The Black Page and the Navel Gaze: Deferring Death on Laurence Sterne’s 300th Birthday

By Ted ScheinmanNovember 24, 2013

The Black Page and the Navel Gaze: Deferring Death on Laurence Sterne’s 300th Birthday

DEATH himself knocked at my door... Now there is nothing in the world I abominate worse, than to be interrupted in a story — and I was that moment telling Eugenius a most tawdry one in my way, of a nun who fancied herself a shell-fish, and of a monk damn’d for eating a muscle....Had I not better, Eugenius, fly for my life? — then by heaven! I will lead him a dance he little thinks of — for I will gallop, quoth I, without looking once behind me.

– Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy [VII.2]

IT SEEMS ONLY NATURAL to begin by acknowledging that I was conceived in December of 1984 on a couch in Manhassett, New York, and that my parents — if we consider that I am a non-consumptive taxpayer who was never accidentally circumcised by a window — must have done a pretty good job at it.

I say this on Laurence Sterne’s 300th birthday because he would have wanted me to. Tristram Shandy, Sterne’s grand tragic clown and occasional avatar, spends much of his “autobiography” recounting the circumstances of his conception and birth, and how these in turn explain the character’s own idiosyncratic weaknesses, from his chattery fancies to his consumptive cough (one of many things he shared with his creator) to the curious, very un-English state of his genitals.

Unlike me, Tristram did have consumption and was accidentally circumcised by a window, misfortunes he ascribes to mismanagement in his conception, delivery, and christening. “Trismegistus” is the name Walter chooses for his son, but the chambermaid, in keeping with the novel’s intrinsic entropy, garbles the transmission, and Tristram’s first name, like his nose, his foreskin, and his very life, is shorter than it should be, all because of some messy business on his natal day.

The first sentence of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is justly immortal, if only because it never really ends: 

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.—

Birthdays were everything and nothing to Sterne. Roughly half the action (if such we may call it) of The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman takes place on November 5, 1718, the day our narrator emerges from the womb. The account is not firsthand, but rather of a piece with the family “history” that occupies, or perhaps distracts, so much of the novel’s nine volumes: a compulsively minute chronicle of conception, labor, and birth as relayed by Shandy senior, Parson Yorick, Doctor Slop (the inattentive attending physician), Uncle Toby and his manservant Corporal Trim, and Susannah the chambermaid. These birthday scenes have a willful inertia; it is impossible for the narrator to reach the moment of his own birth (see Volume III) without tripping over a chapter about hinges, or a thorough biography of the midwife who attended Mrs. Shandy.

The novel’s humor has often been associated with “navel-gazing,” but I’m not sure anyone has taken that gerund in its literal sense. Tristram seems to feel his funiculus umbilicalis like a vestigial limb; his process of composition is not merely digressive but regressive, tracing the family’s history by way of putting off the narrator’s own. You could say that Tristram’s bellybutton is the book’s vortex writ in flesh, a continuously interpolated past that defies an ending (one reason so many scholars dispute whether or not we may call this serialized novel “finished”). Even the famous “Shandy doodle” is umbilical, a typographical joke that links Tristram’s fixation on his origins with his tangled (or at least looped) mode of telling stories: 


Laurence Sterne himself was born in Ireland on November 24, 1713. While there remains no definite account of his conception, his entry to the world seems to have been unmarked by any of the glitches that attended Tristram’s. Sterne was educated at Cambridge in the usual way and took orders in 1737. He also spent time with a quasi-Scriblerian contingent of would-be wits who gathered at the seaside house of John Hall Stevenson, a close friend who would enjoy a recurring role as “Eugenius” in Sterne’s novels. He was given several curacies in the north of England and did the majority of his preaching in Yorkshire; this was a species of cultural exile, and the Yorkish weather did little good for Sterne’s consumption. To his training in philology and theology, Sterne added a natural and deep affinity for a Lucianic mode of satire that had reemerged in modern form through the great tradition of ordained satirists, from Erasmus to Swift. This satiric mode advocated a sort of ludus religiosus, a righteous sense of play that galvanizes Sterne’s two novels (Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy) and certain portions of his sermons. In a letter to Thomas More dated June 9, 1511, Erasmus includes a jolly apologia for the salutary effects of “lightness and absurdity” in works of moral import:

Verum quos argumenti levitas et ludicrum offendit, cogitent velim non meum hoc exemplum esse, sed iam olim a magnis auctoribus facitatum... 

