Primitive Modernity

A Scene from Tristram Shandy (‘Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman’) 1829-30, exhibited 1831 Charles Robert Leslie 1794-1859 Presented by Robert Vernon 1847

I’ve always been of the opinion that Sterne would have been wonderfully at ease with modern means of communications: his great irony and wit would have made him a great blogger, for sure, but even twitter might have been his natural scene with its short, sharp, effective messages. And how he would have enjoyed scattering emoticons here and there throughout his “The Life and Opinion of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” only if he could, but since there was nothing of the kind at his time, he used hyphens, dashes, asterisks, crosses, symbols  with the same function. He understood, in fact, that signs had a quick and powerful impact on the mind of readers, exciting their curiosity with the effect of drawing them into the story.

This is exactly what I felt when I first read Tristram Shandy,  I was part of it. The reader, in fact, is so central that very often becomes a character among characters but without a definite script. We are invited to make drawings of the people the author doesn’t feel like describing himself, share his feelings, whether of joy or sorrow, or furthermore he demands our undivided attention whenever he pretends to say something important. All of a sudden, we find ourselves part of a fictitious world just like sometimes it happens in the stagings of some modern plays, when actors arrive from the back of the theatre, thus making you feel baffled.

The characters we have to interact with have not the typical stamp of bourgeois heroes, but they are common people like us, with dreams, passions or better hobby-horses, frustrations and disappointed hopes mostly. There is nothing relevant to say, actually. In Tristram’s life, in fact, there are not grand events to be told, but incidents that make him the hero of ordinariness. Of course, his father, just like any other father, had dreamt for his son a future made of success and glory, that’s why he wanted him to be named Hermes Trismegistus, that means not one but three times great, however, it unfortunately turned out to be Tristram only because of a misunderstanding between his father and his Uncle Toby, thus descending from the Olympus of the gods and becoming one of the many, one of us.

The bits and pieces of his life are disorderly narrated and this is the other element of Sterne’s modernity. He was the very first one to focus his attention not only on the life of his protagonist, but on his “opinions”, that is: his mind. He instinctively understood that if he wanted to deal with his mental processes, he should sacrifice the backbone of the novel structure: chronological time. It is, actually, impossible to delineate its plot. Just few examples: the preface is unusually placed in third chapter, he is the ironic judge and spectator of his own conception in the first one – and what a taboo he breaks talking about his own parents having sex -, any attempt of narration is interrupted by digressions and associations, he decides to skip from page 146 to 156 on account of missing chapter 24 – he didn’t feel like writing it –  etc.  Therefore, even if Sterne couldn’t have the support of the studies of psychoanalysis, he succeeded in representing the chaos of our mind on paper anyhow, in a rather primitive way, of course, but it allowed him to have his place among the gods of English modern novel as their forefather.




The Novel Recipe

I: Mr B. Finds Pamela Writing 1743-4 Joseph Highmore 1692-1780 Purchased 1921

As everybody knows, those  writers who are commonly regarded as the fathers of the English novel started to write their masterpieces late in their lives. They were in their fifties or sixties at least, that is, after having done or seen much. Novel-writing was just their new playground at first. Daniel Defoe, for example, had a great writing experience and skill as journalist, but novel-making was something else. It was not about drawing up articles any longer, but rather, creating an organic structure where characters could move and interact for many pages. Since there was no psychoanalysis to help him yet, the simple ingredients he used were: an interesting subject, space, time. For what concerns the first ingredient, he was very lucky, because he was the witness of an age of great changes, that is, when the middle class was growing in importance thanks to trade and new politics. So, if we believe that literature is the mirror of the times, in that mirror Defoe saw the image of a bourgeois hero reflected: Robinson Crusoe.

He was perfect: young, middle class, Puritan, slave trader, traveller and sinner too. He was fit for an adventurous story.That was the second ingredient : the world.  He made him travel a lot, shipwreck and then placed him on a desert island where he remained in solitude for a long time before enjoying the company of a cannibal he named Friday. The narration was linear, chronological. But he felt that in those big spaces and with a few chances of human relations he had to do something for his hero so as to avoid the puppet effect, he needed more insight. So Robinson’s diary became part of the novel and his deepest thoughts surfaced on the page. Realism, intimacy, exoticism: a success.

