LET ‘EM LAUGH
Tristram Shandy and the Humanity of Laughter
James Sloan Allen
Everybody likes to laugh. It feels good, and it can turn darkness into light. “Humor is the great thing, the saving thing,” said Mark Twain. “The minute it crops up, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit takes their place.” Comedy can even help cure illness or at least assuage pain. The renowned critic Norman Cousins demonstrated this when he curtailed a debilitating disease with funny films (and vitamin C), as he reported in Anatomy of an Illness. Nowadays some hospitals offer an internal television channel of full-time comedy called the Chuckle Channel to spur health and counter the often unhealthfully disheartening TV fare of daily news and violent entertainment.
No one has known the power—and humanity—of laughter better, or written about it with greater genius and deeper affection than that genial Anglican cleric and ribald comic novelist of the eighteenth century, Laurence Sterne. His Tristram Shandy remains the quintessential comic novel of all time.
Many people today find Tristram Shandy unreadable. Its abundant allusions to other books, its frequent breaks and odd punctuation, its blank, black, and mottled pages, its fractured chronology, and its long, tangled, Shandean digressions can try patience. But it lives as a book that everyone should read for many reasons. No less a reader than Sterne’s contemporary Thomas Jefferson said in a letter that “the writings of Sterne form the best course of morality that ever was written.” Later Friedrich Nietzsche lauded Sterne (in Human, All-Too Human) as “the most liberated spirit of all time” for his unconventional prose and lively embrace of life’s ambiguities and vicissitudes. Johann von Goethe declared (in Wilhelm Meister’s Wanderjahre) that Sterne was “the first who lifted us above pedantry and philistinism” and “was the most beautiful spirit who ever created; anyone who reads him immediately feels full and beautiful.” That is all high praise, and it has continued on through later authors like Joyce and Woolf who found it inspirationally modern. In short, Tristram Shandy is a laughing book to think about.
I’ll briefly—with some Shandean digressions—take us through some of the things Sterne wants us to laugh at and think about down to a summation of Sterne’s liberated and beautiful spirit and his laughing and yet moral vision of life.
First a few words on comedy. For one thing, comedy is other side of tragedy. Both upset expectations of how life should be. We meet tragedy in literature and life when terrible things happen to noble or good or even merely innocent people, leaving lasting scars and sorrows. Comedy turns some of those same upset expectations—about truth, authority, morality, mortality, rationality, and other things that shape our lives—into laughter. And we laugh because we are not threatened. Whereas tragedy engulfs and harms us, comedy detaches us, manipulating recognizable situations to produce off-beat perceptions and give us a pleasurable emotional release in laughter, even at things we might fear. No wonder some religions have barred comedy for undermining piety and subverting their power. The scholar Umberto Eco wrote a famous novel about this—The Name of the Rose, a medieval murder mystery centering on the Catholic Church’s suppression of a supposedly lost treatise by Aristotle commending comedy.
There are, of course, many kinds of comedy and many kinds of laughter, from loving to cruel. But the kinds that run through Tristram Shandy never sink to the mean-spirited, contrived to boost the laugher’s ego at other people’s expense. They always lift us up, as they poke gentle fun at our expectations of how life—and literature—work. As Sterne explained in an evocative sermon called “The Levite and the Concubine” (marked by his typical eccentric style) “there is a difference between…the malignity and the festivity of wit,—-the one is a mere quickness of apprehension, void of humanity,–and is a talent of the devil,… a setting up trade upon the broken stock of other people’s failings—perhaps their misfortunes;…it is a commerce most illiberal” and “has helped to give wit a bad name.… The other comes down from the Father of Spirits, so pure and abstracted from persons, that willingly it hurts no man” but helps “sweeten our spirits, that we might live with such kind intercourse in this world, as will fit us to exist together in a better.” Sterne’s mirthful, dancing mind skitters from laugh to laugh with this generous “festivity of wit” and reverence for humanity. And it makes Sterne’s comedy more than diversion. As he says in his dedication of Tristram Shandy, “whenever a man smiles—but much more so when he laughs—he adds something to this Fragment of Life.”
