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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

switching tracks as a way of life

I've just looked up the word divagate in my Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Here's the definition:

to wander or stray from a course or subject : DIVERGE, DIGRESS

I was trying to come up with a word to express my way of studying, thinking, talking--my way of life, I suppose. It's what sprang to mind and I reckon it's close enough.

When I study, think, or talk--or when I write, for that matter--I keep switching tracks, elaborating on some sub-point before I get to the end of my initial point, and then going down a further digression on a sub-sub-point, until, quite often, I've forgotten my initial point--how I got here. My interlocutor has to help me out and remind me of what I was talking about.

It's not mere wandering attention or an inability to focus. On the contrary, it almost comes from a particular intensity of focus. I want to say exactly what I mean, but often I'm not sure exactly what I mean, and I'm thinking things through as I go. As a result, often, when I'm talking, I start the same sentence or point two or three different ways, searching for the right way in. I'm a strange mix: for the purposes of light conversation and repartee I'm quick and fluent, but when it comes to expressing more serious, important thoughts, I'm hesitant and laborious.

I'm very dissatisfied with lazy, ill-considered thoughts. It seems to me that most of the actions in the world are ill-considered, including--or especially--those taken by the world's most powerful people. Mostly we get by with very flabby, self-serving "reasons" for our views.

One example, which I get from Sven Lindqvist's book "Exterminate All the Brutes", was the thinking about the issue of genocide in European history. From the British point of view, the mass deaths brought to colonized people like the Canary Islanders and the Indians of the Americas by the Spanish were easy to explain: the Spaniards were notoriously cruel and bloodthirsty. There: problem solved. But when natives were dying in large numbers under British colonial rule, and not entirely by disease, but also through mistreatment and massacre, new reasons had to be found. The "science" of colonial domination was developed through the 19th century, greatly aided by Darwin's theory of evolution, which held that "survival of the fittest" was an impersonal law that cannot be altered. The ideology was already well developed when Adolf Hitler was still in short pants.

When I try to say something true, something that I believe, I find myself wondering why I think it's true--and whether I really do indeed think it's true. This trait has me hemming, hawing, and hesitating. In writing it has me taking laborious care to establish a foundation under what I say. (Well, except for this blog! It's more off the cuff. Although even here I find myself going slowly, thinking, typing.)

I hop from subject to subject, all connected, since some sub-point within one leads to the next. But it often takes me a long time to get back to an earlier branch in this garden of forking paths--if I ever get back there.

Somehow, this is how I operate.


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