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“Against the spleen”: Tristram Shandy, Jest-books and Treatment for Melancholy

Charlotte Holden
p. 153-175


Lorsque Tristram affirme que son ouvrage est écrit « contre le spleen », on devine le scepticisme de Sterne. Ce scepticisme ironique ne remet pourtant pas en question l’affirmation de Tristram: il participe en réalité à sa réalisation. En replaçant Tristram Shandy dans le contexte de ses sources, notamment les textes médicaux contemporains, les sermons de Sterne, l’Anatomie de la mélancolie de Burton et les recueils de plaisanterie du xviiie siècle, on peut voir que Sterne invite le lecteur à participer à une forme de rire sceptique, qui vise à procurer une consolation philosophique face à la mélancolie.

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1Towards the end of Tristram Shandy’s fourth volume, Tristram informs his reader of the ultimate purpose behind the novel which they read:

─If ’tis wrote against anything,—’tis wrote, an’ please your worships, against the spleen; in order, by a more frequent and a more convulsive elevation and depression of the diaphragm, and the succussations of the intercostal and abdominal muscles in laughter, to drive the gall and other bitter juices from the gall bladder, liver and sweet-bread of his majesty’s subjects, with all the inimicitious passions which belong to them, down into their duodenums. (Sterne 1.360)

2Tristram writes his memoirs in order to treat his readers’ melancholy, or the ‘spleen,’ and his means of achieving this is to make his readers laugh. The said readers would of course be wise to take Tristram’s claim with more than just a pinch of salt. Sterne’s irony looms behind Tristram’s words, as the latter’s benevolent aim becomes bogged down in a mire of ridiculously verbose medical jargon. The bathetic reference to the ‘duodenums’ of his majesty’s subjects hardly serves the reader with the dignity one would afford a prospective patient. Sterne’s participation in the philosophical tradition of scepticism as both a theologian and author has been well-established by scholars such as Fred Parker and Tim Parnell. I will argue in this article that Sterne’s wry tone is actually integral to the fulfilment of Tristram’s claim. Throughout Tristram Shandy, Sterne invites the reader to engage in a sceptical form of laughter which is to serve as their philosophical consolation against melancholy.

Sterne and the medical profession on laughter

3As the Florida editors observe in their editorial notes, Tristram Shandy’s claim to cure is “a parody of certain seventeenth- and eighteenth-century physicians and philosophers with a mechanistic bent” (Sterne 3.319). Herman Boerhaave is a prime example: one of the most influential physicians and medical teachers of the eighteenth century, Boerhaave envisaged the human body as a hydraulic pumping mechanism, not only of the blood, but with the brain as the seat of sensory impressions transmitted via hollow nerves, which were to convey an ethereal nervous fluid, or spirit, in continual motion. He also considered laughter a suitable treatment for melancholy:

The ancient Greeks judged nothing more conducive to Health than Laughter […] But even some of the most eminent Physicians have cured Melancholy […] by exciting moderate Laughter; for by that Means, the Blood is pressed in a greater Quantity to the left Ventricle of the Heart, from whence it is sent in a greater Quantity to the Brain, which therefore secerns the Spirits more plentifully. But then this Laughter ought to terminate before the jugular Veins become turgid, to prevent worse Consequences. (Boerhaave 3.25)

Boerhaave vouches for the efficacy of the laughter treatment by saying that it has been practiced successfully by the most “eminent” physicians. The fact that he weaves this ancient remedy into the most current anatomical understanding is a credit to his belief in the treatment as a bona fide cure. Nevertheless, his language is clearly cumbersome and labours the mechanical point to such a degree that his observation seems at odds with the effervescent spirit of laughter. For modern readers, his concern regarding the excesses of laughter and its ominous potential of “worse consequences” would seem somewhat hyperbolic; so much so that he might be associated with society figures such as Lord Halifax, Lord Shaftesbury, and Lord Chesterfield, who have been so often interpreted as believing that, in Vic Gatrell’s words, “laughter was no laughing matter and sorely needed taming” (162). Cue the sniggering detraction of satirists such as Sterne.

4To depart from Boerhaave and his myriad opportunistic medical followers on such a negative note would, however, be unfair and hasty; by shedding more light on his understanding, we can better appreciate where Sterne stands on the matter of laughter as a treatment for melancholy. Eighteenth-century physicians’ insights into laughter reveal three key factors: firstly, that laughter works as a treatment for melancholy. Secondly, that what causes laughter in the first instance is a mystery, and thirdly, that for this reason it can only be understood in simple terms of cause and effect. These latter views are encapsulated in the following extract from Boerhaave:

It does not seem an easy matter to explain Laughter. What it is in the Nerves we know not, but perhaps another Age may know more of it; but this we can tell, that the Mind puts the Parts in a Posture of laughing at the sudden Appearance of any thing which is absurd. (Boerhaave 3. 25)

Boerhaave, for all his expertise, resigns himself to his ignorance regarding how laughter is caused, happy to leave this problem to a future age of medical science to fathom. Regardless of the mystery, he can observe the simple sequence of trigger and effect: all it takes is for the subject to spot an absurdity, and laughter will ensue. Boerhaave’s tone lightens to match his willingness to avoid going into unnecessary depth on the matter, his second person plural conveying a sense of conversational familiarity, his repeated “but” giving the impression of his thinking casually on the spot. The absolute necessity of adopting a pragmatic acceptance of matters beyond the human understanding was advocated most famously by David Hume, who established the concept of “mitigated scepticism.” This principle dictated that causal connection between events cannot be observed. There is no “necessary connexion” whereby A causes B (Hume 60-79). This rule is universal, applying as much to billiard balls moving after collision as it does to night following day. The “mitigated” part of Hume’s sceptical philosophy dictated that though this reasoning is true, we could not possibly live by its rule. Rather, our behaviour is guided by custom and feelings: we are used to behaving in a certain way, and our impulses prompt us implicitly. Boerhaave’s argument displays a mitigated scepticism of which Hume would be likely to approve: that though we cannot hope to find a “necessary connexion” to locate the exact cause of laughter, we can observe, empirically, that the process works (“but this we can tell”), and this trust allows us to benefit from the phenomenon. In actuality, however, the technical excess of Boerhaave’s language betrays in principle the simplicity of the treatment as one which need not be understood in order for it to work.

