"BE WARY, SIR, WHEN YOU IMITATE HIM": THE PERILS OF DIDACTICISM IN TRISTRAM SHANDY.
[E]very origin of morality from the moment it stops being pious-and Herkunft can never be-has value as a critique.
"This Delicious Mixture"
Laurence Sterne has never been a favorite with those who expect authors to provide good examples. Elizabeth Montagu (a friend and relation by marriage) spoke for a growing number of readers when she wrote after his death:
Poor Tristram Shandy had an appearance of philanthropy that pleased one, and made one forgive in some degree his errors. However, as I think, there is but one way of a mans [sic] proving his philosophy to be real and genuine, and that is by making every part of his conduct of good example to mankind in general and of good effect towards those with whom he is connected. If Tristram gave an ill example to the Clergy, if he rendered his wife and daughter unhappy, we must mistake good humour for good nature.(3)
For readers like Montagu, Sterne's "errors" might have been more acceptable if he had come from a different profession, but his semi-public infidelities and unclerical conduct finally destroyed her enjoyment of his writing. Moreover, the obvious parallels between Sterne's "ill example" and his bawdy fiction only made him seem worse, and encouraged readers to extend their disapproval from the writer straight to his books, conflating, as Montagu herself does, the heteroclite Yorkshire parson with "poor Tristram Shandy." Montagu's discomfort with both Sterne and his writing confirms Nietzsche's warning that a good book can be "harmed by its living author if he is celebrated and much is known about him: for all the world is accustomed to confound the author with his work."(4)
Montagu's heavy moral disapproval is crucial for understanding Sterne's deeply polarized reception-history, because Sterne criticism for so long consisted solely of moral judgments about his behavior, a tendency exacerbated by his status as one of eighteenth-century England's greatest literary celebrities.(5) The reversal of public attitudes is especially striking immediately after his death: opinions that had once seemed favorable or mixed hardened over time into outright disapproval. As Montagu's reaction also suggests, discussions about him also began to divide more sharply along gender-lines after his death, especially on the question of how proper it was for "ladies" to read, understand, and enjoy his bawdy humor.(6) Yet Sterne, who was by no means unaware of others' opinions about him, consistently argued for the moral benefits of his fiction, and in terms that suggest neither hypocrisy nor self-deception. Sterne's notions of morality, unlike those of his contemporary critics, however, center upon the difficulty of imparting moral lessons via example. Though no less interested in moral instruction than his critics, he believes that mixed characters fulfill that function better than unmixed ones, and that authors themselves cannot play the role of moral examples for their readers.
Though Sterne considered himself a moralist of sorts, he was never interested in offering himself as a prescriptive moral model to his readers. It is this difference that separates a moralist of Sterne's type from those following the didactic assumptions of Montagu or even Samuel Johnson. Nietzsche would distinguish the two types as morality-as-dissection versus morality-as-preaching:
Because they dissect morality, moralists must now be content to be upbraided as immoralists. But he who wants to dissect has to kill; yet only for the sake of better knowledge, better judgement, better living; not so that all the world shall start dissecting. Unhappily, however, people still believe that every moralist has to be a model and ideal in all he does and that others are supposed to imitate him: they confuse him with the preacher of morals. The older moralists dissected too little and preached too much: which is why the moralists of today experience this confusion and its unpleasant consequences.(7)
Nietzsche seems to be saying that prescriptive moralists have only their own examples to influence others, while descriptive moralists attain their sense of moral discrimination for the sake of knowledge, not personal moral improvement. Moralists who "preach" (note the clerical metaphor) outside of institutional structures, figures like Rousseau or Johnson, for example, face the daunting task of fashioning themselves into models and ideals for others to imitate. "Immoralists," however, because they reject the imitative paradigm of morality, dissect rather than transmit values, and provide explanations rather than an example to their audiences. Eschewing claims to normative power and authority also allows them to abandon the (often corrupting) task of prescribing values and goals to their audiences, and to content themselves instead with collecting and analyzing specimens of moral pathologies "for the sake of better knowledge, better judgement, better living." The metaphor of dissection also suggests that moral pathologists do not "pre-scribe" a remedy, but gather existing historical materials for their purposes. Most importantly, moralists of the newer type (we might as well call them genealogists) are committed to the historicity and irreducible plurality of values, insisting instead on the importance of the moral compound for comprehending human behavior.
It is Sterne's espousal of ethically mixed characters that separates him from most of the more directly moralized, didactic writing of his period. In his sermon, "The Character of Herod," he wrote: "The wicked seem only mentioned [in the Bible] with regret; just brought upon the stage, on purpose to be condemned. The use and advantages of which conduct-is, I suppose, the reason-as in general it enlarges on no character, but what is worthy of imitation. 'Tis however undeniable, that the lives of bad men are not without use."(8) More famously, he insists in Tristram Shandy on the importance of the moral mixture for comprehending the enormous variety and range of human behavior. Tristram loves and defends just this mingling of high and low motives after Trim's superb speech on Bobby's death:
--Now I love you for this--and 'tis this delicious mixture within you which makes you dear creatures what you are--and he who hates you for it--all I can say of the matter, is--That he has either a pumkin for his head--or a pippin for his heart, --and whenever he is dissected 'twill be found so. (5.9.435)(9)
Tristram concludes that this "delicious mixture within" his readers is indeed what makes them both loveable and "human, all-too-human." Moreover, anyone who could hate such a delicious mixture will be found, at the moment of dissection, to be lacking the usual contents of a human head or heart. Like other sentimental writers, Sterne accuses the haters of humanity of inhumanity themselves, but points out that their benumbed organs are not made of stone or iron, but mere vegetable-matter, matter too sodden and insensible to feel as human beings ought to. Hence, Sterne has tacitly defined humanity--meaning here benevolence, generosity, goodwill--as the enjoyment of human error.
In the divergence between Sterne and Montagu on morality and authorship, we can recognize a growing divide between didacticism and literature that had begun to appear in the second half of the eighteenth century. To speak more precisely, the concept of literature proceeds by the negation and supersession of earlier forms of didacticism and morality. This is because didacticism explicitly transmits and defends a normative, therefore univocal, morality to its readers. Literature's relation to morality, however, is always looser or more equivocal than didacticism's: it is that writing which is "not necessarily moral" in itself, but which allows further discussion of moral norms. By presenting more complicated, morally mixed characters whose destinies are not determined by their moral status, literature, in the post-Romantic understanding of the term, becomes uncoupled from moral norms, allowing it to bypass the central problem of didactic reading and writing: how people actually model themselves upon what they read. To the writer who maintains a didactic stance after the emergence of a differentiated sphere of literature, uncoupling literature from a normative status seems like a negation of morality altogether. Hence, Sterne's "literariness" is marked, much to his own surprise and dismay, as mere "immorality." It is interesting, however, that both literature and didacticism agree that granting something the status of literature has the effect of withdrawing it from evaluation of its immediate moral consequences.
Thus, the highly moralized rejections of Sterne in his own period are to some extent symptoms of his early (and isolated) acceptance of the differentiation of literature at a time when the sentimental didacticism of Richardson, the critical didacticism of Rousseau, or the more conservative didacticism of Johnson were at the height of their critical prestige.(10) In the case of Johnson particularly, we have in his well-known hostility to Sterne a highly suggestive image of competition over cultural authority. If we wish to remodel their antagonism into historical allegory, we could say that Sterne represents a popular, commercial form of sentimental writing that celebrates its own novelty, fluidity, and freedom from norms--in other words, a writing of unabashed modernity--while Johnson and his favorite author Richardson attempt to reverse or restore precisely those losses of modernity with their own versions of didactic sentimentalism. Yet Sterne's acceptance of modernity's continual dissolution and reconstruction of moral norms, which allows him to accept more fully temporalized, morally mixed characters than other sentimental writers, has another interesting side effect: a new respect for the venerable irrationalities and prejudices of the past, artifacts which can now be valued as irreplaceable repositories of old values, not the targets of Enlightenment rationalization, education, or critique.
