6. 11. 2020

English version | Error is beautiful. And it is human.

by Nuno Miguel Dias


It would only take two Umberto Eco’s books in order to have a treated on the entire Occidental Civilization. And it would take two of his titles for us to realize what it is we’re talking about. On Beauty and On Ugliness. A paradox? Not really. Ugly is an adjective. Ugliness is the quality of what is ugly. And all of this is beautiful. No space for error. Here you have it then, the History of the Beauty of Error.

To make it crystal clear, in case there are any doubts referring back to past editions or that may come to existence in the future, let it be known that, out of addiction to impartiality and benevolent temperament, in this author’s considerations, all beliefs are encompassed, without exception. It is thus without much astonishment, and by making good use of the Principle of Everything, that the Bible called The Word in a slightly less lyrical sense, that I’ll proceed to address, in my opinion, some of The Creation’s errors. Before anything else, a forewarning: I’m not questioning the tiredness that forced God to rest on the seventh day. I understand him, even. It’s wearisome, to create everything and everyone. Though I’m guessing that, alike those who have more demanding jobs, a little nap in the middle of the week was in order. I’m thinking that circa the fourth or fifth day, it was already noticeable that our Father was in need of a coffee break. And a cigarette. On the contrary, explain to me what went through our Lord’s head to create, for example, the platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), a mammal (though lacking in tits), that is born from an egg, with a duckbill, castor tail, claws with interdigital membranes and a poisonous spike? Why? To be bullied on the Arc the Lord would order his joiner Noah a few years from then? And what about the aie-aie (Daubentonia madagascarienses), that Malagasy primate, relative of the lemures, that looks as awful as its middle finger, which is unusually long and serves as a larvae extractor from tree trunks? Surely it was only to induce panic over the people of Madagascar, that until this day believe the poor animal crawls inside their homes in the night to puncture the heart of its victims with its terrible digit. And what do you have to say about the naked mole rat (Heterocephalus glaber), a terrible African animal, blind, naked, that lives its entire life underground under the regime that one sole female reproduces and all the rest just attend to the upkeep of the colony, as if they were mere ants? What’s the point? Is it a punishment so that they won’t be able to enjoy the other magnificent creations, such as the sun, the moon, the sea?

It won’t be necessary to go to such exotic latitudes or search Google for the horrendous appearance of the aforementioned animals. Here, among us, take a good look and retort: why do cockroaches exist? And even if you can prove it to me that they are not an error in creation, please, file them. Or are they the food to small nocturnal rodents, that in turn feed some gracious predators such as the majestic owl? And how about we consider how the naked mole rat can survive without oxygen by releasing fructose into its bloodstream, besides being immune to practically all diseases, including cancer? Much like the aie-aie also hides, in fact, a not so dreadful sixth finger, discovered by scientists not long ago, with its very own digital print and that can support all the animal’s weight. And what about the platypus? Well, let’s not overdo it. The creature lives in Australia and you can’t ask that much from a geographical location that encloses the weirdest, most poisonous, deadliest and most dangerous animals. It’s as if a very clear message was being sent: this place is not habitable. But the British empire thought it would be the perfect location for the condemned over minor misdemeanors by Her Majesty’s juridic system, for the delight of black-widows, vipers, medusas and a bunch of other beasts anyone with good sense would hope to never encounter. To the exception of this exception, there is, after all, beauty in creation. Any creation. Even more because it isn’t up to us, who are made of clay (not to mention where our rib came from, poor thing), to decide on what is or isn’t beautiful. Beauty is something so relative that we had to be the ones not getting how much ugliness we actually produce. It’s becoming a little obvious just how much Man is misplaced here. This arrogance of thinking of ourselves as kings and lords of the environment, with the entire planet at our disposal for us to play around as we please, is getting annoying. If we’re not an error in creation, we were one in casting. And a splash of humility wouldn’t do anyone any harm.

