. There was no colour up in the sky. Without a word for it, there was nothing there to recognise!
Adam in the Garden
Of all the gifts God gave Adam and Eve in the garden, perhaps His most precious and transformative was the ability to name things. “So Adam gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.” I’ve blogged before about feral children who are raised by animals and never learn to speak. It’s almost as if they are an entirely different species, behaving like animals: focused on food and physical survival, displaying the same kind of wild innocence and intellectual limitation that great apes display when they are introduced into the human world. Even when great care is taken to rehabilitate them, they sometimes never learn to speak a language or behave in any kind of normal way in society. In a very real way, humankind’s transformation from beast to man was made possible by the ability to name things, and without that, there is not much left of us that is still human.
But naming things is not simply a way to facilitate communication. Naming is an act of creation. The colour blue was literally absent from the eyes of the ancients, until they had created their own version of it. Then they recognised in God’s creation, something that resembled their own creation. Part of being “created in the image of God” is that, like the Gods, we have the ability to bring things forth out of the chaos of creation by naming them.
Additionally, naming is the first step in the process of “having dominion” over the earth. We frequently hear accusations of “labelling” here on the bloggernacle: you are either “conservative,” “liberal,” “orthodox,”etc. When you label something, you exercise a kind of dominion over it. Our minds recreate the world we see around us, but everything we see in our mind has little labels attached to it. These labels are an additional act of creation. They take the object we see and enhance or distort it, according to the label. The world we see around us is not the real world. It is a world enhanced by the constant photoshopping of our mind. We then treat other people, not as they are, but as we are, or as we see them, which will always be a distortion of their true identity.
Google has an algorithm which helps computers recognise the objects images it comes across. But our uniquely human ability to name things is so complicated that today’s computers struggle to identify objects as a human would. There is a whole new form of art called Inceptionism which uses the algorithm’s imperfections to create surreal new images. It makes you wonder how the world might look to someone without any of the names, labels and symbols we unconsciously project upon everything we see. How would it look to an animal, or to a God? Or most importantly of all, how are we distorting the world we see around us through the imperfections in our own cultural “algorithms.” What do we see as ugly, or beautiful, or frightening, or horrific, which may not actually be so at all?
“In The Beginning Was The Word”
I’m not much of a Biblical scholar, so I won’t venture too far into the etymology of “the word” or “logos” in the original Greek. But I find there is great resonance with idea of “God as Word” in LDS theology. The LDS God is an organiser. He doesn’t create the world ex nihilo, but organises it out of existing elements. Theologian Marvin R. Vincent wrote of the “logos” from John 1:1
“the primitive meaning of which is to lay: then, to pick out, gather, pick up: hence to gather or put words together, and so, to speak. Hence “logos” is, first of all, a collecting or collection both of things in the mind, and of words by which they are expressed.”
When we name something, we bring it forth from the chaos and disorder of the universe, like God separating the light from the darkness. It is an act of creation AND an act of dominion. We become co-creators with God in the new worlds we bring forth in our minds.
“I Hate Botany But I Love Flowers”
There is a well known but unattributed quote that goes: “I hate botany but I love flowers. I hate theology but I love religion.” This quote highlights the drawbacks of naming. A botanist might miss some of the overall beauty in a flower when he can name every one of it’s component parts. A theologian might become distracted by the minutia of theology and miss out on the beautiful mystery of faith. But I question whether this is really true. My experience with perfume taught me that when I learned the names of the various aromas in a perfume, my experience of the perfume was exponentially enriched. I believe this would certainly be true for a botanist and a theologian as well. The more we know and name, the richer our experience of life becomes.
- Do you agree that naming the things we see enhances our experience of them?
- Or do you “hate botany but love flowers?” Does too much naming take away some sense of mystery?
- Do you agree that “labelling” is a way of exercising dominion over something, a practice that can be used for both good and evil?