Anxiety of Influence (i): Laurence Sterne
1 May 2003, around 8.07.
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is one of the best books ever published in English; it is an escapade in the best sense of the word, flouting conventions both visual and narrative, and bearing no further resemblance to the common eighteenth century novel than having once been printed on paper, bound between boards, and being seldom entirely read today.1 It defies classification and the dictates of genre; it plays games and frustrates all expectations; it is, as too few books are, active.2
This is all very fine, but is it literature? If the role of literature is to improve the reader, to lift him from his daily trials to a new and edifying understanding – purifying the reader of his habitual dross, as it were, and setting him down again, clean and fresh, to see the world anew – then Tristram Shandy is most emphatically not literature.3 It is a novel which plucks the reader up only to plunk him down, firmly, in the muck and mire of everyday life, with nary by-your-leave nor apology tendered.
All of that, of course, was simply a pompous way of asking: why is it worth reading? Why should anyone care to read a biography which says very little about the life its subject, and, despite its claims, shares very few of his opinions? Why should anybody bother to read a centuries-old ‘experimental’ novel, in which the sentences wander whither they will, often to the length of paragraphs, marked only with dashes and the sporadic semi-colon? Why should a reader put up with Sterne’s tricks – what’s the recompense?
One of the first things a reader notices about Tristram Shandy is its appearance; rather like its eponymous narrator, whose nose was crushed at birth, the dress of Sterne’s novel is, shall we say, distinctive. It is story in love with being a book; the black page of morning for Yorick, the motley page (the meaning of which I do not understand nor, I think, am meant to), the space left blank for the reader to provide his or her own description of the beauty of the Widow – all of these are forms of expression impossible without a page. The introversion of the book and the ‘self-awareness’ of its form – that is, its character as novel qua book rather than mere narration for the story-hour – is perhaps one of things which made it so attractive to the typographer Jan Tschichold. It is also unsettling, I suppose, for the reader, welcoming Tristram’s conversational tone, to be confronted with a foot-note, or a dash, or a row of ellipses; how, after all, is one to pronounce them?
It is, I admit, a curious sort of biography in which one seems to learn so little about the subject. Tristram, famously, is not the hero of his own life, and I find it fitting that he is not the hero of the book about that life. In this Tristram Shandy is a far more honest (though no less complicated) book than, say, David Copperfield or the novels of Smollett, Richardson, and Burney – or even, dare I say, Tom Jones. Indeed, as an account of the life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, narrated in the first person, Sterne’s novel is as straightforward as could be desired. His account begins, as most human lives do, with coitus, and ends, as also lives do, unexpectedly, with silence. The narrative time Sterne devotes to each stage of life in between reflects, in its own strange way, the relative perception of time felt by a child and an adult.4 Nearly a third of the book elapses before Tristram is born, another third at least concerns the birth itself (with attendant woes), but then it’s almost over – character cast, education acquired (or not), and the manner indelibly marked. That strange trip to France (with concomitant excurses) happens on the waning side of Tristram’s prime, but it could just as well have been at any time, last month, yesterday, tomorrow – it doesn’t matter to the narrative, just as, in life, it does not matter if one goes here or there in this year or that, suffice it that one goes. The major details are irrelevant – it’s in the habits, the cast of mind that Tristram’s life (or any life?) occurs.
Picky readers will want to know, though, why Sterne says so much about the opinions and habits of Tristram’s father and uncle, when the novel claims to be about Tristram’s ‘life and opinions.’ There is, I think, a very obvious answer for this; because Tristram is the narrator, everything Sterne presents us is filtered through Tristram – Tristram can, effectively, ‘choose’ what he wishes to tell the reader, and when he wishes to do so. Just as most people do not expect their friends to deliver, up front, a summary of their opinions, but become acquainted with those opinions (in all their oddity) over time through communication, so too Tristram reveals his opinions with his character sketches of Slop or Trim, or in the affectionate portraits of his father and Uncle Toby, or in citing French tracts on the baptism of the fetus. Exhausting it may be, direct it certainly is not; and Sterne pointedly addresses the reader’s expectations near the beginning:
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 every thing which concerns you.
The shift from the third to the second person is key, I think, to the character of the book; the ordinary novel speaks to the world at large, Tristram Shandy seemingly speaks to you (that second person singular), book in hand. Which is disconcerting, as though it were fan-fiction gone horribly wrong; but it is the original, and remains an original, centuries later.
L**d! said my mother, what is all this story about?—
A Cock and a Bull, said Yorick—And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard.
