I Am the Utterance of my Name

28 Jan

In a text called The Thunder, Perfect Mind, an enigmatic, divine female figure describes herself as a series of opposites. Beckoning her hearers to listen, know her, and be on their guard, she proclaims:

I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am the mother and the daughter…
I am the silence that is incomprehensible
and the idea whose remembrance is frequent.
I am the voice whose sound is manifold
and the word whose appearance is multiple.
I am the utterance of my name.

I am the utterance of my name. It’s such a strange idea, and seems so counterintuitive. We receive (or later choose) our names. We hear our names spoken, and look around to find out who wants our attention. What would it mean to be the very sound of one’s name?

This proposes more than a Rumpelstiltskin-ish power over others through knowing and speaking their names; this isn’t just summoning a divinity through reciting an incantation, either. This is encountering a divinity, in her entirety, in a simple act of vocalization. And by speaking her name–God, what is her name?–there she is. That speech, those sounds, that’s her. Check it, Sarte: existence precedes essence in this 4th century text, whose religious identity still eludes scholars. (Is it Christian? Jewish? Gnostic? Some Christians read it at least, or else it wouldn’t have been unearthed with the rest of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945.)

I am the utterance of my name. Unlike most of the previous claims in The Thunder, Perfect Mind, which have a counterpoint statement to contrast it, the opposition here is imbedded neatly into one declarative sentence. I am the utterance of my name. It doesn’t need a partner, no “holy one” to its “whore.” To write “I am” already sets the first curve of the spiral; “the utterance of my name” folds itself back around towards the sentence’s start, as if the utterance initiates her being. Or does it? It’s just the same as her being. Which is strange, really: if she is the sound, is she before her name is spoken, too? The structure in English suggests so, starting with “I am,” and the tenacious idea that things have names, not that things are names, pushes back against the claim.

I am the utterance of my name.

In spite of its focus on speech, there’s something in this sentence that can’t be said, and there are two ways to talk about the ineffable effectively. The first: don’t talk about the ineffable! By definition, it can’t be said. Be silent.


The second way is a branch of the first. Instead of resting in silence after realizing speech’s inevitable betrayal, it continues the performance of turning around the the problem: don’t even say, “it can’t be said.” You’re still saying “it.” Still saying something.

To keep the ineffable ineffable, keep unraveling the ineffable, keep performing its ineffability through language. Keep the tension of that reflection alive by continuously resetting it. Once it falls apart, say it anew. (This is all unapologetically lifted from Michael Sells’ Mystical Languages of Unsaying. For more fun on the transcendental like this, check it out.)

In The Thunder, Perfect Mind, this one line–can I post it again? dare I post it again?–keeps up the tension so neatly, I’m not sure what’s left but silence. The sentence keeps its own momentum, almost in reverse of a typical spiral around ineffability, which might be: not this, not not this, ad infinitum. Instead, it is: this! even this! still this! this! this!

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