Towards A Theory of Digression
—but this is a digression from my subject—no matter for that, a digression is quite the thing in a history, and surely it must be much more so in a meditation. What’s a meditation, but a collection of the reveries of a mind; and what is of a more moving nature than the mind—so far from thinking in train, it flies from one subject to another, with a rapidity inexpressible—from meditating upon the planetary system, it can with ease deviate into a meditation upon hobby-horses, tho’ there does not appear to be any considerable connexion between the ideas—and yet Hobbs has affirmed, that thoughts have always some connexion.
I told you already, and I tell you again and again, that I’ll make as many digressions as I think proper, and wherever I think proper; and that I would not give up one digression to save the souls and bodies of all the critics in Europe; and so that I may be no longer troubled with your impertinence, I will here conclude, Verbum non amplius addam.
– From Yorick’s Meditations
In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), the philosopher John Locke took great pains to demonstrate how the mind produces rational connections. Yet Locke also understood that sometimes the mind associates ideas in less than rational ways. After explaining how contingent associations are responsible for a variety of aversions and childlike phobias—like the notion that darkness occasions goblins—Locke offers this curious example. Imagine, Locke says, that a “young gentleman” has “learned to dance, and that to great perfection,” and that
there happened to stand an old trunk in the room where he learnt. The idea of this remarkable piece of household stuff, had so mixed itself with the turns and steps of all his dances, that though in that chamber he could dance excellently well, yet it was only whilst that trunk was there, nor could he perform well in any other place, unless that, or some such other trunk had its due position in the room.
Locke admits that he appreciates the “pleasant oddness” of the example—and it is odd because, for the most part, Locke focuses on the more serious challenges that irrationally-associated ideas can raise.
The anonymous author of Yorick’s Meditations (1760), a satirical imitation of one of the century’s most famous writers, Laurence Sterne, was similarly struck by the “pleasant oddness” of Locke’s dancing man and his trunk. The anonymous author references Locke’s imagined scenario, specifically, in their mocking “Meditation upon the Association of Ideas:”
Strange and unaccountable are the combinations which this extravagant coupling of ideas gives occasion to—the sagacious Locke informs us of a gentleman who could never dance except there was an old trunk in the room with him; and I myself know a dramatic poet that can never write, except one of the panes of his window be broken.
It is no coincidence that the satirist couples the dancer with a poet whose activity is not hindered but predicated on odd associations. Where Locke is troubled by chance associations, the Sterne imitator embraces their literary possibility. Yorick’s Meditation is a master class in the art of digression.
Taken seriously, the acts of the dancing man and the penurious poet form the conceptual basis for a novel theory of digression. To require a trunk in the room is to invite an obstacle without which the dancing man could not proceed. To require a broken pane is to invite a gust without which the poet cannot write. These obstacles that we demand and, in a sense, enjoy, do not impede us. Rather, they facilitate our progress. We are perhaps “insensibly led” to them—to use a common eighteenth-century turn of phrase—but we can also mobilize them on our behalf. We can use them to modulate the incessant associations of ideas, the mad pull of desire. A digression configured in such a way is neither exception nor rule. A digression such as this would be a kind of “open secret,” in the sense developed by Anne-Lise François—nothing is hidden, and yet some mystery remains. Such a theory of digression is also a theory of literature.
According to Yorick’s Meditations, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is composed “entirely of digressions.” But Yorick’s Meditations itself might be considered the ne plus ultra of digressive irony in the period, with its uncompromising commitment to metonymic drifting. Its author is perhaps the first—and certainly not the last—commentator to address Sterne’s reliance on the empiricist theory of the association of ideas. As we have already seen in Locke’s writing, association is generally negative. Where association connects ideas through chance and mere contiguity, reason produces legitimate or logical connections between ideas.
For David Hume, by contrast, the principles of causation, resemblance, and contiguity account for all mental activity. Even where no design is apparent, someone somewhere likely knows the “secret tie” that connects seemingly unrelated ideas. That a speaker who “[breaks] the thread of discourse” can explain the connection she sees between ideas (and thereby clarify any confusion) is essential for Hume: for where there is no design and no secret there is only madness. Associations can be principled and rational or contingent and irrational—and this ambivalence is the central feature of digressive writing.