This essay explores the related questions of moral pedagogy and mixed characterization in Tristram Shandy to determine where Sterne diverges from the paradigms of Enlightenment didacticism in his depiction of the process of socialization--specifically, in the socialization and education of young Tristram. I begin by juxtaposing Johnson's famous depiction of fiction-reading in the Rambler No. 4 with some passages from Tristram Shandy, in order to reveal Sterne's particular interest in the pleasures of knowledge--what Foucault once labeled "the games of truth and error"--and how these are enhanced by the presence of mixed characters and verbal equivocation. Next I explore the moral and temporal dimensions of education in the episode of Toby and the Fly, comparing the effects of this morally improving accident to the delays and interruptions that plague the composition and reception of the Tristra-paedia. Tristram's "character," as it turns out, is created not so much by the intentional efforts of Walter, as by the sheer contingent presence of Toby, an effective satiric reversal of the excessive intentionalism of didactic views of education. The issue of moral education appears again during the post-circumcision debate in Shandy parlor, where the interpretive warfare of polemic divines is measured against the practical religious morality of Toby and Trim. In that episode Sterne satirizes the intellectual aggression and narrowness of theological attempts to command obedience from others, and offers in its place a version of Anglicanism that arises as much from duty or habit as from intellect. The choice of Le Fever as Tristram's tutor is the final example of how Sterne satirizes Walter's pretensions to control chance or contingency, and how Toby and Trim quietly displace Walter's would-be intellectual, moral, and patriarchal authority with a "human, all-too-human" institution, the army, which represents masculine fellow-feeling, practical activity, and the untroubled fulfillment of one's duties. In each of these instances, Sterne abstracts, disperses, or displaces the normativity and authority located in a concrete, material site, whether that occurs in the pages of "works of morality," in the clerical authority of "polemic divines," or even in the literal body of the father in "patriarchy." Sterne's displacement of moral authority from himself as an author is only one more example of a general strategy of normative dispersion throughout Tristram Shandy.
Johnson and Sterne on Normative Reading
To understand Johnson and Sterne's implicit disagreements on the moral effects of reading and writing fiction, we must begin with the close relation of the normative to the univocal, or what Bakhtin once termed the "monologic."(11) In opposition to the monologic, the authoritative, or the univocal, stands the equivocal-that which speaks double, or requires multiple interpretations-undermining the potential normativity of any piece of writing.(12) Bakhtin's entire theory of dialogism is founded upon the normative status of the univocal, monologic text, a normativity that is implicit in any discussion of the risks of interpretive error. In their celebrations of multiple, conflicting interpretations, however, Bakhtin and other twentieth-century readers of Sterne have consequently de-emphasized an aspect of Sterne which he, in fact, shares with Johnson and other contemporaries: the notion of intellectual error as moral risk, a risk which Sterne clearly accepts and Johnson just as clearly rejects in their reflections upon fiction-reading.(13) The notion of moral risk reintroduces the essentially didactic problem of the varied uses of moral examples, which cannot be imitated without exposing quixotic readers to very real dangers in a world outside the text. Thus, the presence of moral risk in Tristram Shandy prevents it from becoming, pace Shklovsky, a merely formalist exercise, since it reopens the borders between art and life that might otherwise be closed in a fully differentiated literary and aesthetic sphere.
Interestingly, much sentimental fiction, despite its reputation for simple, morally polarized, easily-legible situations, actually contains a great deal that is equivocal, but restricts the equivocal to the level of plot, not to the characters themselves or their language. In fact, didactic forms of sentimental fiction often feature pure, exemplary characters caught in complicated events that sustain multiple, conflicting moral interpretations (as in Clarissa), yet those same exemplary characters are only rarely permitted the freedom for verbal equivocation. Clarissa, for example, must suffer hundreds of pages of degradation and assaults before she is allowed to "lie" to Lovelace about going to her Father's house.
Tristram Shandy, however, is always ready to joke about the surprising difficulties of defining a nose strictly as a nose:
In books of strict morality and close reasoning, such as this I am engaged in,--the neglect [of firm definitions] is inexcusable; and heaven is witness, how the world has revenged itself upon me for leaving so many openings to equivocal strictures, --and for depending so much as I have done, all along, upon the cleanliness of my reader's imaginations. (3.31.257)
Because he will not attempt the Richardsonian project of anticipating and defeating every potential misreading of his work, Sterne expects his audience to read as if they are not immune to appeals to their imagination or their senses. It is Sterne's willingness to be seen equivocating, and to accept readerly error that distinguishes him so sharply from Richardson's view of authorship. Sterne simply cannot imagine his book, or himself for that matter, as a source of normative moral guidance. For this reason, he stresses, in a way that Richardson cannot, his dependence upon his readers' imaginations, and the inevitably plural, contradictory results of such collective acts of reading.
Sterne's refusal to banish the equivocal from morality resists the rationalizing, normalizing aspects of didactic reading. His strategy of equivocation deliberately teases apart the desired one-to-one correspondence between a didactic author's meaning and the message received by the young reader, who is defined as blank and passive, either pathologically open to suggestion, or pathetically solicitous of guidance.(14) Sterne positively enjoys breaking such a reductive picture of unilinear communication, adding not only the moral and cognitive errors committed by individuals, which Johnson anticipates, but also the extraindividual temporal and historical forces that Johnson does not allow for.
Johnson's Rambler No. 4 evaluates fiction on the basis of its characters' usefulness as moral models for imitation. It is not the didacticism, however, of Johnson's approach that is specifically new: classical and neo-classical fiction writers have always justified their writings on moral and didactic grounds. What distinguishes Johnson from many of his predecessors is his close attention to the psychology of didacticism, studying the effect of such modeling on psychologized individuals (or rather, on individual ideal-types) rather than on the entire culture as a whole.(15) Paradoxically, Johnson's didacticism treats an individual's private fiction reading as a process of unplanned and unregulated socialization, a process whose moral implications had not been considered for the newly literate audiences coming to fiction for the first time.(16) Like many other didactic authors, Johnson stresses the influence of literary representations on the formation of the individual personality, concentrating in this essay upon representations' effects on the least finished minds, the "young, the ignorant, and the idle."(17) What we should note in Johnson's account is his sensitivity to the dangers of unassisted reading, which is rendered as a crisis of individuation, a spoiling of the unformed personality by all-too-powerful external influences.
To counter the uncertainty and confusion facing the young reader (it is always a young reader), Johnson's didacticism provides a strong authorial presence, clear instruction, and uncomplicated examples to follow. Hence, the young reader, as part of a large and undifferentiated audience, requires the direction of didactic authority to arrive at the proper meanings of texts. Moreover, because this young reader is at a naturally imitative stage of life, he or she should be presented with only the best examples:
But if the power of example is so great, as to take possession of the memory by a kind of violence, and produce effects almost without the intervention of the will, care ought to be taken that, when the choice is unrestrained, the best examples only should be exhibited; and that which is likely to operate so strongly, should not be mischievous or uncertain in its effects. (Rambler No. 4, p. 12)
The strange affective power of example is enough to "take possession" of even the memories of uninstructed readers, and thus to distort their personalities irrevocably. Interestingly, the "uncertain" image seems more dangerous than the "mischievous" one because of its unpredictable effects; nonetheless, both must be kept away from the young mind, because they might be incorporated unconsciously ("almost without the intervention of the will") into the personality. Consequently, no mixed characters should be offered in fiction, unless drawn so that we grow disgusted at their viciousness; likewise, virtues should not be represented with their "correspondent faults," for fear that they "confound the colours of right and wrong, and instead of helping to settle their boundaries, mix them with so much art, that no common mind is able to disunite them" (pp. 13-14). Those who constitute moral mixtures, either the inconsistently good or the attractively bad, become far more dangerous because of their potentially confusing effect. In an important qualification to his argument about the uses of unmixed examples, Johnson admits that using historical or biographical cases in this manner might prove difficult, but in a fiction, "where historical veracity has no place," it is possible to provide the "most perfect idea of virtue," though not virtue "angelical," or "above probability," to "teach us what we may hope, and what we can perform" (pp. 14-15).
