In documentary filmmaker Errol Morris’s blog entry of 10 April 2008 (which discusses Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire), Vanderbilt psychology professor Dan Levin offers a critique of people who worry about (and catalog) continuity errors in movies. Levin offers a critique which might apply equally well to scholarly editors:
ERROL MORRIS: And here’s my question. Why are people so interested in continuity errors in movies? What’s that about?
DAN LEVIN: I don’t know, maybe it’s about being the expert. Being the person that sees something that other people don’t see. Being aware of the deep workings of the movies or something like that. That’s my guess.
ERROL MORRIS: The person who pays more attention than anyone else?
DAN LEVIN: Yeah, the super attentive person, there’s this kind of idea that “I’m super attentive, I have a super attention system. I see all this stuff.”
ERROL MORRIS: But your belief would be, of course, that since they super attend to all this stuff, they’re probably ignoring something else.
DAN LEVIN: Yeah, they’re not paying attention to the stuff they should be paying attention to, which is the story, the ideas of the filmmaker, all this cool stuff. And a lot of psychologists have argued if you’re really paying attention to all this detail stuff, you’re missing the good stuff. You’re missing what you need to be paying attention to[….]
I would reply that the “detail stuff” is what anchors us to fact and helps inform our understanding of the act of artistic making. The artists mostly know the details, and they mostly have reasons why some details matter and some don’t. Levin, to me, suggests that vanity (and perhaps the desire to excel at snarky cocktail conversation–those scholarly editor cocktail parties are a riot, what with our emendations and accidentals livening up the whole proceeding) drives those who focus on details. I will merely say that to determine what one “should” pay attention to derives from the interest of the examiner. To me, the textual alterations are the “cool stuff.”
Perhaps the mistake of another filmmaker in a New York Times interview will suffice to illustrate my point. When Robert Altman described himself as feeling like Stowe’s Eva on the ice being chased by dogs (Kornbluth, June 1997), Altman’s mistake (he meant Eliza) went unremarked by his interviewer. It seems likely that the editors of the New York Times did not notice either. They knew the important stuff, and a factual error that two generations earlier would have marked Altman and his interviewer as lunkheads was allowed to stand (though a reader’s letter noted the error). To cite Uncle Tom’s Cabin but falsely remember the white child as the one fleeing slave traders is to indicate something profound about cultural amnesia (even if one must recognize Stowe’s clear hierarchy of mulatto over pure African–in matters other than Christian forbearance). By cultural amnesia I refer to the reading of antebellum slavery through the lens of minstrelsy. Postwar minstrelsy’s deep workings included obscuring the horrors of antebellum slavery and thereby detracting attention from the South’s effort to re-impose practical slavery through disenfranchisment, erosion of civil rights, legal racial terrorism, and the organized extra-legal terrorism of lynching.
Similarly, when John Updike in his review of Gates’s edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin unknowingly exchanges Dinah and Prue, the editors of the New York Times magazine did not notice. Updike in “Down the River” explains Uncle Tom’s attempt to console Dinah, a “hapless servant.” Prue is not a servant to the St. Clares, and Dinah is far from hapless. My interest here again is that the editors/fact checkers for Updike’s review failed to notice the error. Had the book under review been Huckleberry Finn, would such an obvious error–i.e., confusing the Duke and the King, an error which I submit you would be unlikely to recognize without double-checking–have gone undetected?
If we push a little bit on Altman’s and Updike’s mistakes, I think we can at least detect signs that the minstrel remaking of Stowe’s work in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century continues to influence our contemporary reading. Maybe continuity mistakes in film and literary criticism are just what Levin say–the stuff that we need not pay attention to when paying attention to the good stuff–but mistakes, in addition to indicating that our cultural elite are not familiar enough with Stowe’s work to notice the error–may indicate a widespread cultural tendency to discount the continuing relevance of slavery’s legacy. Those who ignore the “deep workings” may also be missing something. But it may be the “important stuff” that they’re missing.