Absurdism, Books, Rhetoric

A fellow of infinite jest

Recently I summarised, dissected, reviewed and analysed Cervantes’s masterwork Don Quixote. It elicited a request for further classic works, more revered than read, to be so treated. Here, in a continuation of that public service, therefore, is my rumination on an English comic novel: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Lawrence Sterne, first published in York in 1759.

The Monty Python team once held an All-England Summarise Proust Competition in which the finalists were required to summarise A la recherche du Temps Perdu, once in swimsuit and once in evening dress. The Bolton Choral Society competed in song “Proust in his first book wrote about, wrote about, Proust in his first book wrote about, wrote about, Proust…” and their allotted fifteen seconds was up. The burden of summarising Tristram Shandy feels only slightly less foolhardy. It’s hard to know where to begin. The contributor to the Oxford Companion to English Literature hacked a summary only to give up in exasperation “in spite of the title, the book gives us very little of the life and nothing of the opinions of the nominal hero”. I will make an attempt, therefore, to summarise this novel in a number of ways.

  1. Tristram, the hero, is conceived on page one of volume one, born on 5th November 1718 in volume three, baptised shortly thereafter in volume four, circumcised/castrated in volume five, put into breeches in volume six, travels (many years later as an adult) around France in an anti-guide book gallop in volume seven, disappears from volume eight and by the end of volume nine, six hundred pages later, has reached the age of five.
  2. Tristram Shandy purports to be an autobiography by a first person narrator who, in his forties, sits down to write the story of his life. Tristram has a theory that life is a chain of infinite causes and no cause is too insignificant to be omitted. His mania for comprehensiveness requires that the description of each event has to be accompanied by a full description of its antecedents. And those antecedents have to be accompanied by the full description of its antecedents. In this way Tristram gets side-tracked by the many mishaps of his early years and creates a prose style, a study of the perils of regression, clogged up by its own method. In his elliptical narrative nothing is allowed to happen, each action is stopped in its tracks for yet another by-way to be explored or fact to be recorded or further anecdote to be started. The actual life story is deferred and deferred, stories pile up unfinished, stories are promised but never arrive. The narrator Tristram asserts there are “accounts to reconcile, anecdotes to pick up, inscriptions to make out, stories to weave in, traditions to sift, personages to call upon, panegyrics to paste up at this door….to sum up there are archives at every stage to be looked into, and rolls, records, documents, and needless genealogies…in short, there is no end of it.” Tristram writes in volume four “I am this month one whole year older that I was this time twelve-month…and no further now, than my first day’s life.
  3. Much of the novel then is digression upon events preceding the hero’s conception or occur whilst he is floating in utero. Or, perhaps more accurately, this is less digression, more regression. In this way he is a hero almost absent from his own text and the actual characters in this novel are his father Walter Shandy, mother Elizabeth, his uncle Toby and his servant Corporal Trim, Parson Yorick and the man mid-wife Dr Slop. Most of the action of the novel takes place in the parlour at the Shandy family home in a village outside York as the characters discuss and converse, ruminate and swap stories, reminisce and philosophise. Volumes eight and nine are broadly devoted to uncle Toby and his amours with the Widow Wadman, who lives up the lane. In this novel, as we proceed backwards, we barely move outside of a five mile radius of the home.
  4. Tristram has a method of writing and much of his text is given over to discussing this method. He invokes a profusion of literary models with quotations and citations ancient and modern: Locke, Plato, Plutarch, Seneca, the Bible, Virgil’s Aeneid, Epictetus, Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, Lucius, Cicero’s orations, Horace. Dr. John Burton of York’s Essay towards a Complete New System of Midwifery (1751) gets a good run. As does Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and Montaigne’s Essays and Hogarth’s The Analysis of Beauty. Tristram Shandy then is also an encyclopaedic work, gleaned from a range of texts, of citation, paraphrase, borrowing and straight plagiarism. Several scholars have claimed that what we have here is therefore less a novel and more modes of satire, or, from the tradition of learned wit. The actual characters of the book then may actually be: Rabelais, Cervantes, Montaigne and Robert Burton et al. Shall we for ever make new books by only pouring out of one vessel into another? Are we forever to be twisting, and untwisting the same rope?
  5. But it is not Tristram who is writing this text but Lawrence Sterne. Tristram may be writing modes of satire or engaging in learned wit, Sterne is writing a novel. If he delights in the guilty pleasure of plagiarism that is because of what he calls the Shandean method. Shandy is a Yorkshire dialect word meaning ‘crack-brained’. Scholars are under a duty to identify their sources, Shandeans are not: they have the freedom of the city of anarchy. The feeling for absurdity and the ludic had the upper hand in Sterne. The preface does not arrive for two hundred pages. Some chapters are a single sentence. One chapter finishes on a comma (volume four, chapter eleven). Volumes end and then new ones start in the middle of the same line of thought. One chapter is left blank for the reader to draw their own version of the Widow Wadman’s beauty (“as like your mistress as you can – as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you”). When Parson Yorick dies the next page is left black in condolence. A marbled page is included – which would have been unique in every copy – with a challenge thrown down to the reader to penetrate the moral in it. A character flourishes a stick and the movement is indicated by a squiggly line on the page. Another character crosses himself and this is signified as: +. In volume nine, chapters eighteen and nineteen go missing and return after chapter twenty five. This system, if it be a system, is one of total disorder. The pleasure here lies in the interruption of the action, the narrative is broken from first to last and the chain of events made incoherent. This is art giving full reign to playfulness, a preposterously exuberant comedy of nonsensical pointlessness: a surrealism of learned jumble. Neither logic, nor reason nor divine Providence has a hand in explaining this Shandean world. This is a novel devoted to fragmentation, disorder, chaos, madness and the ludic.
  6. The reader in the text. If you have read Shklovsky on Sterne…. Oh, sod it.

