Tristram Shandy’s Faux Postmodernism

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.

Gertrude Stein’s Ida

While reading Gertrude Stein’s Ida, it struck me that Stein uses words and phrases like points in a pointillist painting. She also uses all the characters who flutter in and out as such points. I’m not sure whether Ida is herself another such point or the limit to the field of points. Which means if the whole novel is like a beautiful impressionist painting with no causal nexus and no apparent psychological depth – points of light reflected on a surface – who or what is Ida, this strange non-character who seems to have many different possible futures elapsing simultaneously. Is Ida really just another point of light? Is she the reflective surface itself? Or is she the distinguishing threat that always lurks within this type of writing – the threat that imagist writers might lift the veil at any moment and expose a gaping psychological depth, a poignant, pulsing human heart, that they thought they had escaped in the proliferating surfaces of their art?
(Related entries: The Frenchman Robbe-Grillet, A Digression on Abstract Art, The Clown and the Tiger, Impressions of Rachael in Spain and Morocco.)