English 660: The Eighteenth Century Novel
Presentation on Tristram Shandy
February 5, 2000
James Gifford

Gifford, James. "Tristram Shandy and Causality" 5 Feb. 2000. Online. http://www.ualberta.ca/~gifford/textstristram.htm. Date you read this page.

© James Gifford

Tristram Shandy and Causation

Let me begin by noting that of necessity, my coverage of the scope of this presentation is brief; however, in leaping from subject to subject by a chain of associations, I am aiming to both validate the structure of Tristram Shandy and demonstrate the connections between seemingly disparate fields of questioning within the novel. Specifically, the connections both in the novel and my presentation, are not purely associative, but doubly mimic the chaotic skipping of the mind from point to point as well as the logical chain of argument that develops from one field into another.

In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud makes a point of quoting from Tristram Shandy. I’d like to open with this quotation from Sterne, in order to set the tone and subject matter of this presentation

--- There is, continued my father, a certain mien and motion of the body and all its parts, both in acting and speaking, which argues a man well within; and I am not at all surprised that Gregory of Nazianzum, upon observing the hasty and untoward gestures of Julian, should foretel he would one day become an apostate; --- or that St. Ambrose should turn his Amanuensis out of doors, because of an indecent motion of his head, which went backwards and forwards like a flail; --- or that Democritus should conceive Protagoras to be a scholar, from seeing him bind up a faggot, and thrusting, as he did it, the small twigs inwards. --- There are a thousand unnoticed openings, continued my father, which let a penetrating eye at once into a man’s soul; and I maintain it, added he, that a man of sense does not lay down his hat in coming into a room, --- or take it up in going out of it, but something escapes, which discovers him. (Tristram 291)

Much like the above argument for the tracing of the minor act or chance behaviour back to the primary aspects of personality and character, Laurence Sterne sets up a search for the prima-genesis of each of Tristram Shandy’s character traits through the pseudo-autobiographical form. This seems to be the cause for Tristram’s relatively late appearance in the ‘autobiography.’ What precedes his birth is more telling of his ultimate personage, within this context, than later events along the causal chain. This eventually leads the reader to the confounding discovery that this pursuit of primary causes may be described as both wholly erroneous and wholly correct. The problematic division between the mind and the body, in the Platonic-Cartesian form, also becomes a parallel pursuit to that of primary causes. This pursuit of primary causes only becomes ludicrous when it leaps over this chasm of the division of self. At this non-sensical point of crossing the division between the inner mental world and the outer ‘real’ world, the sense of sequentiality finds its break between veracity and travesty. The endless tracing of cause to effect in the physical realm loses its credibility, while the extensive sequentiality of consciousness from one point to another becomes elevated as a structural aspect of the novel itself and within this tracing of why Tristram (or anyone) is quite the person who they are.

Returning to my starting point, in 1920, as an addition to The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Sigmund Freud wrote that in regard to symptomatic acts and parapraxes, “psycho-analytic observation must concede priority to imaginative writers. It can only repeat what they have said long ago” (274). Breaking this down a little, the parallels to Tristram Shandy become obvious. The quote heading this presentation demonstrates a similar argument to Freud’s being made by Walter Shandy, though this may perhaps be attributed back to Sterne himself as well, in order to support his authorial chasing after the minutea of human action. First, the symptomatic act, which is also known as a parapraxis or literally “faulty function,” is most commonly known to us via the Freudian slip of the tongue, although errors in action and memory are equally viable as parapraxes. Such acts are highly contagious in Tristram Shandy, and appear both in the dashes that cover the unnamable slip of the tongue, as well as the pursuit of psychological causes. Moreover, the theoretical concept is not simply Freud’s assertion that ‘errors’ can reveal unconscious or inhibited preoccupations, but entail the ‘Shandeism’ that our minds follow extensive associative paths, so that how we pick up our hat may reveal (and lead our train of thought back to) our musings on fortifications or men with a nose like a horse.

Following my promise to move by association, I will here return to the pursuit of origins or the original acts that set in motion the chain of events leading to Tristram’s eventual personality (his 'life and opinions'). Of the many ludicrous “butterfly effects” given to minor actions, perhaps the most striking come early in the novel, where Tristram explains:

Another political reason which prompted my father so strongly to guard against the least evil in my mother’s lying-in in the country, ----was, That any such instance would infallibly throw a balance of power, too great already, into the weaker vessels of the gentry, in his own, or higher stations; ----which,… would, in the end, prove fatal to the monarchical system of domestick government established in the first creation of things by God. (Tristram 34, I-XVIII)

This tracing of the interactive cause and effect seems ludicrous, but in regard to the internal workings of the individual mind it proves wholly truthful. The body of the text itself is a proof of this endless extension of sequence and cause to effect within the scope of the individual mind. This endless tracing within the mind is further supported by the hobby-horsical aspects of the novel, such as Uncle Toby’s ability to pursue any subject to the point where it returns by association to fortification, or Walter’s to noses. The chain of cause and effect, or sequentiality -- which is ludicrous in following minor external acts to their grandiose conclusions -- proves to be completely valid in the psychological aspects of the work.

