Ok, so what's this all about, here?
Well, after a great deal of thought I've decided to legally change my name. Over the years I've grown increasingly tired of trying to explain to everyone that my name is Benjamin Scott-Hopkins--no, Scott-Hopkins is my last name. Yes, all of it. No, I'm not Scott Hopkins, and no, Scott isn't my middle name. Look under S, you'll find it there. Unless it was misfiled. It's a terribly minor hassle that I go through multiple times a day.
This new idea occurred to me when my good friend told me that she was going to change her last name to Lysander, because Otis didn't really fit (I think Otis is a fine name, but I totally see what she means). This was a revelation to me--folks can just up and change their own names!? But, but, names are Destiny! Given at birth, they have a mystical hold over you and you can't just change them on your own! Except, apparently you can--there's a simple legal procedure, a hefty fee, and an awful lot of paperwork.
Destiny? Mystical holds? I thought you were an atheist?
Well, exactly. It took me a while, but I finally remembered that I don't believe in all that stuff. My parents are just folks, and my name is just a name, and it isn't engraved eternal upon my soul. In fact, I don't have a soul for such things to be engraved upon; the whole thing is silly. If I want to change it, there's really no reason I shouldn't. Some people get "Thug Life" tattooed on their face--this is a lot less permanent.
Hey, did you ever read that book by Robertson Davies?
Fifth Business? I did, a while ago. I suppose this makes me one of the twice-born.
So are you striking out against you parents, then? Or disowning your family line?
Not at all--it is very important to me that everyone realize that I mean no disrespect to the Scotts or to the Hopkins in my past. (Nor to my father--his first name was my middle name, but it never had any really connection to me. He's Bob, I'm Benjamin, and I tried to go by Robert in High School but it just felt weird). I love my parents very much, and I owe them both a great deal.
I'm also quite proud of my family line. My great-grandfather1 was the head of the School of Engineering at Duke, my grandfather Scott founded the Psychology department at Winthrop University. My grandmother Scott continues to serve as an inspiration to me--she was the first in the family to get on a computer (back in 1987!) and has continued to keep up to date. At the age of 85 she's as vibrant and active as ever, touring the world--a real role model.
I know my Hopkins ancestors less well, but I'm just as proud of them. My grandmother Hopkins lived in Australia, where she met my grandad during World War II. Grandad Hopkins was career military to the extreme--he started in the Army, decided that that was too dangerous and joined the Navy, where he was transferred to Pearl Harbor a few weeks before December 7th. Surviving that, he served on the submarine the USS Cod, which is on display in Cleveland. He went on to serve in every branch of the military, retiring as a diving instructor for the Air Force.
So no, my changing my last name has nothing whatsoever to do with a renunciation of my family, and there is no reason to suspect that it might be so. In my culture, for example, women frequently give up their last name upon marriage, but no parental disrespect is intended.
When my parents got married, Bob Hopkins and Elisabeth Scott both took a new name: Scott-Hopkins, which I think is quite admirable. However, they got divorced in 1985, and eventually reverted to their original names. I learned recently that my mother had always expected that I, too, would eventually change my name to a non-hyphenated version. She made it very clear to me that she wouldn't be at all offended if I chose Hopkins instead of Scott, but she hadn't really considered that I'd take neither.
So why didn't you become Benjamin Scott Hopkins, or Benjamin Hopkins Scott or Benjamin Robert Hopkins?
Well, if one believes in the mystical attachment of names, then one believes that they are sacred and can't be changed. However, once I got over that superstition, I realized that I could change my name to anything. For several months I played the, "Hey, that would make a great name for me!" game, mostly to get myself used to the idea that it was really something I was allowed to do. I would joke around, and whenever I heard a phrase with a nice meter I'd suggest it. "Lower Dorchester? That's it! I could be Mr. Lower Dorchester!"
I was also playing around with names like Whirr, or Squid Voltaire. I was more serious about these, but never really considered them as actual candidates either--I was testing the waters and growing accustomed to the idea. At first it seemed so outlandish that I'd change my name at all, but it seemed that if it was even remotely conceivable that I might change my name to Squid Voltaire (and it is possible to do so... the government would let me, if I wanted to) then it felt even more likely that I could give myself a new name that was more reasonable.
Most recently I considered changing my last name to Los, after Blake's blacksmith god. This seemed like a decent name that did what I wanted it to, and didn't seem as silly as I fear Dionysus might seem. Ultimately, though, it became clear to me that I really liked the name Dionysus, silly or not. It feels right and it feels special.
Do names have meaning?
