Tristram Shandy "was postmodern before there was a modern to be post about," says actor Steve Coogan to an implied movie audience. Coogan plays the eponymous hero (not to mention the hero's own father) in Michael Winterbottom's film version of the mid-eighteenth-century comic novel everyone thought could never be adapted for the big screen. And how right everyone was. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, now available on DVD, provides some giggles, but its unconventional narrative, breaking of the fourth wall, reflexive making-of-the-movie-you're-watching, etc., while trying to mimic the endless digressions and self-consciousness of the original, are nowhere as novel as, well, the novel. (Think The French Lieutenant's Woman meets High Fidelitywith a little Austin Powers thrown in for good measureand you know you've seen these gimmicks before.)
Laurence Sterne, Shandy's creator, baptized this newborn thing called the novel by exorcising omniscience from its soul. He created a first-person narrator who is constantly flummoxed by his own story and who kicks at the pricks of the medium's limitations, reduced to inserting blank pages, black pages, dots, dashes, and squiggles to demonstrate how words inevitably fail in explaining that most elusive of creaturesman. In short, Sterne tried to spare generations of postmodernists and poststructuralists the trouble of marginalizing the author and eradicating a text's meaning by doing the job himself. But did they listen?
In any event, that Sterne should mock the godlike pretensions of authors should come as no surprise: He was an Anglican priest well-versed in the ambiguities of the human personality. Now, can you imagine a homily delivered by this priest, who when he wasn't fighting tuberculosis was capable of crafting as eloquent an apologia for the homunculus as has ever been contrived for anyone or anything living or dead (Shandy, chapter 2)? Well, here's one: Among the Best Sermons Ever, selected by Britain's Daily Telegraph and published by Continuum, is Sterne's own "Evil Speaking," a selection from which is provided below:
"If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, that man's religion is vain." (James 1:26)
Of the many duties owing both to God and our neighbor, there are scarce any men so bad, as not to acquit themselves of some, and few so good, I fear, as to practise all.
Every man seems willing enough to compound the matter, and adopt so much of the system as will least interfere with his principal and ruling passion, and for those parts which would occasion a more troublesome opposition, to consider them as hard sayings, and so leave them for those to practise, whose natural tempers are better suited to the struggle. So that a man shall be covetous, oppressive, revengeful, neither a lover of truth, or common sanctified, as not once to fail of paying his morning and evening sacrifice to God.
So, on the other hand, a man shall live without God in the world, have neither any great sense of religion, or indeed pretend to have any, and yet be of nicest honour, conscientiously just and fair in all his dealings. And here it is that men generally betray themselves, deceiving, as the apostle says, their own hearts; of which the instances are so various, in one degree or other throughout human life, that one might safely say, the bulk of mankind live in such a contradiction to themselves, that there is no character so hard to be met with as one which upon a critical examination will appear altogether uniform, and in every point consistent with itself. ...
Look at a man in one light, and he shall seem wise, penetrating, discreet, and brave: behold him in another point of view, and you see a creature all over folly and indiscretion, weak and timorous, as cowardice and indiscretion can make him. A man shall appear gentle, courteous, and benevolent to all mankind; follow him into his own house, maybe you see a tyrant, morose and savage to all whose happiness depends upon his kindness. A third in his general behaviour is found to be generous, disinterested, humane, and friendlyhear but the sad story of the friendless orphans, too credulously trusting all their little substance into his hands, and he shall appear more sordid, more pitiless and unjust, than the injured themselves have bitterness to paint him.
Another shall be charitable to the poor, uncharitable in his censures and opinions of all the rest of the world besidestemperate in his appetites, intemperate in his tongue; shall have too much conscience and religion to cheat the man who trusts him, and perhaps, as far as the business of debtor and creditor extends, shall be just and scrupulous to the uttermost mite; yet in matters of full as great concern, where he is to have the handling of the party's reputation and good namethe dearest, the tenderest property the man hashe will do him irreparable damage, and rob him there without measure or pity.
