Fight for the Right to Ramble


Mass shootings are interesting – horrifically so – because they escape the mold of social crime (the “prison-industrial complex”) and flow from the psychoses of an individual. They have given rise to fitful ideological intercourse about gun control, autonomy, and how we should talk about the issue. I discussed the first two items on that list (however briefly) in my previous post, and now I’d like to touch on the final one.

High-profile mass killers tend to leave behind manifestos justifying or explaining their intent. Off the top of my head, I can think of Dylann Roof, Elliot Rodger, and Christopher Dorner (the rogue LAPD officer: not really a mass killer, but treated like one). The content of these reports is, in most cases, unconscionable. But it is striking that when stories about the manifestos do break, they are described, almost invariably, as “rambling,” as in “a rambling 5,000-word account entitled ‘God’s Plan For Me.'”

From the limited sample of such “literature” I have read, that description is quite accurate. Deep in their psychoses and paranoias, the perpetrators have little time for concise argument. Historically, we’ve seen more eloquent defenders of racism than Dylann Roof. Better rhetoricians than Elliot Rodger have advocated for patriarchy. But why are journalists and other observers so eager to apply the word “rambling” to the writings of depraved individuals? Since when has a literary ramble become associated with sick, twisted thinking?

This must sound quite petty and nit-picky, but it points to a deep and pervasive trap that has befallen the world of words. Namely, we’ve entered into an era of Orwellian Newspeak, of abbreviated language and meaning. But there’s no Big Brother, no repressive authority demanding we edit down our dictionaries. We’re doing it to ourselves. We need to stop and think, maybe leave the building and go for a little ramble round the block.

See, the word ramble means “to walk or go from one place to another place without a specific goal, purpose, or direction.” (That’s from Merriam-Webster.) Rambling is the domain of the transient, the wanderer, the pilgrim: a romantic type, prone to sudden outbursts of poetry mediated by spells in drinking holes and houses of ill repute (or, perhaps, country churches). The ramble excites a venturesome, individualistic part of the human mind, making it a favored plot device of novelists and screenwriters. To ramble is to cut fetters and be free.

That’s why I’m suspicious of any attempt to criminalize the ramble, especially in writing. The fact that someone chose to write in a rambling fashion doesn’t diminish the content’s truth or falsehood. In many cases, a roundabout and indirect path to meaning sets the reader on an emotional or intellectual journey. All good fiction rambles. An abstract summary of a novel’s “meaning” might help booksellers, but it’s not what the reader comes for. Even the great expository and scientific works of bygone eras rambled to a sometimes preposterous degree. That’s because the author felt those topics were important, even if we do not.

Maybe I’m giving the ramblers undue credit. In professional and business circles, rambling just doesn’t work, and many literary ramblers simply lack the talent to sharpen their prose. But editorial passion for concision can overextend itself, cutting into subtlety. And user-friendliness advocates have released a torrent of abbreviated listicles, self-help pieces, and trivia features. These aren’t necessarily bad, but they can be very limiting.

We have entered, for better or worse, the age of the brainstorm. The belief that sudden flashes of insight can be had by sitting down and working at thought until the picture pops into focus. There’s a lot to be said for the brainstorm, but I don’t think it can be complete without the meditative ramble. The one complements the other. The off-topic ramble may be impotent without the brainstorm’s aggression, but the brainstorm lacks perspective without the ramble, the meditation, the silent moment. I think we have the brainstorm down, but society could use some rambling practice.

In conclusion. Maybe citing the manifestos of mass shooters isn’t the right tactic to promote something I think is positive. Or maybe we really are in a struggle to preserve and extend the diversity of language, to feel confident writing something that doesn’t score well on SEO and won’t attract a tribe of people who want to live better. Maybe this isn’t a joke and I mean what I say. Or maybe it’s just a ramble.

Photo credit: Tanti Ruwani via Flickr