From time to time, my literati friends put forth Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759) as if it were a postmodernist novel 200 years ahead of its time. This is understandable, considering all the reflexivity and discontinuities built into the structure of the text. But on the core issue of human identity, Sterne is no postmodernist.
Human identity, to the postmodern, is essentially fragmented, incoherent, all colliding and discordant surfaces without any stabilizing interior or deep anchor. Sterne may superficially anticipate these postmodern preferences, insofar as human identity in Shandy, more so than in contemporaries in the period from Henry Fielding to Jane Austen, is whimsically determined by each character’s hobbyhorse. Sterne, however, is a man of sentiment, and his sentimental world view is at odds with postmodernism’s intellectually austere view of human identity. In Sterne’s case, the sentimental side wins. Although human identity in Shandy may seem random, even infinitely displaced by hobbyhorsical identity, this arbitrariness is underwritten in the text by a sense of private identity. (And insofar as private identity is perhaps more “private” in Sterne than in other writers of his age, he may anticipate Freud more than he anticipates postmodernism per se.) It may be true that once we get Uncle Toby’s “military apparatus out of the way . . . the world can have no idea how he will act,” but Tristram suggests that the reader has a clearer vision than “the world”: “You have seen enough of my Uncle Toby” to know his “singleness of heart . . . plainness and simplicity” (italics mine). For those who would appropriate Sterne for postmodernism, it may be tempting to see no stable identity behind the hobbyhorse. (Compare to my snippets on Gertrude Stein or Robbe-Grillet.) A careful reading, however, suggests that there is private human identity, and that it is urgent that we recognize it as such, despite appearances, for this private identity is the real locus of the sympathetic passions at the heart of the 18th-century Cult of Sensibility, of which we might call Sterne a charter member.