“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet.”—William Shakespeare
The quote from William Shakespeare’s heroine in Romeo and Juliette is every bit as identifiable as the flower it extols. I’ve never given it much deep thought, though, because the truth of it seems so obvious. Immediately jumping to the concurrent conclusion with the fourteen-year-old-lover, I’m blinded by our shared belief that it’s what’s inside that matters, just as she argues in defense of her feelings for a young Romeo Montague with a reviled family name. But as I’ve been doing some research lately into the eighteenth century life of an amazing unsung genius, I’ve come across some major challenges to William Shakespeare’s premise about the rose. Knowing his obvious gifts as a polymath, it makes me question if I got it wrong in the first place in my haste to identify with Juliette Capulet.
Our famous American naturalist, writer, philosopher, and leading transcendentalist Henry David Thorough had something to say about names, too, although I readily admit it was entirely new to me. I found a provocative reference to him when digging through some lectures online about the subject of my next book (at least, the one I’m planning now). In his recognizable style as the naturalist/artist, he commented about the importance of scientific names to identify the plethora of living species on this earth: “With knowledge of the name comes a distincter recognition and knowledge of the thing.” It hit me hard, recognizing a different approach to naming than the more famous one I’d always known. I quickly moved to the fact that taken on a deeper level, Shakespeare’s rose is also identified by many other characteristics, some unique to it and some shared by other species, and so ultimately the name, or some name, becomes essential in its reality. Existentially, that rose still blooms for us because of its name, just as Romeo Montague would live in our history books with a full identity had things not gotten so messed up in the tombs of Verona.
And why would this matter to my future biographical novel? Because, “With the vanishing of the name, goes the disappearance of the object, the slice of art, the fragment of literature, the portion of music. With the fading of the thing, so the name is gradually effaced from memory, and whatever there was, becomes anonymous.” Conductor James Conlon tells us that in his lecture on my unusual future protagonist. And so it was with my hero. History can’t agree on his name or names, his father’s name or names, their spellings or even reasons for the discrepancies. For one of the most famous and popular men of the day, and with many historical references to his incredible accomplishments and even some extant written materials in the form of letters, legal documents, stories and statements from well known men of his day, no one can be entirely sure of what his name was, and so he has drifted into the shadows until very recently. Our current concern for the injustices of history has brought him back into the light, but we’re forced to solve the mystery of his existence backwards, applying the clues surrounding his legacy of anonymity one-by-one until a clearer picture floats up from the chemistry of the combination of truth and imagination.
“He was very well known in his time and then, after his death, gradually forgotten. This was partially due to a change in musical tastes, largely affected by the aftermath of the French Revolution. But unquestionably, racial prejudice played an important role in the long-term fate of his works.” And there’s the rub. Mr. Conlon minces no words in that final statement about the disappearing act of my future eighteenth-century polymath protagonist. I hope you’ll follow my progress as I try to solve the mystery of this vanishing genius who made Mozart jealous, fighting men concede victory and women faint from the sight of his handsome, graceful form. How could such a star become so dim? We’ll find out together.