Blog Post

Bloopers and essentialism

Bloopers are bloopers, but the study of bloopers is Theory. The study of bloopers can also be fun, and should be (even if an air of quasi-tragic resignation in the face of bloopers is the central, melodramatic posture of deconstruction). It can also tell us a little about the ways that we're all essentially essentialists.

I am, at any rate.

Of course the devil is (as always) in the adverbs. What does "essentially" mean? (Or "appallingly" or "precisely"?) The comments on Christopher Warley's last post -- these adverbs are a sentence of his that rejects the idea that some poets are better than others -- raised the question, "better for what?" And my answer would essentially be: when I say that Donne or Marvell or Sidney are essentially better, without further specification, I mean their works are better for aesthetic experience, which is essentially why we read poetry.

For this not to be circular, it would have to be the case that we could be confident that we can distinguish those experiences that we do indeed half-create and project onto the aesthetic object, experiences which in fact come from the adverting mind, from other experiences that we derive in an essentially accurate way from the aesthetic object. These latter would be experiences which certain features of the object are intended to elicit (obviously I'm refering to art, not nature, but the extension is easy: to point out natural beauty is to create a work of art, as in the art of Suiseki, the art of seeing rocks which the artist then collects; photography has a large element of this as well.)

A mimimalist requirement for being able to say that there's something essentially better (for aesthetic experience) in the works of (I'm going to say) Shakespeare or Chantal Akerman might be this: there has to be a legitimate way to parcel out credit for an aesthetic experience between the audience and the work. But in that case we'd have to know what is intended and what isn't -- know it simply as an audience member, not as an inquirer into the declared intentions of the artist.

I think we can see how this parceling out of credit works in those fun situations where we compete with the work for the credit of clarity. We do this all the time: guessing at the solution to a mystery, for example, before we're told. More locally, we look for bloopers in the representation. Everyone does. Go to a play and if a character dies on stage, I'm distracted by trying to see whether the actor is breathing. It's part of the performance! Part of the magic trick. (They always are breathing, too.) lists goofs in the movies it catalogues -- alert viewers send them in, or add them to wikis. Homer nods, and so does Rohmer. True, usually when we notice mistakes or inconsistencies in stories we error-correct silently (she didn't see teh typo) but sometimes we delight in the errors we notice, and indeed we look for them. And if we're looking for them that means we're discriminating between the intended and the unintended.

So when you see a mistake in a narrative -- an inconsistency, a contradiction, a blooper or goof, how can you tell who's to blame: author? character? audience? As textual editors have always felt, you can tell (though of course they often disagree) because we can get a holistic or essential sense of intention. (The idea that we can error correct pretty accurately is really at the heart of communications or information theory -- see Shannon and Weaver. Markov Chains were discovered in practice by philologists before they were formalized by Andrey Markov.)

The interesting examples are the ambiguous ones. Sometimes the ambiguities are scripted. When I was in high school I went to see a production of Henry IV, part 1, in Central Park. It started raining during the intermission. But all concerned gamely tried to start up again, with the opening of Act III. The rebels took shelter under a beam as we shivered. The lights went up (making the rain all the more vivid), and Hotspur -- apparently better at improvising speech than blocking began -- "A plague upon it. I have forgot the map." Glendower saved the day: "I have it." We all laughed at the wonderful improv, and the actors sort of did too. I was very surprised, in college, to find out that it wasn't improvisation. It was Shakespeare making sure we knew they were talking about a map. (This is the part of art called craft. Shakespeare was also essentially better than anyone else as a craftsman.)

Obviously this isn't a moment of intended misdirection (though the moment does have a little of the feel of Elizabethan inductions). But Polonius ("By the mass, I was about to say something! Where did I leave?") and Hamlet ("If it live in your memory, begin at this line--let me see, let me see: / 'The rugged Pyrrhus, like th' Hyrcanian beast--' / 'Tis not so; it begins with Pyrrhus: / 'The rugged Pyrrhus, he whose sable arms...' ") both seem to forget their lines, and it takes a second, during which we think we're seeing something real, before we realize that their forgetfulness is scripted. We're left with the residue of reality, of a real mistake, but we can (now) see that there's aesthetic intention there. Cleopatra similarly forgets her lines, or seems to, and then recovers with a comment on her own oblivion ("A very Antony").

Or take another example: Robbe-Grillet, in Les Gommes, reconstructs the extremely well-planned murder the novel recounts, which at one point involves the cutting of phone lines, and later requires the use of the phone. It all seems perfect, and I am among the vast majority of readers who don't notice the inconsistency. Not until the triumphantly reconstructive chapter which recounts all this suddenly ends with the question, "But who said the telephone wires had been cut?" Robbe-Grillet points out the error that we had missed.

