[Post post:] The Free Spirit of Laurence Sterne

“For in writing what I have set about, I shall confine myself neither to his [Horace’s] rules, nor to any man’s rules who ever lived.” (Tristram Shandy, Bk 1, Ch. iv.) 

“Nothing odd will do long; Tristram Shandy did not last.” (Dr. Johnsen’s premature obituary of Sterne’s novel to his friend Boswell, 1776)

“Anticipations of ‘the postmodernist literary aesthetic’ have duly been traced through the great modernists of the first half of the twentieth century–… through their nineteenth-century predecessors–…back to Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1767) and Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1615).” (John Barth, “The Literature of Replenishment: Postmodernist Fiction” from The Friday Book (p.195))

After my dear friend Peter Farnum’s selection (March, 2016) of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Voyeur, accompanied with that peculiar philosophical conundrum of his writing about a “new novel,” there was for me no question of putting off any longer my suggestion for the 2016 summer session: Laurence Sterne’s bizarre 18th-century novel Tristram Shandy.  Grateful I am to Ron Boothe for trusting my choice and not objecting to this peculiar backward glance at fustian literature.  Recently I did learn that, alas, Laurence Sterne (long a staple of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s ‘Syntopicon’ volumes) was one of the Classic authors demoted from the canon of The Great Books of the Western World.  Perhaps, some Tartuffian mogul of the Great Books committee discovered what a truly dangerous book it is. Maybe it will be a banned book in future times.

Post-this and -that

A “post-post” must sound redundant to you since our summer reading session of August 2016, but true to Sternean temporal narratives, one can never travel too far ahead without the inclination to pull up and go backwards  Therefore, I will post-haste strap myself into a postilion seat and whip the horses forward to catch up with my arrears.  My arrears? The projects of writings I had fully intended and have never executed, because other life needs preempted the aesthetic ones. And, by the bye, this posting is of the courier kind, fixed in glimmering pixels, and, I hope, not just some hasty afterword.  It is very important to finish well.  My sense is you will appreciate all that Nietzsche has to say about Sterne, appended at the conclusion of my words.

[As the narrator of Tristram Shandy encourages his readers, “To such, however, as do not choose to go as far back into these things, I can give no better advice, than that they skip over the remaining part of this [personal essay]; for I declare before-hand, ‘tis wrote only for the curious & inquisitive.” (TS Bk. 1, Ch. iv)]

 — u u —  — u u — — u u —  — u u —  — u u — — u u —  — u u —  — u u — — u u —  — u u —  — u u — — u u — ::::

Hold the Horses!

Regress I must.

In August some months ago now at Metronome Cafe, my dear friend Mohsen, the Friday morning after our August meeting, cupped his mouth to my ear and quietly questioned whether I was going to post another essay on The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.  Perhaps his was a subtle request because he wondered if I was still laboring mentally, i.e. being under the disruptive chemical imbalance apparent to some in my postings, i.e., since my “Mid-post.” [Ha! Ha! I did detect some might have thought them witless. “Sir, you might read again those few paragraphs.” Nevertheless, I apologize if they did not offend in some quaint Shandean way.]  As it was, I received Mohsen’s question as a kind and intimate request and finally I find time now to fulfil it.  Belatedly: Thank you, Mohsen, and thank you, Fellow Members, who journeyed by coach to Seattle to discuss my selection that beautiful August morning in the aerie of Peter Farnum.  Tristram Shandy did not disappoint those who chose to read it through, difficult and long as the reading might have been.  As the narrator noted: “Pliny the younger [did] affirm, ‘That he never read a book so bad, but he drew some profit from it.’”(TS, Bk 1, Ch. xx)

[Side-Bar: Post-truth   

To tell the truth, I am dismayed about words and sentences. From the morning news in the Eugene Register Guard (November 17, 2016) I read that the word of the year chosen by the committee of The Oxford English Dictionary is Post-Truth, as in “post-truth politics,” common during the 2015-2016 era of the Brexit discussions and Trumpist campaign, in which truthfulness has become irrelevant in most  communications media.  By the bye, the point of my “Mid-post” was that ideas struggle to come to light in words, and our words seldom represent the truth of our imagined thoughts.  The Lockean thought-to-word connection was at the heart of many disquisitions in Sterne’s witty stories. Re: Uncle Toby: “’Twas not by ideas,—-by Heaven; his life was put in jeopardy by words.”(TS, Bk 1, Ch. xxvi)] 

A Sentimental Post-ponement

In reality, a “gil4or” post-post is perhaps unnecessary.