Johnson's didacticism involves tacit assumptions about untrained readers and the authors who must direct them, resting ultimately on a theory of a perennially threatened rational consciousness that must be shored up by some external authority. This reader's consciousness, however, must not in any way be affected by the wants or needs of the body or the imagination, which threaten both the integrity of an individual's consciousness and its boundaries with others. Johnson's contrast with Sterne seems absolute on the physical desires created by fiction. Indeed, the Rambler's list of the riskiest, least desirable attributes of fiction offers a precise summary of Sterne's particular strengths: morally uncertain examples, ridicule of naive readers, appeals to adult readers with bad memories and strong physical desires, and a celebration of reading (and rereading) that is deliberately pluralist, unpredictable, and unauthorized. Likewise, the intellectual content of Sterne is encapsulated in Johnson's monitory phrase, "unjust prejudices, perverse opinions, and incongruous combinations of images" (p. 11). The material of Sterne's fiction consists of Johnson's greatest fear: continual, uncorrected, unselfconscious error, a form of error, moreover, that cannot ever be torn away from its correspondent truth by the consciousness it sprang from.
The differing consequences of intellectual error for Sterne and Johnson allow us to appreciate better their respective attitudes on the process of interpreting fiction. Johnson dreads just the blending of physical, imaginative, and cognitive impulses that Sterne celebrates, because their combination can breed up the irrationalities that lead "inevitably" to vice. In fact, for Johnson, irrationality is practically indistinguishable from vice, and reason therefore identical to virtue. As he concludes in Rambler No. 4: "It is therefore to be steadily inculcated, that virtue is the highest proof of understanding ... and that vice is the natural consequence of narrow thoughts, that it begins in mistake, and ends in ignominy" (p. 15). Johnson's role for the didactic author in society is implicitly modeled upon the role of "virtue" in his psychological scheme, acting as a steady, rationalizing influence that must ride herd on the chaotic impulses of the body or the imagination. Any threat to the superiority of mind over body, a superiority that is founded upon the assumption that the mind is exterior to the body, begins with a mental slip that quickly leads to a commingling of the two, and thence to utter physical and moral degradation. In short, the moral risks of fiction-reading are too high to allow the "young, the ignorant, and the idle" their own hobbyhorses.
While Johnson's theory of didactic fiction strives to preempt and anticipate intellectual errors in young readers, Sterne's aestheticizing strategies treat error as a source of intellectual pleasure and energy for that class of readers he labels "the inquisitive and curious." Sterne finds a place for intellectual and even religious errors by placing them within a differentiated aesthetic realm to neutralize their most pernicious effects. This partitioning has a number of consequences for his writing.
First of all, Sterne does away with Johnson's concerns about the danger of unregulated reading and undifferentiated audiences by treating certain kinds of disagreements within society as morally and politically indifferent. This could rightly be called his pluralism, however qualified. Notwithstanding specific political boundaries ("religious points, or such as touch society"), he treats the divergence of private opinions not as a social threat, but as an almost aesthetic source of variety in human affairs.(18) The irreducible variety of opinion in "the world," an ensemble of contradictory forces that are as inexorable as Fate in Tristram Shandy, becomes significantly associated with the regular rhythms of the body, though whether this body is figured as individual or collective is left unclear. The circulation of fluids and pumping of organs provide a quasi-biological model for Shandeism, which is closer to the collective, bodily processes of sense-making than the more individual, "spiritual" activity of interpretation, signifying an attitude that does not separate body from mind, or error from activity.
Secondly, while Johnson fears both the social and the psychological repercussions of the passions, Sterne welcomes them, at least in their private, harmless aspect, into both the religious and the aesthetic spheres. Indeed, Sterne might have modeled his differentiated notion of the aesthetic upon the curious historical structures of mid-eighteenth-century Anglicanism, which strove to move the individual passions while neutralizing the dangerous historical gaps and omissions within its own tradition. For example, in his most Shandean sermon, "The Prodigal Son," Sterne implicitly compares the imaginative "deceit" of fable with the narrative of the prodigal whose errors are wiped away by his father's affectionate forgiveness. This is how he begins:
I know not whether the remark is to our honor or otherwise, that lessons of wisdom have never such power over us as when they are wrought into the heart through the ground-work of a story which engages the passions. Is it that we are like iron, and must first be heated before we can be wrought upon? or, Is the heart so in love with deceit, that where a true report will not reach it, we must cheat it with a fable, in order to come at truth?(19)
Sterne's religion, like his art, positively demands the "engage[ment of] the passions," and thus requires him to "confound the colours of right and wrong, and instead of helping to settle their boundaries, mix them with so much art, that no common mind is able to disunite them." His religion of the heart suggests a blending of fable and truth, so that "[w]hen the affections so kindly break loose, Joy is another name for Religion" (Sermons, p. 254). Johnson's deep sense of the sinfulness of error and the fallen nature of human society will not allow such boundaries to be confounded: the risk of "so much art" is too great. Although Johnson and Sterne are both concerned in their own way for the welfare of the "common mind," Sterne is nonetheless determined to view as harmless the "cheats" offered by fictional narratives.
Thirdly and most importantly, Sterne's morality differs from Johnson's because its version of moral judgment insists on evaluating equivocal materials in a non-reductive fashion, largely because it has abandoned the role of prescriptive, normative moral authority that Johnson made his own. The crucial question here is whether morality itself is to be conceived as consisting essentially of moral discussion-the articulation and elaboration of moral paradoxes and their various ramifications-or instead as moral instruction, what Emile Durkheim calls "so many molds with limiting boundaries, into which we must pour our behavior."(20) If Durkheim's rationalist model of morality is correct, then indeed "the function of morality is... to determine conduct, to fix it, to eliminate the element of individual arbitrariness," and Sterne is therefore guilty of the frivolity and immorality he has always been accused of.(21) But this is to assume that morality consists only of behavior that can be prescribed; if we assume a far more complicated web of plural and competing norms, values, and interpretations in our lives, then the moralist requires more sophisticated analytical instruments than a simple yes or no. If we have any desire to contest the values that others propose to us, or attempt to impose upon us, then a reductive, prescriptive morality along Durkheim's lines is not adequate to our needs.
Toby and Walter: an Accidental Moralist vs. a Moralist Undone by Accidents
In keeping with Sterne's emphasis on the Nietzschean pudenda origo--the embarassingly trivial origins of normative power and authority--Tristram's entry into moral awareness occurs by accident. Or, rather, Tristram must learn morality by accident, because his father proves all too fallible as intellectual or moral guide. Walter tries hard, of course, to teach his son what he knows, and strives to increase his influence over him with the Tristra-paedia. Yet these amount to very little compared to what Toby accomplishes with his nephew, shaping Tristram's temperament and habits of moral response without ever intending a lesson in what he did. Tristram's recounting of Toby's treatment of the fly confirms the importance of his uncle's example for his psychological formation; unlike most didactic works, however, it also indicates how Tristram's act of moral identification cannot make him resemble Toby. The fact that Tristram repeats Toby's gesture upon his literary critics suggests that Tristram's act takes place in the aesthetic domain, at one remove from the moral act of his uncle. The same separation of domains that neutralizes the harm of Walter's errors and imperfections also fences off Toby's inimitable goodness, leaving it a purely literary phenomenon.
