Literature and Error

A Literary Take on Mistakes and Errors

by Marc Porée (Volume editor) Isabelle Alfandary (Volume editor)
©2018 Monographs X, 264 Pages


Literature and Error comprises a series of essays by French scholars who seek to lay down the foundations of a theory that would argue for the productivity of errors and mistakes in literary works. While the "necessity of errors" has repeatedly been tackled from a philosophical angle, rarely has the demonstration been attempted from the standpoint of literature. Beyond the thematic importance of errors (evidenced in the age-old motifs of learning from one’s errors, mistaken identities, malapropism, comic or tragic misunderstandings, hamartia, the fallibility of man, etc.), the proposition is made here that errare is not just humanum but also literarium—that "Erring Becomes Literature" with or, preferably, without corrections. Indeed, approached from various angles, it is the literariness of errors and mistakes that this joint study sets out to explore. Modern and contemporary Anglo-American literature structurally accommodates and even welcomes errors. Ranging from Edgar Allan Poe, James Joyce, and Jonathan Franzen to Robert Browning and Elizabeth Bishop, the authors and works discussed assess the seaworthiness of errors when launched into deep (literary) water. Viewed in that light, errors not only cease to be errors of something (of taste, conception, judgment, calculation), they become errors per se, valued for their own sake. Deliberately comprehensive and broad-ranging, this volume should appeal not just to scholars and students but also to readers who share an interest in theory and close reading alike.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction (Isabelle Alfandary / Marc Porée)
  • Notes
  • References
  • Primary Sources
  • Secondary Sources
  • Chapter 1: Glances at a Poetics of Error (Marc Porée)
  • 1. “one of my inconceivable blunders” (R. L. Stevenson)
  • 2. “If I err not” (“Benito Cereno” M 196)
  • 3. Un mot pour un autre (Jean Tardieu)
  • 4. The Purloined Gown
  • 5. Error Is the Word—or Is It?
  • 6. Only Correct
  • 7. “Why, then, all the errata?” (Salman Rushdie)
  • 8. One Lives and Learns (Not)
  • 9. “Il sut son erreur”
  • 10. Muddlesome … or Meddlesome?
  • 11. Error-Friendly
  • Notes
  • References
  • Primary Sources
  • Secondary Sources
  • Chapter 2: “Truth Broken in Prismatic Hues”: False Prophets, Ambiguous Testimonies, and Poetic Truth in the Works of Robert Browning (François Crampe)
  • Beyond Shelley: The Burden of Prophecy
  • The Return of the Druses: The Ambiguities of Imposture
  • Revelation and Testimony: The Critical Vision in “A Death in the Desert”
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 3: Take a Closer Look, or the System of Error in Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetry (Christine Savinel)
  • Details of a Dubious World
  • The Faltering Eye
  • The Rhetoric of Error
  • Correct, Redress, Revise: The Voice Continued
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 4: “That day I’ll be in step with what escaped me”: Senses and the Rhythm of Error in the Work of Seamus Heaney (Fanny Quément)
  • Introduction
  • I—Unreliable Senses
  • II—Tripping Over Sensory Borders
  • III—In Rhythm With Error
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 5: Error/Mirror: How to Generate Fiction (Jean-Jacques Lecercle)
  • 1. The Same Error, Three Times
  • 2. The Mirror as a Matrix for Fiction
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 6: Has Mr. Utterson the Right to Err? (Jean-Pierre Naugrette)
  • Mr. Utterson’s Errors
  • A Plea for Mr. Utterson: The Mystery of the Third Labyrinth
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 7: Literature and the Sensation of Error (Catherine Lanone)
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 8: Henry James’s “Theatre of Error and Renouncement”: Guy Domville and the Novels of the Experimental Period (Dennis Tredy)
  • I. Guy Domville—James’s Most Spectacular Mistake and Most Precious Template
  • II. Restructuring and the Theatre of Renouncement
  • III. Formal Corrections Borrowed From Drama, All With One Purpose
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 9: Errare Americanum Est: On Errors in American Fiction (Isabelle Alfandary)
  • References
  • Chapter 10: “Language Never Errs”: A Saussurean Study of Some Mistakes in James Joyce’s Works (Sylvain Belluc)
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 11: The—Forced?—Choice of Error in Sorrentino’s Writing (Juliette Nicolini)
  • “Other Things Need to Be Said:” Erroneous Corrections
  • The Importance of Being Truthful
  • Looking Towards Modernism
  • Attempts at a Remedy
  • An Image of Modernist Purity: The Dangerous Temptation of the Monochrome
  • Sterility of Abstraction, Sullying of the Sensory
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 12: Comic Mistakes and Intimate Errors in Jonathan Coe’s Fiction (Laurent Mellet)
  • Getting and Doing It Wrong
  • Errors vs. Mistakes
  • Share Your Errors: Intimate Connections
  • References
  • Chapter 13: Jonathan Franzen’s Tragi-Comedy of Errors (Béatrice Pire)
  • His Mistake
  • Harmatia and Discipline
  • Castigat?
  • The Postmodern Error
  • Notes
  • References
  • Contributors
  • Series index

