Naming Names by Klaus Kertess

BOMB 16 Summer 1986
016 Summer 1986

When his father died, he became more capable of controlling his name. Usurping the name is the son’s real threat to the father—not usurping the mother. The name often means more than the mother.

If his surname had spelled tyranny for some 20 years of his life, his so-called Christian name had provided him with nothing but pleasure and protection. How securely, if not always serenely, he had sailed through sundry storms lashed to the mast of his Christian capital K. It mattered but little that this name was frequently punished with mispronunciation; to him, it always rang clearly. Clear and round, efficient and firm—juicily concise. Not quite common in German, unheard in English; the name gave grace to his alienation—perhaps even imposed that alienation before he was capable of choice. Seeming strangeness provided his vulnerability with a natural buffer, protecting him from the arrogance of intimacy so often prematurely proposed.

Extruded from Nikolaus but, happily not from Claude; for Claude, like Claudia, meant “lame.” What, if anything, Nikolaus or Nicholas meant he did not know. He only knew that the name was encumbered with the prefix “Santa” at Christmas time; and that this encumbrance was frequently mockingly extended to his name too. But K protected him from mispronunciation’s sting—it could always be seen, if not properly heard.

The K of his surname provided none of the solace of the Christian K. The visual pleasure of the repetition of the premier K was all but lost in the stumbling configuration of the surname’s pronunciation. His grandfather had uprooted the name, pruning the z at the end of its branch and grafting on a second s, perhaps thinking it would facilitate the name’s transplantation from Hungarian to German enunciation—or, perhaps, like Balzac, imputing a sinister connotation to its buzz. The name lost not only its nationality and meaning but also its ability to conform to a single and proper pronunciation. A hybrid that resisted first German, then American tongues. Whether the first or the second syllable was to receive emphasis was never properly resolved. In America, little care at all was lavished on its pronunciation; while it could still be seen, its sound was quickly overgrown by the hardier coarseness of “Curtis.” “Curtis with a K”; and then the spelling would begin.

The grandfather had compromised his self-willed uniqueness with incompleteness and, willingly or not, willed it to his son. It was the son’s incompleteness that had so tyrannized the grandson. The grandson said to look so like the late grandfather, grew up in the shadow of his own father’s absence. An absence first sporadic, then, for five years, constant. Even after his return, the father remained incomplete. And, even when, many years later, the crime responsible for the absence, was sketchily explained, the absence stubbornly persisted. And still later, even after endlessly reading legal records and hearings and searching out newspaper accounts so that he might declare his own sentence on the defendant, the absence still outweighed the crime.

As a child, he felt no concern for the meaning or even the spelling of his surname. He sought neither to define it nor to change it but simply to replace it with the name of another. As soon as he was able to write legibly, he composed and often launched plaintiff missiles, first to baseball stars, and subsequently to painters, pleading for a response, a signature, a meeting—any sign at all that would give footing to his fantasy. No new name at all was proffered. Fatedly and/or unwittingly he had addressed surrogates, perhaps more complete than his father, but certainly even less willing to fulfill the duties he so desired. How was he to know, then, that Picasso, too, had turned away from the progeny he had propagated?

Being neither excessively morbid nor masochistic, he slowly ceased his search for another surname—he replaced himself instead of his surname. Still young enough not to require much exercise of his second name, he set about dreaming his first name through the ages. While his peers engaged in the early development of athletic and social skills, he refined and embellished his loneliness. Drawing and dreaming, reading and dreaming, looking at his mother’s art books and dreaming—swimming the Helespont with Richard Haliburton, trekking though Tibet with Lowell Thomas, galloping at Sir Galahad’s side, trying to copy the innocently resilient smile of Botticelli’s Spring with his mouth and his hand, weaving his eyes into the voluptuous intricacy of the vast Oriental carpet that transformed the living room floor into a dark forest of silken delight. All this came to an abrupt but not conclusive halt when his grandmother barged into his bathroom to discover him anxiously but lavishly stroking into stiffness the offensive organ that she had previously convinced him demanded only to be cleansed and well hidden.

His cock pushed him back into the present. Oblivious to the rules and regularity of his grandmother’s Germanic training, his cock rudely interrupted and intruded upon his hermetic musings making urgent demands for recognition and release. Imperious orders that, when not immediately and voluntarily obeyed, would be involuntarily fulfilled, nocturnally, discomforting his sleep with gelatinous dampness. He greeted the eruptions of his penis with the same misgivings as the curly script suddenly and softly spelling out adolescence on sundry parts of his body. Having denied or, perhaps, having been denied, the physicality of his being, he had no immediate means of integrating the pleasures of masturbation into his life. In confusion, he incapacitated his cock with wheezing fits of asthma, convinced these were a grandmotherly visitation rather than self-willed flagellation. Some years would still have to pass before he would stop endowing his sex organ with an independent personality and will.

