22. On Errors
errors. Graham Greene. QWERTY. Dvorak. Sigmund Freud. freudian slip. parapraxes. genetics. Confucius. topology. metrics
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Essay 22. On Errors
The Comedians by Graham
Green is one of my most favorite books.
The Classic Greek tragedy was about impossibility to fight fate. The Western literature of the nineteenth century was about the rise and fall of an individual wrestling with the fate. The new wave of the twentieth century, from modernists to Ayn Rand, annulled fate. Graham Greene, never with the crowd, equaled fate with accident, as any writer of page turners always did, but he encapsulated the character in a shell waiting to be cracked by an accident so that the hero could look inside himself and see that the cynicism was just a shell.
The ties with other people, whether attraction or repulsion, limit our personal freedom. The loss of ties, loyalty, and moral distinctions is what we pay for the anti-Platonic chaos of freedom. The ability to make such ties distinguishes us from billiard balls. Too much bonding—and we are simply parts of a mechanism, ball bearings, slaves, and tools. No ties—and we are atoms in the void. A very few very strong ties is my image of the home of a traveler and the anchor of his ship.
I read The Comedians countless number of times, always discovering new shades and details in his idealistic version of human chemistry. I was coming back to his other books, too.
I found another flash of geometry in Chapter 16 of Greene’s Travels with my Aunt .
The errors made by Miss Keene needed the following corrections:
Graham Greene was a writer of fiction. The above errors could be completely fictitious. I have an evidence, however, that they were not.This is the common typewriter layout known as QWERTY:
The typewriter keys Q and W, F and G, and D and R are neighbors and, therefore, can be mixed up easier than Q and D or F and P. It confirms that Graham Green was as realistic in this insignificant detail as he was in portraying human characters.
It turns out that there is an alternative layout called Dvorak . Dvorak and its hopeless competition with QWERTY has simulated a discussion of philosophical magnitude, concerning some most important properties of our society.
Curiously, the properties of the space we live in predict our errors.
Whatever we do, the high
probability of small deviations from the goal is a law
of nature. This is why our most probable errors are
concentrated in a small space: the neighborhood
of the target (see Essay 16). In topology, the
neighborhood of a point is a set of all other
points close to it (actually,
not so simple: "A neighborhood of a point or a set
is an open set that contains it": Topology glossary).
Concerning the social space, Plato promised a space with less errors by segregating the rulers from the masses. Hitler quite reasonably assumed that a larger Lebensraum would ease the stress of the Germans bumping into each other, but he overlooked, as Napoleon did, the simple physics of a pressure drop in an expanding volume. In Russia, the largest country on earth, Stalin, in order to prevent both the bumping and pressure drop, designed the society as the crystal lattice of a marching column, but he, too, overlooked the physics of the melting solids, as well of the brittle solids with dislocation defects).
Correcting my own typing, I constantly find that the closeness of the keys is a defining factor in making an error. In addition, because typing on the keyboard takes so little effort, I could occasionally depress two keys in the same row at once with one fonger (ha! that was an exemplary error!), for example: fd, kl, but not ok or ef.
Graham Greene’s characters are realistic because their words and actions make sense. The novel runs in a linear time cut into ahort (another typing error: should be “short”) pieces. Within the fragments, each couple of neighboring consecutive events is credibke (should be “credible”; well, enough to prove my point): they stick together.
Graham Green designed fictional stories that could happen because they did not contradict any known principles of nature, either physical or human. His characters and collisions could be played by real actors. King's books could be turned into movies only by using technical tricks falsifying the laws of nature and common sense.
Reality, which is a euphemism for Everything, is like a computer keyboard: it has a topology. This mathematical term means approximately that there is a set of objects (points of a space) and for every two objects we can tell whether they are close neighbors or not, but not much more.
A topological space can be compared to a completely dark room where we have to move from point to point, groping around for objects and planning the next move. We may not know what is in the room, but we can conclude that the curtain is close to a window and the chairs are close to the table. Through a blind walk we can even find the exit to the light from the darkness.
In addition to topology, our natural metric space has distance between every two points. Metric space is a particular case of topological space.