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This book has been a long time in the making. It originated as a five-year project drafted and put together by the research group VORTEX (now renamed “19–21”). Based at the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, Vortex comprises Americanists and Britanicists, specialized in the study of literature ranging from the early nineteenth-century to the twenty-first century. The project developed as a collective enterprise to which all of its members participated, whether directly or indirectly, be it at the level of PhD candidates or at that of senior lecturers and professors. As a result, Literature and Error may be defined as two instances of team-building and of error-building rolled into one, making of it a truly vortex-like affair, with, we hope, an idiosyncratic spin of its own. One which we are please to dedicate to the memory of the founding father of VORTEX, the late Joycean scholar André Topia.

As our investigations proceeded, we frequently asked ourselves whether we would survive the arduous journey through quagmires, snares, pitfalls, slips, faux-pas and countless other errings. Five years later, our trial-and-error approach has finally landed us somewhere. This was made possible thanks to the encouragements of the British philosopher John Roberts, the author of The Necessity of Errors (Verso, 2011), whom a colleague of ours, Charlotte Gould, had invited to the launch of our programme. On that occasion, he encouraged ← ix | x → us to inquire whether errors and mistakes prove as productive in the realm of literature, of fiction in particular, as they do in the field of the fine arts (or of philosophy). By seeking and blundering we believe we have learned some of Roberts’ lessons, although it falls upon the readers of Literature and Error, not its authors, to say so. At any rate, we are only too happy to acknowledge our indebtedness to his deep understanding of the successive shifts affecting the construction of error in the history of human thought.

The book benefited from the generous financial and intellectual support of Line Cottegnies and Aliyah Morgenstern, the Chairs of the research team PRISMES, to whom we extend our grateful thanks. Thanks are also due to Claire Davison for her help in the proof-reading phase of the work. Last but not least, Peter Lang, New York, deserves our gratitude for accepting our proposal in the Studies on Themes and Motifs in Literature series.

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Isabelle Alfandary and Marc Porée

“my word is error.”

—Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, Chapter XX1

Literature and Error comprises a series of essays by French scholars who seek to lay the foundations of a theory, a poetics rather, which would argue for the necessity and productivity of errors (and mistakes) in literary works, somewhat along the lines advanced by John Roberts.2 Beyond the thematic importance of such traditional motifs as: learning from one’s errors, making the most of mistaken identities and various other misunderstandings, exploiting the unlimited potential, comic, tragic and otherwise, of conning, duping and gulling, without forgetting the fallibility of man, manifest in his/her “First Disobedience,” his ever lapsing, in more secular contexts, and becoming mired in the “Human Stain”—all of which can seriously be claimed to make up a good two-thirds, at the very least, of the content of literary texts—, the proposition will be made in what follows that errare is not just humanum3 but also literarium, and most presumably diabolicum, for the very reason that it is largely so by form and design—the product of a deliberate error, in other words. As a matter of fact, Errors Most Wanted is a title that was first considered in the build-up to this project. ← 1 | 2 →

