Skeptical Jokes

Two Jews met in a railway carriage at a station in Galicia. ‘Where are you going?’ asked one. ‘To Cracow,’ was the reply. ‘What a liar you are!’ broke out the other. ‘If you say you’re going to Cracow, you want me to believe you’re going to Lemberg. But I know that in fact you’re going to Cracow. So why are you lying to me?’ [James Strachey translation]

That joke is recounted by Freud in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. During my time at university, I was always dismayed to hear Freud derided and his work debased by professors in the social sciences. I recall one question on a multiple choice exam which asked something to the effect of, “Which of the following is an example of a scientific theory?” Two of the throwaway answers were, “That the moon is made of blue cheese” and “Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex.” That is terribly unkind. Consider Freud’s analysis of the above joke and ask yourself how many of our more “serious” social scientists are asking questions of this kind:

This excellent story, which gives an impression of over-subtlety, evidently works by the technique of absurdity. The second Jew is reproached for lying because he says he is going to Cracow, which is in fact his destination! But the powerful technical method of absurdity is here linked with another technique, representation by the opposite, for, according to the uncontradicted assertion of the first Jew, the second is lying when he tells the truth and is telling the truth by means of a lie. But the more serious substance of the joke is the problem of what determines the truth. The joke, once again, is pointing to a problem and is making use of the uncertainty of one of our commonest concepts. Is it the truth if we describe things as they are without troubling to consider how our hearer will understand what we say? Or is this only Jesuitical truth, and does not genuine truth consist in taking the hearer into account and giving him a faithful picture of our own knowledge? I think that jokes of this kind are sufficiently different from the rest to be given a special position. What they are attacking is not a person or an institution, but the certainty of our knowledge itself, one of our speculative possessions. The appropriate name for them would therefore be ‘skeptical’ jokes. [Emphasis mine.]

Those are sparkling sentences, worthy of remembrance and deserving of a careful reading. Freud still has much to teach us if we but condescend to read him with a little charity. Yesterday’s science is tomorrow’s philosophy.

Life Without Erasers

“Taniyama was not a very careful person as a mathematician. He made a lot of mistakes, but he made mistakes in a good direction, and so eventually he got to right answers. And I tried to imitate him, but I found out that it is very difficult to make good mistakes.”
Goro Shimura in Fermat’s Last Theorem (BBC)

The best Christmas gift I received this year was a wonderful conversation with a dear friend, who is both a scientist and an artist, and moreover, one of the most resilient people I know. When the conversation turned to the subject of that resilience, she said something I found striking: She felt that the experience of having attended a Montessori school, where erasers were removed from the pencils, had freed her in later life from the anxiety of failure.

I can think of no better definition of the artistic life than that of a life without erasers. Of all the terrible abuses to which we subject children, this inculcated fear of failure is among the most tyrannical. We treat mistakes as occasions for shame, as dead ends that signal defeat and despair. Mistakes are something dirty, to be scrubbed from the page and forgotten. Indeed, we think of mistakes as so staining, so permanent that where we cannot erase them, we are forced to deny them, even into the depths of absurdity.

Our antiquated impulse to save face is not in keeping with modernity. So much of artistic and scientific advancement begins in the realm of wild wrongness. In our haste to erase our errors, we destroy the map of the terrain we’ve explored. How are we to discover anything if we can’t even remember where we’ve been?

As Shimura suggests, there is an art to making mistakes—a sacred art, even—which opens doors to the as yet unimagined. But it is not an art one will learn in public schools, much less in churches, newspapers, or the public sphere. I imagine it is a habit not so much cultivated as crashed into, like falling down a well. And—though I cannot be sure, for it is not my mode of being—it begins by ridding oneself of erasers and learning to live a little more messily, for the worst mistake is a mistake denied.