Sterne well knows that Tristram Shandy comes at comedy from a most unusual angle. Although he pays ample homage to his favorite authors—notably Rableais, Cervantes, Robert Burton, and Swift—he tells us early on (through the voice of Tristram, who narrates the book) that “ in writing what I have set about, I shall confine myself “ neither to classical rules nor “to any man’s rules that ever lived” (4—all quotations from the Modern Library edition). And he implores us to “laugh with me, or at me,” but “let me go on, and tell my story in my own way” (7). But he later says, “I write a careless kind of a civil, nonsensical, good humored Shandean book, which will do all your hearts good—And all you heads too—provided you understand it” (349). And he adds, “I wish it may have its effect—and that all good people…may be taught to think as well as read” (45). To do our hearts and heads good and teach us how to think and to read—these are unusual aspirations for a comic novel. Patient readers see how he succeeds.
Look at how he begins. It is surely one of the strangest beginnings in literature. It has Tristram himself commenting on the ill-fated act of his parents’ conceiving him one Sunday night owing to his mother interrupting his father at the seminal moment by asking if he had wound the clock as he was supposed to do that night. That “very unseasonable question” (2), he says, caused his father’s concentration to go awry, dispersing the “animal spirits” and planting the seed of a literally misbegotten life. This epochal interruption of Tristram’s begetting signals Sterne’s most striking, and often confusing, way of telling his story: interruptions followed by digressions.
Anyone who has tried to read Tristram Shandy has seen how the story wanders from subject to subject sometimes aimlessly—and finally the book ends almost nowhere, anti-climactically as a professedly “cock-and-bull story.” It takes Sterne nearly a third of the book to get from Tristram’s account of his own conception to his account of his birth, while Sterne introduces us to a host of other characters and meanders through their lives and ideas and the events leading up to Tristram’s finally entering the world in a prolonged scene of comic tragedy. Then from there on we really don’t see as much of Tristram as we do of other characters. His “life and opinions,” as the subtitle promises, run in the background as the tale wends its twisty way to the much-anticipated love story of Uncle Toby—which occurred before Tristram was conceived—followed by the anticlimactic ending.
Sterne is clearly making fun here of our expectations of how stories get told. But, lest the Shandean digressions throw us off, he tells us to appreciate them. For they give us a clue to how to read and think. “Digressions,” he says, “incontestably, are the sunshine,–they are the life, the soul of reading” (54). But none can be “a poor creeping digression…it must be a good frisky one, and upon a frisky subject too” (497). He even gives us a chart of how his story goes with its frisky digressions in loops and tangents defying straight lines. He also puts in a couple of mottled pages as the “motley emblem of my work. (176). And he says that anyone who wishes to understand human life, past and present, must think rather like that. “If he is a man of the least spirit, he will have fifty deviations from a straight line” (28) as he looks around and pursues this and that before he comes to the conclusion or gets where he is going.
These Shandean digressions therefore do more than complicate the tale. They reflect the way Sterne believes human life unfolds and the mind works. And that is how they teach us how to read and think. The accidental, the incidental, the odd turn here and there lead us from one thing to another without design, accumulating consequences that shape our lives. Sterne traces a series of such accidents and incidents as he has Tristram tell of his own birth, invoking thwarted plans, missing mid-wives, an inept doctor, intractable servants, stubborn knots, mishandled forceps, and misunderstood names resulting in the child being born with a crushed nose and being christened with the wrong name. Such is life. A series of misadventures. “We live in a world beset on all sides by mysteries and riddles,” Tristam laments (507).
Amidst these mysteries and riddles the human mind tries to make sense of it all. It does this with ideas that link one experience to another, sometimes by intent, sometimes willy-nilly. These ideas draw our attention to things and prompt digressions. Sterne is playing here with John Locke’s influential theory of the Association of Ideas, which describes how our minds begin as blank slates on which experience then writes ideas, and as these ideas get associated with one another, we learn to think and understand the world. I said Sterne plays with this theory, and play he does. For he makes as much fun of it as he honors it.
It supplies the comedy that begins the book. Tristram’s mother interrupted her husband with the “unseasonable question” asked about the clock because he wound it once a month on the same Sunday they shared intimacy. That intimacy and the clock went together in her mind—an unfortunate association of ideas at an inopportune moment.
