18. (Laurence Sterne)

Judge the bar to be set where you will, what follows is going to be worse than what I usually write here. I know that a few friends read some of what I post, and that all of these friends are admirers of Sterne; Sterne enthusiasts. I’ve not read Sentimental Journey. The excerpts I have read l have thoroughly enjoyed, so maybe that would be my way in, a way that I’ve been too lazy to pursue.

I have read Tristram Shandy. I laugh at parts, aloud, but I find the novel tedious, on the whole. I don’t want to often write about things that I don’t enjoy, because I don’t always (though sometimes I do) take my lack of enjoyment has much to do with the quality of the work, and my lack of enjoyment surely is preventing me from understanding the work, from seeing what it offers. So I am writing from a position of weakness. But I think that my lack of enjoyment in this case does derive from the qualities of the work, qualities that I might end up describing in negative terms, but which I hope to nonetheless extract and isolate, even if I stain them with the process of extraction.

And I feel like I need to write about Sterne a little bit, and Tristram Shandy especially, because I am trying to work on attention, and the novel is essential as a work that anticipates the Victorians in trying to get the weird movements of attention into a work, of shaping a work by those movements. It is very much a product of the empiricist tradition that feeds Associationist psychology, that in turn feeds the Victorian psychologists.

It anticipates the Victorians, but it also differs from them, and it was at dinner the other night, when a friend instantly pounced on the novel as fitting a lot of what I’m clumsily trying to say about Victorian literature, that I felt that I ought to be form a better idea of how it differs; not only for that lame disciplinary habit of affirming (often without warrant) seismic shifts or fissures in the history of thought, style, or social structure, but because my instinct tells me that it does differ. But to get to attention in the novel, I want to say something first about those qualities that tire me; they are the strongest instincts about it that I have, and instincts are all that critics can follow (how to follow them is what’s learned–though not necessarily taught).

The central point then is my finding it exasperating–“just the point” a defender might say; Sterne is playing on our attention spans (I’ve already hit my key word), insisting that we follow his, that his attention will lead arbitrarily from association to association, that the novel’s openness, of which Tristram Shandy is exemplary, depends just on this possibility, and Sterne flaunts it.  But I know the attention can wander: if this is the chief discovery of the novel, then in hardly seems worthwhile. But of course it must do more.

What I find exasperating is that Sterne performs his tricks of genius at such length; I don’t feel obligated to read all of a novel about the difficulty of beginning, about the impossibility of finding a proper origin, about the wayward agency our narratives take on once we start telling them (these reflections upon narrative start feeling trite as justifications for reading a work). Not because there are inherently bad points, but because I don’t feel like I need to read the entire thing, or re-read the entire thing in order to understand them.  All of these are truths to be reckoned with, struggled against, by writers of fiction—as they go about doing something else. The pure delight in invention for the sake of invention seems to me to ignore that invention comes from the Latin for discover—and that invention for the sake of invention, in Literature, often discovers nothing beyond itself.

I want to know: “What does it do well?” Or “What does it get right?” or “What does it communicate well” where the answer is something in life or the world…something that is not literary. This might make me seem either dourly opposed to the delight in form and style that [finish the sentence] or else as someone who believes that literature gives access to Truths, or worse to Truth. But I’m sure I’m not the former, and I certainly don’t believe the latter–if only because I find myself most philosophically persuaded by irrealists, pragmatists and whatever sorts of anti-foundationalists Wittgenstein and Donald Davidson might be; we might need the word “truth,” it being a basic concept for communication, and maybe for moral action, but we don’t need Truth. “truths” might be incommensurable, culturally relative; I use the word “right” and that word belongs to Nelson Goodman, who finds “truth” so tainted in discussions of arts and sciences (neither seeks after “truth,” he says), that he abolishes it and institutes “rightness.”