The act of digression is far more profound and ambiguous than we often imagine it to be. When someone writes, “I digress,” the status of that “I” is not always clear. If we read that declaration as a statement of intent, we can imagine a writer who planned or is planning to step away from the established topic. Such a writer takes ownership of the deviation and asks the reader to trust that the overall project is not actually rooted in the established topic but in an as yet unrealized design. Conversely, and more perhaps more commonly, if we read “I digress” in the passive sense, we see a writer subject to digression, and the statement as something like an apology: “but I digress.” Digression, in other words, points to a certain instability in the “I.” To digress can be either to command a deviation or to be insensibly led into one. One can see these opposing valences in the two epigraphs above.
So, is a digression a madness that traverses us? Or is it simply an inapparent connection that will be cleared up once the secret connections between ideas are divulged? Writers often try to make sense of their deviations by marking them, that is, by writing “I digress.” This common declaration is both performative and self-cancelling; it states that the foregoing deviation is not a vital part of the present discourse or argument, and yet by naming the digression, the writer implies that it is a vital part of the whole as it is constituted by the writing and reflecting subject. The topos is no longer the first thing but the whole thing, which is not yet complete. To write “I digress” is to admit the secret association that gives order to the only apparent disorder. It is a promise that things will make sense, sooner or later.
To let the digression pass unmarked, however, introduces a unique risk. It will either be absorbed by the overall logic of the text and made retroactively meaningful, thus annulling it, or it will be read as an error and rejected as a sign of madness. And, in some sense, madness is defined as a chain of associations where there is no punctuating retroactivity, no overall logic. At the limit of madness, the “I” is written by insensible association.
Celebrations of digression often emphasize its subversive or libidinal effects. Ross Chambers asserts that “where there is a law, digression is on the side of desire.” But as we have seen, digression seems to be (enigmatically) operative on both sides. On the one hand, the “I digress” seeks to legitimize and annul deviant expressions. In this sense, “I digress” is not so far from pseudo-Yorick’s closing statement, “verbum non amplius addam” [‘I will not add another word’]. On the other hand, the reverie of madness allows desire to flow unimpeded. Moreover, somewhat paradoxically, both modes of digression tend to cancel themselves out at the very moment that they are announced.
But there is another theory of digression capable of mediating the two extremes of sovereignty and madness. All we need is a trunk.
Marking digression, as I have already indicated, has a performative value. It brings the digression into the world, usually in an effort to rein it in. But at the root of “I digress” is also the declaration “I write.” Between the sovereign “I” of the secret and the negated “I” of madness, there is a subject constituted through digression and its inscriptive activity. This “I” is associated with a singular signature, something that partially eludes the regime of good communication. Digressions highlight the fact that writing is always conditioned by the contingencies of the moment and the particularities of the writer. The norms of effective communication suppress these conditions—just as well performed dancing tends to render its conditions invisible: the hours of practice, the dance floor, and so on. The trunk visualizes those contingencies and conditions—just as digression visualizes the oblique signatures of the digressive subject. To dance with one’s trunk is to refuse to give up on one’s irrational but essential associations.
Yorick’s Meditations, then, is a self-consciously singular act against the backdrop of Hume’s universal principles. And so digression is less a desirous subversion of the law and more a singular enjoyment of the law at its limit. Of course, digressions still make sense, but they also skew sense, sometimes to the point of nonsense. This way of thinking about digression does not divorce it from associationism, quite the contrary: it finds in the theory of association a certain unavowed form of relation, a “strange and unaccountable” connection.
If digression mediates law and desire, harnesses the open secret, and gives form to the singularity of writing, how does it meaningfully differ from literature, at least the “literature” that names the paradoxical configuration of sense and inscription that emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? Not all digression is literary, although it is perhaps the case that all literature is digressive. Not because it wanders or strays aimlessly, but because it does so with style, that is to say, with curious restraint. It dances a bit madly, but a negative shape emerges on the floor, a space carved out by the absence of footprints, a trunk.
Some readers and critics of literature want to open that trunk up and expose all the secrets, but, of course, the trunk is empty, or, it might as well be.
Matthew Rigilano teaches at Penn State Abington. He is currently at work on a manuscript entitled “The Prosaic Unconscious: Excess and Subjectivity in Eighteenth-Century Writing.” It contains more than a few digressions.