But, what happens if we modify the dose of one of those ingredients? If we decide to make our characters act in smaller spaces: a house, for example. Very likely the complexity of their personalities will come out better, because the writer will have to deal more with the world inside rather than the world outside. This is exactly what happened in Richardson‘s novels, which are mostly focused on the dynamics inside family circles and their connections. Furthemore, they were written in the epistolary form so the reader was more deeply involved in the agonies of Clarissa or Pamela‘s moral fight between love and proper behaviour.

When Sterne decided to write not only about The Life“, that is the chronological sequence of somebody’s events, but also about the Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, that is his thoughts, he felt instinctively that time ingredient should have been employed in a complete different way. So, anticipating Bergson‘ s theory of “la durée”, he understood that in our mind past, present, future co-exist in random order and that the usual chronological sequence was no loger fit to mirror that chaos in a novel. As no psychoanalysts could have ever given him any advice about it, he created that chaos in a primitive way. First of all he upset the order of the novel and  placed the preface in the third chapter, rather than in its usual place, then he filled the book with digressions, blank pages, drawings, dashes , skipped chapters etc.. The experiment was a successful one, because out of all that chaos the delicate complexity of Tristram’s soul materialized. One last thing, no recipe works without another ingredient, the most important one, of course: “the genious touch”.

A Beast in Disguise


“What a piece of work is a man”: the noblest of all God’s creatures, the very essence of grace and beauty, “infinite in faculties”, in action how like an angel“,” in apprehension how like a god” (Hamlet Act 2, scene 2) or…. is he only just an animal endowed with a little reason which he can’t even use properly? Swift wouldn’t have had the smallest doubt in choosing the second option.In the second book of Gulliver’s Travels, there is an episode that well explains his point of view.

gt5Swift’s hero is in front of the King of Brobdingnad (the giants) with the design of acquainting him about all the wonders of English civilization. The king seems to pay great attention to Gulliver’s boast upon the political, cultural, scientifical achievements of his country, but in the end he comments his speech using the following mordant words:“I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth“.  It’s clear that Jonathan Swift didn’t share the optimism of an age that believed that modern man could reform society using reason, challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith and advance knowledge through scientific method. Quite the contrary. To that “greatness” of the Enlightenment creed, he opposed his idea of the moral “smallness” of man.

gt3Throughout the novel Swift seems to be busy in analysing, dissecting, mortifying man with the only aim of demonstrating his viciousness, ineptitude and ignorance, making him thus meritorious of contempt rather than admiration. His characters are more body than mind and despite their use of reason, they cannot conceal their bestial traits. To convince us of that, he removes that veil of respectability and dignity that seems to characterize modern cultures and, without hiding a certain satisfaction, focuses his attention on those actions (defecating, urinating) or those parts of the body which, for good reasons of propriety, are usually considered taboo. Without that veil man is only a beast, a beast in disguise: a Yahoo.

gt4In Gulliver’s last adventure on the land of the wise horses, he meets the Yahoos, but he stubbornly doesn’t seem to recognize any human traits in them (but we do), even if he meticulously analyzes every single part of their body with scientific zeal, anus included. Gulliver/ Swift shows all his revulsion, lingering on long descriptions which have the aim of exaggerating and distorting, thus making the reader feel the same repugnance. At first he feels “discomposed” at the sight of the Yahoos’ “singular” and “deformed” features, but detail after detail there is a crescendo of unrestrained aversion that makes them become “beast“, “ugly monsters“, “cursed brood“. The act of defecating on Gulliver’s head is the ultimate proof of the degradation of the Yahoos/men, who don’t seem to feel the shame of their actions. But when after a while Gulliver bumps into the wise horses, they see only a Yahoo with clothes on: a beast in disguise.