Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"The Things Themselves": Origins and Originality in Sterne's Sermons

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"The Things Themselves": Origins and Originality in Sterne's Sermons

Article excerpt

I set no small store by myself upon this very account, that my reader has never yet been able to guess at anything. And in this, Sir, I am of so nice and singular a humour, that if I thought you was able to form the least judgment or probable conjecture to yourself, of what was to come in the next page,--I would tear it out of my book.

Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (1)

It is no surprise to see Tristram Shandy as something of an "original." It was certainly received as singular by its initial readership, and subsequent criticism has continued this tradition. Nevertheless, when Tristram so loudly proclaims his singularity, we are right to detect Sternean irony working at the expense of Tristram's pride, for this claim to originaliy is paradoxically very common. Indeed, by the time Tristram makes this claim in 1759, he would appear to be somewhat belated, for, by the mid-eighteenth century, poetic concern with originality had come into full bloom. In the same year Edward Young published Conjectures on Original Composition, in which work Samuel Johnson "was surprized to find Young receive as novelties, what he [Johnson] thought very common maxims." (2) Under the aegis of Longinus's On the Sublime, which declared that "the whole universe is not sufficient, for the extensive reach and piercing speculation of the human understanding," (3) poetic authority had begun to derive not from the external criteria of imitation (of "nature," the ancients), but rather from the internal criteria of the poet's imagination. Since the Restoration, Milton's Paradise Lost had laid claim to greatness in tackling "things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme," and Dryden had begun the valorization of Shakespeare as the untutored "original genius." In the early eighteenth century, Addison popularized the notions of original genius and the subjective pleasures of the imagination. (4) Accompanying these developments is a new sense of authorial identity arising in connection with copyright, a product of an expanding print culture which required the definition of literary property in terms of originality and problematized the notion of what cons titutes the literary object. (5)

But Sterne is not merely taking advantage of (and mocking) the growing fashion for originality, which, in the examples above, consists in uniqueness. He is also highly aware of the existential and ontological ambiguities in the accompanying notion of origins (which emphasizes priority). Tristram's Quixotic attempt at completeness--his determination to begin ab ovo and explain all attendant circumstances--reveals that, in his existential search for origins (parentage, character, identity), Tristram is forever causing them to recede. At the ontological level, the book itself, published at the dawn of the age of mechanical reproduction, is a studied attempt to problematize issues of originality, using the very physical form of the book to question the technology which produces identical copies of an "original." (6) We shall see that the disseminative powers of print have implications for the personal identity of the autobiographical subject who invests his self into his writing. Here Sterne is taking up a half- century debate initially sparked by John Locke's location of identity in consciousness--a theoretical position that allowed for the possibility of multiple selves as awareness of one's actions changed over time. (7) Complementing and complicating Sterne's awareness of the originality paradox and Lockean puzzles of identity is "plagiarism," long an issue in his writings, which Sterne himself playfully acknowledges by the most famous plagiarism in Tristram Shandy--a passage declaiming against plagiarism stolen from Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. (8)

In his 1981 article, "Sterne's System of Imitation," Jonathan Lamb explores the originality paradox with a focus on "original imitation"-- Sterne's creative use of his sources. The "system of imitation" which Lamb identifies in this study of literary relations is a mode of thinking which is metaleptic: "Tristram finds what he believes and feels very often by travelling through texts, reading himself in them and writing down the result. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.