Such indeterminacy would seem to scorn the trust
and respect of the reader, who has labored twenty chapters into the third
volume of this work, and thus has some investment at stake and might reasonably
expect from the text meaning of some sort.4 But, such
common-sense reasoning, in Tristram Shandy, leads nowhere; Shandean
text “lies” to us repeatedly. The text repeatedly confirms that the
narrator can’t be trusted, that nothing he says can be taken at face value.
So why do readers continue? Sterne’s readers have, by now, revised
their expectations and been “trained” by the text to expect inconsistency,
ambiguity, illogic, contradiction, etc. The reader has internalized
Shandean logic. Where other novelists strive to order their details
for consistent verisimilitude, Sterne aims, instead, for coherent disorder,
for likely-seeming chaos. Shandy’s equivocal voice achieves a disheveled
yet coherent “reality,” what one commentator calls “carefully controlled
defects” (Gibson, 62).
Returning, for a moment, to the indeterminate
pronoun “it,” there is a subtle moral component here, too. Conventions
of grammar acknowledge, implicitly, some authority that prescribes the
grammar. To renounce that authority, and especially to flaunt the
game, is to undermine the regime of authority in general, and such defiance
is just one aspect of Shandy’s linguistic subversions.
Perhaps we should go back, in true Shandean fashion,
to the beginning. Only four chapters—four pages, in other words—into
the novel, Tristram Shandy addresses his unorthodox style: “I find it necessary
to consult every [conceivable thing] a little,” which seems to invert the
normal practice of a novelist-historian-poet to restrict and control topic
and theme, so as to present the world in a certain way (I.iv.8).
Shandy is “glad” to have “begun the history of” his life this way, and
he will continue to consider “everything in it, as Horace says,
Ovo.” Readers know, of course, this is precisely the antithesis
of Horace’s design: in medias res. And Shandy, always anticipating
his readers’ reaction, says, “Horace, I know, does not recommend
this fashion altogether: But I shall confine myself neither to his rules,
nor to any man’s rules that ever lived” (I shall confine myself to no
man’s rules seems as close to stating the novel’s thesis as it gets,
in this work, where theses proliferate like viruses). What does it
mean that Horace “does not recommend this fashion altogether,” considering
he does not recommend it at all? Such equivocation means about as
much as locating the novel’s “Preface” in the third volume.5
Not only does Shandy forsake common logic,
but he flaunts his game continually; his story is a happy romp outside
sound reason. Contradiction runs rampant. Seeming to promise
a complete story—The Life and Opinions of . . .—he does not deliver.
Calling his father “an excellent natural philosopher,” he reveals him instead
as a fatuous, pedantic bumbler (I.iii/7). In one place Walter Shandy
is “one of the most regular men in every thing he did . . . that ever lived”;
in another place:
[nothing] can ever help the reader to any kind of preconception
of how my father would think, speak, or act, upon any untried occasion
or occurrence of life.——There was that infinitude of oddities in him, and
of chances along with it, by which handle he would take a thing,—–it baffled,
Sir, all calculations. (I.iv/9; V.xxiv/315).
Early on, Tristram says demurely, “Sir, as you and I are in a manner perfect
strangers to each other, it would not [be] proper to have let you into
too many circumstances relating to myself all at once,” and then, twenty-one
pages later says, “I need not tell your worship, that all this is spoke
in confidence” (I.vi/11; I.xii/32). Given their context, each of
the two statements is ludicrous on its own, and, taken together, their
contradictory nature only grows. And, supposing that “my life and
opinions are likely to make some noise in the world, and . . . be no less
read than Pilgrim’s Progress itself,” Shandy reverses himself just
three pages later, saying he is “a mortal of so little consequence in the
world, it is not much matter what I do” (I.iv/8; I.viii/13).
He makes oxymoronic claims such as: “but I
would not shake my credit in telling an improbable truth, however indisputable
in itself,” all the while filling his narrative with improbable people
and events (I.xi/21). Shandy rebukes “Madam,” one of several imaginary
personified readers, for the “vicious” habit of reading for plot rather
than for “the deep erudition and knowledge which a book of this cast, if
read over as it should be, would infallibly impart” (I.xx/48). Madam’s
“fault”—to have missed an inference so impossibly and comically obscure
that no reader would have caught it—leads to Shandy’s specious lament:
this self-same vile pruriency for fresh adventures .
. . has got so strongly into our habit and humours,——and so wholly intent
are we upon satisfying the impatience of our concupiscence that way,——that
nothing but the gross and more carnal parts of a composition will go down:——The
subtle hints and sly communications of science fly off, like spirits, upwards;——the
heavy moral escapes downwards; and both are as much lost to the world,
as if they were still left in the bottom of the ink-horn.6 (I.xx/49)
Ostensibly, he resents the spirit of his work being taken for anything
less than pure.
4 According to conventional economy,
where more work earns more pay, readers’ extraordinary labor to find meaning
in Tristram Shandy should entitle them to more meaning.
Ironically, they get less (in conventional terms).
5 Whether or not this is
a novel has been argued over at length—one could make a case for its being
a series of essays, since Sterne’s topics wander and vary so—yet such determination
seems irrelevant. For the purpose of discussion, “novel” makes a
nice word to hang one’s hat on.
6 Given Sterne’s idiosyncratic
spelling and punctuation, I hereby pledge to reproduce it exactly, to be
a stickler, yet without resorting to dozens of distracting “sic”s.
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