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.