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Saturday, 28 August 2010

Unwinding the Clock: Time in Tristram Shandy



Horloge republicaine: clock dial of the French Revolution, from The Republican Calendar, late 18th c.: image by Kama, 2005

Pray, my dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?

Laurence Sterne: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Volume I (1760), Chapter I

1 Beating the Clock

"Laurence Sterne's great invention was the novel that is completely comprised of digressions, an example followed by Diderot. The digression is a strategy for putting off the ending, a multiplying of time within the work, a perpetual evasion in flight. But flight from what? From death, of course, says Carlo Levi, in an introduction he wrote to an Italian edition of Tristram Shandy:

"'The clock is Shandy's first signal. Under its influence he is conceived and his misfortunes begin, which are one and the same with this emblem of time. Death is hidden in clocks, as Belli said; and the unhappiness of an individual life, of this fragment, this divided, disunited thing, divorced of wholeness: death, which is time, the time of individuation, of separation, the abstract time that rolls toward its end. Tristram Shandy does not want to be born, because he does not want want to die. Every means and every weapon is valid to save oneself from death and time. If a straight line is the shortest distance between two fated and inevitable points, digressions will lengthen it; and if these digressions become so complex, so tangled and tortuous, so rapid as to hide their own tracks, who knows -- perhaps death may not find us, perhaps time will lose its way, and perhaps we ourselves can remain concealed in our shifting hiding places.'"

Italo Calvino: from Quickness, in Six Proposals for the Next Millennium, 1985 (published posthumously, 1988)

2 "...a metaphysical dissertation upon the subject of duration"

Like Locke's doctrine of the association of ideas, at once foregrounded at the narrative surface of the novel and yet made the butt of endless gentle mockery, abstractions like Time and Space are treated in Tristram Shandy as ridiculous bubbles, idle play-things of the dull mind, their pseudo-serious deployment in the text repeatedly undermined by irony and a highly civilized form of wit.

It is two hours, and ten minutes,---and no more,-----cried my father, looking at his watch, since Dr. Slop and Obadiah arrived,-----and I know not how it happens, Brother Toby,-----but to my imagination it seems almost an age.

-----Here-----pray, Sir, take hold of my cap---nay, take the bell along with it, and my pantoufles too.-----

Now, Sir, they are all at your service; and I freely make you a present of 'em, on condition you give me all your attention to this chapter.

Though my father said, 'he knew not how it happen'd,'-----yet he knew very well how it happen'd;-----and at the instant he spoke it, was pre-determined in his mind to give my uncle Toby a clear account of the matter by a metaphysical dissertation upon the subject of duration and its simple modes, in order to shew my uncle Toby by what mechanism and mensurations in the brain it came to pass, that the rapid succession of their ideas, and the eternal scampering of the discourse from one thing to another, since Dr. Slop had come into the room, had lengthened out so short a period to so inconceivable an extent.-----"I know not how it happens,"-----cried my father,-----"but it seems an age.'

—---Tis owing, entirely, quoth my uncle Toby, to the succession of our ideas.

My father, who had an itch, in common with all philosophers, of reasoning upon every thing which happened, and accounting for it too-----proposed infinite pleasure to himself in this, of the succession of ideas, and had not the least apprehension of having it snatch'd out of his hands by my uncle Toby, who (honest man!) generally took every thing as it happened;-----and who, of all things in the world, troubled his brain the least with abstruse thinking;---the ideas of time and space,-----or how we came by those ideas,-----or of what stuff they were made,---or whether they were born with us,---or we picked them up afterwards as we went along,---or whether we did it in frocks,---or not till we had got into breeches,---with a thousand other inquiries and disputes about INFINITY, PRESCIENCE, LIBERTY, NECESSITY and so forth, upon whose desperate and unconquerable theories so many fine heads have been turned and cracked,---never did my uncle Toby's the least injury at all; my father knew it,---and was no less surprized than he was disappointed, with my uncle's fortuitous solution.

Do you understand the theory of that affair? replied my father.