For the Freudian parapraxis theory, it is precisely this ludicrously extended chain of sequentiality -- such as lying-in in the country resulting in a disruption of God’s first creation -- which within the context of the mind, leads to the parapraxes or faulty functions being able to innocuously make their appearance at a great distance from the sensitive subject or memory. Such parapraxes are, moreover, exhibited in the novel and are explicitly argued for in the opening quotation to this presentation. If no man may enter a room and commit common domestic actions without in some manner revealing through a symptomatic act the hidden details of his mental interiority, then the extensive chain of mental cause to a physical effect must hold true, despite the ridiculing that the purely external or interactive sequences receive in the novel.

In a more humourous conclusion, Tristram traces his personality traits back to the physical issues of his crushed nose and its phallic intimations, and the equally disastrous misnaming against his father’s wishes. I am personally led associatively to some recent studies on phonetics and emotional communication at the level of individual phonemes, rather than words themselves. Drawing from Cynthia Whissell’s extensive studies into phonetics, David Miall has persuasively argued in a metastudy for cultural tendencies toward a gendering of naming through phoneme tracking, such that male names tend to be ranked (or chosen) with phonetic characteristics placing them at the strong end of a potency scale (unpleasant) and active end of an activity dimension, while female names tend to be closer to the weak end of the potency dimension (pleasurable) and passive end of activity. Such phonetic distinctions between potency and activity in phonetic differences (Whissell) show a very high correspondence (Miall) to empirically tested emotional responses to names and their respective gender specificity (Lawson). In this fashion, the distinction between “Tristram” and the intended name of “Trismegistus” can be read as extending well beyond the limits of the names’ respective associations to tragedy or unbounded knowledge and power (Triste-tram, or Trismegistus - Hermes/Thoth, thrice master/magesterial). Both “Tristram” and “Trismegistus” are phonetically exceptional names, but in accordance with Walter Shandy's opinions, "Trismegistus" counteracts the phonetically feminine qualities of both names, while "Tristram" does not. Moreover, in line with the style of the novel, "Trismegistus" may be labelled phonetically "anomalous" (Miall), while both may be described as "more unpleasant and active than the average" (Miall).

Data in this table is courtesy of David Miall:

Comparison of the names 'Tristram' and 'Trismegistus' with norms for 50 commonly occurring male and 50 female names (from Lawson, 1980).

Phonetic index

Based on rank orderings of vowels and consonants, e.g., front to back.

           Male     Female  Tristram Trismegistus
vowFB      4.70*     5.64      11         22
vowHL      0.38      1.84      0          12
consSH     0.00      2.50      -2         -25
consFB     1.26      2.98      11         -6
length     5.92      5.68      8          12
*Standard deviation is 6.58, thus Tristram is one S.D above the norm (within the accepted range of variation); but Trismegistus is well beyond this range.

Shows that the two target names employ more front vowels and front consonants than the average male name; ‘Trismegistus’ uses markedly more high vowels and hard consonants. The names also contain more phonemes than the average name. The use of high front vowels and consonants gives the names a ‘female quality,’ but in ‘Trismegistus’ this is contradicted by the use of hard consonants, making this name quite anomalous.

Emotion index (based on Whissell, 2000)

            Male    Female   Tristram Trismegistus
Pleas      0.74    0.98        0          0
Unpl       1.36    1.00        4          3
Activ      1.54    0.98        5          6
Passiv     2.26    2.44        2          3
P/U       -0.62    -0.02       -4         -3
A/P       -0.72    -1.46       3          3

Emotional coloration suggests that the target names are more unpleasant and active than the average.

I hope that this associative romp, while superficially unstructured, has given a circular overview of some compelling unities in the novel: namely, the pursuit of primary causes is both wholly erroneous and wholly correct, and that the pursuit of primary causes only becomes ludicrous when it leaps over the Platonic-Cartesian of the division of mind from body. It would seem that the mind and the body cannot be mechanical reflections of each other, at least not in regard to sequentiality, although in hindsight this moral should abundantly clear on each page of Sterne's novel.

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Trans. James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1989.

Lawson, E.D. "First Names on the Campus: A Semantic Differential Analysis." Names 28 (1980), 69-83.

Miall, David S. "Sounds of Contrast: An Empirical Approach to Phonemic Iconicity." Poetics. (in press).

Sterne, Laurence. Tristram Shandy. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1980.

Whissell, Cynthia. "Emotion and Closure in the Sound Expressiveness of Quatrains From Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam." Empirical Studies in the Arts 18 (2000), 135-149.

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