Monday, 20 November 2017

Of Infinite Jest

In 1759 Laurence Sterne published the first two volumes of a novel, Tristram Shandy, which was to revolutionize the art of novel-writing.  The grand Homeric horizons of the literary heroic mode—or English imitations of it—had, by the eighteenth century, retreated to a smaller, more modest scale: the comic epic.  The eighteenth century proved adept at turning out these, Pope’s Rape of the Lock earlier in the age being a prime example.  Domesticity to the degree Sterne made use of it was nonetheless unusual.    The action of Tristram Shandy hardly sets foot outside the precincts of Walter Shandy’s cottage or his brother Toby’s garden, but in terms of imagination it knows no bounds.  All of history is its purview.  Not only that but the historical and philosophical discourses when they come take the form of so many digressions or disquisitions, occurring in the most mundane of circumstances, as when somebody or other of the Shandy family is lighting a candle or has paused at the turn of a stair.   The narrator thinks nothing of leaving them stranded in that position for pages till he returns to them and their story again.  Zany is the word we now use about his art.

The Works of Laurence Sterne. Vol 1-10 (1780) (Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Exactly what gave Sterne his impetus to start composing Tristram Shandy is anybody’s guess.  Soon after beginning his account, he mentions Voltaire’s Candide, which had been published earlier that same year.  Voltaire is very funny but his humour is unlike that of Sterne.  Where Voltaire milks a vein of satire from first to last, Sterne is ironic rather than satirical, and much gentler.   Voltaire writes with brio, he bowls along and takes you into extraordinary places, with a Rabelaisian sense of the grossness and vastness of things—above all, human folly.  Sterne no doubt responded to this, especially to Voltaire’s amazing sense of pace.  Tristram Shandy whistles along, even though its characters and their circumstances seem to stand forever still.  Time, which for Voltaire is a process of fast unfolding, in Sterne goes anywhere rather than straightforwardly forward, as it were.   Both are novelists of ideas, but whereas Voltaire like so many satirists of the eighteenth century sees as his mission the correction of human folly, for Sterne folly is itself the means to salvation.  In this he is closer in spirit to Erasmus and his Praise of Folly, though he appears to lack the underpinnings of Christian doctrine that Erasmus, in his offbeat way, sought to revitalize.
In terms of affinity, there are other comic writers with whom Sterne is perceived as having more in common, Rabelais himself of course but also Cervantes.  Rabelais, with his medical student’s sense of humour, emphasizes the body and bodily functions.  The colossal scale of the giants Gargantua and Pantagruel produces one kind of extravagance, but operating at another level we find the mischievous, Puckish Panurge, who makes ordinary-sized bodies also the occasion of weird japes.  The nature of the body, the peculiarities of its various nervous systems, the embarrassments to which it is prone, are all grist to the Sternian comic mill, whether in the form of Slawkenbergius and noses (fairly heavy innuendo there) or in that of the infant Tristram’s painful, involuntary circumcision, following an encounter with a sash window.
However, since the action, such as it is, of Tristram Shandy does not involve Rabelaisian giants but ordinary men and women, no matter how odd or eccentric, then the previous-age author who comes closest to him in spirit is Cervantes for whom Sterne felt an especial affection.   Cervantes has a strain of melancholy in his romance that is very like the sensibility of Sterne. Both Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy are constructed in part on antinomian principles.  For Quixote and Sancho Panza read Walter and Toby Shandy.  Walter’s irascible temperament, his ceaseless, idealistic search for universal knowledge, his remaining constantly in an unbearable state of frustration, contrast fully with his brother’s equanimity and resignation to circumstance.  Toby’s ability to ease the tension he feels by whistling a few bars of Lillibulero is calmly of a piece with his unwavering determination to ride a single hobby-horse, which takes the form of the reconstruction—to scale in his little garden—of the Siege of Namur, where he has suffered a calamitous wound (in the groin, of course).  Uncle Toby’s courtship of the Widow Wadman (or is it the other way round?) is accordingly doomed never to come to fruition, though much gentle humour is had by the widow’s trying to find out just what it is that accounts for Uncle Toby’s diffidence.  
Birth and death are two other controlling antinomies.  The novel begins memorably with the moment of Tristram’s conception, when Mrs Shandy asks her husband if he has wound up the clock, showing a preoccupation with instruments of measurement which recurs frequently in the novel, and which reflects the mechanistic age in which it was written.  The question almost puts Walter Shandy off his stroke.   As we grow more and more acquainted with the little Shandean universe, we encounter the other side of procreativity, for we learn almost as an aside of the death of Tristram’s brother Bobby, an event that, though occurring unobtrusively and at a distance, casts a long shadow over everything.  
Ideas proliferate in Tristram Shandy, discussion of them usually being initiated by Walter Shandy.  After his success with the novel Sterne travelled in Europe, and found inspiration for another much shorter novel, published less than a month before his death, and which he called A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy.  In spite of ‘through France and Italy’ the narrative only gets as far as France, for health and domestic affairs drew him home sooner than he had hoped.  The representation of ideas in the larger novel owes much to the philosophy of John Locke, who argued that the sensations are responsible for our acquiring knowledge, and that knowledge in turn is built up by the association of ideas.   In Sterne’s Quixotic application of this the associations of ideas simply means getting off the point, as happens to each character in turn and to the narrative itself.  But in A Sentimental Journey the story is driven chiefly by a singly idea: charity.  The narrator this time is Parson Yorick, a minor character in Tristram Shandy, but one who is now an extension of Sterne himself, posing as the Englishman (or English clergyman) abroad.  

Image from 'A sentimental journey through France and Italy.' (Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

In his travels through France en route to Paris, Yorick meets a selection of characters, some of whom are beggars, as befits the notion of charity, some military or diplomatic figures, some hotel servants, shopkeepers, and policemen, but the largest and most significant part of whom are women.   The ‘sentimental’ character, which Yorick prides himself on, is a charitable one.  He is happy—more or less—to give alms to a Franciscan but his finer feelings are stirred by the plight of a fair lady.  Yorick easily confuses the Pauline word for charitable love (agape) with that for sexual love (eros).  At times he seems to know what he is doing, at other times he remains in blissful ignorance, as when he buys rather more pairs of gloves than he had bargained for from a beautiful grisset of irresistible charms.  His naivety produces one of the novel’s funniest jokes.    In Paris he sees streams of women all handing a sum of money to an apparent beggar, ‘a tall figure of a philosophic serious, adust look’.  He is about to hand the man ‘a sou or two’ in his turn but the latter ignores him.   He asks money only of women and not at all of men.  Yorick never quite grasps what the true occupation of this man is nor the fact that virtually every woman in Paris is on the game.
Plagued by ill health, Sterne died of tuberculosis in 1768, the very year in which A Sentimental Journey was published.  The ninth and final volume of Tristram Shandy had come out the year before.  
He knew immense fame but his personal enjoyment of it lasted less than a decade.  Walter Shandy would have made a lugubrious aphorism out of that.

Written by Prof. John Roe (English and Related Literature)

The Library is celebrating the 250th anniversary of the publication of the 9th volume of Tristram Shandy with an exhibition of items from the Library collections, on the ground floor of the Fairhurst.
There will also be a talk by Mr Patrick Wildgust, of the Laurence Sterne Trust, on Tuesday 28th November. Book tickets for this event

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