Last week I witnessed a stellar example of what, for lack of a better phrase, I am calling ‘purposeful rambling’. Matt Webb’s Reboot 11 keynote – Scope – was the highlight of the two days. In it, he touched on the nature and purpose of design, Indian martial arts, superpowers, million-mile-long tomatoes, the space race and the power of grandiose, visionary thinking to change human history.
The goal of his talk was, I think, simple: to challenge the audience to better themselves – and by extension the world around them – by devoting 100 hours of their summer to learning a new skill. While this was inspiring in itself, it was the esotericism of his references and his skill at weaving them into a coherent narrative that truly excited. It could have been a ramble, in fact he may have wanted it to appear that way, but it was most definitely a ramble with a purpose.
Maybe we can describe it as the deliberate use of a miscellany of references – often unrelated at first sight – deftly unified. That’s one kind of rambling.
Another is the literary kind employed by W.G Sebald.
From Wikipedia: “(Sebald’s novels) are notable for their curious and wide-ranging mixture of fact (or apparent fact), recollection and fiction, often punctuated by indistinct black-and-white photographs, which are set in evocative counterpoint to the narrative rather than illustrating it directly.”
And from The Guardian: “It was necessary, he found, to approach this subject obliquely, and to invent a new literary form, part hybrid novel, part memoir and part travelogue, often involving the experiences of one “WG Sebald”, a German writer long settled in East Anglia.”
Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a bit of a thing for Sebald and I consider his untimely death one of the single greatest losses to literature.
Anyway. For me, Sebald’s rambling is purposeless. But it is a beautiful kind of purposelessness that allows for individual serendipity. What I mean with that is Sebald’s prose is often so opaque, so misty and unstuctured, that readers are left with no choice but to react instintively, as opposed to intellectually. It is this which imbues every page with something beyond purpose: meaning.
To try and shoehorn some saliency in here, I have been thinking of the Internet as the ultimate ramble. If you use it right, the Internet is simply one big Sebald novel. Unsure of itself, but magnificent and grand in scope and endlessly meaningful.
Any post referencing Sebald would not be worth its salt without a tinge of melancholy, so here is the title sequence to BBC2’s documentary series, Arena. I can’t watch this without being filled with a welter of incoherent memories of my childhood: