Oddity’s Rainbow

Pat Rogers

  • Laurence Sterne: The Later Years by Arthur Cash
    Methuen, 390 pp, £38.00, September 1986, ISBN 0 416 32930 6
  • Johnson’s Dictionary and the Language of Learning by Robert DeMaria
    Oxford, 303 pp, £20.00, October 1986, ISBN 0 19 812886 X

John Wesley had a few words for Sterne: ‘For oddity, uncouthness, and unlikeness to all the world beside, I suppose the writer is without a rival.’ Well, something odd will do for ever if the sensation-seekers have their way; Tristram Shandy has outlasted Johnson’s Dictionary, even in the classroom. Sterne was the first author to come up with fully explicatable – as distinct from explicable – texts, in English fiction anyway. His books are as necessary to the formalists as to the historians of feeling, and it is his apparent formlessness which guarantees him this place. Quite often he is rejected by students on first acquaintance, partly through a priggishness which will allow only the young to talk dirty. But he comes into his own in the graduate school and the Zapp-it-to-me international seminars, where priggishness takes more unnatural and exclusive forms.

Yet little of this helps the poor biographer. S/he can lay out all the ‘bobs and trinkets of criticism’ – Tristram’s own phrase. But none of it goes very far to illuminate the equally strange life Sterne led, parallel in its strangeness to the books, but different, less amenable to our present techniques for dealing with aberration and divergence. In his brave and inventive reconstruction, Wild Diversions (1972), David Thomson found a good image for it: ‘He did not live in the conventional order from day to day, but grew strong or weak like the wind.’ Obviously this has something to do with the vacillations of his physical health – Arthur Cash brings this out – and maybe also with the pharmaceutical regime to which consumptives were exposed. However, there is a deeper existential pattern of causation, and that is the more interesting aspect of the matter. Somehow Laurence Sterne lived as though there were no today. ‘With an ass, I can commune for ever,’ he has Tristram say, mimicking his creator’s ability to escape the moment – to make, as Johnson would nobly phrase it a decade later, the distant and the future predominate over the present.

Now biographers are orderly people by instinct and inclination as well as by training. When their subject carries very little biographic baggage with him, they have a problem. Sterne accumulates learning in order to disport with it; Cash accumulates learning to display it (for good intellectual ends, one must add). Sterne is one of the great fabricators of a life-history, who muddles up his own biography with that of Tristram, Yorick, the sentimental traveller, the lover of Eliza and much else. How is poor Cash to compete with this, when his dreary brief is to deliver the facts and nothing but the facts, to unravel rather than to weave fantastic knots, to reimpose the linear scale Sterne elaborately and ostentatiously shredded to pieces? The outcome is surprisingly positive, and Cash deserves credit for making good sense of a radically unsensible career. Yet there remains a disproportion which all his skill cannot efface from view: a gap between the certainty, authority and regularity of the biographer’s methods and the random ellipses of the subject’s life.

Cash knows more than anyone has ever done about Sterne, and we ought to be grateful for his masterful handling of all sorts of evidence. As with its predecessor, devoted to the early and middle years (1975), this book marks a considerable advance in its trawl of the repositories and record offices, the diocesan papers and the municipal archives. As an ecclesiastical functionary with many legal connections, Sterne left a bewildering number of traces in such locations, and Cash is the first student fully to have combed these sources. But simply to put the matter in this way is to draw attention to the difficulty. Shakespeare’s laundry bill might not illuminate Othello, but it could scarcely cloud the dramatic issues there, if it providentially manifested itself to the New Oxford editors. With Sterne it is different. Every small biographic problem solved seems like a defeat for the writer’s careful and principled distortions of the true record. Each time Cash takes us a little nearer the reality – on Sterne’s relations with his wife, on his motive for travel, on his financial state, his dealings with Garrick, or whatever it may be – there is inevitably a tiny query hovering over the fictions which Sterne devised to cope with such issues. It is the biographer’s job to fix the fleeting, to freeze the volatile gases of personality; the better he is (Cash is pretty good, in this sense), the further we are drawn from the primal exhalations of a creative spirit like Sterne’s.

