Back in May, when the Slate editors and I launched the Wrong Stuff, the plan was that it would run for eight weeks — eight interviews with eight very different people about the role of error in their lives and their fields. We were wary of committing to a longer run, since it wasn’t clear that people would have as much appetite for reading about wrongness as they have for, say, vampires, or Mel Gibson, or the BP oil spill.
I should have known better. As it turns out, people love to read about being wrong (or at least, about other people being wrong), and Slate has kindly invited me to continue the series. So beginning next week, the Wrong Stuff interviews will be back. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that there are some people I’d love to interview who will not be appearing even in the extended version of this series. Never mind the various dream candidates who have turned me down. (“I’d like to interview you about being wrong” is the kind of phrase that makes certain PR departments instantly delete your e-mail.) I’m thinking, instead, about the people who can’t talk to me for the extremely good reason that they are imaginary. Or dead.
I started thinking about this courtesy of one of my very-much-alive interviewees, hedge-fund manager Victor Niederhoffer . At the end of every Q&A, I’ve asked all of my subjects the same question: “Who would you like to hear interviewed about wrongness?” I’ve loved the answers to that question, from Anthony Bourdain’s (“Dick Cheney — and I’d like him to be water-boarded during the interview”) to Diane Ravitch’s (“Basically everybody I’ve been associated with for the last 20 years”), but I was struck above all by Niederhoffer’s response. Alone among the interviewees, he replied that he wanted to learn about wrongness from those who are no longer with us: Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, and his own father.
I could add to that list: Galileo, who corrected what is arguably the most canonic of western mistakes and then was forced to recant his own rightness. Shakespeare. (Who wouldn’t relish talking about error with the man who gave us Othello, Lear, Romeo, and The Comedy of Errors ?) Pope John XXIII, who convened the Second Vatican Council. Plato, who, for good or for ill, gave us the idea of a utopia — a society free of mistakes (and, not coincidentally, artists).
But Niederhoffer didn’t stop at dead people. He also suggested that we could learn a lot about wrongness from people who have never lived — that is, from fictional characters. In an e-mail to me, Niederhoffer wrote about the idea of wrongness in Moby Dick , and noted that the harpooner in Melville’s novel “would have made a great interviewee.”
So he would have — to say nothing of Ahab himself. Or of Emma Bovary , one of literature’s greatest victims of self-deception. Or Sherlock Holmes , that literary embodiment of an unattainably accurate relationship to logic and evidence. Or Nathan Zuckerman , the narrator of many of Philip Roth’s novels, and as such the navigator of a dense web of illusion and error. Or Elizabeth Bennett, heroine of Pride and Prejudice , who early on describes her eventual true love as “the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry” and who stars in one of literature’s most appealing and enduring stories of dramatic wrongness.
Next week, I’ll be back with an interview about wrongness featuring a living, breathing person. But in the meantime, readers, tell me this: If you could hold a conversation about error with anyone at all among the departed or the fictional — who would it be?
This blog features Q&As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong. You can read past interviews with NASA astronaut-turned-medical-error-guru James Bagian , hedge-fund manager Victor Niederhoffer , mountaineer Ed Viesturs , This American Life host Ira Glass , celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain , Sports Illustrated senior writer Joe Posnanski , education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch , and criminal defense lawyer and pundit Alan Dershowitz .