B U R E A U O F P U B L I C S E C R E T S
Historians of civilization when they come to the eighteenth century almost always devote most space to France. The Age of Enlightenment is usually considered the period in which French thought dominated European culture. This is certainly true in a quantitative sense: Voltaire or Diderot must have been read by the greatest number of people, and we spontaneously think of eighteenth-century painting as represented by Boucher, Fragonard, or, at the best, Chardin this in spite of the fact that the Tiepolos, father and son, are greater painters. As philosophers the French philosophes seem pretty thin today, essentially popularizers. Their foundations go back to the seventeenth century, and not primarily to the Frenchman Descartes but to the Englishmen Locke and Newton.
Similarly with the novel. Nothing would appear in France to compare with the great English novels of the eighteenth century until Choderlos de Lacloss Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which was not an expression of the Age of Enlightenment, but its obituary.
Modern taste, corrupted by the undemanding narratives of television, the movies, and commercial fiction, may find Fielding, Smollett, and especially Richardson hard to read, but Laurence Sternes Tristram Shandy retains a wide measure of popularity. It may not be as popular today as David Copperfield, but it is certainly more popular than most other classic English fiction or than those favorites of our grandparents, Vanity Fair and Ivanhoe.
Dozens of books have been called the first modern novel. As expressions of the modern sensibility of alienation, the best claimants are doubtless the novels of Laclos and Stendhal; but in a most important way Tristram Shandy is modern, so modern that a very long time would elapse before anything else like it would appear.
If Websters The Duchess of Malfi can be called a play which assumes that the characters are performing not outside the mind but within it, Tristram Shandy is a drama of the mind itself.
It is a bucolic rather, a provincial-town comedy. It has often been pointed out that it is the very distillate of life in York still the regional capital that it had been in the Middle Ages, with its own circle of intellectuals, its own power structure, its own coffee houses and magazines, and its own cultural originality and autonomy. As such, the novel is a mirror of the greater London or Paris the great reflected in the little, and more sharply refined, as in a reducing glass. But it is more than this. It is, as Sterne said it was, in the face of hostile critics who have gone on to this very day accusing him of being a lewd and neurotic country clergyman, indeed a philosophical and moral work, and one of very considerable profundity.
As Sterne saw the workings of the mind, it functioned according to the philosophy of Locke as modified by the atomism of Newton. There was nothing in the mind that was not first in sensation, and each primitive sensation was a kind of atom. The sensations entered the mind through the senses and were combined to reach ever-ascending levels of complexity and abstraction. If this process could only be as orderly as the sorting mechanism of the mind itself, what would result would be a universe of strictly deductive logic, a kind of immense and even more closely structured Euclids Elements or Aquinass Summa Contra Gentiles.
But the atoms of experience, the primitive sense data, do not occur at the option of the mind; nor, since the mind is ultimately itself formed of its own material, is the process so logically efficient. In fact, it is all extraordinarily random. Sensation is fed to us in the most helter-skelter fashion. At the lower levels of mental activity we are at the mercy of the chances of association. We may well be even at the highest levels, even though we do not realize it. This is an elementary, psychologistic, definition of comedy itself. It is certainly very funny, the way we put together our individual pictures of the universe, and the way we go through the experience we call experience, and the way we emerge at the end.
Sternes contribution, and it is a very important one to psychology and epistemology, is the realization that the essence of the comedy of epistemology, the profound humor of what we call knowledge of reality, is the ungovernable disorder of Time. If Lockes sense data came to us marching one-two-three-four through our sense organs into our brains, as Newtons atoms move in matter or his planets go around the sun, Time would be simple, linear, and comprehensible but of course, they do not. We cannot measure experience by looking at the clock. Later philosophers were to distinguish something they call Organic Time; but this is a knowledge of process far more orderly than the comic disorder of Sternes narrative.
Joseph Conrads favorite narrator, Marlow, tells his tales with the natural switching and shifting of time of someone telling a story as it occurs to willed memory. In Proust, time dissolves and slows. Even the narrator, Marcel, is a character in a brain that is constantly trying to return the temporal process to its sources. James Joyces Ulysses takes place in a day. Finnegans Wake takes place in a single troubled dream, and all of Joyces experience is reflected and refracted in the brief circuits of a few revolving mirrors and prisms. But most of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. occur before he has any opinions, and a third before he has any life. He isnt born until far on in the book. Chapter after chapter goes by while the author struggles helplessly, in an inconsequential sequence in the narrative, to get two characters downstairs.
It was in discussing Sterne that Coleridge elaborated his famous definition of humor as the juxtaposition of the immense and important and the trivial and tiny in the real, in that reality which is always overshadowed by the infinite. Although he was offended, or at least said he was, by Sternes bawdry, he was well aware of its significance.