Behind those querulous interrogatives mentioned above, those simple-minded questions so superficially concerned with Tristram Shandy’s alleged literary merits, with its humor, its virtues and its vices, are much larger, more dangerous questions. Why does one bother to read at all? What does one look for when reading? What expectations does one have when facing a work of ‘literature’, a work of literature, too, which has survived (despite the doubts of Dr. Johnson) and exerted an influence on innumerable and disparate writers (James Joyce & Dave Eggers spring (improbably) to mind)? These – no matter what the critics may say – are personal questions, and the validity of any answer would be so narrowly limited as to be of dubious import, for there could be nor wrong nor right in them.5 More important than the answers are the questions themselves and the desire which drives one to ask them – without that, what would be the use in reading?6
- Background to this exercise [↩]
- Images (by various artists) are from the paper ‘From Sterne to Baldessari: The Illustration of Tristram Shandy, 1760–1996.’ Link has rotted & been removed. [↩]
- Then again, if literature be but entertainment, a level titillation which leaves no lasting mark, here again Tristram Shandy fails, for it at times seems almost dull, a quasi-dullness requiring some little effort to overcome. [↩]
- I wonder, too, if it expresses the fleetness of time perceived by a parent compared with the seemingly interminable process of growing up experience by the child. I do not know enough to say. [↩]
- One’s opinions on veracity might determine whether or not one agrees with the proposition that Tristram Shandy is an appropriate model for the on-line littérateur. [Link now password protected; and so removed.] [↩]
- I’ve tried to do too much here – my ambition has exceeded my capacities; believe that I know the weaknesses of substance contained above – the connections barely sketched, the notions mentioned once and soon forgot, the trembling on the verge of hyperbole – and forgive them, if you will. [↩]
2 May 2003, around 8.57.
It was very weak of Harold Biffen to come so near perishing of hunger as he did in the days when he was completing his novel. But he would have vastly preferred to eat and be satisfied had any method of obtaining food presented itself to him. He did not starve for the pleasure of the thing, I assure you. Pupils were difficult to get just now, and writing that he had sent to magazines had returned upon his hands. He pawned such of his possessions as he could spare, and he reduced his meals to the minimum. Nor was he uncheerful in his cold garret and with his empty stomach, for ‘Mr Bailey, Grocer,’ drew steadily to an end.
He worked very slowly. The book would make perhaps two volumes of ordinary novel size, but he had laboured over it for many months, patiently, affectionately, scrupulously. Each sentence was as good as he could make it, harmonious to the ear, with words of precious meaning skilfully set. Before sitting down to a chapter he planned it minutely in his mind; then he wrote a rough draft of it; then he elaborated the thing phrase by phrase. He had no thought of whether such toil would be recompensed in coin of the realm; nay, it was his conviction that, if with difficulty published, it could scarcely bring him money. The work must be significant, that was all he cared for. And he had no society of admiring friends to encourage him. Reardon understood the merit of the workmanship, but frankly owned that the book was repulsive to him. To the public it would be worse than repulsive — tedious, utterly uninteresting. No matter; it drew to its end.
—Gissing (2000.26, ch. 31)1
- cf. An exercise in the quantative. [↩]
A dark and stormy night
3 May 2003, around 8.04.
It is a melancholy thing, which none but those educated at a college can understand, to see the debilitated frames of the aspirants for academical honours; to mark the prime—the verdure—the glory—the life—of life wasted irrevocably away in a labor ineptiarum, which brings no harvest either to others or themselves. For the poet, the philosopher, the man of science, we can appreciate the recompence if we commiserate the sacrifice; from the darkness of their retreat there goes a light—from the silence of their studies there issues a voice, to illumine or convince. We can imagine them looking from their privations to the far visions of the future, and hugging to their hearts, in the strength of no unnatural vanity, the reward which their labours are certain hereafter to obtain. To those who can anticipate the vast dominions of immortality among men, what boots the sterility of the cabined and petty present? But the mere man of languages and learning—the machine of a memory heavily but unprofitably employed—the Columbus wasting at the galley oar the energies which should have discovered a world—for him there is no day-dream of the future, no grasp at the immortality of fame. Beyond the walls of his narrow room he knows no object; beyond the elucidation of a dead tongue he indulges no ambition; his life is one long school-day of lexicons and grammars—a fabric of ice, cautiously excluded from a single sunbeam—elaborately useless, ingeniously unprofitable; and leaving at the moment it melts away, not a single trace of the space it occupied, or the labour it cost.
– Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Pelham
5 May 2003, around 8.13.
I remembered the incident because the young man with the gray velvet coat dropped a note card on the bridge, swearing faintly as he chased the wind-driven scrap of knowledge (carefully color-coded in blue and black and red) along the sidewalk, before snatching it at last from the path of an on-coming cyclist. The incident I remembered had nothing to do with a gray velvet coat, or a cyclist, or anything other than a spring breeze stealing a note card from a young man on a sunny afternoon. It was quite some time ago and not the sort of thing I usually remember.
