At first I saw watching her, as she read it with an air of astonishment, then raised her head, her eyes seeming to come to rest upon a succession of distinct and incompatible memories which she could not succeed in bringing together. Meanwhile I had recognised Gilberte's handwriting on the envelope which I had just taken from my pocket-book. I opened it. Gilberte wrote to inform me that she was marrying Robert de Saint-Loup. She told me that she had sent me a telegram about it to Venice but had had no reply. I remembered that I had been told that the telegraphic service there was inefficient. I had never received her telegram. Perhaps she would refuse to believe this. All of a sudden I felt in my brain a face, which was installed there in the guise of a memory, leave its place and surrender it to another fact. The telegram that I had received a few days earlier, and had supposed to be from Albertine, was from Gilberte. As the somewhat laboured originality of Gilberte's handwriting consisted chiefly, when she wrote a line, in introducing into the line above it the strokes of her t's which appeared to be underlining the words, or the dots over her i's which appeared to be punctuating the sentence above them, and on the other hand in interspersing the line below the tails and flourishes of the words immediately above, it was quite natural that the clerk who dispatched the telegram should have read the loops of s's or y's in the line above as an "'ine" attached to the word "Gilberte." The dog over the i of Gilberte had climbed up to make a full stop. As for her capital G, it resembled a Gothic A. The fact that, in addition to this, two or three words had been misread, had dovetailed into one another (some of them indeed had seemed to me incomprehensible), was sufficient to explain the tails of my error and was not even necessary. How many letters are actually read into a word by a careless person who knows what to expect, who sets out with the idea that the message is from a certain person? How many words into the sentence? We guess as we read, we create; everything starts from an initial error; those that follow (and this applies not only to the reading of letters and telegrams, not only to all reading), extraordinary as they may appear to a person who has not begun at the same starting-point, are all quite natural. A large part of what we believe to be true (and this applies even to our final conclusions) with an obstinacy equalled only by our good faith, springs from an original mistake in our premises.
Marcel Proust, The Fugitive, pp. 670-671
Well, we've solved the mystery of Albertine. She is, in fact, quite dead. The telegram that Marcel received was not from her at all, but rather from Gilberte. It was a combination of some remarkably clumsy efforts on the part of the Italian telegraphic service, and doubtless Marcel's own desire to read the words signalling Albertine's resurrection and her desire to come home to him. The telegram announced the marriage of Marcel's ex-love, even if fairly one-sided, Gilberte, to his best friend, Robert de Saint-Loup. As we get further into the novel it has great significance because it takes Gilberte, mainly, out of the running to be a serious love interest for Marcel, and also assures her own unhappiness.
Proust then launches into a discussion of how the mind processes words, which is both fascinating and also serves as an explanation for how he might have messed up reading the telegram. "How many letters are actually read into a word by a careless person who knows what to expect, who sets out with the idea that the message is from a certain person? How many words into the sentence?" A couple years ago I was talking to my first year students about the brain's proclivity to create a narrative - essentially, that the narrative making part of the brain was always up and ready for action. And the example that I used, in one of those odd spur of the moment flights of fancy that oddly work out more than they fail, was to give them a brief Arabic lesson. I wrote the word that appears to the top left on the top line below, which is the word "Muslim." As we know, Arabic is written right to left. The little circle at the far right (hence the first letter of the word) is the equivalent of an "m." It is followed by three short lines, which sort of look like a lazy, bottom-heavy "w" - that is the Arabic equivalent of an "s." The taller line that looks like an "l" is, in fact, that Arabic equivalent of an "l." And that leaves the little elephant trunk at the end, which is what the "m' equivalent looks like at the end of a word (well, it's one of the ways that it looks). So, that leaves you with mslm. The marks above and below the lines transform the letters. If there is nothing above or below you treat the letters as having an "a", so the beginning would be "ma." However, in this case there is a little loop, and that turns the "a" into a "u", just as the little line below at the end turns the "a" into an "i." And this is why Muslim is more appropriate than Moslem, although, because we're talking transliteration in addition to translation, the latter was very popular in the West for centuries. Now, the point I then made to the students was that in Arabic the marks above and below the line are often left out, especially in the newspaper. This gave me the chance to ask the students how Arabic readers could actually read the words, and they were able to hypothesize that the brain would fill in the blanks, not simply because of habit, but also because of the inherent logic. I then asked the students how many letters they actually looked at when they read, which further made their little brains hurt. It's the same concept, obviously, you just look at a few letters, even if it's just the first and the last letters of a word, and the brain fills in the rest on its own.
Now, being Proust, he then takes this a step further and proposes, correctly, obviously, that we do the same thing is many other instances as well. Just as our brains fill in the gaps in words, it also fills in the gaps in our lives. We fly along looking at a random bits of information, our equivalent of letters, and we "guess" at the bigger meaning, often with consequences as foolish or comical or tragic as a bad translation. "We guess as we read, we create; everything starts from an initial error; those that follow (and this applies not only to the reading of letters and telegrams, not only to all reading), extraordinary as they may appear to a person who has not begun at the same starting-point, are all quite natural. A large part of what we believe to be true (and this applies even to our final conclusions) with an obstinacy equalled only by our good faith, springs from an original mistake in our premises."
Oh, and apropos of almost nothing, all of this discussion of deciphering handwriting reminds me of my time in graduate school, and the seemingly endless hours I spent working my way through 16th century documents trying to decipher the mysteries of Tudor national security. The document below is just about the cleanest writing you could possibly imagine. In my first couple years here at Champlain I was teaching an honors history class (back when we had things like honors history classes - or honors classes - or history classes, for that matter). For some reason I was teaching the students a little paleography, something I would never have done in a regular history class. I'm sure it was because it was an honors class and I was trying to come up with unique things for them to do. For the final assignment, in lieu or yet another paper, I gave them four different projects from which to choose. As a lark, I gave them a paleography assignment where they had to transcribe a pretty random 16th century letter and tell me what they thought it was about. Truthfully, I didn't think any of them would choose that option, but every single one of them did. I think they just thought it was an adventure, and it was an assignment that was so odd that they figured it was a once in a lifetime opportunity - let alone once in a Champlain College academic lifetime opportunity.
|This booke heere followinge (called A Viewe of the Present State of Ireland) . . .|