From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;——they are the life, the soul of reading!—take them out of this book, for instance,—you might as well take the book along with them."--The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767) by Laurence Sterne
Digression (parekbasis in Greek, egressio, digressio and excursion in Latin) is a section of a composition or speech that is an intentional change of subject. In Classical rhetoric since Corax of Syracuse, especially in Institutio Oratoria of Quintilian, the digression was a regular part of any oration or composition. After setting out the topic of a work and establishing the need for attention to be given, the speaker or author would digress to a seemingly disconnected subject before returning to a development of the composition's theme, a proof of its validity, and a conclusion. A schizothemia is a digression by means of a long reminiscence.
Cicero was a master of digression, particularly in his ability to shift from the specific question or issue at hand (the hypothesis) to the more general issue or question that it depended upon (the thesis). As was the case with most ancient orators, Cicero's apparent digression always turned out to bear directly upon the issue at hand. During the Second Sophist (in Imperial Rome), the ability to guide a speech away from a stated theme and then back again with grace and skill came to be a mark of true eloquence.
The term digression comes from the Latin word digressionem (nominative digressio): "a going away, departing," noun of action from past participle stem of digredi "to deviate," from dis- "apart, aside" (see dis-) + gradi "to step, go" (see grade (n.)).
Literary Implications and Examples
Digressions in a literary text serve a diverse array of functions such as a means to provide background information, a way to more thoroughly illustrate a point, and even a channel through which to satirize a subject. Put most simply, a device to emphasize a point through example or anecdote.
One of the earliest recorded users of digression is Homer in the Archaic period. He relies upon digression in his composition of The Iliad in order to provide his audience with a break from the primary narrative, to offer background information, and, most importantly, to enhance the story’s verisimilitude. Through these digressions Homer ensures his audience’s devotion to the characters and interest in the plot.
For example, in Book Eleven, Homer employs a mini-digression when Agamemnon comes upon brothers Peisandros and Hippolokhos in battle. After they come to Agamemnon as suppliants, he remembers that their father was one who denied Menelaos’ emissaries and “held out for killing [them] then and there.” This short interlude from the action provides the audience with a critical fact about the beginning of the war and the nature of the opposing parties.
In literature, the digression (not to be confused with subplot) was a substantial part of satiric works of the 18th century. Works such as Jonathan Swift's A Tale of a Tub, Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy and Diderot's Jacques le fataliste et son maître made digressiveness itself a part of the satire. Sterne's novel, in particular, depended upon the digression, and he wrote, "Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; -- they are the life, the soul of reading; -- take them out of this book (Tristram Shandy) for instance, -- you might as well take the book along with them." This use of digression as satire later showed up in Thomas Carlyle's work.
The digression was also used for non-satiric purposes in fiction. In Henry Fielding's The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, the author has numerous asides and digressive statements that are a side-fiction, and this sort of digression within chapters shows up later in the work of Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Herman Melville, Victor Hugo and others. The novels of Leo Tolstoy, J.D. Salinger, Marcel Proust, Henry Miller, Milan Kundera and Robert Musil are also full of digressions.
In late twentieth-century literature (in postmodern fiction), authors began to use digressions as a way of distancing the reader from the fiction and for creating a greater sense of play. John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman and Lawrence Norfolk's Lemprière's Dictionary both employ digressions to offer scholarly background to the fiction, while others, like Gilbert Sorrentino in Mulligan Stew, use digression to prevent the functioning of the fiction's illusions.
Real life examples
Use of the digression is still noticeable in many sermons: after the topic, the speaker will introduce a "story" that seems to be unrelated, return to the subject, and then reveal how the story illustrates the speaker's point.
Speakers commonly use the phrase "but I digress..." to express a shift in subject. Unless the speaker ties his "digression" back into the subject at hand,though, that shift in subject does not strictly constitute a literary or rhetorical digression.
- Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, vol IV.
- Pierre Bayard, Hors-sujet : Proust et la digression, Editions de Minuit, Paris, 1996.