This is an edited transcript of Will and Laura’s discussion of Tristram Shandy, our first Year of Great Books selection. To listen to the podcast or to learn more about enrolling in this Slate Academy, visit Slate.com/GreatBooks.
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Laura Miller: So, Will, tell me: What did you think of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman?
Will Oremus: Oh, man, where do I start? I guess if I was starting like Sterne did, I would start at the very beginning—although, he doesn’t really end at the end, does he?
Miller: No, he just gets lost along the way.
Oremus: I think that’s probably what we’re going to have to do as well.
Miller: Yeah, I think so.
Oremus: It was fascinating. It was a very different experience than anything I’ve read in a long time. That’s partly because so much of what I read today is 800-word posts on the Internet, you know?
Oremus: But even the fiction that I’ve read for pleasure is nothing like this. And so, I’m glad you recommended it to me, because it was such a departure from what I would normally read that I feel somewhat enriched for it.
Miller: I’m happy to hear that.
Oremus: It was funny, it was witty, it was frustrating at times. I had a hard time getting into it. I found it slow going.
As slowly as I was going, and knowing that I did have a deadline of talking about the book with you—and maybe I shouldn’t say this, because we’ve already told readers about a definitive text with all the great footnotes, and obviously some of the best jokes are experienced only by reading it on the page—but, at some point I shifted media. I bought an audiobook version. This is partly because I was attending to a baby at home while also trying to make progress in the book. And I loved it. It got me back into it. It was the narrator’s voice. His intonation helped me understand things that I didn’t grasp the first time reading through.
Miller: Let’s give him a credit here. What’s his name?
Oremus: Anton Lesser. And I have no idea who that is. Do you?
Miller: Yes, I do. He’s a fairly well-known actor and narrator. And in fact, I have listened to this audiobook. It is really excellent, I agree with you.
In some ways, Tristram Shandy, a book that is so much of its moment, as well as being a famous great work of literature—it’s a little bit like Shakespeare, in that you can get one thing from reading it very carefully on the page, and another from just the sort of flow of it when it’s delivered by someone who really understands the language and is really able to perform it. If you see Shakespeare live, you don’t get every little joke, every little reference, and every metaphor.
And often, some of the metaphors are really hard to understand. But a good actor gives you the forest instead of just tree by tree, if that metaphor makes sense. And so I wholeheartedly endorse doing this, especially with a kind of a difficult text.
So I too listened to Anton Lesser’s recording of it. Because as soon as I listened to the sample, I knew that I was going to get something from the zest of his performance.
One of the amusing things was how he delivered the visual elements. Because at one point there’s a drawing on the page of what sword swashing looks like—just a crazy scribble, like at the end of a fancy old time signature. And I wondered, how is he going to do that, you know? And he did it, psh, psh, psh, psh, psh, psh.
It was really fun to listen to. It had the same high-spirited larkish quality that it has on the page.
Oremus: I’m so glad to hear you say that. Because I do think that the one medium gave me a better appreciation for the other.
To hear the dialogue spoken, I got a sense of the comic pacing, the misunderstandings. People are tripping over each other as they do in real life in conversation. It reminded me of a Monty Python sketch. I got the sense of one tone in which the book could be read, and that informed my reading when I went back to the text.
Miller: Yeah, I always endorse listening to the audiobook in addition to reading off of the page, whether your page is print or electronic.
Every reading is different. Even the same person reading the same book at different points in their life has a different experience of it. And you can only enlarge your experience of it.
Some people are kind of against the audiobook experience because they feel like they’re locked into that reader’s interpretation. In this case, I think it’s an excellent interpretation.
Oremus: How many times have you read or listened to Tristram Shandy?
Miller: This is my third time through.
Once in college and once about 10 years ago, and then this time I went back and forth between the audio and the print version. I wanted to be able to look up all of the jokes. I also wanted to experience the comic momentum of it.
And it differs a lot, because the more I learn about the time that it was written, the more I think I understand what Sterne, I think, was trying to do. What way of looking at life he was trying to advance.
Oremus: Oh, well I wish you would share some of that with me, because that was one of my biggest questions as I read the book.
There are so many fascinating ideas in there, and there’s so much humor and wit. There’s an unreliable narrator—all of the characters are unreliable.
I just kept wondering, where is Sterne in this? You know, who’s speaking for him, if anyone? Do one character’s beliefs represent the exact opposite of what Sterne believes?
Miller: In many cases, they do.
It’s a mistake, for example, to think that as fond as Tristram is of his father—but his father is just a crazy grab bag of crackpot theories. There’s one point where Tristram says, “Walter would take an opinion just for the hell of it. Just to sort of play around with it like a toy. And the more that he worked on it, the more he thought about it, he thought about, well, what could you say on behalf of this opinion?” The more he became involved in it, the more work he put into thinking about this opinion, the more he came to actually believe it. And this was one of the reasons why he had so many ridiculous opinions. That the size of a man’s nose would determine his fate in life, or his name, or whatever.