Not I, quoth my uncle.

-----But you have some ideas, said my father, of what you talk about?-----

No more than my horse, replied my uncle Toby.


The central joke and symbol of Sterne's grand comic novel is the clock, which plays a role in his hero's fate from the literal moment of his conception -- an act interrupted by his mother's question to his father, "Pray, my dear,...have you not forgot to wind up the clock? (I.I)

In this initial scene, of course, as throughout his novel, Sterne is "winding up" his reader, who is habitually bound to a mortal finitude by the restrictive constraints of an iron temporality: " our computations of time [laments Tristram's father, a bit later on], we are so used to minutes, hours, weeks, and months-----and of clocks (I wish there was not a clock in the kingdom)…'' (III.XVIII)

Sterne contracted tuberculosis as a young man and struggled with the disease throughout his life. Though already in failing health in his mid-forties, when he began Tristram Shandy in 1658 he managed to complete the first sixteen chapters in six weeks and the first two volumes within two years, and resolved thereafter to write two volumes a year for the rest of his life. Despite the intermittent advances of his disease he kept approximately to this schedule, completing nine volumes before his death in 1768. The entire work was composed under the pressure of an acute consciousness of mortality.

The strategies of extension, elaboration, complication, equivocation, prolongation, procrastination, prevarication, teasing, lengthening, stretching-out -- the strategies, in short, which drive this most digressive of novels -- can be seen to have a common logical basis in the desire to retard an ending, not only of a novel but of its author's existence.

Here we find our author/narrator, after six weeks of composition, fourteen chapters into the affair of a character who has however not yet been born. Tongue securely in cheek, Sterne, through the voice of Tristram, supplies his impatient reader a kind of apology -- or better to say, perhaps, an apology of a very curious yet, already by this stage of the proceedings, familiar and characteristic kind.

Could a historiographer drive on his history, as a muleteer drives on his mule,—---straight forward;-----for instance, from Rome all the way to Loretto, without ever once turning his head aside, either to the right hand or to the left,---he might venture to foretell you to an hour when he should get to his journey's end;-----but the thing is, morally speaking, impossible: For, if he is a man of the least spirit, he will have fifty deviations from a straight line to make with this or that party as he goes along, which he can no ways avoid. He will have views and prospects to himself perpetually soliciting his eye, which he can no more help standing still to look at than he can fly; he will moreover have various
....Accounts to reconcile:
....Anecdotes to pick up:
... Inscriptions to make out:...
Stories to weave in:....
....Traditions to sift:....
Personages to call upon:
....Panegyricks to paste up at this door:

....Pasquinades at that:-----

All which both the man and his mule are quite exempt from. To sum up all; there are archives at every stage to be look'd into, and rolls, records, documents, and endless genealogies, which justice ever and anon calls him back to stay the reading of:---In short there is no end of it;-----for my own part, I declare I have been at it these six weeks, making all the speed I possibly could,—---and am not yet born:---I have just been able, and that's all, to tell you when it happen'd, but not how;---so that you see the thing is yet far from being accomplished.


By a typically Shandean irony, it is the very dilatoriness of Sterne's narrative procedure, with its seemingly infinite retardations and interruptions, pausings and turnings-aside to cast off in new directions -- “But there is a fatality attends the actions of some men: Order them as they will, they pass thro’ a certain medium which so twists and refracts them from their true directions..." (I.X) -- that seems to hold mortality at a safe remove as long as the story, through whatever ingenious trick or ruse or stratagem of suspension or delay, can be kept going.

… for I had left Death, the lord knows -----and He only---how far behind me-----"I have followed many a man thro’ France, quoth he---but never at this mettlesome rate"-----Still he followed,-----and still I fled him ----- but I fled him chearfully----still he pursued ---but like one who pursued his prey without hope-----as he lag’d, every step he lost, softened his looks-----why should I fly him at this rate?


