Saturday 09 March 2002

Let Us Now Praise the Art of Digression

At Visible Darkness, Jeff Ward offers a lament:

My mentor in the English department has a short attention span. If I want to be put in my place, all I have to do is talk to him. He’s got a Ph.D. from Duke, and is always so wrapped up in his own ideas that he doesn’t have much time to spare for other people. However, he’s brilliant and I talk to him when I can. I was really let down that I couldn’t take the seminar he’s teaching now on Blake, Sterne, and Locke. I spoke to him at the lecture a few days ago. I tried to tell him about what I was working on right now, but it was too complicated to explain in short sentences. He stopped me cold:

C’mon, get to it—you’re worse than Tristram Shandy!

Worse in what sense? Doesn’t much of the joy of reading Tristram Shandy arise from Sterne’s taking his own sweet time to “get to it”? From the fact that occasionally he never arrives? And this from someone who’s teaching a class on Sterne?

Nowadays, when our primary social imperative is to come to the point, the art of digression—formerly undervalued—is regarded with palpable hostility:

“There’s just 79 seconds until we get to the commercial break, can we wrap it up quickly?”

“Umm, you realize this is going to an RSS feed… any chance of condensing it for our subscribers?”

Tristram Shandy, untroubled by TV or RSS, still felt the need to justify himself to his more impatient readers:

when a man sits down to write a history,—tho’ it be but the history of Jack Hickathrift or Tom Thumb, he knows no more than his heels what lets and confounded hinderances he is to meet with in his way,—or what a dance he may be led, by one excursion or another, before all is over. Could a historiographer drive on his history, as a muleteer drives on his mule,—straight forward;—for instance, from Rome all the way to Loretto, without ever once turning his head aside either to the right hand or to the left,—he might venture to foretell you to an hour when he should get to his journey’s end;—but the thing is, morally speaking, impossible: For, if he is a man of the least spirit, he will will have fifty deviations from a straight line to make with this or that party as he goes along, which he can no ways avoid…

These unforeseen stoppages, which I own I had no conception of when I first set out;—but which, I am convinced now, will rather increase than diminish as I advance,—have struck out a hint which I am resolved to follow;—and that is,—not to be in a hurry;—but to go on leisurely, writing and publishing two volumes of my life every year;—which, if I am suffered to go on quietly, and can make a tolerable bargain with my bookseller, I shall continue to do as long as I live.

Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (Volume I, Chapter XVIII)

The blogger’s dream: “to go on leisurely, writing and publishing two volumes of my life every year.” I can’t imagine a happier way to while away a life.

My love of the digression came not from Sterne, but Fielding (whose works I devoured at the impressionable age of seventeen):

First, then, we warn thee not too hastily to condemn any of the incidents in this our history, as impertinent and foreign to our main design, because thou dost not immediately conceive in what manner such incident may conduce to that design. This work may, indeed, be considered as a great creation of our own; and for a little reptile of a critic to presume to find fault with any of its parts, without knowing the manner in which the whole is connected, and before he comes to the final catastrophe, is a most presumptuous absurdity. The allusion and metaphor we have here made use of, we must acknowledge to be infinitely too great for our occasion, but there is, indeed, no other, which is at all adequate to express the difference between an author of the first rate, and a critic of the lowest.

Henry Fielding, Tom Jones (Book X, Chapter I)

Anyone still in any doubt as to why I’m committed to the long-form blog?

Jeff adds:

In the Rhetoric department, they think I’m a model of clarity and insight. In the English department, I’m often accused of rambling. Thank god! The worst thing in the world would be starting to feel successful; that would be a guarantee of my failure.

Jeff hates it when people tell him he’s a good writer. As do I. We both know “what happens anytime [we] get anywhere near success.” We blow it. My career as a photographer foundered upon that deceptive rock.

It’s a dilemma for anyone who tries to make art: we make the work and send it out unguarded into the world, hoping beyond hope that it might find an appreciative audience. And, when a few (or many) gather to appreciate our work, we call their judgement into question. In her biography of Samuel Beckett, Deirdre Bair quotes the director Alan Schneider, who—together with Beckett—attended five performances of the London production of Waiting for Godot in preparation for his forthcoming American production:

Every night, also, we would carefully watch the audience, a portion of which always left during the show. I always felt that Sam would have been disappointed if at least a few hadn’t.