One famous and often analyzed passage is a case in point. It is a sentimental set piece far more effective than almost anything in the novels of Richardson or the paintings of Greuze, and it ends with mockery. Tristram is on his way by coach to Moulins and encounters the beautiful, blind, and brokenhearted Maria sitting upon a bank, playing her vespers upon her pipe, with her little goat beside her, driven mad with sorrow. Overcome with sentiment, Tristram stops the coach and seats himself beside the girl.
Maria lookd wistfully for some time at me, and then at her goatand then at meand then at her goat again, and so on, alternatelyWell, Maria, said I softlyWhat resemblance do you find?
All through this touching narrative, so full of melancholy, we know that Tristram has been getting sexually excited unbeknown to himself, and the climax of the excitement is the sharp realization of the absurdity of the act of procreation. Small wonder Coleridge picked this passage. He was acutely aware of the ridiculousness of coming to be and passing away. Coleridges private notebooks contain descriptions in the language of Kubla Khan of the colors and perfumes of his mornings chamber pot. Tristrams fathers discourse on the white bear is a thoroughly modern poem on the absurdity of our knowledge of the world:
My father took a single turn across the room, then sat down and finished the chapter.
The verbs auxiliary we are concerned in here, continued my father, are, am; was; have; had; do; did; make; made; suffer; shall; should; will; would; can; could; owe; ought; used; or is wont.And these varied with tenses, present, past, future, and conjugated with the verb see,or with these questions added to them;—Is it? Was it? Will it be? Would it be? May it be? Might it be? And these again put negatively, Is it not? Was it not? Ought it not?Or affirmatively,—It is; It was; It ought to be. Or chronologically,—Has it been always? Lately? How long ago?Or hypothetically,—If it was? If it was not? What would follow?If the French should beat the English? If the Sun go out of the Zodiac?
Now, by the right use and application of these, continued my father, in which a childs memory should be exercised, there is no one idea can enter his brain how barren soever, but a magazine of conceptions and conclusions may be drawn forth from it.Didst thou ever see a white bear? cried my father, turning his head round to Trim, who stood at the back of his chair:No, an please your honour, replied the corporal.But thou couldst discourse about one, Trim, said my father, in case of need?How is it possible, brother, quoth my uncle Toby, if the corporal never saw one?Tis the fact I want, replied my father,and the possibility of it is as follows.
A white bear! Very well. Have I ever seen one? Might I ever have seen one? Am I ever to see one? Ought I ever to have seen one? Or can I ever see one?
Would I had seen a white bear! (for how can I imagine it?)
If I should see a white bear, what should I say? If I should never see a white bear, what then?
If I never have, can, must or shall see a white bear alive; have I ever seen the skin of one? Did I ever see one painted?described? Have I never dreamed of one?
Did my father, mother, uncle, aunt, brothers or sisters, ever see a white bear? What would they give? How would they behave? How would the white bear have behaved? Is he wild? Tame? Terrible? Rough? Smooth?
Is the white bear worth seeing?—
Is there no sin in it?—
Is it better than a black one?
There is no essential difference between the circumstantial picture of the human condition in Sterne and that in the most anguished Existentialist, except that Sternes portrayal is far more elaborate and accurate, and he thinks its funny. There is an important distinction here, that between comedy and humor. There is nothing funny about the final aesthetic experience we get from Machiavellis Mandragola or Ben Jonsons Volpone, any more than there is in the one we get from No Exit. There is an immense amount of funny business along the way in the two older plays; but all three are comedies, and their look into chaos is bleak.
There is all sorts of pathos along the way in Tristram Shandy the saddest the death of Le Fever, where Sterne unquestionably surpasses Richardson or even Fielding, that great anti-sentimentalist. But Sterne, looking out like the Prince of the Fallen Angels over the chaos of the world, does what Satan could never do: he laughs, as Buddha laughed long before him at the vision of the compound infinitudes of universes in the Lankavatara Sutra. Certainly most people would think the conjunction of Sterne and Buddha as incongruous as anything in the novels of one or the sermons of the other; but the conclusion of the English country clergyman and provincial philosophe was the same as that of the founder of a world religion: an all-suffering compassion.
That is precisely what Sterne says is the message of Tristram Shandy. It is the constantly reiterated theme of his now-unread sermons, which were unique in a time when the pulpit in England was not distinguished for the identification of the clergy with the sufferings and the absurdities of the lives of the humble.
This essay is from Kenneth Rexroths Classics Revisited (copyright 1968 Kenneth Rexroth). Reproduced here by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
Classics Revisited and More Classics Revisited are both in print and available from New Directions. Do yourself a favor and get them.
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