Living on the Diagonal

In Laurence Sterne’s extraordinary postmodern-before-its time novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Walter Shandy says of his brother Toby, who is contemplating marriage to the Widow Wadman, “he will never … be able to lie diagonally in his bed again as long as he lives.” To sleep diagonally in one’s bed is a form of nocturnal freedom not to be easily surrendered — it leads to fascinating dreams. Similarly, in James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses, after a crucial conversation between its two main characters, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, Stephen “beveled off” — he had much to think about. (Italics mine.)

One recalls, too, J.K. Rowling’s Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter novels — in particular The Chamber of Secrets — where apprentice wizards can purchase out-of-the-ordinary objects — wands, spell books, owl treats, charms — that make life magical and interesting. (Speaking of nocturnal freedom, Diagon Alley gives access to Knockturn Alley — another significant mondegreen.) Such divagations from the “straight and narrow” form the theme of the not-to-be-missed Alexander Payne movie Sideways in which a one-week wine-tasting trip leads to an unforeseen life-changing experience. It is the tangent that proves decisive in the enrichment of life, the tilt that rights the balance — or in the film’s vocabulary, the pinot noir that “can only grow…in tucked away corners of the world” replacing the cabernet sauvignon “which can just grow anywhere.” The title of the protagonist’s novel, The Day after Yesterday, considering his state of mind, is an elliptically evocative way of saying “today.” Even his given name, Miles, implies the longish, unplanned, sideways journey he has undertaken.

There is much to be said for living one’s life on the principle of the diagonal, a line from point A to point C, involving a slightly longer journey than a direct A-B path and allowing extra time for reflection and flanking awareness of the surrounding milieu. The shortest distance between two points is not always the best distance, considering what one may see and learn in steering an oblique course through life. In this regard a zigzag may be even better, although the leisure required to plot an anfractuous trajectory is always constrained by limits of time and the necessary degrees of efficiency and obligation. Moreover, the zigzag has a distinct downside; it is all too frequently an evasive tactic or a sign of indecisiveness.

We might say that a diagonal suggests, paradoxically, a circuitous route that is neither roundabout nor meandering. It is not a detour but the elongation of a direct journey, neither the shortest nor the longest distance between two points, but in many respects the most profitable. All in all, the diagonal represents a feasible compromise between waywardness and responsibility.

It functions in the same way as does raking light in painting and the art of restoration, defined in the National Gallery glossary as “a technique in which a painting is illuminated from one side only, at an oblique angle in relation to its surface,” in order to reveal surface texture and instances of cupping, warps, craquelure, incisions, unnoticed details and the like. It is informative. The problem, however, is that we like straight, face-on lines. We appreciate symmetry, which we equate with perfection. Why do we straighten pictures? The urge is irresistible. How often do we notice a picture hanging out of whack with the wall frame and stop to adjust it, creating a proper straight-line parallel?

Indeed, things that are crooked have a strongly pejorative connotation. We call malefactors “crooks.” We speak of reformed criminals “going straight.” The notion of our deeply flawed nature is expressed in Immanuel Kant’s indelible phrase, “the crooked timber of humanity,” adopted by Isaiah Berlin as a title for a book of political essays. The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men/Gang aft agley, in Robbie Burns’ famous line. Things go “out of kilter.” We are wary of “slippage” (e.g., in power transfers, financial instruments, word meanings). And so on.

As I’ve suggested elsewhere, we seem to be aesthetically programmed by the Fibonacci scale, a mathematical ratio in which each number is the sum of the previous two, producing what we feel as correct and necessary measures of harmony. Many of nature’s forms are rigidly governed by the Fibonacci sequence. Such is the case all along the natural spectrum from the sneezewort which lattices its petals 1,1, 2, 3, 5, 8, etc. to the generation of bees and rabbits, from microscopic DNA to the Parthenon to the Andromeda nebula. “This proportion,” remarks Theodore Andrea Cook in The Curves of Life, “is seen to prevail when the distance between salient points is measured.” It belongs to what antiquity called the Golden Number or the Golden Section (in which the lesser part is to the greater as the greater is to the whole). It plays a crucial role in our perception of physical beauty in human beings as well — the finely proportioned body, the symmetry of facial form and “chiselled” features we call “classic,” “handsome” or “lovely” — the Hollywood stock-in-trade.