He just has so many crackpot theories.
Oremus: Yeah. The phrase that stuck out to me was that his judgment was the dupe of his wit, or something like that.
Miller: Yes, exactly.
Oremus: And that really resonated with me. Because as a writer you can do that. You can write yourself into things that you never believed in the first place. But when you’ve finished you’re argument, that’s where you are. And so then you dig in and you stand by it.
Miller: Yeah. The metaphor that he uses—I love Sterne’s metaphors, and I want to come back to his financial metaphors at some point—but he describes someone picking an apple.
And there’s this way that the sweat of the person picking the apple and then the eating of the apple, the two things, the work of getting the apple and then eating the apple, they become merged. So, in working up the opinion, the father just sort of merges with the opinion and devours it. It becomes a part of him.
I know people who are exactly like this. You can see them go from “Hmm, maybe there really are UFOs,” to completely talking themselves into believing it. It’s very funny.
That’s sort of my favorite part of Sterne, these sort of eternal human characteristics that are not huge and grand.
A lot of the literature of the time was about sort of big emotions or situations, very dramatic. The novels of Samuel Richardson are all about evil seducer men chasing after virtuous women. They’re full of what we now call melodrama.
But Sterne is full of these little moments between people where their personality is revealed, or their weird little quirks. Ultimately, all of these quirks make up the men of the Shandy family.
It’s a very male realm, because the women are sort of depicted as behind the scenes making everything work, representing common sense and practicality. They’ve checked out of these ridiculous debates.
I think you can tell where Sterne is whenever he talks about someone having common sense. Those are the people that he approves of. You know, he describes the midwife as a good old common-sensical body, who learned her trade by actually doing it.
One of the ideas in Tristram Shandy is that people know things best by direct experience with them. As soon as you’re developing theories about things you don’t anything about, you’re just in this crazy territory where you’re—
Oremus: Walter Shandy.
Miller: Yeah, you’re Walter Shandy.
Oremus: That’s really interesting. That makes a lot of sense, and helps some of the puzzle pieces fit together for me a little better.
This sort of sophistry—it’s a genuine target of Sterne’s.
Miller: Yes. He was a great admirer of John Locke, which doesn’t mean that he doesn’t make fun of him at times.
Oremus: Yeah. When Walter was delving into some Lockean discourse, and Toby—I don’t remember if he fell asleep or dropped all the tobacco out his pipe—but he did something to really confound the philosophical discussion.
Miller: Poor Walter. He spends his whole life longing for someone to engage with him on his ludicrous theories. And his wife just agrees with him.
She drives him insane by just agreeing with him on everything, no matter how ridiculous it is.
Oremus: Which is the worst. It’s the really the cruelest thing you can do to someone who has spent hours building up the edifice of the argument in their head.
Isn’t it a great tragedy that Walter Shandy was born in the time before the Internet, when he could have found all sorts of equally devoted crackpots to argue with over noses and names?
Miller: He’d be online all the time! It’s true.
He really is bereft. Because his wife just agrees with him, just humors him to death.
And Toby is completely obsessed with military fortifications—that’s the only thing he really cares about. He also is a lovely person, Toby. He’s very Christian, in the best possible way. But he just will turn every conversation back to this incredibly dull subject.
Oremus: His hobby horse.
Miller: Yeah, his hobby horse. Poor Walter is just sort of left flapping in the wind with no one to really talk to.
Oremus: It’s so unfortunate.
I want to get into a little bit more of your thoughts on gender roles. At the time I imagine that writing a book where the only real characters are all male was not unusual, right?
Miller: Well, actually the novel has always been a form that was seen as appealing to women, and speaking to women. Women were great readers.
So it was kind of unusual to have a novel in which women didn’t play a larger role. Most novels were organized around the romantic lives of the characters. And this novel never actually gets to the point where Tristram is making his way in the world. Because before he can tell you about his own life and opinions, he has to tell you about everything that shaped him.
And this is where John Locke comes into it. Locke had this theory that the mind was a blank slate, that our experiences in the world form who we are. This is what we call ‘the nurture argument’ today.
Before that, everyone was thought to have this innate character and personality. The higher born you were, the more sort of refined and noble your personality was.
Oremus: I remember that from my philosophy classes. Locke was the great British empiricist.
Miller: That’s right. He also argued that we should form our ideas about the world as the result of our sensory experience of the world, rather than theories that we’ve inherited from long dead esteemed authorities. This book was published during a time of huge change in Europe, when people were starting to think in a different way.