Part of the trouble is that Sterne just will not lie down on command. Cash was very effective in the earlier volume on the quiet provincial setting, a narrowness which caused Sterne to rebel and yet was breeding his art within his frustrations. In this second instalment, there is no time for pastoral interludes. A comic and Shandean proportion sum emerges: 46 years covered in Vol. I, just eight in Vol. II. As Cash ruefully acknowledges, Sterne would have found it amusing ‘that it has taken me longer to write a book about his later years than it took him to live them.’ That is of the nature of the case, though – Cash has to keep forging diurnally on, whereas Sterne lives by fits and starts, and one of the aims of rubato is to slide quickly over the passages you don’t want to linger on, or aren’t confident about. Here, Sterne is forever on the move, running away not just from death but also from res angusta domi – the domesticity and stasis of ordinary living. As a matter of fact, his health seems generally to have been better when he was in Coxwold, and one wonders why he did not accept this (most of his writing got itself accomplished there, too.) The urge for motion, however, is too strong. Even when his wife and daughter were satisfactorily dumped in France, even when he was between affairs, even when he had given up his quarrels with the dean and chapter at York, he seemed perpetually compelled to quit Shandy Hall. Sometimes it is health trips of increasingly unhopeful prognosis; sometimes it is the assemblies at Harrogate, the races at York, the small-town amenities of Scarborough. Of course there are the greater fleshpots of London and Paris: at the start of this volume, Sterne is settling himself in Pall Mall with as innocent a social vanity as Burlington Bertie. It is one of his many saving qualities, through all his adversity, that he always enjoyed the fruits of his success. A French admirer who belonged to the d’Holbach circle frequented by Sterne once remarked: ‘I sometimes envy the happy disposition of your friend Mr Sterne; everything is rose-coloured to this happy mortal, and whatever appears to others in a sad or melancholy aspect presents to his an appearance of gaiety or laughter ... He is not like others who, when they are tearful, no longer can enjoy life, for he drinks the bowl to the last drop even though it provides not enough to quench a thirst like his.’ Most artists seek for fame and success, yet find these turn bitter when they are attained. Sterne is one of those rare mortals for whom the reality was as enticing as the prospect of glory.

Cash is a humane and judicious guide to the ins and outs of Sterne’s career. He documents the sojourn in Paris with Wilkes and Hume more fully than any previous biographer, and is able to summarise new findings on such matters as the later years of Sterne’s daughter Lydia, spent in the south of France. Eight new letters, of varying interest, help to fill out the record. Inevitably, the treatment has limitations in some areas. Certain passages intended to provide a philosophical context are distinctly weak, as, for instance: ‘Without getting into the complicated critical problem of how Sterne’s fiction reflected the moral philosophies of his age, we can say that he hit the perfect note for a public who were learning to take seriously the sentimental virtues being expounded and advocated by Shaftesbury, Lord Kames and David Hume, but who had not yet lost their appetite for the boldness and stringency of the Augustans.’ Better not to say even that much, if it is only that much. Rather more worrying are surprising inaccuracies which crop up. Joshua Reynolds is oddly characterised as ‘the large, ungainly, half-deaf artist’ – shortish, rather plump but neat is the general account. Lady Warkworth’s husband is said to have been ‘created Count Percy’: in fact the Earldom (sic) was conferred on this man’s father, though he used it as a courtesy title. Arthur Murphy is transmogrified into ‘Arthur Murray’, whilst Ms Lesley Lewis becomes Mr Leslie Lewis. Theodore Besterman is converted to ‘Rasherman’, a mistranscription one would find implausible if Shakespearian textual scholars imputed it to a hasty scribe. The Gordon riots are shifted back to 1779. For a scholar of such wide attainments, Cash is astoundingly gullible with regard to the so-called Monks of Medmenham: he depends wholly on Donald McCormick’s valueless book on the Hell Fire Club, and does not seem aware that Betty Kemp has called into question the entire existence of the group as such.