Let’s go on, in opposition to the Judaic-Christian belief that all of this was created through the action of the Holy Spirit, to a more Evolutionist approach to the whole thing. It’s the epitome of that very same humility Man is so desperately lacking. Because it comes from the principle that all the things we can now see (except if you live in a studio down in Cacém), all that surrounds us and all the fascinating things we’ve seen on BBC Wild Life documentaries, on the pages of National Geographic or even on those breathtaking landscapes we witnessed when on a trip somewhere idyllic, were born out of the biggest error in the history of this planet, the Big Bang. Allegorically, someone was incompetent to the point of making a mistake that rooted the most epic of accidents. It’s as if, on a much smaller scale, someone put a pyromaniac in charge of cleaning the Monsanto forest. This more scientific approach was born on the 19th century, with that man who had the nerve to say men descended from monkeys, Mr. Charles Robert Darwin. Whom in the opening chapter of the book The Origin of Species, at the time considered a mistake but now considered the Bible of Scientists in General and Biologists in Particular, entitled Variation Under Domestication, he refers, under the Unconscious Selection: “At the present time, eminent breeders try by methodical selection, with a distinct object in view, to make a new strain or sub-breed, superior to anything of the kind in the country. But, for our purpose, a form of selection, which may be called unconscious, and which results from everyone trying to possess and breed from the best individual animals, is more important. Thus, a man who intends keeping pointers naturally tries to get as good dogs as he can, and afterwards breeds from his own best dogs, but he has no wish or expectation of permanently altering the breed. Nevertheless, we may infer that this process, continued during centuries, would improve and modify any breed”. And proceeds to exemplify this with bovine cattle that has gone on to double their weight in a smaller amount of time, the English racing worse that became faster than the Arabic one, and even the wood-pigeon, that had become an excellent mailman, maybe even better than some of those CTT kids since the beginning of this godawful pandemic, given that we’re talking about pigeons in 1859 (the Opium war had ended not so long ago and Portugal, under king D. Pedro V, was negotiating the sovereignty of Macau with China).  All this to say that “error”, or better yet, that “playing God” thing men love to do so much, resulted in the most beautiful of outcomes. What the British naturalist didn’t know (or maybe he did but chose not to address it), was that in the midst of the attempt to perfect breeds, breeders (mainly dog ones) end up “producing” animals destined to atrocious suffering. Crippled on many levels, their thorax too small for them to be able to breathe normally, brains that grow besides their skull capacity, resulting in paralysis and seizures that become as frequent as the rising urgency to put the animal down. Warning: it’s not pretty. Pretty is to adopt a dog that has been abandoned. Therefore making someone else’s mistake in something infinitely beautiful.

If there’s something we don’t tolerate are other people’s kids bickering. Our kids have done it too. Embarrassed us on the hallway of some random supermarket. Luckily, we refer the episode to one of those memory compartments we’ll only open again if the psychanalyst forces us to. But the ones of other people’s kids… Ah, those… are intolerable. Especially when the little brat is hitting their mother. It’s nasty. And nonetheless, here’s a little resume of the birth of Portugal. D. Afonso Henriques, a spoiled brat, fought against his own mother, D. Teresa, on the Battle of São Mamede, on June 24th, 1128. Victorious, he arrested his mother, to whom he may have given a couple of face slaps, promised since the death of his father, D. Henrique, in 1112. D. Teresa, humiliated, casted a curse on him: “May your legs be broken by iron”, what actually ended up happening, when our first king tried to conquer Badajoz. Here you have the first big mistake in our History that rooted in this rather beautiful country of ours. Another very common mistake is to say Columbo was Portuguese, blending in the centuries of the discovery of Cuba, the Caribbean, with his birth in Cuba, in Alentejo. It is also said he was a spy in Spain working for Portugal. And that he might have conceived his “project” while he was living in Portuguese lands (1476-1485). But evidence supporting that are highly dubious and can be resumed by the biographies written by his son Fernando Colombo e Henriques and by Bartolomeu de Las Casas. What matters for what we’re dealing with here is the consequent very well-known mistake of finding America when, in fact, the Genoese Cristoforo Colombo (that was his name in Italian) meant to reach India. Truly, his mistake was even more epic and was actually committed before departure. He had established, by the means of his own calculations, that Japan was around five thousand kilometers away from the Spanish coast. Anyone who’s got it all together wouldn’t have even begun the quest. Because truthfully, if there wasn’t an entire continent on which he eventually stumbled across, the chances of survival were null. On the other (way less beautiful) hand, he as his men ended up inadvertently transmitting some diseases (such as the chickenpox) to natives, unraveling manslaughter like no other over on that side of the ocean.