One of the things Walter represents, with all of these authorities and books that he’s quoting, is this more medieval idea that there were these authorities in the past who always knew best.
Oremus: That’s why he’s always name-checking all of these old dead people.
Miller: Yes. And one of the reasons why he’s so ridiculous is because his knowledge is all derived from books and not from experience.
Not that Sterne was against books. Obviously, he wrote books, and clearly he read very many of them.
The thing about Tristram Shandy is that it’s a really embracing book about humanity. There’s a lot of folly in it. Certainly, if Walter were allowed to do the things that he wanted to do—
Oremus: There would be a lot more folly in it.
He was so worried, for example, that his son’s skull would be deformed by the birth process, that the birth canal would affect his brain in some way—this was another one of his theories—that he was trying to persuade his wife to have a caesarean section, which was practically a death sentence at the time. Sterne just describes her going pale and just shutting that down.
There’s a sense that if he were allowed to just run amok, the results would be catastrophic.
But at the same time, we’re meant to be fond of him.
Oremus: Yes, it’s a sympathetic reading of his father that our narrator Tristram offers, right?
Oremus: I mean, you can glean from it all of the ridiculousness of his ideas. But it’s not ever presented in a way that would make you dislike the guy particularly.
Miller: No. He’s endearing in a weird way.
The same way with Uncle Toby, who is one of the most beloved characters in literature, who instead of killing the fly, puts it out the door and says, “There’s more than enough room in the world for you and me. Why would I hurt you?”
Oremus: The thought that came to me at some point was that Uncle Toby is a fly, right?
He buzzes around and annoys you with all of his talk of sieges and fortifications. But how can you hurt him? You know, there’s room for him to go about his activities in the world, to pursue his obsession with military design.
Miller: Exactly. He’s harmless.
I’ll say in Uncle Toby’s defense that although he does have this tiresome preoccupation, he is also a fundamentally sweet, kind person. Exceptionally so.
I think that we’re meant to see him as very silly, but also as one of the best examples of a human being.
Oremus: One of the values then—I’m realizing this as you talk—is really humanity, or humaneness.
As flawed and as ridiculous as we all might be, and no doubt are, there’s good in us. We shouldn’t be judged or condemned for those aspects of us which are annoying or odd—for our hobby horses, as Sterne would say.
This book, which is really filled with sort of affection and love for human beings in all of their ridiculousness, is profoundly humanist.
The character from the novel who’s the closest to Sterne is Yorick, the parson. And the fundamental thing about Yorick is that he loves a jest.
I think for Sterne, humor is the acceptance of all of the absurdity, the silliness of humanity, the silly things that we get obsessed with, our ridiculous desires, our pretentions, our frivolities. Through humor, you can appreciate all of these qualities of humanity as the essence of the human and love it for that reason. And that is kind of an ineffable thing about the novel. There’s no point at which he actually states this as his attitude.
He is a satirist. I mean, he’s constantly making fun of people: Catholics, learned men, servants and the way that they talk amongst themselves. People at all levels of life.
There’s a few people who he obviously has a much lower opinion of than others, especially Catholic authorities, because they sort of represent the ultimate in absurdly getting lost in your own thoughts, sort of “How many angels can dance on the head of the pin?”
But even the foolish things that people do are part of what makes them human and something that he loves, basically.
Oremus: You’re making me like this book more and more. I really am.
It’s interesting, when I think of a satirical or a farcical work, I often unconsciously assume that there’s something mean-spirited, or harsh, or abusive at the base of it. And what you’re saying is that for Sterne it’s exactly the opposite.
That the humor is meant as a sort of embrace of our folly, and acceptance of it.
Miller: I believe that that is how Sterne sees humor working.
It allows you to accept the folly in every person, and still also recognize, as with Uncle Toby in particular, that they can be silly at the same time, or maybe even do something wrong every once in a while out of their folly.
But you can accept that contradiction in coexistence with their essential goodness.
Now, that’s not what all satire is like. And one satirist who Sterne was often compared to, who he didn’t repudiate but tried to separate himself from, was Jonathan Swift, a very savage satirist. Swift is very angry at humanity for its failures to live up to the moral standards that it knows it should uphold.
Tristram Shandy is not a particularly moral book. It’s not really concerned with outlining right and wrong.
Oremus: Which is funny from a guy whose job was a parson, right?
Miller: I know. It never fails to astonish me that this was not only his job, but that he also published a volume of sermons, By Yorick, which were just his own sermons.
I think that it probably would be fun to be in his congregation or parish, or whatever they call it. He seems like he would be very understanding, and certainly not a hellfire and brimstone preacher. Whereas Swift would be a harsh judge. There’s a fire to Swift’s satire that you don’t really get in Sterne.