5Sterne takes his own description of anatomy to excess in order to illustrate the cumbersome inappropriateness of such medical terminology. In doing so, his detraction allows him to handle the laughter treatment in a more appropriately sceptical manner than his medical contemporaries. Moreover, if there is an element of parody to Sterne’s tone when he talks of the duodenums of his majesty’s subjects, this parody could only serve to enact the laughter its source recommends. Far from detracting from his metafictional pledge to “write against” his readers’ spleen, his parody – in a paradox typical of Sterne – rather supports and delivers upon this pledge. Tristram’s claim to make the reader laugh, however self-consciously worded, delivers upon its promise: indeed, the ironic framing he uses is conducive to its fulfilment.

6Shortly after his reference to his readers’ duodenums, Sterne elaborates further on the laughter treatment:

And now that you have just got to the end of these four volumes—the thing I have to ask is, how you feel your heads? my own akes dismally─as for your healths, I know, they are much better—True Shandeism, think what you will against it, opens the heart and lungs, and like all those affections which partake of its nature, it forces the blood and other vital fluids of the body to run freely thro’ its channels, and makes the wheel of life run long and chearfully round. (Sterne 1.401)

The Florida editors couple this extract with the reference to the duodenums, suggesting this is as parodic as the other (3.334). I would contend that Tristram’s celebration of Shandeism is less ironic in tone. Indeed, the adverbs he attaches to his figure (“freely” and “chearfully”) are at odds with any inference that the contemporary anatomical understanding is a necessarily robotic stricture. Sterne’s source for this extract is, I would suggest, William Stukeley’s 1723 treatise Of the Spleen:

Indeed it’s notorious enough how the hysteric train of ills has gain’d ground, since action in both sexes is difus’d, which with chearfulness is one great method of preventing and curing the vapours. The wheels of life grow rusty without continual motion, and death is no sooner than a cessation of motion. (Stukeley 73)

Stukeley’s tone is conversational, accessible, and literary, and rather reminiscent of the tone of Sterne’s sermons: as such, it would defy the Florida editors’ classification of “certain seventeenth- and eighteenth-century physicians and philosophers with a mechanistic bent” (319). This source would not demand detraction, but is more appropriately seen as a positive inspiration. Indeed, Stukeley displays reluctance to scrutinize the matter too deeply: “it’s notorious enough,” he tells his readers. Death is reasoned upon no more deeply (“no sooner”) than as a “cessation of motion”: one could accuse Stukeley here of stating the obvious. His accessible metaphors act as a layman’s guide, encouraging his readers to engage in the treatment without needing to delve behind the level of what his “cheerful” vehicles represent. Sterne’s celebration of Shandeism upholds the same mitigated scepticism. Thinking “against it” is rendered irrelevant as the “wheel” runs “chearfully round” nonetheless.

The Sermons’ therapeutic scepticism

7Recent scholarship has located Sterne’s theological position within the tradition of fideistic scepticism (Parnell, Wehrs). For Sterne the cleric, faith must be prioritised over reason in epistemological matters. Parnell’s work is also seminal in establishing that Sterne’s sermons actually practice what they preach. In the sermons, “form and content reflect and enact a skepticism which is closely allied to a defence of hard-pressed Christian ideology” (“Skeptical Tradition” 24). To demonstrate this theory, I will provide an example of how Sterne’s sermon material enacts a sceptical mindset in the reader whereby reason resigns its place to faith. More than this, I will show that this sceptical mindset has therapeutic potential in the fight against melancholy.

8Melancholy, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was diagnosed as fear and sadness without any apparent cause (Jackson 315-17). For Sterne, the world as he understood it was a minefield for those inclined towards melancholy. In his sermon “The Ways of Providence Justified to Man,” he describes the fruitlessness of human enquiry:

—how little arrives at thy knowledge, and how darkly and confusedly thou discernest even that little as in a glass:—consider the beginnings and ends of things, the greatest and the smallest, how they all conspire to baffle thee;— (Sterne 4.415)

This “bafflement,” Sterne elaborates, manifests itself in “doubts to dishearten and perplex the minds of men,” and this disheartened condition is melancholy, according to the contemporary definition. Man’s confused state in his existential blindness makes him unable to reason effectively upon ultimate causes, and sadness ensues. This understanding of melancholy, as the result of existential confusion, is at the heart of many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century sermons, and dates back to early Christian and ancient sources. Though Sterne is known to have borrowed a large part of his sermon’s content, the original manuscript for this sermon was reported to bear his handwritten statement: “I have borrowed most of the Reflections […] though the Sermon is truly mine, such as it is” (5.443). Moreover, studies have shown that though Sterne indeed borrowed much of his sermons’ content, the style of expression, with manifold digressions and dashes, is characteristically his own (Terry 156).

