Archive for February 13, 2011
As someone who reads more fiction than non-fiction, I was interested to learn about John Locke’s impact on literature. When, in 1690, Locke published his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, realistic fiction did not yet exist, at least not in the English-speaking world. The modern novel only began with the publication of Robinson Crusoe nearly thirty years later, and a strong case can be made for British empiricism having had a huge influence on the budding art form. By picturing people being born with an essentially blank mind and only being made into who they are by experience—in a word, by emphasizing nurture rather than nature—it became important for realistic novels to show what particular experiences made characters into who they are.
In Homer’s Iliad, we read about the devastating anger of Achilles in the first line, and if we think the book will later tell us what life experiences has shaped him into a man of such burning anger, we are mistaken. His anger is just part of his nature. He is, after all, a demigod, and gods as well as demigods tend to have an issue with anger management.
In post-Lockean Britain, such a character depiction would not have done. You would have had to show what experiences made Achilles into the easily incensed man that he was.
Aside from this general influence of empiricism on fiction, there is a particular novel that is more directly linked to Locke’s Essay. I am talking about that rather quirky work Tristram Shandy, which I am now just reading for the first time (almost finished). It was published by Laurence Sterne in serial form from 1759 through 1769. As Brian McCrea has said, “The great theme of the novel is solipsism: the inability of individuals to get outside themselves, to escape their particular associational patterns, to dismount from their hobbyhorses.”
This is directly inspired by Locke’s theory of the association of ideas. Locke had taught Sterne “not so much that the human mind is a blank tablet, as that philosophical attempts to transcend ordinary human experience end up in a blank alley” (Ian Watts).
Tristram Shandy pictures individuals who can no longer rely on learned authority, but have to turn inward and analyse their own mind. And what do they find? Not a pure rational animal, but a haywire of irrational connections. Thoughts and feelings do not grow primarily by an orderly built-up of rational arguments, but can be triggered by almost anything. Thus, because Tristram’s father always wound up the clock before sleeping with his wife, the sound of the clock being wound up triggered in Tristram’s mother a receptivity for intercourse. To put it plainly, the clock turned her on. Unfortunately, when Tristram was conceived, his father had not wound up the clock beforehand. That is why his mother was physically not ready for intercourse, and the “humors” in the little homunculus Tristram were set off balance from the beginning. Poor Tristram. His first bad “experience” was his conception.
As you can gather from this example, Tristram Shandy is not intended as an entirely serious book. In its playfulness, however, it does bring up many serious points. In part the playfulness is due to the novelty of novels at the time; there was not yet an established way of how to write novels. But the playfulness also reflects Locke’s exploration of the mind. Ira Konigsberg put it well when she said that Sterne “explored ways to erase the line between his characters’ minds and his own and between his own and the reader’s.” He fictionalizes the author, lets the reader know about the writing process of his fictional author, and allows his characters to get lost in digressions.
Digressions—that’s probably the single best word to describe Tristram Shandy. After a long digression, and a digression within a digression, Sterne writes: “when that’s done, twill be time to return back to the parlour fire-side, where we left my uncle Toby in the middle of his sentence.” These digressions are not meant to frustrate the reader (though, no doubt, they do frustrate many readers), but to reflect our actual experience in the world. Our trains of thought are not straightforward, but are a complicated zigzag of mental associations. In his Essay, Locke shows how very complex the ideas in our mind are, and Sterne attempts to capture this complexity.
This is not say that Sterne agreed with Locke in every respect. Not only is he much more playful than Locke, he is also “ridiculing the Lockean doctrine in which the association of ideas is considered to be abberrational and individualistic. In place of this belief, Sterne posits an associationism which is at once universal and natural. Thus, while attacking the belief in the primacy of conscious, rational thought, Sterne is simultaneously revealing a seemingly new pattern of unity which is, surprisingly, not new but old as humanity: the organic pattern of all life” (Toby A. Olshin).
I think I agree with Olshin. But ere I make a final judgment, let me first go and read the rest of Tristram Shandy.