But there’s also a broadness, and expansiveness, and embrace of the world in Sterne that Swift never had. Swift was often so disgusted by humanity.
Oremus: Yeah. Looking at this through my very narrow and provincial 21st century lens, as I do, something like Swift’s A Modest Proposal—that would not be out of place on Gawker.com today, right?
Oremus: You’re using humor and acerbic wit as a way to just communicate outrage.
Miller: To flagellate the other side, tear the skin right off their back.
Oremus: And that’s really a wonderfully effect tactic in a lot of ways. But this, as you’re describing, it’s a different end to which Sterne was putting his humor.
Miller: Yes. It’s also a tactic that can easily get out of control.
Oremus: Yeah, he says that, right?
There was a part fairly early on where there’s an extended disquisition on whether one’s conscience can be trusted—
Miller: This is Yorick’s sermon!
Oremus: Was it Yorick?
Miller: Yeah, it’s Yorick’s. So, you can be pretty sure that this is what Sterne believed.
Oremus: Right, OK.
He talks about how, at first the idea is propounded that, well, if someone is in good and clear conscience then they must be a good person.
And then he goes on to remind you of all the people who go around consulting their conscience all the time when it comes to the petty failings of others, feeling very on their high horse about everybody else’s mistakes, but totally overlook their own moral failings.
Miller: Yeah, there’s a kind of humility to Sterne’s satire. The ancestor or the influence that he claims the most wholeheartedly is Cervantes.
And we can see how someone like Uncle Toby is similar to Don Quixote. I think that at one point Tristram says something like, “I’d take Don Quixote over all of the great heroes of antiquity.” It’s because even though he doesn’t actually do anything that heroic, he’s just a sort of a gentle, well-meaning soul. He’s harmless, like Uncle Toby. That there’s this kind of heart-breaking … I don’t want to say humanity again—
Miller: Naïveté, but just like a heart-breaking decency. Even if he makes mistakes.
And that is really the ethos of Tristram Shandy.
Oremus: That’s a wonderful phrase, “a heart-breaking decency.”
Miller: Yeah. Don Quixote is a very moving character, in a way that other satirical characters really aren’t.
And yet, Don Quixote is definitely a satire.
Oremus: I guess Uncle Toby’s fortifications are Don Quixote’s windmills.
Miller: Well, he’s not tilting against them, but yeah.
Don Quixote’s whole obsession with medieval romance, with being a sort knight errant in a world where it’s just not possible to be that, is touching because it’s his way of being good. It’s his way of living an exciting life, his way of turning the most mundane things into something marvelous.
But it’s also, of course, just preposterous and silly.
* * *
Oremus: So, it strikes me that we had planned to talk a little bit more about why this was such a male dominated book. I actually like the fact that we haven’t gotten around to that yet. It feels very apt!
Miller: We’re in the spirit, yeah.
Oremus: Maybe our whole discussion should be leading up to that. And then we’ll get to the end and never really quite address it.
Miller: My feeling with Tristram Shandy has always been that the women are largely offstage because they aren’t silly. It’s one of the weird ways that the book seems very feminist to me. When women appear, they’re inevitably doing something practical.
Elizabeth Shandy has this agreement with her husband that if if she becomes pregnant, they will go and live in London. One of the few places where she expresses a strong opinion is about their return trip from London.
They go to London, it turns out she’s not really pregnant, and so they come back again. She tells Toby that it was a tragic comedy, these two stagecoach rides that they took back, that Walter would weary the flesh off of any person alive.
You know, she was trapped in the coach with him. Usually, once he gets started on one of his tears, she just goes, “Yes dear,” and then goes off somewhere and pays no attention. But she can’t do that in the coach. She’s trapped with him. So for once she expresses her exasperation.
But then she also loves him. You can see that she loves him. She takes his arm when they’re talking about whether Toby’s going to get married. You can see them sort of walking along arm in arm. And there’s a weird warmth to many of their interactions. In a way he’s like a child to her.
She’s a little bit like Blondie in the old Blondie and Dagwood comic strips and movies, you know.
Oremus: That’s a great comparison.
Miller: She’s running everything. She’s very competent. And he’s kind of off doing his ridiculous male thing.
Oremus: So you’re saying that there’s a respect for women conveyed here, because—
Miller: Because they’re not in the story, because the story is about silly people.
Oremus: About ridiculous people.
Oremus: And they’re not ridiculous. And I get that. I get that you’re saying that Sterne genuinely valued that sort of simplicity and pragmatism.
But isn’t there something also a little backhanded in that? I mean, it reminds me of some other notions of that same time, of the noble savage, or like Rudyard Kipling, you know, sort of admiring people for their simplicity or lack of cleverness. Isn’t there something a little condescending in that? Especially coming from someone obviously so learned at Sterne himself. I mean, clearly he does value ideas and argumentation and—
Miller: The life of the mind.