The young man then was but faintly known to me; we had been in the same class on Homer’s Odyssey, and I recalled his translations being very correct, very accurate, but devoid of passion (or, if you prefer, of poetry)— he knew what it meant, and no doubt could produce the Indo-european origin of every word, but whether he felt anything in reading the Odyssey which could not be got just as well from the side of a cereal box was not at all clear. But that is beside the point. He was walking that day head down, abstracted in his notecards, noticing neither the fineness of the weather, the unevenness of the pavement, or the breeze riffling the surface of the river beneath the bridge. Nor would he have done, had not his grasp on the cards been weak enough for the wind to tear the cards away, two or three, fluttering onto the sidewalk. He snatched up the two he could see, and continued on his way, somewhat faster than before; he had not noticed the third card, which landed at my feet. ‘particeps, participis, sharing in or with, partner, comrade, + gen,’ I read, amused. I picked up the card, on the back of which I saw a list of references (chapter & verse) to a Cicero text where this word occurred.
Had this been a novel or a film, such an incident would foreshadow some attachment or interaction between two characters—or at the very least point out their inability to communicate. This being real life, however, it signified nothing more than his inattention to his surroundings and my aversion to litter. I looked up from the card, to see if I could return it, but he had long since disappeared around a corner; I dropped the card in the next rubbish bin, and forgot about it until today.
6 May 2003, around 8.03.
- Link rotted; substitute information; and this might also be helpful or interesting [↩]
7 May 2003, around 8.08.
Tamburlaine. What god soever holds thee in his arms,
Giving thee nectar and ambrosia,
Behold me here, divine Zenocrate,
Raving, impatient, desperate and mad,
Breaking my steeled lance, with which I burst
The rusty beams of Janus’ temple doors,
Letting out death and tyrannising war,
To march with me under this bloody flag!
And, if thou pitiest Tamburlaine the Great,
Come down from heaven and live with me again!
Theridamas. Ah, good my lord, be patient! she is dead,
And all this raging cannot make her live.
If words might serve, our voice hath rent the air;
If tears, our eyes have watered all the earth;
If grief, our murdered hearts have strained forth blood.
Nothing prevails, for she is dead, my lord.
Tamburlaine. For she is dead! thy words do pierce my soul:
Ah, sweet Theridamas, say so no more;
Though she be dead, yet let me think she lives,
And feed my mind that dies for want of her.
Where’er her soul be, thou shalt stay with me,
Embalm’d with cassia, amber greece, and myrrh,
Not lapt in lead, but in a sheet of gold,
And, till I die, thou shalt not be interr’d.
Then in as rich a tomb as Mausolus
We both will rest and have one epitaph
Writ in as many several languages
As I have conqered kindoms with my sword.
This cursed town will I consume with fire,
Because this place bereft me of my love;
The houses, burnt, will look as if they mourn’d….
—Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine the Great, part II
II.iv.109 — 31.
An unusual occurence (1)
8 May 2003, around 8.02.
‘Ye gods and little fishes!’ cried Victor, ‘what the devil’s going on in here?’ He burst into the room where Frank sprawled upon the floor, pondering one of the Kleine Schriften der Österreichischen Akademie with more than his usual mirth. Victor halted at the door and looked down at Frank, aghast. Then he bolted from the room without waiting for an answer. From this Frank deduced Victor’s x-ray vision was acting up again.1
- Image from the frontispiece to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein. [↩]
9 May 2003, around 8.05.
A lyrical, a scholarly, a fastidious mind might have used seclusion and solitude to perfect its powers. Tennyson asked no better than to live with books in the heart of the country. But the mind of Elizabeth Barrett was lively and secular and satirical. She was no scholar. Books were to her not an end in themselves but a substitute for living. She raced through folios because she was forbidden to scamper on the grass. She wrestled with Aeschylus and Plato because it was out of the question that she should argue about politics with live men and women.
—Virginia Woolf (‘Aurora Leigh’, from
The Common Reader 2nd series)
But what I want to know is: how do you tell? How do you tell if you are a scholar or an escapist? How do you tell if books are your be-all and end-all or just a way of passing time?1 How do you tell? How can you tell?
- An ugly phrase, ‘passing time’, which always reminds me of its crude relative ‘passing water’, both being necessary and yet unmentionable. [↩]
The Fourteenth Part
12 May 2003, around 8.05.
On the edge of a distant district, down an obscure boulevard, he kept a small studio crammed with charming antiques and valuable paintings. Though he did not much like to talk about it, he was extremely talented both at the exact replication of important pieces of art and the stealthy exchange of his copies for the originals; the value of his collection had grown accordingly.
13 May 2003, around 8.09.
Gaston, however, was planted in his path on the way to the door. ‘And if she goes again and does the very same?’
‘The very same— ?’ Waterlow thought.
‘I mean something else as barbarous and as hard to bear.’
‘Well,’ said Waterlow, ‘you’ll at least have got rid of your family.’
