28 December 2017

On Reading

Reading Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. I had studied this 18th century novel during graduate studies and seem to recall having written a paper discussing the influence of Hamlet in the novel. I had a colleague at the time who, too, had a familiarity with Tristram and we enjoyed sharing our common interest. I do not know what has led me to pick up this book again because it is a difficult read: 18th century grammatical structures and vocabulary the obvious obstacles to clarity. More interesting, however, is the narrative style. I intend not to construct another paper for another graduate English class, but I would like to entertain some points of interest to me. The first item to be considered is Sterne’s invention of the reader: the narrator—Tristram Shandy himself—speaks directly to the reader who is sometimes a woman and sometimes a man. This type of address might be a convention of 18th century literature, but Sterne at least one motive for this direct address is that Tristram informs his reader how to read the book! He addresses a reader’s concerns and questions, and advises the reader what he and she might expect from the narrative (such as it is) and offers motives for his direct address. For example, Tristram writes, “In the beginning of the last chapter,” Tristram writes, “I inform’d you exactly when I was born;--but I did not inform you, how. No; that particular was reserved entirely for a chapter by itself;--besides, Sir, as you and I are in a manner perfect strangers to each other, it would not have been proper to have let you into too many circumstances relating to myself all at once.—You must have a little patience . . . As you proceed further with me, the slight acquaintance which is now beginning betwixt us, will grow into familiarity; and that unless one of us in in fault, will terminate in friendship.” This invitation (and caution) not only creates the reader but also directs him or her how the book is written and therefore how it must be read. Tristram also chastises the reader for not paying sufficient attention to the narrative. “How could you, Madam, be so inattentive in reading the last chapter?” he censures. The reader’s inattentiveness Tristram accuses, is a result of the habit of reading for plot and not for meaning. . I wish the male-reader has not pass’d by many a one [intellectual and moral point], as quaint and curious this one, in which the female-reader has been detected. I wish it [his caution]may have its effects;--and that all good people, both male and female, from her example, may be taught to think as well as read.” If reading does not lead to thinking, then the reading is inadequate! It is not a long step to Thoreau’s dictum that a good book requires one to stand on her tiptoes to read it!
    I have considered for a time that opening a new book is an act of estrangement and that the reticence to read we often find in children and adults might be due to a discomfort with entering a strange world and meeting new people. The reader enters a world that might be somewhat familiar but ought not to be wholly so, and the characters are, indeed, strangers to her. We enter with caution and sometimes even suspicion. Beginning a new book feels somewhat like jumping into the cold waters of a lake: shocking the system. Sometimes setting out in a new book is like entering a darkened forest; and sometimes it is like joining a party already in full session in an unknown strange house with nothing but strangers in attendance. “Who are these people? Where am I? Who invited me, after all? What am I doing here?” Often the incipient reader will turn and flee.
     Sterne appears to have prepared for this possibility at least by offering the reader entrance into the book. In the very first chapter Sterne places the reader into the book and even allows him or her to ask directly of the narrator, “Pray, what was your father saying?” which really asked when your father spoke what did he mean? The novel Tristram Shandy will be at the least a conversation between narrator and reader, and the reader is early cautioned not to remain blithely passive. Throughout the narrative Tristram tells us how the book is written and therefore, how the book must be read. For example, chastising his female reader for inattention, Tristram cautions, “’Tis to rebuke a vicious taste which has which has crept into thousands besides herself,--of reading straight forwards, more in quest of the adventure, than of the deep erudition and knowledge which a book this cast, if read over as it should be, would infallibly impart with them.” Of course, what he advocates is that one read not merely for plot but for meaning. Meaning derives from reflection. And to prevent a linearity that would obviate thought, Tristram keeps interrupting the narrative with digressions. “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;--they are the life, the soul of reading;--take them out of this book for instance,--you might as well take the book along with them.” What this means is that the steady (and anticipated) movement of plot suffers continual interruption and the reader must attend carefully to her or his reading because the reader can’t expect to know exactly what is to come next. Of his method Tristram says, says, “I set no small store  . . . that my reader has never yet been able to guess at any thing. And in this, Sir, I am of so nice and singular a humour, that if I thought you was able to form the last judgment or probably conjecture to yourself, of what was to come in the next page,--I would tear it out of my book.” What Tristram argues is that the digressions are absolutely necessary because no occurrence can be understood outside of the context in which the event occurs, and the digressions often offer that context.
     Reading Tristram Shandy is not about plot at all—though the book begins on the subject of Tristram’s birth, with all of the digressions it takes almost 80 pages until he is actually born! Without digressions, Tristram says, there is no book: “they are the life, the soul of reading.” I think one delight in reading Sterne’s novel is following the digressive narrative that finally includes all of life that could not ever be contained by a steady, rational progress of plot!

22 December 2017

Towards Year's End

I applaud the op-ed writers who decry the horror of the Trump administration and the Republican lackeys who sycophantically lick his dirtied shoes. Today’s columns in The New York Times, by Roger Cohen, Michelle Goldberg and Paul Krugman are representative of the thoughts of those who have thoughts. Charles Blow offers always a scathing indictment of the racism central to Trump and his administration.
     But I am not comforted as we head into 2018. There are three years left of the terror and still a year from the mid-term elections. Recent electoral events portend a Democratic resurgence, but since the last election I have lost faith in the American electorate. Anti-intellectualism in the United States has been a topic of study for long years, and over the years of the Republic this strain in American society has produced not a few idiots to govern, and these few have appointed not a few incompetents to serve. Roger Taney and the Dred Scott decision. Or Justice Brown who wrote in Plessy v. Ferguson, "We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff's argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it." Who could reason like this and claim intelligence? And note the withdrawal this past week of Trump’s three appointees to the Court system for their incompetence.
     And while we wait for the next elections Trump tears down the country. To pay for the tax benefits to the wealthiest the tyrant takes away monies from the health care for children. American First? If this be America, who would desire it? Trump will rule over the destruction of the Republic and walk away himself intact. He may even destroy the world to buttress the ego that some call enormous but I would think so fragile that without constant reinforcement threatens to collapse. In his rhetoric of defiance I hear a weak echo of Melville’s Ahab who cries that he would destroy the sun if it defied him—but Trump is no Ahab who “looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness...." Trump is a bloated gaseous Malvolio; there is nothing heroic about him. But for the threat he poses to us, he would be no more than a target of harmless jokes.  As it is he is the butt of witticisms and storied commentary, but there is often underlying it all a sense of panic. I believe we worry about the possibility of a future now. 
     And so we head into the end of this horrible year only to anticipate a decline still, and hope with little faith that this too shall pass.