Tristram’s Uncle Toby becomes the fullest comic embodiment of the association of ideas. A former soldier who suffered a groin injury in battle, Toby develops an obsessive “hobby horse” about military matters, especially fortifications, as he reads voluminously while recuperating. Then, with his servant Trim, he constructs a vast fortress and reenacts military operations, and everything he does or thinks or hears or sees becomes associated in his mind with martial doings. Sensations remind him of his military past; conversations take him off to fabled battles; he even embarks on his love affair with the widow Wedman as a military campaign. It all makes for splendid comedy.
Sterne has fun with Locke’s theory throughout the book. But Toby’s hobby horse and Tristram’s misconception give Sterne occasion to poke fun at more than Locke’s theory. They also let him show throw an unexpected light on military life and the act and consequence of procreation. In Tristram Shandy, Toby’s militarism is quite a laughing matter. And for all his preoccupation with it, Toby shows himself to be so unwarlike by nature that he literally will not kill a fly—of which more later. By the same token, while Sterne ridicules militarism he bestows a peculiar seriousness on sex, procreation, and childbirth, a reversal of common expectations of what matters most in history. Tristram’s father, Walter, upholds those traditional expectations when he deplores what he judges to be the near bestiality of human procreation and extols the heroics of war and the “glorious…act of killing and destroying a man,” along with the “honorable…weapons by which we do it” (522).
But throughout Tristram Shandy Sterne delights in showing about how sex and its consequences can wield more importance than anything else. In fact, you can read Tristram Shandy as a serious comedy of sexuality, from the opening scene of Tristram’s begetting through the long metaphoric discourse on the historic influence of big noses to Toby’s failed love affair with widow Wedman from impotence and then the inadequate performance of the bull at the very end. But to dwell on that theme can obscure Sterne’s higher purposes. That said, one of these incidents does invite a few moments time because, besides the opening scene, it has won more sustained notice through the years than any other in the book. It is the vivid account of Trim’s first love. (Denis Diderot affectionately incorporated this almost word for word in the novel, Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, inspired by Tristram Shandy and modeled on the relationship of Toby and Trim,)
A former corporal wounded in the knee during a battle, Trim recovers in a peasant household nursed by a virtuous young woman referred to only as Beguine (a charitable lay-sister). One day “the fair Beguine” offers to ease the itching of his knee with massage. This she does—through a narrative of exquisite detail much abbreviated here—first with one finger, then two, then three, “till little by little she brought down the fourth, and then rubb’d with her whole hand.” Then slowly, “she passed her hand across the flannel, to the part above my knee…and rubb’d it also. I perceived, then, that I was beginning to be in love—As she continued rub-rub-rubbing—I felt it spread from under her hand…to every part of my frame—“ until “my passion rose to the highest pitch—I seized her hand–.” Here Toby, to whom Trim was telling the tale as reported by Tristram, breaks in to say in all innocence: “—And then, thou clapped’st it to thy lips, Trim,…and madest a speech.” Tristram declines to tell us “whether the corporal’s amour terminated precisely in the way my uncle Toby described it,” but concludes, “it is enough that it contain’d in it the essence of all the love-romances which ever have been wrote since the beginning of the world” (464, 465). Has the erotic comedy of “love” ever been more artfully described? After reading Trim’s tale, who could fall in love through caresses without remembering Trim’s knee and the gentle parody of love it holds?
Sterne clearly elevates sex and procreation and childbirth above the glories of war, while getting laughs from them all. Even Walter Shandy, despite his penchant to exalt the likes of warfare and theory, showed himself subject, rather embarrassingly, to the power of sexuality when mis-begetting Tristram.
This returns us to Tristram’s comical conception. Sterne’s elevation of this subject points to another bit of parody. That is, Sterne treats Tristram’s conception and birth with a comic seriousness that becomes a parody of tragedy. Tristram’s mis-begetting, his mis-handled birth, and his mis-christening count as tragedy to Tristram’s father. Walter fervently believes large noses go with success in life—Sterne devotes chapters to this belief—as do appropriately dignified Christian names. When his mis-conceived child comes into the world with a squashed nose and then, instead of being nobly christened Trismigistis, a god-like name, he gets errantly given the lowly, sad moniker of Tristram because the priest has received faulty instructions, Walter thinks his world has tragically collapsed. Sterne makes comedy of his tragedy.