Hence, with the instructive presence of Toby, whose morality is indisputable but not normative, Sterne retains something of the moral power of exemplary characters, while making them descriptive rather than prescriptive, a shift signaling his own refusal of moral authority. In Sterne's treatment of Toby, literature separates itself from other domains so that intellectual and moral errors may be viewed and dissected by author and readers alike. The astonishing popularity of Toby as a fictional character after Sterne's deatheven among those who despised Sterne-is therefore linked to an increasingly differentiated literary realm and the devaluing of a more directly moralized form of didacticism.(22)
In the episode of Toby and the Fly, a single concentrated moment harmonizing word, gesture, and feeling outdoes all of Walter's unwieldy "Institute of Learning." This is yet another instance of the way in which Waiter's paternal authority is supplemented but not quite displaced by the powerful affective bonds of his brother.(23) The attenuation of Walter's influence over his son allows Toby's sentiment to install in Tristram a kind of lively awareness that Walter's dead book learning obviously lacks. Oftentimes Toby provides better moral instruction than his brother simply because he is not tempted to over-value his own understanding. This ongoing balancing of the two brothers, which functions as the moral axis of the book, permits Sterne to measure them both against a minimal moral code, which pursues not the moral perfection of the exemplary character, but the far more delicate goal of moral adequacy.
Sterne introduces the story of the fly to explain the surprising admixture of gentleness and bravery in Toby's character, which accepts endless intemperate attacks from Walter despite his soldierly background. Toby accepts Walter's jibes not from "want of courage," nor from "any insensibility or obtuseness of his intellectual parts," since he felt the insult as much as anyone could (2.12.130). In other words, Toby's extreme patience does not derive from some flaw in his character, but from a "peaceful, placid nature,-no jarring element in it." Toby's goodness is, for a military officer, surprisingly peaceful and desirous of social harmony: "[A]ll was mix'd up so kindly within him; my uncle Toby had scarce a heart to retalliate upon a fly." Tristram then illustrates his uncle's prodigiously patient benevolence with an anecdote:
--Go,--says he, one day at dinner, to an over-grown one which had buzz'd about his nose, and tormented him cruelly all dinner-time,--and which, after infinite attempts, he had caught at last, as it flew by him; I'll not hurt thee, says my uncle Toby, rising from his chair, and going a-cross the room, with the fly in his hand, --I'll not hurt a hair of thy head:--Go, says he, lifting up the sash, and opening his hand as he spoke, to let it escape;--go poor Devil, get thee gone, why should I hurt thee?--This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me. (2.12.131)
Toby literally performs the phrase, "he wouldn't hurt a fly," though he remains perfectly unaware of the existence of the cliche, and unconscious of its primarily verbal status for the rest of us. This level of intertextuality suggests the irreducible literariness of this episode, the suspicion that this is a benevolence spun wholly out of words. Yet Toby cannot return cruelty for cruelty, or destroy the fly out of spite. In a classic sentimental expression of pluralism, he chooses to coexist with what he cannot change and will not destroy. By choosing (but is it choosing?) not to exercise his power over the helpless fly, Toby definitively demonstrates his moral worth, not the less for his sublime unawareness of its effect on his nephew. The graciousness of this gesture impresses the young Tristram enough for it to have a permanent influence on his character, becoming in effect a fortuitous transmission of values from uncle to nephew. After he tells the story, Tristram performs an elaborate retrospective analysis on the complex of causes and effects now radiating out from this one moment:
I was but ten years old when this happened;--but whether it was, that the action itself was more in unison to my nerves at that age of pity, which instantly set my whole frame into one vibration of most pleasurable sensation;--or how far the manner and expression of it might go towards it;--or in what degree, or by what secret magick,--a tone of voice and harmony of movement, attuned by mercy, might find a passage to my heart, I know not;-this I know, that the lesson of universal good-will then taught and imprinted by my uncle Toby, has never since been worn out of my mind: And tho' I would not depreciate what the study of the Literae humaniores, at the university, have done for me in that respect, or discredit the other helps of an expensive education bestowed upon me, both at home and abroad since;--yet I often think that I owe one half of my philanthropy to that one accidental impression. This is to serve for parents and governors instead of a whole volume upon the subject. (2.12.131)
This small incident provides Tristram with an entire education in benevolence. Musical metaphors of sympathetic vibration, harmony, and sensation, a favorite device to communicate surges of inarticulate feeling, stress how a "single impression" has reverberated in him all the way into the present. The metaphors of vibration emphasize not just the emotional rhythms of the scene, but also its uncanny reversals of moral cause and effect: did Tristram react strongly because of his own age and receptivity? because Toby's gesture and expression were so finely attuned to one another? or because Toby's action harmonized so perfectly with the idea of mercy? Tristram will not reduce his account to a single, one-dimensional narrative of cause-and-effect. Instead, without dismissing the power of his "official" education in books and letters, Tristram maintains that at least half his philanthropy stems from this extraordinary lesson in "universal good-will." Thus, Tristram measures against the official, textual part of his education Toby's consummate performance of benevolence; by doing so, he continues the symbolic diminution of Walter (and the whole Tristra-paedia) by hoping to substitute this "accidental impression" for a "whole volume upon the subject." Toby's single gesture is the best possible antidote to Walter's didactic prolixity and repetition.
Toby's refusal to disagree with a fly provides a moral lesson for Tristram that grows more equivocal the moment that Tristram attempts to apply its principles to himself. When his patience is tried by the "monthly Reviewers," Tristram offers them the pacific example of Toby, in a gesture which might enrage them more than any argument:
Heartily and from my soul, to the protection of that Being who will injure none of us, do I recommend you and your affairs,-so God bless you;--only next month, if any one of you should gnash his teeth, and storm and rage at me ... don't be exasperated, if I pass it by again with good temper,--being determined ... never to give the honest gentleman a worse word or a worse wish, than my uncle Toby gave the fly which buzz'd about his nose all dinner time,--"Go,--go poor devil," quoth he, "--get thee gone, -why should I hurt thee? This world is surely wide enough to hold both thee and me." (3.4.191; ellipses mine)
Toby's charitable gesture changes its meaning, however, when repeated verbatim in this new context. In a brilliant act of literary self-reference, Sterne has turned Toby's words into a unilateral truce, with the suggestion that he could squash his reviewers if he wanted to. It is an exquisite revenge: the world is wide enough for them both because he has shrunk his opponents down to insect size. Sterne's ostentatiously universal good-will, not quite the same thing as Toby's, will go even to the reviewers who scarcely deserve it.
The transformation of this anecdote in Tristram's retelling shows how Sterne offers Toby as an example for readers to love and identify with, but not to imitate. The moral slippage between Tristram and his uncle's gesture only reconfirms Toby's inimitable goodness. Thus, conflicts as well as errors come to be cordoned off and effectively neutralized by Sterne's aestheticized pluralism.
Toby's unintended lesson for Tristram succeeds precisely because it is innocent of intention. Walter Shandy's Tristra-paedia, however, fails from an excess of intention. Walter' s elaborate "system of education" assembled for his son's use simply collapses when faced with the combined forces of time and biology, as embodied in his son's rapid physical development. Walter' s method of writing (of course he has a method) is heavily textual and prescriptive, "collecting first for that purpose his own scattered thoughts, counsels, and notions; and binding them together, so as to form an INSTITUTE for the government of [Tristram's] childhood and adolescence" (5.16.445). Like all of Walter's schemes, it is an attempt to control a future outcome, via abstract systems of knowledge and speculation, which can only be understood retrospectively.
