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  • Shandean Humour in English and German Literature and Philosophy ed. by Klaus Vieweg, James Vigus, and Kathleen M. Wheeler
  • Melvyn New
Shandean Humour in English and German Literature and Philosophy, ed. Klaus Vieweg, James Vigus, and Kathleen M. Wheeler. London: Legenda, 2013. Pp. xiii + 184. $98.95.

In his introduction, Vigus attempts to link Sterne to various German theorists of humor, rarely with success. While Jean Paul Richter is perhaps the best of these, Richter writes far more about his own practice than Sterne's, and when Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer are summoned to the philosophical gabfest, one feels Sterne would find it all rather humorous. Given this ponderous introduction, it is disturbing to read in the Textual Note that although the Florida edition of Sterne's Tristram Shandy is the "standard point of [End Page 231] scholarly reference" (not to mention the other six volumes in the Works of Sterne), because some contributors do not have it "standing on a shelf at home or in any office," they were licensed to cite any edition they desired. This scholarly sloppiness is evident on several occasions, most especially in an essay on Sterne's borrowings by Wheeler, a coeditor.

"Style and Syntax," by Wolfgang G. Müller, argues that certain stylistic devices produce humorous effects by combining the external dress of language to the inwardness of the author; together they produce a "performance staging the author's self." Parenthesis and digression, dialogue with the reader, aposiopesis, and descriptions of nonverbal activity all contribute to Sterne as a self-presenting "fellow of infinite jest." Müller subjects several long passages to obvious summation, informing us, for example, that when Tristram tells us that "friendship between the two sexes" may subsist "without …," he is "interrupted before he can pronounce the decisive word … referring to sexual intercourse." Why this is "humorous" rather than comic, satiric, parodic, or funny is never explained, except by way of appreciation, as with another long quotation (of Toby's aposiopesis): "This is a delightful play with possibilities of language, an ingenious performance of an extremely language-conscious author." The fundamental question raised by this essay, whether Sterne shares an investment in the egotistical sublime with Romantics like Jean Paul Richter is never answered.

Verena Olejniczak Lobsien's "The Ruins of Melancholy in Sterne's Tristram Shandy" is more useful. Tracing the history of melancholy from its classical origins, she notes two interdependent strands of enthusiasm (inspiration) and spleen (despair) that come apart at the end of the seventeenth century (in Montaigne and Burton). This is manifested in Tristram by a preponderance of melancholy as an illness, characterized by materialistic, obsessional, or nationalistic explanations: the self is locked into self-obsession. At the same time, however, Sterne provides clues leading to a Romantic reading, whereby melancholy turns into aspirations toward the infinite and otherness. This is promising, although Lobsien's reading of Tristram is flawed by overstatement and self-confessed prudery. The work is "a blatantly gendered, often downright misogynist, text"; the male characters are "disabled, mutilated (preferably castrated), brought to a standstill" (Trim?). Sterne's heroes are failures, manifesting "scurrilous individuality." Toby is as "traditionally splenetic as his brother," and both are "doomed to fail, repeatedly and disastrously, in their attempts to domesticate and appropriate recalcitrant, incalculable, contingent life." While readers might find this failure humorous, as human efforts appear to God (or to the Infinite, as Richter and Coleridge have it), it is, Lobsien argues, laughter on "questionable grounds. … [T]here is no escaping from the claustrophobic and self-perpetuating immanence of the text." We are far away from the text of Tristram Shandy in many of these remarks; one senses she would prefer a Sterne who wrote more like Richter; some of us are thankful he did not.

In "From Personal Identity to Character: Sterne and Hume," Vigus redeems his introduction with a cogent discussion of the philosophically elusive notion of personal identity and the empirical (cause and effect) actualities of character. For Hume, character is best defined in a social setting and hence in narrative; Vigus uses the "Abuses of Conscience" to illustrate his point that Sterne rejects a "simple, memory-based theory of...


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