Oremus: Exactly. So what do you make of that?
Isn’t there also a point where he’s on his travels in France and he meets up with a woman there who he finds to be just, you know, living some simple life. Doesn’t he wish that he could just live that same life with her?
Miller: Well, this was the other element of Sterne’s approach to fiction that you’re touching on here.
It has more to do with the fact that she was a peasant than with the fact that she was a woman, because as a person who spent a lot of time in London, Sterne would have been exposed to a lot of educated women. Women who were called blue stockings, ran salons and other kinds of social gatherings, and were very much a part of the intellectual life in London at the time. Tristram Shandy is not really about that sort of milieu.
And then when he goes to France, he has all of these sort of roadside experiences. One of the things I love about the later volumes about the book, even though they go completely off topic, which I guess is not that unusual, is that he’s already making fun of travel writing right at the point where travel writing is starting, in the same way that he’s making fun of the novel by drawing pictures of what the narrative looks like, or leaving pages blank, or making a page black, or just writing this crazy, digressive, mad masterpiece.
The whole travel section is very satirical. But there is one part of it that is kind of serious, and that is the whole vignettes of peasant life, and the sad peasant girl playing on her fife who is broken-hearted because the magistrate, it’s suggested, has kept her from marrying the man she loves out of jealously.
And that has to do with this idea of sentiment, which Sterne was really important in promulgating.
Oremus: There’s the word that was escaping me. Yes, there’s something sentimental.
Miller: Well, sentimental, we say that now as if it’s a bad thing. In Sterne’s time, when the idea of sentiment as an ideal was new, it was a really good thing.
It was in opposition to this idea of authority, laws, rules, abstractions created by scholars in a library, you know, deciding whether you can baptize a child in the womb or not. These kind of absurd, otherworldly or not attached to real experience types of knowledge.
And sentiment was the idea that your worth as a person, or your goodness, or your refinement even, was the result of spontaneous feeling. And it’s not so weird to us now because we still have this idea. It was an important part of the Romantic movement. When we say, ‘follow your heart,’ that is an idea that has its roots in the notion of sentiment.
Sterne wrote a travel narrative called A Sentimental Journey, which was about traveling around in France and Italy. Although I think he barely makes it to Italy, in classic Sterne form. And it was a lot of that. You know, a poor mule by the side of the road, or peasants and their sort of free expression of genuine, authentic feelings and self.
Our own idea of authenticity is something that you have in the country, that you have when you’re less sophisticated, that you have when you’re less educated. That you’re truer in some way to some essential human reality, it all comes back to this idea of sentiment.
Before that, people who were refined or noble were, one, born that way into a higher class. And two, they had the manners that came with that class. So, it was a cultivated thing, and also a sort of innate thing in terms of being an elite person.
Oremus: That was an interest and a value that resurfaced in the art world much later as well. I’m thinking of Henri Rousseau or Gauguin, with their interest in the simple life of the people they encountered in the not then developed world.
Which is why I had earlier—you know, there was some whiff of colonialism or something in this idea that this very learned English gentleman, having read all of these books, then professes—or genuinely does admire—you know, simple peasant life.
Miller: It feels sort of colonial now. But at the time, it was seen as very democratic, which is why you have a milkmaid poet and a plowman poet.
It was the idea that what made you good or “noble”—we now have a sense when we say someone is noble, it’s really about their character, not about their lineage. And that’s how that word has changed over time.
It would just be the goodness with which you see and deal with the world. Like Uncle Toby. He embodies ‘sentiment’ in this slightly satirical Sterne way. He’s not the quickest on the uptake. He does not understand that the widow Wadman is not just concerned about his health when she keeps asking about his injury. And he always assumes the best of people. But he’s lovely. He represents the more clueless side of the idea of sentiment. Sterne, I think, thought of himself as representing a more sort of sophisticated version of it. But still, it was his ability to be touched by this simple peasant girl and her song, her fife playing, and her broken heart, and the fact that she never speaks.
To be really moved by that was a sign of refinement and of, again, humanity that was coming to be the valued way of interacting with the world.
However, we also have to remember Yorick’s sermon, where he says, you can’t just consult your own conscience. The reason why we have religion is because the conscience is imperfect. We still need an external authority to help us see what is right and what is wrong.
So while he generally was on the side of this sort of impulsive, personal, individualized, emotional ethos, he wasn’t sort of uncritically subscribing to it the way later people like, say, Shelley, would.
So he’s a mixed bag. He’s always a mixed bag. I think that he contains multitudes in a Shakespearean way. He doesn’t have Shakespeare’s grandeur, but he has this bigness to him for somebody who’s an impish joker much of the time.
I think that’s what I love the most about Sterne, is the forgiveness in his humor.