Walter's attitudes towards knowledge-production, however, make it impossible for him to finish this all-important book in a timely fashion: "In about three years, or something more, my father had got advanced almost into the middle of his work" (5.16.445). Walter justifies his slow rate of composition with the odd views of one John de la Casse, archbishop of Benevento, who felt that whenever a distinguished author
took pen in hand-all the devils in hell broke out of their holes to cajole him ... --So that the life of a writer ... was not so much a state of composition, as a state of warfare; and his probation in it, precisely that of any other man militant upon earth,--both depending alike, not half so much upon the degrees of his WIT--as his RESISTANCE. (5.16.447)
Walter's mortal fear of intellectual error, literalized by the Catholic archbishop as "all the devils in hell," is transformed into a parody of spiritual warfare where the unfortunate writer must fight off every tempting thought or risk capture by the forces of evil. Significantly, Walter's allegory about the perils of authorship returns in his discussion about education, when he wishes to separate Tristram from his mother and the unreflexive thought she represents: "Prejudice of education, he would say, is the devil,--and the multitudes of them which we suck in with our mother's milk--are the devil and all.--We are haunted with them, brother Toby, in all our lucubrations and researches" (5.16.448).
Walter's strenuous "resistance" to ubiquitous error, however, results in nothing but a still-born book, and the reversion of Tristram to his mother. Time, custom, prejudice, and "the clack of nurses" (Waiter's misogynist phrase) all win out over the father's educational ambitions. Tristram, with the natural advantage of a developing body, quickly outstrips the book intended to guide him personally through childhood:
[B]y the very delay, the first part of the work, upon which my father had spent the most of his pains, was rendered entirely useless,-every day a page or two became of no consequence.-- --Certainly it was ordained as a scourge upon the pride of human wisdom, That the wisest of us all, should thus outwit ourselves, and eternally forego our purposes in the intemperate act of pursuing them. (5.16.448)
Walter, like many another commentator, has mistaken quotation for interpretation, and can no longer decide where to begin or end. In contrast, Toby's unconscious intertextuality is far more effective than his brother's compulsive echoing of other people's books. The moral of these two episodes in Tristram's education, however, is not that instruction is impossible, for Toby has clearly imparted something valuable to the adult Tristram, but that no single book or example, no matter how carefully or consciously imparted, can sufficiently prepare a child for the accidents and cross-intentions of adult life. The moral drawn by Tristram from the Tristra-paedia also suggests that Walter's fundamental, though venial, error is to assume that his intellectual results would match his intentions, or that another' s wisdom might somehow prevent him from outwitting himself.
As Sterne shows in both episodes, imitating examples, like following principles, creates extraordinarily mixed results the moment their temporal dimension is taken into consideration: the question is not whether but when and how quickly a particular model should be followed. It is this temporal, ultimately historical dimension to Sterne's moral thought that lends events in Tristram Shandy their equivocal nature, a perspective leading to at least some degree of moral relativism: in the fullness of time, even the most self-evident moral judgment seems open to another look, or at least another comment. This is one reason why Toby, when told (by the Catholic Dr. Slop) that the Devil is damned for all eternity, can respond, "I am sorry for it" (3.11.212).
Waiter's Church Militant, or Trim's Religious Field-Exercise
Open-ended interpretive discussion, however, does exact a certain price from the inhabitants of Shandy Hall in the form of complexity. As Niklas Luhmann has pointed out, complexity is as much a temporal as a spatial concept, referring to a system' s increasing incapacity for timely responses to contingent events.(24) Thus, the notorious interruptions and delays that plague every action in Shandy Hall are only the obverse side of its openness to contingency. As Tristram's accidental circumcision reveals, timeliness remains a crucial ingredient of any commonsensical notion of moral agency, an element that supersedes even conscious understanding of a situation. It is this temporal dimension of Sterne's writing that adds a moral charge to his views of interpretation, since every collective process of interpretation depicted by Sterne proceeds from some initial moment of pathos or suffering, and moves forward according to its own pace and momentum.
After Tristram's misfortune, Walter's response to the sash-window incident is to call Dr. Slop and research the origins of ritual circumcision. Naturally, he discovers in the literature an interminable debate:
The controvertists, answered my father, assign two and twenty different reasons for [circumcision]:--others indeed, who have drawn their pens on the opposite side of the question, have shewn the world the futility of the greatest part of them.--But then again, our best polemic divines--I wish there was not a polemic divine, said Yorick, in the kingdom;--one ounce of practical divinity--is worth a painted ship load of all their reverences have imported these fifty years. (5.28.462-63)
For Sterne, a religion of the intellect based on antiquarian knowledge can never compete with a religion of duty, or what Yorick calls "practical divinity." Once again, the single-minded production of knowledge characterizing the expert (here theological "controvertists") must be qualified by the needs of the wider public. The paradigmatic statement of this view can be found in Yorick's description of the clergyman's professional obligation in the act of preaching: "To preach, to shew the extent of our reading, or the subtleties of our wit ... 'Tis not preaching the gospel-but ourselves-For my own part, continued Yorick, I had rather direct five words point blank to the heart--" (4.26.377).
This sentiment is echoed when Toby asks for a definition of the term "polemic divines," and Yorick obliges by reading Rabelais's description of the battle of Gymnast and Tripet:
Good God! cried Trim, losing all patience,--one home thrust of a bayonet is worth it all.--I think so too, replied Yorick.-- --I am of a contrary opinion, quoth my father. (5.29.464)
The pseudo-warfare of these polemic divines irritates both the soldiers and the parson in the company, but for different reasons. Trim and Toby's preference for the "home thrust" puts them on the side of Yorick's "practical divinity," over and against Walter's affinity for religion as antiquarian learning or continual disputation. The interpretive warfare of controvertists can indeed be played out as interminably as Gymnast and Tripet's acrobatics, but in the meantime the battling churchmen neglect their moral duties to their flocks. Not only does the church militant put on an absurd show of aggression, but it also wastes its energies on infighting rather than fulfilling its pastoral role. The clergyman's duty enjoins neither a theological supersubtlety, nor an eagerness to exploit the ambiguities in an opponent's position, but rather a simplicity and directness that engages both emotion and intellect. This sense of duty is something that Toby and Trim, as soldiers trained "to obey,--and not to remonstrate," can readily assent to (2.15.138).
