Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Leper Leads Calais!

Your Blue Jays is to be found sitting before his machine playing with his favorite Christmas present, 2 Rick his voice recognition program: Dragon Dictate. It will be immediately apparent to you that Mr. Dragon and I will have to work at our relationship.  What I thought I was writing was not “Your Blue Jays” but “Your bloguiste”, while the “2 Rick” was intended as “to wit.” Then again my brother Rick can be quite a wit, so I can understand the confusion.  The interesting point about this technological marvel is that its mistakes are almost always more interesting, from the point of view of language and ideas, than the intended burden of my dull prose.  I was prepared for Mr. Dragon to have some difficulty dealing with foreign words and especially proper nouns. I first grasped the full dimension of his awesome genius when I tried to write the following sentence: “Madame de Kr├╝dener took as her lover a stripling youth named Hippolyte Tarray.”  This in Dragonese became: “Not in the creator took as her lover is Stripling use named leper leads Calais.”  The manifest superiority of the latter requires no comment.  Leper Leads Calais.  What a fantastic headline!  I am trying to work up a story worthy of it.

We all must be aware of instances in which the erroneous rescues or redeems the humdrum canonical.  The small child who in reciting the Lord's Prayer petitioned “Lead us not into Penn Station” demonstrated a theological acumen unparalleled in two millennia of scriptural exegesis. 

A few years before he became famous with the publication of his novel The Moviegoer (1961), Walker Percy published in the Sewanee Review a brilliant essay entitled “Metaphor as Mistake”. In fact I can remember the date--1958, my senior year--though I retain only a vague sense of the argument. But should you be interested in the habitual failure of language to do what it is supposed to do by doing something better, you would find Percy considerably more engaging than Jacques Derrida (or shocked Gary in Dragonese).

 M and M

Two Giants of
American Literature

 There is a particularly striking example of the ameliorating powers of error related to our great Herman Melville. It is well known to professional bibliographers, a group that unfortunately makes up at least half my boutique readership, but I shall rehearse it anyway.  Near the end of Melville’s novel White Jacket the first-person narrator recounts a terrifying experience—namely, that of falling a hundred feet from a yard-arm into the sea below.  As he plummets downward, seemingly in slow motion, his life passes before the screen of his mind, and he is perfectly conscious of the certainty of death.  Then he hits the water:

The feeling of death flooded over me with the billows. The blow from the sea must have turned me, so that I sank almost feet foremost through a soft, seething, foaming lull. Some current seemed hurrying me away; in a trance I yielded, and sank deeper down with a glide. Purple and pathless was the deep calm now around me, flecked by summer lightnings in an azure afar. The horrible nausea was gone; the bloody, blind film turned a pale green; I wondered whether I was yet dead, or still dying. But of a sudden some fashionless form brushed my side–some inert, soiled fish of the sea; the thrill of being alive again tingled in my nerves, and the strong shunning of death shocked me through. [Library of America edition, p. 763.]

That is what Melville wrote, or at least what nineteenth-century editions of White Jacket led readers to believe he wrote.  One such reader was Professor F. O. Matthiessen, of Harvard University (1902-1950), sometimes credited with “inventing” the field of American literature as an academic subject.  Matthiessen was very struck by this passage—so struck, perhaps, that when he chose to end his own life he did so by leaping from a twelve-storey building.  He wrote a good deal about Melville, and famously about the paragraph just cited.  According to Matthiessen Melville, in choosing the adjective soiled to describe the fishy form which by its touch gave evidence to the submerged sailor that he was still alive, had performed an act of linguistic magic.  The astonishing phrase soiled fish—so surprising, so indeterminate, so evocative—was a hallmark of genius.



Then the bibliographers set about their spoil-sport work.  There was a compelling argument that the soiled fish of the sea was a typographical error.  The fact that the phrase was meaningless was only one clue.  Documentary evidence showed pretty clearly that the author had written coiled fish.  (Remember, we are talking Herman Melville, author of the world’s biggest book about whales.)  The transposition of the letters “C” and “S” is not uncommon in old hand-set copy.  If you examine the layout of the job case you can see that the error is based in a kind of spatial dyslexia.  So the great literary critic F. O. Matthiessen had been caught with his hand in the linguistic cookie jar.

To which I am tempted to say: So what?  Had Melville been offered the option of the mistake, he would have been a fool to reject it.  From now on I am going to write “Hippolyte Terray” only on those rare occasions when it is absolutely necessary.  Otherwise it’s “Leper Leads Calais” every time.