Wednesday 19 April 2023

My thoughts on re-reading Tristram Shandy

When I saw that The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was one of the books on the Dr Johnson Reading Circle list, I rubbed my hands gleefully. I’ve read the book before, even covered it on this site but it’s been a long time and I’ve read a lot since then.

Specifically, I’ve read a lot of the books that influenced Sterne. From Locke’s An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, which he mainly used as a framework to joke from, to Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Montaigne’s Essays and Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel. Did any of those books help me reread Tristram Shandy? No. But they did help me understand where he was coming from. 

Locke and Burton are examples of two completely different kinds of knowledge. Burton follows the humanist/scholastic tradition of knowledge by authority. Someone at the Reading Circle explained it best when they said it was knowledge that worked like legal precedent, a thing is true because it can be cited in a former text that is drawn from previous ones. The Slawkenburgis book about noses is just a nasal version of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, a compendium of all the things previously said, synthesised and interpreted by a wise (and frequently funny) curator of knowledge. Locke is the opposite, reasoning some things out from principles but chiefly desiring to observe and test, a version of psychology with a greater empirical emphasis that Burton. 

What Sterne does is expose the flaws in both approaches to knowledge and psychology. He partly does this for the fun to be had but he is not saying that all knowledge is impossible, only that knowledge is limited by out human flaws. Flaws Sterne uses in the book to amuse, but also draw our sympathies.

There’s hardly a kindlier character than Uncle Toby, the man who would literally not hurt a fly despite his obsession with military fortifications (though as Tristram says, Toby is obsessed with the defensive, protective aspects of war, not the aggressive or attacking). He’s so kind that even the genuinely belligerent and insufferably argumentative Walter Shandy can’t help feeling for him. In re-reading, I found Toby’s relationship with Trim to be well-developed and sweet. I liked Trim more in general, how he is no-nonsense and all-nonsense at the same time. How quick he is to cry when he thinks of his brother Tom or the poor soldier Le Fever. When he cries, he asks Toby what’s wrong with him? Toby replies it’s “nothing in the world…but thou art a good natured fellow”. Sometimes Trim and Toby lose a story between them, like the one about the King of Bohemia but they are not only brothers in arms but brothers in spirit and it’s a relationship that heals them both. What’s more, in characters like Toby and Trim that we see Sterne using the flaws, idiocies and limitations of the characters to love them. 

In the Reading Circle, there was an argument that Tristram Shandy is a nihilistic, heartless book, which I found very surprising as to me the book seems to be full of heart. Every character in the book is broken, every action or communication is liable to fall apart or be lost in the gulfs between the character’s interior lives - but this isn’t a source of cruelty. If anything, the message of Tristram Shandy is that the thing that binds us humans together is that we are all broken and lost and flailing. We live small lives full of knots and rusty door hinges and miscommunication and that is what makes us loveable. 

Another accusation that was levelled at Tristram Shandy is that it had a limited view of life, that people should aspire to more than the petty dramas depicted in the book. I’m not sure what’s so wrong with a normal life - it’s not that easy to do, things go wrong, best-laid plans gang aft a-gley, I agree with one of Sterne’s influences, Montaigne, when he said “Life is its own objective” and declared the simple act of living as “not only the basic of employments” but also “the most glorious”. I’d say that Sterne does the same with his group of misfits in Shandy Hall.

What most struck me about re-reading Tristram Shandy is how quickly it moves forward. I know that sounds ridiculous, the book is famously digressive but as Sterne puts it they are ‘progressive digressions’. Yes, a simple linear plot doesn’t really happen but the book is always moving forward, there’s always something new happening or some new silliness to untangle. What’s more, the digressiveness of the book is deeply baked into the meaning of the book. In the first page, Tristram’s ‘animal spirits’ are dispersed - and so Tristram’s nature is one of dispersal, which is reflected in his life and opinions. Each digression shows us the kind of person that Tristram is, someone whose thoughts go down highways and byways - and as someone who often thinks like that myself, I’m happy to get a little representation. What’s more, the teasing at the end of every second volume, the promises of future stories that are always fulfilled, though not always in the most obvious ways and the many callbacks to earlier books in the last one create the feeling of a book which is under control but a dispersed, digressive sort of control. As Sterne asks his reader in the first volume, “only keep your temper”. He knows exactly what he’s doing and what kind of book he wishes to write.

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