—Henry James, ‘The Reverberator,’ ch. xiv (p. 185f.)
The Thirteenth Part
14 May 2003, around 8.08.
Xanthochroi, svelte from their xerophagy, were uninterested in xenagogical activities. Xeniality was by no means widespread; nor, it should be added, was geniality. Rather, the denizens wandered to and fro, up stairs and down, content to busy themselves only with themselves, giving never a thought to anything else. Thus were they deeply enraptured with their own personhood and tended their egos with that care usually reserved for the rarest heliotropes. Muriel naturally stood in awe and attempted—unsuccessfully—to emulate the natives’ unconcern; Rosemund—who passed her time in cafés, sipping coffee and munching pastries—achieved it.
The Fiendish Belly
15 May 2003, around 8.01.
How good one feels when one is full — how satisfied with ourselves and with the world! People who have tried it tell me that a clear conscience makes you very happy and contented; but a full stomach does the business quite as well, and is cheaper and more easily obtained. One feels so forgiving and generous after a substantial and well-digested meal — so noble-minded, so kindly hearted. It is very strange, this domination of our intellect by our digestive organs. We cannot work, we cannot think, unless our stomach wills so. It dictates our emotions, our passions. After eggs and bacon, it says ‘Work!’ After beefsteak and porter, it says, ‘Sleep!’ After a cup of tea (two spoonfuls for each cup, and don’t let it stand more than three minutes), it says to the brain, ‘Now, rise, and show your strength. Be eloquent, and deep, and tender; see, with a clear eye into Nature and into life; spread your white wings of quivering thought, and soar, a god-like spirit, over the whirling world beneath you, up through long lanes of flaming stars to the gates of eternity!’
—Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat
(2000.21), pp. 92–3.
The trouble with Shakespeare
18 May 2003, around 10.59.
The spirit of contrariety indulged in the boy, leads the man into serious quarrels, into brawls, fights, and duels. I have known a most tragic duel to arise from a dispute about a passage of Shakespeare. The parties were friends when they began. One quoted the passage, the other asserted he had misquoted it. Instead of referring to the book and good-naturedly settling it, they became angry and insulting. A duel ensued. One of the parties was killed. The other repented; but too late! He had killed his friend and for what a cause! He lost his senses, and passed all the years of his after-life, — and there were many, — in pacing up and down the cell of a mad-house, marking out the ground for a duel, and turning to fire. His steps wore a channel in the stone pavement. This duel, my young friends, and I may add, most duels, and most wars, too, began in a trifling dispute — a dispute that a gentle word would have ended.
—Catherine Sedgwick, Morals of Manners;
or, hints for young people (1846).
19 May 2003, around 7.48.
In a papyrologist’s dream world, every office would have a recent monograph devoted to it; so would every institution, every tax, every contract type, and so on. Many of these monographs, it must be admitted, are not very interesting to read, and most of them are undoubtedly cited far more often than they are read. It is as if every text to be edited presents a list of problems, and the editor who finds a monographic treatment of one of them can check if off as solved, requiring no further thought. When everything has been checked off, the document is finished.
—R.S. Bagnall (2003.58, p. 91)1
- cf. epistulae humaniores [↩]
31 May 2003, around 8.14.
From Francis Yates’s The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (p. 202):
The years of peaceful life in his native country came to an end for Comenius with the defeat of Frederick at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620 which meant, for Bohemia, the suppression of the national religion. The Bohemian Brethren were proscribed. In 1621 the little town where Comenius lived was captured by Spanish troops. His house was burned down and he lost his library and manuscripts. He fled…
Which brings to mind Cicero’s treatise de gloria, written during the last year of his life, of which only fragments remain. The poet (and personality) Petrarch had a copy of the de gloria, which was rare even in his day; he lent it to an acquaintance, who never returned it. Petrarch was not best pleased. But the acquaintance, too, had disappeared along with the manuscript.
While he was busy composing the de gloria, Cicero also wrote a work on friendship, the Laelius (or de amicitia). Of course, Cicero had always idealized the friendship between Laelius and that famous Scipio, even going so far as to suggest to Pompey that they (Pompey and Cicero), might play those parts again for the salvation of the Republic — Cicero as Laelius to Pompey’s Scipio. Scipio wept, though, at the destruction of Carthage, and quoted sad lines from the Iliad; Pompey was not so sentimental — or patriotic.
Delenda est Carthago! Another patriot, Cato. Those were the good old days, the glory days of butchery and brutality, before those millions of sesterces from the east flooded Rome with luxury and indolence. In those days, they worried about figs rather than tributes. The curia was just three days’ smooth sailing from Carthage, the figs still fresh. Though everyone knew Carthaginian figs were a successful transplant to Italy; Cato the censor grew them in his garden…
Quoth Pistol: ‘A figo for thy friendship … the fig of Spain!’ (III.6)