CB Bassity, ©1999, all rights reserved
Indeterminacy Winked at:
Tristram Shandy, Evangelist of Ambiguity

     Long before Derrida or deconstructionism troubled the study of rhetoric and literature, a precursor was at work; long before current critical practice got enmeshed in matters of indeterminacy, there came a voice laughing in the wilderness of eighteenth-century rationalist gravity, a master of ambiguity: Laurence Sterne, speaking in the guise of Tristram Shandy.  Among its other games, Sterne’s novel exploited certain problems of language.  Appearing to celebrate a scholarly faith in systematic reason, and in John Locke,1 England’s prophet of empiricism, Tristram Shandy actually questioned rationalism’s premises, and confirmed many of Locke’s in the process.  Much of Tristram Shandy frolicked with Locke’s treatise, Essay Concerning Human Understanding.  If Tristram Shandy unsettled the virtuous regime of reason, it disturbed even more our sense of its straightforward, common-sense vehicle: language.  What an unholy mess.
     Shandy,2 the steadfastly unreliable narrator, foregrounds the troublesome nature of meaning, demonstrating indeterminacy by asserting determinacy where it can’t stand up, or pretending to elliptical modesty where contextual clues guarantee an “indecent” meaning.  Shandy revels in equivocation, tautology, double entendre, nebulous references, ambiguity, sophistry, and even condemns plagiarism by resorting to plagiarism, so that at times a reader could almost despair of knowing what he does mean.  Yet, the novel hardly results in meaninglessness.  Ultimately, for all its seemingly determined indeterminacy, Sterne’s text comes across clearly: regardless of specific textual meaning, it works at effect, one of stubborn vitality, resisting explicit, rationalist conviction.  Hold fast the handrails in this hall of mirrors.

     It makes perfect sense to begin examining Sterne’s text at the opening of:
 Author’s PREFACE.
  No, I’ll not say a word about it,—here it is;——in publishing it,——I have appealed to the world,——and to the world I leave it;——it must speak for itself. (III.xx/157).
The statement brims with contradiction and ambiguity.  How can this be a preface, an aforesaid introduction to the work, when it appears twenty chapters into the third volume, a year after volumes I and II had already been published and sent into the world?  Yet the very question provokes a further question: is its informative value diminished for coming in the midst of the work?  Long before this point, however, readers have learned not to expect “proper” narrative order.  The reader’s sense of narrative proportion has been so buffeted already, that the preface showing up where it does hardly comes as a surprise.  But, concerning the preface, other questions remain.
     “No, I’ll not say a word about it,—here it is” (III.xx/157).  Not say a word about what?—here what is?; the preface?; the work as a whole?  Since Shandy habitually backs up to comment on his topics and tactics, it might conceivably be anything that “[he]’ll not say a word about.”  And if he will “not say a word about” the novel as a whole, does that not negate the only “prefac-ical” validity of the preface?  In a rational world, from which the reader has long since been unmoored, not only does a preface come “pre-“ the work, but a pronoun refers to a specific referent.  Not here.  Shandy continually defies, not just grammatical convention, but reason itself.  The statement’s referent-less, ambiguous “it” renders the sentence meaningless.  Although, strictly speaking, if Shandy means not to speak a word about “it,” he can justifiably say he has not, if “it” refers to nothing—which makes the statement extraneous, but that would fit the logic of a work composed mostly of material that is extraneous by conventional standards.  Of course “it” could also, perhaps, refer back to the “it” in the previous sentence, which is separated from the ambiguous one by only a blank space and the words, “The Author’s PREFACE,” (a claim already suspect by definition).  In the last sentence, “it” refers to—but the reader who investigates meaning at this level, expecting to find any worth salvaging, will have long since been hauled off in a strait-jacket.3

     1  Whether Sterne reveres or reviles Locke has been argued incessantly, and evidence throughout the novel indicates that both are true (Loveridge 129-31).  That his position would even seem equivocal would surely delight Sterne.
     2  Attempting to distinguish between the mind of Laurence Sterne and his personae Tristram Shandy and Yorick is pointless.  For more on this see: Gibson, 69-70.
     3 Considering, however, that the Russian structuralist critic, Victor Shklovsky, apparently checked the outlandish, cartoon diagrams of story-line at the close of volume VI and found that “Sterne’s diagrams are approximately accurate,” no amount of textual scrutiny can be deemed excessive (Sterne VI.xl/391-92; Shklovsky 56-57).  Shklovsky maintained the diagrams are “accurate, but they do not call attention to the crosscurrent of motifs” (57).

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