Eighteenth-century England, influenced by such
thinkers as Newton and Locke, is enthralled with the notions of secular
progress. This dominant and dogged faith in systematic approach to
life —rationalism— challenges the “great Renaissance tradition of ‘unknowingness’”
(New ). Tristram Shandy speaks up in dissent,
and resists rationalism’s hegemony. Shandy is a playful, unrestrained
advocate for tolerance, and against any and all systems.
Even Locke, regardless of how much Sterne receives from him, seems to buy
heavily into the power of reason. Tristram Shandy, however, maintains
a “stubborn way of looking at contradictions within a context of human
limitations and worldly complexities” (New, Sterne, introduction xxxviii-xxxvix).
Reason becomes every bit as dictatorial as
the authority of revelation that it replaces. Reason seems to liberate
us from the old moral regime of revelation, but its demands are no less
stringent, no less strident or confining than those it replaces.
Rationalism expects too much of the individual, demanding a consistency
of response that Tristram Shandy refuses to accede to. This
is its appeal. Even Sterne’s narrative structure breaks free of rational
demands. “I will conform to no man’s rules,” —Horace or whoever.
Shandy’s logic seems to argue for reasonable reason, for a balance between
head and heart, although it will consent to no “systematickal” approach.
Rather than limiting meaning to something
fixed, and thus subject to analysis, Tristram Shandy’s ambiguity
expands it, highlighting contradictory notions without subordinating one
to another. Bawdiness and morality coexist. Rather than find meaning
in boxes—“right,” “wrong,” or “none of the above”—find it instead somewhere,
or everywhere, on a continuum.
“And so long as a man rides his HOBBY-HORSE peaceably and quietly
along the King’s high-way, and neither compels you or me to get up behind
him,——pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?” (Sterne I.vii/13).
Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by
M. M. Bakhtin. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson
and Michael Holquist. Austin:
U of Texas P, 1981.
Curtis, Lewis Perry, ed. Letters of Laurence Sterne. Oxford:
Gibson, Andrew. Reading Narrative Discourse: Studies
in theNovel from Cervantes to Beckett. New York: St.
Graff, Gerald. “Determinacy/Indeterminacy.” Critical
Terms for Literary Study. Ed. Frank Lentricchia and
McLaughlin. 2nd ed.
Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995. 163-76.
Jenkins, John J. Understanding Locke: An Introduction
to Philosophy through JOHN LOCKE’S Essay. Edinburgh:
Edinburgh U P, 1983.
Loveridge, Mark. Laurence Sterne and the Argument About
Design. Totowa: Barnes & Noble, 1982
New, Melvyn. Tristram Shandy: A Book for Free Spirits.
Twayne’s Masterwork Studies. 132. New York: Twayne, 1994.
- - - . Introduction. The Life and Opinions of
Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. By Laurence Sterne. 1759-67.
New and Joan New. New York:
Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct: How the Mind
Creates Language. New York: Harper, 1994.
Shklovsky, Victor. “Sterne’s Tristram Shandy: Stylistic
Commentary.” Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays. Trans.
Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis.
Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1965. 25-57.
Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram
Shandy, Gentleman. 1759-67. Ed. Melvyn New and Joan New.
New York: Penguin, 1997.
Extraneous Comment on Jargon and Terminology:
Anti-Jargon and Terminology Institute (where we give thanks
every day that the term “Kafkaesque” has left the building.)
This paper concerns itself with epistemology throughout—yet never
resorts to the term itself. It can be done.
— CB Bassity, Czar,
CB Bassity ©1999 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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