No less a reader than Nietzsche agrees. In Human,
All Too Human (1886), he writes: “Thus [Sterne] produces in the
right reader a feeling of uncertainty” (emphasis added, qtd in New
16). The right reader being what kind? Shandy says,
“I would go fifty miles on foot . . . to kiss the hand of that man whose
generous heart will give up the reins of his imagination into his author’s
hands,——be pleased he knows not why, and cares not wherefore” (III.xii/149).
The right reader, then, would accept ambiguity, would be un-threatened
by it; the right reader would be tolerant, indulgent, undogmatic, generous,
and generally ambivalent. Sterne, agrees with Locke that, having
no ‘uncontestable Evidence of the Truth,’ we must tolerate others who differ
from us in their beliefs or understanding (Gibson 65). Sterne clearly
rejects the “belligerence of the convinced mind” (Gibson 64), although
Shandy, in typically dubious fashion, claims otherwise:
It is a singular blessing, that
nature has form’d the mind of man with the same happy backwardness . .
. which is observed in old dogs,——“of not learning new tricks.” What
a shuttlecock of a fellow would the greatest philosopher that ever existed,
be whisk’d into at once, did he read such books, and observe such facts,
and think such thoughts, as would eternally be making him change sides!
This “shuttlecock” describes perfectly the character of Sterne’s right
Returning to Nietzsche, the specific meaning
of a Shandean passage may be (or may seem) indeterminate, but the overall
effect is clear. Again, Nietzsche:
“What is to be praised in [Sterne] is . . . . an artistic
style in which the fixed form is constantly being broken up, displaced,
transposed back into indefiniteness, so that it signifies one thing and
at the same time another. Sterne is the great master of ambiguity.
. . . The reader who demands to know exactly what Sterne really thinks
of a thing, whether he is making a serious or a laughing face, must be
given up for lost; for he knows how to encompass both in a single
facial expression . . . [and to] be in the right and in the wrong at the
same time, to know profundity and farce. (qtd. in New 16)
Tristram Shandy makes a string of disingenuous claims from start
to finish, many of which call themselves into question. The work’s
ambiguity creates a contextual focus on questions of sex, gender, authority,
dogma, government, the church—is there any significant area of life that
the novel leaves untouched? It continually exploits the power of
suggestion and associations, so that certain words are suspect, and
a series of asterisks creates an overall effect. Tristram Shandy’s
destabilizing effect may seem to diminish meaning, but actually expands
it, complicating matters, creating further possibility rather than less.
When Nietzsche writes, “That I have to be struggle and becoming and goal
and conflict of goals,” he sounds like Nietzsche, but when he continues,
“ah, he who divines my will surely divines, too, along what crooked
paths it has to go!”—it sounds like Tristram Shandy speaking (qtd in New
134). A text with indeterminate meaning, then, is not a meaningless
text. “Sterne’s text,” as Melvyn New says, “is richly determined”
(122-23), acutely aware of meaning.12
12 Much of the general argument
for indeterminacy of texts falls apart when we consider that language regularly
conveys such nonliteral forms as: irony, humor, sarcasm, metaphor, subtlety,
riposte, and poetry with meanings that listeners or readers agree on.
Except in the work of inept writers and editors, the problem of “indeterminacy”
is really a matter of sufficient or insufficient context. Context
encompasses that body of shared knowledge, experience, and culture creating
the assumptions and associations that enables language to function.
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