These, at any rate, are questions that I ask students when they flail and start asking “what does it mean.” T.S. Eliot had quipped, when asked what was “meant” by “three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree,” that it meant “three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree.” Better to have asked what that phrase does well, or what it gets right, or what it communicates. And I simply cannot answer, even when I follow a handy method and ask what I imagine Empson—the most imaginative and generous of critics—and one who saw most works communicating something about life—who analyzed them as an anthropologist would analyze a shrine—saying. Maybe the novel communicates about all sorts of topical matters that don’t interest me, or that I don’t know well enough to understand. Maybe my set of questions is doomed from the start, doomed to break apart when colliding with a bundle of literature (though I can’t think of many obvious casualties; Beckett, surprisingly, isn’t one, and neither is Swift, and I don’t think it’s the tradition in which Sterne is placed that predicts it–and maybe a few non-obvious ones; I should also mention, while I’m airing my biases, that I don’t think being able to answer these questions is sufficient evidence of an author’s being any good—and I am also not saying that my inability to imagine anyone answering them well is a sign of anything either, except of my own limitations—but they are pretty broad questions and they can be answered for most works of literature; what is Sterne urgently trying to get right? what is he setting out to discover–or is he writing to discovery anything at all? what is he attempting to still or calm in his mind? Comic, as much as tragic, or pastoral, authors can answer to these questions. In the case of Sterne, I don’t know.)

Empson does write on Sterne, incidentally, in an essay (originally a lecture) from 1962, “Rhythm and Imagery in English Poetry”:  Sterne, in Tristram Shandy, used Hume on the human mind, rather than safe old Locke as he chose to pretend; after the book had made him famous he became friends with Hume, but neither of them ever realized that it had refuted Hume. The death of the son of Mr Shandy is announced in the novel, and treated with the rather grim coolness of this sentimental author; one of the servant girls, while the death is being talked about, reflects that she will be expected to wear mourning, but she can’t be expected to buy a black dress; she will have to be given an old green gown of Mrs Shandy, which she had long waited for, and she will dye it black. She goes on talking and thinking about all this perfectly sensibly, indeed rather artfully; but all the time, Sterne keeps on telling us, she imagines seeing the gown as it is now, green, not black as she is thinking of making it. The simple fact that this is possible is enough to prove Hume is wrong, when he takes for granted that we can only think by images. 

Empson is glib here, and yet he is always astonishingly well-read in history as well as literature, and it’s possible to detect not only arguments not pursued, but evidence not offered, behind what he says. But what he’s saying is here only a slightly peculiar way of tracing the obvious connection between empiricist philosophy and the novel: Sterne is communicating on the structure of the the human mind, not only in the narrator, but in the incidents of the novel, that he is most brilliant at showing its being not a unified entity, but of including legions of warring agents.

But while I am complaining, there is something else about Sterne that I find grating, which might, for many, represent a source of pleasure—it is what Donald Davie calls “the persona of capriciously egotistical” narrators that he adopts. I agree with Davie’s description, but would supplement it: Sterne represents that distinctly British tradition of narrators desperate to ingratiate themselves with their readers; narrators who pant and spit into our faces as they zealously perform for us; we are never unaware that the narrators know we are attending to them; we are never unaware of their attention on us.

Granted, most narrators have a “sense of audience.” But this is not the same as an evident craving for audience (the sort that might lead a person to start a blog). The greatest culprit (most culpable and most talented) of this phenomenon is Dickens. Dickens was addicted to attention, and reading him is—and maybe this makes me an introverted reader (I mean an introvert among introverts)—at times draining because he never stops asking us for our attention.  It’s the quality in Dickens that I think R.H. Hutton, the massively underrated (because rarely rated at all) Victorian critic, and editor of The Spectator, was getting at when he wrote in a review of Forster’s Life that Dickens: “Hardly seemed to have enjoyed his visions merely as intellectual perceptions, as food for his own reflection. He enjoyed them chiefly as materials for sensation, as the means of producing an intense effect on the world without…Dickens was too intensely practical, had too much eye to the effect to be produced by all he did, for the highest imagination. He makes you feel that it is not the intrinsic insight that delights him half so much as the power it gives him of moving the world.”  For Hutton, the delight in moving the world moved Dickens to the wasteful expense of energy required by public readings, when he “must have been well aware that no one could have produced with scenes from Shakespeare or from Scott anything like the intensity of superficial excitement which he himself produced with the death of little Paul Dombey or the pathetic life of Tiny Tim.”  Yet Hutton admires Dickens, acknowledges that this eagerness for to effect others, to grip their attentions, was coextensive with his greatness—another essay, “The Genius of Dickens,” opens by declaring, in the wake of Dickens’ death, that he “gave a new province to English literature and new resources to English speech.”