As Time, however Death may seem to lag, remains a wasting force, and as such drives a wing'd chariot, the narrator must achieve his necessary slowness by moving at an ever swifter pace: “-----write as I will, and rush as I may into the middle of things, [...]---I shall never overtake myself.” (IV.XIII) “Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity Life follows my pen...” (IX.VIII)

The paradox of this unique Shandean rate of movement, a narrative development alternately almost maddeningly protracted, and then shockingly sudden and abrupt, begins to make sense when considered in light of Sterne's overall objective -- that is, never to complete things, by never coming to a full stop.

"Now I....think differently; and that so much of motion, is so much of life, and so much of joy---and that to stand still, or get on but slowly, is death and the devil-----"

And we are thus able to begin to understand that for the purposes of the writer the putting-off of tasks is not perhaps the vice it is generally regarded to be.
Take, for example, the case of the parlour-door hinge:

"Every day for at least ten years together did my father resolve to have it mended,-----tis not mended yet…

To mend the parlour-door hinge, in this typically good-natured Sternean metaphor, would be to resolve matters; and the ultimate resolution of the matter of life, of course, is its termination. An end to be escaped at practically any cost.

3 Method (The Serpentine, or Scriptural Indeterminism)


Volume IX, Chapter IX: "A thousand of my father's most subtle syllogisms could not have said more for celibacy."

4 Temporal Structure of the Work


Volume VI, Chapter XL: "I am now beginning to get fairly into my work."

5 White Pages (Time Passing)


Volume IX, Chapters XVIII/XIX:"---You shall see the very place, Madam; said my uncle Toby."

6 Black Page (The Passing of Yorick)


Volume I, Chapter XII: "Yorick followed Eugenius with his eyes to the door,---he then closed them,---and never opened them more."

7 The Score (Rhythm of the Work)


Volume IX, Chapter XX. Cf. Vol. I, Chapter XX: "My uncle Toby would never offer to answer this by any other kind of argument, than that of whistling half a dozen bars of Lillabullero."

8 "Nor marble monuments..."



Some unique marbled pages from copies of the first edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Volume III (1762). ("Nor marbled monuments": from Lucan's Pharsalia, trans. Nicholas Rowe, 1812)

(Marbled pages from copies in the National Library of Wales and Firestone Library, Princeton University: these and above images of pages from various editions of Tristram Shandy, via Tristram Shandy Web)




Thanks for this, such a treasure trove from Tristram, more to read than time (now) permits, but note echo here of Calvino's ("straight line is a shortest distance between two points" in this ---


blinding silver edge of sun above still
shadowed ridge, red-tailed hawk calling
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

theory of surfaces, based on
distance between points

in the first place, measured,
spectral lines of light

blue-white of sky reflected in channel,
line of pelicans flapping toward point

TC said...

Er... one final bit of Shandiana for John B-R, who a few days back, on the first Sterne post (A White Bear) brought up Jacques le Fataliste: aptly enough because Diderot copied not only the style of that book but many incidents, more or less verbatim, from Tristram Shandy. (Diderot was writing four years after Sterne's death.)

Here's Diderot, opening pages::


Mon capitaine ajoutait que chaque balle qui partait d’un fusil avait son billet.

le maître.

Et il avait raison…


Nous en étions, je crois, à la déroute de l’armée ennemie. On se sauve, on est poursuivi, chacun pense à soi. Je reste sur le champ de bataille, enseveli sous le nombre des morts et des blessés, qui fut prodigieux. Le lendemain on me jeta, avec une douzaine d’autres, sur une charrette, pour être conduit à un de nos hôpitaux. Ah ! Monsieur, je ne crois pas qu’il y ait de blessures plus cruelles que celle du genou.

le maître.

Allons donc, Jacques, tu te moques.