Well, I think they should. One reason I had for not keeping Scott or Hopkins is that neither of them says anything about me directly. They both say things about my ancestry (of which, as I say, I'm quite proud) but not about me. I wear a kilt, I've been to Edinburgh, but I'm certainly not a Scot2. "Hopkins", I just learned today was a diminutive of "Hobb", which was a nickname for "Robert". This is my middle name, after my father, but I've never been able to use it and have no attachment to it. According to a hasty internet search, "Robert" means "Bright Fame". I've no object to bright fame, but that's hardly what I stand for.
So your name has to stand for something?
Ideally, it should. When someone says, "Who are you?" there's a sense that they're asking for something more meaningful than a mere Identification Code. That's why people find jokes about "Ima Hogg" to be so amusing, because there is an idea that her name said something about who she was as a person3.
So who are you? What do you stand for?
I think the best answer to that is that I stand for Truth and for Beauty, in equal measure. Truth without Beauty is terror, and Beauty without Truth is madness4. When I say "Truth" and "Beauty", I mean, in my overly-pretentious lingo, the two contradictory and complementary ways of viewing the world. Not entirely dissimilar to Yin and Yang, really.
Er... care to expand on that a bit?
Well, ok. You asked for it. When I say "Truth", I mean the way of viewing the world that involves a rigorous analysis of the evidence in order to determine the actual facts at hand.
My belief in Truth means that I reject faith as a way of viewing the world. Through rational thought, one can determine the way things work. Thus we have Science, which has given us Agriculture and the Nintendo Wii and my asthma medication.5 Ghosts, demons, gods, psychics and the Higgs-Boson particle might all be real, but if so, they are real in the same way that concrete and plastic are real--they all must follow the same rules, and they all behave predictably within them.
Now it's true that I can't predict what you'll say next week, but I can predict that you won't turn into a mouse or fly off into space--that would be against the rules. Nor am I claiming to understand all the rules! I don't even understand Newtonian Physics very well, and they discredited that system a hundred years ago. But there are rules to be understood, and as a community we are understanding them better and better as time goes on. Einstein overthrew Newton, and before long someone will overthrow Einstein, and each time the world becomes easier and easier to understand. Each time it does, we gain more and more power over it.
To live a good life, one must reject superstition, fear and hatred and concentrate on what is actually going on, instead of focusing on what one wishes was going on. It's not a very unique philosophy, but a core one for me. My belief in Truth is a fundamental part of who I am. And yes, my belief in Truth is grounded in faith.6
Um. Yes, lovely. You've clearly spent a lot of late nights chatting with your friends in college. Now what's all this about Beauty?
Well, a few years ago I began to realize that Truth by itself isn't enough. Analysis and logic only get you so far, which is to say about as far as my laptop. Truth may be true, but it's very cold and not always very useful. When I speak of "Beauty" I mean not just the visually beautiful (the sunsets, the paintings, the nakedness of woman) nor merely the sensually beautiful (chocolate, endorphins, my cat) but the way of looking at the world that embraces the Experiential and excludes the Analytic. Seeing the world through Beauty involves embracing a lot of contradictions, because it is a non-rational viewpoint. Instinct and emotion are more important than facts and equations, and it is better to glory in the music than to determine the key.
It isn't difficult to write about this sort of thing, but it's impossible to write about it coherently. By its nature Beauty is subjective, and impossible to quantify. I could try to write a song about it, but even then you can never know what I'm feeling, or what it's like to be me.
There have been a lot of folks who have attempted to write about Beauty, though, and they've done so much better than I could. William Blake has been very important to me in understanding this side of myself, as has what little I know of Buddhism. When Christ talks about loving mankind even though they're going to torture and murder him, that's the sort of Beauty that I'm talking about. For more on this, you should also read Dostoevsky, both The Idiot and Brothers K.
This outlook is new to me, and I'm still exploring it. Over the last several years I've come to believe that it is a very important side to embrace, however. Sometimes, things don't make any sense at all unless you accept that spiritual matters are as meaningful as rational ones, and the French proved in 1792 that logic alone is no way to live.
An important event in my spiritual growth came when I went with Katya to her Episcopal Church for Easter two years ago. The celebrant entered the church in darkness, and lit the Pascal Flame, which flared up five feet into the air. They processed down the hall with the Pascal Candle, singing in plainchant and swinging the censer. At one point she called out "He is risen!" (I think that's what she said, anyway) and everyone started ringing little bells that they had brought from home, and all the lights came on, and the organ started in, and it was truly Beautiful. The words didn't mean anything to me, and I actually found a lot of them offensive7, but the experience itself was incredibly moving. Katya doesn't really attend church there anymore, but I go back every Easter.
Ok, I guess that makes as much sense as anything else. But you didn't change your name to Benjamin TruthBeauty, did you?
No. That would have been weird.
But why Apollo? Why Dionysus?