9The Sermon opens with:

THIS complaint of the Psalmist’s, concerning the promiscuous distribution of God’s blessings to the just and unjust,—that the sun should shine without distinction upon the good and the bad,—and rains descend upon the righteous and unrighteous man,—is a subject that has afforded much matter f or enquiry, and at one time or other has raised doubts to dishearten and perplex the minds of men.—If the sovereign Lord of all the earth does look on, whence so much disorder in the face of things?—why is it permitted, that wise and good men should be left often a prey to so many miseries and distresses of life,—whilst the guilty and foolish triumph in their offences, and even the tabernacles of robbers prosper? (Sterne 4.408)

For Sterne, it is not the mystery of this apparent unfairness which causes disheartenment, but rather the process of “enquiry” and the inevitable “doubts” this enquiry raises. It is man’s search for a logical apportioning of reward and punishment which creates frustration. Sterne simulates the feeling of frustration in the form of his expression. Though he describes what is ultimately the mysterious operation of justice, his illustration is expressed in squarely logical terms: the sun shines on opposite sides, good and bad, as does its opposite number, the rain. His logic drives him to express justice as a directly inverse pattern, whereby good men are subject to misery, while fools triumph. He personifies – somewhat controversially – God’s justice as “promiscuous,” as if there is some wilful agency at work with a conscious desire to be disruptive. Simultaneous with his logical structuring is his simulation of a feeling of perplexity and increasing distress, as rhetorical questions pile upon one another in succession, naturally unanswered, and leaving no relief for the reader as they are connected with a series of conjunctions and dashes. As his argument develops, Sterne’s sharply delineated symmetry gives way to a blurring of focus:

—why should this, or any other religious difficulty he cannot comprehend,—why should it alarm him more than ten thousand other difficulties which every day elude his most exact and attentive search?—Does not the meanest flower in the field, or the smallest blade of grass, baffle the understanding of the most penetrating mind?—Can the deepest enquirers after nature tell us, upon what particular size and motion of parts the various colours and tastes of vegetables depend; why one shrub is laxative,—another restringent;—why arsenic or hellebore should lay waste this noble frame of ours […] (Sterne 4.414-15)

Question continues to pile upon question in a seemingly random structure, as if each occurs to him at that very moment, by chance, and each goes unanswered. Even individual points do not make sense: his supposition that the smallest blade of grass baffles the penetrating mind is not logical – it is banal in its slackness of reasoning. A point which Sterne makes in a preceding part of his sermon explains his apparent stylistic self-sacrifice: “the evidence we go upon […] is so lame and defective,—as to be sufficient by itself to check all propensity to expostulate with God’s providence” (4.410). Sterne’s chaotic style simply reflects (“is sufficient by itself to check”) to the sufferers what is actually their “lame and defective” reasoning, which has thus caused them pain. A desire for logical fathoming of God’s ways is bound to be frustrated, as Sterne ensures it becomes through the progression of his narrative. He continues:

Go then,—proud man!—and when thy head turns giddy with opinions of thy own wisdom, that thou wouldst correct the measures of the Almighty,—go then,—take a full view of thyself in this glass;—consider thy own faculties,—how narrow and imperfect; how much they are chequered with truth and falsehood;—how little arrives at thy knowledge, and how darkly and confusedly thou discernest even that little as in a glass:—consider the beginnings and ends of things, the greatest and the smallest, how they all conspire to baffle thee;—and which way ever thou prosecutest thy enquiries,—what fresh subjects of amazement—and what fresh reasons to believe there are more yet behind which thou canst never comprehend.—Consider, these are but part of his ways;—how little a portion is heard of him? Canst thou, by searching, find out God?—wouldst thou know the Almighty to perfection? (Sterne 4.415)

As Sterne tells us that our faculties are imperfect, and that the course of our reasoning, “whichever way thou prosecutest thy enquiries,” is subject to confusion, the narrative line of his enquiry is not straightforward. Points pile upon one another as he repeats the same sentiment in an increasingly dense compaction of fragmented clauses: his style simulates the “narrow and imperfect” nature of our understanding. As he repeats the same sentiment, his narrative does not progress, conveying his sense that “little arrives at thy knowledge.” Indeed, the resurgence of clause after clause conveys Sterne’s point that there is “yet more behind” which will never be progressed through and completed. Thus, Sterne does not only instruct his followers to “take a full view” of their reasoning in the glass, and “consider” their own “faculties”; his very style exercises their cognitive faculties to make them experience the confusion to which logic must become subject, and which causes their unhappiness. One cannot know the Almighty by perfection, Sterne suggests, and the very open ended question in which he expresses this point befits its sense: an unanswered question makes the reader know that logical pursuit of God’s ways cannot be satisfied. As Sterne acknowledges that “little […] is heard of him” he does not provide an answer to explain God’s ways. His sermon ends in this manner, abruptly cut off from giving any answer which might have been implied by his title: the “ways of Providence” are left unexplained, as Sterne ends by speculating in the conditional: “Could we but see mysterious workings of Providence.” Crucially, Sterne refers, with a deictic, to “this glass” [my emphasis]: thus he points self-consciously to his own argument as the means of his addressee’s enlightenment. His innately sceptical, self-undermining text is thus itself the means of changing the way his addressees think. By holding up a glass to their confusion, Sterne assimilates them to it, gradually numbing their frustrating desire for logic. The main argument of Sterne’s sermon is theological, and the course of its narrative shapes its audience into adopting the mindset most appropriate for a sceptical Christian contented with faith in the Almighty which overrules logical enquiry. However, his observation in the opening paragraph regarding the mental disquiet caused by this logical mindset suggests that the narrative course of his sermon is to have the concomitant effect of consolation against melancholy, as well as theological education.