Non, pardieu, monsieur, je ne me moque pas! Il y a là je ne sais combien d’os, de tendons, et bien d’autres choses qu’ils appellent je ne sais comment…

Assurément! Je perdais tout mon sang, et j’étais un homme mort si notre charrette, la dernière de la ligne, ne se fût arrêtée devant une chaumière. Là, je demande à descendre; on me met à terre. Une jeune femme, qui était debout à la porte de la chaumière, rentra chez elle et en sortit presque aussitôt avec un verre et une bouteille de vin. J’en bus un ou deux coups à la hâte. Les charrettes qui précédaient la nôtre défilèrent. On se disposait à me rejeter parmi mes camarades, lorsque, m’attachant fortement aux vêtements de cette femme et à tout ce qui était autour de moi, je protestai que je ne remonterais pas et que, mourir pour mourir, j’aimais mieux que ce fût à l’endroit où j’étais qu’à deux lieues plus loin. En achevant ces mots, je tombai en défaillance. Au sortir de cet état, je me trouvai déshabillé et couché dans un lit qui occupait un des coins de la chaumière, ayant autour de moi un paysan, le maître du lieu, sa femme, la même qui m’avait secouru, et quelques petits enfants. La femme avait trempé le coin de son tablier dans du vinaigre et m’en frottait le nez et les tempes.

Denis Diderot: Jacques le Fataliste, 1773

TC said...

... and here's Sterne, writing six years earlier:

King William was of an opinion, an' please your honour, quoth Trim, that every thing was predestined for us in this world; insomuch, that he would often say to his soldiers, that "every ball had it's billet.'' He was a great man, said my uncle Toby...

...the number of wounded was prodigious, and no one had time to think of any thing, but his own safety...
But I was left upon the field, said the corporal. Thou wast so; poor fellow! replied my uncle Toby-----So that it was noon the next day, continued the corporal, before I was exchanged, and put into a cart with thirteen or fourteen more, in order to be convey'd to our hospital.

There is no part of the body, an' please your honour, where a wound occasions more intolerable anguish than upon the knee-----

Except the groin; said my uncle Toby. An' please your honour, replied the corporal, the knee, in my opinion, must certainly be the most acute, there being so many tendons and what-d'ye-call-'ems all about it.

It is for that reason, quoth my uncle Toby, that the groin is infinitely more sensible-----there being not only as many tendons and what-d'ye-call-'ems (for I know their names as little as thou dost)-----about it-----but moreover * * * ----- ...

THE anguish of my knee, continued the corporal, was excessive in itself; and the uneasiness of the cart, with the roughness of the roads which were terribly cut up---making bad still worse---every step was death to me: so that with the loss of blood, and the want of care-taking of me, and a fever I felt coming on besides-----... all together, an' please your honour, was more than I could sustain.

I was telling my sufferings to a young woman at a peasant's house, where our cart, which was the last of the line, had halted; they had help'd me in...-----So I was telling her, an' please your honour, the anguish I was in, and was saying it was so intolerable to me, that I had much rather lie down upon the bed, turning my face towards one which was in the corner of the room---and die, than go on-----when, upon her attempting to lead me to it, I fainted away in her arms. She was a good soul! as your honour, said the corporal, wiping his eyes, will hear...

By the persuasion of the young woman, continued the corporal, the cart with the wounded men set off without me: she had assured them I should expire immediately if I was put into the cart. So when I came to myself-----I found myself in a still quiet cottage, with no one but the young woman, and the peasant and his wife. I was laid across the bed in the corner of the room, with my wounded leg upon a chair, and the young woman beside me, holding the corner of her handkerchief, dipp'd in vinegar to my nose with one hand, and rubbing my temples with the other.

Laurence Sterne: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Volume VIII (1767), Chapters XX/XXI

Ed Baker said...

I just inhaled this... thanks...
I re:find my roots
and never to prune the with a dull ins-true-meant.

"In short there is no end of it."

where the private is public and in the public
is where we behave? (as I recall CO said something like this, on April 19, 1956, at precisely 6:15.357 p.m. Mean Greenwich Time)

"Panegyricks to paste up at this door;
....Pasquinades at that:-----"

TC... thanks again and again

TC said...


Thy punctuality be perfecto.