In the course of this “Bungle Book”4 of sorts, it will indeed be argued that literature in general, and modern literature in particular, structurally fosters, accommodates and even welcomes various instances of error, slip, pun, linguistic accident, intentional or unintentional mistake—all of which serving, in the words of James Joyce, probably paraphrasing Blake, as “portals of discovery.” Mistakes will be construed as partaking of and engaging in the process of literary creation, if only in terms of reception by the reader, every time he or she falls for the seductiveness of a literary piece. The advantages of considering errors in that light are far from negligible, we find. Ethically and ideologically speaking, they shed light on the premium laid by so many writers on defending their fallible, vulnerable, error-prone characters, in the face of an overall pressure (social and otherwise) to conform to a program of mandatory rightness, not so say self-righteousness. In the words of the Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro, the prospect of living, willy-nilly, in an environment where error would be banned—“and no possibility anywhere of a mistake5is so terrifying that one feels like empathizing with her human, all too human creatures.

This pro-error bias also has also something to say about various types of cognitive or epistemological dysfunction: novels like The Unconsoled, by Kazuo Ishiguro, touch upon the existential perils of being lost in translation, as it were, finding oneself in an unknown country, not speaking the language and moving from one blunder to the next—a fact that should speak to our contemporary age, one of (forced) migration and displacement, leading to all kinds of (mental) disruptions and (existential) perturbations. Last but not least, it should also put paid to a long tradition of reading the works of writers largely, if not exclusively, for corrective or censorious purposes. As argued by French writer and critic Christian Prigent, demanding writers, from the Modernists onwards, have all too frequently been accused of being illisible, unreadable, precisely on the grounds that they depart from the allegedly natural or organic, i.e., normative or conservative, style of writing, thereby allegedly committing the foulest of crimes, Une erreur de la nature.6 For Prigent, writing, or “righting” for that matter, is cultural, and cannot in the least be natural. Our own bias is towards, rather than away from, errors, leading, admittedly, to the rather extreme proposition that one reads for the sake of mistakes, wanting them to happen, so to speak, and feeling disappointed when they do not occur (!). If John Roberts’s thoughts on the productivity of errors are to prove truly discriminating in the field of literature (rather than that of philosophy), then they should gesture as confidently as possible towards the ability, conscious or ← 2 | 3 → unconscious, for works to be authored and appreciated for their errors, rather than in spite of them. Understood in that light, errors not only cease to be errors of something (of taste, perception, conception, judgment, calculation …), they become errors per se or qua errors, firstly, errors with an added value, an edge to them, secondly, valued for their own literary stake, thus proving the extent to which (forgive the pun) Erring Becomes Literature.

Indeed, approached from various angles and perspectives, it is the literariness of errors (and mistakes) that this collaborative piece of work is out to explore, and this, preferentially in the creative domain, rather than in that of the reception and interpretation of works. Granted, errors of the latter kind are central to a poetics of error, considering the fact that divergent readings of works frequently derive from such creative ambiguity or polysemy as cultivated in the most accomplished works. Slippery meanings will generate unstable readings. But it is only fair to argue that Bloomian and neo-Bloomian notions of “creative misprision,” “maps of misreading,” Clément’s notion of critical malentendu,7 and so on and so forth, have already received a considerable deal of critical attention in their time and age, while still continuing to do so nowadays. The same applies to such widespread notions as pathetic fallacy, intentional fallacy, referential illusion; they speak volumes as regards the ingrained presence of error in the very fabric of literary artifacts. Critical debates, nay critical wars fought over the understanding of and commentary upon literary works (canonical or minor) are, and rightly so, a vital component of the activity of academics—error-prone academics, as readers of David Lodge’s campus novels hardly need to be reminded of. … Having said that, the wise insights of Frank Kermode, the acclaimed critic, regarding The Uses of Error (1991), are so sweepingly comprehensive that we feel authorized to leave the matter as it stands: “The history of interpretation, the skills by which we keep alive in our minds the light and dark of past literature and past humanity, is to incalculable extent a history of error.”8 Definitive words, indeed … The alternative “history of error” we intend to draft, in lieu of the history of interpretation, is one that will envisage errors and their implementation in terms of form, language, grammar,9 genre, plot, characterization, authorial design, etc. For such a history to begin to grow in importance, a minimal working definition as to what we are to understand under the name of error is required. At this early stage, we propose, quite classically, to call error any type of wandering, of erring (in opinion, in the holding of mistaken beliefs), of missing, of dysfunctioning, of leading or being led astray, of transgressing, of accomplishing things wrongly, whether knowingly or unknowingly, etc. ← 3 | 4 →

