This past weekend I read a book called “1066: The Year of the Conquest.” I read it not because I had any strong interest in William the Conqueror’s invasion of England but because I had been told (correctly, as it turned out) that the author, the late David Howarth, possessed an admirably clear and elegant writing style. I hope to comment on Howarth and the Conquest in a future installment of this blog. Today, however, I wish to focus on just a single thing that Howarth mentioned briefly in his book – the nautical strategy known as either the deliberate error or the deliberate miss.
Back when William, the Duke of Normandy, sailed on his mission of conquest from what is now part of France to the coast of England, crossing the English Channel was a much trickier business than it is today. For one thing, it appears that sailors in the English Channel region were not yet familiar with the compass. To get from point A to point B they had to rely on stars, landmarks, and luck. There were hundreds of boats in Williams’s fleet but they were all following William’s lead boat. If William’s pilot had made a mistake, the entire fleet would have compounded the error. One of the most prominent harbors on the English side of the Channel was Beachy Head, located just a few miles from the village of Hastings, the site of the battle at which William and his men would eventually defeat the army of England’s King Harold. According to Howarth, William’s pilot, in guiding the fleet to Beachy Head, used “the ancient method of the Deliberate Error.” Because maps and sea charts were not entirely reliable in the days of the Conquest, trying to sail directly toward a particular far-off destination was unwise. The reason for this was simple: If you set sail for a specific landmark on the coast of England and, upon arrival at the coast, found the landmark nowhere in sight, you would have no sure way of knowing if you had missed the port by going too far to your right or too far to your left (sailors, of course, would have used geographical distinctions such as east and west rather than left or right). If, however, you set a course that was deliberately a bit to the right, say, of your goal, all you had to do was sail until you reached sight of the coast and then turn left and sail along the coastline until the port you were seeking came into sight. In the long run, sailors generally saved time by charting a course not directly towards their ultimate destination but to a spot somewhere east, west, north, or south of it, depending upon the predominant wind and water currents. In other words, they employed the ancient strategy of the “deliberate miss” (which is how various sailing websites, such as www.bananawind.us, refer to it) or the “deliberate error” (which is how Howarth refers to it).
Deliberate errors are not just a phenomenon of the nautical realm. Football teams, on rare occasions, will deliberately give up a touchdown to their opponents in order to get the ball back before time runs out. Slightly more frequently, basketball players will deliberately miss free throws for various reasons. If they are trailing their opponents on the scoreboard, they do this in the hope of rebounding the missed attempt at a one-point free throw and instead sinking a two- (or even three-) point field goal. If they are ahead on the scoreboard, they do it to keep the clock running and to force their opponents to waste time trying to rebound the ball and then bring it up court for a scoring opportunity. In short, there are any number of fields of endeavor where it occasionally makes sense to screw the pooch, to go deliberately astray of perfection. In politics, it happens quite frequently.
Most Americans, when they hear the term “Civil Rights Act,” probably automatically think it’s a reference to the famous Civil Rights Act of 1964, a landmark piece of federal legislation that had far-reaching effects on civic life in America. But seven years earlier, the less-well-known Civil Rights Act of 1957 acted as a sort of deliberate miss in the on-going struggle for equal treatment of the races. According to a January 22, 2010 article by Fred Kaplan in Slate Magazine, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 “is one of the most thoroughly forgotten pieces of social legislation in U.S. history, in part because it was watered down to nearly nothing – or so it seemed.” The bill was intended to usher in the kind of sweeping changes to American life that were later accomplished by the Civil Rights Act of 1964: an end to segregated housing, segregated schools, segregated restaurants and theaters and polling places, etc. But opposition by conservative politicians (culminating in a record 24-hour Senate filibuster by Strom Thurman), forced Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson to gut the bill of its most progressive provisions, leaving in tact only one real gain for civil rights supporters: the creation of a government commission charged with investigating accusations of racial discrimination in housing, schooling, and voting registration. The commission had no real authority to combat civil rights violations; it merely established a forum where complaints could be aired and investigated. The final bill was so watered down, says Kaplan, “that prominent civil rights activists, in and out of Congress, were outraged. Many of them argued that it would be better to kill the bill and start over with a new one.” Johnson, however, believed that a deliberate miss was better than no attempt at all, so he mustered the votes to pass the bill despite its obvious flaws. And two years later, when the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released its nearly 700-page report detailing the many ways in which black citizens were being denied their rights in America, it fueled the social outrage that eventually gave birth to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 ended up being a deliberate miss that helped progressives in and out of Congress steer the ship of state toward their true goal: reformation of a system that had institutionalized racism in nearly all aspects of American life.