Accounts to reconcile:
Anecdotes to pick up:
Inscriptions to make out:
Stories to weave in:
Traditions to sift:
Personages to call upon...

Ed Baker said...

... and I can certainly
as when I "drooped-back-in"
to begin-again
writing in 1998

began with NEIGHBORS
which ran it s run to 6 Books about 254 pps
then to G OO DNIGHT about 70 pages
the to and through Stone Girl E-pic exactly 515 = one pages
taking me to about 2003

then De:sire Is and
I got to 2004 with THAT

what? six years? plus what-else erupted
so so now 1998 to today (August 28, 2010) have been?

I can certainly certainly appreciate Sterne's' "run"

w/through Tristram Shandy


I ordered a copy of Tristram Shandy so to read I once had
a copy but it is gone..

I have yet to read it...

well, enough about Larry Sterne... let's talk about me!

SG E-PIC is coming ...

Ed Baker said...

"Thy punctuality be perfecto."

mere Magic of the
moment-teeto, my dear!

I don't "plan" this shit... I just drink a jug of Pure (unsweetened) Prune Juice to get things thusly and
;I learned about Prune Juice from Rudd Fleming

Anonymous said...

I can't wait to get into this. I've only had time to gain an overview and gaze with amazement upon the images. Seeing the French Republic clock is hallucinatory enough for this morning. I'd seen calendars before, but not actual clock faces.

Ed Baker said...

why wait! Salvador D. certainly didn't he continued to wax his mustachio until he ran-out-of-time

Dali also
ran out of pistachios ...

as if to rhyme and
raison d'être... internally

TC said...


The book is one long hallucination of invention, genius and wit, definitely revolutionary in that it sets a whole self-created universe in motion. Perpetuum mobile. I fear it's far too smart and funny and certainly far too brilliantly elaborated for our speed-dial epoch, in fact and alas. But one is said to be stubborn and so though times and climes were not particularly favourable, this set seemed worth sticking to one's popguns on...'twas a near-death experience in other words...all for a bit of a laugh.

One hopes.

The four "downstairs" posts (should you be wondering) were designed to feature the little known contemporary engravings by Henry Bunbury, which capture the spirit of the book and the period beautifully. I like them far better than the much better known work done in later editions by such master illustrators as Rowlandson and Cruikshank. The Shandy website (Italian academic) doesn't have the Bunburys. But there they were, along with a good many undigitized files of other work by the same artist, hidden deep in the large and infinitely fascinating British Cartoon Collection @ the LOC.

(While on the visual side of things, Curtis, I fear I neglected to mention earlier that I much appreciated your leaving a good word on "Sterne: A White Bear" for the little Hogarth --"The Staymaker"-- at the bottom of that post. That is a painting which I find strangely wonderful and mysterious. It has an odd out-of-focus or off-key feeling that reminds of, of all things, Eric Fischl. The figure in the blousy blue woman's night dress, by the by, is a man...)

John B-R said...

Thanks, Tom. I didn't realize Jacques was THAT much TS.

And the late c20 thinks it invented something ... not to knock the times we've lived thru ... but it seems that Ecclesiastes was pretty well right in that nothing new under the sun bit ...

Anonymous said...

Regarding The Staymaker, it's extremely beautiful and pleasantly haunting. It draws you in and keeps you there. It's one of those pictures that I really would love to own (but since it's in the Tate, I suppose that's unlikely to happen). I would never have guessed that the figure in blue was male. Anyway, searching down information regarding The Staymaker, including the prints that were made based on it, pulled me away from the work I'm supposed to be doing for a very diverting 30 minutes or so.

John B-R said...

As I just read elsewhere (Graham Harman's Object-Oriented Philosophy blog: "Now, back to the “nothing new” point… As Kant notes at the beginning of the Prolegomena, it’s always possible to find precursors for any given idea. In that sense we can never refute the “nothing new under the sun” maneuver by anyone who wants to use it badly enough."

So I will have to half take back what I just wrote, because of course that's right ... too.

TC said...