Walter’s efforts to compensate for the tragedy by providing Tristram an ideal education also becomes comedy. The theoretically-minded Walter decides to write a detailed child-rearing manual—an novelty in those days, capped by Rousseau’s Emile, published in 1764, three years after Sterne’s account—entitled Tristra-paedeia, to insure that Tristram will grow up well. But Walter’s labors go for naught because, while he consumingly devotes himself for three years to writing this book, Tristram develops with no paternal attention at all. Walter’s actions here, like his scholarly study of noses and many another instance, exhibit his penchant “to force every event in nature into an hypothesis by which means never a man crucified TRUTH at the rate he did” (521).
This crucifiction points to the target of Sterne’s humor more pervasive than any other. That is the collective follies of abstract theory, intellectual pretense, pedantry, high seriousness or “gravity,” and the hypocritical and inhumane attitudes that often flow from them. Sterne wants us to laugh at life and learn from our laughter (albeit not only from that) and shun pretentious philosophy, Pharisaic self-righteousness, melancholy theology, and all nonsense of what he derided as “learned blockheads” (Penguin notes, vol III, ch xxxi).
Consider the scene of Trim and his hat. This does not stir laughter, but it illustrates Sterne’s view of truth and pretense. The scene actually deals with death. Tristram’s brother Bobby has just died. And while Walter Shandy pontificates philosophically to Toby about death, all but forgetting his deceased son, the servants speak of it differently down stairs. There Trim comes in to learn the news and gives his own discourse on death. But nothing he says speaks as forcefully as a gesture he makes with his hat. “Are we not here now,” he says, “and are we not (dropping his hat upon the ground) gone! in a moment!” (287). Reflecting on Trim’s act Tristram observes that although Trim spoke commonplace words on life and death, “the descent of the hat was as if a heavy lump of clay had been kneaded into the crown of it.—Nothing could have expressed the sentiment of mortality…like it,–his hand seemed to vanish from under it,–it fell dead,–the corporal’s eye fix’d up on it, as upon a corpse…” (288). And Tristram concludes, “Ye who govern this mighty world and its mighty concerns with the engines of elegance,—who heat it, and cool it, and melt it, and mollify it,—-and then harden it again to your purpose–…–meditate—meditate, I beseech you, upon Trim’s hat” (289).
No comedy here, but the simplicity of Trim’s act spoke volumes about human mortality. Unvarnished perceptions and honest emotions take us closer to the reality of human life than any theory. As for those whose minds remain mantled in theory and intellectual pretense, Sterne snaps, “I write not for them” (156).
The whole book makes this case in a variety of ways. But Sterne gives us one character who particularly exemplifies it. It is the Parson Yorick, Sterne’s alter ego—Sterne published his own sermons under the pen name Yorick, as he did his last book, A Sentimental Journey.
Said to have descended from the jester of the same name in Hamlet, Yorick is also a jester despite being a cleric (like Sterne himself). A gangly fellow, Yorick rides around his parish on a skinny old horse said to resemble Don Quixote’s Rocinante. People laugh at him, and he joins “in the laughter against himself” because “he loved jest in his heart” (13). And his jesting heart cannot resist making light of seriousness and the attitude of “gravity” that he finds at once risible and hypocritical.
“Yorick had an invincible dislike and opposition in his nature to gravity,” Sterne writes, or rather “to the affectation of it…as it appeared a cloak for ignorance, or for folly….Sometimes, in his wild way of talking, he would say, that ‘gravity was an errant scoundrel’; and he would add,–‘of the most dangerous kind too,—-because a sly one’” since “the very essence of gravity was design, and consequently deceit;– ‘twas a taught trick to take credit of the world for more sense and knowledge than a man was worth” (19). Fired by this distaste for the affectation of gravity.Yorick skewered every sign of it. And he found plenty of them. Being “a man unhackneyed and unpracticed in the world” (19), he gave free reign to “his wit and humour,–his gibes and jests” (20) (like his namesake) at the expense of anyone affecting gravity to serve himself. But he failed to see that the sources of his jests didn’t laugh with him. Eventually, some of these aggrieved “Jestees” attacked him one night and gave him a thrashing. Although he survived the assault, he died soon afterwards, not from his injuries but, “as was generally thought, quite broken-hearted” (22). Mourners marked his grave stone in the church yard with an epitaph in the plaintive words of Hamlet: “Alas, poor YORICK!” (24) After these words comes a full black page of grief.