Let us compare the two authors:

Ostensible author:
Tristram recounts his (non) progress in “this scurvy and disastrous world of ours.” He complains that he is “the continual sport of what the world calls ‘Fortune.’” He tell us he was “begot and born to misfortunes.” With his mania for comprehensiveness he believes everything is connected to everything else. Life for him is a chain of infinite causes. His recounting of the events that occurred prior to his birth is an attempt to find meaning for all the mistakes that occur on the nights of his conception and birth. In the abyss of his woes and misfortune Tristram seeks the hand that guided the author of these blows. He is seeking explanations and to assign causes and to fathom what set in motion the train that lead to his mistreatment. He seeks meaning and order.

Actual author:
Sterne, on the other hand, is devoted to laughter and the wisdom of the comedic spirt. Laughter understands that the world is imperfect and all humans are subject to nothing more unfathomable than chance and contingency. With his Shandean method Sterne spins out an entire cosmic order. He deploys gaiety, irreverence, flippery, double-entendres. He delights in disorder, disjunction, conundrums and teases. There is no settled meaning to be discovered in this carnival of subversive and anarchic laughter. Sterne revels in absurdity and disorder.

The two authors may be telling the same story, but they are at theoretical loggerheads. Their two texts are word for word identical and the irony of the novel lies in the distance between the two philosophies.

Tristram shares with his father, Walter Shandy, the view that nothing is random or accidental. Walter is one of the great fictional natural and moral philosophers. He is a crazed system builder for whom everything is connected significantly to everything else. Walter has a number of all-consuming bizarre and absorbing theories:

