The Reverend Hellfire returns from a well-earned sabbatical with this classic philosophical essay..

A Readers’ Digress <REDUX>


How’s this week’s sermon going, Reverend?”,

a well-wisher asked today.

“Oh..Well, you know.. Actually it’s on the back burner”, I responded vaguely, “but I have been making excellent progress on my project to turn the Digression in Literature into a respected Art form“.


“That I can well believe”, muttered my jaded friend,

with what I felt to be unwarranted cynicism.

“No, I’m serious“, I declared passionately, “I believe that the Digression has been seriously undervalued as a Literary Device, and I intend to re-invigorate the Form!”

“For example”, I continued, elucidating my theory further,

“For example..Did you know, that in 1852,

Hermann von Helmholtz discovered that

the Speed of Electricity in Frogs is 27 metres per second?

A fact he discovered, naturally, by sewing a whole bunch of frogs together and running an electric current through them”.

“Good God!” exclaimed my appalled (vegetarian) friend,

“Why on Earth did he do that?”

“I have no idea”, I replied blithely, “it’s just the sort of thing scientists get up to when they’re left unattended, I suppose. It isn’t really relevant to what

 we’re talking about anyway”.

“Then why mention it at all”, muttered my overly-sensitive friend, still clearly disturbed by visions of old Professor von Helmholtz sitting at an old foot-pedalled Singer Sewing Machine, industriously stitching frogs together..

“I have no idea. Possibly it will have some relevance later on in the conversation. I might have reason to refer back to it later on to illustrate another point or augment an argument I may subsequently come to make in the Future. In which case the Story I’m expounding will gain new resonances and develop subtle harmonic relationships between the various elements of the Plot, such as it is.”

“Yes”, I continued pompously, “I’ve learned to trust my brain’s subconscious processes in the selection of material it tosses up, often seemingly at random, but ultimately a Pattern usually emerges. Often, tho I say it myself, a Pattern of great Elegance & Subtlety”.

“And even if that little digression doesn’t prove to be relevant

in the fullness of Time, nonetheless it performs

an essential function in the Art of Story Telling“.

“Oh really”, sneered my disbelieving associate,

“What as? Filler?”

“More than mere ‘Filler’ my friend!

The Digression plays an active part in defining

the Parameters of Relevance. Further, the Aesthetic Effect is not to be disregarded either; a well placed Digression

can add considerably to a story’s Charm and Individuality.

Take for example, ‘the Shaggy Dog Story’,

arguably the Digression’s most developed literary form.

In the “Shaggy Dog” the key to a successful Digression is to maintain the tenuous thread of Relevance almost to breaking point.

This creates a kind of pleasurable tension between

the Digression, and the Story’s inherent tendency to Progress.


The Principle is similar to that which Music operates by,

which depends on patterns of alternating Tension and Release.

This Tension and Release is created through

using Dissonance and Resolution to create a sense

of Momentum overcoming Inertia. The interest for our ears is in the Struggle of the various Forces at play, as, for example, when the Melody tries to wiggle it’s way through all the obstacles to a conclusion. Failing, it falls back to the bass note and tries again and thus the great Wheel of Life turns..

Now, whereas Music is based on Dissonance and Resolution,

Literature relies on the dynamic interplay of Digress and Progress to achieve similar aesthetic effects.

Indeed Progress and Digress might be considered the

Yin and Yang of Story telling,

or, more prosaically, they are the Woof and Weave

upon which the whole Tapestry of Literature

is woven, stretching from Tristan Shandy

to Game of Thrones (aka, “The Never-Ending Story”).

Or perhaps Digress and Progress are more like

Conjoined Twins,always fighting and clawing

to tear themselves apart, but forever inexorably shackled by the same flesh.”


“Can you please think of another Metaphor”, asked my friend,

a vegetarian, who was starting to look a little nauseous.

“Ok how about this then; they’re like Boxing Kangaroos?

Of course Kangaroos don’t really box,

they just kick with their back legs.