Dickens’ weird eagerness—to digress, appropriately, from Sterne for a bit longer—for our attention invests his work even in unlikely places. Esther is rarely a favorite among Dickens’ narrators not because she is quaint or prim, but because she is herself so desperate to please, and because her frequent gestures of self-effacement, her whimpering that she’d rather leave the spot-light, are either disingenuous as she remains on stage, or else make us grudge Dickens for forcing so unwilling a speaker before us. Pip is not the most likable of the narrators, but Great Expectations is the quietest novel, and this in part because Pip is genuinely ashamed, feels no small measure of self-loathing, and so is less brazen in demanding the reader’s approval, knowing he does not deserve it, and writing in order to better understand why, and to confess to his past errors. The opening of Little Dorrit is a virtuoso performance that preens over its virtuosity.

Sterne is not Dickens, but he plays a similar role as narrator, and that role depends on the same sense of wanting to hold our attention even where he toys with it, leads it into odd corners (confident, usually, that we will be rewarded); Swift, if he is set in the same tradition of Satire as Sterne, is at least somewhat misanthropic in the conduct of his communication.

The pandering is even in as stern (and un-Sterne-like) a novelist as George Eliot, when she decides to entertain us with “comical” or “ironic” observations on her characters’ foibles or errors, reminding us not to mind.

What I’m saying is not just a variation of James’ complaint that authors not address readers, that Trollope too often winks at us about his own creative process–it’s a question about what attention an author seems to expect a reader give to the narrator, to the creative process itself, not as a matter that can be and should be attended to in order to better understand what the work is understanding, but as a matter that the work quite explicitly demands we pay attention to. My bias against these authors—which really is a bias, and not a principle—is against a certain relationship between author and reader (or narrator and reader, if you’d like) assumes intimacy and that asks me to pay attention to him or her, rather than to what he or she is seeing and writing about.

Of all poets—and maybe this is part of why James sees him a novelist in poet’s skin—Browning plays on, plays with this most. (Byron comes a close second, and yet he seems distinctly different, but I don’t want to digress again, since the current digression is already wrapped into a few others). At their worst, his speakers seem simply oblivious that their listeners might not want to listen, so voracious are they to be heard; but at better moments, his speakers are dramatically oblivious of this. Browning invites us not only to feel along with the tedium of the implied listener, but to see that to understand the poem, we need to account for that tedium as a part of the entire lyric situation: so it is in “Bishop Blougram’s Apology.” The journalist cannot get a word in; the fast-talking Bishop is not only defensively making the case for a compromised and compromising worldliness, but he is also indulging in his own vanity, his own love of the world’s attention, as the journalist—that focal point of public attention—can serve to bring.

Compared to Browning, compared to Hardy, to Tennyson, to Eliot even, to Carroll certainly, Sterne is not as often interested—and I don’t mean this as a criticism of Sterne, but as a difference in his intentions (though those are a mystery to me, I do think they must be there, or else the work of such obvious strange magnificence wouldn’t have come about)—in the consequences of attention’s vagaries, lapses, passivity, self-directing agency etc.  The Victorians that I care about not only get attention into the forms of their works, and form those works by following the movements of attention (Sterne does both of these things), but register, record, dramatize, place, whatever verb attention as having ethical consequences in the situation implied by, surrounding, and occasionally presented within, the work.  Because Sterne’s movements of attention in the form of the novel (not in its scenes) play upon, are directed at, alternately exasperating and delighting the reading public, as it was diffusing through the population, the consequences of attention are of a different order from the consequences in Hardy’s poems to his dead wife, Tennyson’s to and for his dead friend, Browning’s to listeners, and even Eliot’s novel’s narrative attention which is not only directed at, but is directed on behalf of, her characters; the attention in these works is situated in particular contexts with consequences that are not chiefly, or even secondarily, those of entertainment, of edification, of toleration (those matters are not unethical; they are crucial in deciding how to live and what to do; maybe considering them in that light would help me latch onto Sterne more effectively). They are not even those of struggling to write a coherent life narrative, except in so far as all works of literature about people struggle to do this, or else struggle to refuse to do this, in some loose sense that is so generalized as to be etiolated.

Wordsworth’s poetry, more often than Sterne’s Tristram, seems to me to both move by the unexpected, uncertain, unaccountable movements of attention and also to set those movements in a situation of which the poem itself is only a part, a situation in which the movements of attention (not the only the judgment of what is worth attending to) are with potentially harmful consequences in the life of another.


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