Thanksgiving Is Ruined
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)
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"?
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.