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Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Sterne: A White Bear


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Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus), Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska: photo by Alan D. Wilson, 2007

My father took a single turn across the room, then sat down and finished the chapter.
The verbs auxiliary we are concerned in here, continued my father, are, am; was; have; had; do; did; make; made; suffer; shall; should; will; would; can; could; owe; ought; used; or is wont.---And these varied with tenses, present, past, future, and conjugated with the verb see,--- or with these questions added to them;---Is it? Was it? Will it be? Would it be? May it be? And these again put negatively, Is it not? Was it not? Ought it not?---Or affirmatively,---It is; It was; It ought to be. Or chronologically, Has it been always? Lately? How long ago? Or hypothetically,---If it was? If it was not? What would follow?---If the French should beat the English? If the Sun go out of the Zodiac?
Now, by the right use and application of these, continued my father, in which a child's memory should be exercised, there is no one idea can enter his brain how barren soever but a magazine of conceptions and conclusions may be drawn forth from it.----Didst thou ever see a white bear? cried my father, turning his head round to Trim, who stood at the back of his chair:---No, an'please your honour, replied the corporal.-----But thou could'st discourse about one, Trim, said my father, in case of need?----How is it possible, brother, quoth my uncle Toby, if the corporal never saw one?-----'Tis the fact I want; replied my father,---and the possibility of it, is as follows:
A WHITE BEAR! Very well. Have I ever seen one? Might I ever have seen one? Am I ever to see one?
Ought I ever to see one? Or can I ever see one?
Would I had seen a white bear! (for how can I imagine it?)
If I should see a white bear, what should I say? If I should never see a white bear, what then?
If I never have, can, must or shall see a white bear alive; have I ever seen the skin of one? Did I ever seen one painted?---described? Have I ever dreamed of one?
Did my father, mother, brothers or sisters, ever see a white bear? What would they give? How would they behave? How would the white bear have behaved? Is he wild? Tame? Terrible? Rough? Smooth?
---Is the white bear worth seeing?---
---Is there no sin in it?---
---Is it better than a BLACK ONE?
Laurence Sterne: from The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Volume V, 1762 (Chapter XLIII)

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The Importance of Knowing Perspective (Absurdities of False Perspective): William Hogarth, 1754

Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;---they are the life, the soul of reading!---take them out of this book, for instance,---you might as well take the book along with them;---one cold eternal winter would reign in every page of it; restore them to the writer;---he steps forth like a bridegroom,---bids All-hail; brings in variety, and forbids the appetite to fail.
Laurence Sterne: from The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Volume I, 1760 (Chapter XXII)

File:Laurence Sterne by Louis Carrogis Carmontelle.jpg
Laurence Sterne: Louis Carrogis Carmontelle, c. 1762 (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Sterne was a radical revolutionary as far as form is concerned. It was typical of him to lay bare the device. The aesthetic form is presented without any motivation whatsoever, simply as is. The difference between the conventional novel and that of Sterne is analogous to the difference between a conventional poem with sonorous instrumentation and a Futurist poem composed in transrational language...
Upon first picking up Sterne’s Tristam Shandy, we are overwhelmed by a sense of chaos.
The action constantly breaks off, the author constantly returns to the beginning or leaps forward. The main plot, not immediately accessible, is constantly interrupted by dozens of pages filled with whimsical deliberations on the influence of a person’s nose or name on his character or else with discussions of fortifications.
The book opens, as it were, in the spirit of autobiography, but soon it is deflected from its course by a description of the hero’s birth. Nevertheless, our hero, pushed aside by material interpolated into the novel, cannot, it appears, get born.
Tristram Shandy turns into a description of one day. Let me quote Sterne himself:
I will not finish that sentence till I have made an observation upon the strange state of affairs between the reader and myself, just as things stand at present—an observation never applicable before to any one biographical writer since the creation of the world; but to myself—and I believe will never hold good to any other, until its final destruction—and therefore, for the very novelty of it alone, it must be worth your worships attending to.
I am this month one whole year older than I was this time twelve-month; and having got, as you perceive, almost into the middle of my fourth volume—and no farther than to my first day’s life—’tis demonstrative that I have three hundred and sixty-four days more life to write just now, than when I first set out; so that instead of advancing, as a common writer, in my work with what I have been doing at it—on the contrary, I am just thrown so many volumes back—
But when you examine the structure of the book more closely, you perceive first of all that this disorder is intentional. There is method to Sterne’s madness. It is as regular as a painting by Picasso.
Everything in the novel has been displaced and rearranged...
It is common practice to assert that Tristram Shandy is not a novel. Those who speak in this way regard opera alone as true music, while a symphony for them is mere chaos.
Tristram Shandy is the most typical novel in world literature.
Viktor Shklovsky: from Laurence Sterne: The Novel as Parody, 1925


Ed Baker said...

"But when you examine the structure of the book more closely, you perceive first of all that this disorder is intentional. There is method to Sterne’s madness. It is as regular as a painting by Picasso."

what drove me to my present lunacy was the never-ending conjugating of verbs... especially in the conditional tenses..

then add to the "hodge-podge" diagramming sentences

when I read/inhaled ' The Life and Opinions Tristram' Shandy" I discovered my 'other' self

Anonymous said...

This morning's and yesterday's posts (Wittgenstein and those great lions going in opposite directions) have given me pleasure and a lot to chew on. I'm going to stay with this today and continue what I think will be a frustrating exercise trying to determine whether the term "squeleton", which I read this morning, actually describes something slightly different than we we think of as "skeleton" or is just a typo. It appeared in news coverage of a new submerged cave/early human discovery made in Quintana Roo. I have never read Tristram Shandy, but have always wanted to.