Oremus: Yeah. That’s one of the things that makes the book challenging, but also compelling to me. The fact that it is hard to pin down exactly what Sterne himself believes.
It bespeaks this acceptance of opposed ideas. He’s not always coming down on one side or another. He’s portraying different ways of experiencing the world.
There are layers in the work, and it’s hard to say that any one layer is the true layer. You need all of the layers of irony, and distance, and closeness. All of that goes into making the work something more than it could have been if it were more straightforward.
Miller: Yes. You’re talking about the Keatsian notion of negative capability.
Oremus: I am?
Miller: You are.
How Keats defined negative capability is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.
Oremus: Yeah, it also reminds me of that Scott Fitzgerald about how the test of a first rate intellect is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in your mind at once and retain the ability to function, or something like that.
* * *
Oremus: OK. One thing we haven’t talked about is the form of this novel.
It is the opposite of straightforward. The plot is barely there; it seems like an excuse for these extended digressions. In fact, it doubles back on itself in such wonderful ways that you even get chapters that are digressions about digressions.
And “digression is the sunshine of literature,” I think he says at some point. This does come back to Locke again, and Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which is about the association of ideas.
In the very first paragraph, at his moment of conception, Tristram’s mother says, “Did you remember to wind the clock?” Because her husband is such a creature of habit that every Sunday night he winds the clock and has sex with his wife.
Oremus: Talk about romantic.
Miller: Yes! She associates sex with the winding of the clock.
Locke has this idea that in addition to being a blank slate, we have this tendency to associate ideas with each other based on our experience. There’s no natural association between sex and winding a clock, but it’s been established in her mind because she encounters those two things together.
For Locke, we needed to be careful about that. And we see that everywhere, the way when we talk about dog whistle politics. It’s expressing one idea because you know that your audience has been trained to associate it with something else.
But Sterne, I think, just sees this as an opportunity for infinite play.
He’s the original stream of consciousness writer, in a way. He was so amused by this idea, and by the truth of it, that he has this narrator who wants to tell you the story of his life, but he can’t tell you about anything without telling you about something first. He’s in a sort of Zeno’s paradox; he can’t go from point A to point B without going half of the distance first. And then he can’t go half of the distance without going half of that distance.
Oremus: That’s right.
Miller: And so, he just never gets there.
Oremus: At one point, he realizes that he’s actually losing ground on his life because it’s taking him a week to write about a day.
Miller: Yes, and he realizes he’s going to run out of writing time. I guess until he lives long enough where he catches up to the actual time he starts writing. And then there’s nothing to say. He’s just writing.
Oremus: But isn’t that a good a metaphor for life, right? Our lives are digression upon digression, never reaching the climax.
Miller: Yeah, ‘the thing that happens when you’re making other plans’ is really the view that he takes.
I think Locke saw it as a way that we could be led astray, where Sterne just embraces being led astray, because that’s the stuff of life.
At the end, do you really even care that you got almost no details about Tristram’s life, except for the unfortunate incident of the window sash? Instead, you just learned about Uncle Toby and the widow Wadman. I don’t anybody is mourning that swap.
Oremus: And then he also has these sort of devices that we associate with postmodern literature, right? Like the blank pages. He’s playing with the text and bringing that into the - you know, bringing the form itself into the equation.
Miller: John Brewer, who wrote a wonderful book called The Pleasures of the Imagination, he called Sterne’s writing grasshopper prose. It’s a very conversational style that’s meant to represent the way people spoke in 1760.
Oremus: But in fact, it represents the way we’re speaking right now as well, doesn’t it?
I mean, if you tried to logically map out the conversation that we’re having, it would look somewhat like Tristram Shandy.
Miller: It would.
Oremus: So, to what extent do you think that there was a design and a grand plan behind it all versus actually being stream of consciousness?
At so many points, he says, “Well, I’m not going to tell you about this right now. But you will get a chapter on this.”
Oremus: He almost makes it seem like a Thomas Pynchonian puzzle that is all going to be solved or not solved in the end.
Is that just window dressing? Was he really just writing along and following the thoughts as they came into his mind?
Miller: I don’t think there was a grand plan. And I sometimes wonder with those big postmodern writers, if there isn’t a grand plan there either.
I think that he was being witty and breezy and playful. And that the people who read him did not expect a big payoff.
When this was published, it was a little bit like a Netflix series that was delivered in bingeable seasons. They would publish two octavo volumes at a time, each about 200 pages long. I think that there were four different sets published, sets of two volumes. People would wait like two years between them. It was like kind of waiting between the seasons of The Sopranos, or something like that.
They were improvised, in a way. And people read them in that spirit. They were fun reading.
Oremus: He was being, I guess, a little self-deprecating then, at the points where he would talk about how masterful it was of him to have designed the narrative in this exact respect.