Toby and Trim's unfraught, practical, indeed, practically unconscious piety is an important clue to the kind of "practical divinity" that Yorick (and by extension, Sterne) endorses. Their mode of belief is characteristically simple, physical, and active, and only coincidentally intellectual. This notion is confirmed in the incident that immediately follows the circumcision. Shortly after the Rabelais reading, Walter and Yorick discuss the meaning of the fifth commandment. When Toby brags about Trim's catechistical abilities, the company asks for a demonstration. Trim' s "honor thy father and mother," however, can only be done with a musket on his shoulder:
--Your reverence does not consider, said the corporal, shouldering his stick like a musket, and marching into the middle of the room, to illustrate his position,--that 'tis exactly the same thing, as doing one's exercise in the field.-- "Join your right hand to your firelock," cried the corporal, giving the word of command, and performing the motion ... --The corporal went through his manual with exactness; and having honoured his father and mother, made a low bow, and fell back to the side of the room. (5.32.469)
Though Yorick expects the ritual to follow the form of the Church of England, Trim and Toby offer instead the Army's version, which has permanently welded together the catechism to the field-exercise in Trim's head. Because of the long-lasting association between the two, Trim cannot describe a commandment without holding a "musket" and running the exercise through from beginning to end. He is forced literally "to illustrate his position." Walter leaps into the discussion to interpret the meaning of the corporal's performance. Characteristically, he takes Trim' s perfect union of word and gesture as proof that Trim has no consciousness of the sense of the words he repeats:
Every thing in this world, said my father, is big with jest,-and has wit in it, and instruction too,--if we can but find it out. --Here is the scaffold work of INSTRUCTION, its true point of folly, without the BUILDING behind it.-- --Here is the glass for pedagogues, preceptors, tutors, governours, gerund-grinders and bear-leaders to view themselves in their true dimensions.-- --Oh! there is a husk and shell, Yorick, which grows up with learning, which their unskilfulness knows not how to fling away! --SCIENCES MAY BE LEARNED BY ROTE, BUT WISDOM NOT. (5.32.470)
But as if to demonstrate Montaigne's axiom, "Example is a hazy mirror, reflecting all things in all ways,"(25) Trim's "glass for pedagogues" can receive a far different interpretation than as mere mechanical gesticulation:
Yorick thought my father inspired.--I will enter into obligations this moment, said my father, to lay out all my aunt Dinah's legacy, in charitable uses (of which, by the bye, my father had no high opinion) if the corporal has any one determinate idea annexed to any one word he has repeated.--Prythee, Trim, quoth my father, turning round to him,--What do'st thou mean, by "honouring thy father and mother?" Allowing them, an' please your honour, three halfpence a day out of my pay, when they grew old.--And didst thou do that, Trim? said Yorick.--He did indeed, replied my uncle Toby.--Then, Trim, said Yorick, springing out of his chair, and taking the corporal by the hand, thou art the best commentator upon that part of the Decalogue; and I honour thee more for it, corporal Trim, than if thou hadst a hand in the Talmud itself. (5.32.470-71)
Walter's comments, though "inspired," quickly seem inadequate when he himself examines Trim on the meaning of the Fifth Commandment, and the "student" outdoes the "teacher." Trim not only understands concretely the duty enjoined upon him, but performs it willingly. In contrast, Walter, with "no high opinion" of charity, has little interest in such small acts of kindness. Yorick immediately recognizes that Trim's fulfillment of filial duty goes beyond verbal intricacies to constitute the best possible interpretation of scripture. Thus, the most effective expression of morality is not to be measured by its verbal or intellectual contents, but by its harmonization of word and gesture, and the attuning of both to the principle of mercy and universal goodwill, as in Toby' s treatment of the fly. Those who fail to grasp this principle will fall into the useless combat of polemical divinity, which mistakes the endless accusation and correction of others' intellectual errors for the performance of one's own moral duties.
In the context of Sterne's practical divinity, religion cannot be reduced to the understanding, but must also constitute an activity as well. Consequently, physical exertion matched by a robust faith (which may not be the same thing as conscious belief) becomes as sound an interpretation as the legalistic interpretive ingenuity of Talmudic scholarship. In this respect, Sterne is quite remote from the mode of strenuous Protestant self-examination that Richardson or Johnson excelled in. Indeed, such self-questioning is precisely the form of Protestantism he criticizes in "The Abuses of Conscience." Sterne is closer to the "moralistic" strain of Anglicanism (using Allison's special use of that term) that distrusts the pre-eminence of the individual conscience, and therefore consciousness, to serve as arbiter of one's faith, and defines religion instead as unquestioning, physically active, and unworried over the fine points of doctrine or religious history.(26) Thus, Sterne's suspicion of a religion of consciousness joins hands with his particular brand of religious universalism: no saving part of Christianity can be inaccessible to believers, even those who, like Toby and Trim, might not understand everything they believe. The Christianity of Toby and Trim is like the old Anglican formula about the mystery of the Trinity: above their reason, but not contrary to it.(27)
Sterne's interest in mixed characterization follows closely from his allowance for certain kinds of religious ignorance, because metaphysical authority cannot be derived from what cannot be fully understood: this is the classic Lockean argument in all its ambiguity, which can be turned against Catholic priestcraft, and for limited toleration of differing Protestant views. This essentially epistemological argument about morality denies the basis of many older forms of condemnation or accusation, hoping to quell the social and political disturbances caused by differing faiths' mutual recriminations. In his fiction, however, Sterne successfully translates these religious and political principles to a new realm, the literary. As Tristram's description of Walter's mixed character demonstrates, his father's slowness to charity, his chronic irritability, his misogyny, insensitivity, or obtuseness do not constitute a sin in the religious sense. Though Tristram might offer the story of his father's hesitation to pay his great grandmother's jointure, he does this only because he wishes to explain his father's obsession with noses. Tristram's analysis of the jointure episode, however, gains rather than loses strength from his admission of his own equivocal nature, the sense that he himself could be equally vulnerable to the explanations of unsympathetic observers:
Defend me, gracious heaven! from those persecuting spirits who make no allowances for these workings within us.-Never,-O never may I lay down in their tents, who cannot relax the engine, and feel pity for the force of education, and the prevalence of opinions long derived from ancestors! (3.33.260-61)
Walter's mixed characterization effectively underscores his insensibility, so strikingly contrasted with Toby' s sentiment, without ever allowing the presentation of Walter to harden into outright condemnation. "Education" here is Sterne's name for individual variations in one's history and upbringing, what Walter himself unknowingly dismissed as feminized "prejudice" in the workings of the mind--and the very "prejudice" that Edmund Burke would later term our "second nature." As far as Sterne is concerned, refusing to acknowledge the power of these kinds of prejudices--another name for the moral ambiguities that accrue over an individual's lifetime--is precisely what encourages religious persecution and endless political disputes.
In one way, the two Le Fevers, father and son, provide a partial solution to the problem of Tristram' s socialization, but only by moving Walter further away from his privileged position of patriarchal authority. Unlike Emile's tutor "Jean-Jacques," they never quite fill that position themselves. Interestingly, the only answer Sterne offers to his embarassingly fallible authority figures, namely the father, the book, or the polemic divine, resides in something non-human, the institution of the army. The army, symbol of the unthinking, collective pursuit of duty, emerges in Sterne's fiction as a crucial moral trope for the practicality and fellow-feeling concretized in Toby, who becomes an ideal-type representing the best aspects of collective masculine feeling. Thus, when Walter, assisted by Toby, Trim, and Yorick, chooses the young Le Fever to become Tristram's tutor, he effectively allows Toby's military values to supersede his own pedantry and indecisiveness in the socialization of young Tristram, introducing the masculine virtues of loyalty, duty, and action to contrast with his own predispositions towards obsessive intellectualism and self-trivialization. In the process of selection, however, Walter unintentionally demonstrates how considering abstract possibilities cannot replace the practical activity of concrete judgment. Hence, choosing a soldier as a tutor implies action, practicality, and an awareness of time that will not allow the main chance--the opportunities of contingency--to go wasted.