TC said...

The idea that if one has the appropriate grammatical constructions on hand, one can talk about something even though one (like corporal Trim) has never seen it --

"no one idea can enter his brain how barren soever but a magazine of conceptions and conclusions may be drawn forth from it" --

has a touch of the Wittgenstein "language-game" in it. Though of course Sterne is unceasingly hilarious.

Rereading Tristram Shandy, I fell in love with it all over again. Utter genius.

I am aware some become impatient with Sterne. A teacher I much admired at university recommended that we save time by reading only every seventh page. "You'll get the overall effect". Shameful advice, when one looks back upon it. Imagine walking through a field of wildflowers and purposively allowing oneself a glimpse of only every seventh blossom. Save time, get the overall effect, forsake the pleasure. (In thus wise Literature is transformed into Information.)

TC said...


In the spirit of the determinedly digressive Sterne, about that "squeleton": I think it's merely the spelling used by those who insist on being dragged into the present kicking and screaming.

Personally, I like using it.

Squeleton, squeleton, squeleton.

It's so much more... osseous, is that the word?

Anyway, again in the spirit of Sterne, I scratched around until there turned up some underwater photos of those flooded caves, with the bones of the prehistoric child.

(Something in me wished they'd left the remains in peace down there instead of boxing them up in those plastic sample containers.)



Great to be greeted with this just now, just before sun will/may/might come up over the ridge. Sterne taking apart the construction of the language 'way back when' becomes our 'contemporary' -- not pre- or early but thoroughly postmodern. I have been standing beside the window watching the ridge, waiting to see the first edge of sun 'appear' up there there (will it? when will it? perhaps it will not?), sky getting brighter and brighter, shimmering it seemed, and then suddenly it was there, that first edge of it, in the space between two trees. . . . But I have here digressed, how nice to SEE that real white polar bear. Tristram Shady's father would be pleased since, "'Tis the fact I want") . . . .


light coming into sky above still black
ridge, white circle of moon by branches
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

view of time after two weeks,
“field in the full sun”

perception of thing in light,
i.e., as radiant itself

silver of sunlight reflected in channel,
shadowed green canyon of ridge above it

TC said...


In the context of the ongoing work, your divina commedia of the ridge, the wave and the channels, this moment of sunlight flooding the poem after the long obscure spell reminds me of the moment when Matelda shows up in the earthly paradise and everything is flooded with light.

. said...

'Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine,...'. Brilliant! Almost a life quote. Really enjoyed this Tom.

John B-R said...

Have you ever read Diderot's Jacques the Fatalist. References Sterne every third page, and make a virtue out of saluting him. I'm reading it now. "What the devil was she doing standing in the doorway?"Great stuff. Thanks for this.

manik sharma said...

helloo tom...i read on aditya's post about the harrowing weak you've just had...wishing you well..hope you both are better now ...
take care !!



"Everything in the ['divina comedia'] has been displaced and rearranged." ---


grey whiteness of fog against invisible
ridge, black shapes of leaves on branch
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

permanent sensation, ‘to see
if world is still there’

given that, such as possible
“experience” of it, how

cloudless blue sky reflected in channel,
wingspan of cormorant flapping above it

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Wonderful post, Tom.

God, how it reminds me of how very much I love this book.


Anonymous said...

"Osseous" is indeed the word. Thank you for explaining "squeleton" question also; it's a great spelling and suggests mystery/spy novels of the future: "Murder On Squeleton Cay" might work. The "every seventh" page suggestion, shameful as it may be, brings to mind clever student tricks undertaken for test-taking purposes. The professor sounds like a real person. Yes -- they shouldn't have disturbed the child's grave, but in Mexico they sometimes have their priorities mixed up, I think. There are reasons for this. All of the illustrations, but particularly the Hogarth, are terrific.



Thank you again for this -- "---Is it? Was it? Will it be? Would it be? May it be? And these again put negatively, Is it not? Was it not? Ought it not?---" . . . .


light coming into sky above still black
ridge, planet next to moon above branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

position there what is meant
by that, not as measure

of something that came to be,
peripheral, seeing that

grey-white of fog against top of ridge,
cormorant flapping across toward point

TC said...

Thanks all, sorry to be a bit tardy, the old squeleton in a bit of an osseous state.

Curtis, that professor was indeed, in my mind, a very great man, despite his impatience with Sterne.

He had written on the 18th century, though by specialization he was actually a "Renaissance man" as the phrase was (and probably still is, for that matter). He was a great lecturer, but was a private fellow, withdrawn, unassuming and thus not much favoured in the popularity rankings. One of his graduate students, a woman, had once followed him to France on one of his scholarly expeditions into the Spenserian underwood. He had later married her. He was a loner and regarded as eccentric. He had a small mustache and broken lenses in his hornrims, which, wonderfully, he never had repaired. I have a vivid memory image of him standing on the steps of the library on the supposed doomsday of the Cuban Missile Crisis, while campus orators, including Tom Hayden, held forth concerning the imminent nuclear war, its unwisdom, etc. I remember him sinking back into the shadows beneath the pediment, sadly shaking his head.

It was at that moment I first recognized the ultimate futility of scholasticism.

Don, I too, as will be all too evident from the above mountain of Shandiana, have rediscovered my great love for this book.

John B-R, about Tristram and Jacques, I've worked up some comparisons for you here.

And yes Leigh, the "sunshine" line could do nicely for a life...