page 7
     If Tristram Shandy traffics in ambiguity, what about indeterminacy?  In several places Shandy seems to make a case for indeterminacy: “Observe, I determine nothing in this” (I.xxi/54); and: “whether they were above my uncle Toby’s reason,——or contrary to it,——or that his brain was like damp tinder, and no spark could possibly take hold,——or . . . I say not,—let school-men—scullions, anatomists, and engineers, fight for it amongst themselves” (III.xxxix/192); and: “But mark, madam, we live amongst riddles and mysteries—the most obvious things, which come our way, have dark sides, which the quickest sight cannot penetrate into; and even the clearest and most exalted understandings amongst us find ourselves puzzled and at a loss in almost every cranny of nature’s works” (IV.xvii/241).  And again: “which of all these was the cause, let the curious physiologist, or the curious any body determine” (V.x/301).  Does Sterne assert indeterminacy as it is known today?
     Gerald Graff explains the current critical perspective that “literary texts possess a radical ‘indeterminacy’ that makes the possibility of a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ interpretation of any work impossible” (163).  Literature has long been thought to possess a quality of ambiguity, “a dimension that resists the grasp of everyday rational understanding,” a je ne sais quoi (163).  Plato considered the poet “inspired and . . . out of his senses,”—inferior, in other words, to the rational philosopher, of the “scientist” (164).  Longinus, however, approved the sublime and considered it “emotional transport” beyond ordinary reason.  But the categories, rational and irrational, seemed fixed, seemed to define two poles, and to demand categorization of texts.  In the eighteenth-century, with its prevailing esteem for empiricism and rational thought, the purely logical propositions and explicit statements associated with math, science, and engineering—with their clear and practical efficiency—came to be more privileged still over poetry and imaginative writing.  The “more shadowy, undefined, elusive realms of consciousness” that science and commerce sniffed at, remained in the hands of poetry and literature (164).11  Skipping through critical genealogy to the present, we find the concept of ambiguity has evolved:
Whereas “ambiguity” stood for a positive and valued attribute of richness in a literary text, “indeterminacy” bespeaks a limitation or failure of a text to fulfill its purpose . . . [and] The concept of indeterminacy proposes that a radical limitation is built into the activity of literary interpretation. (Graff 165)
So, does this kind of indeterminacy apply to Tristram Shandy?
     Sterne himself posited a correct interpretation of his novel, or sensed an incorrect reading, anyway:  “There is so little true feeling in the herd of the world, that I wish I could have got an act of parliament, when the books first appear’d, ‘that none but wise men should look into them.’  It is too much to write books and find heads to understand them” (Curtis 411).  Which leads, of course, to the question of “correct” interpretation.  Can it be determined?  Given the ample range of eighteenth-century “understandings”—from Johnson’s “Nothing odd will do long,” through fifteen published editions of The Beauties of Sterne: including all his pathetic tales, and most distinguished observations on life. Selected for the Heart of Sensibility—there exists a substantial middle ground, a range within which one can “safely” assume understanding.  I would confer understanding on the reader (armed with suitable annotation) who equates Warburtons with Tartuffes; the reader whose ear catches “my father persisted in not going on with the discourse,” and who appreciates “virtue. . . . known by the name of perseverance in a good cause,—–and of obstinacy in a bad one” (Sterne III.xx.157, emphasis added; I.xvii/38).  The sublimely perverse logic of Sterne’s text produces a particular effect, in the right reader.
     11 Perhaps in defense against the hegemony of science, the study of literature has developed a certain technical mien, and thus the trend to argue and determine specific interpretive meanings.
continue to page 8
Back to my home page