If error is the theme of a work, how can you tell intentional from unintentional error? Chantal Akerman's great movie Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles shows Dielman beginning to lose it as her perfect and perfectly choreographed house-keeping starts faltering, very subtly indeed. She doesn't cover the tureen at one point; at another she drops something.

Uncovered tureen

The movie is shot with very long takes, and we can imagine that some of the errors we're seeing are the errors endemic to long takes. Hitchcock's Rope, for example, with its nine-minute takes, tends to be more tolerant of errors towards the end of the takes. After eight near-perfect minutes, a minor stutter or misstep has to be accepted. Perfection is impossible. And yet Akerman's control, and Delphine Seyrig's (as Dielman), is such that we come to realize that anything we can see they've almost certainly seen and have wanted us to see.

And yet I compete. I notice, for example that, two continuous shots of the kitchen contain a continuity error. Here she is, shining her son's shoes:

Thermos on window

And here she is, a minute later, putting the shoes away:

Thermos on stove

Can you spot the continuity error? I see two, but it's the thermos I'm interested in, because she uses it so much:

Coffee time!

-- and because it's so reflective, as in this detail:

Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror

where you can see Akerman in a red shirt that matches the red in the plaid of the thermos itself, standing next to the camera that's filming the scene. (You can also see her reflected in the stainless steel circumference at the bottom of the thermos in the previous shot.)

So there's an obvious and principled difference between types of error. This is something both Austin ("A Plea for Excuses") and Wittgenstein describe (On Certainty) describe. The most overwhelmingly beautiful example of such a description is the last philosophical note that Wittgenstein wrote, two days before his death, the Proustian last entry in On Certainty:

If someone believes that he has flown from America to England in the last few days, then, I believe, he cannot be making a mistake.

And just the same if someone says that he is at this moment sitting at a table and writing.

"But even if in such cases I can’t be mistaken, isn’t it possible that I am drugged?" If I am and if the drug has taken away my consciousness, then I am not now really talking and thinking. I cannot seriously suppose that I am at this moment dreaming. Someone who, dreaming, says "I am dreaming", even if he speaks audibly in doing so, is no more right than if he said in his dream "it is raining", while it was in fact raining. Even if his dream were actually connected with the noise of the rain.

Last MS entry of On Certainty

The question here (as they almost say in Wikipedia) isn't truth but seriousness, what we can seriously suppose. Being alive is being able to suppose certain things but not others. Seriously suppose them. If we could seriously suppose anything we could never communicate at all. (This is another way of pressing Quine's principle of charity. Hence John McEnroe's "You cannot be serious," which appeals to the way we cannot seriously believe that certain mistakes are possible.)

Can we give a general account of error? No: just as we can't give a general account of rule following or the practice of "being guided." But we can engage in a discipline of introspection, to see what we can be serious about, and perhaps say why. Generally we don't and don't have to. But sometimes it's an interesting thing to do, or an interesting argument to make. (Is our sense seriousness culturally specific? Sure, some of it is. So? And of course that'll matter some times, and we can learn to be serious about things. But we'd still need to be convinced, need to see that conviction is possible. [And see William James on the "live religions."])

Just as we can't give a general account of error, we can't always make clear-cut distinctions between intentional and unintentional errors, or between deliberately intended and undeliberately intended features of a work of art. Intended, but undeliberately: by this I mean (for example) something like (for me) a Glaswegian accent. I love hearing people speak with that accent. (I listen to the Glaswegian language podcast, Coffee Break Spanish all the time, just to hear how Mark and Anna discuss aspects of Spanish in that accent). And of course Glaswegians intend to speak that way. But not deliberately.

One place to look for undeliberate intention is in the Freudian unconscious, but it's also there in other, less melodramtic accounts of unconscious action, and if you're against Freud it's nevertheless true that you could reasonaly translate some of his best insights into these less melodramatic accounts and still preserve their power. Recurring to Akerman, let's note that the inadvertant reflection of the filmmaker and the apparatus in the thermos -- and the failure of continuity in its placement -- is not irrelevant to the movie. Dielman's uncanny precision is mirrored by Akerman's (or rather mirrors hers); and Akerman's occasional and near-trivial slip-ups must have for her something of the significance that Dielman's have. They are fallings-short of an intended perfection of arrangement, where that intention really matters: to whatever art does for life, whether that art is an art of refusal to mourn (Dielman's) or an art of mourning (Akerman's).