In recent universal history, there were two major mistakes that ended up leading to Freedom, that thing people keep as the most beautiful thing of all. The first is carried out by Marco Licínio Crasso, the roman general that, being so full of himself after the victory over the slave uprise lead by Spartacus, decided to abandon the roman fighting tactics used against the sparts, he ended up suffering a huge defeat, totaling 20 thousand dead soldiers and more than 10 thousand prisoners. Yes, he was the one after whom the expression “erro crasso” (the equivalent to major mistake, in English), so commonly used today. The second one has as Hitler as its leading character, a seemingly intelligent creature, that in his final moments of glory decided to incur the same mistake that had already dictated the demise of Napoleon before him (even despite his stock of highly caloric canned Portuguese goods that Salazar supplied him with, under the technical term “not-aligned”). It was the beginning of the end for him, but a new and wonderful beginning for the rest of world. The final blow however, was the start of the invasion of then Nazi-occupied France, the famous D-Day. It was certain it would happen. People just didn’t know when and where, which was why Hitler left Erwin Rommel, the grand mastermind, in charge of discovering the details. The only thing is that on his turn, Rommel trusted the Luftwaffe’s meteorological services rather lightly, which predicted big storms for 15 days in the beginning of June. Assuming that under those circumstances, the attack would never take place, Rommel stepped away from his post in France to go celebrate his wife’s birthday in Berlin. The North American general Dwight Eisenhower, who intended to carry out the biggest maritime invasion in the history of mankind on the 5th of June, with millions of men and many tones of ordnance on several beaches of Normandie, met with James Stagg, chief of the Royal Air Force team of meteorologists, who briefed him on the forecast of strong winds, raging sea and low clouds, facts that demanded the Normandy Land to be postponed in 24 hours. And it was. Eleven months later, Germany would be defeated in a conflict that killed 60 to 85 million people. But that, were it not for the führer’s mistake, could have killed many more.

Mr. Smith (fictional name), 72 years old, a quiet man with an introvert personality, was having some liquidity problems. Thus, he accepted to be the “guineapig” to the Pfizer Laboratories for a new drug that would supposedly target hypertension and angina. Measurements started out as inconclusive, but he quickly realized that, through thorough exams, the new drug called Sildenafil was ineffective in treating those conditions. To make matters worse, Mr. Smith was complaining of occasional headaches, facial blush, nasal congestion, hypersensitivity to light, palpitations and visual disturbances. On the other hand, Mrs. Smith was visibly radiant, in a much better state of mind and easily amused, on her best mood ever. “She doesn’t even complain about cleaning anymore”, Mr. Smith exclaimed, with semi-shut eyes due to the intense studio lighting, but still with a naughty smile on his face. And there and then, Viagra was discovered. History is full of inventions that, out of error or accident, changed the world forever, making it into a much better place. Charles Goodyear left a mixture of rubber, lead and sulfur on the fire, by mistake, creating the material we use to this day on tires and soles of many shoes, vulcanized rubber.  In 1945, the engineer Percy Spencer was working for Raytheon, a manufacturer of electronics for storage of weapons and military equipment. During one of his many experiments, he realized the electromagnetic waves that were transmitted by a radar had melted a chocolate bar, that primordial North American nutrient, he had on his pocket. After a few more experiments, the microwave was created. Three years later, the scientist Harry Coover tried to create a substance that could be used as a high precision lens. Besides the tremendous failure of his creation, it would still stick irreversibly to anything it came in contact with. Superglue was born. Robert Chesebrough wanted to find a place in the prestigious oil industry, that had produced so much wealth in Pennsylvania back in the 19th century. That’s not exactly what he found, though. When the labors of the big drilling companies complained about a sort of wax that was preventing machinery from working at full capacity, Chesebrough took a sample of it and, in New York, he isolated it from the oil, discovering a substance that could heal scratches and cuts, among many other lubricant usages. His belief in Vaseline was so strong, he ate a spoon of it every single day until he died (brace yourself) at 96 years old. We almost feel like yelling Eureka and raising a toast with a glass of Vasenol, such are the harms of alcohol.

Translated from the original article from Vogue Portugal's The Beauty of Imperfection issue, published November 2020.
Full credits and story on the print issue.