Following Tristram's unintended circumcision, Walter reads to the company from his Tristra-paedia while the wound is being treated. Walter begins by enunciating a sound general principle that he can distort in application. Unsurprisingly, Walter's didactic ambitions make him concentrate upon the example he wants before his son:
Now as I consider the person who is to be about my son, as the mirror in which he is to view himself from morning to night, and by which he is to adjust his looks, his carriage, and perhaps the inmost sentiments of his heart;--I would have one, Yorick, if possible, polished at all points, fit for my child to look into.--This is very good sense, quoth my uncle Toby to himself. (6.5.497)
Walter takes up the traditional metaphor of the educator as mirror, and asserts that an educator must be totally free of errors or imperfections, acting in effect as a polished glass free of distortion or defect, a pedagogical instrument capable of representing knowledge perfectly, without any loss or degradation of its contents. This, of course, is the didactic ideal of perfectly transmitted knowledge discussed earlier in relation to Johnson. Toby silently assents to Waiter's goal. But Walter immediately subverts his own didactic principle when he adds that the souls of others are in fact not transparent, but rather opaque, requiring efforts of interpretation to disclose their hidden meanings:
--There are a thousand unnoticed openings, continued my father, which let a penetrating eye at once into a man's soul; and I maintain it, added he, that a man of sense does not lay down his hat in coming into a room,-- or take it up in going out of it, but something escapes, which discovers him. (6.5.497)
What Walter does not notice is that the presence of chance and the degree of unconsciousness ascribed to the "man of sense" have radically delimited his ability to be known; notwithstanding a thousand or even ten thousand openings into a man's soul, such a man is always less than transparent to an observer. At the same time, Waiter's observation also radically qualifies the knowledge-claims of any interpreter of other men's souls: something must also escape the interpreters who wish to see into the souls of others, which will allow them to be discovered in their turn.(28)
Yet Montaigne's "hazy mirror" of example utterly darkens when Walter misunderstands the drift of his own argument and attempts to prescribe ahead of time the gestures that his hypothetical tutor might exhibit. Walter complacently imagines a perfect, perfectly exemplary tutor who "shall neither strike, or pinch, or tickle," while Toby thinks to himself, "--Now this is all nonsense again" (6.5.498). Waiter's list of ideal attributes grows longer and more impractical by the second, until Yorick and Toby wrench him back towards a real candidate:
I will have him, continued my father ... vigilant, acute, argute, inventive, quick in resolving doubts and speculative questions;--he shall be wise and judicious, and learned:--And why not humble, and moderate, and gentle tempered, and good? said Yorick:--And why not, cried my uncle Toby, free, and generous, and bountiful, and brave?--He shall, my dear Toby, replied my father, getting up and shaking him by his hand.-- Then, brother Shandy, answered my uncle Toby, raising himself off the chair, and laying down his pipe to take hold of my father's other hand, I humbly beg I may recommend poor Le Fever's son to you;--a tear of joy of the first water sparkled in my uncle Toby's eye,--and another, the fellow to it, in the corporal's, as the proposition was made. (6.5.499)
Before Waiter's process of selection turns purely verbal (and the candidate, "quick in resolving doubts and speculative questions," becomes too verbal himself to be of any use), Toby and Yorick intervene. Yorick's interposition of distinctively Anglican, benevolist virtues ("humble, and moderate, and gentle tempered, and good") forms the bridge between Waiter's intellectual and Toby's military virtues, making the young Le Fever the best, though not the ideal, candidate for the job.
Though this episode's conclusion of hard-won agreement among sword, gown, and cloth has its appeal, there still remains one interesting problem surrounding this episode: Sterne himself never bothers to represent the process of tutoring itself. Like countless other promised episodes in Tristram Shandy, a fragment is all we receive of this supposedly crucial part of Tristram's life-story. Hence, even the young Le Fever's benevolism is not allowed to sustain itself as a normative discourse. The young Le Fever, now grown up at the time of the debate, is last heard of as he recuperates in Marseilles, waiting for the opportunity to sail back to England, while Sterne moves his narrative away from Tristram and towards Toby's romance with the Widow Wadman.
So what moral can we draw from Sterne's treatment of morality in the educational episodes? One answer might be the odd fate of knowledge once it is pumped through the Shandean circuits of communication and its moral consequences measured. Walter Shandy--failed father, philosopher, and (especially) educator--embodies the risks, though not mortal risks, of knowledge as interpretation.
Walter is especially important for a reading of the moral tendencies of knowledge in Tristram Shandy because he stands as the book's most ambitious (and most ambiguous) interpreter, "a great MOTIVE-MONGER, and consequently a very dangerous person for a man to sit by, either laughing or crying" (6.31.552). He is passionately divided and divisive, an amalgam of aggression and defensiveness in his opinions, always seeking new props for the systems he is building or inadvertently destroying. Because he never hesitates to theorize from his own family's experience, Walter's motive-mongering makes him an unpredictable and unsettling person to live with; yet his interpretive failures can be as enlightening as his successes. As Tristram describes him: "there was a seasoning of wisdom unaccountably mixed up with his strangest whims, and he had sometimes such illuminations in the darkest of his eclipses, as almost attoned for them:-be wary, Sir, when you imitate him" (5.42.483-84). Walter's example is always instructive, though never in the way he intends; this is the worst fate that can befall a didactic writer, though perhaps not such a bad thing for a fictional character.
The figure of Walter is crucial for understanding the ethics of interpretation in Tristram Shandy because he embodies its limits as well as its possibilities. All his energy and activity threaten to boil down to a few simple observations: that every conscious attempt to produce knowledge will yield as much whim as wisdom, and that we must read books accordingly (or suffer to be read that way, too). His fate should stand as a reminder to every person who attempts to write books by reading them. As Tristram's description implies, Walter's intellectual failures can be forgiven only by discounting his didactic ambitions. Those who wish to avoid his catastrophes must be wary enough not to use him as a guide. Yet reading him with this caveat allows us to taste whatever "seasoning of wisdom" he does in fact offer. We could not do better than to read Sterne in the same spirit.(29)
UNIVERSITY OF HOUSTON
(1) "Head-and-Heart Dialogue" [Jefferson to Maria Cosway, 26 October, 1786] in The Complete Jefferson, ed. Saul Padover (New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1943), p. 829.
(2) From "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History," Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, ed. Donald F. Bouchard (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1977), p. 146.
(3) From Alan B. Howes's invaluable Sterne: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974), henceforth cited as CH in all subsequent references, pp. 207-08. See also his Yorick and the Critics (Hamden: Archon Books, 1971). Goethe's comment on Sterne is also relevant in this context: "He is model in nothing and a guide and a stimulator in everything" (CH, p. 434).
(4) Aphorism No. 153 of Assorted Opinions and Maxims, in Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986), p. 248.
(5) For discussions of the polarization of Sterne's critical history, see the works by Howes, listed above, and Richard A. Lanham, Tristram Shandy: The Games of Pleasure (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1973); Samuel Weber, "The Critics' Choice," Institutions and Interpretation (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1987), pp. 59-72.
(6) This is particularly true of Montagu. Compare her posthumous comments of 1768 to the letter of 1765 recorded in Howes: "I like Tristram better than his book. He had a world of good nature, he never hurt anyone with his witt, he treats asses on two legs as well and gently as he does that four legged one in his book" (CH, p. 170).
(7) Aphorism No. 19 of The Wanderer and his Shadow, in Human, All Too Human, p. 310.
(8) From Sermons by Laurence Sterne, A.M., in vol. 3, Works (London: Sharpe and Son, 1819), p. 117, henceforth cited as Sermons in all subsequent references.
(9) All references will be to The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, ed. Melvyn New and Joan New (Gainesville: Univ. Presses of Florida, 1978), cited parenthetically within the text by volume, chapter, and page number. For convenience sake, I have normalized the Florida edition's multiple hyphen- and dash-lengths to standard modern dashes. Otherwise, I have followed Sterne's idiosyncratic punctuation, as given in the Florida edition, as closely as possible.
(10) In my treatment of the emergence of literature as "system differentiation," rather than in more conventional terms such as "autonomy," I am following the work of Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, "`Phoenix from the Ashes'; or, From Canon to Classic" and "Pathologies in the System of Literature," Making Sense in Life and Literature (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1992), pp. 226-43 and 247-71, respectively. Gumbrecht's essays led me back to the works of one of his important methodological inspirations, the German sociologist and systems theorist, Niklas Luhmann. In many respects, the following essay is an attempt to work out the implications of Luhmann's suggestive remarks on morality as a device to "reduce complexity" in his chapter on "Interpenetration" in Social Systems, trans. Johns Bednarz, Jr. with Dirk Baecker (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1995), pp. 210-54.
