I’m with Holden. Of course it’s axiomatic that clarity, concision, and a sniper’s eye for the nub of the argument are hallmarks of good prose style. A writer who habitually leads his readers on a charge into the weeds is a writer who will look over his shoulder, one day, to discover he’s at the head of a procession of one.
But isn’t it equally true that digression, or at least free association, is to conversation what improvisation is to music? And since the informal essay, at least, aspires to the quality of conversation pinned to the page, doesn’t it follow that a model of the type should lead the reader on the literary equivalent of a dérive, as the Situationists called it, a determinedly directionless—but far from purposeless—stroll (literally, a “drift”) through city streets, wandering down dead-end alleys, around blind corners whose acute angles conceal—What? The drearily predictable? The jarringly unexpected? The Freudian Uncanny hiding behind the banal?
Politicizing Baudelaire’s aloof connoisseur of the urban whirl, the flaneur, as well as the Surrealists’ nocturnal rambles in search of the marvelous, the dérive is a more multilayered concept than I’m suggesting here, but you get my drift. Unshackled from the demands of work and even the laborious fun of leisure, the dérive disrupts the “unitary urbanism” imposed by capitalism on our experience of everyday life. In his Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, the Situationist theorist Guy Debord champions the dérive as a dowsing rod for divining the “evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres”; exposing “the path of least resistance that is automatically followed in aimless strolls (and which has no relation to the physical contour of the terrain)”; uncovering “the appealing or repelling character of certain places”—subliminal forces at play in the “psychogeography” of urban environments that can be “uncovered by careful analysis and turned to account.”
Surely the informal essay must have something to learn from the dérive. (It’s instructive that so many classics of the genre draw inspiration from peregrination: Steele’s “Twenty-Four Hours in London,” Hazlitt’s “On Going on a Journey,” Beerbohm’s “Going Out for a Walk,” Woolf’s “Street Haunting.”) The digressive essay—a dérive in the head—would reject the utilitarian impulse that animates both the formal essay, whether polemical or instructive, as well as the confessional essay (a three-hankie wedding of Puritan self-flagellation and 12-step culture that accounts for much of what passes for essays in the American press). It would resist the totalizing logic of the Marketplace of Ideas (a wonderfully instructive phrase, made in the U.S.A.) by insisting on its sublime uselessness (useless, that is, in nuts-and-bolts practical or monetizable terms). Likewise, it would thumb its nose at listicles and charticles and all the other post-literate linkbait to which Web publishers, in an age of time famine and attention deficit, hitch their hopes of page-view jackpots.
There’s no doubt, as Nicholas Carr argues in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, that we’re witnessing the rise of a reader whose attention span maxes out at three paragraphs, after which he starts skimming. But there’s no denying the countertrend, either: the emergence (who knew?) of readers who not only devour the longform essays published on websites like Grantland, The Millions, The Awl, The Verge, and The L.A. Review of Books, but engage with them in comment threads, often at disputatious length. If we’re going to be technodeterministic, arguing that writers should cut their cloth to the measurements of minds affected by cellphones, social media, and Websurfing, shouldn’t we consider both sides of the zeitgeist?
In 1969, Marshall McLuhan, the Billy Graham of technodeterminism, soberly informed Playboy that “LSD is a way of miming the invisible electronic world… The attraction to hallucinogenic drugs is a means of achieving empathy with our penetrating electric environment, an environment that in itself is a drugless inner trip.” Isn’t the digressive essay a way of miming the epistemological nomadism we experience, online? The informal essay, Phillip Lopate writes, in his Art of the Personal Essay, possesses the freedom to move anywhere, in all directions. It acts as if all objects were equally near the center and as if “all subjects are linked to each other” (Montaigne) by free association. The essay challenges formal analysis by what Walter Pater called its “unmethodical method,” open to digression and promiscuous meanderings.
Doesn’t this talk of a genre where all things are equally near the center; where everything is linked to everything else; where we move from one node in a distributed network to another by means of associative connections, delighting in our “promiscuous meanderings,” sound a lot like the Web?
Of course, the Web and the informal essay might be congenial to discursive thought and associative leaps because both, in a sense, are dynamic models of our cognitive processes. The Web, knitted together by hyperlinks, is brainlike; viewed from a god’s-eye perspective, its googolplex interconnections would resemble a connectome, the neuroanatomical wiring diagram that traces the synaptic connections formed by the billions of neurons in our brains. So, too, is the informal essay—for that matter, all writing—brainlike in its mesh of intertextual connections. “[E]ach sentence ties one thing to another,” the Surrealist philosopher Georges Bataille argues, in his essay “The Solar Anus.” “All things would be visibly connected if one could discover at a single glance and in its totality the tracings of Ariadne’s thread leading thought into its own labyrinth.” Here is Foucault, in The Order of Things, playing variations on the same theme: “The frontiers of a book are never clear-cut: beyond the title, the first lines and the last full stop, beyond its internal configuration and its autonomous form, it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences: it is a node within a network…” Every text is a Local Area Network, a hub of internal connections, yet also a node in an illimitably vast network of other texts, linked by references, allusions, citations, syntactical echoes, the genealogy of ideas. Text, Web, mind: all are networks, and as anyone who has immersed herself in a book or wandered the Web or followed the thread of a thought through the labyrinth of her head knows, networks are for exploring.
The etymological root of the word “essay” (the Middle French essai, “trial, attempt”) suggests argument, especially in its Latin progenitor (exagium, “to weigh”), but it also implies a process in motion, in sharp contrast to the marmoreal immobility of the scholarly dissertation or the scientific paper. It stretches the point only slightly to imagine that the process in question is a kind of cognitive mapping (in the poetic sense) generated by heuristic interactions, whether with the world of the senses, the terrain of ideas, or the topography of the self. “One of the most radical of Montaigne’s practices was to follow his thoughts no matter where they led him,” says Lopate.
A digressive essay might partake of play, exploration, philosophical investigation, the Freudian free-association game, Surrealist automatic writing, the Situationist dérive, the Web drift, or all of the above. “The digression must wander off the point only to fulfill it,” Lopate insists; in contradistinction, the digressive essay makes a point solely for the purpose of wandering off it. It has no point beyond the starting point it uses as a springboard for free association; it comes to no conclusion, only an end, with a jolt familiar to anyone who has wandered the Web’s infinite regress and come to her senses, lost hours later, unaware of how she got there or where she started, or why.
In fact, the digressive essay, if successful, has that same effect on the reader: How did I get here? “Let’s Get Lost” is its theme song; “The Garden of Forking Paths,” by Borges, its Google Map.