Considering that our take on mistakes, errors and corrections is to privilege their aesthetic dimension, rather than to view them for what they are, too, i.e., natural and universal failings common to humanity, it struck us that we could afford not to keep terms such as “error” and “mistake” too far apart, given the significant amount of overlap between them. An exception will be made, however, for the notion of moral “fault” which demands to be treated on its own, owing to the long-standing tradition of confessional literature, from St Augustine onwards, which capitalizes on owning up to diversely important failings, lapses and other departures from moral rectitude (confer the chapter by Isabelle Alfandary). Otherwise, we shall rather tend to use the terms “mistake” and “error” more or less as synonyms (unless when specified). Indeed, our take is that the “error” in Literature and Error is a generic, inclusive, capacious and comprehensive term, encompassing all kinds of fine, subtle and no doubt useful distinctions. The drawing of fine lines, of fault-lines, is precisely what the business of literature is all about, but in a myriad of contradictory ways, and very differently to the distinctions found in moral conduct books or the decisions rendered in courts of justice. In Atonement, the 2001 novel by Ian McEwan, thirteen-year old Briony Tallis commits what is more or less allusively referred to in the narration as a “crime” for which she will spend the rest of her life trying to atone. Hers was indeed a major fault, we discover, but only in the closing pages of the novel, and thanks to a confidence trick pulled off by the elderly Briony, now turned novelist and diagnosed with vascular dementia—but chiefly pulled off by McEwan himself, novelist en chef, a consequence of which being that readers will never quite know what “really” happened on the hottest day of the summer of 1935 … “Atonement” was possibly the best, as opposed to the right, word, but only the attempt was worthwhile for the task is impossible: “No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists.”10 In Jane Eyre, Rochester insists, with somewhat “sophistical” vehemence, on calling his past misconduct towards Martha Mason not a crime, which would make him amenable to the law, but an “error”, considering that he was the victim of a plot hatched against him, more sinn’d against than sinning, in other words. As quoted in the epigraph to our Introduction “My word is error” is a reminder: (a) that errors are made in reference to some ideal code, model or set of binding social values, interiorized as such and which should have called for a different, non-reprehensible, action; (b) that an element of bad faith will frequently attach itself to the appreciation of that error, at least in the self-interested minds of the wrongdoers—whereas mistakes are performance-based, to be corrected when the ← 4 | 5 → outcome is found to be wrong. Having said that, neither the reader of Jane Eyre, nor Jane, nor Jean Rhys, the author of Wide Sargasso Sea, are expected to believe or take for granted Rochester’s at times speciously mistaken words.11 In the world of Conrad’s Lord Jim, a similar moral lapse, conveniently materialized as a fall, a jump off the Patna into the (assumed) safety of a long boat, when duty, and the life of 800 pilgrims, would have commanded to remain on board, is referred to by Jim himself as a “mistake,” a momentary weakness, for which he is made to rue and pay a steep price: “that mistake, you know—made a confounded ass of myself” (Chapter VII).12 But there again, the military court that tries him for desertion judges according to its own laws and terminology, and so does Marlow, guilty, in his own terms, of an idiosyncratic kind of “failing” (Chapter VIII), one that he terms democratic and which he equates to a form of universal, almost abstract empathy with the vagaries of error-prone human beings—“He is one of us—and have I not stood up once, like an evoked ghost, to answer for his eternal constancy? Was I so very wrong after all?” (Chapter XLV).