If you haven’t looked lately, Ron Boothe has already post-posted two admirable essays: one on elements of temporal trickery, “strange-loops,” in the narration of Tristram Shandy; another, on the emotive power of sentimentalism which was an affective force in showcasing the importance—the virtue—of the odd-ball, beautiful, sensitive nature of Uncle Toby.  [I seriously hope no one thought Uncle Toby silly or homosexual, for, as I see the work, he was the example of manhood Sterne wished us all to aspire to.]  We all were surely expected to admire the humanity of both Toby and his valet Trim, who, like many a veteran of insane war, were both damaged men, bonded in soldiering, who truly loved one another “sentimentally.” In the Sternean sense it means a hybrid love, more “agapistic,” i.e. platonic, than erotic.  This sense is a very hard thing—especially these days—to employ in emotions, even for Laurence Sterne, who felt himself that the “sentimental” emotions as they grow more intense are inclined toward fulfilment of desire through physical connection.  Erotic tension is prevalent in many courting scenes throughout Tristram Shandy, but even more the case in Yorick’s adventures in A Sentimental Journey (1768). A hybrid or hermaphroditic term, “sentimentality” in Sterne’s inventive narrative is more a matter of heart/mind confluence, not the mawkish, soppy, pathetic, tear-jerking emotionalism we find it to be in our time

Long Wait

For decades during and following my graduate studies in Classical literature, I had read many references to Sterne’s masterpiece about the fantastic experimentation in novel writing and narrative variation, combined with the typographic and pictographic playfulness of this 18th-century work.  Italo Calvino asserted that Sterne was “the undoubted progenitor of all the avant-garde novels of our [20th] century.” Emblazoned in my brain was Friedrich Nietzsche’s praise of Sterne as the freest spirit in all literature: “Sterne is the most liberated spirit of all time.” (From the essay “Human, All Too Human,” [Go on! [This stuff is just my phuterings.] Skip and read the passages below!])

Studying in the University of Washington Library School (in 1989), for a research work in “History of the Book,” I had employed Sterne’s work for its bibliographical experimentation and typographical tricks, especially the white-space pages and imaginary text (e.g. the * * * * * * * starry passages).  During the summer of 1989 when I was working in the Houghton Library of Harvard University, I was privileged [what joy!] to behold, and hold in my hands, two sets of different issues of 19th century printings.  They were on the shelves of the Houghton’s Keats’ Library on the top floor. If you are ever in Cambridge, Mass., don’t pass up a visit to the Houghton Library, a world famous rare-books museum. [In fact, it was during that summer I was able to view and peruse T.S. Eliot’s manuscripts of The Waste Land, with penciled edits by Ezra Pound.]

Finally, a few years ago, with my wife’s companionship, I indulged in the first long read of Tristram Shandy, feeling almost afraid to get lost in its pleasures silently and alone. Reading Classics was a lonely enough pursuit, and so I did not want to paint myself into a solitary corner with more modern classics.  After years of communicating as a teacher to a student society, in retirement, it has been important for me to find greater, pleasurable social communication with my peers. In fact, through the experience of reading the dramatic, conversational masterpiece that is Tristram Shandy, Susan and I first encountered the pleasure and importance of simultaneous sight reading and audible comprehension. [N.B. The version read by Anton Lesser is well worth making the long novel an easy, rewarding second reading.]

Tristram Shandy is, as Ron Boothe describes in the tribute to Uncle Toby’s humanity, a very intimate work.  Sterne intended, wished, hoped for the work to be a conversation, a familiar exchange between the narrator and audience and yet the very nature of modern silent reading is personal, private comprehension and solitary empathizing.  In the 18th century, it may have been a family affair to hear the work recited by a reader, a drama that could be interrupted and discussed appreciatively for sense and affectivity or any particular commentary.  When Susan and I read it aloud, we spent much more time discussing what we noticed, felt, and comprehended than the time we spent in the time of actual reciting or dramatizing.  Naturally, we read it together over several months. How differently each reader thinks and feels while hearing or contemplating the very same passage of a text!  If one did not understand the point, the sense, the intention of many chapters of Sterne’s poly-tropic writing, one could always go back and peruse again before going forward.   Many a madam or sir was rebuked from time to time in Sterne’s ‘conversation’ for hastening too quickly through the thought-stream.  Going backward to go forward is no sin in reading Tristram Shandy.

