“Doing Justice Only Where We Praise”*

A guide for proofreaders, princesses with peas, and perfection-seekers (h2so4 15)

The sensitivity of good proofreaders bears many similarities to that embodied by the twitchy heroine of “The Princess and the Pea.” They feel an acute discomfort at the thought of a misplaced comma, sight wayward faux amis with an inexorable homonymic instinct, and chase down errors of logical organization with a fervor that has nothing to do with training. Indeed, most of what good proofreaders do has nothing to do with training. They are souls born with a keen affinity for grammar writ large, and to them all the languages of the world are but opportunities to exercise this innate talent.

Hence, it is very easy for those with proofing talent to become just as insufferable as the eponymous princess. At some point in their youth, most born proofreaders notice that the world is rife with all kinds of inconsistency. There are many unfortunate denouements to this moment of epiphany.

Some withdraw, correcting as much of the world as they can get their red pens on, but interacting with nothing they can’t scan. Like a certain unfortunate whose fate recently made the rounds of the world press, they are as likely as not to be found five days after their death still huddled over the latest manuscript their boss sent them. And no one in the office will be able to tell you a thing about them. Their inner mysteries remain unpenetrated; their lives are reduced to a sad parable of isolation.

Others crabbily point out every error they can find, even those found in texts or pretexts not under their purview. These cluck maternally over the vagaries of the undisciplined masses that surround them: “All these people continue to speak of ‘peaking my interest,’ the silly darlings. Let me educate them about the cunning etymology of the correct French term.” Although they are better off than the recluse proofreaders, such people’s welcome quickly wears thin among those they so passive-aggressively patronize. What is worse, many proof- readers, silent or preachy, cannot process their own tendency to make a mistake. They guard against it with all their might, rather than seeking out human commiseration in what is, indeed, the place of insufficiency which makes relationship necessary.

I don’t know what it takes, at that crucial moment of a proofreader’s human development, but some seem to weather the storm of terror inspired by deepening knowledge of the world’s sad state. A kind of pietist Christianity might help (we are all born to error, as the sparks fly upward). Perhaps it takes a traumatic experience of their own lack, their own error, that is soothed by the kindness of an equally errant soul. Yes, what might do it is the love of someone whose interest is “peaked” by the proofreader’s humanity, who brooks no correction of this misspelling, and proceeds to strip from the bedframe every last mattress and featherbed, disclosing the pea at the bottom. Someone who doesn’t stop there, who snatches up the offending legume and brandishes it in the horrified face of the princess, shouting “it’s just a pea”—then noisily chews and swallows it.

Perhaps it simply takes education in the life sciences, knowledge that “variation is the law of nature.”

At any rate, there are some proofreaders who know when to keep their mouths shut, and when to open them. And to these, the innate talent that makes them hone in on error with such sensitivity is transformed. To such proofreaders, all errors, rather than being annoying irritants, are instead important tokens—signs, if you will—of their own humanity. And they lovingly do homage to each one as it is expunged from the text at hand, sighing at the growing artificiality of the object, and at the expended energy (so much energy goes into the most trivial perfection!) of their life’s work. And when their day at the office is done, they go out blissfully into the inconsistent and volatile evening, happy to drink a beer and engage in the most important work of all—the pursuit of human misunderstanding, and entanglement with the beautiful absurd.•


* “Doing Justice Only Where We Praise” is Stephen Mitchell's translation of “gerecht nur, wo wir dennoch preisen,” a line from Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus II, 23, which Rilke footnoted as “to the reader/an den Leser.” This is it:

Call me to the one among your moments
that stands before you ineluctably:
intimate as a dog's imploring glance
but, again, forever, turned away

when you think you are holding it at last.
What seems so far from you is most your own.
We are already free and were dismissed
where we thought we soon would be at home.

Anxious, we keep longing for a foothold—
we, at times too young for what is old
and too old for what has never been;

doing justice only where we praise,
because we are the branch, the iron blade,
and sweet danger, ripening from within.