  • His view is that a man’s abilities are influenced by the size of his nose, which is required to be large and attractive for any man to make his proper way in the world. Walter himself has written a Preface to a Metaphysic on Noses. He has high hopes for the, as yet unborn, Tristram’s nose. Although Mrs Shandy is content to be delivered by the local lady in the village, who usually assists in these matters, Walter requires Dr Slop, the man-midwife to perform the duties because of his supposed wide reading on the lax and liable state of a child’s cranium in parturition (another of Walter’s obsessions). When Mrs Shandy goes into labour in her bedroom, the servant Obadiah is slow to bring Dr Slop who, when he eventually arrives, is detained with digression and delay by Walter and uncle Toby as they dilly-dally downstairs. There is page after page of nonsense whilst Tristram’s poor mother lies neonate-in-waiting upstairs. Trim reads to the assembled crowd a complete sermon. Mrs Shandy is occasionally permitted a groan every other chapter or so. Dr Slop meanwhile has tied his obstetrical bag into many knots so it won’t rattle. But this further delays the production of an implement just as it is needed for Tristram’s birth. It takes too long to open the bag, and Tristram is born head first, all leading, with the obstetrical instrument, to the crushing of the lad’s nose and Walter’s hopes, who has to be taken to his bed prostrate. An eighteenth century rhinoplasty is conducted with some whalebone from a nearby corset and a line of cotton.
  • Walter has a key theory about names: the name directly influences a man’s character. He has carefully selected the name Trismegistus for his son. Trismegistus means thrice-greatest and as the Egyptian God Thoth is the inventor (among other things) of writing and dice. We, alas, are not holding in our hands The Life and Opinions of Tristmegistus Shandy. This name was selected by Walter as that which, given the problems at the birth, “shall bring all things to rights”. And on the day of his son’s baptism Walter delays too long upstairs selecting and donning the correct pair of breeches for so important a moment. “My father made all possible speed to find his breeches.” He sends Susannah the servant down with the name loosely on her tongue, she mis- pronounces Tristram-gistus, the curate mis-christens him Tristram. Which come from the latin word for sadness. And Walter says not a word but walks with composure out to his fish-pond.
  • Walter has anticipated exactly how Tristram’s young development will unfold and has charted it all in advance in a ridiculous monograph called the Tristra-paedia. “A system of education for me; collecting first for that purpose his own scattered thoughts, counsels and notions; and binding them together, so as to form an INSTITUTE for the government of my childhood and adolescence.” Tristram, for example, is to conjugate every word in the dictionary forwards and backwards. He is to be taken out of the hands of the women of the house and delivered to a private tutor. It sets out a strict system of education for his son. But Tristram grows much faster than the father’s book can be written. The boy has to be abandoned to his mother’s (unlearned) care whilst Walter heroically writes in a battle against time. He labours hard on his researches and writing, but too slowly for the lad. In this way it mirrors the book Tristram is writing: the boy outgrows the Tristra-paedia, whereas the novel outgrows the life of the boy.
  • Walter is one of the great mental maniacs. In discussing Walter’s mind Sterne gives us an early definition of what scientists now call confirmation bias: “It is the nature of an hypothesis, when once a man has conceived it, that it assimilates every thing to itself, as proper nourishment; and, from the first moment of your begetting it, it generally grows the stronger by everything you see, hear, read, or understand”. Walter sets much store by two axioms: first, that an ounce of a man’s wit was worth a ton of other people’s and secondly, that every man’s wit must come from his own soul. On this second axiom he was of the view that the soul took up residence in the body. Walter takes up enquiry to find out exactly where the soul is located. “Now, from the best accounts he had been able to get of this matter, he was satisfied it could not be where Descartes had fixed it upon the top of the pineal gland of the brain”. He had identified Descartes’ mistake upon being told by Toby a story he was told by a Walloon officer at the battle of Landen. A man had one part of his brain shot away by a musket-ball and a further part taken out by a French surgeon and afterwards recovered to do his duty very well indeed without it. If death is the separation of the soul from the body, and if people can walk about and do their business without brains, then the soul does not inhabit there. Q.E.D. says Walter.

Tristram is searching in all his father’s ratiocination and syllogisms for a definitive explanation of his own misfortunes. Sterne is showing us that fortune and misfortune lie merely in the random, in the mayhem of caprice.

Sterne time and again gives us his beloved Cervantes and Rabelais. From Don Quixote Dulcinea, Rosinante, Sancho Panza, Cid Hamet and the Knight of la Mancha himself all play a part. The befuddled overthinking by Don Quixote is reflected in Walter’s and uncle Toby’s hobby-horses. Stories (Le Fever in volume six and Slawkenbergius’s tale in volume four) are intruded by Sterne into his text in a very Cervantic way. Cervantes is referred to throughout as “my beloved Cervantes”. When Dr Slop gets a knife and cuts the knots to his obstetrical bag and through carelessness injures his hand he begins to swear. Walter “with a Cervantes-like earnestness” suggested that he curse less haphazardly and offered as a model the formula for excommunication by the Catholic Church, and there follows a few pages of discussion on this medieval learning. Rabelais, the French author of Gargantua and Pantegrual (1530s), was also one of Sterne’s favourite authors and is clearly another literary forebear. We are taken at one point with Pantegruel (fourth book) to the island of Ennasin (which means lacking nostrils) where all the inhabitants have noses shaped like the ace of clubs. And in another story with Panurge (the wandering trickster) to visit the Oracle of the Holly Bottle at Bacbuc near Cathay to ask the priestess the question “should Panurge marry of not”. Like all oracles she gives a gnomic answer “drinking is man”. (Rabelais has a Dionysiac linking of wine with laughter in the world.) Rabelais’ giant Gargantua had a philosophy that “laughter is the proper characteristic of mankind”. Rabelais evokes jest, bawdy, grossness, merriment, scatological and witty mischief with a delight in language, word play, puns and the subversiveness of the carnival. In Cervantes and Rabelais laughter has its own wisdom and lack of moral censure. It provokes us to look afresh at the world: a wise world of kaleidoscopic and exuberant comedy. Tristram Shandy is Sterne’s contribution to this ontology of laughter. A shandean philosophy forged within quixotic and gargantuan adventures.