The ambiguous worldliness now burdening his consciousness made it impossible to maintain his Christian name as his sole signifier. The everyday world’s regimentation required the second K. He could no more ignore the appendage of the second K than he could his cock. But his name was not as irrevocable as his cock; and he recommenced dreaming endlessly of its possible variations and mutations. Like a minor but compelling annoying birth defect, the awkwardness of his surname might well be corrected with some simple act of surgery. Curtis was now the most obvious solution.

Why not make the spelling more truly conform to the tongue? Curtis would automatically endow him with a more conventional citizenship and bring stumbling spellings and mispronunciations to an immediate halt. Alas, a look in the phone book convinced him that this was too large a herd for him to join—more community than he could tolerate. Then, too, he would have to convert the Christian K to C; and, unless he wished to be a year-round Christmas harbinger, Charles would be his only tolerable choice. Charles Curtis. C. C. not K. K. He might as well be a Smith. The primary K was too crucial to recant.

(He did, nonetheless, much later assume Charles Curtis as his name, but only in the phone directory. He needed to impede public access to his name, when he became convinced it had been depleted by a career he could no longer tolerate. Charles Curtis provided a temporary cocoon for what he hoped would be his final metamorphosis. The name’s empty shell, to this day, can still be found in the directory.)

A compromise that contained the missing z comprised the next solution. Curtiz. An efficient solution, concise and clear in its visual and verbal congruence, while finally encouraging the Hungarian root to flourish in American soil. At once ordinary and extraordinary. But under the stress of repetition, the name flattened and fizzled out. Curtiz, Curtiz, Curtiz. The mundane uniqueness too readily aligned itself with the sounds that designate designer jeans, fast food emporiums, and Hollywood stars of the ’40s and ’50s. Stars with names like Betty Grable, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe—names more often than not invented to transform awkward uniqueness into an icon of glamorous banality. What would have been the fate of Archibald Leach had he not become Cary Grant or Frances Gumm had she not become Judy Garland? Names simultaneously ordinary enough to receive and extraordinary enough to transmit dreams. Names denoting aloof but accessible popular idols soon to be dethroned by television’s demands for democratization—turning stars into domestic celebrities with names that bespeak a blander, porous individuality. A more secular Hollywood would produce names like Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, and Glenn Close. Curtiz was not only of another era, it demanded a life he was not prepared to lead. He preferred the more remote insistence of certain painters’ and writers’ names: Bonnard, Pollock, Twombly, Faulkner, Butor, Calvino, Tournier.

If Curtiz was too benign and too brittle in both sound and sight, Cortés was obviously too extravagant in its associativeness. Nonetheless, Cortés became a name he frequently dreamed into. Its crisp C was oddly but suavely symbiotic with his Christian K; the German flowed smoothly into the simple lushness of the Spanish. (Italy was his first love, but almost any Mediterranean partnership would do). Then, too, there was the connection of the missing z; frequently z finalized Cortés’s name instead of the more familiar s. Cortés’ Christian name, Hernán (or Hernando), endowed a melodic smoothness to the dank awkwardness of his own father’s Ferdinand.

The seduction of the sound was initially compounded by the glamour and the glory of the New World’s first true genius—a cowboy emperor, a cross between John Wayne and Machiavelli whose reckless bravery was matched only by the multi-faceted brilliance of his ability to strategize. Fully aware that he was vastly outnumbered and geographically estranged, he, nonetheless, burned all his ships to forestall any potential mutiny by his men. He knew not only how to take advantage of Montezuma’s equivocation and form alliances with his enemies but how to become a link in the closed chain of the Aztecs’ cyclical history. The Aztecs, who knew nothing new, were prepared to receive this fabulous horse-bound stranger as the reincarnation of their great god Quetzlcoatl; Cortés who knew and was the new, quickly capitalized on the confusion caused by this celestial camouflage.

Cortés inflamed the fantasy of the still too passive adolescent. The inexplicable and unbidden embarrassment of the itching bulge that so frequently inflated his crotch began to appear increasingly in conjunction with one or another Cortés reverie—now holding out the possibility of not only comprehensibility but willed pleasure. Pleasure safer than that he took from the fierce embraces of the bloated wrestlers furtively watched on his parent’s television screen or the regimented violence of the local high school’s football team. But, as he grew older, Cortés became increasingly uncomfortable and, finally, totally untenable in all but the satisfaction of its sound. The name that had so oddly and obliquely lightened the unnecessary but ponderous guilt of his puberty, slowly, itself, became a generator of guilt.