Either way, if we can plead our own cause, semantics count less than the temporality, the sequentiality of errors as staged by McEwan, Brontë and, more crucially, by Conrad. Most probably unpremeditated, Jim’s jump lasted a fraction of a second; it takes more than four hundred pages for that one mistake (actually, in the chronology of events, it was the second of its kind) to be: (a) confessed, by way of a convoluted drawn-out process that has come to stand for Conrad’s literary hallmark, his signature as a pre-modernist writer; (b) ruminated and finally ill-digested by the time that aborted form of novelistic catharsis reaches its foregone conclusion, somewhere in the jungle of Patusan. Such a spectacular discrepancy in the temporal treatment of Jim’s guilty conscience would tend to confirm the view that our agenda is definitely a literary, not a moral one (even though ethical questions will be raised on the way), hence our decision, after all, not to desynonymize mistakes and errors.

Speaking of democracy, there is a certain rightness, we feel, about the timing of Literature and Error. In this current age of “post-truth”—the word having entered the O.E.D in 2016, as international Word Of The Year—, the truths, but also the errors, which literature has to convey to us (not to teach us, mind you) are particularly timely, and of service. In an age in which “alternative news” barely concealing their “fakeness” are dictated and propagated by the powers-that-be, generating—in countries where the press is free—the equivalent of Fact Checker projects with a view to grading politicians on the factual accuracy of their statements with one to four “Pinocchios”,13 it is vital ← 5 | 6 → to go back, for the sake of enlightenment, to the invention of Newspeak by George Orwell, in the late forties. With hindsight, the politics of 1984 appears lastingly vindicated by the present turn of events. Lastingly, that is to say that Orwell’s indignantly Swiftian satire has given the lie to the topical pronouncements of those social thinkers and essayists, like Neil Postman, who had proclaimed the falsity, or say the wrongness, of its chilling prophecies as to the global and massive advent of totalitarianism.14 The latter has indeed triumphed, but in a different guise, liberal rather than communistic, making it all the more indispensable to salvage truths and truthfulness (rather than Truth), the cardinal value to be rescued from the quasi industrial enterprise of falsification generated by official propaganda. In that respect, as well as on many other counts, the timelessness of 1984 testifies to the dire necessity of trusting literature rather than politicians. More or less every writer will wage this fight against the worldview cum story-telling which the leaders of the world (free and unfree) try to thrust unto us. “Only correct”: it has never been more urgent, for readers but also for citizens like ourselves, to proclaim the truthfulness of such a motto, unashamedly derivative as far as the letter goes, but crucially authentic when it comes to preserving the fact-checking sprit that sustains it.

Surprisingly, considering the universality of error, and the importance of what is at stake, not just aesthetically but also politically, the history we are contemplating has long remained under a cloud, in limbo. True, there has been a great deal of monographs on individual authors (Joyce in particular), and the number of papers, articles and chapters on punctual aspects of the copious problematics of literary errors is growing.15 Keats’s incorrect inclusion of Cortez instead of Balboa in his inaugural sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” has been a long-time favorite as far as major historical blunders are concerned.16 T. S. Eliot’s severely sententious faulting of the play Hamlet, on the basis of its lacking a proper “objective correlative,” is a thought-provoking enterprise that is rarely been imitated, let alone topped. Tom Quirk’s article on “The Flawed Greatness of Huckleberry Finn” is a recent interesting example, among several others, of the length and breadth to which can go a fair analysis of where “true” errors lie and the extent to which their exploration can benefit literary scholarship:17 Huck’s moral development by the end of the novel of which he is the main protagonist, his having learned to distinguish good from bad, right from wrong, are indeed more instructive than wondering for the umpteenth time why on earth Mark Twain would have made Huck head south, rather than northward into the free state of ← 6 | 7 → Illinois, if the plan had been to set Jim, the runaway slave, free. And that leaves aside the question of the objective weakening of the novel after Tom Sawyer’s belated return.