To set these things aside is not to do very much, because the great majority of the book deals with Sterne rather than his age, and Cash is grappling singlehandedly with the writer he knows best. He keeps the narrative afloat through all the heavy weather of conjecture and supposition. One or two disappointing sections, as with the sudden disappearance of Sterne’s mistress (if she was that, in the full sense), Catherine Fourmantel, simply reflect the ebbs and flows of the subject’s mercurial existence. Sterne called himself ‘a shy kind of soul at the bottom’, and the biographer can never get the whole of his life in focus. Nevertheless, Cash is now the place to go if you need to know everything that is known; he replaces Wilbur Cross, the biographer of first and last resort for sixty years past.

Very few books on Samuel Johnson manage to convey the spirit as well as the content and drift of his writing. This exacting requirement has been triumphantly met in a new work by Robert DeMaria, as original in conception as it is energetic in execution. More remarkably still, DeMaria has done this by means of a study of the Dictionary, a book so large and disparate as to have seceded from the jurisdiction of modern criticism. In the process DeMaria has written the most satisfying monograph on Johnson to have appeared in the last decade, as well as one of the most notable contributions ever to that ramshackle collection of literature which has grown around the subject of lexicography. Anyone who has ever found matter for delight or sustenance in the Dictionary will emerge from DeMaria’s study with an enhanced sense of the unmined intellectual wealth hidden in those lexicographic ores.

DeMaria has a truly new subject, but his method is simplicity itself. He recognises at the outset that, for Johnson, ‘a dictionary was both a word book and a combination of all other literary kinds, a quintessential book of books designed to perform all the tasks of entertainment and instruction germane to writing of any kind.’ (The urge to quote this spry and alert prose is hard to resist.) One possible model among the genres is, you guessed it, the Menippean satire, as famously identified by Northrop Frye: in case this should arouse fears from previous misuse, let it be stressed that DeMaria really does something with this categorisation in his subsequent account of the Dictionary. DeMaria shows the book’s voluminous use of illustrative quotations to compose a kind of argument or Erasmian colloquy between the writers cited. The result is to display the voice of the lexicographer in the conversation of mankind in a way that is wholly persuasive and engaging.

In an introductory section DeMaria discusses the relation of Johnson’s purposes to those of Chambers’s Cyclopedia and to other educational instruments of the post-Renaissance phase. Behind all these pedagogic aims lies, of course, the fundamental pursuit of moral virtue, and DeMaria never loses sight of the impulse toward piety at the heart of all Johnson’s writing. He is often memorably Johnsonian in his own formulations, not in phraseology or even cadence so much as in dignity and pith: ‘Although Johnson continuously arranges assertions of the vanity of human learning and the fallibility of human knowledge, he nevertheless presents and encourages learning ... as thoroughly as any writer of his time. Like many other anatomies, the Dictionary cherishes the knowledge that it derides and writes its satirical phrases over the volumes of a dream book, “a book ... in place of all other dictionaries whether appellative or technical”.’ That is beautifully said, and so is this from the following page: ‘As an encyclopedic book of quotations, the Dictionary both records a history of knowledge and is itself an important event in that history.’ Equally, on a Lockian aspect of the work: ‘The sense that knowledge, although it may never be perfected, is best managed in small, compact pieces, which can gradually be assembled into wholes, is one of the deepest epistemological assumptions in the Dictionary.’ More widely: ‘A history of knowledge that takes sufficient account of the history of ignorance is yet to be written, and the great shifts in the moral valence of the topic are just part of what such a history should reveal.’ To isolate such passages is misleading, because they form part of a close chain of reasoning and remain integral to DeMaria’s outstandingly lucid presentation of his central case. With trenchant rapidity he snatches a phrase from a crucial definition (Alphabet: ‘the end of learning is piety’) and insists on a central fact regarding the principles on which the Dictionary was constructed.