Post-Script: Friedrich Nietzsche’s Panegyric for Sterne

In his famous aphoristic essay, “Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits” (1878), Friedrich Nietzsche sets Laurence Sterne on a pedestal.  The first printing in its time was a mere 1,000 copies.  Just as Tristram Shandy had to wait for the twentieth century to be noticed for the extraordinary literature work it was, Nietzsche’s essay was not truly available to English readers until the 1980s in the R. J. Hollingdale translation.

Copied below is a section of Part ll, 60-62: (From the online version ‘Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits,’ Part II, translated by Paul V. Cohn, BA)


In a book for free spirits, one cannot avoid mention of Laurence Sterne, the man whom Goethe honoured as the freest spirit of his century. May he be satisfied with the honour of being called the freest spirit of all times, in comparison with whom all others appear stiff, square-toed, intolerant, and downright boorish!  In his case we should not speak of the clear and rounded but of “the endless melody” if by this phrase we arrive at a name for an artistic style in which the definitive form is continually broken, thrust aside and transferred to the realm of the indefinite, so that it signifies one and the other at the same time.  Sterne is the great master of double entendre, this phrase being naturally used in a far wider sense than is commonly done when one applies it to sexual relations.  We may give up for lost the reader who always wants to know exactly what Sterne thinks about a matter*, and whether he be making a serious or a smiling face (for he can do both with one wrinkling of his features; he can be and even wishes to be right and wrong at the same moment, to interweave profundity and farce). His digressions are at once continuations and further developments of the story, his maxims contain a satire on all that is sententious, his dislike of seriousness is bound up with a disposition to take no matter merely externally and on the surface.

So, in the proper reader he arouses a feeling of uncertainty whether he be walking, lying, or standing, or feeling most closely akin to that of floating in air.  He, the most versatile of writers, communicates something of this versatility to his reader.  Yes, Sterne unexpectedly changes the parts and is often as much the reader as the author, his book being as a play within a play, a theatre audience before another theatre audience.  We must surrender at discretion to the mood of Sterne, although we cannot always expect it to be gracious. It is strangely instructive to see how so great a writer as Diderot has affected this double entendre of Sterne’s to be equally ambiguous; to be equally ambiguous throughout is just the Sternean super-humour. Did Diderot imitate, admire, ridicule, or parody Sterne in his Jacques le Fataliste? One cannot be exactly certain, and this uncertainty was perhaps intended by the author.  This very doubt makes the French unjust to the work of one of their first masters, one who need not be ashamed of comparison with any of the ancients or moderns.  For humour (and especially for this humorous attitude towards humour itself) the French are too serious.

Is it necessary to add that of all the great authors Sterne is the worst model, in fact, the inimitable author, and that even Diderot had to pay for his daring?  What the worthy Frenchmen, and before them some of the Greeks and Romans, aimed at and attained in prose is the very opposite of what Sterne aims at and attains. He raises himself as a masterly exception above all that artists in writing demand of themselves—propriety, reserve, character, steadfastness of purpose, comprehensiveness, perspicuity, good deportment in gait and feature.  Unfortunately, Sterne the man seems to have been only too close to Sterne the writer.  His squirrel-soul sprang with insatiable unrest from branch to branch; he knew what lies between sublimity and rascality; he had sat on every seat, always with unabashed watery eyes and mobile play of feature.  He was, if language does not revolt from such a combination of hard-hearted kindness, and in the midst of the joys of a grotesque and even corrupt imagination, he showed the bashful grace of innocence.  Such a carnal and spiritual hermaphroditism, such untrammeled wit penetrating into every vein and muscle, was never possessed by any other man.

(* “I know there are readers in the world, as well as many other good people in it, who are no readers at all,—who find themselves ill at ease, unless they are let into the whole secret from first to last, of everything which concerns you.” (TS, Bk.1, Ch. iv.)  “Writing, when properly managed (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation.  As no one, who knows what he is about in good company, would venture to talk all;–so no author, who understands the just boundaries of decorum and good-breeding, would presume to think all:  The truest respect which you can pay to the reader’s understanding, is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself.” (TS, Bk.1,             Ch.xxiv.))

David Gilmour (November, 2016)

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