It’s funny, if I think of modern writers who write like this, where they keep doubling back on themselves and get wrapped up in minutiae,
I think of people like Samuel Beckett or Virginia Woolf. There’s an element of depression or self-loathing or just futility underlying it. And I don’t get that from Sterne.
Miller: No. But you know that Beckett was a big fan of Sterne?
Oremus: That doesn’t surprise me.
Miller: Yeah, I think that he was not engaged in a kind of battle to dismantle an orthodoxy. There was no orthodoxy.
I mean, there is an absolute freedom to the way Tristram Shandy is written. There’s a sense that a structure slowly forming for what a novel is and what a novelist should do. But he’s just busting out of it before it’s solidified, and sort of making fun of the expectations before they were expectations at all.
Oremus: I guess if you think that hard about everything you write, if you interrogate every word, if you’re really smart and committed to that, maybe that does lead you to anticipate all of the reactions and counter-reactions that otherwise take decades or hundreds of years to transpire as literature progresses.
Miller: But what you’re describing just sounds completely neurotic. And he’s so not neurotic.
Oremus: Right. Yeah.
Oremus: And that’s another thing that confounded my expectations. It’s a satire that is fundamentally humane. And it’s a book that seems neurotic, but by an author who does not seem neurotic.
Miller: No. And the other thing that always amazing me about Tristram Shandy is it was written by not only a parson, but a dying man.
Sterne was dying of tuberculosis all through the writing of this.
And it always amazes me that it’s such a joyful book, given the kind of cloud that must have been hanging over his head.
Oremus: Yeah, that’s amazing. Which again, that contrasts with some other people who got lost in minutiae, like Proust, who was always depressed. He was ill and infirm as well, right? But he didn’t have this joyful sensibility.
Miller: Yeah. He was a hypochondriac and a bit of a recluse, but then also a kind of social climber. Not a great combination.
Oremus: I wanted to get to a couple of questions from people on Facebook who were reading along.
Miller: We had some great comments from the Facebook group. That’s been really fun reading those!
Oremus: Yeah, and some good questions. And one of them, I think this might be a good juncture to get to it.
The question, from Greg Creamean:
I would like to hear a discussion about the end of the book. Specifically, what is the significance of the tale of the bull? It follows the story of Mrs. Wadman’s worries about Toby’s possible impotence.
Miller: Well, another way that Sterne is constantly undermining the authority of the men in the book is that they are all sexually inadequate.
The Shandy bull, it’s the town bull and a sort of common resource that Walter Shandy, as part of the landed gentry, is supposed to supply to the villagers who live on or near his land. And the bull has failed to impregnate this particular cow, and a complaint has been registered.
Walter does not like to have his bull criticized. He favors it because it has a very serious expression on its face whenever it’s mating with a cow, and this wins his approval—which is hilarious.
Oremus: The bull has “gravity.”
Miller: Yeah, gravity. The bull has gravity.
Oremus: An air of gravity.
Miller: Yeah, which of course is the one thing that Yorick thinks is a complete fraud. He associates gravity with tricks and deceit, using gravity as a way to gall the gullible into thinking you know what you’re talking about.
Oremus: I’m sure a lot of that did go on, especially in that place and time in the world.
And that is really seriousness. What we could call now seriousness is the one thing that Sterne really, really doesn’t really like.
Oremus: So, maybe instead we think of the bull’s demeanor being one of earnestness—
Miller: Yeah. So, he’s serious about this activity that is his job.
Oremus: Which is a futile activity.
Miller: Yeah, a futile activity. Yeah. You know, there’s this weird obsession throughout the whole book with penises and whether they’re damaged or not.
And women’s keen interest in them. The bull really just embodies the Shandy males’ lack of wherewithal in the virility department.
Oremus: So, is that a metaphor for life, for all of us as we go with such seriousness about a task which is ultimately futile? Or am I reading too much into it?
Miller: I think Beckett would probably agree with that take.
You know, there are potent men in the story, like the man with the nose who’s traveling from town to town.
Oremus: Diego. Great name.
Miller: I know! Diego.
And Sterne himself was quite a man for the ladies. He had a wife who was somewhat insane, very difficult to get along. And he had quite a few mistresses and affairs.
I don’t think that it’s a personally wrenching issue for him the way that it was for someone like Hemingway, for example. It’s just funny. The sexual impotence of the Shandy men is of a piece with their whole intellectual impotence.
Oremus: All along, the use of the term hobby horse and riding your hobby horse—I could never quite get whether that was supposed to be a double entendre. But there was a part where Tristram says that, he’s been known to to ride one a bit longer that might be thought proper or something.
Was he talking about taking mistresses?
