Friday, March 28, 2008

Errors from the touch of God.

If you do not read the comments section here at "The Secrets of Isis," then you have missed one of the most exciting discussions ever, on the topic of error.

In short, Mateen noticed that I had left a verb out of a sentence. I inserted the verb, making the correction visible to all. Then Scott asked how I decide whether to flag an error or not. I tried to determine some kind of principled position from a somewhat unthought-through decision.

Meanwhile, Mateen noticed that he, too, had made an error, this time of spelling. He wished it had been deliberate, but could not so claim it. Scott, based on Mateen's error, had devised his own reading of Mateen's message, only to have Mateen's correction make him realize that he too had been making a long-standing error of spelling, and the whole brilliant image he had constructed based on this small misspelling came crashing down in a torrent of disillusion. Then Mateen, a poet as well as an important Spartan, mentioned a poem by Aaron Fogel, about which more shortly.

Do you see how exciting this is?

Of course, we are hardly the first to have something to say on the topic of Error. To wit, in Spenser's The Faerie Queene, Redcrosse Knight encounters Errour herself, in her very den:

This is the wandring wood, this Errours den,
A monster vile, whom God and man does hate:
Therefore I read beware. Fly fly (quoth then
The fearefull Dwarfe:) this is no place for liuing men.

But full of fire and greedy hardiment,
The youthfull knight could not for ought be staide,
But forth vnto the darksome hole he went,
And looked in: his glistring armor made
A litle glooming light, much like a shade,
By which he saw the vgly monster plaine,
Halfe like a serpent horribly displaide,
But th'other halfe did womans shape retaine,
Most lothsom, filthie, foule, and full of vile disdaine.

And as she lay vpon the durtie ground,
Her huge long taile her den all ouerspred,
Yet was in knots and many boughtes vpwound,
Pointed with mortall sting. Of her there bred
A thousand yong ones, which she dayly fed,
Sucking vpon her poisonous dugs, each one
Of sundry shapes, yet all ill fauored:
Soone as that vncouth light vpon them shone,
Into her mouth they crept, and suddain all were gone.

(By the by, do you notice how reptilian Errour is? How snake like? Could this--"Snakes in The Faerie Queene"--have been a predecessor to--oh never mind.)

The point is, Error occupies an unfavored place in so many minds. In Latin, the word suggests a wandering or a straying, a deviation from the truth--and Spenser seems to share this feeling. Errors are mistakes, misunderstandings, and no one wants to be the last man to die for a mistake. A person who makes an error is at fault. Computer errors lead to the blue screen of death.

Errors count against players in baseball. Grammatical errors lead to points off on a paper. Newspapers do what they can to correct errors quickly. Errors in judgment, mistakes, accidents--they all can have their cost.

But what messages from elsewhere do we shut down in our urge to correct? The book I have just published (woo-hoo!) is a scholarly edition of a crazy book--one riddled with errors. As editors, we were faced with the questions: Can we make the reading of this book easier without losing the wackiness of the real thing? At what point do our corrections change the text irremediably? If the decision were mine to make alone--if our edition were not part of a series with established principles--I would have said, let's keep it as it is. It is, after all, a book where errors of spelling, numbering, italicization, attribution, etc. are part of the experience. Why lose that? But, the world being the world, I compromised: we made many small emendations (all noted in my extensive table at the back, of course!) and left some errors extant.

Frank Steinman would tell me I am a horrible meddler. He is the speaker of Aaron Fogel's poem "The Printer's Error." Experienced printer that he is, Steinman lays out several kinds of error, ranging from errors of chance, to moments of rebellion on the part of type-setters, to
. . . errors
from the touch of God,
divine and often
obscure corrections
of whole books by
nearly unnoticed changes
of single letters
sometimes meaningful but
about which the less said
by preemptive commentary
the better.

In all cases, Steinman warns editors, especially us academic types, to BACK OFF, because all errors "are in practice the / same and indistinguishable." He concludes:
Therefore I,
Frank Steinman,
for thirty-seven years,
and cooperative Master
of the Holliston Guild
eight years,
being of sound mind and body
though near death
urge the abolition
of all editorial work
and manumission
from all textual editing
to leave what was
as it was, and
as it became,
except insofar as editing
is itself an error, and

therefore also divine.

Amen, Frank.

And go Heels.


Tony said...

How would you categorize a faux pas made by our weathermen on nearly a daily basis?

mateen said...

Conscious efforts to become divine?