"But truly, I should like anyone who is offended by the levity and playfulness of the work to know that this is not my example, but one handed down from a long line of eminent authors."

Such levitas is not merely a spoonful of sugar to mask the medicine (like Lucretius’s honey in De rerum natura) but also a mode of inquiry in itself. Here, we may think of Shandy’s stated writing process (“I begin with writing the first sentence — and trusting to Almighty God for the second”), but also of the quotation from John of Salisbury, which Sterne liberally rewrites and appends as epigraph on the title page of Volume III:

meis tamen, rogo, parcant opusculis — in quibus fuit propositi semper, a jocis ad seria, a seriis vicissim ad jocos transire.

“But I pray the rabble will spare these little works of mine, in which it has been the point to turn from the silly to the serious, and in turn from the serious to the silly.”

A program not unlike the one Sterne suggests in dedicating his novel to Pitt the elder:

Never poor Wight of Dedicator had less hopes from his Dedication, than I have from this of mine; for it is written in a bye corner of the kingdom, and in a retired thatch’d house, where I live in a constant endeavor 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 his life. 

Fragmentation is a reigning motif in Sterne, from Tristram’s own partially reconstructed family history to Yorick’s sentence-fragment that concludes the second and final volume of A Sentimental Journey: “So that when I stretched out my hand, I caught hold of the fille de chambre’s — END.” Falling windows, grasping hands: each interruption or unripe action provides the classic Sternean moment. It isn’t the satirist who tells you that Yorick’s hand ends up between the legs of a chambermaid; that ellipsis represents several openings, and just as quickly the volume is done.

It is in such moments that Sterne’s tentatively separated text and life seem to collapse into each other, even as the reader is left in a place of sudden solitude. Sterne’s fixation on temporal fuckery and on the fissures of logic and history is a subject for many volumes, not a birthday essay, but we may take this bit of coy authorial silence as an emblem for Sterne’s philosophical embrace of life’s fragmentations. T.S. Eliot was not the first to scratch his head at a heap of broken images, and the Shandean tendency to play with fragments is a singularly metacritical mode of realism. We know days and memories by their rudiments, not their fullnesses, and Sterne skewers the falsehood of totalizing philosophies by foiling any possible sense of an ending. (Fellini was about similar business when he ended his Satyricon midsentence — precisely where the surviving Petronius fragments conclude.)

At heart, the antic humor of Tristram Shandy — the funniest book I have ever opened — is a process of celebratory deferment. Miring himself in the family superstitions that attended his birth, Tristram defers responsibility, defers certain religious interrogations of suffering that predate Job, and defers telling his own story — a story which, by remaining unfinished, conveniently sidesteps death. In one of the book’s longest windups, the bewitching Widow Wadman asks, with some delicacy, where Uncle Toby was wounded at war. The concern is hardly idle; Toby took a bullet to the groin, Mrs. Wadman has the hots for him, and she wishes to make sure the equipment still works. In response, Toby draws up an elaborate map of a Belgian battlefield in the Nine Years’ War, and points to the precise “place” where he received his wound. Interruption, prematurity, misdirection — these are not mere narrative tools for Sterne. They are basic facts of living, and basic reflexes of human psychology. Against the novel’s insistent hints at impotence, against the strong likelihood that the Shandy line will die with Tristram, against time itself, Tristram trots along on his hobbyhorse, never oblivious to the death’s head and always ready to meet its rictus with a leering pun.

