Everyday Analysis received a text message addressed to someone called ‘Puffin’ asking about dinner, followed by a hasty request that the enquiry to ‘Puffin’ be ignored. The horror at the first missive going astray was rightly mutual. This was evidence that a publicly upstanding and politically engaged individual, an earnest male feminist, had behind closed doors taken to addressing his long-term heterosexual partner as ‘Puffin.’ What is more, the tone of familiarity, the banality of the content, and the easy carelessness that allowed him to select the wrong recipient, all suggested that this had been going on for some time, and worse, that its mode of address was probably reciprocated. This was a message to Puffin fully welcoming, even encouraging a reply addressed to Snuffin. Or perhaps Muffin. Or Pelican. Or something equivalently obscene.
Our unease at discovering the pet names of couples and embarrassment of the discovery of our own seems at first to have an obvious explanation. In its proper cutesy-nonsense-baby-talk iteration, the pet name is infantilizing, dehumanizing even. And the pet: the most degraded of the animals, having had any vestige of strangeness bred out of it in its transformation into a compatriot for human narcissism. If monogamous heterosexual couplings are already redolent enough of pragmatically consented-to repression, then the adoption of pet names seems to blurt out the extent of that repression with every feeble email sign-off. If I am to love you, I need to know who “you” are, and what better way of streamlining that work than by turning that dangerous “you” into something more manageable. A Puffin, say. Or indeed a Snuffin. The pet name witnesses the extent to which you have consented to suppress the precious unpredictable heterogeneity of your subjectivity in the service of the drudgingly single identity demanded of you if you are to take your place in the current order of conventional love.
But is this quite right? If the pet name is a half-concealed trick to pin down the other, then how do we account for the fact that, for so many couples, the pet name is constantly changing? Puffins into Snuffins, Beagles into Boogles? The slippery associational logic of these transformations has something in common with the nineteenth-century nonsense poetry of Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll. If that kind of writing was infantilizing, it wasn’t in the sense that it simplified. Rather it is a treatment of language that is satisfying because it seems to take place at the frontiers of conscious control: a frontier touched by the perversely fluctuating vicissitudes of the Id. In his essay ‘On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love’ (1912), Freud noted that we find it easy to take pleasure in the same kinds of wine or food all our lives, but that it is not so easy to do so with sexual partners. Never an admirer of psychoanalysis, the novelist D.H. Lawrence nonetheless stumbles on one way of surviving Freud’s posited deadlock between the attraction monogamy continues to hold in our culture, and this impulse towards constantly changing partners in order to keep our desire. In ‘We Need One Another’ (1933), Lawrence argues that the most disastrous thing about relationships is the impulse to keep the other the same. Not only is this a kind of violence performed on him or her, but it also creates the situation of withering desire Freud describes. For Lawrence, committing to the other in all his or her shifting variety is the way to both avoid doing violence to them, and to sustain the strange fascination they initially held. And that is the value of the pet name in its shifting nonsense iteration. For the majority in our current sexual constellation who continue to eventually elect for monogamy, it is a peculiarly effective way of keeping the other perverse.
Urban Dictionary explains ‘Puffin’: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=puffin