To see the range of this sort of study, consider another impressario of the visible, Shakespeare. His indifference to surface perfection ("Would he had blotted a thousand!") places him at an antipodal distance from Akerman as far as production values go. But we can consider the significance of inconsistency and catalogue its modes in Shakespeare too.

So, for example, in Much Ado About Nothing there's a pretty clear-cut mistake on Shakespeare's part. Don John and Borachio are plotting how to get Claudio to think that Hero is untrue to him. Borachio details his plan is to enlist Hero's innocent maid Margaret in a scene "proving" Hero's disloyalty:

They will scarcely believe this without trial: offer them instances; which shall bear no less likelihood than to see me at her chamber-window, hear me call Margaret Hero, hear Margaret term me Claudio; and bring them to see this the very night before the intended wedding,—for in the meantime I will so fashion the matter that Hero shall be absent,—and there shall appear such seeming truth of Hero's disloyalty that jealousy shall be called assurance and all the preparation overthrown.

Do you see the error here? It's not intentional. You know it isn't because it's the description of an imaginary scene, not one that actually had to be acted out on stage (the scene is never shown). But it's not irrelevant to Shakespeare, any more than Akerman's reflection is irrelevant to her. Shakespeare is imagning a staged scene, and because he isn't actually staging it he imagines it wrong -- wrong in a way that makes perfect sense. A reflexive reflex towards reflection makes Shakespeare imagine the fictional representation of both Hero and Claudio by Margaret and Borachio. But even the idiotic Claudio is very unlikely to believe that Borachio is... Claudio. The flaw in the plot is Shakespeare's, not Borachio's, but neither he nor his actors nor a couple of centuries of audiences ever seem to have noticed it. And the reason is that it's just an everyday sort of staging of a theatrical event, that doesn't require much conscious or deliberate intention to follow.

Contrast this other inconsistency. Othello tells Desdemona about the importance of the handkerchief that she seems to have lost:

                        That handkerchief
Did an Egyptian to my mother give;
She was a charmer, and could almost read
The thoughts of people. She told her, while she kept it,
'Twould make her amiable and subdue my father
Entirely to her love, but if she lost it
Or made gift of it, my father's eye
Should hold her loathed and his spirits should hunt
After new fancies.

But later Othello justifies his murder of Desdemona by instancing the handkerchief he believes she's given Cassio:

            she did gratify his amorous works
With that recognizance and pledge of love
Which I first gave her. I saw it in his hand:
It was a handkerchief, an antique token
My father gave my mother.

So he first says that an Egyptian gave it to his mother, and later that his father did. Which is true? (Quote true unquote? True within the fiction? Or to use Kendall Walton's terminology, "fictional for Othello"?) Three initial possibilities seem plausible: Shakespeare didn't see the inconsistency, so both are locally true. Such local truth is sort of what Beckett has in mind when he writes in a footnote to Watt about Kate, who is "a fine girl but a bleeder," that "Haemophilia is, like enlargement of the prostate, an exclusively male disorder. But not in this work." Note that this corrective footnote also helps define (through an exposition-by-contradiction) what the phrase "a bleeder" means in the Irish demotic of the novel. And note too that the footnote isn't true either: it's overwhemlingly but not exclusively a male disease (since women whose fathers are hemophiliacs can receive recessive hemophilia genes on both X chromosomes). Anyhow, the first possibility is that Shakespeare's inattentiveness makes both stories true: the second and third consist of one's being true and the other false; and then there's also the trivial and uninteresting possibility that both are false. (I mean they both are: that is called Fiction. But not in the fiction.)

What I want to stress is that it's very unlikely that Shakespeare didn't see the contradiction. This is because Othello is different from the scene I mentioned in Much Ado, because the actor playing Othello memorized both speeches. He knew that they were inconsistent, and he would have asked Shakespeare.

I've elsewhere gone on at some length about self-misquotaion in Shakespeare -- a phenomenon I take to make the performance easier. If you have to quote a couple of lines you've spoken earlier, you may get caught up in the wrong speech and forget your place. (Though Homer seems never to have done so, nod as he will.) Possibly we are dealing with a similar dynamic: no one in the audience at the end of the play will remember what Othello said earlier, and the actor is given lines sufficiently different that he won't start intoning the previous speech.

But I think it more likely that Othello is lying at least once. Perhaps he's laying it on to cow Desdemona, in order to impress on her how important this handkerchief is. Or perhaps he's embarrassed by the grandiloquent superstition that he has expressed earlier, when he speaks in clipped and blunt terms to the Venetians.