Metric space is like the illuminated room. We can move straight from the window to the table because we can see distance, a not just closeness, between objects.
I have just loosely interpreted two
mathematical terms, topology and metrics, by
presenting their metaphors. We cannot learn
mathematics or any other science through metaphors but
we can understand them without going into details.
Another example is biological systematics where tiger and cat are very close while cat and fish are elements apart and cat and catnip are in different universes. In a different representation of the world, however, cat is pretty close to both fish and catnip but far removed from golf ball.
A mathematician could say that systematics is a discrete space that has a tree topology.
Speaking about errors, to omit Sigmund Freud would be unspeakable.
In his Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), Freud analyses errors such as forgetting of names and foreign words, mistakes in speech, reading and writing, erroneous actions, and other faux pas known also as parapraxes and Freudian slips. His main point was that we should not "ignore the realms of determinism in our mental life" (Chapter 12). Under his close scrutiny, the errors revealed deterministic influence of factors repressing the correct actions or enhancing the wrong ones.
Freud went against the tide of the contemporaneous experimental science by neglecting the statistical analysis of as many cases as one can collect and by burrowing, instead, into individual cases as deep as one can go. His novellas on individual errors read like detective stories. In some cases they are many pages long, for example, why the names of Botticelli and Boltraffio "intruded" on him instead of the correct name Signorelli (Chapter 1) or why the strange word Cardillac stuck in somebody's (his future translator's) memory (Chapter 12). I was not convinced: it could be explained in a different way or not explained at all. To find a single fitting explanation was certainly the worst way to look for determinism, but that was typical for Freud. If it looks like fiction and sounds like fiction, it probably is fiction.
Nevertheless, even if Freud stretched and twisted his explanatory apparatus, he opened an area where nobody had ever looked before except for fiction writers (and probably this is why he borrowed their methods): the area of the subconscious. He made it clear that the errors happened in a narrow space of associations, whether positive or negative. The actual errors were selected from the enormous space of all possible errors. The very volume of his observations seemed to "substatistically" prove that.
For example (Chapter 10) Freud found an error in one of his own books:
...Hannibal's father is called Hasdrubal. This error was particularly annoying to me, but it was most corroborative of my conception of such errors. Few readers of the book are better posted on the history of the Barkides than the author who wrote this error and overlooked it in three proofs. The name of Hannibal's father was Hamilcar Barkas; Hasdrubal was the name of Hannibal's brother as well as that of his brother-in-law and predecessor in command.
dare to interpret this error, Hannibal and Hasdrubal
are locked in the same dark narrow cell of our
memory with the address sign on the door looking
like a classificator of a search engine (which is the
best example of the tree topology):
We may mistake one for the other in the dark. The error as fact is accidental because we are mostly right, but the content of error is partly deterministic. It would not occur to us to call Hannibal's father Sir Anthony Hopkins even though there is a link in a certain dimension of the tree space.
In a slightly larger cell of
in the corner of "names starting with Ha" we may mistake Hasdrubal for Hannibal's father Hamilcar Barca. Whether it is the Ha that brings the three Barkides together, or simply their kinship, or, even simpler, their geometrical closeness on the pages of history textbooks, is beyond proof in the particular case of Freud's own Freudian slip.
Similarly, Signorelli, Botticelli, and Boltraffio overlap by their -elli and Bo-.
Through the relation between topology and partial order in mathematics, Graham Greene's novels, formal genetics, keyboard layout, Freudian slip, zipper, and Confucian ethics, I see the unity of Everything and its surprising wormhole (distant is in fact close) topology.
It is the patterns of the Everything that shoot the laser beams of similarity across the Universe of knowledge.
The cosmic beauty of the picture of the Everything prevents me from spoiling it by mulling over either the catastrophic blunders of my own life or the apocalyptic dangers of errors in the digital age.
Perhaps the sexual life is the greatest test. If we can survive it with charity to those we love and with affection to those we have betrayed, we needn't to worry so much about the good and bad in us. But jealousy, distrust, cruelty, revenge, recrimination . . . then we fail. The wrong is that failure even if we are the victims and not the executioner.
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