Miller: I mean, there’s almost nothing in this book that is not a double entendre. You know, down to the buttonholes—
Oremus: —And the noses. Are they or are they not a symbol, a sexual symbol.
Miller: The nose is so clearly an extended double entendre. And I think part of the joke of is that it’s so over the top, you know?
I mean, you’re meant to laugh at the smutty joke of the nose/penis thing. But the real joke of it is just how far he’s willing to take it.
Which is, the whole cock and bull story idea, the whole shaggy dog story—the humor of it is how long and elaborate it is.
Oremus: Alright. So, another question from Facebook, from Cheryl Davison Clark:
The first few books are written in a way that suggest Sterne felt he has all the time in the world. The later books seem a little sketchier, less relaxed, and more focused as though he knew he was running out of time.
I guess that’s more of a comment than a question.
I think that he, like a lot of authors, he had more time and leisure to work on the first two volumes, because he wasn’t dealing with the sort of obligations and necessities of being a famous author.
Then all of a sudden he was traveling, and all of these people wanted to meet him. I think that he had less time to devote to actually writing.
Oremus: Yeah, that makes sense.
And then, one more we’ve got from Facebook, from Nathan Canby:
I would like a discussion of how much we think the separate substories and pieces are part of an overall unified theme, story, or point.
I think we’ve touched on that somewhat. Any last thoughts?
Miller: I think that that’s the really big question about Tristram Shandy. When he says that digressions are the sunshine of literature, that’s what he means, that they are literature. They are the lifeblood, the humanness in literature, not the observance of a kind of really developed, disciplined form.
The other idea of the classical art form is that it is disciplined, orderly, according to a pattern. Whereas the Romantic ideal is sort of wild and unkempt and organic and improvised.
The improvisational aspect of Tristram Shandy is kind of the whole point. It’s a celebration of that wildness and unpredictability and the crazy, tangled paths our minds take.
Oremus: So, it’s both by design and not by design.
Miller: Exactly, yeah.
* * *
Miller: In closing, Will, I think we should each identify one favorite thing about Tristram Shandy, if not our favorite thing about the novel.
Oremus: That’s great. Do you mind actually going first?
Miller: OK, sure. For me, I mentioned this earlier. I really, really love his monetary metaphors.
Now, money is not something that many writers try to use in a metaphorical sense, perhaps because it seems like the opposite of what writing is supposed to be doing. But I think that Sterne is really good at it.
One of them is when he describes defining a big word for a reader as making change from a large bill into coins so that people can spend it more easily. I love that metaphor.
But I think the one that I like the best, and just made me laugh out loud when I read it, because it so applies to Sterne personally, is when Yorick compares making a joke to taking out a loan. You make a joke at the expense of someone else; you borrow money from someone else. Once you have the money that you borrowed, you’d prefer just not to think about the person who you got it from. You just kind of go about your business, la, de, da, da, da. But that person knows you owe them.
Oremus: Oh, that was so good! Isn’t he even so proud of that metaphor that he talks about how it runs on all fours?
Miller: Yes! Because there’s a saying that no metaphor can work on every level.
Oremus: And he’s like, this one does.
Miller: This is the one that does. You make a joke at someone’s expense, and sooner or later, they want you to pay it back. They want you to pay back that expense.
And that actually happened to Sterne. He had the patronage of a stuffy older relative, and then he offended him. It’s not really clear how, but probably through his joking ways. And he was definitely paying for it at the time that he wrote Tristram Shandy.
Now, what is one of your favorite things about the novel?
Oremus: One of the things I loved about it that we didn’t talk about is the relationship between Tristram and his father.
I think a lot of people have this sense that their parent, much as they love them, was somehow cursed by getting them for a child, right.
I have a wonderful relationship with my father. I love him and I think so much of him. And try as he might, he was never quite able to conceal the fact that he had always dreamed of having a son that he could build stuff with, that he could tinker with and make stuff.
I just—I am so spatially deficient that I am the opposite of an engineer, and I was never able to be that son. That doesn’t change the fact that we have a wonderful relationship. But I love that Tristram Shandy carries that to the extreme.
The two things that Walter Shandy hated most in the world were short noses and the name Tristram. And so, of course, for a son he gets a Tristram with no nose!
Miller: Yeah. It’s very fashionable for people to talk about empathy now as a sort of political and a social goal that we should all be striving for. And there is this beautiful moment where he says, “Well, you know, yes, my father’s theories were ridiculous. But stop and think about what it felt to him every day to be looking at this son with this chopped off nose and having to call him Tristram.”
Oremus: And there’s a love!
Love doesn’t get talked about much in the book. But there’s a love that underlies that ability that the characters have to see past each other’s flaws and foibles, to see a good person inside.
Miller: That’s very true.
And that’s one of the reasons why we love this book.