But much rarer are the attempts to tackle the problem from a broader, more comprehensive point of view. Naturally, there are exceptions, but they will tend to confirm the rule. John Sutherland is one of them. The author of Is Heathcliff a Murderer? Puzzles in Nineteenth-Century Fiction (O.U.P., 1996), the first of a series of successful works in a similar vein, Sutherland affects to turn canonical novels into conundrums, puzzles, problems containing all kinds of anomalies (apple tree blossoms in the month of June in Austen’s Emma; the single foot print in Robinson Crusoe …), anachronisms, chronological contortions, etc., for which he is only too happy to provide an ingenious explanation, so as to set the record straight. Chloroform, we thus learn, was not used as an anesthetics until the 1850s—decades before the 1793 setting of A Tale of Two Cities, when Sidney Carton avails himself of its resources to pursue his sacrificial goal. Clever and entertaining, Sutherland’s method studiously avoids, however, the strictly literary side of things, acting as if Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennett were real human beings and vamping up their problems in an at times sensational manner.18 The French critic and psychoanalyst Pierre Bayard opts for a completely different approach. His paradoxical turn of mind is a unique blend of French intellectual arrogance, sound critical acumen and a compelling sense of performance, all of which are implemented with intense glee and irony. He is one the first to embark on the perilous journey of openly coming to terms with an embarrassing reality, all too frequently occulted—namely that certain writers allow their skills to slip or drop, ending up drafting poor, weak or bad pieces of work that pale by comparison with other productions by the same artist, or in the same genre. Voltaire’s tragedies, for one, do not live up to those of his forebears in the preceding century. Clinically, Bayard begins by diagnosing the ill—in Voltaire’s case, tragedies, in the long eighteenth century, were no longer the order of the day, ideologically and aesthetically speaking. After which he takes up a challenging task, infinitely more controversial, which is to go about mending the weaknesses and impairments in question. This hubristic (and vainglorious?) task, he calls improving “les oeuvres ratées”, making no doubt the most of the presence of the word “rature” in the French “littérature.”19 The result, as was to be feared, is rarely convincing. But at least the point was made. Bayard’s next step was to call into question the attribution of certain works to certain authors. What if, acting on an impishly perverse impulse, one was to swap, switch, change the names ← 7 | 8 → on the covers? Who knows, the poor reception of one work under a certain author’s name might be vastly improved, or considerably spoilt, should it be demonstrated that it was the literary property of another writer, of a lesser or greater rank? Such errors of attribution, Bayard thus corrects, for better or for worse20… Liberating and disrespectful, Bayard’s investigations reach their climax with his forays into the world of great detective stories. The Hound of the Baskervilles is a case in point, which he is not wary of reopening, with a view to exposing the “flaws” of Holmes’s corrupt reasoning. Why would a writer of Conan Doyle’s caliber make his detective commit such a gross blunder? Why do we still believe that an “unfortunate animal” was (partly) to blame, thus allowing the true culprit to escape justice? Bayard’s crafty answer to those nagging questions will not be revealed here, but it is worth noting that the English translation of his opus is more explicit (and melodramatic) than the French one: Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong: Reopening the Case of the Hound of the Baskervilles makes more sense than the laconic L’affaire du Chien des Baskerville, error-wise.21 Last but not least, Kent Puckett also acts as a forerunner in his privileged domain of competence, that of social mistakes. His contention is that blunders, faux-pas, gaffes, and general instances of misbehavior in terms of etiquette or decorum are formative, not to say instrumental in the construction of characters and of realist novels. Considering that they are an unavoidable aspect of life in society and of how we, readers, desire the latter to be narrated to us, the author of Bad Form: Social Mistakes and the Nineteenth-Century Novel is anxious to explore the presence of a disturbing mistake “inside,” within the consciousness of characters, to be approached via narratology, psychoanalysis and a Bourdieu-inspired sociology of form. The cogent discussion of the character of Hyacinth Robinson, the protagonist of James’s The Princess Casamassima who is said never to make a mistake, is emblematic of his ground-breaking method. Need it be reminded that the titles of several chapters of Elisabeth Gaskell’s North and South (self-) consciously signal the presence of mistakes made by Margaret Hale?22 The novel is not the exclusive province of bad form: nineteenth-century comedy can pride itself on illustrious faux pas: “to be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution,” as characteristically argued by Lady Bracknell.23 In which cloak-room, on which railway line, the hand-bag was found and given to Mr. James “in mistake of his own,” is indeed “immaterial,” in her own words again. But what does matter, is the correlation to be established between a recognized position ← 8 | 9 → in good society and a critical disposition which seeks to uncover the ins and outs of embarrassment, a methodology pioneered by Christopher Ricks.24