I never thought of myself as the sort of person who could even spell Nietzsche, let alone someone who would want to read him. I left that to the "I'm such a anti-establishment anarchist!" types in the back of the class (no offense intended--many of those folks were good friends of mine). And yet, it seems that I'm naming myself after one of his essays. Mind you, I'm not embracing the essay as a whole8, nor even claiming to understand it all, and my concepts of Dionysian and Apollonian are not strictly Nietzschian. However, The Birth of Tragedy is the source from which I've taken the very basic forms: Dionysus as the embodiment of "blissful ecstasy", and Apollo as the emblem of analytic calm, the "sculptor god". Nietzsche packed a lot of other meanings into those two gods, many of which I'm passing over9.
As I said, I've thought a lot about other names to choose. "Squid Voltaire" was an early attempt to get at the Rational (Voltaire) and the Non-rational (squid!?). "Los" embodies both forms of thought, laboring at his forge and attempting to build Golganooza, which is a sort of paradise on Earth. A friend suggested that I take an Arabic name--there is a strong tradition in Middle Eastern countries of choosing names based on attributes, and "Benjamin Truth Beauty" wouldn't sound out of place. Also, it would be in Arabic. As an added bonus, it would screw with ethnicity-based profiling at airports and what not.
Somehow "Benjamin Apollo Dionysus" really appeals to me, though. When I got my grocery store "Value Card" six months ago I told them my new name, to try it out, and I really like it.
But you are keeping "Benjamin"?
Well, yes. I had thought about changing that too, but I'm not sure that people could deal with that. It's hard enough to get folks to call me "Benjamin" instead of "Ben", so I don't think I could coerce them into calling me "Apollo". Also, I really like the name. Unlike my last name, which I got by luck, my first name was deliberately chosen for me by my parents, and it's become part of me.
Don't you ever get tired of over-thinking everything so much?
Not when what I'm thinking about is so important to me.
Why are you so weird?
How do you know I'm the weird one?
1My mother points out that this great-grandfather is actually from my Grandmother's line, the Seeleys, so my changing my name doesn't really have anything to do with him. For that matter, I'll mention here that I am also directly related to no less than nine passengers on the Mayflower, and to Samuel Wardwell, who was hanged as a witch in 1692.
2Interesting story about that. Apparently my great-great-great...-grandfather was actually a Scott form Scotland. As I understand it, he married a German woman and had a son, surnamed Scott, who was only half Scottish. This son ended up marrying a German woman as well and passing along the name to his son, who also married a German, as did his son and his grandson! So four generations later, my ancestor was still named Scott, but was only one-fifth Scottish; he was essentially German.
4Yes, I know what Keats said. Perhaps beauty is truth and truth beauty for those who are forever panting, and forever young, but for myself I reject such stasis. I mean, when you read that poem, don't you just want to shake the Bold Lover by the shoulders and say, "Hey, there's more to life than chasing tail? Why not find a girl you can really talk to, and then you might enjoy the consummation more than the chase." And yes, it's sad that we all have to die, but if the alternative is a conflation and truth and beauty into a single, Sunset Boulevard-style rejection of reality... well, that's just not worth it, I say.
5And my atheism, as well: logically there might very well be a god, but as the results of worshipping or ignoring it are identical, and as the probability of worshipping the correct one is infinitesimal, it is only reasonable to act in every way as if there were no god, and to spend one's energies on something more useful.
6Specifically, my faith in replicability, as my good friend Eyal laboriously proved to me one night. Isn't irony wonderful? It's like a black fly in your Chardonnay.
Here's what I mean by "faith in replicability": If I conduct an experiment a thousand times, and get the same result each time, then I accept that result as Truth. For example, if I open my eyes a thousand times, and I see my cat each time, then I accept that I truly have a cat. However, this is known as inductive reasoning, and it is logically unsound. I've seen a ton of swans in my time, and every one of them was white. Is it logical to conclude that the Truth of the matter is that all swans are white? Because when I went to Perth I saw a few that were black... You can't just swan around saying, "Well, just because I think I see and feel things, those things must be True." You either have to accept that you know zero true things (or perhaps a single true thing) or you have to take certain things on faith.
7Like the passage from Exodus, where God forces the Egyptian army to chase the Israelites into the red sea (although they clearly have changed their minds at this point) and then gleefully murders them all, down to the last charioteer. That's disgusting.
8No one does, apparently. Not even Nietzsche, so I'm doing well there.
9For example, I'm intrigued by the idea of Dionysian ecstasy as an affirmation of the group at the expense of the individual, and vice versa, but that's not the key element that I'm taking from it. I'm only using the two as archetypes of Analytic Truth (Apollo) and Experiential Beauty (Dionysus).