Tristram Shandy’s Democritean spirit

10Resonances of Sterne’s sermons can of course be found throughout Tristram Shandy, and the sermons’ fideistic message and concern for melancholy are central themes in the novel. For example, Sterne echoes the wording of his sermon on the “Ways of Providence” to depict the “bafflement” which results from vain over-reasoning in the form of Walter Shandy, whose scrutiny of matters which he cannot hope to control inflames his already melancholy disposition: “Will not the gentle reader pity my father from his soul? […] to see him baffled and overthrown in all his little systems and wishes; or behold a train of events perpetually falling out against him […] merely to insult his speculations […] ten times in a day suffering sorrow” (1.63-64). The world’s mysteries, to quote Sterne’s sermon, seem to “conspire” against those on a futile quest for explanations. As Thomas Keymer has shown, by the time Sterne began writing his fictional works the novel genre had already become a playground for the kind of formal dynamism which Sterne displays in Tristram Shandy. While the sermons were somewhat bound by their inherited content and gave little room for developing his Yorick persona, Sterne’s novel allowed him much greater freedom to exercise his narrative licence and comic muscles, Melvyn New argues in the Introduction to the Sermons. Tristram Shandy exploits this freedom, building upon the potential in Sterne’s sermons for warding off melancholy.

11As Parnell argues, while “no one key, of course, exists” through which we can “unlock” the “mystery” of Tristram Shandy’s chaotic form, “Sterne offers plenty of signposts to his readers when he alludes to favourite writers like Burton, Cervantes, Rabelais and Montaigne” (xxiii). It is significant, I would suggest, that all these authors declare their interest in writing to treat melancholy. Moreover, Sterne’s opening motto to Volume 5 echoes Burton’s Democritus Junior in saying: “─Si quis calumnietur levius esse quam decet theologum, aut mordacius quam deceat Christianum─non Ego, sed Democritus dixit” (1.403). As the Florida annotators translate: “If any quarrelsome persons should censure my jesting as either too light for a divine or too satirical for a decent Christian─not I, but Democritus said it” (Sterne 3.337). Perhaps reacting against the criticism he received for entitling his collected sermons with the persona of a jester, Sterne implies that only “quarrelsome” persons would divorce Christianity from jocularity. Nevertheless, he steps aside as a clergyman to allow Democritus to seize the reins of his text. Democritus’ speciality, as Burton explains in his preface to the Anatomy of Melancholy, was using laughter – a particularly sceptical form of laughter – for treating melancholy. According to Burton, Democritus was upheld by Hippocrates as a man of the greatest wisdom (1.6). His method of treating melancholy was to set himself at a distance from the affairs of the world to laugh at its vanity and folly, at the inability of humans to enjoy contentment with their “wrangling” in “opinions, schisms” and “controversies in philosophie” (1.4-5). As a result, he was immune from their cares.

12To give an example of Sterne fostering Democritean laughter in his readership, we might look to Walter’s lengthy oration on the death of his son Bobby, which is a pastiche on Burton’s “Consolatorie Digression, containing the Remedies of all manner of discontents.” Burton provides a dense compilation of consolatory maxims from various authorities on reason: “I confesse, many have copiously written of this subject, Plato, Seneca, Plutarch, Xenophon, Epictetus, Theophrastus […]” (2.1). After quoting all of his consolatory maxims, Burton concedes that: “If our present weaknesse is such, wee cannot moderate our passions in this behalfe; we must divert them by all meanes, by doing something else, thinking of another subject” (2.62). Burton suddenly recommends an alternative method of treating melancholy which had been advised since classical antiquity: adopting diversion techniques to distract one’s thoughts. Burton’s sudden recommendation of diversion has been read by some as a form of cynical self-sacrifice. Critics including P. H. Holland dispute the Anatomy’s therapeutic potential, arguing that Burton “represents the successive stages of the deterioration of the force of his own counsels” in his text (341-47). However, Holland also points to what I would suggest is precisely Burton’s consolatory technique with his apparent self-undermining: “If these consolations console, it is because their inadequacy to banish the effects of the calamities they oppose is so apparent that it is laughable” (346-47). Burton recognises the difficulty of following the authorities on reason, and thus undermines their authority for laughter: precisely the approach advised by Democritus. Where reason cannot hope to fathom the mysteries it sets out to solve, laughter should ensue, in order to prevent melancholy. The Anatomy is advertised on its title page as comprising “Three Partitions, with their Several Sections, Members and Subsections, Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically opened and cut up.” In Burton’s source for understanding Democritus’ methods, the “Epistle to Damagetus,” Hippocrates describes how he finds the laughing philosopher outside the city walls of Abdera, surrounded by the dissected carcasses of animals, which he dismembers in the hope of trying to find the seat of madness. Burton makes his own narrative similarly cut up, suddenly undermining its own counsel to stimulate his readers’ laughter as he makes them aware of the folly of reason.

