Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"Good Cursed, Bouncing Losses": Masculinity, Sentimental Irony, and Exuberance in Tristram Shandy

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"Good Cursed, Bouncing Losses": Masculinity, Sentimental Irony, and Exuberance in Tristram Shandy

Article excerpt

Unhappily, Sterne the man seems to have been only too closely related to Sterne the writer: his squirrel-soul leaped restlessly from branch to branch; he was familiar with everything from the sublime to the rascally; he had sat everywhere, and always with the same shamelessly watering eyes and play of sensibility on his features. If language does not start back at such a juxtaposition, he possessed a hard-hearted good-naturedness; and in the enjoyment of a baroque, indeed depraved imagination he almost exhibited the bashful charm of innocence. Such an ambiguousness become flesh and soul, such a free-spiritedness in every fibre and muscle of the body, have as he possessed these qualities perhaps been possessed by no other man.

--Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human

At the end of volume 1, chapter 12 of his comic masterpiece, Laurence Sterne famously confronts his readers with a page completely coated on both sides in pure black ink. The most memorable oddity in a book tilled with memorable oddities, the black page marks the first death in Tristram Shandy, that of Parson Yorick, Sterne's whimsical, laughter-loving innocent. All sail and no ballast, Yorick invariably lands into trouble by exposing, all too wittily, the scurrilous hypocrisies of his more serious superiors. According to Yorick, the authorities' grave deportment is best understood as a "mysterious carriage of the body [designed] to cover the defects of the mind." (1) Eternally tempted to let loose with such witticisms by the shamelessly underhanded behavior all around him, Yorick acquires enemies even more quickly than he can produce bons mots, until at last the knaves confederate and exact their revenge by attacking Yorick in the press--slandering his character, questioning his faith, distorting his writings, trampling his learning, and burying every trace of his troublesome wit. Wearied by this war of words, Yorick finally "threw down the sword; and though he kept up his spirits in appearance to the last,--he died, neverthe less, as was generally thought, quite broken hearted" (TS 1:12.33). "Alas, poor YORICK!" Tristram cries (TS 1:12.36)--and then his startling gesture of absolute opacity.

Haunting in its strangeness, Sterne's famous black page offers a particularly dense example of a rhetorical formation that I would like to call "sentimental irony," irony and sentimentality placed in a mutually constitutive, dialogical relationship. The black page's sentimental appeal both deepens and complicates--and is in turn deepened and complicated by--its ironic implications. An overflow of ink, the black page seems to record Tristram's overflow of feeling at Yorick's death. It is as if, overwhelmed by the task of conveying his sentiments on Yorick's demise, Tristram tries to say everything at once--and therefore can say nothing at all. The black page thus takes to its absolute limit the inexpressibility topos that is the hallmark of sentimental rhetoric: the formula "words cannot convey what I then felt" surely finds here its most extreme expression. And yet if the black page records all the things that Tristram can't quite say, it also registers all the things that Yorick's enemies actually did say. It is as if, outraged at the circumstances leading to his friend's death, Tristram has collected all the slanderous invectives published by Yorick's enemies and deposited them on one horribly inky page. In this light, the black page satirizes the workings of what Jurgen Habermas has dubbed the public sphere. (2) A synecdoche for all the ink shed in all the vicious logomachies of the world, the black page savagely ironizes the Enlightenment notion that public argumentation inevitably produces the truth. (3) Sentimental inexpressibility here reinforces and is reinforced by satiric irony.

In this and other experiments with sentimental irony, Sterne not only hybridizes the satirical and the sentimental, arguably the two most important modes of writing in the eighteenth century; he also brings together a contradictory set of historically specific cultural associations, for the eighteenth century assigned the qualities of mind necessary for composing satire (learned wit, rational judgment, and fortitude of will) to the masculine domain, those necessary for producing sentimentality (naive emotionality, intuitive perception, and delicacy of feeling) to the feminine. …

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