Divagation Navigation | Newberry

Divagation Navigation

Do you have a friend or relative who simply cannot tell a story? They start the story but every part of it calls for further explanation, elucidation, or other verbal footnoting.

“These two doctors walk into a bar. One of the doctors was from Boston. We had a doctor once who came from Boston. His sister was a kleptomaniac, and he made a deal with the police that they should just return things back to the store where she picked them up and send him a bill every month. Poor woman: I think she finally married the Chief of Police. And the other doctor was from New York. My cousin Maisie was in New York last week and when she went out to eat, the woman at the next table! Well, Maisie said that what she was wearing covered so little, she didn’t know why the woman bothered to get dressed at all. Except that would have cost more in makeup. And one doctor ordered an Old-Fashioned. My grandmother used to stop after work every day for an Old-Fashioned….”

The word for this is “divagation”, a wandering from the path. One of my favorite examples of the art is an eighteenth century autobiography of one Tristram Shandy, whose practice of the art is excelled by few. His autobiography came out roughly at a pace of one slim volume a year, and in the nine volumes that were completed, he kind of, vaguely, reaches the age of three. It’s hard to tell, because he wanders all over the place. He himself notes that though a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, he finds it less interesting than a line with all manner of curlicues. Before the story of his life can even begin, he has to explain the circumstances of his conception, and he has to go into the whole history of how his father chose (or actually did not choose) his name, and then…. While telling a story about a stranger who visited town, he goes off on a long digression about what he is NOT talking about when he discusses the stranger’s very long nose.

A quick surf through the Interwebs shows there are vast learned essays written about what Tristram was, or was not, discussing when he seemed to be discussing something. I have not read any of these. I have occasionally waded into a learned essay only the find the water too deep and the current running too fast in three or four directions at once. And these were not even essays about Tristram Shandy, so we cannot blame their divagation on that source. (Unless, of course, all scholars are required to read The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy in college and never recover. It may be a rite of passage: if you can read the book and still write a plain sentence, you are turned out of the scholarly community and forced to write bestselling novels.)

The reading public bought his autobiography as it came out, devoured the contents, and then claimed to be revolted by its vulgarity and casual sex (to say nothing of its author’s habit of popping in, say, a black page instead of text when it suited him). European authors pronounced it one of the greatest accomplishments of English literature–Voltaire and Goethe each praised it—and it inspired shelves’ worth of avant-garde novels in the twentieth century. It is now considered one of the major accomplishments in the history of the English novel, though reading it is still considered optional.

Oh, I should have mentioned at the outset that Tristram Shandy was a fictional character, and his autobiographical divagations the work of Laurence Sterne, the still controversial eighteenth century novelist. Who was born in Ireland, by the way, some three hundred years ago. This is by way of wishing you a happy St. Patrick’s Day.

Which, of course, was yesterday. But that’s one of the hazards of divagation.

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