A Rose by Another Name, short essay – 25 May 2016

A ROSE BY ANOTHER NAME IS A POPULAR PHRASE that originated in Shakespeare’s light-hearted romantic comedy, Romeo and Juliet; for reasons we will discuss, it has entered the lexicon. The popular interpretation is that an object’s name doesn’t change an object’s nature. Of course a rose’s smell would not change if it was called a rope. It doesn’t matter what it’s called. The essence of a rose should not change if the language used to describe it was changed. The beauty and aroma is entirely independent and separate from its designation. This assumption, this assumption that a name does not carry with it any inherent value which can be added or subtracted based purely on what it’s called or how it’s foreshadowed, is wrong as wrong can be.

Science has disproven this lovely quote in many ways. For example, studies have shown that not only is a medication more therapeutic and effective if we know it is the more expensive brand-name and not the generic, but the placebo effect works even when we know we are taking a placebo. How is this true? It works this way because we know the placebo effect is real and therefore expect a placebo to work when we take it and because of this predisposition it more often does work this way.

If a rose was called a rope the smell would surely change. One letter marks the difference between a Cézanne painting and the cover of an Agatha Christie novel. One sells for millions of dollars, and the other for $0.99.

         The gravitas and respectability of these quotes and works of art are very much dependent upon the name attached. A quote attributed to a famous intellectual will naturally have more authority than the same quote might have coming from a virtual unknown. Think of the mileage of Oscar Wilde’s famed quips and witticisms; as well as Shakespeare and Churchill and all of those great speakers and writers whose work we know because of these stand-out axioms, witticisms, zingers, adages—whatever you want to call it, the name, in this case, really doesn’t matter. It affords the laziest of ambitious academics the luxury of at least sensing the aroma of a work of art, if nothing more than looking at a rose through a glass chandelier.

In the marketplace of ideas, as it is in the world of marketing and free-market capitalism, endorsement and star power is important. Brand awareness is crucial. If someone without a much admired and extensive oeuvre, had said, for example, ‘All happy families are the same; all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way,’ as Tolstoy did, the quote that opens one of the finest novels of all time, Anna Karenina, it would be witty, maybe even passed around in a circle of friends. But would it infiltrate the world and other cultures and linger for hundreds of years if David Brent said it on The Office? As much as I would like to think so, I doubt it.

Tolstoy’s pedigree and critical success afforded him the ability to be taken serious as a thinker which predisposes one to the opinion of what constitutes as Tolstoy’s genius. The name in this instance is just as important as the quote; because without the name, the quote doesn’t have the tenacity to survive in the wild. The attribution is what designates credibility and the endorsement is important. If you switch it around and attribute the quote to, let’s say, the Cambodian dictator Pol Pot, the same poetry and piquant wit would mutate and take on sinister dimensions. In his day, Tolstoy was considered to be the foremost of moral thinkers; in his essays, Marcel Proust compared him to Thomas Aquinas because of his gentle wisdom. That in itself is a triple layered endorsement that hinges upon names: Marcel Proust’s credibility as a thinker has afforded him the attention and respect for thought that he and Thomas Aquinas deserve, furthering the importance of names in respect to the consideration of ideas. For every field there is a star.

Physics has Einstein; biology has Darwin; genetics has Mendelev; astronomy has Carl Sagan; Christian theology has C.S. Lewis; philosophy has Descartes and Nietzsche; politics has Napoleon, Khrushchev, Kennedy and Britain’s killer Queen Elizabeth; popular science has Stephen J. Gould, author of Wonderful Life and Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and the superior, but less popular, The Extended Phenotype, and science itself has Bill Nye and a relative newcomer, who deserves his increasing popularity, Neil deGrasse Tyson. As a name goes, it imbues ideas with a quality that without the name would be lacking.

When it comes to books and poems, the admiration and fandom of the writer adds a layer of appreciation that is absent from a book or story by a virtual unknown. The name brings to mind a known personality, a known and respected author, and it’s easier to give them an assumed quality. An author who is unknown to you is understandably treated with more skepticism and thus must do more to earlier in the story than established great whose prior qualities afford them such patience and courtesy. Consider how seriously this quote would be taken if attributed to a much adored Russian poet, Aleksandr Pushkin, and compare the reception if the quote was attributed to an annoying pop star, or Televangelist; From Pushkin, it is a statement on the importance and value of the imagination:
‘The illusion which exalts [us] is dearer to than ten thousand truths.’

          And if that had been said by anyone but Pushkin, would it still be quoted? When the name confers upon thought a quality the thought would not have without the name, everything is in a name.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s