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?
Your closing paragraph is a cogent comment on where we are as a society currently. I was thinking about this the other day in connection with the sentence given the driver of the transport truck that ran into the side of the bus carrying the Humboldt, Saskatchewan Junior hockey team. Yes, 16 lives were lost due to his negligenceâ€”apparently being distracted by other thingsâ€”so, obviously, the driver deserves to be punished in some form…but, to my mind, eight years in prison is excessive. It weighs heavily on the side of punishment, and lacks the necessary sense of forgiveness for something that, if we’re honest, could happen to anybody. He took full responsibility for what happened, lamented it, his life is ruined regardless of sentence, and yet there’s no corresponding sense of forgiveness and restoration to community for him. We’re all too given to the parts in us that cry out, “Shame! Shame!”
Tom – Yeah, if prison is intended as a disincentive, I don’t know anyone who needs any extra incentive not to kill a bunch of people on a bus, and catastrophically injure others. In this case, the outcome may have been disproportionately bad compared to the error/inattention that caused it.
I think for me the key here lies in the concept of “letting go”, allowing experiences to come into my being, and pass on through without leaving an unresolved blockage that sits there waiting to be triggered. It happened, I experienced it, perhaps I learned something from it, and it is gone. The second notion that helps me here is understanding that most people don’t really care about what I do and it is only my self-absorption that thinks they do. Very interesting point for discussion that you’ve raised here Isabel. Thanks.
Lorna – Both excellent points. As to the second, what’s the old joke? At 20 we worry what others think about us; at 40 we decide we don’t care what others think about us; at 60 we realize they weren’t thinking about us at all.
I like your summation of the aging process. The wisdom in it lies in the recognition that what most people think about at any age is themselves. Except me, of course….
Jim T – And I also, of course. 🙂
It seems to me that the entire point of Jesus’s ministry was to teach that there is no point whatsoever in punishing sin. Punishment accomplishes nothing good for the sinner (I beg to differ with Tom) and nothing good for the society. His death was the ultimate lesson for those who set themselves up as judges and fail to recognize what is good, true, right, innocent, and worthwhile. This concept was revolutionary to the Jews and Jesus paid for his teachings on forgiveness with his life. Learning grinds to a halt when a person carries a burden of guilt or shame. Hofstadter, whose very name evokes “the man about town,” has no sense of proportion. If Chesterton truly means that there are no ways for being forgiven for upsetting the soup he has missed Jesus’s comment to Martha, his comment to those who tithe mint and rue while ignoring justice and the love of God (Luke 11:42 and who strain out gnats while swallowing camels. Jesus definitely had a sense of proportion and a sense of humor and it’s delightful to know you do, too.
Laurna – My guess is that Chesterton had a keen sense of our human ridiculousness, and only means that the man about town has no mechanism in his own mind for absolution.