13The density of Burton’s phrasing, and his suggestion that the reader might adopt diversion where his preceding consolatory maxims fail, could have inspired Sterne to find an ironic joke in Burton’s words. If Burton’s list of consolatory maxims is good for nothing else, at least it provides us with the chance to switch off our attention for a while. Indeed, Sterne exaggerates specific extracts from Burton’s “Digression” in a manner which accentuates their potential to divert. Where Burton confesses, for example, that “many” have “copiously written” of “Plato, Seneca, Plutarch” and the rest, Sterne writes as follows:

’Tis either Plato, or Plutarch, or Seneca, or Xenophon, or Epictetus, or Theophrastus, or Lucian─or some one perhaps of later date─either Cardan, or Budaeus, or Petrarch, or Stella─or possibly it may be some divine or father of the Church, St. Austin, or St. Cyprian, or Barnard, who affirms that it is an irresistible and natural passion to weep for the loss of our friends and children […] (Sterne 1.418)

Sterne seizes on Burton’s extensive list of authorities, using it as a means of digressing and delaying his point. Burton’s list, while extensive, is structured with precision. Sterne’s, on the other hand, adopts a vacuity of tone and equivocal posture, to ensure the reader’s focus is occupied with a lack of content, continually arrested and made to switch from one side to another with a series of divisive conjunctions (“or” and “either”). Their thoughts are blurred in the same way as the reader of his sermon on the “Ways of Providence.” As Sterne delays his point the readers are encouraged to develop critical distance, increasingly aware they are witnessing a preposterous farce. Meanwhile, their anticipation builds as they await his point, their attention continually tickled by the twitching narrative focus. They are given a Democritean cocktail: as they relinquish hope that reason will provide an answer, their tension could only be released in laughter. Mary Ann Lund, analysing what appears to be Burton’s retraction towards the end of his “Consolatorie Digression,” argues that his suggestion of diversion instead of the consolatory maxims represents “not a rejection of or an escape” from such therapies, but rather a movement away from the “encouragement of an intense and continuous concentration” which they demand (Lund 131). Sterne, similarly, embellishes the diverting properties of Burton’s digression to provide an alternative to the intense and continuous concentration, the fallacious reasoning, which he believed would only exacerbate their cares.

14If the futile search for rational answers leads only to melancholy and despair, it would seem appropriate to adopt a sceptical distance from such enquiries. The sceptical humour of Tristram Shandy would, in theory, offer the reader such a defence. Critics have found problems, however, with arguing for a positive purpose to Sterne’s scepticism, as Fred Parker demonstrates:

(Imagine recommending Tristram to someone diagnosed with a terminal illness.) […] Tristram Shandy confesses at every point its unseriousness, its irresponsibility towards realities as they may exist outside Tristram’s play of consciousness. Any attempt to evaluate Shandeism by the yardstick of the reality principle which it rejects or (rather) simply sets aside, is always liable to miss the book altogether. Richard Lanham is one of the writers on Sterne who have seen this most clearly; he insists that the playfulness of Tristram defines our experience of it, that the pleasure it generates is its own sufficient raison d’être. (Parker 218)

Indeed, Lanham’s analysis of Tristram Shandy is emphatic on this score: “Its sphere is the game sphere. This is its reality” (80). I would contend however that Tristram Shandy’s “irresponsibility towards realities” is in fact its means of treatment. In a passage which is often used to illustrate the philosophy of Tristram Shandy, Tristram declares:

─But mark, madam, we live among riddles and mysteries─the most obvious things, which come in our way, have dark sides, which the quickest sight cannot penetrate into; and even the clearest and most exalted understandings amongst us find ourselves puzzled and at a loss in almost every cranny of nature’s works; so that this, like a thousand other things, falls out for us in a way, which tho’ we cannot reason upon it,─yet we find the good of it, may it please your reverences and your worships─and that’s enough for us. (Sterne 1.350)

Tristram encourages a two-part process. The impossibility of reasoning upon life’s riddles and mysteries has the practical and positive corollary of “find[ing] the good of it.” This, I would suggest, is the curative effect of Shandean scepticism, which Sterne described in a letter to John Hall-Stevenson:

I have not managed my miseries like a wise man─and if God, for my consolation under them, had not poured forth the spirit of Shandeism into me, which will not suffer me to think two moments upon any grave subject, I would else, just now lay down and die─ (Sterne 7.196)

Sterne suffered acutely from consumption, but Shandeism does not allow him to reason upon realities “like a wise man.” However, for its very frivolity, this mindset is useful, as “consolation.” Lanham’s statement that Tristram Shandy’s “sphere is the game sphere” must be read in a slightly different light to that in which Parker sees it. Tristram Shandy is a self-conscious, and self-undermining, playful text, but it is not complete in itself. It is rather, thus, the direct source of the readers’ consolation by laughter: it is the means of their treatment.

Tristram Shandy and the influence of the jest-books

15In addition to indicating the importance of Democritus to his work, throughout the course of Tristram Shandy Sterne weaves further signals to its curative design of consolatory laughter, with significant borrowing from a genre which is very Democritean both in spirit and in practice: jest-books were almost universally marketed as treatment for melancholy. The Jests of Beau Nash, for example, claims on its first page that it is one of the “Books of Jest and Merriment” to be kept in the corner of a man’s study to “obviate Melancholy.” Clearly, the hack-compilers of these ephemeral works could not have hoped, when they made these claims, to be welcomed into the medical literati. Their place outside the realms of scientific rationale, however, is what made them so fitting a part of Sterne’s therapeutic design.

  • 1  “If in my words I am too free, perchance too light, this bit of liberty you will indulgently grant (...)