(11) Bakhtin's historical contrast is between the novel and the epic, but the anti-normative stance of the novel is crucial for his celebration of the process of "novelization" in literary history. See, for example, this comment in "Epic and Novel": "[The epic] is given solely as tradition, sacred and sacrosanct, evaluated in the same way by all and demanding a pious attitude toward itself ... the important thing is [the epic's] reliance on impersonal and sacrosanct tradition, on a commonly held evaluation and point of view--which excludes any possibility of another approach," in M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1983), pp. 16-17.
(12) For the significance of the equivocal and the "equivoke" in Sterne, see Jonathan Lamb, Sterne's Fiction and the Double Principle (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989).
(13) As Weber points out, even a study as fine as Lanham's domesticates the moral, even Nietzschean implications of conflicting interpretations that Sterne explores in moments such as the Phutatorius episode; significantly, Lanham designates the Shandean play of multiple interpretations as "pastoral war." In contrast, my reading of Sterne follows Weber (see n. 4 above) by examining the moral and institutional stakes of multiple interpretations taking place amid all the irreversible contingencies of time. My emphasis on the diachronic rather than the synchronic aspects of multiple interpretations distinguishes this discussion from many of the recent theoretical treatments of Sterne that thematize the process of interpretation as infinitely extended arabesque, inescapable labyrinth, or unbridgeable mise-en-abyme. For interpretation as arabesque, for example, see J. Hillis Miller, "Narrative Middles: A Preliminary Outline," Genre 11 (1978): 37587. For particular instances of criticism celebrating the open-endedness of multiple interpretations in Sterne, see for example Homer Obed Brown's piece (which nevertheless does engage some of the questions of institutionalized interpretation taken up here), "Tristram to the Hebrews: Some Notes on the Institution of a Canonic Text," MLN 99 (4)(1984): 727-47; Robert Markley, "Tristram Shandy and `Narrative Middles': Hillis Miller and the Style of Deconstructive Criticism," Rhetoric and Form: Deconstruction at Yale, ed. Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1985), pp. 179-90; as well as Wolfgang Iser's more straightforwardly hermeneutic approach in The Implied Reader (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1974), p. 275, as well as his Tristram Shandy, trans. David Henry Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988). Two other critics heavily influenced by post-structuralism have linked Sterne's interest in interpretation with a transgressive sexuality, but with very different conclusions from my own: see Dennis Allen, "Sexuality/Textuality in Tristram Shandy," SEL 25 (3) (1985): 651-70, and Frank Brady, "Tristram Shandy: Sexuality, Morality, and Sensibility," Eighteenth-Century Studies 4 (1970): 41-56. Derrida himself, however, takes a very different turn from all these American "deconstructive" and "Derridean" critics in his few suggestive comments on Sterne in "My Chances/Mes Chances: A Rendezvous with Some Epicurean Stereophonies," which uses Walter to talk about the role of contingency in scholarly interpretation, especially in regard to psychoanalysis and literature. See "My Chances/Mes Chances," Taking Chances: Derrida, Psychoanalysis, and Literature, ed. Joseph H. Smith and William Kerrigan (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1984), and n. 28, below. In addition to the readings of Sterne offered by Weber, Lamb, and Derrida in particular, as well as the rich array of post-structuralist readings outlined above, this essay is heavily indebted to the discussions of "post-hermeneutic" critical practice outlined by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht in "A Farewell to Interpretation," Materialities of Communication, ed. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and K. Ludwig Pfeiffer (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1994), pp. 389-402, and David Wellbery's "Foreword" to Friedrich Kittler, Discourse Networks: 1800/1900, trans. Michael Meteer (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1990), pp. vii-xxxiii.
(14) My reading of Enlightenment didacticism has been heavily influenced by Dorothea von Mucke, Virtue and the Veil of Illusion: Generic Innovation and the Pedagogical Project in Eighteenth-Century Literature (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1991); for the literary significance of didacticism, see also J. Paul Hunter, Before Novels (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990), especially pp. 225-302.
(15) For the differences between eighteenth-century notions of didacticism and earlier versions, see Trevor Ross, "The Emergence of `Literature': Making and Reading the English Canon in the Eighteenth Century," ELH 63 (1996): 397-422, esp. 400. See also Gumbrecht, "`Phoenix from the Ashes'," p. 235.
(16) For parallel considerations about the moral and political valences of contemporary popular culture, see Robert Stam, in Stam, et al. "A Symposium on Popular Culture and Political Correctness," Social Text 36 (Fall 1993): 29-35, esp. 32-33.
(17) Rambler No. 4, in Essays from the Rambler, Adventurer, and Idler, ed. W. J. Bate (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1968), p. 11.
(18) For Sterne's self-consciously moderate, whiggish stance of limited religious and political toleration, see this important passage in Tristram Shandy: "I reverence truth as much as any body; and when it has slipped us, if a man will but take me by the hand, and go quietly and search for it, as for a thing we have both lost, and can neither of us do well without,--I'll go to the world's end with him:--But I hate disputes,--and therefore (bating religious points, or such as touch society) I would almost subscribe any thing which does not choak me in the first passage, rather than be drawn into one-- ... For which reasons, I resolved from the beginning, That if ever the army of martyrs was to be augmented,--or a new one raised,--I would have no hand in it, one way or t'other" (5.11.439).
(19) "Prodigal Son," in Sermons, p. 248.
(20) Emile Durkheim, Moral Education, trans. Everett K. Wilson and Herman Schnurer, ed. Everett K. Wilson (New York: Free Press, 1961), p. 26.
(21) Ibid., p. 27.
(22) See, for example, Sir Walter Scott's comments: "Uncle Toby and his faithful squire, the most delightful characters in the work, or perhaps in any other, are drawn with such a pleasing force and discrimination, that they more than entitle the author to a free pardon for his literary peculations, his indecorum, and his affectation" (CH, p. 374).
(23) For the "supplement" and the gradual displacement of the mother by the tutor in Rousseau's Emile, see Jacques Derrida, "... That Dangerous Supplement ..., "Of Grammatology, tr. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1976), pp. 141-64. See, in particular, this comment: "Yet all education, the keystone of Rousseauist thought, will be described or presented as a system of substitution [suppleance] destined to reconstitute Nature's edifice in the most natural way possible" (p. 145).
(24) See, for example, Luhmann's comment in Social Systems: "Complexity ... means being forced to select; being forced to select means contingency; and contingency means risk. Every complex state of affairs is based on a selection of relations among its elements, which it uses to constitute and maintain itself" (p. 25).
(25) See Michel de Montaigne, "Of Experience," The Complete Essays of Montaigne, tr. Donald M. Frame (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1965), p. 834.
(26) See C. F. Allison, The Rise of Moralism (London: S.P.C.K., 1966).
(27) This is Swift's teaching in "On the Trinity." For a discussion of Swift and Sterne's versions of Anglicanism, see Melvyn New, "Swift and Sterne: Two Tales, Several Sermons, and a Relationship Revisited," Critical Essays on Jonathan Swift, ed. Frank Palmeri (New York: G. K. Hall, 1993), pp. 164-86.
(28) See Jacques Derrida, "My Chances/Mes Chances" (cf. n. 13, above), where he takes up just this passage of Sterne to discuss the function of chance within psychoanalytic interpretation. After quoting Freud's approving quotation of Walter in the Psychopathology of Everyday Life, he analyzes the "descent" of interpretations and interpreters through the curious figure of "Democritus--the prototype of the analyst who knew how to diagnose science itself, that is, `scholarship'" ("My Chances/Mes Chances," p. 19).
(29) I would like to thank Michael Seidel and the rest of the Eighteenth-Century Seminar at Columbia for their suggestions on the initial version of this material, and Jay Kastely for his comments and encouragement since my arrival at the University of Houston. Irving Rothman also deserves credit for explaining eighteenth-century typography to me. A University of Houston RIG grant helped support part of the research and writing of this essay.
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1999|
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