Parson Yorick is clearly Sterne’s clerical alter-ego. Yorick is first seen astride a horse compared to Don Quixote’s Rocinante and soon after has a copy of Rabelais’ Gargantua in his right-hand coat pocket. These two indicators mark Yorick as Sterne. Sterne later published a novel about his travels on the continent under the title A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768) and Parson Yorick was the narrator taking this trip. With Shandean logic Parson Yorick’s death is described in volume one of Tristram Shandy but he speaks the very final words of the book. Sterne published a piece in a York newspaper under the pseudonym ‘Hamlet’. Yorick, of course, is the name of the King’s jester who appeared in Hamlet’s gravedigger scene as an exhumed skull. Sterne traces Parson’s Yorick’s ancestry back to the Danish king’s jester. Hamlet imagined the absolute meaning of the world was to be found in the empty eyes of a skull of a jester. If then we are to settle on a definition of the Shandean let it be that the wise are fools and the fools are wise, the shrewd observers in a world gone mad. Sterne’s skull itself managed some posthumous Yorick-like wandering. After the burial of Sterne’s body in London at St. George’s Hanover Square, an acquaintance of his was alarmed to see his resurrection on a Cambridge anatomical slab for a lecture by Sir Charles Collignon. Sterne’s corpse had been dug up by the Resurrection Men some days before and sold to the medical schools. It was hastily returned to the grave.

“Alas poor Yorick! I knew him Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?”

In 1969 when St. George’s was being re-developed a skull was identified as Sterne’s. It had the top sawn off and what remained matched a known bust by Nollekens. It was driven to Yorkshire in the back of a car by Kenneth Monkman and re-interred in St. Michael’s churchyard in Coxwold opposite the parsonage, now named Shandy Hall. It is not recorded what Mr Monkman thought when he peered into the empty eyes of a skull of a jester.

Walter’s brother, Uncle Toby, had his own self-absorbing hobby-horse. He only understood life through his experiences formed during his presence at the siege of the town of Namur in 1695. Every one of life’s problems is understood, by him, through the prism of the science of attacking fortified towns. But sweet Uncle Toby has great trouble explaining to others what happened at the Siege of Namur (especially where he received that terrible but obscure injury to his groin). Where Walter is pedantically learned, and Tristram maddeningly digressive, Toby’s troubles of explanation are down to his confusion of language. It is easier for Toby to show, not tell and he lovingly constructs in the grounds of Shandy Hall a model of the fortifications, in precise dimensions, of the siege in miniature. He melts down kitchen utensils from the house to re-cast into culverins and petards to accompany the ravelins and scallions. Corporal Trim takes the weights from the sash windows in the house and casts them into miniature cannons for the reconstruction of the siege on the bowling green. Tristram is nearly castrated himself when, as a boy, he urinates out of a window (his chamberpot has gone missing) that without warning falls shut. Is there no end to Tristram’s misadventures at the hands of his lunatic relations?

