Best Sentence in English Lit

From Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742)

The scene is this. Parson Adams walks through the countryside with a chance-met traveler who is holding forth to Adams on the virtue of courage, when a woman cries out in distress. The gentleman discoursing on courage takes to his heels poste-haste, much to the amusement of the reader, whereas Adams responds thusly:

“He did not therefore want the Entreaties of the poor Wretch to assist her, but lifting up his Crabstick, he immediately levelled a Blow at that Part of the Ravisher’s Head, where, according to the Opinions of the Ancients, the Brains of some Persons are deposited, and which he had undoubtedly let forth, had not Nature, (who, as wise Men have observed, equips all Creatures with what is most expedient for them;) taken a provident Care, (as she always doth with those she intends for Encounters) to make this part of the Head three times as thick as those of ordinary Men, who are designed to exercise Talents which are vulgarly called rational, and for whom, as Brains are necessary, she is obliged to leave some room for them in the Cavity of the Skull: whereas, those Ingredients being entirely useless to Persons of the heroic Calling, she hath an Opportunity of thickening the Bone, so as to make it less subject to any Impression or liable to be cracked or broken; and indeed, in some who are predestined to the Command of Armies and empires, she is supposed sometimes to make that Part perfectly solid.”

If this were about plot, Fielding could have said “Adams smacked the ravisher in the head with his stick.” But this is about entertainment, so Fielding gives us a sentence with such contours and detours, so rich in philosophical asides and panoramic sweep, with an irresistible ebb-and-flow rhythm, that it seems to fit the whole of cultural and natural history into a single crescendo of hilarity, with the crowning joke at the end worth waiting for.

But the sentence does more than entertain. For one thing, it allows Fielding to lay out three versions of male identity via the kind of situation and character “blocking” that he had mastered during his days in the theater. Relative to the fleeing gentleman, Adams’s physical prowess is highlighted. Relative to the ravisher, Adams’s good nature stands in relief. When we combine that good nature inversely reflected by the ravisher with the prowess inversely reflected by the fleeing gentleman, we see a dissertation on traditional male heroism encapsulated in a single sentence. Obviously the throughline of the sentence pokes fun at traditional masculinity. And yet Adams saves the day by virtue of a traditionally masculine prowess. The complex point is that the heroic virtue of physical prowess is neither intrinsically good nor bad, but is a secondary trait. Insofar as it is grafted onto an ill-natured villain, it warrants the contempt Fielding so wittily bestows upon it. But Adams’s quite admirable exertion of physical prowess in the same scene speaks eloquently to the substantial value of the trait when grafted onto a good-natured person. We are left with the accurate expectation that strong, combative men in the world of Fielding’s fiction will vary in their moral validation.

The sentence also articulates an essential world view that infuses the larger landscape. It displays a landscape fraught from end to end with all manner of danger and adventure, but framed by a providential power. The “provident care” in the sentence itself is part of the joke (i.e., nature in its “provident care” gives heroic types much thicker skulls since they have little use for brains anyway). But the idea of providence is there, waiting to be recharged. And indeed it seems no joke when Adams quickly tells Fanny that he “doubted not but Providence had sent him to her Deliverance.” (Incidentally, for those a bit nervous about the gender politics of all of this, Fielding is no high feminist, but Fanny, despite this scene, does have a warm-blooded, vigorous temperament that lifts her above both the virgin-in-distress archetype of romance and the faint-prone bourgeois heroines of some of Fielding’s contemporaries; indeed, later in the novel she successfully fights off another ravisher without any male assistance.)

I could go on and on, but let’s face it, when the dust settles it’s the master comic genius behind this magnificent piece of syntactic architecture that counts most of all, the robust humor that makes you want to go back and excavate all the philosophical riches, find the jokes within the jokes, almost as a favor to a narrator who seems to have become in the space of one sentence such a hearty traveling companion to the reader.

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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.

Contraception Flap

Here’s a copy of my recently published Times-Picayune letter to the editor (March 2012)…

Re: “Contraception rule splits America,” Page A1, Feb. 10.

It is ironic that the bishops in the contraception coverage flap rest their case on religious freedom. President Obama’s plan lets every woman make her own reproductive health decisions based on her own faith and conscience.

The bishops object, claiming for themselves the right to dictate to those women what choices are acceptable. Henry Fielding had a great definition of hypocrisy: “concealing vices under the appearance of their opposite virtues” — exactly what the bishops are doing when they claim religious freedom to justify religious compulsion.

Let churches have their longstanding exemption for core-mission employees, but when running hospitals and universities, they should allow their employees and students the same freedom of conscience allowed by other private enterprises.