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Mistaken Plaesures Pleasures
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The Other Day I was explaining to my panelists that although they were accepted for the mla Special Session I was organizing, the session as a whole would still have to get accepted by “the posers that be”—oops—that should be “powers.” Or maybe not: on second thought, I prefer the typo. Roland Barthes said that his typing mistakes meant that “there is something inside me that resists the word and punishes it by distorting it” (119–20). But you can also get some quirky bonuses emerging from the touch of a fat finger. These are often truer or newer than what one intended to write. And autocorrect often just compounds the problem, as shown on the next page, by the iPhone exchange posted on the web.

What I like about errors, and their even more disastrous corrections, is that they open a chink in the so-called prison house of language. Through that chink pour all kinds of surreal possibilities—so much so that the surrealists, among others, deliberately courted such possibilities through aleatory techniques, as with Exquisite Corpse. This parlour game is best known in its visual form, where part of a body is drawn and then folded over, with only a few lines overlapping onto the next part of the page, then passed over to the next artist to repeat the process. But there is a verbal form, which I used to inflict on students in my creative writing class. A grammatical structure is predetermined—usually in the form of a National Enquirer headline—and then the papers are passed around with only one word at a time showing. When you unfold it at the end, you have the headline of a bizarre news story, which you then have to write. It was a way of prying my students away from realistic fiction about the tribulations of sensitive adolescents.

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This is art founded on mistakes—or is that the right word? They are mistakes if you have a notion of what is correct. When I’m typing away, presumably my aim is to produce a perfect, error-free page. But the surrealist products I have been talking about are neither perfect nor imperfect; for both these terms depend on a standard against which they can be assessed—a standardized language that is already in place. It dominates us through patterns that are not only patterns of grammar, lexicography, orthography, and so on—they are also patterns of thought. But in typing errors these patterns reveal their arbitrary and fragmented nature. The words can now be seen as a confetti of letters, letters that are nothing but lines, and “alphabetical order” is seen to be an oxymoron.

And here’s another way in which I like imperfect language: it allows me to take a holiday from my official definition as an articulate, intelligent literary critic, because those descriptors are true but also false. So there are moments when I say—to myself or others—screw it, it don’t make no never mind to me: I yam what I yam, like Popeye. Deliberately using slang or bad grammar gets me off the hook on which I have hung my precious self-esteem, gives me a little vacation. Pathetic, I know. But there is also a kind of raw energy in that language that you can’t tap any other way. Put next to a fearlessly ungrammatical vulgarity, a properly constructed sentence can seem pallid and indeed somewhat repellent, the sort of thing up with which we will not put. We should also remind ourselves of all the literary practices that give pleasure precisely because they are mistakes.

  • •   Hudibrastic rhymes, especially as practised by Byron:

    But—Oh! Ye lords of ladies intellectual,
    Inform us truly, have they not hen-peck’d you all?

  • •   Metre that deliberately breaks the rule of equal accents in each line, hanging on by the fingernail of a dubious rhyme, as in Ogden Nash:

    Most bankers dwell in marble halls,
    Which they get to dwell in because they encourage
        deposits and discourage withdrawals.

  • •   Or figurative language that makes no sense at all by any rational standard, like Shakespeare’s notorious...

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