Sweet, gentle, uncle Toby, the former army Captain who is unable to hurt a fly, became a cult figure throughout Europe after the publication of the novel. Hazlitt said the characterisation of Toby was “one of the finest compliments ever paid to human nature”. In Germany in particular he was widely loved. A German ship named uncle Toby carried emigrants to New York throughout the later years of the nineteenth century. (Was the grandfather of Donald Trumpf on board?) Namur is not the only siege that uncle Toby experiences. The fair Widow Wadman comes a-wooing and seeks to circumvent the emotional fortifications surrounding Toby’s heart. The last two volumes contain a history of Widow Wadman’s attacks upon this befuddled noodle. Walter, ever helpful, writes to his brother a letter of explanation as to the true nature of women and love-making. Walter recommends the following when it comes to amour (something a number of us would do well to keep in mind): shave the top of the crown every four or five days, let not thy breeches be too tight or too loose, use a soft low tone of voice, avoid all facetiousness in discourse, suffer her not to look into Rabelais or Don Quixote (which are books that excite laughter and there is no passion so serious as lust), stick a pin in the bosom of thy shirt, lose a few ounces of blood from beneath the ears according to the practice of the Scythians, eat little or no goat’s flesh or red deer, abstain from peacocks, cranes and coots, but if thy stomach palls take from time to time a little of cucumbers and water-lillies. Armed with this useful letter of instruction (what could possibly go wrong?) in his coat-pocket, and dressed in scarlet breeches and his great ramallie-wig, Toby sallies forth and marches up the lane to the widow’s house to mark out the lines of circumvallation in preparation for the first skirmish. As it happens all Widow Wadman, in her concupiscence, wants to know is whether uncle Toby’s battle injury to the groin was merely a scratch or a full castration. She requests to see where he was wounded, and gentle Toby causes her to be given a map of Namur. “The knee is such a distance from the main body – whereas the groin, your honour knows, is upon the very curtin of the place.

Democritus was known in the ancient world as the Laughing Philosopher. Seneca relates that Democritus never appeared in public without laughing at human follies. Sterne, with his fondness for the absurd, is a candidate for the modern version of the Laughing Philosopher. Sterne’s characters labour in the lumberyards of their learning and profess themselves to be wise, only to be revealed as fools. The comic novelist laughs at the folly of all humans, but the laughter is especially reserved for the learned who heroically set out to deny that folly. Walter Shandy’s overly prescriptive schemes are frustrated by, or go awry because of, his own inattention. Adverse results are caused by the way he applies the learning he has scrupulously acquired to avoid these pitfalls. Walter and Uncle Toby (and Dr Pangloss and Don Quixote) are monomaniacs who see and understand the world though mental systems which the text that articulates them does its best to undermine. They self-deceivingly cling to their risible world views and doggedly plough on despite all evidence to the contrary. Sterne, with Rabelaisian wit and a Cervantic temper, reveals a loving ridicule for all this learning run riot, this learning floating free. Samuel Beckett was also known for his absurdity. The Theatre of the Absurd and the rise to prominence of absurdism in the post-war period gave its name to bleakness, despair and pointlessness. Waiting for Godot and Endgame, for example, take us to the very edge of reason and balance. Sterne’s deployment of absurdity is of a different hue. Within the spirit of the Shandean absurd Sterne locates gentleness, love, conversation, warmth, benevolence, story telling, pleasure and humanity. If Becket is an heir to Sterne, Sterne, with Shandean chronology, is a repost to Beckett. It is time to re-claim the absurd and to see it in a delicious, joyful ludic light.

This then is an heterogeneous, complex masterwork with its disjunctive conjunctions and I strongly recommend that you procure a copy. Although F.R. Leavis could not find a place for Tristram Shandy in The Great Tradition (it was for him irresponsible, nasty and trifling) when you have your copy in your hands you will hold the favourite book of Karl Marx and of Friedrich Neitzsche, who devoted a section of Human, All too Human to it. Lord Byron said of his Don JuanI mean for it a poetic T Shandy”. Viktor Shklovsky and the Russian Formalists loved it. Bertrand Russell in his Principiia Mathematica named a paradox after it. Goethe described Sterne as the most liberated spirit of the century. Gogol and Pushkin found room for Shandean expression in their work. Schopenhauer regarded it as one of the four greatest novels ever written and offered to personally translate it into German. Hogarth painted two frontispieces for it. Denis Diderot’s novel Jacques the Fatalist and his Master begins where the nineteenth chapter of volume eight of Tristram Shandy ends.

And all this from a story about a Yorkshire family and what nonsense they said to each other in the parlour of a house, and on its bowling green outside, in a village not far from York.


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