The bravery denoted by Cortés dissolved in sheerest brutality as fantasy’s fables were forced to yield to the cooler chronicles of history. No amount of whitewash could cover the blood spilled by Cortés and his men—Christians professing horror at Aztec human sacrifice replaced that sacrifice with massacre so total as to be incomprehensible. Directly and indirectly Cortés’s conquest of Mexico wiped out 90 million lives, and, if it mattered, a culture which Cortés professed to admire. Was Hitler more human for having annihilated a mere six million? Six million, too, was incomprehensible. So incomprehensible that, like infinity, it had to be ignored, if life was to go on. Indeed, it required more imagination to comprehend Cortés as human than it did to conceive of him as the cataclysmic second coming of Quetzlcoatl. Likewise Hitler. Hitler and Cortés became one; the colossal cowboy turned into the snivelling, screeching demon of the holocaust. But Cortés could more easily be repressed than Hitler, whose smoldering ashes had not altogether hardened into history. The Cortés of Hitler would cause his new guilt.

The ambivalence of and toward his own Germanness brought new confusion to his adolescence. He who was born into the possibility of peaceful sleep while Europe was convulsed in the conflagration of Hitler’s deliriously evil nightmare; he whose father had left Germany long before synagogues had started to burn but who had not severed his ties to those too blind, too vulnerable, too greedy, or too desperate to protest the visibly mounting madness; he whose two unknown aunts were incinerated at Auschwitz while several of their brothers marched relentlessly towards Stalingrad in the front ranks of the Master Race; he whose grandfather may well have replaced the z at his surname’s end to blur his earlier Jewishness—he pondered the possibility of taking one of the names so arbitrarily imposed upon Jews in 19th-century Germany, so that he might block the passage of any guilt from the father to the son. But the very vagueness of his father’s guilt ruled out such a radical martyrdom of his name. Murky mauveness was the reality of his state—Gelb or Blau, even Schwarz or Weiss, would not provide him with a stronger profile. How much more defined his life would be had his father been the spy he had been suspected of being. A post-college year of work and study in Germany made nothing more concrete. Perhaps his heritage was moot. Besides, his still retarded sexuality was becoming a more urgent issue than the extent or intent of his Germanness.

The continued growth of the irrelevance of his heritage would only be interrupted when the war in Vietnam reinfected him with the virus of guilt. The deceit and demagoguery of his own elected government filled him with the fear of being a complicitous “good German.” He became instead a bad American, rapidly moving from protest marches to more forbidden mayhem. The surprising loudness of his voice was, at least partially, fired by the low-grade fever of his guilt. Had he not also finally found a target for his largely repressed rage at his father, or was he simply acting out the suggestions of his psychoanalyst?

The actual death of his father occurred quite early in the escalation of the war and left the son quite untouched. For two years prior to his decease, the grim triteness of death’s design had duplicated the father’s earlier absence with a totally debilitating stroke that ruled out all conventional hopes and expectations of a meaningful end. His father simply reverted to absence; but, now, he was meant to be absent. Some years were still to pass before the son found any pleasurable substance, even some love, in the remembrance of his father’s presence.

Even before his father’s death, he had begun to acquiesce to the second K; he no longer considered a change of surname as the key to a yearned-for new karma. Enough history had accumulated for his name and he to spell each other. The first and second K were no longer out of kilter; the surname’s two final s’s had lost most of their alien hiss. While the missing z no longer troubled him, he did yearn for a kind of kinship with someone who had permitted the Hungarian root to grow. The z, more than the elegant and casual clarity of his art, initially kindled his keen interest in André Kertèsz. André Kertèsz, born Andor Kertèsz, with utmost economy, had modified his Christian name to create a knightly courtship between French and Hungarian—deleting a slightly mushy o and adding the crisp sleekness of an accented e that clarified and complemented the softer e’s of his surname, the felicitous union of his names must surely have accelerated his success in Paris, just as it undoubtedly delayed his acceptance in America. Kertèsz and he shared the same astrological sign; Kertèsz was one of his father’s age and lived just around the corner. But it was now too late to delegate to Kertèsz the posture of a surrogate, just as it was too late for him to retrieve and re-graft the missing z.

Kertèsz could certainly be a model if not a surrogate. His seemingly effortless mastery of his medium made his methods more than worthy of emulation. He who early knew, as well as any painter or writer, and surely better than any other photographer, how to mirror the 20th-century’s dynamic fragmentation in the isolation and distillation of detail—detail that coalesced in a silvery brew to reflect the transparent planes of the kaleidoscope of consciousness. He whose photographs invented the mobility of the handheld camera even before it occurred to Leica’s technicians; he who used his lens not as a weapon to vulgarly invade privacy but as a discreet validation of the voyeurism that marks the planes of all creation; he who could so gracefully turn the dizzying heights and vistas viewed from his urban tower into profoundly contradictory flatness that simultaneously orchestrates the flatness of the image’s support and the distanced gaze of old age; he who made a still life of his self—he could teach him how to embrace the uncertainty of his name and extrude a totality from its tentativeness.

Klaus Kertess writes fiction and art criticism.

Zig Zag: A Memoir by Klaus Kertess
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016 Summer 1986