First Lines: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy


9780141439778Laurence Sterne’s ironical work of fiction, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, was first published in 1759. It baffled and intrigued Sterne’s contemporaries. You may feel the same way after reading the opening sentence:

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions that were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded that I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.

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Get Thee to the Novel!


This is Cynthia Ozick’s advice. It’s a vital antidote to the crowding of the mind by the . . . well, by the crowd. Ozick values “The Din in the Head,” the title of her essay in defense of the novel.

Cynthia Ozick

Cynthia Ozick

Problem? That special form of consciousness that is the unconstrained play of the mind is overwhelmed with noise from the outside world. The crowd, the human community, is her metaphor for this noise, because it is such a typical source of the noise. The problem has worsened with “the ratcheting up of technology.” So many things contrive to sublimate the maelstrom of the heart, “that relentless inner hum of fragility and hope and transcendence and dread.”

Solution? Reading that returns one to interiority. Two forms of literature have this power, and both are sadly neglected and increasingly hard to come by: the personal essay and the literary novel. “Literary grandeur is out of style.”

Why does Ozick value the din in the head over the din of the crowd? Din—defined by Merriam-Webster as “a welter of discordant sounds.” Who wants that going on in his head?

It may be that our self-saturation with inputs from a manufactured world is welcome precisely for its power to silence the din in the head. Ozick believes we need rest stops along the information highway. Our obsession with the delivery system of one kind of knowledge deafens us to another source of knowledge. Yes, knowledge. The literary novel imparts knowledge, but not systematically. Thus, it is not a delivery system. But there is truth in fiction, truth that surfaces through varied “cobwebby knowings.”

There are truths that have that cobwebby texture in our minds. It can’t be helped. And there’s no knowing them, at least initially, without this sort of acquaintance. But do we prize this sort of knowledge? Arguably, we do not. It is more likely that we are confounded by the claim that this is a kind of knowledge.

I believe that there is such knowledge and that it is foundational to the knowledge enterprise. Our reasons for believing so much of what we believe are often beyond articulation. And yet they are sound. They ground much of what we know through a peculiar form of consciousness, experience that is possible only under conditions of quietude. But what’s the novel got to do with that? The novel is the distillation of imagined experience. By reading I am able to experience what is otherwise beyond my frame of reference. And this puts me in cognitive contact with truths whose nature determines how they can be known. I concur with Ozick; reading carefully crafted fiction is one way they can be known.

Cynthia Ozick’s essay can be found in One Hundred Great Essays, edited by Robert Diyanni.

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