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     Sterne also capitalizes on the human desire to know, the urge to categorize and determine meaning, even at great cost.  Throughout the novel, conflicts turn on inadequate knowledge, and on characters’ attempts to find or determine meaning.  Walter Shandy wants to know if Tristram can be rechristened; the “criticks” and “connoisseurs” want to determine whether Garrick’s performance—and Sterne’s book, by implication—conforms to their rules and compasses; Shandy wants to know whether to proceed or digress in his narration; the widow Wadman longs to know the exact location and effect of uncle Toby’s groin wound.  And knowledge gained becomes a precious commodity; Tristram says of his father: “like all systematick reasoners, he would move both heaven and earth, and twist and torture every thing in nature to support his hypothesis” (Ixix/45).  As Melvyn New points out: “One of Sterne’s shrewdest insights . . . is to recognize . . . [that] as interpretive beings we are unable to establish certainty, but equally unable to rest without assigning meaning” (122-23).  This is perhaps best illustrated in “Slawkenburgius’s Tale,” where unresolved curiosity over the stranger’s nose drives the “Strasburg” townspeople to “catastrophe” (IV/200-22); “The less they understood of the matter, the greater was their wonder about it—–they were left in all the distresses of desire unsatisfied” (IV/216).
     Also in volume IV, a scene at the bishop’s visitation dinner examines dubious efforts to determine meaning, resulting in comedy rather than disaster.  In the midst of Didius and Yorick's “scholarly” dispute, Phutatorius exclaims, "Zounds!"; Shandy then goes round the table citing each party's conception of how this response relates to the topic at hand.  These assumptions grow more elaborate up to:
 [the] oath, as my father philosophized upon it, actually lay fretting and fuming at that very time in the upper regions of Phutatorius's purtenance; and so was naturally, and according to the due course of things, first squeezed out by the sudden influx of blood, which was driven into the right ventricle of Phutatorius's heart, by the stroke of surprize which so strange a theory of preaching had excited.  (IV.xxvii/263)
Shandy follows this parody of 18th-century mechanismic theorizing with: "How finely we argue upon mistaken facts" (the oxymoron sharpening his point), before telling us that the exclamation actually resulted from a hot roasted chestnut that had rolled off the table into Phutatorius's open fly.  A fallacious train of ideas beguiles the assembled scholars to explain Phutatorius’s exclamation, each according to his lights, although “with all their knowledge, they could not tell what in the world to make of it” (IV.xxvii/263).  Sterne satirizes the rationalist impulse to banish uncertainty in other passages as well: considering some obscure notion of “Prignitz and Scroderus’s doctrines,——I say not,—–let school-men—scullions, anatomists, and engineers, fight for it amongst themselves” (III.xxxix/192; et al).
     Having enthroned uncertainty, ambiguity, Sterne has dethroned certainty; and when certainty is overthrown, authority goes with it.  Authority depends on confidence for fuel, and confidence on certainty.
     Authority, in general, takes a beating in Tristram Shandy.  The narrator repeatedly disparages authority, either overtly or by flattery with a mocking voice—–Horace, Dr. Slop, critics, connoisseurs,  “John de la Casse, the archbishop of Benevento,” Locke, “a day-tall critick,” “Pythagoras . . .Plato . . . Solon . . . Licurgus . . . Mahomet,” “great wigs or long beards,” “Didius the great church lawyer,” the abbess of Andoüillets (III.xii/148; III.xx/158, 165; V.xvi/308; IV.xiii/234; IV.xvii/241); and Sterne’s jabs—direct or indirect—come particularly when the high and mighty purpose to unambiguous certainty of any kind.  Shandy facsimiles the esoterically-worded two pages of “the article in my mother’s marriage settlement,” with its magisterial font—“And this Indenture further witnesseth”—and its:
grant, covenant, condescend, consent, conclude, bargain, and fully agree to. . . . together with all rents, reversions, services, annuities, fee-farms, knights fees, views of frank-pledge, escheats, reliefs, mines, quarries, goods and chattels of felons and fugitives, . . . and all and every the tenths, tythes, glebe-lands”——In three words,——“My mother was to lay in, (if she chose it) in London.” (I.xv/33-35)
Sterne concludes this lengthy parody of jurisdictive diction with the pointed inference that, for all its attempted unambiguous certainty, “three words” (or twelve) would say it just as well.  Ernulphus’s curse, the “MEMOIRE presenté a Messieurs les Docteurs de SORBONNE,”  Slawkenburgius, and the “TRISTRA-pœdia,” and others all parody “authoritative discourse,” which  Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin defines as: “privileged language that approaches us from without; it is distanced, taboo, and permits no play with its framing context” (424).  In discussing “The Functions of the Rogue, Clown, and Fool in the Novel,” Bakhtin says, “they see the underside and the falseness of every situation” (159).  In Tristram Shandy, Sterne illuminates the “underside and the falseness” of certainty, unambiguousness; he upends the serious, eighteenth-century faith in rationalist certainty.   As Bakhtin says of the rogue:
they grant the right not to understand, the right to confuse, to tease, to hyperbolize life: the right to parody others . . . the right not to be taken literally . . . the right to act life as a comedy and to treat others as actors, the right to rip off masks . . . [and] to betray to the public a personal life, down to its most private and prurient little secrets. (163)
Sterne was a deconstructionist long before the practice became common.
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