Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Living Dead

Ludwig van Beethoven had a nasty surprise in his childhood. He was told that he was the second Ludwig van Beethoven of the family. He didn’t grasp a word of what was being said, till his parents clarified to him that just a year before his birth, they had another baby boy who was christened Ludwig. Sadly, his elder brother didn’t even last for six days. So basically, Beethoven was named after his dead brother.

When Beethoven gave his first public performance at the age of 7, he was billed as a child prodigy. But those who vaguely knew the family, confused him with his brother and raised doubts about his age. That was only one tiny problem. The spectre of the dead elder brother cast a long shadow on his life.

Artist Salvador Dali faced an even bigger predicament. He too was named after a dead sibling. The trouble was, he was born nine months and six days after his elder brother. That made everyone around think that may be Salvador had reincarnated.

Dali spent a good part of his life traumatised. He added many layers of eccentricities to his persona just to be different from what his parents had imagined for him. As he later philosophised, “Every day, I kill the image of my poor brother…I assassinate him regularly, for the ‘Divine Dali’ cannot have anything in common with this former terrestrial being.”

What Beethoven and Dali were bestowed is called ‘Necronyms’ (names of dead ones). And it’s a subject of great debate in the world of nomenclature. It was a prevalent practice in the era when child mortality rates were high. Anxious fathers who wanted their lineage and family name to survive, often resorted to this seemingly morbid practice.

I suspect necronyms might have been common in societies that followed the tradition of naming the first child after the grandfather. If the first child had a premature death, the name was foisted upon the second one. Even Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh was a victim of the tradition. One wonders if the resulting identity crisis caused Van Gogh to paint over 30 self-portraits. To conclude, all I can say is, some names are better off dead. There’s no need to exhume the remains.