12 Books of Christmas: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

I have recently embarked on the exciting and daunting world of internet dating, which has given me the opportunity to answer various profiling questions so a computer algorithm can determine who I am and match me with someone compatible. It’s undeniably narcissistic, but I’ve found that process fascinating – did I realise I was “less polite” or “more political” than my peers? Probably. The dating profile is just the latest in a long string of tools we’ve created and enthusiastically deployed to understand ourselves: what’s your Briggs Myers result, what house would the sorting hat put you in, what’s your IQ? In a way, all of these metrics are the product of Cartesian enlightenment thinking, the quest to understand the universe through analysis and categorisation. I’m sure they’re all very good and valuable, but when I try to understand my own life I’m not sure they provide much explanation. Virtually whatever question I ask about how I ended up where I am with the life and experience I’ve had seems to flounder when I press one of these criterion for an answer. Most “Sorting Hat” quizzes place me in Ravenclaw, so why have my academic results always been poor, yet I frequently find myself taking control of a situation? My desire to do things my way, the best way, has been far more valuable in my career than my grasp of any technical parts of the job – shouldn’t I be in Slytherin, where most of my friends think I am? The enlightenment project of Cartesian reduction is useful in physical sciences, but the for the rest of life I think a different approach is needed – the whole idea of a “sorting hat” is ridiculous and we shouldn’t take it even a little seriously.

I think the bigger answers about who and what I am come from pulling apart my family history, and in particular what I always call the “Genlloud Sickness”, the innate belief dogging my maternal line that we know best and are always right. We are definitely not helped by mostly being right, because that just encourages us. I’m sure that what attracted me to my wife was in part sympathy for a sufferer of a similar strain, the “Ryan Sickness”, the foundation of a common perspective on the world. It turned out in the strange alchemy of marriage that was insufficient, but that’s both another story and the point – life isn’t actually scientific, it’s chaotic yet probabilistic, and the rules that allow Butterflies to cause Thunder storms are undeniably the rules that really govern most lived experiences. However far you dig into a causation, there’s another one behind it, and however precisely you try to categorise experiences, there’s a critical exception.

Nobody understands this better than Lawrence Sterne, and the perfect expression of a systemic rather than Cartesian, organic, complex view of humanity is his magnum opus, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. This is usually, in our hustle-bustle world abbreviated to simply “Tristram Shandy”, but that easy shortening catastrophically truncates the perfect summary of what the novel is really about, or rather, what it isn’t about. The bulk of the narrative is given over in fact to the lives of Tristram’s parents and uncle, and the introspective parts of the text in which an opinion might be expressed are often really about Shandy trying to understand the opinions and experiences passed down to him by them.

I think you could almost pick any page at random and find an idea with huge imaginative force worth unpacking, but my favourite of Sterne’s discussions is the hobby horse – the key, Shandy opines, for understanding a person. What do they care about, and how do they express it? The example in the novel is his uncle’s obsession with the Battle of Namur, which he endlessly recreates with his faithful servant, and the wound from which has determined much of his successive life. I always get the sense that Toby’s recreation of the battle is itself an attempt to understand the world, that if he could just faithfully understand how the chaos of battle had an underlying structure, he could understand the world. In this way, Toby suffers from the same problem that Tristram does, and the idea of a hobby horse is reproduced in both the text and subtext. Sterne’s genius is that rather than making this a simplifying explanation of his point, it deepens the inquiry. The recreation of the battle causes Toby’s injury leads to Tristram’s own near-emasculation, in a kind of playful parallel that nevertheless underlines how interconnected the world is and how hard it can be to predict consequences. It’s the kind of parallel and accidental unintended consequence that recurs again and again in his novel – and in life.

What Sterne offers is an antidote to the mechanised and scientific modern world. He offers us a world of quirky compassion and empathy, where the most important thing isn’t to blame people for the accidents that occur in their wake, but to try and understand them. There are unfortunate events and circumstances in Tristram’s life, but he never expresses rancour. His life is a joke, but it’s one he’s in on and trying to share with us. In simple terms, I feel like I understand how to be a better person when I read the novel.

I also really love the Michael Winterbottom film, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. For me, the decision not to try and meticulously or faithfully reproduce the hugely digressive narrative was a very good decision. Instead, they add their own framing layer to the narrative, allowing them to use the same humanist ideas that inform Sterne for their own narrative. It was a brilliant appropriation of the core ideas, which is what I personally want from the film of a book – I didn’t watch Game of Thrones because it was too close to the books, and I loved The Walking Dead precisely because it remixed the original story ingredients into something new. By having Steve Coogan playing Steve Coogan playing Tristram Shandy narrating events from the life of Walter Shandy, the film structurally reproduces the multiplicity and complexity of the original without needing its verbosity.

All in all, for a novel written as a light-hearted comedy of absurdity, and for a novel which works supremely well in that mode, it is also a deeply interesting and human work that rewards many revisitations and interpretations. It reminds me, always, that we can’t, we shouldn’t, try to put ourselves into little boxes, categorise ourselves, or ever think we’re going to get the definitive answer on anything to do with humans. What’s important is asking questions, taking an interest, and approaching each other with good-natured empathy.

Sterne, Laurence, and Howard Anderson. Tristram Shandy: An Authoritative Text, the Author on the Novel, Criticism. New York: Norton, 1980.

Winterbottom, Michael. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. Comedy, Drama, 2006.

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