16In addition to saluting Democritus, Sterne begins Volume 5 with the motto “Dixero si quid fortè jocosius, hoc mihi juris / Cum venia dabis” (1.403), where he proclaims his right to jest.1 There are many other clues throughout Tristram Shandy as to the importance of jest to the work at large. Yorick provides an obvious nod to a jesting heritage, as well as to Sterne himself after the 1760 publication of his Sermons of Mr Yorick: a spectre of jest thus looms behind the authorship of the entire work. As I shall illustrate, the features which one might think most characteristic of Tristram Shandy – slapstick injuries, noses, impotency, Lillabullero, the characters of Toby, Yorick, widow Wadman, even the Shandy bull – are not only characteristic of Sterne’s work, they are also familiar features of the jest-books.

17Though the connections are there to be made, scholarship has been reluctant to pursue this avenue, largely because of the perception of jest-books as ephemeral, and thus unworthy of such a comparison. As Derek Brewer observed, “it would perhaps be extravagant to talk of the ‘influence’ of jest-books on better literature” (99). More positively, René Bosch has shown that after the publication of Tristram Shandy, jest material made explicit reference to Sterne’s work with titles such as Yorick’s Jests, and Tristram Shandy’s Bon Mots; jest compilers thus located Tristram Shandy within their own genre (258-59). It is by consulting jest-books published before Tristram Shandy, however, that startling similarities in detail become apparent, suggesting Sterne initiated this association between his work and the jest-book genre. In an article for The Shandean I provide an introduction to Sterne’s borrowings from the jest-books. In what follows, I shall elucidate these borrowings as integral to the readers’ defence against melancholy.

18I will focus my discussion on the ending of Tristram Shandy. Of course, debate has wrangled over whether Sterne did intend to end his entire work with the close of Volume 9, but as Thomas Keymer has shown, it is overwhelmingly likely that he did (98-99). Sterne confesses in a letter to having “miscarried” of a proposed tenth volume (8.518). Tristram Shandy’s unfinished style of ending is not only one of the defining characteristics of the work, which has long occupied critical discussion. It is also a site of confluence, where several of the above-mentioned jest influences conflate. The following is a commonly recurring jest, taken in this instance from The Merry Fellow, of 1754:

A Country Gentleman having married a buxom Widow, a few weeks after Marriage, found it necessary to withdraw from the Business of Love for a little while; but not caring to let his Wife into the Secret, he procured a Subpoena to be sent him, to attend as an Evidence at one of the Courts in London; which, he shewed her, took his leave and with seeming Regret, set forward on his Journey, and was absent about a Month. A few Days after his Return home, as he and his Lady were looking out at a Window at their Cows grazing in a Field adjoining; My Dear, said he, what is become of the Bull which used to be so brisk among the Cows here? Oh! Child, says she, he is subpoena’d, I suppose, to the other End of the Field. (37)

Gathered onlookers, in a rural provincial setting, speculate over the problem of an impotent bull, whose predicament follows fast upon that of a beleaguered country gentleman, who cannot satisfy his frustrated widow: one is to parallel the other. It is the same scene which ends Tristram Shandy as we know it. Not only this, it is Yorick, Sterne’s pseudonymous jester, who finally ends the book by answering Mrs Shandy’s question:

L--d! said my mother, what is all this story about?—
A COCK and a BULL, said Yorick—And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard. (Sterne 2.809)

A “bull” was a common variant term for a jest, advertised prominently on the title page of countless jest-books, for example The Irish Miscellany, or Teagueland Jests: Being a Compleat Collection of the most [...] Learned Bulls (London, 1746). Though the cock and bull genre is vast, the jest-books were a firmly recognised part of it. Indeed, a jest-book of 1760 called itself Tristram Shandy’s Bon Mots […] to which are added, by way of appendix: A Story of a Cock and a Bull, in the Shandy Stile. This title is evidence of its earliest readers placing Tristram Shandy, not only in the cock and bull genre, but more specifically in the genre of the jest-books (Bosch 129). More than this, Sterne’s affirmation that his text is such a work, by the end of his novel, could thus be his signal to the readers that his work should be read in the manner of a jest-book. Indeed, by answering that it is “one of the best of its kind, I ever heard,” Yorick sounds as if he is praising a joke, recalling the oral dissemination which the jest-books endeavoured to perpetuate. The Nut-cracker, for example, advertised on its frontispiece that it contained “Instructions as will Enable any Man to tell a Story with a Good Grace, and Crack a Nut without Losing the Kernel.”

19Thus, several allusions to the jest-book genre conflate at this most significant point in Tristram Shandy: not only does Sterne’s jester answer for his novel, but Mrs Shandy’s questioning “what is this story all about,” coming at the apparent end of the work, clearly implicates the work at large, as it also refers to a pertinent borrowing from the jest-books – the story of the widow, the country gentleman, and the bull. We infer an interpretative connection. Indeed, Fred Parker alludes to the “pointed” nature of Sterne’s signalling:

And the novel ends, both pointedly and inconsequentially, with the story of the alleged impotence of the town bull. Toby’s distress, thus diverted into jest, evaporates; and these momentarily serious, painful matters turn into mere talk and text on the one hand, and amusement on the other. (Parker 216)

He quotes Mrs Shandy’s question and Yorick’s answer, before concluding: “Nowhere does Sterne show us more clearly what Shandeism is for.” Having made this assertion, however, Parker immediately changes course: “It is harder to decide what Shandeism is worth” (217). Parker, I have shown, sees Tristram Shandy as a purely sceptical work, divorced from consequence. However, as he observes, the novel ends “pointedly” on an “inconsequential” note. This is to imply that its inconsequentiality is worth something, and that Toby’s distress is diverted into jest signals its worth: the work’s therapeutic Democritean design. Democritus’ rejection of his peers’ vanity and wrangling over worldly concerns gave him a privileged immunity from their cares. The jests’ and Tristram Shandy’s self-consciously ephemeral character gives them the same outsider quality. To attribute such a quality to these works should not be interpreted as an attempt to give them canonical status. On the contrary, it is their playful refusal to sit easily for such a portrait which contributes to their Democritean spirit and in turn to their efficacy in the fight against melancholy.