The writing life, more than most fields of endeavor, is fraught with deliberate misses. In order to write a good sentence, I generally have to write a bad one and then improve it. Before I can write a good poem, I have to produce a whole bunch of bad lines that will eventually be deleted. Nearly every story, novel, and essay I have ever written has concluded in a place far removed from the one I thought I was steering it towards. Sometimes, early in the process of writing a story or an essay, I will jot down what I think might eventually make a great final line for the piece. But usually, when I arrive at the end of a story or an essay and find myself actually able to employ that predetermined final line, it is an indication that the piece is far too predictable to be any good. The final line of this piece, for instance, was going to mention the fact that William the Conqueror’s invasion of England, which was aided by a deliberate nautical error, produced nightmarish results for most of the people who inhabited the island at the time of his arrival. But that final line, conceived in the early stages of this essay’s development, no longer seems appropriate in light of the essay’s generally favorable treatment of the deliberate-miss strategy. It would be like concluding a paean to the hamburger with a reference to E. coli. Likewise, I planned to include two additional examples of Congressional Acts that ended up serving as deliberate misses for much better pieces of legislation. But as the writing of this essay progressed, I realized that those examples would unbalance the essay, causing it to look more like a political diatribe than a general exploration of the ways that a particular nautical device can be adapted for use in other fields of endeavor.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to work in a field so forgiving of deliberate misses as the writing profession. My father, a CPA, can’t afford to be adjusting deliberate errors to a client’s tax returns as he and the client sit before an IRS auditor. Nobody would want a LASIK surgeon who employed a deliberate error surgical technique. And don’t even get me started on those who perform circumcisions.
I have lately been engaged in an exploration of the ways that various strategies and devices intended for use in only a single, highly-specialized discipline (mapmaking, film production, cast-iron cooking) can sometimes be helpful when applied metaphorically to other realms of human endeavor (marriage, for instance, or dealing with depression). But the strategy known as the deliberate miss is a necessary reminder of the limits of my project. To a writer, the use of some sort of deliberate-miss process of composition is pretty much unavoidable – unless, of course, you are brilliant enough to write every sentence perfectly on the first attempt, and I doubt that any writer has ever been that brilliant. But the examples of the CPA and the surgeon clearly demonstrate that not every task-specific troubleshooting device possesses general principles that can be helpfully applied to all realms of human endeavor. Moreover, even when you do find appropriate venues for the employment of the deliberate-miss strategy it is no guarantee that your final destination will be any more worth attaining than the one you deliberately missed. The essay I set out to write – about how William the Conqueror’s conquest of England is fraught with lessons that can be helpfully applied to a broad range of contemporary dilemmas – would not have been a masterpiece. More than likely it would have been full of labored metaphors and weak generalizations. But the essay I ended up writing – which focuses on only a single aspect of William’s conquest of England: the use of Deliberate Error in locating the landing site at Beachy Head – is, alas, no masterpiece either. The effectiveness of even the most brilliant tactic is limited by the skill of the tactician who employs it. William the Conqueror employed the tactic of Deliberate Error to conquer England and wound up founding one of the mightiest empires the world would ever know. In my hands, the tactic known as deliberate error usually produces only modest literary efforts such as this one. I suppose I should take solace in the fact that this essay, for all its faults, is unlikely to cause anyone harm, while William’s conquest of England, in the words of David Howarth, “laid waste thousands of square miles of England so completely that they were uninhabited, and uninhabitable, for a generation after he had gone…It is reckoned that…at least three hundred thousand English people, one in five of the native population, were killed in William’s ravages or starved by the seizure of their farm stock and their land.” For better or worse, no one has ever written an epitaph like that for a mere scribbler like me.