And this seems to be that particular piece of inconsistency and contradiction which the text is levelled at, in which the words seem so pointed, as if St. James had known more flagrant instances of this kind of delusion than what had fallen under the observation of any of the rest of the apostles; he being more remarkably vehement and copious upon the subject than any other.
Doubtless some of his converts had been notoriously wicked and licentious in this remorseless practice of defamation and evil-speaking. Perhaps the holy man, though spotless as an angel (for no character is too sacred for calumny to blacken), had grievously suffered himself, and as his blessed master foretold him, had been cruelly reviled and evil spoken of. ...
My brethren, says the apostle, these things ought not to be. The wisdom that is from above is pure, peaceable, gentle, full of mercy, without partiality, without hypocrisy. The wisdom from abovethat heavenly religion which I have preached to you, is pure, alike and consistent with itself in all its parts; like its great Author, 'tis universally kind and benevolent in all cases and circumstances. Its first glad tidings, were peace upon earth, goodwill towards men; its chief cornerstone, its most distinguishing character is love, that kind principle which brought it down, in the pure exercise of, which consists the chief enjoyment of heaven from whence it came.
But this practice, my brethren, cometh not from above, but it is earthly, sensual, devilish, full of confusion and every evil work. Reflect then a moment; can a fountain send forth at the same place, sweet water and bitter? Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries; or a vine, figs. Lay your hands upon your hearts, and let your consciences speak. Ought not the same just principle, which restrains you from cruelty and wrong in one case, equally to withhold you from it in another? Should not charity and goodwill, like the principle of life, circulating through the smallest vessels in every member, ought it not to operate as regularly upon you, throughout, as well upon your words as upon your actions.
If a man is wise and endued with knowledge, let him slice it out of a good conversation, with meekness of wisdom. Butif any man amongst you seemeth to be religiousseemeth to befor truly religious he cannot beand bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain. This is the full force of St. James's reasoning; upon which I have dwelt the more, it being the foundation, upon which is grounded this clear decision of the matter left us in the text. In which the apostle seems to have set the two characters of a saint and a slanderer at such variance, that one would have thought they could never have had a heart to have met together again. But there are no alliances too strange for this world. How many may we observe every day, even of the gentler sex, as well as our own, who without conviction of doing much wrong in the midst of a full career of calumny and defamation, rise up punctually at the stated hour of prayer, leave the cruel story half untold till they return, go and kneel down before the throne of heaven, thank God that he had not made them like others, and that his Holy Spirit had enabled them to perform the duties of the day, in so conscientious a manner? ...
We all cry out that the world is corruptand I fear too justlybut we never reflect, what we have to thank for it, and that our open countenance of vice, which gives the lie to our private censures of it, is its chief protection and encouragement. To those however, who still believe that evil-speaking is some terror to evil-doers, one may answer, as a great man has done upon the occasionthat after all our exhortations against it'tis not to be feared, but that there will be evil-speaking enough left in the world to chastise the guiltyand we may safely trust them to an ill-natured world, that there will be no failure of justice upon this score. The passions of men are pretty severe executioners, and to them let us leave this ungrateful talkand rather ourselves endeavour to cultivate that more friendly one, recommended by the apostleof letting all bitterness, and wrath, and clamour, and evil-speaking, be put away from usof being kind to one anothertender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake forgave us. Amen.
In addition to which:
His "unmistakable" voice has been mistaken. Despite the man's own words, the Left still claims Bob Dylan as one of their own. Stephen Webb of Wabash College reviews Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, a collection of previously unpublished conversations with the musician, in the current August/September installment of First Things. A convert to Christianity, Dylan consistently refused to conform to the 1960s liberalism with which he is often, and wrongly, associated. Listen again to Dylan: "I hate to keep beating people over the head with the Bible, but that's the only instrument I know, the only thing that stays true." Why aren't you a subscriber?