29 April 2012

Errors, parapraxes and all that

It’s not every book that introduces a word to the language. Yet when Freud’s The Psychopathology of Everyday Life was translated into english, there was no word for Fehlleistung (roughly, ‘faulty function’). Thus parapraxis was born, really a rather ugly word, covering all those daily hiccoughs from Freudian slips to malapropisms. Strictly, a parapraxis should contain a hidden thought; it’s the unconscious expression of a repressed desire or wish.

I’ve come across a few errors or quasi-parapraxes recently:

    •    Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described as the author of Ivanhoe
    •    The Prague Spring confused with the Velvet Revolution
    •    Einstein awarded the Nobel prize for his theory of relativity
    •    Galileo denying that the earth was flat.

Now before you think I’m getting all righteous, I confess that I made the first of these; mea culpa. I was commenting on a blog about Sir Arthur’s historical novels — he wanted to be remembered for them, not for Sherlock Holmes — and I’d remembered Micah Clark and The White Company. It seemed natural to add Ivanhoe to the list; of course, it is a historical novel by Sir Walter Scott. I’d been doing a crossword and thought that Ivanhoe was a solution — it wasn’t — and I guess this is the explanation of the conflation. But at least I remembered who the real author was after a day or so, and was able to post my correction.

You need to have lived long enough, to have seen the events unfold as they happened, to know that the Prague Spring was the failed attempt at modernisation in 1968, halted when the Russian tanks entered what was then Czechoslovakia. The Velvet Revolution, as its name signifies, was the successful overthrow of communism in 1989.

Einstein wasn’t given the Nobel prize for relativity, but for his work on the photo-electric effect. Of course, he is famous for relativity, and for a non-specialist and non-scientist it’s easy to make this mistake (and rather more empirical of me than usual to point it out).

Galileo is harder to explain, given that the author of this quasi-parapraxis is a scientist. Nobody anyway scientific believed in the flat earth idea in Galileo’s time; indeed, the earth was accepted as a globe several hundred years BC. Eratosthenes around 240BC calculated the earth’s circumference, though it wasn’t clear just how long his units of measurement were. Columbus, misunderstanding Eratosthenes’s calculations, thought that the earth was quite a bit smaller than it is, so he wasn’t surprised when he found the “Indies” — that’s what he was looking for. He didn’t realise that a continent and an ocean lay between him and the East Indies.

Galileo is famous for his problems with the Inquisition. He was forced by the Inquisition to retract his belief in the heliocentric theory — the theory that the sun was the centre of the solar system, around which the earth revolved. He’s said to have muttered, sotto voce, “but yet it moves” during his recantation, referring to the earth’s movement.

How do we manage to combine people with things they didn’t do, specially when these things are well known? And how can we recognise our mistakes?

Well, it suddenly came to me who the real author of Ivanhoe was; I hadn’t been thinking about it, it just came. Perhaps I was lucky. For others; well, perhaps a proof reader would pick these things up, though they are usually looking for errors of grammar and spelling rather than fact — and they might well not have the knowledge to recognise the error.

When we go into Starbucks and order an americano, or whatever’s to your taste, we don’t have to think what the cylinder that comes to us with coloured liquid in it actually is; we simply recognise it as a mug of coffee. We know it is a mug of coffee. It we had to work out what everything we come into contact was we wouldn’t get very far. We need these mental short cuts to be able to function in the world.

Some people have problems with this sort of functioning; think of people on the autism spectrum. They have difficulty recognising emotions in others. People with dyslexia have problems with language; they both don’t have the appropriate patterns established in their brains, they don’t have the short cuts. A simplification I know, it’s just to make the point.

We all make silly, trivial errors; errors with no underlying psychological meaning. Sometimes we recognise them, sometimes others point them out to us. They may go unrecognised. But it’s not clever to pounce on such an error and to extrapolate from it, no matter how enticingly easy it might be; this is just laziness, looking for any excuse to rubbish an author’s work on the basis that if there is one mistake, well then the whole thing might be riddled with them. (It’s almost an ad hominem attack.) Which is why I’m not going to point the fingers at those authors whose errors I’ve identified.