The account of The Staymaker given in the Tate catalogue would have us believe that the work was part of the Happy Marriage series and that the person enveloped in the capacious blue dressing gown is the squire. Hogarth of course would have been quite capable of this sort of joke. (As I suppose would Eric Fischl be, had he lived in an age of rational society.) On the other hand, without that (speculative) archival hint, I wonder if we would not be "reading" the painting entirely otherwise.... reminding me of the determining power of captions, and of an idea that came to me very long ago, while wandering through the Prado or the Uffizi or the Louvre some other of the great museums of Old Europe, that in order to actually have a "true" experience of art in a museum, one should not be allowed to see the captions, at least until one's second visit.

(That said, I must confess to having sacrificed approximately a thousand hours of sleep over the past few years in the fastidious, probably entirely neurotic and certainly totally unrewarded quest of accurate captioning information for every one of the c. 4000 images I have posted... and whenever I realize that virtually no one inspects this information, I am overwhelmed with irrational disappointment... irrational, that is, because, as I keep having to be told over and over, "This is just the internet, nobody cares...")

(And then I always feebly, and usually silently, counter, "Well, Curtis cares...")

TC said...


I take Sterne's work to be the most salient (and interesting) example of interxtextuality in all literature.

He cribbed unashamedly from Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, Rabelais (Gargantua and Pantagruel), Francis Bacon's essay Of Death, among other sources. Swift's Battle of the Books was very useful to him, and of course Locke's theory of the association of ideas was the donkey upon which he pinned the tails of countless jokes.

And in turn Diderot appears to have felt little compunction in slapping whole passages of Tristram Shandy into Jacques le Fatalist, as those excerpts show.

Of course things were different in those days, intelligent people had sophisticated senses of humour. Writers were brilliant and funny. Sterne may be called "Postmodern", but I believe that's a misnomer. Postmodernism is an academic term for academics being bored and capitalizing on boring other people. The 18th century would have seen right through that, and had a laugh.

As for Sterne's own views on the subject of literary borrowing, one may read what one wishes into this:
“Tell me, ye learned, shall we forever be adding so much to the bulk — so little to the stock? Shall we forever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring only out of one vessel into another?” (Tristram Shandy, V.I)

For my part, I've always regarded Sterne as untouchable. That which is perfect can only be degraded by re-use. And in any case, the second temple is never like the first.

Diderot, however, has always seemed to offer room for improvement, all in the name of the advancement of Enlightenment, naturally.

TC said...

....and lest we forget, the subject of a recent post, Robert Bresson, adapted a self-contained anecdote, the story of Madame de La Pommeraye, from Jacques le Fataliste, for his 1945 film Les dames du Bois de Boulogne.

The dialogue for Bresson's film was written by Jean Cocteau, so really it's Cocteau rewriting Diderot rewriting Sterne; though the chain of influence may end there, as in his romantic passages, there is the strong impression that Sterne, unhappy in marriage but never discouraged from continuing in the quest for the truths of the heart, was "writing from life"...

Anonymous said...

I do, in fact, care and really appreciate the captioning information. I think that the citations are really, really helpful also in constructing Beyond The Pale for maximum effect. That being said, I completely understand the other point of view that says not to caption and that captions can impede really seeing and beginning to understand something. Lately, because of the Wittgenstein postings I’ve been thinking about a friend of mine in college who was terribly insecure. Academic philosophy was the berth he selected and he was all bibliography, no understanding. This was apparent to his friends and we worried about him. When it came time to take the written and oral examinations required to graduate, he was “found out” by the visiting examiners and, I think, treated rather cruelly. Later on he discovered what he was really good at doing, exercised his powers of invention and became very successful. I’ll be catching up on my Sterne reading today.

Ed Baker said...

Curtis, et all:



l oo k
at the



Tom and Curtis,

Yes, the captions count -- always something to see (after when seeing the picture). I can imagine those 1,000 hours spent tracking such things down. . . .

And Ed,

No moon anymore here (though we had a few nights during the full moon), fog is back with a vengeance.