And yet the experience of freedom and the sense of beauty are often felt as deviations from the expected — that is, from the “classic,” the pre-programmed, the inherent structures of response — which inform the pleasures of surprise: a rugged face that strays from the cosmetic norm, the leaning tower of Pisa that has its own attractive — and perilous — diagonality, the Capital Gate at Abu Dhabi and other such architectural “unicorns with just a hint of gravity-defying magic,” sleight-of-hand thaumaturgy, fugal complexities that seem to alter the melodic line, flowers that lean toward the sun, some of Picasso’s sharply angled drawings, the “shake ‘n bake” feint in the football backfield, the punch lines of jokes, reading Hamlet as “a ghost story with a twist” (as did an academic colleague), tacking against the current, and so on. These are all aspects of what I’m calling “diagonality,” the rectilinear with a ply, tracing a straight line at an angle, an amalgam of efficiency, beauty and freedom. For the straight or geodesic A-B line may leave too many ancillary facts and possibilities out of consideration. The diagonal is the optimal methodology, keeping the target in sight while approaching it steadily, yet remaining hospitable to the marginal and the unknown. The best work often gets done, so to speak, on the hypotenuse.

Of course, I am merely using a geometric metaphor, indulging in a Euclidian jeu d’esprit. Diagonality is a certain cast of mind that can be learned with experience and reflection, a way of negotiating one’s purpose by attending to the unprevisioned — something, perhaps, like Edward de Bono’s concept of “lateral thinking” (aiming at solutions via a sideways perspective) as opposed to “vertical thinking” (the straight, logical approach). The issue really has to do with the willingness to put one’s trust in serendipity, with the belief that in looking for one thing you will happen upon another that may be even more pertinent to the quest you’ve embarked on, with remaining open to possibility while diligently pursuing the mundane or pragmatic. It is what the great American poet Wallace Stevens called “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” There is always more than one way to pick up “inflections” and “innuendoes,” he suggests. You intend to carve a model airplane but, noticing certain peculiarities in the wood or errors in execution, you end up with a respectable camel. A cockpit can become a hump. A picture hanging askew may spark an unanticipated thought or insight as you go to straighten it, like this article, for example, which never would have occurred to me without that misaligned sketch of a Croatian village on the wall. As the Bible suggests, the angel visits if you are prepared to offer hospitality.

My friend Robert Hûbner, former German chess champion, ranked sixth in the world when we met, victor over Garry Kasparov in the 1992 Dortmund International Chess Tournament, master of twelve modern languages, as well as Greek and Latin, and a renowned papyrologist at the University of Cologne, scored “moron” status (IQ 51-70) on the Binet Scale during a military service test. One of the most intelligent men I have ever met, an undeniable genius, Robert’s “error” was his penchant for thinking outside the approved box, noting other possibilities beyond the parameters of the expected answers and questioning the aptness of the questions themselves. He looked at things “sideways.” I recall the summer when he was my guest on the Greek island of Alonissos. Armed with his portable magnetic chess set, Robert was preparing for an upcoming match. At my request, as we sat on the beach, he replayed game 31 of the famous 1927 chess championship contest between Capablanca and Alekhine in Buenos Aires. Noticing a crab scuttling sidelong between us, he remarked: “That’s how Capablanca might have won, a crab-like move with the pawn.” The pawn, of course, captures diagonally.

Our resident squirrel, Little Red, whose antics are a constant amusement — I call it watching Nutflix — never takes a direct bead from the pick-out stash we leave for him to his digs in the perimeter garden, but invariably describes a sharp diagonal before reaching his destination. Why he does this remains enigmatic — it doesn’t appear to be a survival strategy — but the crooked ellipse is the route he persists in tracing. Despite his lightning speed, there must be things he notices and maybe ponders along the way. In any case, if it’s good enough for Little Red, it’s good enough for me.