“At least a few.” But Beckett—who recoiled from unanimous approval—still appreciated the majority, who stayed until the curtain fell.

Why should there be any conflict between “rambling” and being “a model of clarity and insight”? Particularly if we replace “rambling” with “digression.” (After all, who in these modern times could take issue with “clarity” and “insight”?) Shouldn’t we be able to ramble/digress clearly and insightfully?

Jeff resigns himself to The Rambler’s Way:

Sometimes thinking like Tristram Shandy can be problematic. Unfortunately, I don’t have much choice in the matter. I suppose I’ll always be irritating to somebody.

You and me both, Jeff. And yet, for every person we irritate, let’s choose to believe there are two or three who delight in our inability (or reluctance) to get to the point.

In 1958 Godard made a film (Histoire d’eau) from footage of a flood, which Truffaut had shot before realizing he didn’t know what to do with it. James Monaco recounts the story in The New Wave:

 Jean-Claude Brialy et Caroline Dim in Godard's Histoire d'EauGodard salvaged the film, dubbed the dialogue, and made of the botched footage the first really “Godardian” film, full of puns and wordplay (the title recalls the erotic novel Histoire d’O which had some notoriety at the time), in which our attention must be divided carefully between the subject of the film and its narrative style. Godard ignores, for the most part, the facts of the footage, the flood, and uses it as a stage from which to launch his dialogue collage. The key to the film lies in a story the young woman tells about Louis Aragon giving a lecture at the Sorbonne on the subject of Petrarch. (As she begins, she opens a car door and says, “Here I open a parenthesis: Everybody hates Aragon, but I like him, and I close the parenthesis.” Whereupon she closes the car door.) Aragon, she tells us, started his lecture on Petrarch by throwing himself into a forty-five-minute discourse in praise of Matisse. Finally a student cried out from the back of the room: “Get to the subject!” whereupon Aragon, completing the phrase he had started before the interruption, said simply: “All the originality of Petrarch consists precisely in the art of digression!” “Histoire d’eau” is Godard’s first Petrarchan invention, after the style of Aragon. Its interest is in its digression.

Permalink | Technorati


Art to one connissuer is blather
to another. All in all this schmoe
agrees. While contradicting a huge body of work (I can't say I disagree with the concept of contradiction) most of which is written in a decidedly more terse and didactic style it's mere existence is an interesting endorsement of the versatility of an emerging literary form. Nonetheless, I am forced out of compassion for your efforts to end with the conclusion that this piece sucks, if only to ensure that more is on the way.
I'm sorry; I changed my mind. I can't do it. It didn't suck. It's good.
In the end, ethics and bad writing prevail.

Posted by ne0phyt3 on 9 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Question my judgment, but you write wonderfully. Funny how you can tell that someone is literate before they take the liberty of disclosing their sources and models. Wasn't it Dr. Johnson who wrote and edited a journal called, "The Rambler"? Then another called, "The Idler"? In France they had the roles of the "flaneur," the boulevardier who had enough money in his pocket, perhaps through an inheritance, to idle away his days, walking about town, and noting people and events. Karl Kraus may have been an Austrian version -- sleep all day, read the papers in a coffeee house, and write marginalia all night, publish at dawn. Beckett must be the best proof that a text can contain the most terse aphorisms and still ramble and digress onwards to over a thousand pages -- his blessed Trilogy.

Posted by Phil Cubeta on 9 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Sorry to disappoint: beautiful writing. Terse. To the point.
Sometimes? Sometimes!
But I digress...
(Enjoy! and thank you)

Posted by Tom Graves on 9 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

The weblogger's dream. Puts things into the right perspective. Mr of the court, you are a good writer as always. As for success, write for yourself and let the world go hang.

Posted by Burningbird on 9 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Dammit, Jonathon. Get to the point! Tempus fidgets! If you can't say it in 7 bullet points, don't bother! 50 words or less! More excalamation points, too! P.S. You may have a problem with Radio. There weren't 25 hrefs embedded in your writing. I didn't know where to link! How am I supposed to tell when to leave your essay if you don't guide me to digressions?

Posted by Phil Wolff on 9 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Sorry Phil. Is there an HREF/wordCount ratio that I should be aware of?

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 10 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Nah. Just so used to people writing with links all over the place that I forgot that authors actually don't need them to communicate. Like hearing an a capella version of a heavily produced song, back to the melody and voice.

Posted by Phil Wolff on 10 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour