Walking to the station this morning, along a path beside the railway, I stopped for no obvious reason - and had a wholly unexpected, heart-lifting encounter with a comma butterfly, which was basking on a bindweed leaf not 2ft away from me. Now this, with its ragged wings, is just about the easiest of all British butterflies to identify, but it got me thinking about this recent post by Bryan, which Frank Wilson also picks up on, identifying with me as, well, an identifier.
There's a lot to be said against the identifying tendency. Advanced twitchers, for instance, seem to reach the point where they barely deign to notice anything but rarities - and those they notice only to tick off their list. My identification skills are limited, but I find myself effectively dismissing the commoner species once I' ve established what they are, unless they have some special beauty, like the increasingly common speckled wood. In other words, skill at identification can prevent you seeing, or even bothering to look. The danger is of not paying attention, and this, I think, is the root of the case for identifying, for distinguishing one creature from another.
It's a bit of a stretch, but surely this principle applies in the human world too. There's a famous passage in Proust, where the narrator, anxious about his grandmother, races to Paris to see her. When he arrives, she is not expecting him and he witnesses, as it were, his own absence. In that absence, what he sees, shockingly, is not his grandmother but a florid-faced, mad old woman, sitting in a chair reading. Momentarily, he has not identified her, in the act of loving attention in which she is, not that mad old woman, but his beloved grandmother. Loving (ideally) attention is what makes us what we are - what, in every sense, distinguishes us - and without it, as King Lear demonstrates with horrific vividness, we are no more than bare forked animals.
Glad I saw that comma, anyway.