At several points DeMaria is able to show how Johnson’s procedures either support Locke or at least offer Locke’s ideas, on matters such as logic and grammar, an eminently fair hearing. From a close study of entries on linguistic terms, the author is able to affirm that ‘when Johnson speaks in propria persona in his etymological remarks, he usually affirms the Lockian position that meaning is conventional rather than natural.’ (As always, exceptions are scrupulously reported.) Other connections are made with the same cogency and accuracy. ‘Morery, Watts, and Johnson are three of the many writers who carried forth [the] ideal [of Chambers in his Cyclopedia], which implies a conception of books as repositories of overlapping but unco-ordinate knowledge rather than as unique performances or demonstrations of particular points of view.’ To understand that is to understand much of what goes on in pre-Romantic, or one might say ‘Early Modern’, writing. So with DeMaria’s apt citation of a Dictionary entry when he characterises ‘an essentially classical mind, like Johnson’s, that does not flow in a continuous stream but rather, as South describes it, “plants this reasoning and that argument ... like so many intellectual batteries, till at length it forces a way and passage into the obstinate, inclosed truth”.’

The key to this method, which lays bare so much of the obstinate and hitherto enclosed truth about Johnson’s mind, is to be found in a brilliant but simple strategy on DeMaria’s part. He guesses that Johnson originally made use of a notebook organised under heads of knowledge, as recommended by Locke. He then takes the intuitive leap which permits him to see the Dictionary itself ‘after the model of a commonplace book’. As soon as DeMaria has said this, it appears perfectly obvious, and one can hardly imagine why it was not always self-evident. The particular handle this affords DeMaria in his overall task is the ordering principle it supplies for his own anatomy. Successive chapters are devoted to themes such as knowledge and ignorance, truth, mind, language, arts and science, and happiness: under each head a cluster of relevant definitions is analysed, and a sense conveyed of Johnson’s participation as master of intellectual ceremonies. Again and again the technique works to produce a wonderfully clean copy of the issues at stake: scarcely ever does DeMaria appear to have to force his argument – the case seems to make itself. Above all, we get a much sharper impression of Johnson’s habits as a reader than any commentator has yet afforded us. For example, one passage describes the manner in which ‘Johnson prints a pair of quotations that dances out (as Kenneth Burke might say) the success of Pope and the failure of Swift in the contention for the poetic throne.’ There follow Pope’s needless Alexandrine couplets and then Swift’s despairing ‘In Pope I cannot read a line ... ’ DeMaria concludes: ‘At the end of this scene Pope rises in the character of a poet to join those already canonised, and Swift leaves the stage cursing like Malvolio.’

In that sequence much of DeMaria’s jaunty self-possession is on view. But, as with Johnson, the high-spirited surface conceals a tough-minded interior structure. DeMaria likes to witness the Dictionary as a drama, acting out the play of semantic characteristics. He is aware of the canonising role of Johnson’s example, and he sees how individual writers are gently elevated or depressed by the use to which they are put in the pages of the Dictionary. On specific matters, such as the role of evaluation in criticism, the book turns what has previously been a field for theoretical speculation into something like an operating theatre where laboratory conditions are in force. Finally, it is a signal virtue of DeMaria’s approach that he is able to make so many telling applications to the Rambler, the black hole at the centre of so many Johnsonian studies.

Like the jolly landlord at Edensor, who told Boswell that Johnson was the greatest writer in England but was known as ‘Oddity’, some people will always find a paradoxical blend of the mighty and the eccentric in Johnson. It does not matter. More radically alienated than Sterne, more crippled psychologically, more deeply afflicted spiritually, Johnson constructed his literary triumph out of normality, instead of retreating into private pathology. Sterne wrote a great book in Tristram Shandy, at the expense of an ordered or intelligible life. Johnson made his greatest book, the Dictionary, out of his own mental struggles and his desire to transcend the chaotic impressionism of merely subjective experience. If the first-person narration was vital to Sterne, then the Dictionary conjugates mentality in the third-person plural.