20Indeed, there is more to the jests than their bare claim to counter melancholy with laughter. They possessed strong potential to live up to their claims: not just by provoking laughter in a physical sense, but with the particular outlook upon life which they promoted. The kind of laughter the jests encouraged was Democritean by nature. They were not carefully wrought works of philosophy. In content and form, the jests encouraged one to laugh distantly at, as opposed to wrangling with, the otherwise troubling matters of this world. By investing these characteristics of the jests into his narrative, Sterne imbued Tristram Shandy with the means to foster consolatory Democritean laughter in his readership.

21In fact, a series of jest-books entitled Doctor Merryman, or Nothing but Mirth, published regularly throughout the eighteenth century, was originally entitled Democritus, or Doctor Merry-man his Medicines, against Melancholy Humors, written by Samuel Rowlands in 1607. Though the tag of Democritus became increasingly popular with such works, Mary Ann Lund observes that Burton owned Rowlands’ work and that Rowlands’ Democritus may have partly inspired Burton’s adoption of the pseudonymous persona, Democritus Junior (32). Though Lund does not pursue this lead, concluding that “Burton’s work has few resemblances to the generally brief and often ribald pamphlets which claim to ward off melancholy,” a close comparison suggests otherwise. Burton tells us in his preface that he lives, like Democritus,

a monastique life, ipse mihi theatrum, sequestred from those tumults and troubles of the world, Et tanquam in specula positus, (as he said) in some high place above you all, like Stoicus Sapicus […] I hear and see what is done abroad, how others run, ride, turmoil and macerate themselves in court and country, far from those wrangling law suits […] I laugh at all […] A meer spectator of other men’s fortunes and adventures, and how they act their parts, which methinks are diversly presented unto me, as from a common theatre or scene. (Burton 1.4)

He commands a superior vantage point over those who suffer, observing the various “troubles” which life affords. This is not to delight in their pain, but to laugh in detachment from it, to the point where the scene does not seem real, as it loses its ability to affect him. The sights at which he laughs are thus rendered absurd: Burton saluted Democritus’ ability to “laugh heartily at such variety of ridiculous objects, which there he saw” (1.3). In the same way, the standard model of jest contained a character, often a wit or comic, who would pose as a casual onlooker to others’ troubles, and who would belittle their suffering, reducing its import as it is rendered ridiculous. The following from Joe Miller’s Jests is typical:

Although the Infirmities of Nature are not proper Subjects to be made a Jest of; yet when People take great a deal of Pains to conceal what every Body sees, there is nothing more ridiculous: Of this Sort was old Cross the Player, who being very deaf, did not care any Body should know it. Honest Joe Miller, going with a Friend one Day along Fleet street, and seeing old Cross on the other Side of the Way, told his Acquaintance he should see some Sport; so beckoning to Cross with his Finger, and stretching open his Mouth as wide as ever he could, as if he halloo’d to him, tho’ he said nothing, the old Fellow came puffing from the other Side of the Way, What a Pox, said he, do you make such a Noise for? Do you think one can’t hear? (3)

Joe Miller is a spectator of another’s misfortune – in this case deafness, standing at a safe distance from him, on the other side of the street. He makes sport out of the other’s misfortune to render it “ridiculous.” This jest would at first sight fit Simon Dickie’s reading that jest-books perpetuated “malicious humor,” and indulged the “pitiless” tastes of their readership (“Hilarity” 13). However, I would disagree with Dickie’s reading that jest-books courted “delight in human suffering” (“Hilarity” 2). Rather, they pare down the human detail to such a degree that the comedy is more slapstick than inflammatory. Jests are minimal in their characterisation, starring “A man,” or “A miller,” or “A widow.” The detail they might provide would at the most imbue the butt of the joke with a false sense of pride, as in the example above. With the revelation of the deaf man’s affectation, he becomes the fool. Any sadness which might otherwise have been incurred by his position is countered by laughter at his absurdity. If there is an element of mocking the plight of the vulnerable, it is not to aggravate their pain. Rather, the mockery has the effect of eclipsing, from the outset, any awe which their situation might normally have invited. The sneering humorist, to quote Freud, effectively consoles their audience by suggesting: “Look! Here is the world, which seems so dangerous! It is nothing but a game for children, just worth making a jest about” (166).

22The fact that jest-books invite laughter at accidents and disabilities makes them further conducive to Democritean consolation, as they encourage their readership to laugh at life’s injustice. Instead of questioning why some undeservedly suffer the slings and arrows of misfortune, the jests promote indifferent laughter at this unfairness: not to be cruel, but to coach their readers to avoid the painful process of trying to rationalise matters which, because of their lack of explanation, could only drive them to despair. There is certainly no sympathy elicited for the deaf man in the jest. In this sense it is “pitiless,” to use Dickie’s term. However, if jests “anaesthetise the heart” (Bergson 64) to the misfortunes typically suffered by the ordinary people they represent, they train the listener to be desensitized to the traumas of their own everyday life. Seneca, in a moment of praise for Democritus, criticised he who “foolishly weeps over things that he despairs of being corrected,” favouring laughter as the better course (Lund 156). The jests’ laughter at disabilities ascribes to this philosophy.