While Yorick exemplifies Sterne’s love of jest and antipathy to affected gravity, he also embodies some other virtues that Sterne commends. These include honesty, modesty, and charity—Tristram clelebrates him for skirting the appearance of self-righteousness by never telling anyone that he started riding his ramshackle horse in order to serve the old and sick reliably instead of having a better horse that less needy parishioners would borrow and overuse). He was a well-intentioned fellow, if naïve about some effects of his jests.
But more than Yorick, the moral center of Tristram Shandy is Uncle Toby. Toby and Trim ramble about the book like Don Quixote and Sancho. Don Quixote had his hobby horse in knight errantry, Toby has his in military affairs. But both are noble souls, brimming with humanity—Sterne even has Toby say that “the peerless knight of La Mancha…with all his follies, I love more and would actually have gone farther to have paid a visit to than the greatest hero of antiquity” (15-16).
Toby possesses a humanity rooted in innate honesty, simplicity, sincerity, humility, and charity. He is no jester, but he spurns affectation, pretentiousness, and hypocrisy—and he whistles a tune whenever he hears high-falutin’ talk, which happens a lot with his brother Walter. And his humanity shines brightest in his charitable generosity of spirit toward all living things. He is one of the truly Good persons in literature. That is not an easy thing to portray. Plato observed this when remarking that the rational and orderly life gives little to represent in literature, whereas conflicts and troubles provide endlessly arresting material. Dostoevsky tried to fashion a Good Man in the character of Myshkin in The Idiot, but he had to make him nearly mentally defective to do it. Tolstoy gave us a morally ideal person in Platon Karataev, a spiritually impeccable figure who calmly endures all suffering, but who has to live a rather other-worldy life to make that possible. Somerset Maugham thought he had presented a Good Man in the story “Salvatore,” whose title character has a simple goodness of heart, but he doesn’t have much of a life. Toby’s goodness has more vitality and illuminates the moral life at large.
Toby might be bit of a simpleton, but despite the goofy things he does—like Don Quixote—he teaches Tristram the humanity of moral goodness. He does this first in an off-hand incident that no one who reads it will forget. As Tristram recalls it, “one day at dinner” a pesky fly “buzz’d about his [Toby’s] nose, and tormented him cruelly.” Finally, Toby captured the pest, and “rising from his chair, and going a-cross the room, with the fly in his hand” he said, “I’ll not hurt a hair of thy head:–Go, says he, lifting up the sash, and opening his hand as he spoke, to let it escape; go poor Devil, get thee gone, why should I hurt thee?—-This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me.”
Sentimentality? Perhaps. And yet Tristram tells us that “I was but ten years old when this happened,” and “the lesson of universal good-will then taught and imprinted by my uncle Toby has never since been worn out of my mind.” He adds: “This is to serve for parents and governors instead of a whole volume on the subject”—like Trim’s hat (87). Later, Tristram—or Sterne—draws on Toby as his model for how to treat critics (some of whom had scoffed at the early volumes of the book): “Never to give the honest gentlemen a worse word or a worse wish, than my uncle Toby gave the fly which buzzed about his nose at dinner time… ‘get thee gone,–why should I hurt thee? This world is surely wide enough to hold both thee and me” (127). Another time, a second appearance of flies prompts Toby to scorn racial prejudice and mistreatment of the weak and to extol human sympathy. This occasion has Trim telling of his brother once encountering a “negro girl” in a shop who held a bunch of feathers “flapping away flies—not killing them.” At this, Tristram reports: “—’Tis a pretty picture! said my uncle Toby—she had suffered persecution, Trim, and had learnt mercy—.” Then Toby and Trim begin discussing whether all people, including negroes, have a soul. Toby decides that they must, for God would have it no other way, and Trim agrees, otherwise “it would be putting one sadly over the head of another.” But then why, Trim asks, “is a black wench to be used worse than a white one?” And they agree again that it is “because she has no one to stand up for her.” So, Toby concludes, this “recommends her to our protection—and her brethren with her,” since only “the fortune of war” has “put the whip in our hands now,” and the future might remove it. In any case, they wind up, what matters is that those who have power never “use it unkindly” (491).
