The World of Tristram Shandy

In Tristram Shandy the reader enters a nonsensical realm of vision where artists and actors are preeminent. It is a murky world of fecund wholeness where the rationalist sense-makers of the Enlightenment are marginalized and ultimately discarded as ineffective and even counterproductive in their feverish attempts to repair the thrown cog of their providential engine. Any attempts at categorizing or establishing a cosmic causality (winding the clock, so to speak) are ridiculed. Providence is meaningless, rather it is arbitrary fate which rules the universe. There is no causality; interrelations are never exposed in the text. Characters are stripped of their moral niche, there is no hero in Sterne's world, no foundling to be metamorphosed into a true man and heir to the estate. Quite the opposite. The heir ("From this moment [of Bobby's death] I am to be considered heir-apparent to the Shandy family." [IV. xxiii. 236]) is exposed as a foundling, stripped of his place as inheritor because his family is dysfunctional and incapable of providing support or example for successful communication. The Shandy's are paralyzed and they closely define Tristram to be as impotent as they are. Tristram, unlike Tom Jones, receives no spiritual inheritance but a HOBBY-HORSEical mortgage. And he is stripped of even this solace in simple definitions and easily manipulated paradigms by his over active mind, because he understands too well the disorder and impenetrability of the universe.

Tristram sees his family -- and himself -- as struggling to replace the broken clockwork monument of a mechanistic cosmos with smaller, more easily manageable engines, based on specific problems to regulate and order a small, insignificant life. But even here, a single life proves too large for a single set of definitions. Order is still overextended into generalities, to find a self is still impossible because the world itself is mutable. This is very different from what Sterne sees as the Optimist treatment of the world, a world that behaves like a relatively static backdrop to frame the character's interactions, operating everywhere under a single set of imposed rules so that predictable patterns emerge. Such worlds lend themselves to linearity, chapter 1 leads inexorably to chapter 10 and ultimately leads on to completion. Thus, the characters can be progressive; the Optimistic world lends itself to processes of education and moral edification. Literature takes the form of rehearsed morality tales, full of stereotypes and predictable characters. In Tristram Shandy, this ritualized theater degenerates into a dynamic and reactive stage on which the characters are free to improvise their stories. Rehearsed fairy tale like openings and closures and simple causes and effects disintegrate into a total absence of beginning or end. Without a script or an overt teleology, cause is again free to transform into effect, effects to multiply into causes. To delineate a beginning -- even arbitrarily -- would imply that an elusive ending could be somehow reached, that there is some progression and growth throughout the text. Linearity implies that the author knows what happens in chapter 10 before he writes it, how the universe will react. The Optimistic text is edited towards a meaning and the reader has no say in where the story should go, he must follow complacently along. For Sterne, the author's interactive relationship with the reader is what replaces the author's (falsely) interactive relationship with the universe. The reader is but a man, the author can anticipate his responses on some level whereas the universe has too many conflicting voices and is finally utterly arbitrary. Tristram can address himself to the reader, he cannot address himself to a deaf universe.

Sterne's project is diametrically opposed to the theology of reason. His world is full of nonsense that specifically defies the mechanization of the Enlightenment. If there is a God in Tristram Shandy, as E.M. Forster writes, "his name is Muddle."
From the first chapter, the inception of the novel and the moment of Tristram's own conception, we see His influence. The deistic clock is left unwound. Everything is unruly and disorganized. Temporal disjunctions arise from storytelling time's refusal to pretend synchronicity with story time. Out of the subjectivity of the individual's relation to time comes what seems to be digression but cannot strictly be labeled such. In volume VI Tristram draws a self reported digression:

But ultimately the book moves not as sudden divergence away from and back to a linear model; there is no linear model from which to diverge. It is non-digressive because it is so wildly meandering that one cannot find Tristram's actual LIFE and OPINIONS, aside from a few important details, anywhere within the text. Sterne's digression -- the form of his text -- is the essence of what Trim describes in a gesture of freedom in volume IX.

Sterne allows Tristram to free himself at least a little from the high decree of the clock. His LIFE and OPINIONS are not bounded by a shadowy representation of events which the reader will not interpret objectively anyway; they exist outside of the text proper, in the dialogue between Tristram and his reader, a dialogue without substance. The conversational address of the reader by the author is the primary moment of the text -- not the LIFE and OPINIONS per se but the communication and education of minds, even if Tristram is put in the untenable position of anticipating a reader and carrying on both sides of the conversation himself.

Sterne is fundamentally Pessimistic in that he sees order as begetting only greater disorder, but in his rejection of the façade of the Enlightenment categorization of knowledge, he uncovers a hitherto overlooked path towards the self in the very act of story telling itself, the instruction of another mind. Defining a semantics of language distracts from the ultimate reason for writing which is communication: specifically a communication which goes in two directions unlike the self centered conversation modeled throughout the text. By leaving work for the reader's imagination and implicating the reader in the story telling, Tristram forces the reader to recognize himself as an active, changing variable in the text. A strict schism develops in tracing this virtue of communication, a distinction between the counterfeit understanding of the Enlightenment and the underlying dynamics of Nature. It is the very definition developed ostensibly to ease communication, to give words specific, objective meanings, that exclude communication. So how is Tristram to define himself in his LIFE and OPINIONS? Without definition what is left to remedy the sorrow of delusion? Rejection, gesture, the storyless storyteller, and discovering good natured amusement in the face of futility, become preeminent.

© Copyright 1994 Derek Merk

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