Here's how this inconsistency matters, in the same way that Akerman's blooper matters. Whatever the truth is, I don't think we're quite supposed to notice the inconsistency. Rather we are to think of Othello one way when he speaks to Desdemona, in rage and despair and in the fullness of his mistaken loftiness. And we're to think of him another way when he tries to justify himself to the Venetians. But part of that thinking is a tracking of how Othello thinks of himself, or sees himself as thinkable in those two situations. So it's not that Othello isn't aware of the contradiction, but that the contradiction and his willingness to speak thus inconsistently -- Shakespeare's willingness to have him speak thus inconsistently -- is itself a dimension of his character.

I so delight in this way of thinking about detail that I want to give one more example. In the central scene of instruction in the original (1882) edition of The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel "receives an impression" when she comes in on Osmond and Madame Merle talking:

The impression had, in strictness, nothing unprecedented; but she felt it as something new, and the soundlessness of her step gave her time to take in the scene before she interrupted it. Madame Merle sat there in her bonnet, and Gilbert Osmond was talking to her; for a minute they were unaware that she had come in. Isabel had often seen that before, certainly; but what she had not seen, or at least had not noticed—was that their dialogue had for the moment converted itself into a sort of familiar silence, from which she instantly perceived that her entrance would startle them. Madame Merle was standing on the rug, a little way from the fire; Osmond was in a deep chair, leaning back and looking at her. Her head was erect, as usual, but her eyes were bent upon his. What struck Isabel first was that he was sitting while Madame Merle stood; there was an anomaly in this that arrested her.

Indeed it is this anomaly that gives everything away to Isabel. But the lines I have just quoted contradict themselves: "Madame Merle sat there in her bonnet....Madame Merle was standing on the rug." In the highly revised New York edition, published nearly thirty years later (a fact that its new ending alludes to), that first formulation is changed very simply to this: "Madame Merle was there in her bonnet." Now what has happened is that in revising James caught the mistake and corrected it. But it's the mistake that's interesting, since in the original version we can catch him in the act of composition. Isabel receives an impression, and the impression is going to be one of the strange familiarity between Osmond and Madame Merle, the way they're sitting together, either after her return from an outing or just before she is about to go out, which suggests the easy urgency in their relation to each other. And then he realizes how to visualize the whole thing: he's sitting and Madame Merle is standing. And he's forgotten that two sentences earlier, she'd been sitting. We can see the significance of the moment of Osmond's violation of manners because we can see James improvising that moment. It's what was originally improvised that he will much later revise. But all revision is the revision of the improvised, and we can get some insight into the essential intention of the work, of the scene, of the moment, by catching the moment of improvisation before the art which disguises art revises and polishes it.

In this case, as in the examples from Akerman and Shakespeare, we can see the way that work the artist is doing parallels the work his character is doing. Like Isabel James doesn't at first quite see the anamoly clearly, even as he becomes more aware that something anamolous is going on, and as he documents this growing clarity in tandem with her increasing awareness.

Matthew Bruccoli notoriously tried to correct the errors Fitzgerald made in The Great Gatsby: the age of the child, and I think the breed of the dog. And editors have to do this all the time: "An Antonie 'twas, that grew the more by reaping" becomes, in Theobald, "An Autumn 'twas," which (I've argued elsewhere) is just wrong. But most such guesses are probably right. This perpetual error-checking is precisely what life is, after all (to alter Proust, whose adverb "precisely" is: "Cette perpétuelle erreur, qui est précisément la « vie »" [IV.154]). But sometimes you can get close to what makes a work essentially what it is by thinking about the errors or apparent errors that seem to get you to something essential within it. To say of something that it is "essentially" this or that is to make a holistic claim about it, and any such claim must be robust even when faced with contradictory evidence.

The study of contradiction, inconsistency, mistake, inadvertance and error can get us more deeply into the meaning of a work, and when that study feels worthwhile it's because the work it gets us into is worthwhile. It's a study of the essential. What these three examples show -- and I would bet that they could be multiplied -- is that there's a kind of consistency not only in Donne's well-wrought urns but also in James flawed golden bowls: a consistency of error. If error is inevitable -- since error is inevitable; since life is error -- the way a work or its author incorporates its errors, thematizes them, will provide an index of its own approach to the essential, to whatever is essential about the work. Errors are only interesting if they occur in interesting works. Errors only matter when the work matters. They show that there's something essential about the work that goes beyond its accidents, where we could define the accidents as the consciously, deliberately, intended features of the work. The work's essence is a kind of emergent property, and one way you can tell that something essential is going on -- aesthetically essential, essential to the work as a work rather than as an historical artefact or whatever -- is if its errors are aesthetically essential as well, speak to and for its essence despite the fact that they are not the intended outcome of artistic calculation.

William Flesch's picture

William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).