Sterne opposed slavery in his sermons, and gentle Toby, who would not hurt a fly, speaks for him here. Sympathy, mercy, generosity, all lived in Toby’s heart. To call it sentimentality misses the emotional matrix of morals—a subject of lively interest in Sterne’s day, as in Adam Smith’s Theory of the Moral Sentiments (1759) and Roussseau’s Emile (1764). Toby even considers military life not so much a source of glory as an aid to “the good and quiet of the world” by protecting “the lives and fortunes of the few from the plundering of the many” (494).
Tristram mentions such qualities of his uncle’s character many times, and he pauses his narrative in one place to observe a variety of Toby’s virtues. “Here it is,” he says “—my heart stops me to pay to thee, my dear uncle Toby, once for all, the tribute I owe thy goodness…
–Thou envied’st no man’s comforts,–insulted’st no man’s opinions. –Thou blackened’st no man’s character,–devoured’st no man’s bread: gently with faithful Trim behind thee, did’st thou amble round the little circle of thy pleasures, jostling no creature in thy way;–for each one’ service thou hadst a tear,–for each man’s need, thou hadst a shilling” (174).
Who can resist Uncle Toby? As loveable as Don Quixote, he surpasses that knight in the unwavering tenderness of his soul and the universal generosity of his heart. We root for him to succeed in his Quixotic wooing of the very willing widow Wedman. And we smile at him at the end when he fails for reasons of sexual impotence he cannot grasp—in a subtly amusing scene where the widow, curious about his virility, delicately questions him about the location of his groin wound, and he naively responds by describing the location in the battle where it occurred—and then retires from the field to prepare a list of the widow’s virtues. Tristram tells us that the ever-forgiving Toby has no capacity for suspicion, resentment, or anger. Always he looks for the good and somehow finds it. “I love mankind” (493), he says earnestly, without pretense or the yen for abstract ideas that can induce a philosophical love of mankind blind to the lives of actual people. Toby demonstrates his genuine love of people again and again in little acts of humanity.
For all of its wackiness, Tristram Shandy gives us a humane vision of life for sure. And it is no more simplistic than the book. It is a comic vision born of human experience, wide reading, philosophic ideas, and a moral imagination. This vision takes us from a perception of how life and thought unfold in unpredictable twists and turns and lengthy digressions, and it goes on to good advice about how we might live in this uncertain and often troubled world with generosity and laughter. I would sum up the best in Sterne’s Shandean vision like this:
We come into this world with whatever our nature and circumstances provide us. And these can be mighty peculiar. We then live our lives “beset on all sides by mysteries and riddles” (507), as experience leads us on a meandering course that defies plans and lets seemingly random incidents often yield momentous consequences. At the same time, our minds flit from idea to idea with a logic of association that we do not entirely control as we respond to the rush of experience. This can make for a very muddled existence, fraught with disappointments and sorrows and warranting a tragic sense of life. But that is not Sterne’s conclusion.
His conclusion begins with the epigraph to volumes I and II. This line from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus might be translated as: “The troubles of human beings come not from practical reality (pragmata) but from doctrines (dogmata) about reality.” Or more simply: It’s not life itself that causes us the most trouble but how we think about life. That means our challenge lies in thinking right about it (Buddhists have, of course, always said this; Walter Shandy could be a case study in wrong thinking). Sterne gave his own variation on this idea in a letter of 1764 (Penguin notes vol. VIII ch xliii). “In short,” he wrote, “we must be happy within—and then—few things without us make much difference—This is my Shandean Philosophy.”
