Sunday, July 17, 2016

Re-Post: Three Peculiar Pages

This is a slight revision of a post originally published in 2005.

Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, published in multiple volumes in the 1760s, is perhaps the world's greatest experimental novel. That's a fairly bold statement, but if any experimental novel has a claim on that title, Tristram Shandy does. One can see something of what Sterne does with three pages in particular, each of which captures something of the mystery or perhaps oddness of human life.

The Black Page

In Volume I Chapter XII we find a page that looks something like this, assuming I get the HTML right:


It is an elegiac page; Sterne inserts it after the death of the parson Yorick (Alas, poor Yorick! -- According to Shandy, this Yorick is a relative of Hamlet's Yorick). It symbolizes the mystery of death. Death is a black page, something put in the novel which we are almost expected to read (and which we all try to read, as we always try to 'read' death and the mysteries involved therein).

The Marbled Page

This page, which is inserted at the end of Volume III Chapter XXXVI, I can't really reproduce here; for an example, see Tristram Shandy Online.

I say 'an example' because an example is all that it is. It is one marbled page. But the marbling process creates a different page each time. Thus, every single book with a true marbled page has a different marbled page! And that's the point. As the narrator says:

Read, read, read, read, my unlearned reader ! read, -- or by the knowledge of the great saint Paraleipomenon -- I tell you before-hand, you had better throw down the book at once; for without much reading, by which your reverence knows, I mean much knowledge, you will no more be able to penetrate the moral of the next marbled page (motly emblem of my work !) than the world with all its sagacity has been able to unraval the many opinions, transactions and truths which still lie mystically hid under the dark veil of the black one.

A "motley emblem of my work": in other words, the book itself. But the book is itself a sort of presentation of life -- Sterne is constantly mocking the pretensions of the novel to being 'true to life' by giving it, in Tristram Shandy, a task that takes such a pretension seriously: the actual recording of a full life, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. With the exception of a few digressions and what one generally learns about a narrator (who is Tristram himself), we learn virtually nothing about Tristram's actual life: virtually all the long, sprawling, unfinished nine-volume work is devoted to the background that would be needed to understand Shandy's early years. A large chunk is taken to develop the background necessary for understanding his conception, and another to understanding his birth; we already get something of the Tristra-paedia, and would no doubt get more if Sterne had managed (as he intended) to write yet more volumes. The novel's 'trueness to life' is simply inadequate for a serious demand that it be true to life. Tristram Shandy is motley and endless because human life is motley and so individualized -- each person being, as it were, a unique marbled page, whose individuality is so precise it admits of no adequate description.

The Blank Page

The third peculiar page is found in Volume VI Chapter XXXVIII. Shandy has just begun to talk about the widow Wadman, of whom he says at the end of Chapter XXXVII, "never did they eyes behold, or they concupiscence covet any thing in this world, more concupiscible than widow Wadman". He then goes on to say:

TO conceive this right, -- call for pen and ink -- here's paper ready to your hand. ---- Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind ---- as like your mistress
as you can ---- as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you -- 'tis all
one to me ---- please but your own fancy in it.

The Picture of the Widow Wadman, the most desirable of all women, is a blank page. And after the blank page, the narrator continues:

------ Was ever any thing in Nature so sweet ! -- so exquisite !

---- Then, dear Sir, how could my uncle Toby resist it ?

Thrice happy book ! thou wilt have one page, at least, within thy covers,
which MALICE will not blacken, and which IGNORANCE cannot misrepresent.

It might be a bit too pedantic, or too pompous, or both, to say that this blank symbolizes the mystery of love, although I think a lot could be said in such a vein. What we call 'beautiful' or 'attractive' is actually just that which is blank enough that we can 'please our fancy in it'; we conceive it aright when we just let our imagination make it up. And it's surprising how obvious this sometimes seems if you think about the fashion industry, or Hollywood. There are always exceptions, of course; but attractive people are often blank -- not quite as blank as the picture of Widow Wadman, but blank enough -- and all their attractiveness is just what we have chosen to write on them with our imaginations (often guided by designers and directors). In other words, they are attractive to so many people because they are so easy for everyone to adapt for their own imaginations.

But it's possible to look at the blank page a bit differently (one of the problems with the interpretation of a blank page, I suppose). This is suggested by the "Thrice Happy Book" paragraph. The blank page is not merely about the interpretation of beauty or 'concupiscibility'. [Incidentally, the ambiguity of what Sterne actually says about the widow is interesting. He says that our eyes have not seen or our concupiscences coveted anything so concupiscible as the widow Wadman. One reading of that, encouraged by the lines immediately following the blank page, is to take 'concupiscible' as synonymous with desirable; but it could be a play on words, as well, since 'concupiscible' can also mean 'filled with strong desire, lustful', which describes the widow to a T, as she lays siege to poor uncle Toby in order to get him as a husband.] The problem with interpreting concupiscibility can be generalized to all interpretation. By providing a blank page, Shandy purports to give us the one page in his book safe from distortion by malice or ignorance; since there is no right or wrong way to interpret a blank page, it is immune from misinterpretation.

Those are just three pages in the novel. Sterne does a many other experimental things that are fascinating in themselves. But the three peculiar pages are my favorites.

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