Thanksgiving Is Ruined

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June 26, 2007
the power of digression

A few years back, I was reading a David Lehman book about some writers.

Until I hit page 13 of the book.

That's when I read the following passage:

"'The regularity of my design/Forbids all wandering as the worst of sinning,' Lord Byron wrote at the beginning of Don Juan, the most digressive of English poems."

The "most digressive of English poems." Mmm. I figured that if the poem were indeed that digressive, I'd enjoy finally getting around to reading all of it.

I also told myself that I would not fully understand Lehman's passage or, by extension, his book, unless I read no further, dropped his book, made my own digression, and read all of Don Juan.

This I proceeded to do, over the course of several weeks.

Byron in DJ does indeed go off on lots of digressions, and on digressions about his digressions (more than once linking them to Shakespeare quotes -- about madness). The bit that Lehman quotes is merely the earliest example. There are others:

But to my subject -- let me see -- what was it? --
(Canto 3, LXXXI)

But I'm digressing; what on earth has Nero,
Or any such like sovereign buffoons,
To do with the transactions of my hero,
More than such madmen's fellow man -- the moon's?
Sure my invention must be down at zero . . .
(Canto 3, CX)

But I am apt to grow too metaphysical:
"The time is out of joint," -- and so am I;
I quite forget this poem's merely quizzical,
And deviate into matters rather dry.
I ne'er decide what I shall say, and this I call
Much too poetical: men should know why
They write, and for what end; but, note or text,
I never know the word which will come next.
(Canto 9, XLI)

I won't describe, -- that is, if I can help
Description; and I won't reflect, -- that is,
If I can stave off thought . . .
(Canto 10, XXVIII)

I'm "at my old lunes" -- digression . . .
(Canto 13, XII)

But, reader, thou hast patient been of late . . .
(Canto 13, LXXIV)

Since with digressions we too long have tarried . . .
(Canto 15, LXXXIV)

When I was done with the digression that was all of Don Juan, I figured that I wouldn't really understand what was so digressive about it unless I read something else long by Byron.

So, I digressed some more, and read some other long Byron.

The I read a couple more long pieces by him, to make an even longer digression, or a digression built on top of a digression on top of a digression (through Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, The Giaour (annotated .pdf here), and Manfred).

And so on.

I never did finish Lehman's book.

Well, I see that I made it through another 296 pages of it. Then something else interrupted me, I can't remember what.

What was my point here? I can't remember.

Probably something potentially lame about the constant, sneaky "presence" (by def., pointing towards things that are absent?) of digression, and about the invisible nature of its power; you don't notice the iron control with which it has guided events until you go back later and look for it.

It's like the plotline of "The Bicycle Thief": guy seeks work. But to get work, he must chase things that lead him further and further from his object: bicycle, thief, person who might have seen where thief went, person who might have seen where person who might have seen where thief went went, etc. There's no way out of the labyrinth.

On the other hand, one might object to this entire line of thought, as follows:

What on earth am I talking about, when I try to pass off the above as a "digression"?

What a joke!!

Did I REALLY digress anywhere? No.

I switched from one BOOK written in English by a white guy about pseudo-intellectual, fancy-pants literature to another.

Did I "digress" into reading a book about a totally unrelated field, like astronomy, zoology or higher mathematics? No.

Did I "digress" away from English, to try to read a book in some other language, maybe even a language I don't understand and have never read? No.

Did I "digress" away from books altogether, and maybe try to do something practical, or of real use to the world? No.

Did I "digress" away from my whole life, or from the planet Earth, or even try for at least a second to be a non-carbon based life form in another galaxy? No.

To read what I wrote above, one would think that, to me, "digression" somehow presupposes some unchanging (though, on another level, ever mobile) constant that one does not digress from, question or even notice.


How unimaginative. How lazy.

How pathetic.

To which "I" would reply: It's hard to argue with logic like that.

I repeat: It's hard to argue with logic like that.