When we ask how we should think about life in order to “to be happy within,” we learn what Sterne meant by teaching people not only how to read but how to think. That turns out to be not one way of thinking but a cluster of related Shandean principles. Sterne the cleric/novelist wove these principles through his sermons and his novels. Among these are the moral virtues he conferred on Yorick and especially the qualities of character he gave to Toby—the gentle and unassuming nature, the generous and forgiving heart, the innocent religiosity. Who can doubt that Toby was happy within? (In a sermon on the deceptions of conscience that Sterne includes almost verbatim in Tristram Shandy as written by Yorick, he advises marrying humble religious belief to humane secular morality, which can temper each other and guard against both religious self-righteousness and irreligious self-assurance, while also fostering a generous humanity.
But the more conspicuous Shandean way of thinking flows from Sterne’s zest for letting the mind wander happily in “the spirit of Shandeism” (as he wrote in a letter of 1761) —notice, by the way, that Sterne spells Shandeism with an e instead of a y in allusion to religion; to him, Shandeism was a kind of religion. Sterne says this spirit saved him from throwing in the towel at bad times because it kept him from dwelling for “two moments on any grave subject,” and soon he would always find himself to be “merry as a monkey—and as mischievous too, too” (Penguin notes vol. IV ch xxii). That is a virtue of the digressive mind.
Sterne put this virtue in a nice image in his sermon “The House of Feasting and the House of Mourning.” Reflecting there on why “God made us,” he writes, “say we are travellers,” who, while mindful of “the main errand we are sent upon…may surely be allowed to amuse ourselves with the natural or artificial beauties of the country we are passing through,” for “it would be a nonsensical piece of saint errantry to shut our eyes.” In A Sentimental Journey Sterne/Yorick the traveler adds: “What a large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life by him who interests his heart in everything.” The Shandean journey of life wends where it will and gives the mind abundant subjects to think about and to laugh at.
Yes, laugh at. For wit, Sterne insists (contra Locke) holds no less importance in life than judgment and sometimes more. He even has the often mis-guided Walter Shandy concede: “Everything in this world is big with jest—and has wit in it, and instruction too—if we can but find it out” (312). Sterne found it everywhere. And he thought we needed to find it to fend off troubles and live well. As he says, Tristram Shandy “’tis wrote against anything,–‘tis wrote…against the spleen;–in order” through “laughter, to drive the gall and other bitter juices” from the body (237). Sterne judged laughter good medicine.
He actually dedicated the book to William Pitt with a testimonial to laughter (quoted in part earlier) as an antidote to life’s physical and other trials. “I live in a constant endeavor,” he says there, “to fence against the infirmities of ill health, and other evils of life, by mirth; being firmly persuaded that every time a man smiles,–but much more so, when he laughs, that it adds something to this Fragment of Life.” Is there a more humane prescription for humor than that? In the same spirit, begins the sermon above by saying that to believe “sorrow is better than laughter” might do for “a crack’d-brained order of Carthusian monks, I grant, but not for men of the world.” After all, he continues, consider “what provision and accommodation the Author of our being has prepared for us that we might not go on our way sorrowing…some of which he has made so fair, so exquisitely fitted for this end, that they have power over us for a time to charm away the sense of pain, to cheer up the dejected heart under poverty and sickness, and make it go and remember its miseries no more.” Sterne makes God as good-natured as he is—and in another sermon he says God must have granted human beings a great capacity for good because otherwise God could not expect people to become good.
Sterne brings these themes together in a celebratory conclusion at the end of volume IV. “True Shandeism,” he says, “think what you will of it, opens the heart and lungs” and “makes the wheel of life run long and cheerfully around.” And he has Tristram fantasize there that if he could, like Sancho Panza, choose a kingdom to rule, it would be “a kingdom of hearty laughing subjects” who are “as WISE as they [are] MERRY” and therefore “the happiest people under heaven.”
Here is the Shandean utopia of the Shandean religion. A place where everyone embraces the wandering journey of life with a cheerfully digressive mind; where laughter turns darkness to light, alleviates pains and sorrows, and nurtures a generous humanity; where wit and merriment aid judgment and wisdom, and where judgment and wisdom encourage wit and merriment. And where all agree that every time a man smiles,–but much more so, when he laughs, it adds something to the Fragment of Life. That is the humanity of laughter.