On the whole, however, at least to our knowledge, no global attempt has been made to propose a comprehensive take on the multi-modal relevance of errors. Literature and Error is only a step in that direction, tentative, no doubt, incomplete by definition in view of the daunting monumentality of the task, but hopefully not too far off track. The common conviction shared by all of its contributors is that they have come here to praise error, not to bury it under a morass of pseudo-philosophical, pseudo-anthropological generalizations. Our business is with literariness, unequivocally, with literature, unemphatically. The literature we have in mind is as rife in linguistic slippages and deviations from the norm (Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, Caroline Bergvall) as it is adamant about the defense of man’s lapsarian and lapsidian nature. A dimension which the recent ethical turn in human sciences has powerfully reinstated, with its special attention paid to the variously poignant manifestations of “unaccommodated man,” at a great technological distance, therefore, from the would-be augmented prodigies of “transhumanity,” and its enhanced promises of eternal freedom from such fatal errors as disease, old age and mortality. Disgrace (1999), by J. M. Coetzee, and The Human Stain (2000), by Philip Roth, together with Beckett’s fascination for failure, for failing again, for failing better, for his “Art of mismaking,”25 epitomize the error-proneness which resonates so poignantly with readers of Melville’s “Bartleby” (“Ah, Bartleby! Ah, Humanity!”).26

Without mistakes, there would be no literary works worth their kettle of fish. Open any work of fiction, and you will be confronted, as a reader, to a character who makes a more or less fatal mistake, and it should be noted that in most instances this is bound to take place right at the outset. Timing is indeed of the essence. A case in point is Metropole (1970), by the Hungarian writer Ferenc Karinthy, which has developed the status of a cult-book over the years. Despite its admittedly absurdist nature, the novel is characteristic of the shape taken by so many wry human comedies. On his way to a linguists’ conference, Budai takes the wrong door in the transit lounge of the Budapest airport; boarding the wrong plane, he lands not in Helsinki as expected, but in a very different country altogether. A country that features on no familiar map, and one in which he, the brilliant linguist and polyglott, is lost in translation, and can make neither heads nor tails of the mysterious languages spoken by the locals of this vastly populated metropolis, ruled by ruthlessly alienating and unintelligible laws. His fine academic training and ← 9 | 10 → deft instincts are hopelessly defeated as one angst-ridden day collapses into another, one blunder leads to another inextricable confusion. The snowballing effect of these repeated slips plunges the reader deeper and deeper into a labyrinth of chaos and anarchy. At once swiftian and kafkaesque in tone and spirit, Metropole may be construed as a veiled critique of the Hungarian Communist regime after the failed 1956 uprising. But hanging over the novel is the disturbing sense of a more deeply seated crisis the exact nature of which defies and thwarts our understanding—some “terrible mistake” (metaphysical, existential, ontological?) has happened, but which one? The burlesque bungled act at the start, to resort to Freudian terms, was a mere pretext for Karinthy, one feels, to conduct a more sustained investigation into the perplexing arcana of error.27 Not unlike the lucretian clinanem, an error, it transpires, has proved instrumental in triggering all kinds of deviations, swerves and departures from the straight course of things. Collisions occur, blows are generated, slippages and veerings go about derailing or unhinging the world as we know it, thus testifying, not so much to the “free will which living things throughout the world have” (in true atomistic parlance) as to the ability—but it is also a demanding privilege—of a writer to put his/her more or less perversely unpredictable spin on things.

Immediately, dozens, nay thousands of similarly inaugural mistakes come to mind, in fiction as well as in drama. It is because they can’t find the right train at Waterloo Station (the station’s confusing layout being a well-known theme of Victorian comedy) that Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men (to say nothing of the Dog) bribe a train-driver into driving his train to Kingston upon Thames where they are to collect a skiff and begin what is to prove an error-studded voyage. It is in the opening scenes of King Lear that the old king seals his disatrous fate by trusting the “wrong” daughters, Goneril and Regan, believing them to be loyal when they were lying straight to his face, and by banishing the trustworthy Cordelia—the latter being guilty, incidentally, of declaring her love to be neatly divided into two allegedly water-tight compartments (“Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters/To love my father all.” I, 1). One lives and learns, and Cordelia is no exception, finding out, at her father’s expense and at her own, too, that she did love her father “all”, and that she was never more grossly deluded than when she forgot that the heart has its reasons, of which mathematical reason knows nothing.

What works in opening pages or scenes, operates likewise in the central sections of literary works. Emma Woodhouse, Jane Austen’s heroine, once started on her matchmaking course, can’t seem to be willing, or able, ← 10 | 11 → to refrain from making the wrong inferences or offering the most misguided of (romantic) counseling. To the very end, almost, she remains blind to the perils of meddling in other people’s lives. Typically, however, considering this is a Jane Austen novel, it will be argued that for all her arrogance and conceit Emma is more erred against than erring, or so we learn. It is indeed revealed that for all the duration of that wantonly undiscerning game of hers, Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax had been secretly engaged—unbeknownst not just to the more gullible characters,28 amongst whom Emma takes pride of place, but also to the more deceived readers. Now, that the latter should have been kept in the dark and led astray for so long, a fact not that frequently addressed by the critics, is exactly what constitutes the agenda of Literature and Error. Indeed, its concern has precisely to do with the “fit”, the “suitability” of the pact, or contract, which binds literature to error at every level, forming what we take to be, as it were, an organically joint venture in error.

Last but not least, epilogues of novels, final scenes of plays, closing lines of poems generally bring to light past mistakes, hitherto unacknowledged or concealed errors. The last stanza of Medbh McGuckian’s poem, conveniently entitled “Slips”, exploits to the full the wanton logic of the clinanem encountered earlier:


The studied poverty of a moon roof,
the earthenware of dairies cooled by apple trees,
the apple tree that makes the whitest wash …

But I forget names, remembering them wrongly
where they touch upon another name,
a town in France like a woman’s Christian name.

My childhood is preserved as a nation’s history,
my favourite fairytales the shells
leased by the hermit crab.

I see my grandmother’s death as a piece of ice,
my mother’s slimness restored to her,
my own key slotted in your door –


X, 264
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2018. X, 264 pp., 1 coloured ill., 1 tables

Biographical notes

Marc Porée (Volume editor) Isabelle Alfandary (Volume editor)

Marc Porée is Professor of English Literature at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he runs the LILA (Literature and Languages) Department and teaches British and postcolonial literature. When he is not publishing on Romantic poets and translating, Porée writes on British and postcolonial contemporary fiction and/or Victorian or contemporary poetry. Isabelle Alfandary is Professor of American Literature at Sorbonne Nouvelle University in Paris, where she teaches American poetry, fiction, and critical theory. As Director of Programme at the Collège International de Philosophie (CIPh), her seminars deal with the intersection of philosophy and psychoanalysis. She recently authored Derrida-Lacan, L’écriture entre psychanalyse et déconstruction (2016).


Title: Literature and Error
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276 pages