Errata by Jacob Smullyan

To describe a book as unclassifiable is, of course, to classify it, but that fact is entirely in keeping with the spirit of Jacob Smullyan’s Errata (Sagging Meniscus, 72 pages). Comprising thirty short chapters of mini-essays, stories and philosophical aperçus, it straddles numerous genres and grapples with the process of making sense.

If that sounds rather serious, it is—but Errata is also playful, not afraid of a joke or calling into question its own premises. To the extent that Errata has a plot, it circles around coffee-drinking. Overlapping characters share this ordinary act which is also of a piece with extraordinary possibilities, as coffee drinkers variously find themselves in a café or lying in a ditch or pushed out of an airplane.

Smullyan embraces contradiction. Consider chapter XVIII, cited here in its entirety:

“There is no harm, thought Z., in doing such-and-such. Thus harm and such-and-such become inseparably linked for him, and his eyes, rolling around the lake, reflected a horror he could never understand.

Walking into the summer-house, he tried not to notice the satin curtains. The curtains which, had he murdered B. and wrapped her body in them, would still show a slight spotting of blood.

He did not murder B. (There was no B.)

There were no curtains. (There was no summer-house.)

It was not summer. (It is never summer.)”

Here the author does more than challenge narrative conventions of time (summer or not-summer?); setting (summer-house or not?); character (B or no B?) or plot (a murder! — no: no murder). Embedded in any affirmation is the reverse reflection of its opposite. Narration is less at issue here than language itself.

Moreover, this is not an esoteric problem, reserved for philosophers. It’s an everyday phenomenon as banal as our daily cup of coffee. In speech, just as adults dabble with litotes and conjure up contraries (e.g., “it’s not unlike eating chicken” or “No, your ass doesn’t look big”), or children turn it into a game (e.g., “Don’t think of an elephant!”), Smullyan bases an entire book around a paradoxical aspect of assertions. He is at pains to render visible what is supposed to be invisible.

Thus, getting it right curiously involves paying attention to what is wrong. The erroneous (our errata) can be a step toward revelation. Section XXV asks:

“Why do we embrace false gods, or bring them at all into the business of shriving our souls?

Because, just as we learn there are no gods, we learn that our souls will never be shriven. One impossibility requires another.”

This is an undeniably quirky book, but it works within a literary tradition. In some respects, Errata is reminiscent of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Here, though, it’s a 21st century version, haunted less by theology than by problems of consciousness or a sense of inner voice. Nowadays, compared to Blake’s era, settling scores with Swedenborg has lost some of its urgency, but vexed questions about how meaning and value get constructed and communicated are with us still. As Blake observes in his “Proverbs of Hell”: “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.”

Errata also recalls the spirit of Ivan Karamazov’s fever-dream conversation with the devil, who is an unwelcome guest but also a necessary “poor relation” and the “indispensable minus” without which everything would collapse. “Hosanna,” the devil reminds us, requires its antithesis.

Still, though stark in its depictions of the human predicament, the overall tone of this book isn’t pessimistic or miserablist. Nor does it retreat into nihilistic word games. Rather, Errata invites a sort of attentiveness. Here is section 16:

“As he lay dying in the ditch, a warm breeze wafted over him, grazing his cheek. In that perception was its own embedded thought, that the caress of that breeze had an enormity the frenzied events of his life lacked; that caress, properly, was his substantial life, and the rest, something fleeting, a side-show.

“He got on with it.”

He got on with it. Perhaps it’s an echo of Beckett’s The Unnamable (“I can’t go on, I’ll go on”) or simply an expression more common in British English, but it’s a telling choice. Getting on with it leaves little room for mooning about. Rather, it inserts the subject back into life. Not for the sake of some specious pep talk but because life is the space these characters irresistibly inhabit.

Although much of Errata is devoted to the question of suffering—the narrator parodies the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was pain, and the pain was with God, and the pain was God”—it also emphasizes the experience of its contrary. Interestingly, suffering in this account is opposed not to pleasure, but to a more spiritual formulation, joy. The process of catharsis, he argues, links the deepest pain with the deepest joy. Ultimately, “these are not separate.”

This sense of oneness holds together the disparate sections and stories. Errata is a pleasantly strange book, challenging and consistently absorbing.

Charles Holdefer, author of Dick Cheney in Shorts, 2017

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