Not long after the ninth and final volume of Shandy was published, Samuel Johnson issued a summary verdict that graces the back page of most Penguin paperbacks of the 1980s: “Nothing odd will do long. Tristam Shandy did not last.” Sterne has a good time mocking notions of artistic immortality, and in the final months of his terminal tuberculosis would likely have enjoyed Woody Allen’s famous line on the subject: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying.”

For Sterne, though, the distinction was hardly as clear. The coextension between author and book was a fixture of the period. Fanny Burney sends “my Evelina” and “my Cecilia” out into the world, and Jane Austen, upon receiving the first edition of Pride & Prejudice, writes to her sister Cassandra: “I want to tell you that I have got my own darling Child from London.” In Sterne’s case, this coextension had a near-literal dimension. Critics from Robert Folkenflik to A. Alvarez have observed that Sterne is emulating Scherezade in his sub-picaresque and telescopically expandable “Life.” Tristram expresses distress that he cannot write at the speed of living: “At this rate I should just live 364 times faster than I should write.” This is not only bad math, but mock-distress. As long as Walter Shandy dawdles on his Tristrapaedia, as long as Toby dithers in the garden, as long as Tristram dwells on the mechanics of his birth, each character defers confronting Death.

If Sterne inherited his more conspicuous satiric tools from Montaigne, Cervantes, and Swift, he grounds his frantic sense of death’s proximity in the lexicon of Hamlet. Sterne published his most famous sermons under the pen name “Yorick,” and the presence of Parson Yorick in Shandy offers a needful check against those who identify author and narrator too quickly or easily. Yorick (who will narrate A Sentimental Journey) is no less a Sterne surrogate than Tristram, and, much like his namesake in Shakespeare, he serves as both memento mori and consolatio mortalitatis. In Manhattan, Woody Allen tells Mariel Hemingway that she is “God’s answer to Job.” Tristram Shandy is the unfinished, and therefore irrefutable, answer to Hamlet. 

To no one’s surprise, Sterne does not get an annual Bloomsday, nor will his tricentennial prompt anything near the worldwide mania of the Pride & Prejudice bicentennial earlier this year. I sent Patrick Wildgust a short note to ask why. (Wildgust is the current curator of Shandy Hall. His name, however redolent of Fielding, is real, though he suspects it is a corruption of “Wildgoose,” and that he is descended from Irish mercenaries of the 1600s). 

“Probably because Sterne is difficult to pin down or put into a tidy box,” Patrick said. “He is funny, poetic, philosophical, melancholic, familiar, clever, and unusual — sometimes in the space of a couple of pages. People tend to mistrust such diverse brilliance.”

Patrick also recommends that Sterneans “give copies of Tristram Shandy to all your friends.”

Last week I lost a dear friend who suffered, like Sterne, from a congenital affliction. A brilliant musician, he would trot out this disorder as a punch line to a rather elaborate joke between songs. (Here, Sterne would include the wind-up; I will not.) Mourning Mike this past week, I tried to estimate how many dozens of times I’d seen him deliver this kicker in placid deadpan, the same look he wore when he’d enter open-heart surgery. In the dedication to Pitt, Sterne posits humor as the ablest defense against melancholy; we might go further and say it’s the best defense against fear of the dark.

This is the moment where I owe Mike a joke, but the brain stalls and the only image I can summon is the famous black page, Sterne’s wordless epitaph after Parson Yorick dies in Volume I. 

We append it below as a birthday card to Sterne and a proxy for grief, which is itself an agonizing process of deferral. Not yet am I ready to mourn Mike in full.



Ted Scheinman is a writer based in North Carolina, where he is finishing a Ph.D. in 18th-century British literature. His first book, an account of Pride & Prejudice bicentennial mania in the States, will appear via FSG/Faber in 2014.

LARB Contributor

Ted Scheinman is a senior editor at Smithsonian magazine and a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. His first book, Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan, is available now via FSG Originals.


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