06 June 2014

On Hobby Horses, Part I?

There is little that comes to the reader directly (or even clearly) in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Yes, it is a novel narrated by one, Tristram Shandy, who apparently means to write, as it were, his autobiography . . . but he remains easily distracted and heads easily (and I might say, somewhat happily) off on a digression. Indeed, he says, “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;--they are the life and soul of reading;--take them out of this book for instance--you might as well take the book along with them--one cold eternal winter would reign in every page of it . . .” And for this reader, particularly, trying to follow any single plot line is frustrated by the author’s continuous movements away from it. “--This is a vile work--For which reason, from the beginning of this, you see, I have constructed the main work and the adventitious parts of it with such intersections, and have so complicated and involved the digressive and progressive movements, one wheel within another, that the whole machine, in general, has kept a-going . . .” That is, there is so much going on in every which way that somewhere something is happening to keep the whole book moving. A mind looking for any semblance of linearity will soon go as mad as Uncle Toby!
            Finally, Tristram Shandy concerns at least on one level the power of human peccadilloes and obsessions as the means by which one organizes a life.  What Tristram Shandy  depicts so evidently is that our lives are hardly governed by rationality: that would demand a discipline our attraction to our hobby-horses would disallow. Hobby-horses? They are the obsessions that direct our lives: “By long journeys and much friction, it so happens that the body of the rider is at length fill’d as full of hobby horsical matter as it can hold; so that if you are able to give but a clear description of the nature of the one, you may form a pretty exact notion of the genius and character of the other.” A man is his hobby horse, or hobby-horses, (though probably it is best to keep them to a minimum), and we all ride them. To understand a man’s hobby-horse is the clearest way to understand the man.

            Sterne remarks that Momus mocked Hephaestus for not building human beings with doors or windows in their chests so that their thoughts might be better seen. Thus, “our minds shine not through our body, but are wrapt up here in a dark covering of uncrystalized flesh and blood; so that if we would come to the specific characters of them, we must go some other way to work” Hence, we study the hobby horses of others. Isn’t that really what literature often concerns? And isn’t that what Freud suggested might be an avenue of insight into human behavior.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


09 June, 2014 07:42  
Anonymous Barbara said...

What if one has so many hobby horses that she wants to try that she remains immobilized by the choices?

22 June, 2014 18:44  

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