Editor's LetterIssue 19

‘Everyone makes mistakes.’ It is a phrase to rally morons. Never employed as life motto or commanding platitude, hearing these words is the surest indication that you have done something unconscionably stupid. It is an epigram designed to obscure the fact that some mistakes are more moronic than others; that some are minor and some are Fukushima; and which dismisses any search for perfection with the inevitability of error. Those who pronounce it attempt to reassure by insisting that one is inexorably bound to fail. I have been wont to say it before myself – forgive me. Everyone makes mistakes.

As an avid – if not a rabid – reader of this magazine you will know that I live in Paris, having moved there last February. This has provided plenty of opportunities for error; I have not hesitated to take advantage of them.
My mistakes in French have been extensive and extraordinary. The trouble – bear with me – is that my French
is very good. This is a problem because, when I make a mistake, people therefore don’t always realise that I am just
a foolish foreigner and give me the semantic leeway which that entails, but rather, because I deliver my mistakes with utter, insouciant confidence and in a good accent, they tend instead to think that I am simply a maniac.
Thus my most recent error. The other day I was in a bar and I ordered a bottle of wine. I then wanted to ask for
a bucket of ice. For some reason, however, instead of asking for “un seau avec des glaçons”, I insisted upon “un trou avec des glaçons.” A hole full of ice. Perhaps it was the seaside association – you use a bucket to dig a hole – or the similar vowel sound that led me into the path of error. But the important thing was that I delivered the request unflinchingly and, when challenged, repeated it adamantly to my interlocutor, speaking slowly and clearly as if the barman was the one being entirely unreasonable for not having rushed immediately to dig me a hole in the countertop and fill it full of blocks of frozen water.

A similar incident occurred in a café last month, where the practice is to give you a little Post-it on the saucer of your coffee stating what you have had, and which tiny paper you then take to the checkout to pay as your bill when you leave. Unorthodox, certainly, but not as unorthodox as demanding, on the occasion when they didn’t give me
a Post-it, that they produce “ma affiche”, and apply it to my cup. This means something like ‘my large posterboard.’
The litany does not end there: my mistakes have concerned comprehension just as comprehensively as expression. For a long time I thought that when French men called their girlfriends ‘ma biche’ that this was a French pronunciation of ‘my bitch.’ This seemed astonishingly bold of the gentlemen, who all seemed to consider themselves rappers, but I was equally impressed by the tolerance of the ladies, who seemed not only to accept this moniker but actually to be delighted with it. This is because, of course, ‘ma biche’ means ‘my little doe’ – as in a female deer. Upon apologising for such mistakes the French will tell you ‘pas de souci’, which means ‘no worries’ – and not, as I assumed, ‘pas de sucer’: ‘no sucking’.

It has been fashionable, of late, to talk about a ‘post-truth’ mediasphere. And where there is no truth, there can be no error – or perhaps, after truth, error is all that is left. There is a strand running through this issue concerning truth-telling. Dasha Varvarina considers the fake Van Gogh notebooks recently rejected by the Van Gogh Museum, as well as other art world frauds. Dr Jaspreet Singh Boparai resurrects a critical approach to Picasso which hasn’t been deployed for about a century – such that it is now entirely original, if not revolutionary – and accuses him of artistic fraudulence. J L Blarney asks whether, in truth, the USA might – in Trump’s Presidency – be getting not what they want but what they need. And in my review of Sohrab Ahmari’s book The New Philistines I trace the roots of identity politics to the German nationalism which also begat Nazi ideologies, and write about speaking truth to failure. Everyone makes mistakes, but there is no sucking here.