23Tristram Shandy is littered with accidents and disabilities, with physical impotency the commonly recurring theme. Sterne found his inspiration, I would suggest, from the jest-books. One jest, from Ingenii Fructus: or, the Cambridge Jests, is similar enough to the scenario of Toby and widow Wadman to suggest Sterne borrowed from it directly:

Now amongst her Gallants, there was one, who having been disabl’d in the Low-Country service, knowing there was no way to please a widdow, a young, lusty, amorous Widdow, without [that] [sic] Limb, quaintly contrives to make a shew however of a great deal of vigour thereabouts, and to that purpose puts a great live Eel into a long bag which he fastens about his wast in such fashion that the head hangs down in his breeches between his leggs [...] (2)

Toby was disabled in service at Namur, and makes a great show of his breeches in order to woo the lusty widow Wadman. Physical misfortune is transformed into absurd farce. Indeed, it is significant that so many of the misfortunes which plague the Shandys are interlaced with jest motifs. Bobby’s death grows out of Walter’s lamentation for Tristram’s broken nose, and damaged noses were common jest tropes. One in particular, from the Coffee-House Jests, stands out as another potential influence on Sterne:

Another meeting him by chance without a Nose, asked him by way of Jeer, what that was upon his Nose? He said, A Worm. Alas, poor Worm, says he, I see he is fain to go about, now the Bridge is broken down. (21)

The pun’s coupling of the broken bridge of the nose with a transportation bridge provides the same parallel that appears in Tristram Shandy after Tristram’s nose is broken and he digresses onto the breaking of Toby’s model bridge (1.243-44). While the parallel is inherent in the dual connotations of the term “bridge,” the creative license Sterne takes in drawing together the otherwise unrelated senses of the term in the action of his tale had, this example demonstrates, already been attempted by the jest-books. In this period, noses collapsed at the bridge were a marker of tertiary syphilis. By waylaying the reader’s sympathy at this point in the narrative with the inference of sexual misdemeanour, their potential sorrow is stifled in laughter.

24The form of the jest-book was as important as its content in fostering a Democritean outlook in its readers, and Sterne’s narrative adopts these characteristics to the same effect. The “brief and ribald” style of jest-book jest, to borrow Lund’s term (32), is a fitting embodiment of Democritus Junior’s consolatory approach to life as a self-proclaimed “meer spectator” on life’s troubles (Burton, 1.4). Firstly, the jests’ characteristic brevity assumes a quick recovery from the disaster portrayed. Indeed, jests were compiled together in the format of a list without interludes. Thus, read together, they would form a perpetually cyclical narrative of misfortunes arising and overcome, giving the reader a sustained treatment in inoculation and recovery. The narrative of Tristram Shandy, similarly, presents a series of accidents only for them to be perpetually left behind: the reader is thus trained to become indifferent to the random allocation of misfortune.

25Most jests provide a bathetic transition, with a final punch line which undermines what has gone before, as Legman has established: “In such tales and jokes, the denouement or ‘punch-line’ is improportionately small or absurd (or even simply evaded) by comparison with the long and complex development or ‘build-up’ of the listener’s expectation” (9). Though he does not make a direct comparison, Legman notes that this “shaggy dog” transition is also the pattern of the overall narrative of Tristram Shandy, with its abrupt, unfinished style of ending (9). I would argue that with both, the readers’ expectation is serially raised and disappointed, and the crucial moment at which they laugh is on this very disappointment with absurdity. The readers are trained not only to become indifferent to the random strokes of fortune, but to laugh where they may otherwise have been disheartened at what makes no logical sense. The effect, I would suggest, is training in Democritean consolation. The jests, and Tristram Shandy, refuse to offer a satisfying answer to life’s cares, and offer laughter in its place.

26Of course, whilst comparisons between the genre of the jest-book and the overall narrative form of Tristram Shandy are there to be made, there are also differences to be negotiated. The jests allowed no room for characterisation; thus sympathetic connection with their protagonists is prevented. Though it is framed self-consciously, Tristram Shandy shares elements of sentimental novels, with subtle human portraits and pathetic tableaux. Jest-books are clearly not the only key to the genius of Tristram Shandy; indeed, the myriad influences upon Sterne will provide scholars with work for centuries to come. The jests do contribute, however, to Sterne’s novel as we know it. One could argue that the rude interruption of the characters’ pathetic tales with jest material actually makes the novel less synthetic than its more straightforwardly sentimental counterparts. Mundane accidents, from bodily failure to underperforming livestock and malfunctioning window sashes, provide random reminders of life’s unplanned nature: a fitting accompaniment to Sterne’s literal take on writing to the moment. We are constantly reminded that life cannot be expected to go to plan. Moreover, the jests contribute firmly, in this way, to the novel’s avowed Democritean design. Their slapstick accidents and absurd couplings of bulls and broken bridges with impotence coat what might otherwise be interpreted as brutal misfortune in a gloss of absurdity, teaching us that where reason has no place, laughter can prevail.

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1  “If in my words I am too free, perchance too light, this bit of liberty you will indulgently grant me” (Sterne 3.336, from Horace, Satires I.iv.104-05).

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Charlotte Holden, « “Against the spleen”: Tristram Shandy, Jest-books and Treatment for Melancholy », XVII-XVIII, 70 | 2013, 153-175.

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Charlotte Holden, « “Against the spleen”: Tristram Shandy, Jest-books and Treatment for Melancholy », XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 70 | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 août 2016, consulté le 25 février 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/1718.521

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Charlotte Holden

Independent Scholar

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