Well I suppose it could be considered akin to Kickboxing,

or maybe Thai-Boxing..I think they use their feet

in those styles too. Not that Kangaroos actually have feet either, now I come to think of it,

they’re more like elongated paws.

In fact, it’s not very patriotic, Kangaroos doing Thai-Boxing..

just doesn’t seem right somehow. Not very Team Australia,

if you know what I mean. So lets forget the whole analogy

and stick to the tension/release thing.

But of course, here as elsewhere, Art*slash*Literature does no more than Imitate Life Itself! Think about it!

For in Truth, for each of us, our whole Life is nothing

but a series of sequential Digressions!

I mean take Television for example. One minute you’re watching a documentary on the Pyramids or Agatha Christie is about to denoue somebody in the parlour,

then, whap! You’re suddenly whacked sideways by

a Commercial for Prostate Cancer! What is that

but a complete “dick-around” of a Digression!”

“I’m not sure Television Commercials count

as either Life or Art“, demurred my fragile friend,

but I was up on my High Horse by now, and

had already ridden off a considerable distance beyond

hearing range..(Possibly the same Range

those Cowboys are always singing about.)


“Boomers and Boosters keep going on about Progress”,

I orated, my eyes alight with an inner Fire and fixed on a Far Horizon, “but if you ask me I think this is all an Illusion. Or possibly a Delusion, I’m not really sure what the difference is technically speaking.

But, yes I believe the Human Race is actually Digressing,

not Progressing, and we’re actually getting further and further away from the Point of Whatever it is Life is supposed to be All About.”

“I can just picture Baby Jebus sitting round up there in Heaven,

waiting for the Apocalypse to roll around so he can get on

with judging the Quick and the Dead,

but Humanity just keeps on procrastinating

and getting Distracted, you know,

asking irrelevant questions like,

Well, but what about Buddhism then?

Maybe we should give that a go for a few Centuries?”,


“How about we investigate the speed of Electricity in Frogs?

That’ll help kill the time till the Industrial Revolution?”

..to the point where the whole Rapture is well overdue,

and Jebus is all like,

Time Gentlemen, please. Finish your drinks!

and did you notice how good old Professor Helmholtz’s

frogs have worked their way back into the conversation?

Ha! And I’ll bet you thought they were irrelevant!”,

I exclaimed triumphantly, “in fact the case of Professor

von Hemholtz and the electric frogs illustrates

 my point perfectly!”.

“Consider!” I continued, quickly covering my friend’s mouth with the palm of my hand, “Here’s old Prof HVH, a respected Scientist famous for his many (other) contributions to our

understanding of the Forces of Electricity.

So Famous he even appears on stamps (and Lord knows how we’re going to be able to celebrate the Lives of our Famous Scientists & Sporting Heroes when the

facile email of tomorrow totally replaces

the lovingly hand-written missives of yester-year

and there are no more stamps.

Its the stamp collectors I feel sorry for, though I imagine

their stamp collection’s Value will rise astronomically;

{Wise Investor say; Stuff Real Estate! Buy Stamps!

They’re not making anymore}).

And yet this “Great Man of Science” (that’s Professor Helmholtz in case you’ve you’ve forgotten) nonetheless

was human enough to totally digress from

his epoch creating scientific work, and find the time

to f**k around and see how fast he could run an electric current through frogs. 

(Exactly what practical applications could be

derived from this line of research I shudder to consider..

Let’s just say that it’s not the sort of thing they give

Nobel Prizes for)“.

“I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying”,

my weary friend moaned.

“Oh it probably doesn’t mean anything at all”,

I reassured him,”By this stage I don’t even know

what I’m saying anymore,

I just like the sound of the Words”.

“Don’t you have a Sermon to write?” he snapped at last.

“Not anymore”, I assured him,”not anymore”.



The Reverend Hellfire..

he’s a much nicer person

than the people who hate him.



~ by reverendhellfire on December 4, 2017.

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