A Smudge and a Bird

September 10, 2010

I was watching reruns recently of my favorite show, ‘The West Wing’. There’s a scene in one of the last few episodes where the character Toby Ziegler, once a powerful figure at the White House, is now awaiting prison for a security leak. He is incredibly idealistic and the conscience of the West Wing. Now he’s reduced to sitting in his apartment waiting for punishment, so he starts rereading and comparing different copies of the Constitution (believe me, this is his idea of fun!). He notices a place where in some copies there’s a comma and in other copies not. It changes the meaning of the sentence, so he calls up and has someone check the original. He’s told, yes, there is a comma. Or is it a smudge? They’re not sure.

This is a kite

This reminds me of the famous Freudian analysis of Leonardo Da Vinci’s childhood, which, no matter  what else you think of Freud (in my case, not

This is a vulture

much) is fatally flawed because of a mistranslated word in a document he used in his research on Da Vinci. In one of Freud’s interpretations, he extrapolates from a childhood incident with a vulture that it is a symbolic remembrance of suckling at his mother’s breast, and interprets the memory as a fantasy with mythological connotations. All of this is moot, because it is based on a translation error where the word was for the bird  ‘kite’ instead of ‘vulture’.

What I learn from all this is how easy it is to say the wrong thing or build an intellectual edifice based on a small mistake. It makes one almost terrified to put any thoughts down.  I probably should reread this blog a few dozen more times.