Last week, tentatively tackling a long-avoided because long-winded book, I hit a passage where the author (a native speaker of English) talks about using a wrong word in Italian. In tracing how this horror happened, he deduces it’s because he subconsciously transformed the French word for “mosquito” to a soundalike in Italian that, sadly, means “cow.” Here’s how he wraps it up:
The bubbling-up of French-based intruders
inside my Italian utterances, or even pre-utterances,
makes me feel a deep sense of shame — and yet am I to blame?
Did I choose to rely on such transformation patterns, or to activate them?
No; they are just parts of me, relics from my ancient past.
I’m a victim of my brain.
– Douglas R. Hofstadter, “Le Ton beau de Marot” (emphasis in original)
In the context of similar passages about his mistakes in other languages (yes, in addition to French and Italian, yikes), what struck me was not so much the insight about his mistake; rather, it was what he felt about that mistake. Not mild embarrassment, but deep shame. Given how precise Hofstadter is with language, at least in English, I take him at his word.
It struck me as excessive — that is, as something more than I would feel in a similar situation. I’ve made many mistakes in Spanish and even noticed some of them. I shake my head in frustration and wry amusement; I don’t hang my head in shame.
On the same day last week (Synchronicity anyone?), this next quote arrived in my inbox as one of a series of daily Lenten reflections built around Chesterton quotes.
A saint after repentance will forgive himself for a sin;
a man about town will never forgive himself for a faux pas.
There are ways of getting absolved for a murder;
there are no ways of getting absolved for upsetting the soup.
– G.K. Chesterton (The Boyhood of Dickens, in “Charles Dickens”)
I think Chesterton was onto something here that might explain Hofstadter’s apparently persistent distress at what I’d see as minor, even funny, linguistic failures. There are no ways of getting absolved for using “cow” for “mosquito,” even in your third language. You pretty much just have to live with the shame.
At the societal level, too, it seems that we’re quick to treat all missteps — both substantive and hyperventilated — as unforgivable. Witness the social-media flamings inflicted on those who transgress or who, after a nanosecond of consideration, are thought to have. Shame, shame!
Without the construct of sin, all we have are faux pas. Without the constructs of repentance and forgiveness, we have no mechanisms by which to offer absolution as a community, or to accept it as individuals. Is this any way to run a society? Is it any way to manage a life?