Dream Gates

Dream Gates

Notice what’s showing through your slip: A cautionary tale of Mark Twain

Mark Twain riverIn Mark Twain’s full and unexpurgated Autobiography he expresses his opinion, with exquisite clarity, on what he would like done to one James Paige:

If I had his nuts in a steel trap I would shut out all human succor and watch that trap till he died.

And who was the James Paige who brought out this savage desire for revenge in Mark Twain? Paige was an inventor with an idea for a typesetting machine. He convinced Sam Clemens (Mark Twain’s real name) that his invention would revolutionize the newspaper and publishing business and earn the bestselling author a fortune far beyond his literary earnings.
Clemens always hoped to make a bundle doing something other than writing or speaking. He thought he saw his chance with Paige’s plan for a typesetting machine. Remembering his sweaty days as a “printer’s devil”,  toiling with heavy trays of type in hick print shops, he also dreamed of being present at the creation of a new technology that would make printing speedy and accurate.
Paige talked a good story. As Clemens ruefully recalled, Paige “could persuade a fish to come and take a walk with him.” The author was soon convinced that Paige’s machine was going to be the biggest thing since Gutenberg, and he drained his bank accounts to become the biggest investor in the project. However, the enterprise was bedeviled by delay after delay, Costs rose, contracts were revised, and soon Clemens had sunk $150,000 into a project he had been assured would not cost more than $30,000. By the time Paige had completed a working prototype, his machine was obsolete, overtaken by new and superior typesetters. Clemens, the main investor, was left on the edge of bankruptcy.
Mark Twain could have avoided all of this pain and loss had he noticed what’s in a spelling mistake, or a typo. He could simply never get the name of the inventor right. Whenever he wrote to Paige, or about him, he misspelled the name, leaving out the I. I’ve gone through his correspondence and his journal entries on this theme. Again and again, he wrote “Page” instead of “Paige.”
Mark Twain had decided to invest all his money in a machine that promised to make printing more accurate. Yet he could never spell the name of the machine or its inventor correctly. We might notice the dreamlike symbolism of leaving out the I. The whole wretched enterprise left out the author’s I, his self-interest.
If Freud had known about this, I am certain he would have added Mark Twain’s recurrent spelling mistake to the cases of “Freudian slips” that compose the most interesting pages in his Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Freud considered, correctly, that it is always significant when we screw up or forget a name we have every reason to know well.
There’s a message in this, for you and me. If he’d ever managed to laugh about this (his humor sometimes failed him, as the uncensored memoirs reveal) Mark Twain might have distilled it in a snapper like this: Notice what’s in a typo. It’s one variant of a general rule for navigating by synchronicity, or isomorphy, that I will state as follows:
Notice what’s showing through your slip.
For a full account of the role of coincidence and dreams in Mark Twain’s life, please see my Secret History of Dreaming.
  • Wanda Burch

    I loved this story.
    Curious about Paige, I went internet-ting and found an odd little piece by a woman named Barbara who had been contacted by a woman named Laurel, who apparently had some items that belonged to Paige that were connected to his invention and to missing pieces of his known life. The items were verified and contacts were made with the people at the Mark Twain house, who were also interested. Then the story grew strange. The email address [fish2Wanda] began to bounce and the primary correspondent, Barbara, noticed that other correspondents wrote to “Laura” rather than to “Laurel.” Finally all contact was lost and letters, documents, and other items that would have revealed more about Paige, that seemed authentic in photos of them, were lost. So more typos and lost connections seem to continue to plague the story of Paige.

  • Robert Moss

    Wanda – That is a fascinating story, of the Ghost of Typos Past. It seems remarkable coincidence (or isomorphy) that you should be telling us about a suspect email address that includes your name and also the word “fish” (meaningful here since you are a Pisces). Woo-hooo.

  • Irene

    I pay close attention to my own slips especially when writing dream entries. And because I’m a native English speaker living in France, I pay particular attention to words I write in French while dream-logging which I do in English. Whenever I’m speaking either language and hear myself say “I don’t remember how to say X or Y in French/English”, I take note and look into why a particular word wants to be noticed (perhaps because it disturbs me or perhaps because it just wants special attention).

  • Robert Moss

    Irene – Yes, it’s interesting to study how a word can seek attention for itself by going missing for a bit. I found it fascinating recently that I simply could not recall the name of a woman I know very well (but had not seen for almost a year). I made a point of NOT checking for her name in my email, in order to track how long the memory lapse would last and how memory would return. Freud was quite good on this kind of thing; his “Psychopathology of Everyday Life”, in which he studies his own patterns of word amnesia and word scrambling, is much the best of his books, to my mind.

  • Nina

    Sorry for a bit of deviation from the topic (or what might seem to be a deviation) but reading this post I can´t help thinking about “real” slips; I suppose they reveal as much of the backstage meaning as verbal slips.
    I recall the story, which I heard from my former colleague, a strong beautiful woman and a single mother. Once when she out of the blue started to talk about the father of her child, I asked her a question if she never wanted to try to live together with him. She didn´t give me a direct reply. Instead she told me how he came to visit her from abroad (he was an African)and as a gift he gave her a very exclusive golden watch. She put it on her wrist and had to go to the bathroom. “By accident” the new watch slipped off her wrist and finished in the toilet. She wasn´t able to retrieve it and in reality she decided to bring her daughter up alone.
    Later on I saw an excellent Italian film Pane e Tulipani which starts with the same idea. The woman goes to the lavatory, one of her earrings slips to the toilet bowl and while she attempts to recover it, she misses a bus together with her rather horrible husband. In that moment, a more authentic and also a bit unconventional life can begin for her. The movie is not about glamorous people, on the contrary, it´s about unsuccessful melancholics who nevertheless live deeper lives than most of us.
    Thank you very much for calling the attention to slips of all sorts.

  • Robert Moss

    Nina – Oh yes, physical slips can speak even louder than verbal slips. In The Three “Only” Things, I describe how I nearly dropped a wallet given to me by my stockbroker down an airplane toilet. At that time, the market – and my investments – were flying high. Two weeks later, with the 1987 crash, both had gone “down the toilet.” I failed to act on the cautionary slip, but learned from it. Lessons from hindsight can be rather expensive…

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