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  • Digression and Memory: The Handmaiden Effect
  • Paula Marafino Bernett (bio)



The problem with digression is that it seems to frustrate logic to keep offering an unfolding world, which is all very well, but unfolding—at least from moment to moment—is unsteadying, queasy-making. The eye leaps ahead looking for the shore. How does the corn connect to the bricks in the courtyard and the melody on the soundtrack?


When one leaves the orderly spine—the almost identical vertebrae so beautifully fit one into the other for flexibility and mobility—and wanders off in search of the source of a haunting whiff of scent, is put off, or drawn away from the regimen of logical forward motion and its promised rewards, one discovers what it means to be fearlessly lost, driven, or pulled toward a mysterious source.


Digression, the way the mind trolls for meaning in the conscious present, links to remembering, which may be thought of as trolling for meaning in the subconscious past. As elements of memory fit into the interstices of the conscious, digressive mind, in turn, that mind generously cedes its findings to memory. [End Page 119]


I digressed, says Grace Paley in the middle of a painful conversation, and was free.


The path of digression is similarly set by the perception of an end point or goal, but what digression provides—and linear discourse does not—is the titillation of not knowing if the endpoint is absence or some form of rejuvenating presence. The possible outcomes are infinite, and the titillation always pours freshets of adrenaline into the blood.


Consider the mnemonic, a metaphoric key that on command will turn the lock of memory. The digressive experience stores its results behind it, where they are then randomly cached in memory. This appears higgledy-piggledy, but higgledy-piggledy is as valid a strategy for linkings as any other.


Digression is the strategy by which memory, as an imaginative collage of segments of experience, might be mined to serve a poem, a painting, and at the same time is operative in present time and motion, as déjà vu perhaps—much like a hiveless swarm of bees searching for home, its thousands of beings making one form, draped and undulating among blackberry thorns.


At any moment, we both withdraw from and deposit elements into the memory bank, which then become the available materials for the construction of new memories. This phenomenon is evident in digression—the mind yields to the seductions of the unknown, its subtle sensory come-ons that promise so much and so often handsomely deliver on the promise.


Digression raises the problem of trust because it asks you simply to assume a friend is rowing beside you, pointing out the special qualities of light, playing the scene with you—it requires companionship. If you’re wandering all over Dublin humping from graveyard to brothel to kitchen drawer, you want to be sure you’re with someone you like. [End Page 120]


Trust is a function of that delivering, a hearty endorsement for the aimless, discovering mind. It is the friend rowing beside you, seeing you through the occasional weathers of self-doubt.


But the problem is not bureaucratic. It’s epistemological. Individuals are good at using intuition and imagination to understand other humans. We know from recent advances in neuroscience, popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, that the human mind can perform fantastically complicated feats of subconscious pattern recognition. There is a powerful backstage process we use to interpret the world and the people around us.

Then This


One can have a conversation with a dead writer.


Why, Eliot asks, should a story not be told in the most irregular fashion that an author’s idiosyncrasy may prompt? The dear public, he notes, would do well to reflect that they are often bored from the want of flexibility in their own minds.


Love is what leaps from language, from characters crafted of language, collaged from artfully combined snatches of past experience cataloged in a writer’s memory braided with the hues and dynamics of present experience. Reader, writer, and...


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pp. 119-127
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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